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Six Underrated NBA Coaches

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Every NBA coach might be underrated to some extent. A general opinion sometimes exists that great coaches are a product of great players. How many times have we heard that Phil Jackson was only successful because he had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and later Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant? The fact is, neither of those duos won anything until Phil came along. How many times have people dismissed Erik Spoelstra because he had a prime LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh? Only Wade had won anything before and that was with Pat Riley as coach.

While it’s true that you do need a talented roster to win in the NBA, you also need a good coach who can manage egos and get the most out of their roster. You need a coach who can properly utilize the talent they’re given. Here’s a look at some of the top underrated coaches in the league today.

Erik Spoelstra

The first is, without question, Erik Spoelstra. As mentioned before, Spoelstra has taken heat in the past because although he guided the Miami Heat to the Finals four years in a row, including back to back championships, he did so with James, Wade, and Bosh on the team. However, since Spoelstra took over as head coach prior to the 2008-09 season, the Heat have consistently had a winning record with the exception of the 2014-15 season.

Last year, the Heat were 29-24 before losing Chris Bosh of the remainder of the season including the playoffs. Spoelstra led the team to a 48-34 record, 19-10 without Bosh, and first place in the Southeast Division. They were one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals.

This season, after losing Wade to free agency and with Bosh still unable to play, the Heat have defied expectations and are in the playoff picture. Under Spoelstra, Dion Waiters was having perhaps the best season of his career before his recent injury. His 4.3 assists per game and 3.3 rebounds are career highs.

Journeymen like Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, and Willie Reed, have made up the bulk of Miami’s roster and they have flourished. Ellington is averaging a career high 10.6 points per game. Johnson’s 12.5 points per game, 3.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 34.3 percent from three are all career highs. Reed has given the Heat a reliable and steady backup to Hassan Whiteside.

Even if the Heat don’t end up making the playoffs, they’ve done enough to silence any remaining Spoelstra doubters.

Mike Malone

Malone has bounced around as an assistant coach since 2001 with the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets, and Golden State Warriors before getting his first shot at a head coaching job in Sacramento for the 2013-14 season.

In 2014-15, his second as head coach in Sacramento, Malone got the team off to a hot start. They were 9-6 and playing great basketball until DeMarcus Cousins went down with an illness and the Kings predictably struggled. For whatever reason, the Kings front office decided to fire Malone, the best coach Sacramento had seen in a long time. And by all accounts, Malone was a coach that Cousins truly respected.

This season, Malone’s second as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, the team has managed to surpass expectations. They also find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt. Malone has done a great job of blending the Nuggets youth and veteran talent and has gotten a lot out of his rookies.

Danilo Gallinari is having his best scoring season averaging 17.9 points per game. In his third year, Gary Harris has turned in his best season yet with 14.9 points per game, 3.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 50.5 percent shooting from the field, including 42.3 percent from beyond the arc. Will Barton has had his two best seasons under Malone, and this year’s 3.4 assists and 37.0 percent from three are career highs. Rookies Jamal Murray and Juan Hernangomez have been big contributors and key pieces in the rotation.

Perhaps the biggest development under Malone has been the improvement of Nikola Jokic. After a strong rookie season under Malone, Jokic has upped his averages across the board. His 16.6 points per game, 9.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 58.1 percent shooting from the field put him near the top of the Most Improved Player race. Although talented in his own right, Malone does deserve some of the credit for helping develop Jokic.

The Nuggets may not end up playoff bound, but they’ve already surpassed last season’s win total of 33 wins, with 38 so far. With Malone in charge, Denver is sure to continue to rise.

Brett Brown

It might be strange to see a name who hasn’t had a winning season as a head coach on an underrated list, but Brown’s tenure in Philadelphia has been anything but ordinary. He was entrusted to lead a team that wasn’t shy about its intentions to tank, and tank hard. Despite that, Brown has seemingly been able to keep up team morale, and he’s been able to get critical development from key players on the roster.

This season, the Sixers have as many wins(28) as the past two seasons combined. In his first season on the court since being drafted, Joel Embiid but up borderline All-Star numbers with 20.2 points per game, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.5 blocks. The team went 10-5 in January and were playing great basketball before Embiid went down again.

Brown has turned undrafted players such as T.J. McConnell, Robert Covington and second round picks like Richaun Holmes and Jerami Grant into key rotation players. Although Grant is no longer on the team, his development began in Philadelphia.

With Ben Simmons able to make his debut next season and another top lottery pick coming in, the future looks bright in the City of Brotherly Love, and Brown is a big part of that. The Sixers gave him a contract extension after only two years with the team, and it’s starting to become evident why.

Kenny Atkinson

The past few seasons for the Brooklyn Nets haven’t been as poor record-wise as the Sixers, but overall it may actually be worse. At least the Sixers have had lottery picks as a reward for their futility. The Nets have none, which has made it harder for management to find young talent for a rebuilding team. But first-year head coach Kenny Atkinson has done an admirable job with the roster he was given.

The Nets struggled out of the gates to no surprise, and have had losing streaks of 16, 11, and seven games. But they’ve been playing much better as of late. They went 7-10 in March and are 3-1 so far in April. Atkinson has gotten strong development from his veterans as well as the young players on the team.

Brook Lopez always has been an All-Star caliber player, but this season under Atkinson, he’s expanded his game to include range out to three point territory. He’s averaging 5.2 attempts per game and shooting a respectable 35.1 percent.

Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead are having very respectable rookie seasons. Joe Harris and Justin Hamilton were out of the league before Atkinson turned them into solid rotation pieces this season. Archie Goodwin was in the D-League before being called up to the Nets, and under Atkinson, he’s shooting a career-high 58.5 percent from the field and has played a big role in the Nets’ late season turnaround.

Once the Nets get around to adding some major talent, it will be interesting to see what Atkinson is able to.

Luke Walton

Luke Walton should be on this list simply for making Nick Young a productive player again. Young’s 48.1 percent shooting from two-point range is a career high, and his 40.4 percent from three is second best, just under his career best of 40.6 percent. But Walton’s ability to coach has been much deeper.

After leading the Golden State Warriors to a 39-4 record last season in Steve Kerr’s absence, the Los Angeles Lakers rewarded Walton with a team of his own. The team got off to a surprising 10-10 start and they were playing an exciting brand of basketball. While they came back down to earth, Walton has already solidified himself as the man to lead the Lakers young core back to prominence.

The four main guys that make up the Lakers core — Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell — have all had major development this year under Walton. After the All-Star break, he committed to playing the young guys instead of hindering their development by playing older veterans such as Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, despite the large contracts the Lakers gave those players.

It’s not just those guys who have had solid production under Walton. As a full-time starter before he was shut down for the season, rookie Ivica Zubac averaged 11.1 points per game on 55.9 percent shooting. Tyler Ennis is currently having his best stretch since coming over at the trade deadline. He scored a career-high 19 points in a win at San Antonio on Wednesday and he’s averaging 12.2 points in the past six games.

Should this group one day get the Lakers back to the upper echelon of the NBA, it will most likely be with Walton leading the way.

Earl Watson

The final name on this list is yet another first-year full-time head coach who is experiencing a trying season. The Phoenix Suns have battled the Lakers and Nets for worst team in the league. But there have been some encouraging signs in the Valley of the Sun with Watson at the helm.

As a player, Watson was a leader and mentor to his younger teammates, and that has seemingly translated as a head coach. A former point guard himself, Watson has overseen the development of veteran Eric Bledsoe and rookie Tyler Ulis. Bledsoe’s 21.1 points per game and 6.3 assists are career bests. Since taking over as the full-time backup point at the beginning of March, Ulis has put up 13.4 points and 7.7 assists.

The frontcourt has seen critical development as well, particularly from rookie Marquese Chriss and second-year man Alan Williams. Since the beginning of March, Chriss has put up 12.9 points and 6.4 rebounds. In that same stretch, Williams put up a near double-double with 10.1 points and 9.4 rebounds.

The Suns have the makings of a decent young core, and Watson just might be the man to get them back to respectability.

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About David Yapkowitz

David Yapkowitz