Ranking NBA coaches in 2020: Part 3
We've reached the cream of the basketball crop in terms of coaching. This tier is reserved for elite signal callers, ones whose teams would demonstrably suffer without. On this list you'll find men who have bred diamonds from the rough, cultivated veteran locker rooms, and everything in between.
11. Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
When discussing coaching nobility in the NBA, Terry Stotts isn’t a name often mentioned. But he damn well should be. Though the Blazers have disappointed this season, that’s barely Stotts’ fault. He has been a basketball alchemist over the past few seasons, rebuilding distressed assets into legitimate NBA players. Portland has consistently saved careers of guys like Hassan Whiteside and Rodney Hood, and Stotts is a crucial part of that.
10. Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Steve Kerr’s case is complicated. He became the Warriors’ head coach right as Stephen Curry rose to megastardom, and 2019-20 will be his first coaching season without a Finals berth. How much credit he deserves for their dynasty run is difficult to conclude thanks to the immense talent he was given. But if nothing else, he’s a great fit with what the Warriors were doing before this season. A loose, relaxed culture is exactly what you want around championship-pedigree veterans. He deserves flak for mailing it in this season, though; Golden State has a terrible roster, but the whole system can’t fall apart when Curry sits.
9. Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Another virtuoso with role players, Quin Snyder is crucial to Utah’s operation. Two of the Jazz’ most important players, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neal, were plucked from the international pool and considered nobodies before donning the navy and gold. He made the most of specialists like Joe Johnson and Thabo Sefolosha too, two vets who were on pace for retirement before making huge impacts in Utah and slightly extending their careers. This is also the case for Salt Lake's stars; Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are the engine of the team, but Snyder helps get them going by centering the defense around the former and the offense around the latter.
8. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
If Mike Budenholzer breaks through the playoff barrier this season, he’ll shoot up (down?) this list. He has a ton of regular season success, turning the star-less Hawks into a 60-win juggernaut and taking the Bucks from the 7 seed to absolute dominance. But he also puts up playoff stinkers, sticking to his blueprint and failing to adapt at the highest levels. Giannis Antentokoumnpo and shooters would make any coach look great, but the Bucks are a true juggernaut, therefore some credit belongs to Budenholzer.
7. Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets
Another king of the regular season, Mike D’Antoni is a vital component of basketball’s analytic revolution. His work with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire for the Suns was brilliant, as is his use of James Harden as the 1 for the Rockets. Though he never worked for the Warriors, he provided Kerr and their organization with the tools to become what we know them as today. Lots of role players have thrived under his watch as well; this season’s roster after Harden and Russell Westbrook is evidence enough of that. The only thing keeping him from the top of this list is a Finals berth.
6. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Before you all grab pitchforks and riot, Popovich isn’t the same coach he once was. Convincing LaMarcus Aldridge to shoot 3s is meritable, but the Spurs’ offense is still DeMar DeRozan’s, and that’s not a winning recipe. That they won 47 games the year Kawhi Leonard sat was quite impressive, but that was two years ago. They still shoot fewer threes than almost every other team in 2020, somewhat a byproduct of the roster but not completely justifiable. Without a true star, the Spurs’ flaws are slowly being picked at. It was reasonable to pick San Antonio to be a playoff contender until they weren’t; that time has come. Popovich is the best coach ever, but his best days are behind him.
5. Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks
Before the season, Dallas’ Vegas line for wins was set at 40.5. Today the Mavericks would be on pace for 49 wins, and the metrics say they should be even better. Led by Luka Doncic and practically no one else, they’re 5th in the league in both net rating and Simple Rating System (a blend of point differential and strength of schedule). Doncic deserves a lot of credit for making everyone better, but we’ve seen this wizardry from Carlisle before. On no planet does a support cast of Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell (before he got hurt), post-injury Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway win 50 games—except Carlisle’s. He’s crashed several playoff parties with rosters that weren’t supposed to get an invite, and was also the coach of one of the biggest Finals upsets this century.
4. Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
Nick Nurse is only in his second season at Toronto's helm, but he's one hell of a captain. He is innovative, clever and willing to try anything. The Raptors' organization-wide philosophy last season was to take risks, and Nurse's creativity was perfect for that model. From Kawhi Leonard's load management to pulling out a triangle-and-two in the Finals, there's nothing Nurse won't try. It's helped the Raptors stay excellent no matter who's in or out, as evidenced by their 63-23 record over the last two seasons without Leonard.
3. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
The highest-ranked coach without a ring, Brad Stevens has unequivocally earned this spot. The Celtics have over-performed every year since Stevens got the job, and while he has a ton of help from the front office, his work on the fringes is elite. Isaiah Thomas was a legitimate star in Boston, then became unplayable everywhere else. Terry Rozier looked like a star at the end of 2017-18, and was a huge part of why they got to the Conference Finals that year. Daniel Theis has almost six win shares this season. Year after year Stevens makes something out of nothing.
2. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
There was once a time where Spoelstra was at risk of losing his job at LeBron James' mercy. Boy is Miami glad that didn't happen; he's been arguably the most important member of the organization since James' exodus. The franchise has an eye for diamonds in the rough, nailing Josh Richardson at 40th overall in 2015 and finding two starters on the undrafted free agent market last year. But Spoelstra has built the right culture for guys like them to thrive. It's a huge reason why they almost landed Gordon Hayward and actually did land Jimmy Butler.
1. Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
Last but certainly not least, whom I consider the best coach in the league, is Doc Rivers. He gets this nod for his blend of acumen, emotional intelligence and versatility. There isn't a roster he can't work with; he made a 48-win squad out of last year's Clippers, and has also maintained championship locker rooms. Most coaches are good at either maximizing role players or managing elite talent; Rivers is adept in both.
All statistics gathered from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.