• Alec Liebsch

Ranking NBA Coaches in 2020: Part 1

With the NBA’s hiatus in full effect, it’s time to look at the league from 20,000 feet above.

Coaching is a tricky thing to measure in the NBA. It’s difficult to figure out how much credit should go to a coaching staff as opposed to the roster, a distribution that even the biggest hoops pundits have trouble calculating.

And like a player can be miscast on a certain team, so can a coach. Certain coaches are better off with contenders filled with veterans, while others are best developing younger rosters. That matters here.

Intel on just how much one coach brings to the table is even harder to gauge than the staff’s overall impact on winning, so to make things easier, a coach and his assistants will be grouped together.

The league is in a pretty good place right now when it comes to head coaches. There aren’t many who truly make their teams worse, which is a lot better than you could’ve said in years’ past. So having a coach towards the bottom might not be an indictment on them, but rather a testament to the strength of coaching talent across the association.

In reverse order, from worst to best, I have compiled a tier setup of all 29 coaches in the NBA. The Brooklyn Nets will not get a place here, since Jacque Vaughn has coached two games for them with his last stint as a head coach being a half-decade ago.

Starting from the bottom of the barrel...

Jim Boylen, Chicago Bulls

Just as I put out the disclaimer that there aren’t many bad coaches, I start off with someone who is truly a poor coach. Zach LaVine is not his biggest fan, and the Bulls are not good this season despite a solid roster. Some of that blame has to fall on the coach, especially when you’re the guy who made NBA players run suicides after a loss.

Ryan Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves aren’t exactly world-beaters, but they should have a better win percentage than .297. Maybe it’s difficult to build a good defense around Karl-Anthony Towns, but they still shouldn’t hemorrhage 112.2 points per 100 possessions (10th-worst in the league). It’s unlikely that side gets much better now that D’Angelo Russell is there, but the offense should be awesome with him and Towns together. The blueprint is there for Saunders to help them get back to relevance.

Luke Walton, Sacramento Kings

Luke Walton’s run as interim coach for the Warriors might be the only reason he’s not last. Everything he’s touched since then has wilted away; none of the young Lakers got much better under him (and they sure have in New Orleans), and the Kings have taken a step back from their (admittedly surprising) 39-win campaign in 2018-19. Only recently did Walton turn to what made them good to begin with: playing at a fast pace around De’Aaron Fox.

Mike Miller, New York Knicks

Mike Miller has barely had any time to prove himself, but the small sample is good enough to keep him out of the cellar. The Knicks are 17-27 since he took over, which is nothing crazy but a lot better than they were on pace for with David Fizdale. The Knicks’ front office is the real problem at MSG, so until that gets fixed it’s hard to judge any coach who dons the orange and blue.

James Borrego, Charlotte Hornets

Another malefactor of a bad situation, James Borrego inherited a pretty terrible roster after Kemba Walker left. De’Vonte Graham’s spectacular start was the only thing keeping the Hornets from falling off the map entirely, and Borrego definitely played a part in that. Both the offensive and defensive ratings are bottom-10, and their record reflects this in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. But Borrego has his guys taking the right shots (8th in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, 27th in long 2s per-100) and forcing turnovers at a decent rate (13th).

Lloyd Pierce, Atlanta Hawks

Hawks fans have been very critical of Lloyd Pierce this season, which is expected when you’re 20-47 with a minus-7.6 net rating. But how much blame can truly go to Pierce? His job right now is to develop Trae Young and hope the supporting cast fits well around him. The former has been achieved with flying colors; the latter is where people nail the second-year coach. But it’s not easy to win games when the bulk of the rotation is under 25. Regardless of the theoretical fits of Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and John Collins around Young, all of them were still toddlers when Carter entered the league. Teams that young seldom win.

J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers

Bickerstaff is now running his third team as the head coach, but you wouldn’t know that by the mere 227 games on his record. His stint in Houston was overshadowed by the conflict between James Harden and Dwight Howard, while his time in Memphis was mainly during their transition from contention to rebuilding. That they’re competitive the season after Bickerstaff leaves is not all on him, but the longtime assistant didn’t help himself much, going 15-48 in 2017-18 and 33-49 last season. Cleveland won’t be much better for his win-loss record, but if he can get something out of its young core and appease Kevin Love, he may just move up to the next tier.

All statistics gathered from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.