Head to Head: Who is the top Young Coach?

We independently review everything we recommend based on our strict editorial guidelines. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Learn More

Who is the the top young coach in the NBA? Jessica Camerato, Joel Brigham and Moke Hamilton discuss in this week’s Head to Head:

Brad Stevens

When the Boston Celtics overhauled their team in 2013, the organization traded aways its veteran head coach and star veteran players. They filled the coaching vacancy with a promising top college coach from Butler University to lead a young, rebuilding team. Expectations were low as the Celtics entered a new phase removed from its championship runs.

Brad Stevens has gone above and beyond in his first two season as hurdles and obstacles have been thrown his way. Injuries, trades, more injuries, more trades — the 38-year-old coach has kept the Celtics moving in the right direction ahead of schedule.

The Celtics went 25-57 in Stevens’ first year. There were few reasons to think this season would be much different. The Celtics traded their franchise player, Rajon Rondo, to the Dallas Mavericks in December. They followed up that move by sending their top scorer, Jeff Green, to the Memphis Grizzlies not long after. In February, leading rebounder and starter Jared Sullinger suffered what was thought to be a season-ending foot injury.

The locker room became a revolving door of new faces. They were here today, would they be gone tomorrow? Stevens was tasked with coaching a team whose roster changed on a regular basis. Throughout the arrivals and departures, Stevens kept whoever was on the roster focused on playing within his system. This resulted in wins over the Atlanta Hawks and Grizzlies, among others. Even when the Celtics came out on the losing end, which happened often, they still competed. Stevens pushed them to fight.

Stevens established a more uptempo system and the Celtics acquired players to thrive in it. The Isaiah Thomas trade at the deadline reinvigorated the team, which has played above-.500 basketball since the All-Star break. Under Stevens, role players like Jae Crowder have become major contributors. Newcomer Jonas Jerebko expressed that he likes playing in Stevens’ up-and-down style of basketball. Those who have been there before Stevens, such as Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass, are stepping up in the playoff push. Under Stevens, a team that had been dismantled and pieced together throughout the season is in contention for a postseason berth.

There is the argument the Eastern Conference is far less competitive than the West, and if the Celtics played on the opposite coast they would be far removed from playoff contention. That is true, but it doesn’t diminish the job Stevens has done to rebuild his team faster than expected. He has earned the respect of coaches around the league and has already proved to be one of the Celtics most valuable assets in his first two seasons.

–  Jessica Camerato

Mike Budenholzer

Atlanta Hawks head coach and former Gregg Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer doesn’t look like he’s only 45 years old. This is probably for the same reason that U.S. presidents come out of their leadership experiences looking war-torn and exhausted. But the pug-faced tactician skippering the burgeoning Hawks these days already looks like one of the best head coaches in the league after only his second season in that role.

He may, in fact, be named the NBA Coach of the Year this season, having led what many thought would be another ho-hum Hawks team to the best record in the Eastern Conference by a huge margin (they were up eight games in the win column on LeBron James’ second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers with only a few games left to play in the season). But it’s how he’s gone about making this memorable Hawks season happen that has put him in the upper echelon of NBA coaches already.

For starters, he’s an incredible X’s and O’s coach that ensures his players play good, fundamental basketball each and every night they’re on the floor. All coaches would love to see this lived out with their own rosters, but it rarely happens. It happens in San Antonio all the time, however. And it’s clear that over the course of Budenholzer’s almost two decades there, he learned a thing or two about how to teach that to his own team.

He also somehow manages to be a player’s coach, too, communicating well with his players and managing personalities about as well as anybody in the league. While Atlanta doesn’t really have any superstars on the roster, he has kept morale high all season long, even through this most recent controversy with Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antic. One night, those two were photographed in handcuffs, and the next night the Hawks were winning a game against a Brooklyn Nets team scrapping for a spot in the playoffs.

That’s a testament to Budenholzer’s ability to keep his team connected and on the same page. So many NBA coaches are either great with the players or great with the playbook. Budenholzer somehow manages to be great at both of those things, which is what separates him from an overwhelming majority of the rest of the coaches in the league.

Also, unlike many of the rest of the coaches in the league, Budenholzer has already worked in the ability to rest his stars in the midst of a long and grueling season. As great as Tom Thibodeau is, he still hasn’t figured out that there’s value to giving guys an occasional night off. Budenholzer is the only coach outside of San Antonio that’s made that work.

His all-around approach to coaching and early success has pushed him to the top tier of NBA coaches already. As far as new kids on the block are concerned, he’s definitely among the best of them.

– Joel Brigham

Jeff Hornacek

They may not be qualifying for the playoffs for what is now a fifth consecutive season, but if there is one thing that the Phoenix Suns do seem to have in their favor, it is head coach Jeff Hornacek.

In just his second season as a head coach, Hornacek joins the likes of Jason Kidd and Steve Kerr in proving that prior head coaching experience in the NBA is not a prerequisite for success. In his first season in Phoenix, Hornacek led a team featuring a duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe—two players that many did not think would mesh together—to 48 wins and almost a playoff berth.

This season, aided by the development of Marcus and Markieff Morris, with Isaiah Thomas added to the fold, the Suns again had a puncher’s chance of outpacing the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans for the final playoff seed in the Western Conference. However, the trade deadline season saw the team shake things up and yield their momentum.

Even still, in the ever tough Western Conference, winning 40 games is nothing to sneeze at, particularly in the case of the Suns—a team that just so happens to be missing a single player who appeared as an All-Star.

As for Hornacek himself, he has gained widespread attention for his unique approach to player development and training. A lot has been made of the “mindfulness” training that Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher have employed in New York City amongst their young New York Knicks. But Hornacek has been assigning reading and utilizing tactics of sport psychology to develop the minds of his young players, as well.

Although the Suns have regressed a bit in the win department this season, it would be difficult to argue that Hornacek has not done an incredible job in Phoenix. Now, this summer, as the Suns have been eliminated from playoff contention, they can rest assured that they will have a lottery pick in this June’s draft. Another piece added to the team is sure to give the Suns some added momentum heading into next season.

So, as it relates to head coaches and their being evaluated, the question I would pose to you would be on what bases do you anoint a head coach to be among the cream of the crop? If it is simply a win-loss calculation, then Hornacek probably does not warrant mention among the likes of Kerr, Kidd and maybe even Brad Stevens. But if you feel that credit is due to a coach who is a master motivator, one whose team is always well-read and well-scouted with regard to their opponents and one who is able to maximize the pieces he has been given, it should become abundantly clear that Hornacek belongs on any list that includes head coaches who have shown something even after relatively brief tenures.

Moving forward, the Suns are in very good hands, and with another piece or two, the Suns will be qualifying for the playoffs in short order.

– Moke Hamilton


Who do you think is the best young coach in the NBA? Leave a comment below.