1. Gregg Popovich- San Antonio Spurs
This may be the obvious choice, but it is the correct one. With four Championships under his belt and another Finals appearance last season, Popovich has proven that he can lead his team to the promised-land even when there may be more heralded teams ahead of them. There are legitimate questions with how he handled some substitutions in Game 6 of the Finals this past year, sitting Tim Duncan late and the resulting offensive rebound by Chris Bosh, which in turn led to the game tying three pointer from Ray Allen. Another questionable decision was not sitting Manu Ginobili after all the turnovers and numerous careless plays he made. However, he makes the right calls in these situations more often than not.
Pop is a master at in-game adjustments however, despite these two blunders. He can let the game play out for the first quarter or even the first half and if it looks like things are not going in the right direction for him, he can diagnose why and make the correct decisions to get the outcome he is looking for. He also has a long coaching tree, with assistants such as Mike Brown, Jacques Vaughn, Mike Budenholzer, all getting head coaching positions and while they did not coach alongside him, Avery Johnson and Monty Williams both played for Pop before finding their ways to head coaching spots. This shows the respect that executives have for Popovich’s ability not only as a coach, but as a teacher as well to take chances on assistant coaches that do not have any prior head coaching experience.
With 16 full seasons and part of a 17th, Popovich is the longest tenured coach in the NBA and the Spurs’ decision to bring him aboard has turned into gold for the organization.
2. Doc Rivers- Los Angeles Clippers
Rivers has been described as a players coach and while that may be true, he is not a coach that allows his players to walk all over him. He made the Celtics into a hard-nosed defensive team when some of their players really had no interest in playing defense. With Kevin Garnett buying into Rivers’ style and becoming one of the best post defenders in basketball while they were both together in Boston, he was able to convince players like Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo that this was the best way to get the championship they had all been waiting for and finally got during the 2010-11 season. Rivers has had some ups and downs in his coaching career, but in all fairness he did not have quality talent on the roster. A coach can only do so much when his players are not up to par with the rest of the league and there was a time when many in Boston were calling for his head. When he has the players to contend, Rivers makes the most of his talent and at times has seen his teams over achieve given their past success and the other teams battling against them.
Rivers will be a great asset in Los Angeles for a team that was fourth in the league in points allowed last season. If there is any way for them to get even better on that end of the floor he will find a way to do so. With a great point guard in Chris Paul, ultra athletic bigs in DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin and new addition J.J. Reddick rounding out a very good Clippers team, Rivers could be the final piece of the puzzle to get the team over the hump and to heights they have never seen as a franchise.
3. Erik Spoelstra- Miami Heat
Whether it’s fair or not, Spoelstra is a polarizing figure in basketball today. Some see him simply as a figure-head with no real power in Miami due to Pat Riley’s presence within the franchise and the superstars he has at his disposal on the floor in Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Others see how he has helped mold this team into an extremely well-functioning one on the floor, with their outstanding team defense and while their offense can be extremely stagnant at times; they have been able to kick it into high gear when needed leading them to the past two Larry O’Brien trophies. Doubting Spoelstra’ coaching ability seems to go along the same lines as doubting Phil Jackson’s. The aforementioned superstars could be seen on the 90′s Chicago teams as well as the 2000′s Lakers teams that Jackson coached in the forms of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in LA. However, getting these dominant forces to play well off of each other and set their egos aside at times for the betterment of the team is a skill that cannot be over looked. Spoelstra had to help convince his players that allowing Lebron to take over when they are not as effective would be the best thing for them. When players like Bosh and Wade have not had to do something like this in the past it can be a hard sell, as seen in their loss to the Dallas Mavericks in their first Finals series together. However, these past two years Wade and Bosh have had to realize within themselves, along with some coaching from Spoelstra and undoubtedly Riley, that this is the best way for them to get where they want to be.
In game Spoelstra is very cool and collected on the sideline. While this can be easy when you have the players mentioned above on your roster, for a person as obviously competitive as he is, it is not quite that easy. When a coach is constantly yelling and losing his mind, it gets old. There is something to be said for Spoelstra’s ability to stay cool under pressure and make the right substitutions and adjustments in-game to get the Heat the two rings they have won under his leadership. Spoelstra is one of those coaches that will never get the full credit he deserves unless he takes on a team without a full assortment of stars and leads them a title. This is really a shame though because he is a very good motivator with a great understanding of the game and an ability to get players to buy into their role. He definitely deserves a spot on this list.
4. Tom Thibodeau- Chicago Bulls
Thibodeau was the defensive guru for Doc Rivers in Boston. He spun this work off into a head coaching job in Chicago and hasn’t looked back ever since. His Bulls teams have been one of the best defensive teams ever since he got there, turning them around from the lackluster team they were before. Under his tutelage Derrick Rose has turned into a superstar and one of the best players in the league until his unfortunate ACL injury against the 76ers in the 2012 playoffs. Even without Rose this past season, Thibs was able to help lead the Bulls into the playoffs, eventually losing to the Heat after a relatively surprising first round victory over the Brooklyn Nets. In contrast to the other coaches on this list, he has a fiery demeanor on the sideline and can be confrontational with his players. This style has worked well with his team however; in his three years as head coach they have not finished worse than second in the Central Division.
The reason he is on this list over more established coaches like Rick Adelman and others throughout the league is his ability to get players to buy into his style of play. It is a demanding one that isn’t conducive to putting up big offensive numbers. In this era of basketball it can be difficult to get players to buy into this way of playing but Thibodeau’s success in Boston has given players a track record to look at. If Rose can come back healthy this season and return to his prior form, the Bulls will be a title contender in the Eastern Conference and Coach Thibodeau is one of the main reasons why Chicago is seeing a basketball rebirth since the end of the Jordan dynasty.
5. Frank Vogel- Indiana Pacers
One of the youngest coaches in the league at age 40, Vogel has earned his spot on this list over the last two years and change as the head man in Indianapolis. When ineffective coach Jim O’Brien was fired Vogel took over and improved the team immensely from the start, leading them to a surprising playoff run his first year and improving each subsequent year including the Conference Finals run this past season. Vogel has worked incredibly well with the mostly young talent in Indiana, helping them find a defensive identity that grew into one of the best in the league due to his philosophy to go along with the addition of David West. Vogel is one in the line of former film managers turned coaches and it has been a great breeding ground for NBA head coaches, with Spoelstra starting in the same position. The reason Vogel deserves to be on this list is the way he has built the Pacers franchise into a respectable one once again. After the Malice at the Palace and the trades that resulted to purge the organization of the players that gave them that bad reputation, the talent on the roster was not impressive with only Danny Granger as a building block for the future. Vogel came in under O’Brien and obviously learned quite a bit about finding talent as he brought in future stars like Paul George and Roy Hibbert and solid role players like George Hill and Lance Stephenson to build a young core to get Indiana to the championship contender they are today.
While Vogel is not the sole voice in building this franchise, he no doubt had a say in the players that were brought in to fit the system he wanted to run and they have fit perfectly. Vogel’s tough defensive game and grind it out offense is not the popular way to play nowadays but is has been effective. With the previously mentioned core of players and a great coaching staff in Indy, the Pacers have great future ahead of them and Vogel will be the coach to get them that long-awaited NBA title after the great ABA history of the franchise.
Josh Morgan is a Staff Writer at Hoops-Nation.