Don Nelson is the 14th Best Coach in NBA History

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 30: Head coach Don Nelson of the Golden State Warriors yells against the Memphis Grizzlies during an NBA game on March 30, 2009 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 15 coaches in NBA History

Total Seasons: 30

Total Championships: 0

Regular Season Record: 1335-1063

Regular Season Winning Percentage: .557

Playoff Record: 75-91

Playoff Winning Percentage: .452

 

Why he’s great: Arguably the greatest offensive coach of all time, Nelson coached parts of 31 NBA seasons and his offense finished among the top-5 in points per possession 13 times. He did it with players in Milwaukee you’ve never heard of and he did it with superstars in Dallas and Golden State, but the one thing those teams had in common was pace.

Along with Rick Adelman, Nelson was among the first coaches to embrace pace-and-space offenses. His Warrior teams finished in the top-10 for three point attempts every season he was there and often ended up much further, and he was largely responsible for developing an offense around the greatest shooting big man of all time, Dirk Nowitzki.

Though he never won a championship as a head coach, Nelson did orchestrate one of the greatest upsets in playoff history when his 2007 Warriors beat the 67-win Mavericks in the first round. Though his offense took center stage, Nelson’s strategy to use smaller defenders on Dirk Nowitzki unnerved Dallas, proving his versatility as a coach.

Timing proved to be Nelson’s greatest enemy, as his Mavericks managed to make the Finals the year after he left but did it largely by beating an Amar’e Stoudemire-less Phoenix team in the Western Conference Finals. Had he stuck around, he may have pushed Dallas over the top against Miami. In any case, he laid the groundwork for that finals team and even the 2011 version that won the championship.

 

Why he’s not higher: Nellie’s stubbornness proved to be his undoing on multiple occasions. Had he been willing to play Chris Webber at power forward instead of center he might have been able to keep him and build the sort of contender Webber eventually found in Sacramento. It’s also fair to wonder why Steve Nash improved so significantly after leaving Nelson for Phoenix. For whatever reason, many players who seemed logical fits in his system ended up thriving without him.

His lineup choices were also often rigid and too focused on star power and offense. Veteran Antoine Walker started all 82 games of the 2003-04 season for Nelson due to his reputation as a scorer, but he posted miserable .428/.269/.554 shooting splits and was among the worst defensive players in basketball. Had he been willing to play youngsters Marquis Daniels and Josh Howard more instead, the Mavericks may have finished higher than 26th in defensive efficiency.

That was Nellie’s fatal flaw. Though he wasn’t necessarily a bad defensive coach, he was so fixated on offense that he made decisions that ultimately caused more harm than good. Had he been more willing to try to coax scoring out of defensive players, his teams might have had more playoff success and he could have a championship ring.

Derrick Favors is the 42nd Best Player in Basketball

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Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 50 players in the NBA. To be clear, these are 50 best players for the 2016-17 season, regardless of team situation, past performance or future potential. If you’re trying to win a championship in 2016-17, these are the 50 players you’d want most. 

Why He’s Great: More than any other player in basketball, you know exactly what to expect out of Derrick Favors every night:

  • 16-20 points.
  • 8-10 rebounds.
  • B+ or better defense.
  • Brick wall screens.

Boom. It’s that simple. That’s what you’re getting. Favors scored in single digits only six times last season despite averaging only 16 points per game. That’s consistency at the highest level, though he’s still more than capable of carrying an offense for a game or two.

It’s nearly impossible to accurately measure Favors’ impact as a rim protector because he plays next to Rudy Gobert, but that in itself makes a point about the quality of his overall defense. He’s slowly becoming a switcher, learning the nuance of guarding smaller players in bits and pieces over the past year and a half. He’s above-average already and getting better. Should Utah decide to dedicate more of their defense to switching or blitzing, Favors is up to the task.

And then there’s his low-post game, underrated both narratively and statistically. Yes, Favors only scored 0.86 points per possession on post ups last season, but he did that through injuries and on a team with some of the worst spacing in basketball. Just think about it for a second. How is a defense going to treat Favors posting up when Gobert is on the floor? They’re just going to double Favors and ignore Rudy. Favors is a good passer but not good enough to make up for one of the worst offensive players in basketball. That he can generate any scoring at all under the circumstances is simply remarkable.

Why He’s Below No. 41 (J.J. Redick): Redick can play in any lineup. Favors might not be able to. He isn’t the dinosaur some make him out to be, but he has trouble with smaller bigs like Draymond Green and is likely the odd man out defensively against small lineups in general as he and Gobert simply aren’t good enough offensively to justify playing together.

He has some range on his jumper, and there have been whispers about him developing a corner-three, but until it actually happens he’s just always going to struggle to stay on the court late in modern NBA games. Bigs have done it before, but Paul Millsaps are rare. Favors is never going to be great at defending smaller players no matter how much better he gets and he’s likely never going to provide enough spacing to share the floor with Gobert. He’d simply be better off on another team, something that shouldn’t affect these rankings, but it’s hard to know how good he really is on a Utah team with such a cramped floor.

Plus, he committed a cardinal basketball sin last season. The Jazz were better with him off of the court. Utah had a +1.1 net rating with him on the floor and a +2.0 net rating without him. I can’t offer a good explanation for that, but it’s just very damning. You can’t make the top-40 without a real reason for your team playing better without you. Roster construction plays a part, but that still looks very bad.

What If the Nets Drafted Gary Payton?

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Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes. 

The rest of the league calls them crazy. How could the Nets possibly pass up a franchise center like Syracuse’s Derrick Coleman? But New Jersey simply fell in love with a person rather than a player. Maybe Gary Payton doesn’t have Coleman’s natural ability, but his tenacity, loyalty and heart make him a far more attractive Net. So with the No. 1 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, the Nets take Payton leaving Coleman for Seattle at No. 2.

Payton has a stellar rookie year, but the team still lacks talent around him. He plays a big chunk of his minutes next to another short point guard, Mookie Blaylock, as the team doesn’t have a suitable shooting guard, and while the pair plays great defense it is too young to make the Nets competitive. A trade is explored with Portland for their young shooting guard, Drazen Petrovic, but ultimately the Nets decide to save their assets to find a big man to pair with Payton down the line.

Their search doesn’t take particularly long. While the rest of the league fawns of high-flyers Larry Johnson and Kenny Anderson in the 1991 NBA Draft, the Nets key in on Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo right from the start and waste no time in grabbing him with the No. 4 pick. With Payton and Mutombo in place, the Nets finally feel as though they have the core of a future champion.

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They’re too young to reach those heights in the early 90’s. The NBA belongs to Michael Jordan’s Bulls through 1993, but a window is pushed open when Jordan retires surprisingly before the 1993-94 season. The Nets take advantage. They win 59 games in the regular season and take down the favored crosstown Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to Mutombo’s lockdown defense on Patrick Ewing. Dikembe is just as effective against Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Nets win arguably the most surprising championship in league history.

They repeat a year later, even with Jordan rejoining the Bulls late in the season. Houston adds Clyde Drexler to prepare for another run to the Finals, but Payton absolutely smothers him when the teams meet in a rematch. The Nets become two-time champions, but never win another title. To many casual fans, they were simply the beneficiaries of Jordan’s absence and their titles deserve something of an asterisk.

But the Payton-Mutombo years reinvigorate New Jersey’s interest in basketball. Fans pack the arena, TV ratings skyrocket, and while some talk surfaces about moving the team to Brooklyn late in Payton’s career fan support is ultimately too strong in New Jersey to make such a move. In fact, many argue that Payton is the greatest player in the history of the New York area, and as the Knicks spend most of the post-Ewing era out of the playoffs the Nets remain and stake their claim as New York’s favorite basketball team.

Steven Adams is the 43rd Best Player in Basketball

Adams 50

Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 50 players in the NBA. To be clear, these are 50 best players for the 2016-17 season, regardless of team situation, past performance or future potential. If you’re trying to win a championship in 2016-17, these are the 50 players you’d want most. 

Why He’s Great: How valuable is Steven Adams’ rebounding? Well let’s see. The average team received around 23.8% of their own offensive rebounds, per Nylon Calculus. Adams was worth 12.5% last season… by himself. The average qualifying center, per ESPN’s Hollinger numbers, gets around 9.9%. The Thunder scored 1.1 points per possession last season, and Adams’ rebounding gave them 2.6 more touches per 100 possessions. That’s 2.86 free points per 100 possessions Adams generates on the offensive boards… and it’s not even the most important thing he brings to the table!

That would his defense, and holy mackerel does Adams defense. Opposing shooters made shot 5.2% worse from the field against Adams than they did against a league-average defender, a number that’s impressive on its face but even more so when you think about Oklahoma City’s scheme. Adams was, more often than not, the big caught in opposing pick-and-rolls, forced to switch onto guards. Serge Ibaka got the cushier general rim-protection gig while Adams was jumping out onto the perimeter. As we saw in the playoffs, he does that very well.

Oklahoma City’s defense flat out died when Adams sat, with their defensive rating dropping from 99 points per 100 with him to over 107 without him. For all the credit Ibaka gets, Adams was really the linchpin of the Thunder defense that nearly toppled Golden State.

And hey, he’s turned himself into an effective roller! The Thunder scored an excellent 1.12 points per possession on Adams pick-and-rolls, obviously due more to Russell Westbrook, but the big man still has to do his job. Adams has found ways to generate value on offense where none previously existed, making himself far more playable late in games.

Why He’s Below No. 42 (Derrick Favors): Think of Favors as a slightly better version of Adams who can score on his own. They rebound similarly for their positions (Favors grabs 10% of offensive rebounds, but is also a power forward). He’s a little bit quicker on defense and his rolls are largely as effective as Adams’. Combine that with Favors’ low-post scoring and Adams is just a hair worse.

It’s not even that Adams is bad in the low post. The Thunder just don’t use him there. He’s more valuable as a screener offensively, so the Thunder move him around to facilitate other players. That’s fine, but there’s a cap on how important any offensive player can be when they aren’t scoring. Favors isn’t subject to it. In fact, the Jazz dump the ball into Favors and tell him to score four or five times every game.

Avery Bradley is the 44th Best Player in Basketball

Avery 50

Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 50 players in the NBA. To be clear, these are 50 best players for the 2016-17 season, regardless of team situation, past performance or future potential. If you’re trying to win a championship in 2016-17, these are the 50 players you’d want most. 

Why He’s Great: You know about the defense. Avery Bradley is going to be the next Tony Allen in that he’ll never let you forget that he’s First Team All Defense. Make your peace with that, it’s going to be our next five years as basketball fans. He’s that good. But let’s talk about Bradley’s offense.

Avery Bradley attempted five three-pointers as a rookie. He was Tony Allen on offense. Downright useless. And then things started to turn.

Bradley worked himself into a consistent 35-36% shooter on a high volume of three-pointers. Boston scored 1.07 points per possession on his spot ups last season, well above average for any player or possession. He’s a willing cutter who’s always in the right position, and his passing as an off-guard is a legitimate asset especially on a team with a shoot-first point guard in Isaiah Thomas. Bradley could’ve easily made a living in the NBA off of his defense alone, but over the past few years, he’s become an above-average offensive player in his own right.

In a league desperate for D-AND-three players, that’s an absolute boon for the Celtics. Bradley is now legitimately good enough to be the centerpiece of a Kevin Love trade. He’s one of the rarest breeds of small NBA guards: a complete two-way player. Nobody at his height should be this good on both ends of the floor, but Bradley is, and that makes him legitimately one of the 50 best players in basketball.

Why He’s Below No. 43 (Steven Adams): Different strokes for different folks. Centers who can do what Adams does are slightly rarer than guards who can do what Bradley does. The two could be flipped depending on personal preference, but you could create Bradley in the aggregate with two wings on the right team. You can’t do that with Adams.

And hey, Bradley has flaws on both ends of the court. Bigger guards can post him up, he is only 6’2” but is forced to cover bigger guards because he shares a backcourt with Thomas. He’s also not a great dribbler, he has to be on the court with a ball-handler for his value to be maximized.

These are all minimal issues, but they add up with a low-ceiling player like Bradley. He’s never going to explode and give you 50 points to carry your team to a win on his own. Case in point: he has scored 30 or more points in only two NBA games. He’s played six seasons.

John Kundla is the 15th Best Coach in NBA History

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Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 15 coaches in NBA history. 

Total Seasons: 11

Total Championships: 5

Regular Season Record: 423-302

Regular Season Winning Percentage: .583

Playoff Record: 60-35

Playoff Winning Percentage: .632

 

Why he’s great: To most basketball fans, the NBA began with Russell and Auerbach, with 11 championships in 13 years, with Celtic green and only Celtic green. But before the NBA’s first dynasty was… the NBA’s first dynasty. Kundla led the Minneapolis Lakers to the NBA’s first championship and four of it’s first five. Toss in a BAA championship in 1949 and Kundla has as many rings as any coach besides Phil Jackson and Auerbach.

Those Laker teams are known for George Mikan, but Kundla’s development of other players like Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen and Clyde Lovellette was largely what made the dynasty possible. Kundla not only managed to turn those players into stars, but also kept them engaged and focused on winning. He was beloved by his players and his teams were unselfish nearly to a fault.

Were it not for Kundla and Mikan’s dynasty the NBA may never have made it as a professional sports league. Basketball had never had a true marquee team, and the Lakers gave it one. Kundla may not be known to the masses, but without him professional basketball as we know it likely wouldn’t exist.

 

Why he isn’t higher: George Mikan was so far ahead of every other player at the time that it’s fair to wonder if he would’ve won those championships no matter who was coaching him. Though small by today’s standards, the 6’10’’ Mikan towered over every other player in the NBA and unlike Wilt Chamberlain, he had no Bill Russell to oppose him.

Kundla also brings to question what exactly this list measures. By raw accomplishment, he may be a top-five coach of all time. But stick him in the modern NBA and he’d like be lost. So No. 13 feels like splitting the difference. He probably isn’t 13th on a list of coaches you’d want for your team, but it would be unfair to leave him off entirely considering how greatly he lapped the field in his day.

Sadly, we could have more information on Kundla adjusting to a changed league had he stuck around, but he left the NBA permanently at only 43-years-old. Had he stayed in the league as long as most coaches, he might have eight or nine championships and be much higher on this list.

Jabari Parker is the 45th Best Player in Basketball

Jabari 50

Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 50 players in the NBA. To be clear, these are 50 best players for the 2016-17 season, regardless of team situation, past performance or future potential. If you’re trying to win a championship in 2016-17, these are the 50 players you’d want most. 

Why He’s Great: Here are Jabari’s stat lines for each 20 game stretch of Milwaukee’s season:

  • Games 1-20: 9.5 PPG/3.8 RPG/0.9 APG, .474 FG%/.000 3FG%/.893 FT%
  • Games 21-40: 12.1 PPG/4.7 RPG/1.5 APG, .468 FG%/.000 3FG%/.745 FT%
  • Games 41-60: 15.2 PPG/6.4 RPG/2.3 APG, .535 FG%/.200 3FG%/.750 FT%
  • Games 61-82: 17.8 PPG/5.5 RPG/2.0 APG, .485 FG%/.320 3FG%/.753 FT%

So let’s see, we’ve got a former No. 2 overall pick in a functional rookie year improving his scoring by at least two points per game every quarter of the season without sacrificing efficiency. He’s slowly adding a three-pointer as the season goes on, his rebounding and assist totals steadily improve as well, and a year after tearing his ACL he plays in 76 games. This player is only 21-years-old.

In other words, coaches lock up your forwards, Jabari Parker is coming to town.

As Parker learns to pass, he’s going to become one of the best scorers in basketball. Those assist totals are far more relevant than they appear, if Parker turns into at least an above-average passer he’s going to be better than Carmelo Anthony ever was. Defenses have to devote so much attention to him and Milwaukee’s cutters are so athletic that a selfless Parker is going to lead to plenty of open layups. The fact that his totals kept improving last summer indicates that he’s getting a lot closer to that level than he should be at this point in his young career.

Why He’s Below No. 44 (Avery Bradley): Jabari Parker is the most flawed player on this list. He can’t play defense and even if his three-point shot is improving it’s never going to be a major feature in his game. Bradley can do everything Parker can’t and a lot of what we he can, even if his ceiling isn’t as high.

He has a scary injury history and plays on a team that uses positions as a suggestion rather than a rule. That’s fine when it comes to winning basketball games, but without clearly defined roles Parker’s development is not going to move as smoothly as it could’ve.

And one season does not a trend make. Sure, Parker played 76 games last year, but his conditioning is far from perfect and he has a torn ACL on his resume. That doesn’t mean he’s going to miss games, but he’s also not someone who can play 36-38 minutes every night. He’s going to hang closer to 30, and as much playing time as that is, it’s 15-20% less than other top players and his value goes down accordingly.