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Who's on top?

Jackson's departure means game's best coach is up for debate

Posted: Tuesday November 16, 2004 3:49PM; Updated: Tuesday November 16, 2004 3:50PM
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Larry Brown, Flip Saunders
Larry and Flip debate who's the best now that Phil's gone.
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

With Phil Jackson now busy hawking books and pontificating on the state of the league rather than burnishing his Hall of Fame coaching credentials, the identity of the league's best current coach is not easily determined.

Some might say it's presumptuous of me to declare that Jackson was the best since he always had supremely talented players at his disposal. But winning nine championships in 14 seasons in a 29-team league speaks for itself, not to mention his ridiculous 41-5 record in playoff series.

In Jackson's absence, several other coaches have shown they are worthy of the honor as the NBA's best. Larry Brown, Gregg Popovich, Rudy Tomjanovich and Lenny Wilkens all have won championships (although Wilkens won his back in the days when the NBA was less popular than dwarf tossing). However, to choose among them and several other active coaches with gaudy records, I need to set up an objective way to rate the largely subjective topic of coaching performance.

Unfortunately, coaching in the NBA is an increasingly precarious occupation. Impatient executives provide most coaches with the job security of an Apprentice contestant, while prima donna players reduce many to having about as much as power as the Swiss navy. As a result, only a few have persevered. Of the 30 active NBA coaches, just 13 have at least five years of experience, and only two have stayed with the same team.

Since the ones with less than five years of experience haven't provided enough of a window for me to systematically rate their career performance, I'm going to limit the discussion today to those 13 coaches. My criteria to objectively measure their performances is a simple one: winning.

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I'm not just looking at wins, however. I'm looking at wins compared to expected wins. Jackson, for instance, should be expected to win more games with his Bulls and Lakers than, say, Mike Woodson with this year's Hawks. Thus, if a team was expected to win 25 games and the coach won 30, I'll give him a +5. If the team was expected to win 55 games and the coach only won 60, I'll give him a -5, even though he won twice as many games as the guy who got a +5.

To determine how many games the coach was expected to win, I pieced together a simple formula: The team's winning percentage the previous season (two parts), the team's winning percentage from two seasons previous (one part), and a .500 season (one part). I included the .500 season to adjust for the fact that a coach with 60 wins every year for a decade would otherwise show up as "+0." Similarly, a coach who went 10-72 every year would have the same mark even though he was awful. Because the draft and the salary cap conspire to level the playing field, it's a necessary addition. Finally, one other caveat -- I only used the coach's record from seasons where he coached at least 50 percent of the team's games.

Using this formula, we can evaluate over time how a coach has fared against the expectation. For example, Brown won 54 games with the Pistons last season, after they had won 50 the previous two seasons. Based on the formula, he was expected to win 49 games, so he gets a +5 for winning 54. Summing those up over all 24 seasons of Brown's career, we find that he's +114, or about five games better than expected each season.

That's impressive, but is it the best? Let's take a look at how the 13 coaches in the study grade out, starting at the bottom:

Nos. 11-13: The retreads

Mike Dunleavy, Paul Silas and Bernie Bickerstaff . Perhaps "retreads" is a bit harsh -- seeing these three names shows just how good a coach somebody has to be to even last five years in the NBA. Despite ranking at the bottom of the list, all three have had impressive moments in the NBA. Bickerstaff became the first coach to win a playoff series as a No. 8 seed when he led the Nuggets past Seattle in 1994, Dunleavy took a team full of delinquents to consecutive Western Conference finals appearances, and Silas had an impressive run in Charlotte/New Orleans. But each has had his Waterloo as well -- Bickerstaff's was in Washington, Dunleavy's a miserable four-year run in Milwaukee (22 games below expectation), and Silas's a quarter-century ago when he went 17-65 with the Clippers.

Nos. 8-10: The company men

Rating the coaches
Coach W vs. Exp. Years Avg.
Phil Jackson +82 14 +5.8
Flip Saunders +45 9 +5.0
Rick Adelman +64 13 +4.9
Larry Brown +114 24 +4.8
Don Nelson +75 26 +2.9
Gregg Popovich +22 8 +2.8
Jerry Sloan +47 19 +2.5
Jeff Van Gundy +15 6 +2.5
Lenny Wilkens +53 31 +1.7
Rudy Tomjanovich +9 11 +0.8
Hubie Brown +5 13 +0.4
Bernie Bickerstaff -11 8 -1.3
Paul Silas -16 9 -1.8
Mike Dunleavy -21 11 -1.9

Wilkens, Tomjanovich and Hubie Brown. Two of them have won championships and two are old enough to have been passengers on the Mayflower, but their records have been consistently above the league average. Wilkens has the strongest record of the three, winning a title in Seattle and building a contender from the ground up in Cleveland. Tomjanovich, of course, won back-to-back titles with the Rockets and would rate higher if we looked at playoff games, but his last four years in Houston (-12 games) tarnished his record. As for Brown, his +20 last year in Memphis moved his career mark to the positive side of the ledger.

Nos. 4-7: The darned good ones

Popovich, Jerry Sloan, Jeff Van Gundy and Don Nelson. While Popovich is the only one with title bling, all but Nelson have coached in the Finals, and Nellie made the de facto Finals two years ago against San Antonio. Their records show it, with each consistently adding two or three wins beyond expectation to his team's total. Nelly got a +37 for his work in Milwaukee two decades ago, but his best work has been with his current group in Dallas -- he's +36 in just seven seasons. Sloan's first three years with the Bulls were a wash, but in Utah he's +47 over his 16 seasons. Popovich has only coached one team but has put up positive numbers in six of the past seven seasons.

No. 1A: Johnny come lately

Rick Carlisle. I mentioned that I didn't include coaches with fewer than five years of experience, but one has been so good that I have to bring his name up. Carlisle, in three seasons of coaching, has put together a whopping +36 mark -- making an average of 12 wins better than the norm per season, which is twice as good as any other active coach. If he just holds serve the next two years -- he'd have to win around 53 games each season -- he'll be at the top of the charts.

Nos. 1-3: The new legends

Flip Saunders, Rick Adelman and Brown. Brown, the defending NBA champion, comes in a close third in this chart. He's improved every team he's coached except one, and when you consider how many teams that involves, it's a mighty impressive track record. Brown has won more than the expectation in 19 of his 24 seasons, including seven where he beat it by 10 games or more.

However, Brown is bested in this department by two coaches who haven't won the big one yet -- which, ironically, was the rap on Brown before this season. The first is Adelman, who would rank even higher if not for two unfortunate years in Golden State. He's surpassed expectations by 10 or more games in five of his 13 NBA seasons but has been foiled by Phil Jackson in his two best shots at a title.

At the top of the heap is Saunders, the most consistently underrated coach in the game. He's exceeded the wins expectation in eight of his nine seasons in Minnesota, transforming a 21-win team into a perennial title contender. His playoff coaching record was an embarrassment before last season, but that's partly because of the strength of the Western Conference. Overall Saunders, Adelman and Brown make up the holy trinity of the game's top coaches now that Jackson is gone, but if I had to pick one, I'd put my money on Saunders.

And how about Big Chief Triangle? Jackson stands at 82 games above expectation in his 14 NBA seasons, or about 5.8 games better a season. That puts him comfortably ahead of the likes of Saunders and Adelman and explains why the two don't have championship rings yet -- they could never get by Phil's teams. With the Zen Master out of the way, perhaps they can follow Brown's example and claim their elusive ring.

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