Basketball Insiders takes a look at some of the most underrated head coaches in the NBA:
Mike Budenholzer – Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks just barely squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed, but their play in the playoffs against the top-seeded Indiana Pacers has many thinking they can become the sixth No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed since the league expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984. Behind that charge is head coach Mike Budenholzer and the ability he’s shown to lead his team after a miserable year of injuries. Perhaps no injury was bigger than Al Horford’s torn pectoral muscle that has kept him off of the court since the end of December.
With Horford out of the picture, Budenholzer has been praised for his ability to develop players. Jeff Teague is a player who has benefitted from Budenholzer’s system and has been one of the leaders for the Hawks against the Pacers, averaging 19.8 points per game. DeMarre Carroll is another player who has seen a considerable jump in production, averaging six points per game last season to averaging 11.1 points per game this season and 10 points per game in the playoffs. Mike Scott is also having a great series for the Hawks against the Pacers, and even showed off his dunking abilities in Game 6. It’s clear that with Budenholzer in charge, the Hawks can be a team that plays great basketball and once Horford returns, can be even better.
Dwane Casey – Toronto Raptors
Dwane Casey has inspired the Toronto Raptors to play with an underdog mindset, and it seems to be working. Casey led the Raptors to the third-seed in the Eastern Conference and an evened up series against the Brooklyn Nets in which Toronto will have Game 7 on their floor. The Raptors improved from 34-48 last season to 48-34 this season with just a few tweaks to the roster.
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri recognized that Rudy Gay wasn’t the best fit for the Raptors and loaded Casey up with Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes. While the team is led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Vasquez and Patterson are providing effective production off of the bench.
Casey has the Raptors playing especially well in the playoffs given the team’s lack of experience. Casey told reporters earlier this week that while the team lacks experience, they make up for it with the amount of effort they put into each game. While it remains to be seen just how far the Raptors can go, the team is gaining the necessary experience that will only help them in years to come.
Steve Clifford – Charlotte Bobcats
Steve Clifford led the Bobcats to a 43-39 season while earning the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and a match up against the Miami HEAT in the first-round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Bobcats’ turnaround season was put to a screeching halt after being swept in four games. While many expected a similar result, Clifford is viewed by many as the guy that can change the attitude in Charlotte. A successful rebuild first needs an attitude change before getting into the X’s and O’s of the game. Clifford came into the Bobcats’ head coaching position as a first-time NBA head coach, but by being in organizations like the New York Knicks with Jeff Van Gundy, the Orlando Magic with Stan Van Gundy and the Los Angeles Lakers, Clifford is someone players can respect and buy into the type of atmosphere he is creating in Charlotte.
While the Bobcats’ offense is still a work in progress, their defense climbed into the top 10 in just one season. Last season the Bobcats’ defense ranked dead-last in the league in efficiency, while this season they have improved to the sixth-best efficiency rating. The defense has also gone from allowing 102.7 points per game last season to 97.3 this season, good for fifth-best. For a team wanting to change its identify among those in the league, Clifford surely has the Bobcats on the right track.
Jeff Hornacek – Phoenix Suns
Heading into the season with 10 new players on the team, nobody really expected the Suns to be a legitimate contender in the talented Western Conference. Hornacek and the Suns were supposed to only win about 20 games, but they defied all odds this season and turned in a 48-win season and narrowly missed the playoffs by just one game.
Part of what has made Hornacek a good fit for the Suns is that he evaluated the players on the team and designed a system that will best fit their styles of play. Hornacek also had the benefit of having young players like Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Miles Plumlee and Markieff and Marcus Morris lead his team.
Hornacek told Basketball Insiders recently that he has relied heavily on advice he got from former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan. “From Jerry, it’s just going out there and trying to play every play like it’s your last,” Hornacek said. “We’re constantly talking about that and we’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly on how to do that night in and night out and then get to every play.”
Given the Suns’ three first-round draft picks this year, the team will be set for the future with Hornacek at the helm.
Terry Stotts – Portland Trail Blazers
Stotts and the Trail Blazers have made a complete 180 from last season, when they won just 33 games. This season, the Trail Blazers picked up their 33rd win in their 44th game and had the NBA’s best record at 24-5 two months into the season. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are certainly two of the reasons why the Trail Blazers have had success this season. The team has also an impressive supporting cast made up of Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Mo Williams among others.
Stotts often has his offense running through Aldridge, which also gets the rest of the team looks as well. Stotts’ offense gives Aldridge the freedom to decide where he wants to attack, rather than just leave him in the post. Stotts made that approach so familiar during his time working under Rick Carlisle in Dallas with Dirk Nowitzki. Given the team’s success this season, the fact that they can close out the Houston Rockets tonight at home shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Which coach is the most underrated in the league? Leave a comment below.
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