Checking In On NBA’s New Head Coaches

The NBA’s head coaching carousel was in full swing earlier this year, with a third of the NBA’s teams hiring coaches to run the show. Ten teams named new head coaches, while an 11th club – the Suns – removed the interim tag on Earl Watson, making him the full-time coach in Phoenix. We’re now nearly a quarter of the way through the 2016/17 season, so it’s worth checking in to see how those new head coaches are faring.

Of course, when we’re evaluating the performances of the NBA’s new coaches to date, we have to take into account what the expectations were for his team heading into the season. For instance, the Pacers are currently a half-game ahead of the Lakers, but Los Angeles was expected to be a lottery team, while Indiana was viewed as a threat for a top-four seed in the East. As such, Luke Walton has had a more impressive start for the Lakers than Nate McMillan has for the Pacers.

Above .500:

Mike D’Antoni, Rockets: 11-7 (.611)
David Fizdale, Grizzlies: 11-7 (.611)

Only two of 10 new head coaches have their teams above .500 in the early going this year, which perhaps isn’t a huge surprise. Most teams don’t replace their head coaches after successful seasons, so the majority of those new coaches were taking over sub-.500 clubs and shouldn’t necessarily be expected to turn things around immediately.

Fizdale and D’Antoni were hired by playoff teams, putting them in a better position to succeed, but it’s not like the Grizzlies and Rockets were juggernauts last season — they squeaked into the postseason by earning the seventh and eighth seeds in the West, and were quickly dispatched. So far this season, both men have their teams looking good. D’Antoni, in particular, has done excellent work with James Harden in Houston, helping to turn him into the league leader in assists without sacrificing his scoring.

In Memphis, Fizdale has done well to keep the Grizzlies well above .500 so far despite injuries to Chandler Parsons, James Ennis, and Brandan Wright, but the latest blow – a back injury to point guard Mike Conley – could be a major setback for the team. With a challenging schedule on tap over the next six weeks, Fizdale will face one of his first significant challenges during Conley’s absence.

Holding their own:

Luke Walton, Lakers: 9-10 (.474)
Kenny Atkinson, Nets: 5-12 (.294)

Luke Walton has been of the NBA’s most impressive head coaches so far, new or old. The Lakers, who won 17 games a year ago, are already more than halfway to that total, and look like they’re capable of battling for a playoff berth this season. While the team hasn’t looked great defensively, Walton’s experience as an assistant and interim head coach for the Warriors is clearly paying off so far for the Lakers, who even handed Walton’s old team one of its only two losses.

Over in the East, many observers had penciled in Kenny Atkinson‘s Nets as the NBA’s worst team before the season began. It’s still possible Brooklyn will end up with the league’s worst record, but Atkinson has the club playing hard and putting pressure on much more talented teams. The Nets’ double-overtime win over the Clippers on Tuesday night was the team’s most impressive showing of the season so far.

Underachieving in the East:

Nate McMillan, Pacers: 9-9 (.500)
Jeff Hornacek, Knicks: 8-9 (.471)
Frank Vogel, Magic: 7-11 (.389)
Scott Brooks, Wizards: 6-10 (.375)

The definition of “underachieving” is debatable for some of these four coaches, since expectations weren’t sky-high for some of them. The Knicks, for instance, were projected by Vegas sports books to win about 38 or 39 games, so their 8-9 record is right about where you’d expect them to be. Still, all four of these clubs entered the season with playoff aspirations, so their performances so far have been at least a little disappointing.

In Jeff Hornacek‘s case, it’s hard to evaluate his performance so far without knowing exactly how much influence Knicks president Phil Jackson is exerting. A report earlier this season suggested Jackson was displeased with the club’s offense, and it’s worth noting that it was Jackson who signed Joakim Noah to a lucrative four-year contract that already looks ill-advised. If Hornacek is allowed full control over system and lineup decisions, I expect him to do well with the Knicks.

Questionable offseason decisions could also play a part in the early struggles in Orlando and Washington. The Magic’s moves to land both Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo raised some eyebrows, and so far Frank Vogel has been unable to effectively juggle all the parts, despite making some major lineup changes. For the Wizards, top offseason signee Ian Mahinmi has appeared in only one game so far, limiting Scott Brooks‘ options.

The Pacers are perhaps the most perplexing case here. Nate McMillan has been labeled a defensive coach, but his arrival in Indiana coincided with the team leaning toward offense, acquiring players like Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson, and Thaddeus Young over the summer. So far, McMillan hasn’t been able to take advantage of those new pieces — Indiana ranks as a bottom-10 NBA team in offensive efficiency.

Underachieving in the West:

Dave Joerger, Kings: 7-11 (.389)
Tom Thibodeau, Timberwolves: 5-12 (.294)

Again, you could make the case here that Dave Joerger and Tom Thibodeau haven’t underachieved with their rosters so far, since neither the Kings nor the Timberwolves was considered a consensus top-eight team in the West heading into the season. But the playoffs are a goal for both franchises, and the results so far haven’t quite been what they’d hoped.

For Joerger, the Kings’ mix of veterans and young players has presented some interesting challenges for his lineup construction, and his choices so far have been somewhat surprising. Guys like Ben McLemore, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Omri Casspi have seen their minutes reduced as Joerger leans on DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, and veteran offseason additions like Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, and Matt Barnes. If Joerger’s approach isn’t fruitful, he may have some different combinations of players to work with by February or March, since the Kings’ roster is rife with trade candidates.

Meanwhile, expectations for the Timberwolves may have been a little too high entering the season, but the team has also had a little bad luck in the early going — Minnesota’s first three losses came by four points or less. Thibodeau’s track record suggests he’s capable of turning things around, but it’s possible the Wolves are still a year or two away from becoming a real contender.

What do you think? Which of the NBA’s new head coaches have impressed you? Which ones have you been underwhelmed by so far? Jump into the comments section below to let us know!

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3 thoughts on “Checking In On NBA’s New Head Coaches

  1. DarkGhost

    I really like the job Walton and Watson have done with there teams. Walton moving past the Kobe era and Watson blending sucks young players and the older veterans and nurturing Booker to become the star he can be.

  2. Yankees1991

    As long as Phil Jackson is in NY, no head coach will enjoy success. Unless the triangle offense is being run by players with the names Jordan or Bryant it’s not going to work. The Knicks are a pick and roll team. Unless Hornaceck is allowed to actually coach this team, I do not see the Knicks improving moving forward. I can’t entirely fault Hornaceck for the Knicks middling start. All things considered, I think he’s done a good job.


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