NBA Daily: Four Coaches Outperforming Expectations

Being a head coach in the NBA is a difficult proposition but Chad Smith takes a look at four coaches that have overcome adversity and outperformed expectations so far this season.

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There aren’t many jobs that can match the stress and anxiety of being a head coach in the NBA. Each one of the 30 positions comes with different levels of expectations, but all of them will see a curveball or two during the grueling season. Those may come in many different forms, but four guys have stood out among the rest as we creep towards the halfway point of the regular season.

As we enter the month of January, teams and front offices now have a firm understanding of their team and what changes they may need to make. With next month’s trade deadline approaching, some teams have found themselves in an unexpected position to compete. Suddenly, the expectations change and it will be up to the coach to keep the train of momentum rolling along.

These four individuals have varying degrees of experience, yet have all found themselves in a good spot. Furthermore, they’ve all lost star players at some point and rallied the troops with success. Whether it be defensive schemes, rotation adjustments, or the players simply buying into their message, here are some game managers that fans should celebrate nearing the halfway point of the campaign.

Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers

Now in his fourth season as the head coach in Indiana, McMillan is proving that he can win without a star player on the floor. Ever since Victor Oladipo went down with his devastating quad injury nearly one year ago, his team has continued to battle and perform very well. Today, the Pacers are once again in the mix for a top-four seed despite not having their star guard in the lineup.

The fact is: McMillan just continues to win with role players. The depth of his team is characterized and made possible by the system and the belief that he has in his guys. Several of their acquisitions this past summer have been paying off tremendously. Guys like Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday have been thriving together as a collective unit.

Having their borderline All-Star players like Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis surely helps, but these guys have missed time as well, leaving a large void for McMillan and his group. The continuity of Myles Turner and Aaron Holiday has proven to be beneficial though, as each one has stepped up in moments where they were needed. Indiana is already an extremely tough team to play, so just imagine how scary they will be when that roster is back at full strength.

Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors

So much for a championship hangover.

The Raptors may have lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, but they still have their head coach, who continues to impress in just his second season. Nick Nurse has proven himself on many occasions to be a fantastic in-game coach, making adjustments and incorporating different looks for the opposition. Better, in what was supposed to be a total rebuild year, has also played a major part in developing their young talent.

Pascal Siakam is obviously the big fish and, somehow, he has gotten better since winning the Most Improved Player award for last season. Fred VanVleet has made another giant step while Terence Davis and Chris Boucher have become household names in the arenas outside of Canada. Nurse has needed these guys to produce, as many of their leaders have gone down at some point this season — and they have.

Already, multiple big pieces have bounced in and out of the lineup this year from Siakam and VanVleet to the veterans like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. More or less, the younger players have delivered in their absence. Nurse has challenged OG Anunoby to take on the defensive stopper role with the departure of their Finals MVP from a year ago; while even Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has had his moments. Not many people thought the Raptors could win the title last season, and even fewer expected this team to thrive the way they have this year.

Still, here they are, thanks in large part to Nurse’s sustained efforts.

Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks

Now in his 12th season as head coach, Carlisle has made the Mavericks one of the biggest surprises this season. The much-anticipated on-court marriage of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t reached its true potential but unlucky injuries has slowed that down. While Doncic himself has been on an MVP level this season, the same cannot be said for their versatile big man. The good news is that when Doncic missed some time with his ankle injury, Porzingis did step up.

Thankfully, then, the role players have been quite nice for Dallas, each taking their turn in the spotlight. One game, it might be Tim Hardaway Jr. hitting nine three-pointers, then Seth Curry busting out for 25 points on another night. Carlisle has found a way to consistently incorporate their other young guards like Jalen Brunson and Delon Wright, which is not easy, given their other frequent ball handlers.

Having Doncic as the primary facilitator is a major boost — but, when he was out, it made things challenging for the team. But Carlisle found ways for guys like Dorian Finney-Smith and Justin Jackson to make an impact. His work in the frontcourt has been most impressive too, as both Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber have seen their numbers skyrocket. Often overlooked as one of the brightest minds in the game, Carlisle has his team in position to fight for a top-four spot in the loaded Western Conference.

Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder

There was supposed to be a rebuild in Oklahoma City after the franchise lost their two superstar players in Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Moreover, the Thunder were supposed to sell off their pieces and start with a clean slate. Quite the opposite has taken place with Donovan truly running the show in his fifth year with the franchise. The Thunder are above .500 right now and, best of all, currently in the playoffs.

The roster isn’t oozing with talent the way it has in the past, but there are some valuable key members that are producing outside of Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams are an excellent fit with Paul, unsurprisingly, and Dennis Schroder continues to impress as Donovan utilizes his crafty three-guard lineups. Out of nowhere, Donovan has also found some useful roles for Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley that have them rolling right now.

There have been a lot of eyes opened around the play of this team and what they have done. They have the best record of any team in the Western Conference in the month of December. It seems that people are finally waking up and realizing that there was more than just talented players on the roster. Donovan is proving that he is a great coach, and the team is embracing him as they continue to win basketball games.

While many coaches have surpassed their aforementioned goals and expectations given injuries, adjustments or roster moves, these are the four that have stood out heading into 2020. Whether they’re making shock moves in a stacked Western Conference or staying alive without their superstar leader, coaching has never been harder and McMillan, Nurse, Carlisle and Donovan are doing some fairly remarkable jobs thus far.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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