With Don Nelson’s not all that surprising departure from the Warriors this week, the NBA’s list of true coaching relics became one less. Sure, the usual stalwarts—Larry Brown, Jerry Sloan, George Karl, Doc Rivers, Doug Collins, Greg Popovic, Rick Adelman, Pat Riley in a management capacity and of course, the Lakers own Phil Jackson—remain active in the league’s coaching circle. However, we’re approaching a time, in the not too distant future, when the latest influx of NBA coaching talent will be asked to lead this league, similar to the way Kobe Bryant will eventually pass the torch to Kevin Durant, LeBron James, etc.
For all the talk about the new-age athleticism of the post-Y2K generation of NBA players, the league has also experienced a golden age of coaching over the same time span. As the list of longtime, top-tier coaches continues to decrease, though, who eventually replaces the Zen Master? Not just in the sense of who replaces Jackson on the Lakers bench, but which coaches will live up to the dynamic personalities and multi-layered expertise of the Don Nelsons and Phil Jacksons of the league? Five coaches who are ready to attempt to fill that eventual void immediately come to mind for me:
Stan Van Gundy, while certainly a household name after helming the Heat in their first season after for trading for Shaq and leading the Magic to the 2008-2009 Finals, is still one of the more unheralded coaches in the league today, despite winning a league-leading 69% of the 246 games he’s coached. His Magic are also poised for another run at the title his year.
The newest coach of the New Jersey Nets, the always fiery Avery Johnson, has already taken a team to the Finals in 2006 and won the Coach of the Year Award, while becoming the fastest coach in NBA history to win 150 games. Now, he gets a chance to rebuild a team essentially from scratch—a challenge the Little General eagerly welcomes with the same steadfast confidence he showed while he was playing in the league.
Mike D’Antoni has amassed a series of accolades in less than seven full seasons as a head coach, including the implementation of his now infamous “Seven Seconds or Less” offense. While he’s currently mired in New York’s extended rebuilding, the offensive juggernaut he created while with the Suns still serves as a prominent offensive model today.
Nate McMillan remains almost a hidden treasure in Portland, quietly entering a maelstrom in the Northwest in 2005 and playing a prominent role in revitalizing the image of the entire franchise ever since. Moreover, McMillan has shown incredible aplomb in the face of all of Portland’s devastating injuries.
Scott Skiles steely on-court demeanor and commitment to the fundamentals of the game has carried over into his coaching, where he has quickly cemented his place as one of the league’s best defensive minds. His eye-opening work last season with an injury-ravaged Bucks squad has given basketball fans in Milwaukee every reason to be excited to see where he leads Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings and Co. this season.
Tom Thibodeau of the Bulls, Scott Brooks of the Thunder, Erik Spoelestra of the Heat and Alvin Gentry of the Suns are other rising stars who look well-prepared to join the NBA’s future coaching elite with a few more years in the incubator.
Which NBA coaches—whether currently a head coach or an assistant coach—are your picks to take the proverbial next step?