Coaching Week in Minnesota: Pop, Carlisle, Stan Van, and What Coaching in the NBA Means Today

Last week, Gregg Popovich was in town coaching the Spurs against the Timberwolves. After that, the Wolves faced the Dallas Mavericks, led by Rick Carlisle. Tonight, they host the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons are led by Stan Van Gundy. The Wolves themselves, of course, are coached by Tom Thibodeau.

Not long ago, these four men constituted a widely accepted top tier of NBA head coaches.

Popovich is the best in the game and rivals Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach as the greatest of all time. The Spurs have won 50 or more games every season since 1997-98, save the 50-game season shortened by lockout. (That year, they merely won 37 games and the championship.) That San Antonio success depends on its coach in a player’s league is undeniable at this point.

Carlisle made the Pistons better when he joined them in 2001, then made the Pacers better when he joined them in 2003 (they might’ve won a title if not for the Malice at the Palace) and then he made the Mavericks better when he joined them in 2008, winning an unexpected championship over LeBron’s Miami Heat in 2011. Finally, after years of staving off a Full and Proper Tank Job, the Mavericks are truly struggling and will end the season with a top lottery pick. The delay in getting here despite mediocre and aging rosters is generally attributed to Carlisle’s coaching brilliance.

Van Gundy spent a number of years working under Pat Riley on the Miami Heat bench, eventually taking the reigns in 2003, when Dwyane Wade’s career began. The Heat were vastly improved under Stan Van, playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in just his second year. (They won 25 games in Riley’s final season of that go-around.) Getting a raw deal when Riley re-grabbed the coaching wheel after trading for Shaq, Stan Van went to Orlando. There, he coached a whole bunch of great teams, one of which took down LeBron’s best (first-go-around) Cavs team in the Eastern Conference Finals. That was one of the most impressive coaching performances in modern history. Van Gundy was eventually fired in 2012 for reasons that had everything to do with Dwight Howard and nothing to do with his performance.

Thibs was in this class mostly because of how he transformed the Chicago Bulls — his first head coaching spot — into a 60-win powerhouse built around his innovative defensive schemes that he first developed while working as Doc Rivers’s assistant in Boston. With the Celtics, those schemes — executed by Kevin Garnett — won a championship. In Chicago, the Derrick Rose injury conspired with LeBron’s Decision to prevent that from happening again. But the Bulls’ persistent success amid Rose’s injury and others helped seal Thibs’s reputation as one of the game’s elite coaches. His 2015 termination from the Bulls was caused by conflicts he had with the front office and nothing to do with his coaching competence.

Things are beginning to shift in the discussion of the game’s best coaches.

Well, not for Popovich. He’s still the best.

But after Pop, there are new rivals for spots in the top tier.

Steve Kerr has the Warriors playing at a level so high that it ruins the competitiveness of the playoffs. They were good before he arrived, but not 73-wins good. Kerr is undeniably good at his job.

Brad Stevens in Boston is considered by many to be an elite coach. Under his watch since 2013, the Celtics have improved in every season. Last year, the Stevens-led C’s won 53 games and little Isaiah Thomas was somehow an MVP candidate. This year, after flipping Thomas and other parts for Kyrie Irving, the Celtics are 15-2 despite losing Gordon Hayward to season-ending injury and replacing his minutes with a 19-year old rookie. They have defeated the Warriors, and the Brad Stevens Hype Train is running wild.

Stevens is not the only good new coach. The Wolves’ next three opponents after the Pistons are the Charlotte Hornets, led by Steve Clifford, the Orlando Magic, led by Frank Vogel, and the Miami Heat, led by Erik Spoelstra. Each has a proven ability to compete with less than stellar rosters. When Spo had elite talent, he went to the Finals four times, winning twice. And there are others around the league. David Fizdale in Memphis, Dave Joerger in Sacramento, Mike Malone in Denver, Brett Brown in Philadelphia, and Quin Snyder in Utah — most people think those guys are good. Look further around the league and most teams are led by somebody who is or has been believed to be a good coach.

This invites the question, then, of how a coach can truly add value when nearly every team is led so competently at the same time? In player-analytics terms, how can we tell which coaches are above or below “replacement” level?

On the Ringer NBA Show podcast last week, Chris Ryan, Jason (@netw3rk) Concepcion, and Justin Verrier fielded listener questions, including one from a Michael Lewis:

“Would you give up [Joel] Embiid or [Ben] Simmons for Brad Stevens to coach the Sixers for the next 20 or 30 years?”

After the crew each quickly said “No” and laughed, they had a good discussion of Stevens, the importance and value of coaching, and a context of how it should be evaluated:

Chris Ryan: While I appreciate what Justin is saying, I think we POSSIBLY overemphasize coaching in the NBA. While Brad Stevens is doing a great job — and I think the system is great and I think you can see that the–

–[crew erupts in laughter]–

Ryan: –Look man, did you guys see what coaching needed to happen for Embiid last night?! (Eds note: before they recorded the show, Joel Embiid went off against the Lakers for 46 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 7 blocks.) “Please go down low and shake three dudes off?”

Justin Verrier: That’s a little different here. The Celtics obviously don’t have many front-line guys. They don’t even have the front-line talent of the Sixers. Like, Pop has been winning games with nothing. Kyle Anderson–

Ryan: –I’m not saying that there aren’t genius coaches. I’m just saying, like, what if Brad Stevens loses — 20 or 30 years of Brad Stevens? I can’t tell you what Brad Stevens is gonna do when he’s 60!

Verrier: I agree with you.

netw3rk: I just think when you have a team that really has only one standout offensive player, and a bunch of guys that don’t really have an elite edge in any one category, and a bunch of young dudes, and second-line players that no one’s ever heard of, and you’re able to craft a league-leading defense, and rattle off 13, 14 straight wins………you’re a good coach.

Ryan: That being said, you’re asking me after that Lakers game last night… I wouldn’t trade Simmons and Embiid for like, Red Auerbach, or something.

netw3rk: Well, Red’s dead. He’s been dead for several years.

Essentially, when it comes to evaluating coaches, we know the following:

  1. Winning matters most.
  2. The context of the roster — age and quality of players — matters second most.
  3. How much coaching itself matters in a league dominated by star talent is a great question that is impossible to answer with much precision.

In Dallas, it remains to be seen whether Carlisle has the patience and ability to rebuild the Mavs from the bottom. In Detroit, Stan Van has the Pistons off to a hot start, but has not done as well as they hoped when handing him both the President of Basketball and Head coach titles back in 2014. In San Antonio, they’ll probably be just fine after Kawhi Leonard returns from injury, but Pop is 68 years old and might prefer a different life challenge — say, a presidential run in 2020? — rather than continuing to outcoach his peers for another decade.

And in Minnesota, Thibs is beginning to face new questions about his coaching ability. His first season was widely viewed as a disappointment. The Wolves win-improvement was just 2 games above Sam Mitchell’s previous season, and the team defense — the Thibodeau specialty — got worse. Now, he has a strong 10-5 record to feel good about, but the questions will continue to come as the long season moves along. Some worry about the heavy minutes that he continues to play his starters. Others lament the lack of playing time for Nemanja Bjelica. Everyone wonders when the defense — presently ranked 22nd in the league — will turn the page.

What seems clear is that NBA evolution is not limited to players’ athleticism and skill. The coaching is more competitive, more intelligent, and more innovative than ever. Whatever it took for Thibs to succeed in Boston and Chicago, it will require even more in Minnesota.

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  1. Great Coaching is difficult to define. There are game coaches that find a way to beat someone that no one had tried before (Larry Brown comes to mind) and their are coaches that have developed offense or defense innovation that changes the game (Paul Westhead and the fastbreak style or Thibs with the ICE defense). Personally, I am more of a game coach genius guy, I like the coach that can adapt his team to beat sometimes a superior talent with creative game plans, using TO and special plays that give them an advantage they can exploit against that one team.

    When Larry Brown’s Pistons beat Shaq and Kobe in the finals, He did it, by playing Kobe tough, knowing that Kobe would want to be the hero of the finals more than passing to Shaq, who was still the most dominant force in the league. Without a way to stop Shaq, he got Kobe to do it for him. That is a genius. Larry never really created a new offensive or defensive scheme, but he got his players to buy into his game plan and they stuck to the script.

    Guys like Thibs, get credit for a creative defensive idea or Flip for his extensive playbook, but what happens when everyone incorporates that into their system and it is no longer novel? Are they able to adapt to the new world, they helped create, or are they stuck in that one good idea? Can they get their teams to buy into a game plan that can defeat superior talent? If they can, then they deserve greatness bestowed upon them. If not, then they are one trick ponies, that become boring and easy to defeat by better coaches.