The Pinnacle of Coaching

Coach Pop

Coach of the Year honors is one of the most subjective awards given out in any of the major sports. While winning percentage (especially  in the playoffs) is the measure of a coach, it often doesn’t reflect how a coach was able to overcome injuries, poor management and personnel decisions, or a cheap owner.  Out of 30 coaches in the NBA, there are only three coaches that really matter and a handful of others that bring something to the table. Every other coach in the league could easily be replaced with any assistant coach in the league, and the team would perform about the same. That’s why teams are usually quick to fire the coach if a feud breaks out between the coach and a star player. The vast majority of NBA coaches are seen as utterly replaceable by GMs and owners. Here’s my breakdown of the NBA coaches

May have some value above a generic replacement:

Milwaukee Bucks: Scott Skiles — Defensive strategist that gets results early in his tenure, then slowly starts to wear on his players. I don’t see him and Monta Ellis peacefully co-existing. His lunch-pail/hard hat/defense schtick isn’t working anymore. Let’s bring in D’Antoni.

Orlando Magic: Stan Van Gundy — After pulling the knife out of his back in Miami, SVG has put together a good run in Orlando. It looks like it’s over. If Dwight Howard stays, management is going to give Dwight whatever he wants. Also, voted by players as most annoying coach. 1

L.A. Lakers: Mike Brown — Can coach defense, but…. Metta World Peace never had a problem controlling himself when his Ch’i was constantly being recharged by the Zen Master. You never saw Andrew Bynum shooting 3’s out of ‘the triangle’.

Philadelphia 76ers: Doug Collins — He’s a master motivator, and his intensity had the 76er’s playing at a high level last year and the first part of this season. It looked like the effect had worn off towards the end of the season. However, the Sixers seemed to have turned it around again against the admittedly depleted Bulls.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Scott Brooks — He’s done a great job creating camaraderie and keeping everyone happy. However, he suffers from a lack of creativity in his offensive schemes and sets. OKC finished the season dead last in team assists.

There’s a possibility that these guys are good coaches:

Utah Jazz: Tyrone Corbin — Had huge shoes to fill in Utah, and did not get off to a good start last year (for many reasons). But in his first full year as head coach, he got his cast of young players and veteran cast-offs to play with an intensity reminiscent of the golden days of the Jerry Sloan era. I’ll give him a full “real” season before I count that first-round stink-bomb against him.

Indiana Pacers: Frank Vogel — Has an Indiana team devoid of super-duper-stars as the 3 seed in the East. The Pacers play well together, and he seems to manage minutes and match-ups well. We’ll see if he can prove his worth in the playoffs. The door was ajar against Miami once Bosh went out, and he was not able to figure how to take advantage with his bigs.

Coaches who know what they’re doing:

Memphis Grizzlies: Lionel Hollins — Dating all the way back to its days in Vancouver, this franchise just hasn’t had much success. Hollins pulled all the right levers last year against the Spurs. Then using very different tactics, pushed the Thunder to seven games. If he’s able to get this putrid franchise as far as the Western Conference Finals in the next few years, I could move him up into the “coaches that matter” list. His inability to keep his team from collapsing down the stretch of Game 1 of the Clippers series makes me rethink having him this high on the list, but I put most of the responsibility on Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol..

Minnesota Timberwolves: Rick Adelman — If not for the league deciding that they wanted the Lakers to win the title in 2002 2, Rick Adelman would likely have a championship ring. No matter where he’s been, he immediately increases the offensive production out of his teams. But “offense-first” teams often flounder in the playoffs, which has been Adelman’s fatal flaw. Before Rubio went down for the season, the T-wolves were this year’s most entertaining team to watch and were in the play-off hunt.

Denver Nuggets: George Karl — Seems like this guy has been coaching in the NBA forever. Got the SuperSonics to the Finals in ‘96 with a talented roster, but seems to specialize in getting teams of average talent to play at an above average level. Has a good .595 winning percentage in the regular season, but a losing record in playoffs.

Dallas Mavericks: Rick Carlisle — He made all the right moves in the Finals last year. What he did to Erik Spoelstra, can only be compared to a ‘pantsing’ on national TV. He won a championship with essentially the same talent Avery Johnson failed with a few years earlier. He’s totally unflappable, unlike the characters he played in “Ace Ventura”, “The Mask” and “Dumb and Dumber” 3. Carlisle also had successful stints with the Pacers and Pistons. However, I haven’t been impressed with his performance this year — most notably with his inability to draw the best out of Lamar Kardashian (again, no Zen).

Coaches that really matter:

Boston Celtics: Doc Rivers — Doc did not start out at this level. He was mediocre in his years in Orlando. His ability to stay positive and retain the trust of his players was developed during those lean years before Garnett and Allen arrived. Once he got that loaded roster in 2007, he managed egos beautifully. He may have pulled off one of his best coaching performances this year — managing the minutes of aging superstars during a compressed season, injecting some youth, moving Garnett to center, bringing Ray Allen off the bench, and still being able to make it to Durham to make cameos during Duke games.

Chicago Bulls: Tom Thibodeau — He may have had as much to do with the 2008 Celtics championship as Doc Rivers. The Bull were missing the reigning MVP for much of the season, and barely missed a beat. The team is fully on board with his defensive philosophy and plays with intense effort. In addition, management has provided him all the tools to fully implement his smothering defense. The only problem is that when you bring in Ronnie Brewer to shut down the other team’s scorer, the Bulls now have a player that can’t shoot straight when he goes to the other end. The Bulls do have a tendency to have long dry stretches on offense if their defense isn’t creating offense for them.  He gets a pass on the first round exit since he was missing two of his best three players.

The Coach of the Year (in all sports):

San Antonio Spurs: Gregg Popovich — With the Zen Master gone, Pop is the “Most Interesting Coach in the NBA.” But there is nothing Zen about Pop. He’s old school. In fact, the coaching tree he comes from has a remarkably short path back to the game’s inventor, James Naismith. Pop is a Larry Brown disciple, who played and worked for Dean Smith, who played for Phog Allen, who was taught the game by Dr. Naismith himself. Pop brings everything to the table his mentor Brown does, if not more — and without the all the drama that follows Larry  wherever he goes. Speaking of drama, if anything describes Pop, it would be an TNT-like slogan of “No Drama.” 4

As an Air Force Academy graduate, he toured the USSR and other European countries playing basketball as he served his country. Allegedly legal immigrant Steve Nash had a different take on this back in 2009 when he tweeted, “Anyone know coach Popovich was an American spy in Russia before he began coaching? No wonder his teams are hard to beat!” 5 Pop’s response was to not deny the allegations of spying, but to discredit the source. “Does Steve tweet? I’ve lost all respect.” After disparaging Twitter and all who tweet, Pop went on to explain, “I spent all my military time in Russian basketball courts in different cities collecting as many out of bounds plays as I possibly could. And now, I’ve had a chance to employ them.” If you’ve ever paid attention during a Spurs game, you should have noticed they get a wide open shot on nearly every out-of-bounds play.

But his mastery of the X’s and O’s extends beyond out of bounds plays. His early success was built on a foundation of defense. Offensively-challenged players like Avery Johnson, Malik Rose, Oberto and Bruce Bowen thrived in Pop’s defensive schemes and found important specialty roles to fill on the offensive end. His more recent teams, while notably lacking a championship, have had more of an offensive emphasis. The adjustment has been slight, but it aligns better with the current makeup of his team. More importantly, it aligns more with the rules changes that have led to more zone defenses and less physical play on defense. But unlike the Denver Nuggets who focus on offense and push the pace to the detriment of their defense, the Spurs have the second most high powered offense in the league while still maintaining a mid-tier defense. Their average margin of victory — which is typically the best predictor of playoff success — was second only to Chicago’s during the regular season.

Pop has had a major advantage during his tenure as Spurs coach. As Pop said at the press conference where he accepted this year’s NBA Coach of the Year award, ”If you can draft David Robinson and follow that up with Tim Duncan, that’s a couple of decades of very, very possible success unless you just screw it up. So it’s hard to take credit when circumstances have gone your way so consistently.” But now that the Admiral is long gone, and Duncan is entering the twilight of his career, two players that used to drive Pop nuts (Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili) have now become the focus of his game plan. Early in Parker’s career Pop kept him on a short leash, frequently pulling him in favor of playing Giniboli as the primary playmaker. But Pop was able to build trust with Parker, and was able to develop him into a player that was at least in the discussion for the MVP this year. That sort of player development is something that is usually relegated to the college game.  Pop is able to shepherd professional players in such a way to realize their potential and to recognize and avoid their weaknesses (except for Richard Jefferson).

But the main thing that endears me to Pop is his utter disdain for all forms of media. In addition to his hatred of Twitter and all those who tweet, Pop is the master of demeaning sideline reporters during in-game interviews and scolding beat writers during press conferences. For a great example of this, listen to the first five minutes of this (keeping in mind that coaches are only obligated to answer two questions during those in-game interviews): It’s his way of keeping his cards close to the vest, protecting his players, and making sure there is no drama. Granted, it’s a lot easier to shelter your players from the media circus and keep the media at bay when you’re stationed in San Antonio, as opposed to New York or L.A. But in 2010, when the rumors came out that Tony Parker had been cheating on Eva Longoria with another player’s wife, the Spur’s locker room could have easily imploded and the media could have torn the team apart. Instead, the Spurs went on media lockdown. No one was talking, no one was tweeting, and I’m sure Pop had threatened each and every one of them: “How would you like to play for the Bobcat’s next year?” Finally, it was suggested that it was just a “sexting” relationship, Parker and Longoria divorced, and the story died.

I would go farther than calling Pop just the NBA Coach of the Year. You’d be hard-pressed to find a coach in any of the professional sports that works his craft better than Pop. In fact, only one other coach comes to mind that matches his intensity, his ability to stonewall the media, and intellectual capacity to continue to evolve his complex schemes to fit his personnel. Bill Belichick and Popovich are cut from the same cloth, and I’m not just talking about their Croatian heritage.6 They’re about the same age.  Both are control freaks. Both have the final say in personnel decisions. Both exhibit a cult-like control over what their players say to the media. And both have a legacy that will be forever tied to their star player — Duncan for Pop, and Brady for Belichick.

I’m afraid Pop is going to run into the same problem Belichick did on the big stage. The old saw “Defense wins championships” remains true even if the NBA and the NFL have cleaned up their games to give us more exciting, offensive games. San Antonio may fall short the same way New England did this year, but we are watching the pinnacle of coaching with these two guys. In the same way that the Patriot offense was a joy to watch this year, the Spurs are playing beautiful basketball right now. Their spacing is great, screens are set and then guys roll, the ball moves very quickly, and they’re shooting the 3 so efficiently. I don’t think they can sustain it all the way to a championship, but I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

  4. If you’re even a casual NBA fan, you’ve heard “TNT, we know drama” and “TBS, very funny” over a billion times. It’s infuriating.
  5. This is a great read.  He even claims to hate all of his own players who tweet.
  6. I lived in Croatia for 4 years, and let me tell you, Pop and Belichick’s irascible attitudes are no accident.
About Elton Conrady, Technical Editor

Elton Conrady is Technical Editor at Media Rostra. As a network engineer, Elton has worked in traditional telecom, wireless, state government, and DoD environments. While engineers are considered dull or nerdy in some social circles, Elton has attempted to be an interesting person -- he has played on a barnstorming basketball team in Europe, worked as a commercial fisherman off Kodiak Island, and lived in Croatia for 4 years. Now that he is "grown up", Elton spends his spare time fishing, camping, and hiking.


  1.  Great article… however, I think Stan Van Gundy and Doug Collins are underrated by you. Van Gundy is one of the best x and o’s guys in the game by far. It is often overlooked because he coaches a bunch of girls. Collins gets the most out of his players and runs exceptional sets as well. Totally agree about Greg Pop though