Who Are the Top Coaches in the NBA?
When you think of the top three NBA coaches who comes to your mind? Gregg Popovich, Brad Stevens, and Steve Kerr are some of the names most people think of. All three of these guys have proven for years why they are great and why they get mentioned in this group. Of course, I like these guys but I also think there are two other coaches who are close behind and one who belongs in the top three. Before I get to them, let's take a little closer look at Pop, Stevens, and Kerr and how they got their start and what makes them so special on the sidelines.
Pop has been on basketball sidelines since 1973 when he got his first assistant coaching job with Air Force which led to his first head coaching job in 1979 with Pomona-Pitzer. During his time at Pomona he became a close friend with Larry Brown who was then the head coach at the University of Kansas. Pop actually took the '85-86 season off and volunteered to learn as an assistant under Brown at Kansas. When Brown became the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1988 he hired Popovich as his lead assistant coach. Brown and Pop coached the Spurs until the 1992 season when the entire coaching staff was fired, Popovich joined the Warriors as an assistant under Don Nelson during the '92 season.
In '94 Popovich returned to the Spurs as the General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations after Peter Holt purchased the organization. When the Spurs started out the 1996 season with a record of 3-15, Pop fired the coach and became the coach himself. This would turn out to be a franchise altering move. A handful of major injuries helped the Spurs to win the NBA Lottery and draft Tim Duncan. Pairing Duncan with David Robinson the Spurs turned the franchise around and won 56 games in Duncan's rookie year and Pop's first full season as head coach. Drafting Duncan and Pop being the coach completely turned the franchise around, the Spurs have made the playoffs every year since drafting Duncan in '97. They would win their first NBA title in 1999 followed by titles in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014. Pop has been named the Coach of the Year three times and is only the second coach to win 900 games with one franchise.
So what makes Popovich so great? He is an unbelievable developer of players, with the Spurs being so good for so long they are always drafting at the end of the first round. Manu Ginobili was drafted at the end of the second round and Tony Parker was a late first round pick but both of these players became possible hall of fame players under Pop. Last year LaMarcus Aldridge was unhappy and wanted to be traded, in the off-season Pop and Aldridge sat down and talked it out. Popovich made some changes and the Spurs are one of the best teams in the league and Aldridge is an All-Star. Pop knows his players and knows how to get the most out of them, he runs a great system and isn't afraid to make changes if he feels he needs to. Popovich is not only one of the best coaches right now but is also one of the greatest coaches of all time.
Brad Stevens got into coaching with a pretty strange story, in 2000 he was offered the opportunity to volunteer in the Butler basketball office. He was offered a low-paying administrative position as coordinator of basketball operations under then-coach Thad Matta. "Stevens was just a hungry young kid that was desperate to get into coaching. He had a great passion and was willing to take a risk to get into coaching" Matta would say a fee years later. Stevens was promoted to a full-time assistant coach and became active in every aspect of the game, skill instruction, game prep, in-game coaching, and recruiting. In 2007, Stevens was named the head coach at Butler and became the second youngest coach in Division I basketball. He turned Butler into a relevant basketball program and took them to heights they never imagined. They went 27-3 in his first season and won the Horizon League to earn a bid into the 2008 NCAA tournament. In Stevens six seasons Butler made the NCAA Tournament five times and made the Final twice.
In 2013, Stevens made the jump to the NBA and became the coach of the Boston Celtics. Following a rocky start to this career Stevens has turned the Celtics in a perennial playoff team and a Finals contender the last two seasons. In the 2017 off-season his Butler past helped the Celtics land one of the biggest free agents, Gordon Hayward.
Stevens and Popovich have one big similarity, they both usually have a calm demeanor. Of course they will both get upset depending what is happening on the court but they usually have a very stoic mood. Stevens background as a Butler assistant helped his shape his skills in play development and play calling. He spends a lot of time analyzing game film and preparing game plans for each opponent. Stevens likes to use stats to help motivate his team, if they are playing poorly on defense he will pull up stats showing what is happening and how they can fix it. His teams are built as a team instead of around individuals, all of his guys buy in and play together as a unit. He is one of the best x's and o'x coaches and this is a major factor for him.
Unlike Popovich and Stevens, Kerr played in the league and played on some of the best teams in NBA history with MJ. He was a 5 time NBA champion during his playing career and was a great 3 point shooter. He played 17 years gaining valuable experience playing with MJ, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, and Shaq to name some of his teammates. After his playing career, he became a TV analyst for a few years before becoming the general manager of the Phoenix Suns. In 2010, Kerr stepped down as GM and took a few years off from the spotlight until 2014.
In 2014 Kerr became the head coach of the Golden State Warriors which has worked out fairly well for him. Kerr used elements from his playing days in Chicago under Phil Jackson, elements of Pop's spacing and pace, and the uptempo style from Alvin Gentry when he was the coach of the Suns. In Kerr's first season the Warriors went 67-15, winning 60+ games would become an every year occurrence for this organization. But with players like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and later Kevin Durant, Kerr walked into a pretty good situation.
Kerr had experiences that Pop and Stevens did not have with his playing past. When Kerr was hired as the Warriors coach he had a great foundation in place but he does a great job keeping egos in check. Having some of the best players in the NBA is not easy, there is only one ball and most guys think they should be the one handling it the most. Kerr has earned his players trust and they have bought into his system and it has worked beautifully. Playing on those early Bulls teams surely helped Kerr work with these players and help build his coaching system. He played under coaches like Phil Jackson and Pop but he didn't just play he paid attention and learned underneath them as well.
There is a little background on Pop, Stevens, and Kerr who most NBA people would say are the top three coaches in the NBA. In my opinion I would put Pop and Stevens in the top three but would add another name instead of Kerr. Before I get to that name I have another coach who is really good and doesn't get enough love.
Quin Snyder got his basketball career started as a point guard for Duke University in the mid 1980s. After he graduated from Duke he went back to earn his MBA, while he was working on his graduate degree he joined the Los Angeles Clippers as an assistant. After he completed his degree, Snyder joined the Duke coaching staff as an assistant coach. Being an assistant for Duke, gave Snyder the opportunity to work under Coach K. In 1999, Snyder accepted the head coaching position at the University of Missouri. After a great start with the Tigers things became rocky at the University with recruiting violations and poor on court performance. Snyder resigned in 2006 but he couldn't stay away from basketball and became the head coach of the Austin Toros of the NBA D-league. He was extremely successful despite constant roster turnover. From 2010-2014, Snyder worked for four different organizations including a Russian team.
In 2014, Snyder became the head coach of the Utah Jazz. During his first three seasons the team has made the playoffs only once but they reached the Western Conference semifinals. During his first three seasons he had a roster built around Gordon Hayward but the front office has never done Snyder many favors. Hayward left for the same reason, the Jazz just brought back the same players year after year after year even though everyone knew it wasn't working. It also seems like the Jazz are a franchise cursed with injuries, Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, and Rodney Hood all missed a lot of time during Snyder's first three seasons but he has constantly been around .500.
Snyder builds his team around defense and it is evident when you look at the stats of previous Jazz teams. They are constantly in the top 10 for defensive metrics and this season is more of the same. Snyder's coaching background with Missouri, in the D-League, and in Europe have shaped his coaching philosophy. Other NBA teams want to play uptempo and shoot a ton of three's but Snyder realizes he doesn't have that type of team in Utah. With Gobert at center he has built his tactics around him, play good hard defense, rebound, and use set plays on the offense. He knows he doesn't have great three point shooters so why waste your offensive possessions with them. I think Snyder is a very good coach and is incredibly underrated.
Spoelstra played in college for the University of Portland and was their starting point guard for four years. After graduating Spo was a player/assistant coach for a German professional team until 1995 when he was offered a job with the Miami Heat. He started on the ground floor with the Heat as the video coordinator in 1995 and then became an assistant coach/video coordinator in '97. In '99, Spo became assistant coach/advance scout before being promoted to assistant coach/director of scouting in 2001. He basically held every job for the Heat until 2008.
In 2008, Spoelstra finally got his shot when head coach Pat Riley stepped down and Spo was named head coach. His first season was a successful one, when he led the Heat to the playoffs, considering the previous year the Heat were 15-67. In 2010, the Heat brought in LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade and form a big three. Despite early season struggles the Heat made the NBA Finals losing to the Mavericks. The Heat would go on to win the 2012 and 2013 NBA Finals but lost the 2014 Finals. The Heat and Spoelstra played in four straight NBA Finals until LeBron left following the 2014 season. Spo had to learn how to deal with the egos of his superstar team just like Kerr did but unlike Kerr Spoelstra did not have the experience of playing with superstars like MJ and Duncan.
After LeBron left the Heat have not experienced the success they had during the 2010-2014 seasons but no one expected them to. Looking at the roster now you would not recognize many of the names but the organization keeps on winning and most of that winning comes directly from Spoelstra. Last season the team got off to a dreadful 11-30 start but turned it around and finished 30-11 to finish the season at 41-41 and just barely missing the playoffs. This season the Heat are 30-26 with a team of Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic are the only big name players if you consider those two guys big names. Spoelstra finds himself in the same situation as Quin Snyder, with a front office not doing much to help out the coach.
Spoelstra's background in video coordination, assistant coaching, and scouting have built his head coaching style. During LeBron's tenure in Miami players complained about the amount of work Spo required from his players. Spo demands a lot out of his players in practice because he believes if you practice hard it will show during games. The Heat have dealt with major injuries this season and Spoelstra preaches the "next man up" mantra and finds ways to help these guys be successful. He is interested in how his players are doing and working with them on the little details to get better. Spoelstra's in-season adjustments have led to success for the Heat.
I would put Spoelstra in the top three with Popovich and Stevens. He has been successful with the Heat before, during, and after the LeBron years. He has a background unlike most coaches and it prepared him for most situations he will encounter as a head coach. I think Kerr is a great coach but he had a pretty good situation when he joined Golden State, Spo worked with Riley's old team then LeBron came and he had to work with that, then LeBron left and he is building his own team now. Spoelstra is working with what the front office has given him and it is not a whole lot, they have made some really bad signings but Spo keeps going. He won't win 60+ games a season or win the coach of the year but take a look past the stats and Spoelstra deserves his place among the top NBA coaches.