• Alec Liebsch

Ranking NBA coaches in 2020: Part 2

As we move into the second tier of NBA coaches, it becomes evident quickly that the league is full of good ones. There's a good argument for shuffling these placements, as the difference between two play callers in this tier is quite marginal.

Since we're onto some longer-tenured gentlemen, it's worth nothing that the present matters a lot more for this ranking than past accolades. Past performance will matter for a lot of this, but the 2019-20 season is the best available data we have. That will take priority.

Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards

The lowest-ranked active coach with a Coach of the Year award, Scott Brooks’ best days are definitely behind him. The Wizards are over-performing at 24-40, and Brooks deserves credit for that, but they’re also playing zero defense. The offense is fun; for a grip it looked like Isaiah Thomas was reviving his career. But they hemorrhage points on the other end (115.8 defensive rating), worse than even the apathetic Cavaliers.

Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

Monty Williams hasn’t even been in Phoenix an entire season and his presence is felt. The Suns play hard on both ends, and have a better net rating (-1.3) than their record shows. Their performance is roughly on pace with their roster, but Williams is also one of few coaches in Devin Booker’s career to use him in different ways. It’s helped the Kentucky alum turn in an outstanding scoring season in terms of both volume and efficiency.

Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies

Another novice head coach making waves, Taylor Jenkins is a huge part of Memphis’ playoff push. He’s empowered rookie Ja Morant to be as creative as possible while also making the most of the rest of the roster. Jonas Valancuinas punishes smaller centers about once a week, and Jaren Jackson is a matchup problem the rest of the time. This motley crew is somehow on its way to the West’s 8 seed, and Jenkins warrants some credit for that.

Alvin Gentry, New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans were set to be a pretty fun team this season, and Alvin Gentry has only helped. Featuring Brandon Ingram has paid huge dividends (24.3 points a night on 59.0% true shooting), J.J. Redick is still scorching hot from downtown (45.2% on 6.4 attempts per game), and Zion Williamson’s gradual integration has kept things harmonious in NOLA. Gentry was given a lot of solid players to juggle, and his balance between development and competitiveness deserves merit.

Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder

Billy Donovan would’ve popped up a lot sooner on this list before 2019-20. The last few years of Thunder basketball were all about Russell Westbrook because no better alternatives existed. This season’s version has been quite different, as OKC has also outperformed expectations. Chris Paul is playing like a true star again, but he’s not the only reason this team is so good: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder have both made strides, and that trio spearheads one of the best closing lineups in basketball. As the architect of that lineup, Donovan has earned his place as a legitimate NBA coach.

Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers

What a whirlwind career it’s been for Frank Vogel. His departure from Indiana was weird, while the Orlando Magic gave him very little to work with in his two years there. The Lakers have not been kind either, building a coaching staff for him instead of letting him bring his own guys. Vogel doesn’t seem to care though, as he has the Lakers playing hard and well every night. LeBron James’ “I’m still here, guys!” season is why they’re at the top of the West, but he and Anthony Davis can only do so much from night to night. Vogel has helped the support cast of misfit toys become playable with LeBron and AD; that’s no small feat.

Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers

A lot of Sixers fans would probably rank Brett Brown dead last in the league; such is the life of coaching an underperforming team. It feels like a broken record to defend Brown, but it truly is tough for him to make Philly into a good offense when the team’s best three players don’t complement each other (Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Al Horford have a -1.0 net rating in 430 minutes together). Brown is not perfect either, though: his drop coverage in pick-and-roll defense when Horford is at the 5 is like putting a square peg in a round hole, and Jimmy Butler’s departure from Philly might have been accelerated by Brown. But overall, not many coaches would put this roster on pace to meet the expectations that were set for it.

Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets

Michael Malone has the help of a basketball genius in Nikola Jokic, but he’s no slouch himself when it comes to basketball strategy. The Loyola College alum has become adept at finding playing time for deep rosters, as the Nuggets not only always seem stocked with depth, but also get the injury bug quite often. Only this season has the most-used lineup been stable, and the results are pretty good (+7.2 net rating). Even with inconsistent play from Jamal Murray and a down season from Gary Harris, the Nuggets are still third in the West, and it’s not because of an unfairly good home record this time.

Dwayne Casey, Detroit Pistons

Atop the third tier is Dwayne Casey, a former Coach of the Year who definitely got too much criticism in Toronto. His firing from that job was inevitable, because when you can’t fire the roster, you fire the coach. That the Raptors won a championship the year after Casey got booted is more a testament to replacing DeMar DeRozan with Kawhi Leonard than it is Casey with Nick Nurse. I stress that part of his career because not much can be said about his time in Detroit, as the Pistons are in a bit of a transition phase. Casey has done just about what anyone could do with a roster built around Andre Drummond and oft-injured Blake Griffin.

Steve Clifford, Orlando Magic

Steve Clifford has the lowest level of success of anyone mentioned before him, but that’s barely his fault. His tenure in Charlotte was quite complicated, as the Bobcats/Hornets invested way too much in Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and an overall painful level of mediocrity. Orlando hasn’t been much easier considering how many defensive-minded forwards the front office has given Clifford, but he’s made it work. Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin shouldn’t headline a perimeter attack, but Clifford has made the most of them despite limited spacing.

Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers

Everyone knocked the Pacers out of the playoff picture after the Paul George trade, but forgot to tell Nate McMillan. He helped them not only stay competitive, but win 49 games and force LeBron James’ Cavaliers to seven games in what was supposed to be a transition season. Their defense got even better in 2018-19, ranking third in point-preventing efficiency before an Oladipo injury made them playoff doormats. A lot of their success this season in the star’s absence (32-20) should be credited to McMillan, who has kept the defense afloat (7th-best in the league) despite playing T.J. Warren, Aaron Holiday and Doug McDermott major minutes.

All statistics gathered from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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