In the playoffs, it’s all about the chess match between head coaches. Just look at what transpired after Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat knocked out Mike Budenholzer’s Milwaukee Bucks in five games. Coach Bud was fired Thursday evening after his top-seeded Bucks lost to the eighth-seeded Heat, becoming only the sixth No. 1 seed to do so. The head coaching matchup is second to the superstar’s power on the court.
We’ve ranked the eight remaining head coaches based on leadership, preparation, and accomplishments.
8. Joe Mazzula, Boston Celtics
It’s been evident this season that Mazzula is not Ime Udoka. They’re two different personalities with varying skill sets. Udoka had the trust and respect of the locker room. He inspired the Celtics’ dawg mentality and unflappable toughness. Mazzula is a quieter presence on the sideline. He’s also shown weaknesses in timeout decisions and late-game rotations. In their second-round matchup, James Harden ripped the Celtics’ defense apart in Game 1, outmaneuvering anything Mazzula threw at him on the way to 45 points and 17-of-30 shooting. But the Celtics were able to adjust in Game 2, limiting catch-and-shoot threes and holding Harden to 2-of-14 shooting.
Mazzula is currently facing the best talent test against the Philadelphia 76ers. If his Celtics advance, he’ll be matched against lesser talent but way better coaching. That’s when things really become interesting.
7. Darvin Ham, Los Angeles Lakers
After three years under Frank Vogel, ending in a championship, the Lakers moved on from the experienced Vogel in favor of rookie head coach Darvin Ham. Ham was a gritty, hard-nosed, defensive specialist off the bench as a player. He’s brought that identity to the Lakers. Ham inherited a mess of a roster rectified after Russell Westbrook was traded for depth and defensive-minded players.
Now Ham has a roster he can work with, and it’s propelled him out of the Play-In Tournament and into a second-round series with the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The Lakers stole home-court advantage with a decisive Game 1 win, splitting the first two games away. Ham has done an admirable job against Steve Kerr, a top-10 coach of all time with four championships under his belt.
6. Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
While Rivers has improved this post-season in his utilization of James Harden and closing out games, he remains the most overrated coach in the NBA. He’s the only coach in NBA history who’s blown three 3-1 leads in the playoffs- once with the Orlando Magic and two with the Clippers. It’s an embarrassing stat for a coach who won an NBA championship in 2008. Many skeptics point to that Celtics team being able to coach itself, as they had Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, and a bevy of skilled vets on the roster. Rivers also had Tom Thibodeau on the bench, primarily responsible for that team’s elite defensive identity.
Rivers has been known as a player’s coach who can come into a derelict franchise and instill an identity and cohesion. He’s done it with some of the formerly most inept franchises in the NBA: the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Clippers, and Celtics. But at some point, inevitably, he loses the locker room and feuds with players.
5. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns
Poor Monty; I bet he never imagined the job would be this difficult when he took the head coaching reins in 2019. He helped take the Suns from NBA purgatory to the NBA Finals two years ago. But Deandre Ayton has been a constant headache for him, as the two have beefed for the entirety of their coexistence. Adding Kevin Durant at this year’s deadline hasn’t vaulted them into the odds-on favorite; they’re currently tied 2-2 in their series with the Denver Nuggets.
Monty’s willingness to trust his bench has been criticized this season, as he’s over-relied on his starting five. With Paul now injured and expected to miss multiple games, the pressure is even tighter on Williams to extend his trust in his reserves to compensate for their floor general’s loss.
4. Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets
If Rivers is the most overrated coach, Malone is the most underrated. The Nuggets have committed to Malone, the head coach since 2015, overseeing the entirety of the Nikola Jokić era. Malone has been allowed to develop the talent he oversees, while evolving himself. Malone has yet to win a ring, or make the Finals with the Nuggets. Before this postseason, he had accumulated a 21-27 playoff record. Yet, the Nuggets’ front office has committed to continuity and to Malone. It’s a rare accomplishment to coach the same team for eight seasons.
Malone has navigated roster upheaval and multiple, serious injuries to his second and third-best players in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Yet, his .546 regular season winning percentage has never earned him a Coach of the Year trophy.
3. Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
Back in December, Thibodeau was in the top three coaches most likely to be fired. He saved his job and the Knicks season when he shortened the rotation to nine players on Dec. 4. That move solidified the pecking order, established the defensive identity, and bolstered the Knicks’ best offensive weapon—offensive rebounding and second-chance points. The Knicks rode that metric to a five-game whooping of the Cleveland Cavaliers, silencing the conversation around them missing out on Donovan Mitchell for good.
Beating the Cavs was only the second time a Thibodeau-coached team beat a higher-seeded team in the playoffs since 2013. If the Knicks make the Conference Finals, it will be only the second time Thibodeau has made it that far since his first year as a head coach with the Chicago Bulls in 2011.
2. Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Mark Jackson walked so Steve Kerr could run. Kerr melded the coaching philosophies of former coaches Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich to oversee a dynasty in Golden State. His four championships have dominated the 2010s and on, propelling Steph Curry into the greatest of all-time conversation. The Warriors have continued to build around their future Hall of Fame core of Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. His measured, calm demeanor has kept the ear of his locker room, while his sharp basketball mind has kept the Warriors dynasty going with key adjustments and delegation.
Not since Popovich’s prime San Antonio Spurs years has a coach created a better plug-and-play system. Year after year, Kerr has integrated veterans like Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, David Lee, Gary Payton II, and Kevon Looney.
1. Eric Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Spoelstra’s exceptional ability lies in handling egos with surgical gloves. He managed to persuade three superstar players, all the number one options for their former teams, to put aside their individual interests for the team’s benefit. His persuasion was so effective that each of them willingly made sacrifices, most notably Dwyane Wade, who had won a championship in 2006 as “the man” and face of the franchise.
With a much less talented team in the modern day, Spoelstra has perfected the zone defense and inspired a group of undrafted role players to make the Finals and Conference finals within three seasons. Jimmy Butler embodies the Heat culture better than no player to wear a Heat jersey before him. You can give Spoelstra a team full of YMCA All-Stars, and he’ll have them competing at an elite level.