SB Nation 2010-11 NBA Preview
NBA Coach Power Rankings: Which Head Coaches Are The Best Of An Elite Group?
By Mike Prada - Editor
There are a ton of outstanding head coaches in the NBA, but which ones rise above all the rest? With the season just two weeks away, we unveil our NBA coach rankings.
Oct 12, 2010 - NBA coaches suffer from the worst kind of stereotyping. People see that only six coaches have won an NBA title in the last 20 years and assume that means there are only a handful of capable coaches in the league. People also see the short shelf life for so many NBA coaches and assume that means coaches can simply be recycled willy nilly.
But that stereotype couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that there are too many good coaches, not too few. Pretty much every NBA head coach has spent years learning about the game on the frontlines, whether it's as a player, a scout, an assistant coach or all of the above. (Well, unless you're Vinny Del Negro). They've absorbed more information than, frankly, anyone writing about the game will ever forget. At the end of the day, this is a coach's league.
More than any other NBA personnel man, a head coach has so many things to worry about. They're the public face of the franchise, the first person to answer when things go right or wrong. Internally, they have to manage a small group of players and prevent them from getting tired of each other. They need to motivate them to perform, design innovative formations to put them in the best positions to succeed and still find a way to give them the latitude to play the game like it was meant to be played. They have all the control, and at the same time, they have no control. Oh, and they have to do all this while being paid significantly less money than the players they're supposed to control.
All this is to say that every man on this list is more than capable. However, some are better than others, and not necessarily because they have better won/loss records. With the NBA season just two weeks away, here's one attempt to try to figure out which coaches are the best of an impressive group of talent.
Note: We're going to put the four first-time head coaches at the bottom of this list simply because they cannot be accurately ranked. This does not necessarily mean they are the four worst head coaches in the league.
30. Larry Drew, Atlanta Hawks
Drew takes over the Hawks' coaching job after the team fired Mike Woodson this summer. Skeptics will look at Drew's small salary compared to his peers and assume he was brought in simply because he came cheap, but he's at least paid his dues as an assistant. Drew comes in promising to change the Hawks' offense to one that more heavily emphasizes team play, but it will be a major challenge for him to get through to a group that's played one way together for many years.
29. Keith Smart, Golden State Warriors
It feels like Smart has been a head coach in-waiting for a while, but the longtime assistant will finally get his chance with the Warriors after Don Nelson stepped down just prior to training camp. With Nelson's health declining, Smart has essentially ghost-coached the team recently, so you have to wonder why he'd have more success. At least he's paying lip service to radically overhauling their system and making it more half-court oriented.
28. Monty Williams, New Orleans Hornets
At age 39, Williams will be the youngest coach in the NBA this season. He became head coaching timber after just five years as an assistant in Portland, taking the Hornets job earlier this summer. Williams' strength is player development, which makes him a good fit for an increasingly young Hornets roster. But as long as Chris Paul is around, the priority is to win now, and Williams' lack of experience could be an issue under those circumstances.
27. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Over the past few years, Thibodeau has probably become the league's most famous assistant coach, and he parlayed that success into the head coaching job in Chicago. His fame isn't without merit - he was the mastermind behind the Celtics' great defense of the past couple seasons - but he's also a first-time coach, and his offensive pedigree remains an open question. The biggest test will be whether he can get Derrick Rose to play better defense and become a better setup man.
26. Kurt Rambis, Minnesota Timberwolves
* Coaching History: Los Angeles Lakers (1999), Minnesota Timberwolves (2009-present)
* Record with current team: 15-67
* Overall record: 39-80
* Best season: 2009-10 Wolves is only full season
* Worst season: 2009-10 Wolves is only full season
* Playoff record: 3-5
* Biggest strength: Hard-working
* Biggest weakness: Unable to gain respect of team's best players
Kurt Rambis is a classic example of why you often can't go from respected assistant to head man in this league. He got a second chance at a head coaching job for the Timberwolves after emerging as Phil Jackson's defensive guru in Los Angeles, but his first season in Minnesota was a disaster. Rambis tried to install the Triangle Offense with a team that could not have been a worse fit, and he strangely played his best and most coachable player, Kevin Love, less than 30 minutes a game. Rambis was definitely dealt a bad hand with that roster, but he made it worse. His previous head coaching experience was an uninspiring half-season babysitting the talented, but undisciplined 1999 Lakers, which also doesn't inspire confidence.
25. Jay Triano, Toronto Raptors
* Coaching History: Toronto Raptors (2008-present)
* Record with current team: 65-82
* Overall record: 65-82
* Best season: 2009-10 Raptors (40-42)
* Worst season: Only one full season
* Playoff record: N/A
* Biggest strength: Offensive tactics
* Biggest weakness: Terrible defensive coach
The Raptors fired Sam Mitchell and promoted Triano early in the 2008-09 season because Triano's philosophy fit more closely with the European-style floor-spacing offensive style of the roster. But a head coach also needs to stress and emphasize defense to accompany that style, and Triano has failed in that respect. Last season, the Raptors were the league's worst defensive team, and it felt like Triano was pleading for better defense rather than demanding it. Perhaps Triano rebuilds his reputation now that the Chris Bosh situation has been resolved, but if not, it's worth installing a more defensive-oriented coach.
24. Vinny Del Negro, Los Angeles Clippers
* Coaching History: Chicago Bulls (2008-2010), Los Angeles Clippers (present)
* Record with current team: First year
* Overall record: 82-82
* Best season: Both seasons were the same
* Worst season: Both season were the same
* Playoff record: 4-8
* Biggest strength: Not afraid to hand playing time to youngsters
* Biggest weakness: Designs overly simplistic offensive schemes
Del Negro was an odd hire by the Bulls back in 2008, considering he had no coaching experience of any kind. In two years with Chicago, he coached like ... a man with no previous head coaching experience. His game plan on both ends was overly simplistic, and he struggled with in-game coaching adjustments. To his credit, he kept his team playing hard at least. Now, he heads to the Clippers, who hope his simple style is the right fit for their young roster. They probably should have gone with a proven coach that knows how to develop young players in this league.
23. Jim O'Brien, Indiana Pacers
* Coaching History: Boston Celtics (2000-2004), Philadelphia 76ers (2004-05), Indiana Pacers (2007-present)
* Record with current team: 104-142
* Overall record: 286-300
* Best season: 2001-02 Celtics (49-33, Eastern Conference finalist)
* Worst season: 2009-10 Pacers (32-50)
* Playoff record: 14-17
* Biggest strength: Inspires solid defensive performances
* Biggest weakness: Encourages poor offensive shot selection
O'Brien's coaching career has been defined by one trademark. He's historically given his players free reign to shoot, so long as they play hard defensively in return. The end result is that he's presided over a bunch of average teams that chuck a lot and defend well (yes, even the current Pacers, who have been better defensively than offensively once you adjust for pace). That's not a winning formula, but it's not a losing formula either. It's surprising that he's still the Pacers coach, especially considering the cryptic comments he made about youngsters Josh McRoberts and A.J. Price last year.
22. Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers
* Coaching History: Chicago Bulls (1986-1989), Detroit Pistons (1995-1998), Washington Wizards (2001-03), Philadelphia 76ers (present)
* Record with current team: first year
* Overall record: 332-287
* Best season: 1988-89 Bulls (47-35, Eastern Conference finalists)
* Worst season: 2002-03 Wizards (37-45)
* Playoff record: 15-23
* Biggest strength: Brilliant at designing set plays
* Biggest weakness: Inability to relate to his players
Former Washington Post writer Michael Leahy summed up Doug Collins in one passage during his book When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan's Last Comeback. Leahy quoted a former Detroit Pistons official who had this to say about Collins.
"If we could have called a time out every minute, we might have won every game."
Indeed, it's Collins' basketball knowledge that makes him among the best coaches to have in your corner in a late-game situation. That said, his emotional and erratic style has caused him to wear out his welcome at three different NBA stops. Why the Philadelphia 76ers believe the fourth time will be the charm is beyond me.
21. Byron Scott, Cleveland Cavaliers
* Coaching History: New Jersey Nets (2000-2004), New Orleans Hornets (2004-2009), Cleveland Cavaliers (first season)
* Record with current team: First season
* Overall record: 352-355
* Best season: 2001-02 News (52-30, Eastern Conference Champions)
* Worst season: 2003-04 Hornets (18-64)
* Playoff record: 33-24
* Biggest strength: Commitment to sound defensive principles
* Biggest weakness: Overly conservative in his half-court offenses
Scott's had a weird NBA coaching career. In New Jersey, he rode Jason Kidd to two Finals appearances, then was fired because he was too intense. In New Orleans, he rode Chris Paul to 56 wins, then was fired because everyone other than Paul thought he was too lax. It seems Scott overcompensated after being tuned out in New Jersey, so it'll be interesting to see what happens in Cleveland. Scott's schemes are simple, which often lead to quick improvement, but he really set the Hornets back by not playing rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton last year before being fired. The Cavaliers are not young, but they are rebuilding, so Scott will need to place more trust in young players in the future than he did in New Orleans.
20. Paul Westphal, Sacramento Kings
* Coaching History: Phoenix Suns (1992-1996), Seattle Supersonics (1999-2001), Sacramento Kings (2009-present)
* Record with current team: 25-57
* Overall record: 292-216
* Best season: 1992-93 Suns (62-20, Western Conference champions)
* Worst season: 2009-10 Kings (25-57)
* Playoff record: 27-22
* Biggest strength: Easygoing nature with youngsters
* Biggest weakness: Erratic player rotations
Westphal was an interesting hire by the Kings last season, but he did better than I expected. The team's win-loss record was poor, but Westphal wasn't afraid to give young players a chance, and many of them, especially Tyreke Evans, rewarded him with solid play. Westphal will need to correct his tendency of resorting to erratic player rotations. Fifteen players played at least 10 minutes per game last season, and while lots of that had to do with trades, that's still entirely too many people. Westphal alienated veterans in Seattle and Phoenix by fluctuating their minutes. Once the Kings are ready to content, he'll need to curb that habit.
19. John Kuester, Detroit Pistons
* Coaching History: Detroit Pistons (2009-present)
* Record with current team: 27-55
* Overall record: 27-55
* Best season: 2009-10
* Worst season: 2009-10
* Playoff record: N/A
* Biggest strength: Offensive creativity (though it didn't show last year)
* Biggest weakness: Unwillingness to push the pace
It's impossible to get an accurate read on Kuester after one season in Detroit, so we'll stick him here. His roster is a mess, and it suffered a lot of injuries last year. We'll have a better idea of Kuester's coaching chops after this season.
18. Lionel Hollins, Memphis Grizzlies
* Coaching History: Vancouver Grizzlies (1999-00), Memphis Grizzlies (2008-present)
* Record with current team: 53-68
* Overall record: 71-114
* Best season: 2009-10 Grizzlies (40-42)
* Worst season: That's his only full season as a coach
* Playoff record: N/A
* Biggest strength: Offensive ingenuity
* Biggest weakness: Defensive chops
Hollins did an excellent job with the Grizzlies last season, coaxing some sort of team play out of a roster of shoot-first players. For a year, it was pretty remarkable. If Hollins can keep it up, he will certainly surge ahead of the coaches ahead of him that have more of a track record. Until then, though, we'll stick him here and hope he finds a way to get the Grizzlies to play defense.
17. Scott Skiles, Milwaukee Bucks
* Coaching History: Phoenix Suns (1999-2002), Chicago Bulls (2003-2007), Milwaukee Bucks (2008-present)
* Record with current team: 80-84
* Overall record: 361-335
* Best season: 2006-07 Bulls (49-33, second-round playoff appearance)
* Worst season: 2008-09 Bucks (34-48)
* Playoff record: 18-24
* Biggest strength: Great defensive coach
* Biggest weakness: Hard-line style tends to wear on players
Scott Skiles is the Will Ferrell of NBA coaches. He has only one dimension, but that dimension is proven to work. In Skiles' case, that dimension is defense. No matter who he has on his roster, Skiles will always get them to defend. The problem is that Skiles neglects the offensive end, where his teams always rely too heavily on long-range two-pointers. His teams also pretty much stopped listening to him in his third full season on the job in his last two stops. This is Skiles' third full season in Milwaukee, so it's worth watching whether the trend continues or whether the third time is the charm.
16. Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks
* Coaching History: Detroit Pistons (2001-2003), Indiana Pacers (2003-2007), Dallas Mavericks (2008-present)
* Record with current team: 105-59
* Overall record: 386-270
* Best season: 2003-04 Pacers (61-21, best record in the East)
* Worst season: 2006-07 Pacers (35-47)
* Playoff record: 37-41
* Biggest strength: Consistent player rotations
* Biggest weakness: Can sometimes favor an underperforming veteran to a dynamic young player
Carlisle and the Mavericks are a perfect match for each other. Carlisle's teams always execute well, because Carlisle himself is always well-prepared. He had his issues being too intense early in his career, but he's mellowed since coming to Dallas. Carlisle's problem is that he has a tendency to bury promising youngsters that could provide the necessary spark to push his good teams over the top. Rodrigue Beaubois is the latest example, but the same could be said of Tayshaun Prince in Detroit. Carlisle's offensive sets can be complicated, which is fine for veterans, but not always good for younger players.
15. Avery Johnson, New Jersey Nets
* Coaching History: Dallas Mavericks (2005-2008), New Jersey Nets (present)
* Record with current team: first year
* Overall record: 194-70
* Best season: 2005-06 Mavericks (60-22, Western Conference champions)
* Worst season: 2007-08 Mavericks (51-31, first-round playoff exit)
* Playoff record: 23-24
* Biggest strength: Outstanding defensive coach
* Biggest weakness: Intense style can wear on his players
It's hard to argue with Johnson's record, which is impeccable, but I think it overrates him as a coach. He inherited a nice situation in Dallas, and while he deserves credit for pushing that team even further than Don Nelson did before him, he also deserves blame for how it fell off after the shocking playoff upset to the Warriors in 2007. There really isn't that much of a difference between Johnson and Skiles. Both inspire great defensive efforts from their teams and build their offenses around mid-range shooting, but both wear on their teams. The major difference is that Johnson had Dirk Nowitzki, the best mid-range shooter in basketball. The Nets are hoping Johnson can foster a toughness the team lacked last year, but you have to wonder whether he's the right voice for such a young team.
14. Flip Saunders, Washington Wizards
* Coaching History: Minnesota Timberwolves (1995-2005), Detroit Pistons (2005-2008), Washington Wizards (2009-present)
* Record with current team: 26-56
* Overall record: 613-452
* Best season: 2005-06 Pistons (64-18, Eastern Conference finalists)
* Worst season: 2009-10 Wizards (26-56)
* Playoff record: 47-51
* Biggest strength: Most creative tactician in the league
* Biggest weakness: Struggles to encourage unity when faced with adversity
Flip Saunders gets a bad rep in some respects. He's seen as a guy who cannot get the respect of his players, despite all the success he's had in the league. That obscures some major things Saunders brings to the table. He's a creative mind, both offensively and defensively, and that manifests itself in the most detailed playbook in basketball. He's run into some problems with veteran players that do not like how he tends to avoid conflict, but many of those players later say they wish they had Saunders back. Saunders does have a tendency to fire a shot, then back down when the player gets upset, something that cost him with the Wizards last season. He hasn't coached a young team in a very long time, so this year should be an interesting challenge for him. In many respects, his creativity and emphasis on player development should be a better fit for a younger roster.
13. Alvin Gentry, Phoenix Suns
* Coaching History: Miami Heat (1995), Detroit Pistons (1998-2000), Los Angeles Clippers (2000-2003), Phoenix Suns (2008-present)
* Record with current team: 70-41
* Overall record: 249-267
* Best season: 2009-10 Suns (54-28, Western Conference finalists)
* Worst season: 2000-01 Clippers (31-51)
* Playoff record: 12-9
* Biggest strength: Ability to get players to like him
* Biggest weakness: In previous stops, was walked over a bit.
Alvin Gentry's won-loss record is pretty mediocre, but that's an unfair way to judge him as a coach. He was caught in a terrible situation with the Clippers, and his previous stops came when he was promoted after the incumbent was fired. That's also how he became the Suns' head coach, but he's done an outstanding job in altering the Suns' style without tinkering at their essence. He and his staff deserve all the credit for developing the Suns' bench last year, which is something Mike D'Antoni never did. His players respect him, though that was sometimes a problem at previous stops. It looks like he's learned a lot from his time as a Suns assistant.
12. Larry Brown, Charlotte Bobcats
* Coaching History: Denver Nuggets (1976-79), New Jersey Nets (1981-83), San Antonio Spurs (1988-92), Los Angeles Clippers (1992-93), Indiana Pacers (1993-97), Philadelphia 76ers (1997-2003), Detroit Pistons (2003-2005), New York Knicks (2005-2006), Charlotte Bobcats (2008-present)
* Record with current team: 79-85
* Overall record: 1089-885
* Best season: 2000-01 76ers (56-26, Eastern Conference Champions)
* Worst season: Technically, the 1988-89 Spurs, but in reality, the 2005-06 New York Knicks (23-59)
* Playoff record: 100-93
* Biggest strength: Commitment to defense and fundamentals, leading to quick improvement
* Biggest weakness: Poor offensive coach, flakiness
Brown's the most difficult coach on this list to rank. He's similar to Skiles and Johnson, except he has an NBA title under his belt. Whereas Skiles and Johnson take teams to a certain level, Brown can often bring them over the top. It's impossible to argue with all his success in all those stops, so we have to put him in the top 12. That said, he's never been able to build a good offense, and it's a huge red flag that he cannot commit to one team. He's made the Bobcats better, but he's also completely remodeled the team and made a bad salary cap situation even worse. Is it all worth it? Probably, but it's still distressing.
11. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
* Coaching History: Miami Heat (2008-present)
* Record with current team: 90-74
* Overall record: 90-74
* Best season: 2009-10 Heat (47-35, playoff team)
* Worst season: 2008-09 Heat (43-39, playoff team)
* Playoff record: 4-8
* Biggest strength: Attention to detail, especially defensively
* Biggest weakness: Offensive creativity
Spoelstra obviously has the most to prove this season, so he could shoot way up or way down the next edition of this list. In his short time as a coach, he's impressed me with his work ethic and ability to coax a strong defensive effort out of his team. Spoelstra keeps things simple on both ends of the floor, and his Heat teams have overachieved the last two seasons. That'll obviously have to change (particularly offensively) with Miami Thrice in town, but I have a feeling LeBron James and Chris Bosh will enjoy Spoelstra's dedication.
10. Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder
* Coaching History: Oklahoma City Thunder (2008-present)
* Record with current team: 72-79
* Overall record: 72-79
* Best season: 2009-10 Thunder (50-32, playoff team)
* Worst season: Only full season
* Playoff record: 2-4
* Biggest strength: Ability to relate to young players and get them to defend
* Biggest weakness: Jury still out on tactical skills
Tenth may seem pretty low for the reigning Coach of the Year, but Brooks simply doesn't have the record of the guys in front of him. His young team clearly respects him, as indicated by their outstanding defensive performance last season. They also had a tendency to perform extremely well after timeouts, which is the sign of a good coach. That said, Brooks was outcoached tactically in key late-season games and in the playoffs, and he'll have to maintain the defensive effort without lead assistant Ron Adams, who returned to Chicago. Many coaches have won Coach of the Year and then failed to evolve. Brooks runs the risk of continuing the trend if he adds nothing to his mindset from last year.
9. George Karl, Denver Nuggets
* Coaching History: Cleveland Cavaliers (1984-86), Golden State Warriors (1986-88), Seattle Supersonics (1992-1998), Milwaukee Bucks (1999-2003), Denver Nuggets (2005-present)
* Record with current team: 278-172
* Overall record: 986-671
* Best season: 1995-96 Sonics (64-18, Western Conference champions)
* Worst season: 1984-85 Cavaliers (36-46, still a playoff team)
* Playoff record: 74-93
* Biggest strength: Ability to motivate players
* Biggest weakness: Tends to foster undisciplined play in key moments
Anyone who doubts George Karl's coaching value should pop in some tapes of the 2009-10 Denver Nuggets late in the season. Karl's illness singlehandily ruined a potential Western Conference finalist, and getting him back is huge for the Nuggets as they maneuver through stormy waters. Few inspire and motivate their players better than Karl. He always gets his players to play hard, fostering a crazy atmosphere that wrecks havoc on his team's opponents. The double-edged sword is that his teams often make silly mistakes and underachieve in the playoffs.
8. Mike D'Antoni, New York Knicks
* Coaching History: Denver Nuggets (1999), Phoenix Suns (2003-2008), New York Knicks (2008-present)
* Record with current team: 61-103
* Overall record: 328-275
* Best season: 2004-05 Suns (62-20, Western Conference finalists)
* Worst season: 2009-10 Knicks (29-53)
* Playoff record: 26-25
* Biggest strength: Most creative offensive mind in basketball
* Biggest weakness: Stubborness can often alienate, confuse complimentary players
With all the unrest in New York over the past couple of years, it's easy to forget about D'Antoni, but he remains one of the league's premier coaches. The Knicks' roster is hardly stacked, but for the first time in D'Antoni's tenure, they have a team built to play his style. D'Antoni is not perfect -- he stubbornly relies on a short rotation despite playing at a breathneck pace - but he's a brilliant offensive mind that understands the key to a good offense in this league is eschewing the mid-range jump shot. He's also able to turn tweenters into productive players, something we should keep in mind when thinking about newcomer Anthony Randolph. He's also a better defensive coach than people realize, though his team's defensive rankings are a bit misleading because D'Antoni preaches a low foul rate, sometimes at the expense of preventing points.
D'Antoni's reputation took a bit of a hit with the success of Alvin Gentry in Phoenix this year, but I think he rebounds this year with an interesting Knicks roster.
7. Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics
* Coaching History: Orlando Magic (1999-2003), Boston Celtics (2004-present)
* Record with current team: 280-212
* Overall record: 451-380
* Best season: 2007-08 Celtics (66-16, NBA champions)
* Worst season: 2006-07 Celtics (24-58)
* Playoff record: 46-40
* Biggest strength: Ability to motivate players
* Biggest weakness: Sometimes struggles to develop young players
It's been an interesting ride for Rivers in Boston. Three years ago, he was firmly on the chopping block. He confused his young players with strange player rotations and complicated schemes that weren't conducive to good player development. The organization still had faith in him, though, and he's rewarded them with an outstanding coaching performance during the Big 3 era.
Last year may have been his best year yet. He took a lot of criticism for taking it easy on the players during the season, but that approach kept the team fresh and fueled their deep playoff run. Rivers' strength is as a motivator, and he's smart enough to cede tactical responsibility to his assistants. It'll be interesting to see how he responds to not having defensive ace Tom Thibodeau at his side quarterbacking the defense this season.
Rivers had indicated that his time in Boston is going to end after this year, but it appears he's having second thoughts about leaving an organization that's been good to him. The Celtics would be wise to commit to Rivers now before he has a chance to change his mind.
6. Nate McMillan, Portland Trail Blazers
* Coaching History: Seattle Supersonics (2000-2005), Portland Trail Blazers (2005-present)
* Record with current team: 198-212
* Overall record: 410-395
* Best season: 2004-05 Sonics (52-30, second-round playoff appearance)
* Worst season: 2005-06 Blazers (21-61)
* Playoff record: 12-16
* Biggest strength: Designs brilliant half-court offenses
* Biggest weakness: Can be inflexible with slow pace
The league's most underrated coach, McMillan proved his chops yet again by somehow guiding an injury-riddled Blazers roster to 50 wins last year. McMillan has done an excellent job developing the Blazers' young talent, and he handled stormy waters well in bringing the touchy Andre Miller into the fold last year. Many peg McMillan incorrectly as a hard-nosed, defensive-oriented coach; in reality, his biggest strength is constructing deadly efficient half-court offenses. He can be a little inflexible, preferring smart half-court players to athletic transition scorers, but usually it's justified. McMillan is under a lot of pressure this year to lead the Blazers past the first round of the playoffs and could be made a scapegoat for the team's injury problems if he can't do that. If so, he should vault to the top of every team's coaching search.
5. Rick Adelman, Houston Rockets
* Coaching History: Portland Trail Blazers (1989-1994), Golden State Warriors (1995-1997), Sacramento Kings (1998-2006), Houston Rockets (2007-present)
* Record with current team: 150-96
* Overall record: 902-577
* Best season: 1989-90 Blazers (59-23, Western Conference champions)
* Worst season: 1996-97 Warriors (30-52)
* Playoff record: 79-78
* Biggest strength: Brilliant offensive mind
* Biggest weakness: Occasional inability to motivate players in high-pressure situations
In 18 seasons as a head coach, Adelman has had a losing record just two times. That speaks to his ability to adapt to any kind of roster. In Portland, Adelman had an up-tempo team whose strength was rebounding and fast breaking. In Sacramento, Adelman had an elite passing team whose strength was half-court offensive execution. In Houston, Adelman has an elite defensive team with a traditional post-up player - until last year, when he had to adjust and push the tempo with Yao Ming sidelined. He's managed to succeed with all these styles, which makes him among the most adaptable coaches in the NBA. He gets criticized because his players have historically lacked the mental toughness to advance in the playoffs, but usually Adelman's clubs have just run into better teams. More than anyone, Adelman is victimized by the reality that superstars win in the NBA.
4. Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz
* Coaching History: Chicago Bulls (1979-1982), Utah Jazz (1988-present)
* Record with current team:
* Overall record: 1096-659
* Best season: 1996-97 Jazz (64-18, Western Conference champions)
* Worst season: 2004-05 Jazz (26-56)
* Playoff record: 98-104
* Biggest strength: Sticks to offensive system that works
* Biggest weakness: Style can break down in playoffs
Twenty-two years after taking over the head coaching job from Frank Layden, Sloan is still going strong. He demands respect from his players in a way that few other coaches ever can, though it helps that the front office gives him a lot of job security. More importantly, Sloan has subtly changed his approach, with great success. Once upon a time, the Jazz ran more pick and rolls than anyone in the NBA. Now, they run the fewest, instead relying on a Flex offense that drives defenders crazy. Every year, a new coach tries to integrate Sloan's Flex principles into their team, and every year, they fail to do it. That's a testament to Sloan's coaching skills, as well as the way he commands his players' attention.
3. Stan Van Gundy, Orlando Magic
* Coaching History: Miami Heat (2003-2005), Orlando Magic (2007-present)
* Record with current team: 170-76
* Overall record: 282-149
* Best season: 2008-09 Magic (59-23, Eastern Conference champions)
* Worst season: 2003-04 Heat (42-40, second-round playoff team)
* Playoff record: 45-31
* Biggest strength: Ability to motivate players on both ends
* Biggest weakness: Hard-nosed style could wear on players, though it hasn't happened yet
Van Gundy is the rare coach that manages to be colorful and demanding. His players respect the former, and in turn, they are willing to live with the latter. His arrival immediately coincided with the Magic's rise to the top of the Eastern Conference, because Van Gundy was smart enough to understand that he needed to put shooters around Dwight Howard. Van Gundy has been outspoken in his belief that one key to being a successful team is eschewing the mid-range jump shot, and so far, his teams have walked the walk. More impressively, he's built arguably the league's premier defense despite having below-average individual defenders at three key positions (point guard, shooting guard and power forward). Having Howard helps, but it isn't everything. Van Gundy's ability to stay intense without being repetitive is why he's so high on this list.
2. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
* Coaching History: San Antonio Spurs (1997-present)
* Record with current team: 736-362
* Overall record: 736-362
* Best season: 2002-03 Spurs (60-22, NBA champions)
* Worst season: 2009-10 Spurs (50-32, second-round playoff exit)
* Playoff record: 106-69
* Biggest strength: Is respected by everyone
* Biggest weakness: Occasionally inflexible with his system, though usually with good reason
Popovich and Phil Jackson are basically 1 and 1a on this list, but I'll give the slight edge to Jackson because he's a little more flexible with integrating talented players into his system. That's no slight on Popovich, but there are very rare times when he doesn't make the best use of talented players that don't fit his style.
That's me nitpicking to the nth degree, though. Nobody earns his players' respect better than Popovich. His teams are always outstanding defensively and they all understand the importance of being efficient on offense. Having Tim Duncan helps, but it was Popovich that immediately earned Duncan's respect. Popovich is also the league's premier player development coach, making stars out of raw youngsters like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Despite his age, Popovich is the ideal man to lead to Spurs once they inevitably start rebuilding.
1. Phil Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers
* Coaching History: Chicago Bulls (1989-1998), Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2004), Los Angeles Lakers (2005-present)
* Record with current team: 553-267
* Overall record: 1098-460
* Best season: 1995-96 Bulls (72-10, NBA champions)
* Worst season: 2006-07 Lakers (42-40, still a playoff team)
* Playoff record: 225-98
* Biggest strength: Ability to fit superstars into team setting
* Biggest weakness: How good is he without superstars?
Yes, Jackson has had elite talent, but if anything, his ability to consistently win with such talent is another feather in his cap. We hear so many stories in this league about star players ignoring or not respecting their head coach, but that hasn't happened with Jackson, dating all the way back to his first season in 1989-90. No other coach received Michael Jordan's respect, and no other coach has received Kobe Bryant's respect, either. Jackson's patience is ideally suited to being a professional coach, and his emphasis on fundamentals and simplicity has been essential in making the phrase "Triangle Offense" so hip.
The bottom line is that coaching great talent is often harder than coaching average talent, because great talent comes with large egos and a lot of baggage. It's easy for a coach to either let the superstar get away with anything or alienate him by being too hard on him. Jackson manages that balance better than any NBA coach today, and frankly, better than any coach in modern NBA history.