It's hard to evaluate success for an NBA head coach. Wins and losses are far from a sufficient measuring stick. On-court success is obviously nice, but so is player development, the groundwork of a scheme that fits its personnel like a tailored tuxedo, adoption of modern principles, intelligent strategy, and so on.
In many cases, coaches implement, solidify, and steer the franchise's culture. They’re graded on expectations, temperament, communication skills, consistency, and execution. They’re teachers and thinkers, and even with all the data that’s available to analyze every game, possession by possession, disentangling a coach's struggle and strengths from the roster’s talent—or lack thereof—is basically impossible.
In this business perception often still rules the day, for better or worse. We know who the good coaches are, but ranking them against one another is a particularly subjective task because there’s no baseline. (In The Book of Erik Spoelstra, for example, any disillusionment his current team endures is merely a footnote; there’s no separating him from his journey to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and that makes just about any form of criticism extremely difficult, polluted by caveats that are scribbled in the margin.)
For this exercise, we’ve drifted into an alternate reality where the league’s 14 worst teams are able to “draft” a new head coach. Setting aside the fact that all 30 franchises would not want to participate, it’s hypothetical enjoyment that lets us imagine how different coaches fit into different situations.
The teams are listed by what their draft order would be if the season ended Monday morning. From there, each organization chooses from a pool that includes just about anyone (except their current coach) who’s held an NBA head coaching job in the last 10 years, basing it off who they’d want on their sideline from this point forward. Everything is taking into account, from ownership to the front office to their cap situation to the roster to where they currently stand in their timeline. (Gregg Popovich is the best coach alive, but would you want him to take over a lengthy rebuild?)
Any questions? Great! With all that out of the way, let the fun begin!
1. Chicago Bulls: Brad Stevens
Brad Stevens is the best coach in all of basketball (non-Popovich edition). His unparalleled success at Butler has since carried over into the NBA, where the Boston Celtics have increased their win total by at least five games in his first four seasons and are on track to do the same this year (58 wins would do the trick; according to FiveThirtyEight that’s the exact number they’re projected to reach).
He accentuates strengths in players who, for all intents and purposes, were left for dead. Evan Turner crawled into Boston an NBA vagabond after having been buried on the Indiana Pacers—an offensive liability whose inability to hit threes turned him into a DVD player the same day Netflix revealed their own streaming service. He walked out with a four-year, $70 million contract. Isaiah Thomas went from Lou Williams to Nate Archibald. Jae Crowder morphed into a critical trade chip. This isn’t all because of Stevens, but the trend isn’t a coincidence.
Al Horford and Gordon Hayward left reputable institutions to play for Stevens. His name is synonymous with winning in unexpected, disciplined, and principled ways. Now picture him rebuilding in Chicago, where there’s already far more young talent than he had growing up with the Celtics.
Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn (who’s finally starting to show what he can do now that the ball is in his hands), and Zach LaVine are, potentially, an explosive trio. Throw in their incoming lottery pick and a fortuitous cap sheet, and all of a sudden the Bulls could be back in business as a reputable opponent.
So many of Chicago’s problems over the past couple years have been tied to malignant ownership and a front office that’s more interested in keeping their jobs than anything else. Stevens will not be able to singlehandedly turn those negatives into a good thing, but with whatever players he’s supplied on the court, there’s an almost definite likelihood that he squeezes more from them than anybody else can.
2. Atlanta Hawks: Erik Spoelstra
There’s really no motivation for Atlanta to want a new coach. Mike Budenholzer is perfectly fine, and engineered one of the most magical campaigns in recent NBA history. But for this exercise he has to go. In his place it’d be a delight to see what Erik Spoelstra could do with a roster that’s mid-renovation and prioritizing long-term opulence over present-day mediocrity.
There’s really not much criticism that can be directed Bud’s way, but it’d also be interesting to see how Spoelstra would not only shepherd Atlanta’s rebuild and carry over the guiding creed so long followed in Miami, but also utilize today’s roster. This team isn’t trying to win right now, but developing Taurean Prince’s playmaking ability and reverting Kent Bazemore back to the play-finisher he once was instead of the play-creator he’s masquerading as, would be smart.
It’d be cool to see how aggressive on the defensive end Atlanta would be. This team is already forcing a ton of turnovers and bringing bigs up to double ball screens more than most teams, but would Spoelstra ratchet that up even more? The guys in Atlanta don’t have the same supernova explosion on the defensive end that Dwyane Wade and LeBron James did during Miami’s peak years invading passing lanes, but Prince, Bazemore, John Collins, and Dennis Schroder can all create havoc when dialed in and executing a rabid scheme.
In the end, Spoelstra’s X’s and O’s aren’t the primary reason he gets the nod above every other coach in the league. Fair or not, there’s a comfort level in knowing your coach has been to the mountain top, seen it all, knows what it takes to get there, and won’t panic once the roster’s talent catches up to his own IQ. He’s a phenomenal leader whose players don’t take possessions off, and the Hawks would be set up in a terrific position with him as the face of their franchise for the foreseeable future.
3. Dallas Mavericks: Mike D’Antoni
Rick Carlisle has had an incredible decade-long run with the Mavericks. He’s constructed an impenetrable reputation and the right to coach for as long as he wants. But, as we’ll detail later on, Dallas has adopted a snail’s pace in recent years. Some of this is due to factors Carlisle can’t control, but there are players on that roster who would benefit from less micromanagement.
Assuming he’d be able to do whatever he wants, Mike D’Antoni is an ideal elixir. Dennis Smith Jr. is dying to be unleashed in an uptempo, spread pick-and-roll offense that features Nerlens Noel at the five and Harrison Barnes at the four. On the rare occasion he’s allowed to zip up the floor off an opponent’s made basket, a burgeoning star materializes with his most appealing traits.
D’Antoni has worked with some of the greatest point guards in history. Smith Jr. isn’t near that plane, but pairing him with a revolutionary genius would do wonders for his career, and jump start a sludgy attack that continues to fizzle.
4. Sacramento Kings: Jason Kidd
This is an odd (almost definitely incorrect) choice for a variety of reasons, but hear me out. Sacramento is in the basement of a colossal rebuild that’s nearly a generation in the making. They’re so far from where they need/want to be and regular playoff appearances feel, at the very least, like they’re at least half a decade away.
From that standpoint, skipping steps would be a major mistake, and ensuring that De’Aaron Fox can be the crème de la crème of his loaded draft class should be a focal point.
Kidd is not one of the 20 best coaches in the league—though that says more about how awesome NBA coaches are right now than his own shortcomings—and the defensive system he’s implanted in Milwaukee is riddled with rudimentary holes that could lead upper management to eventually make a change. But let’s throw him in this pressure-less environment and see what he does with Fox.
Kidd deserves some credit for Giannis Antetokounmpo's evolution and can’t be blamed for Jabari Parker’s knee injuries. It sounds dramatic, but Sacramento’s future will either hold strong or shatter depending on how Fox develops; even though there are a dozen superior names that can be thrown into this conversation, the logic in selecting Kidd is (sort of/maybe not) sound.
5. Memphis Grizzlies: Tom Thibodeau
It’s impossible to choose someone for this team, given how rudderless and confused they appear to be. But whether Memphis is gung-ho about resuscitating the Grit N’ Grind era until neither Marc Gasol nor Mike Conley can walk, or have finally embraced reality and the need to build from the ground up, Thibodeau feels like someone who’ll commit himself to either timeline with tireless energy and a tried-and-true ideology.
(Also, it's really hard to stop people in today's NBA without length on the perimeter. Minnesota's lack of depth on the wing, plus Karl-Anthony Towns' growing pains as a defensive anchor, help explain the Timberwolves' woes on that end more than any fault in Thibodeau's message.)
6. Phoenix Suns: Luke Walton
Walton is a dark-horse Coach of the Year candidate who’s convinced young players to buy into roles that were probably smaller than they expected, and had a hand in Luol Deng’s benching—the type of move that could, if handled poorly, sidetrack a growing team.
Things aren’t perfect in Los Angeles, but by all accounts Walton is a terrific communicator who’s hard on his pups without deflating their confidence. And even though he’s experienced winning at the highest level, both as a player and coach, Walton is patient enough to go through a rebuild the right way, without cutting corners—which is something a coach ultimately can’t help, more often than not.
Block out their owner from this discussion as best you can and the Suns have a genuinely promising future! Devin Booker is good enough to win a scoring title at some point, Josh Jackson has unteachable two-way tenacity, vision, and bounce, and Dragan Bender (who turned 20 three weeks ago!) is full of potential that stretches beyond his ability to knock down corner threes. It makes sense to pair them with a coach who can be in it for the long haul.
7. Los Angeles Lakers: Steve Kerr
The Lakers’ surprising youth movement has momentarily diverted our attention away from their ambitious summer plans. Walton is perfectly fine, but bring Steve Kerr into those meetings and your chance of acquiring Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, or LeBron James makes a substantial leap.
The Lakers may not land any of those All-Stars in July, but they will get someone. Couple that with Brandon Ingram’s pending stardom, Lonzo Ball existing as a helpful cog whose shot will—more likely than not—come around, and Kyle Kuzma's Hall of Fame resume, and L.A. can accelerate its timeline with savvy use of the trade market at a moment's notice. Overnight championship contention is a setting Kerr obviously knows how to handle.
8. Los Angeles Clippers: David Fizdale
Fizdale didn’t have enough time in Memphis to build up a profile or display a standalone identity, but his attempt to usher the Grizzlies into the 21st Century did not go unnoticed. Neither did his infamous, merch-spawning soliloquy during last year’s playoffs. Fizdale should still have a job and be given the opportunity to chaperone a team through tough times. The Clippers are about to experience just that, and selecting a smart home-town product who’d help them on the court (and possibly in free agency) would be a win-win for all involved.
9. Brooklyn Nets: Brett Brown
From a stylistic perspective, there’s little difference between how the Nets are approaching their rebuild and what Brown did before he had genuine NBA talent to work with. They attack in transition and launch a ton of threes. It's smart basketball.
Brown and Nets general manager Sean Marks both sprouted from San Antonio’s tree, so this makes sense for no other reason than they’d be on the same page with an understanding of how to play intelligently on a night-to-night basis even with inconsistent results.
10. Charlotte Hornets: Rick Carlisle
When healthy, the Hornets have enough win-now talent to crash parties, and even though no club in the last three years has sniffed the same amount of time attacking in the half court as Carlisle’s Mavs (as opposed to running in transition), plopping him into a Dirk Nowitzki-Free environment where he can focus on adapting more contemporary concepts that enhance a splendid dynamo like Kemba Walker, could be interesting. The Hornets have a funky roster that isn’t ideal, but Carlisle is still a mastermind who’d find ways to set up mismatches all over the floor with an intriguing cast of characters.
11. Orlando Magic: Quin Snyder
Orlando is perpetually hopeless and somehow has the second-worst defense in the entire NBA. No coach stands out as a good match for what they've got going on, but it’d be fascinating to see how an ingenious tactician like Snyder would use Aaron Gordon—how about experimenting with him at the five?—or whether he’d be able to instill any sort of confidence in someone like Mario Hezonja.
The Magic should be better on both ends than they currently are, and Snyder, in my opinion, is one of the five smartest minds in the league. If anyone can turn things around down there, it's him.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder: Gregg Popovich
I've already said this at least twice, but here goes again: Popovich is the best coach in basketball. But, frankly, given his scroll of accomplishments and the stage of this Mt. Rushmore run he’s on, it’d be irrational to throw him on any roster that isn’t ready to compete for a championship right now.
The Thunder have enough talent to pierce the championship contender conversation, but as currently constituted lack the proper restraint. Getting Carmelo Anthony to come off the bench and not take out his frustration with diminished effort is much easier said than done. Calling timeout to publicly chew out Russell Westbrook for taking a terrible shot instead of passing the ball to Alex Abrines would be unheard of.
But these are things the Thunder probably need right now. Few people alive have the clout and stature to pull it off. Pop sits atop that list.
13. Miami Heat: Terry Stotts
A cultural shift for sure. Stotts’s defenses in Portland have been some of the most conservative in the league, while Miami—personnel pending—is so dauntless on the perimeter. Beyond that, Stotts is just a really smart guy who belongs somewhere on this list. He isn't afraid to get experimental and is more analytically-inclined than most. I'm actually not sure how good a fit Stotts is with Miami's current roster, but feel like there's enough offensive talent (particularly with Kelly Olynyk at the five) for him to cook.
14. New York Knicks: Stan Van Gundy
It’d be fun to see how Van Gundy—a top-10 head coach whose team magically started to play better after his starting point guard became healthy—maximizes Kristaps Porzingis. He's had three traditional franchise bigs in each of his three stops (Shaquille O'Neal, Dwight Howard, and Andre Drummond). Porzingis is the opposite of conventional, and would encourage more creativity from one of the league's most expressive personalities. The Knicks (and their media contingent) would be happy to have him.