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Ranking every NBA coach against Kevin McHale

29 Head Coaches: The definitive Dream Shake ranking of every NBA head coach compared to Kevin McHale.

To McHale or not to McHale?
To McHale or not to McHale?
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

This is an unabashed channeling of Bill Simmons. This article ranks 29 NBA head coaches with an arbitrary ranking system, applies some eye-test NBA analysis and makes a few obscure cultural references many readers won't follow, just like Simmons.

The List:

Ranking all current NBA head coaches by who is most suitable to be the coach of the Houston Rockets.

How It Works:

This is a ranking of current NBA head coaches by how they would do as coach of the current Houston Rockets team. Every coach on this list is being compared to Kevin McHale, who comes in fourth on the list. There's three coaches above McHale on the list meaning I would in a perfect world rather have them as head coach, while the 26 other guys are not suited for this Houston Rockets team. For example, Gregg Popovich (spoiler!) is one of the three coaches ranked higher than McHale. Steve Clifford is ranked below McHale.

This list is arbitrary and the skills of the head coach are not the sole variable. Factors include the ability to connect with superstars Dwight Howard and James Harden, the ability to accept run the system Daryl Morey has built and experience.


Mike Budenholzer has better coaching talent than Kevin McHale. If the two guys were handed the same standardized NBA head coach test right now in a high school classroom Budenholzer would probably do better.

But would you rather have Coach Bud at the helm of the Rockets over McHale? Nope.

Coaching IQ and test results aren't going to make you the three-time NBA champion and James Harden-Dwight Howard whisperer that McHale is. Being a smart coach doesn't bring with it the gravitas necessary to convince Josh Smith to come off the bench and refrain from taking long twos. As I wrote last week, Kevin McHale is a perfect fit for the Rockets because of the skills, experience and approach he brings to coaching.

In descending order, here's the definitive Dream Shake list of NBA coaches compared to Kevin McHale.

Dwight Howard is a Houston Rocket:

30. Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons -- Might as well put a Diet Pepsi vending machine on the sideline. No chance Van Gundy ever coaches a Dwight Howard team.

The Checklist:

Do you have a losing record with your current team? Check.
Do you have a career losing record? Check.
Do you always have difficulty connecting with your team's best players? Check.
Can we presume you've coached several teams with limited success and don't have "taking it to the next level" in your toolbox? Check.

29. Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards
28. Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
27. Byron Scott, Los Angeles Lakers

The Caretakers:

A variety of NBA experience between these three coaches. One common thread: Each of these coaches are writing their own will. These franchises are mired in dysfunction and there's no honest assessment of their true coaching skills.

Sample Will: I, Brett Brown, bequeath all-star talent and a recently acquired maximum free agent to whoever Sam Hinkie gives this team to when it is ready to compete in the NBA playoffs.

26. Derek Fisher, New York Knicks -- Could this have gone any worse so far?
25. Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers -- Coaching a team that's not trying to win doesn't count as experience.
24. Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets -- Yet to hear anyone suggest this coach with better players would produce a different result.

Putting the "in" in "inexperience":

The Houston Rockets are looking to build on a trip to the Western Conference Finals. The team needs an experienced head coach who knows the rigors of the NBA playoffs. If you're in your first season as an NBA head coach (or slowly dragging a bad team along in your second) there's a learning curve the team doesn't have time for.

23. Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
22. Fred Hoiberg, Chicago Bulls
21. Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz

It's not you it's me:

Things between Dwight Howard, James Harden and Kevin McHale are copacetic. That doesn't mean Howard and Harden don't have a touch of coach-killer in them. Much of McHale's respect is drawn from his willingness to be a player's coach and leave the playbook for his player-driven approach.

This set of coaches have been successful, but their demanding style and "I've done it before" attitude would sour any relationship with Howard and Harden nearly immediately.

20. George Karl, Sacramento Kings -- Did you get a new head coaching job and immediately alienate the franchise's all-star player creating an irreparable relationship? Yea. You did that. Could you imagine Karl joining the Rockets and immediately declaring "no candy and no facial hair"?
19. Lionel Hollins, New Jersey Nets -- Remember when two hall of fame players didn't want to play for you so they found their way off the team (Paul Pierce & Kevin Garnett)? Or the former all-stars who didn't show any level of motivation through an entire season while you were at the helm (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson & Brook Lopez)? All of this happened when you were the 'change of scenery' guy for both the team and yourself.  Also, didn't you get here after you took a middling NBA franchise to the next level against all expectations. But you built such a bad reputation with the front office and the players they forced you out (Memphis Grizzlies)? Yea. James Harden and Dwight Howard would really love playing for you.
18. Scott Skiles, Orlando Magic -- Are you known as an extremely demanding coach who's only lead slightly above average teams? Will half the Rockets team immediately think they're a better player than you ever were? Yes and yes.

Full disclosure: I love Tom Thibodeau. I think he's an outstanding coach who has always made the most out of his teams, but this is the category I'd drop him in. I can't think of a scenario where Coach Thibs and Dwight Howard are not at war in the first two months of their first season together.

Career Coaches:

We're going full Bill Simmons for this. Buckle in for a personal metaphor you can barely follow only a portion of readers will be able to identify with.

Ever pack up the car with your friends to go see an under-the-radar band play multiple shows in multiple cities? The Decemberists? Death Cab For Cutie? Modest Mouse? The type of band big enough to have a following, but one that you'll barely ever hear on the radio.

I bring it up, because this week I just learned Coheed and Cambria has a new album coming out. I've listened to this band for over a decade. I've seen them live more than 10 times. I know every word from the two albums they put out when I was in college. But, over time I've forgotten them.

There's zero chance I can name their last two albums. I can't tell you if the band still has the same members and I was astounded to learn they had a greatest hits CD.

I can tell you with certainty that the band peaked commercially several years ago and will never have a song on the radio again. That's exactly how I view a group of current NBA head coaches: these are the Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown and Don Nelson of the current NBA.

These guys are not bad coaches. But they're not the best coaches. They've taken the biggest risks of their careers already and are now going to try and ride one potentially transcendent player to a level of playoff success that's almost certainly capped at the second round. These guys are desperate to become Larry Brown.

For example: Anthony Davis appears poised to be the best player in the NBA after LeBron James. Could he win an NBA championship? Absolutely.

But... Which side of the following bet would you take with consequence of shaving off your eyebrows: When Davis hoists the Larry O'Brien trophy will Alvin Gentry be on the bench coaching? Or will Alvin Gentry be at home on the couch drinking a gin and tonic?

I'll take the latter.

17. Flip Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves -- When Andrew Wiggins wins an NBA title I predict Flip Saunders will be watching on his couch drinking a bourbon neat.
16. Alvin Gentry, New Orleans Pelicans -- When Anthony Davis wins an NBA title I predict Alvin Gentry will be watching on his couch drinking a gin and tonic.
15. Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers -- Damien Lillard is the least likely of these three to win a title... When Lillard makes the playoffs as the eight seed for the fifth consecutive year Stotts will be coaching the Charlotte Hornets and drinking Gatorade and vodka on the bench.

The Whisperer:

This one is simple. Being able to build a constructive relationship with DeMarcus Cousins might be more valuable than any head coaching aptitude.

14. Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets -- Malone hasn't won anything yet, but you can't fault him for the awful roster construction of an overeager owner. The league has praised his ability to build a constructive relationship with the most enigmatic and difficult All-Star in the league. Hell, DeMarcus Cousins is so difficult Omri Casspi just got two years and six million dollars for being friends with the dude. I'm giving Malone praise for his likely ability to do the same with Harden-Howard-Lawson.

David Blatt(s):

On Friday I wrote about how Kevin McHale is the perfect coach for the Rockets because he commands respect in the Rockets locker room and he probably gets a "World's Greatest Coach" t-shirt from his players on his birthday.

This group of coaches can be filed as legitimately good coaches. They don't incite revolt from their players, but they lack the gravitas to command the full attention of Dwight Howard and James Harden. They're most easily defined by this sentence: In middle of a season where the Cleveland Cavaliers made a run to the NBA Finals there was a public story line about LeBron James ignoring David Blatt.

Don't forget, Dwight Howard ended Stan Van Gundy's successful run with the Orlando Magic. And James Harden is now playing for more than a title. The beard has to balance his role as a "put the team on my back" MVP candidate with his role convincing you to stuff your face with scrambled eggs, bacon and cheese cradled in a waffle and drizzled with maple syrup.

13. Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns -- Hornacek straddles the line between raw NBA head coach and raw locker room presence. After two seasons we can still use the phrase "upside" to describe a man who has dealt with a churning roster and proven an ability to help above-replacement NBA players reach a near all-star level while instituting a system handed down by the front office. For the purposes of the Houston Rockets the leading knock against the Jazz veteran is his lack of experience coaching and managing a superstar.
12. David Blatt, Cleveland Cavaliers -- Blatt deserves praise and admiration for his personal fortitude. Over the course of the past season he received the bulk of public criticism for the Cavaliers missteps during a routine learning and growing process. Players will respect that grit. Cleveland against the world, right? Expectations were sky high and they were almost achieved. We still don't know Blatt's real abilities as an NBA head coach or if he can manage the superstars on his team. Hell, we don't even know if he's coaching the team.
11. David Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies -- Joerger seamlessly preserved the Memphis grit and grind mentality. He's proven to be a skilled tactician and to this point his fate has been attached to injuries and the unpredictability of Tony Allen. He's a quality coach who may be brought down in two seasons by the same ticking time bomb that dispatched Lionel Hollins after making the conference finals. The pressure is on. There's an aging core, high expectations and a hyper competitive Western Conference to deal with. The pressure could crack Joerger, the front office or the players. Have questions? Lionel Hollins can tell you about it.

Beauty In The Breakdown:

Quality in spades. Trust of their front office. Team-based approach. Specialized systems.

The knock on both coaches? The late season collapses.

Don't be the Eastern Conference coach at the 2016 NBA All-Star Game. Just don't do it. The chair has some late-season collapse contagion sitting on it. The last two guys to coach that team didn't just lose to LeBron in the conference finals, they suffered humiliating collapses of team chemistry that ended championship dreams before the playoffs even started.

2014: Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson -- There's going to be a 30 for 30 made about this team. Vogel watched from the sideline as off-the-court turmoil sunk a roster built almost entirely on team chemistry. It may have even ended the productive portion of Roy Hibbert's career.
2015: Four all-stars and a New York City bar fight -- A Swiss and a Macedonian basketball player walk up to a bar... In a Freaky Friday moment the bar fight seemingly sapped Kyle Korver of his superhuman three point shooting and brought DeMarre Carroll back to the mean. The team's cohesion slowly began to drain after the New York City incident.

10. Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks -- This might be a rash ranking... Coach Bud is clearly a Coach Pop student who runs a team based on slinging the ball around the court. Coach Bud's skills appear ready for any team. His downfall this season is the exact reason he can't coach the Houston Rockets, the team hit a rough skid they were unable to pull themselves out of it. The Hawks team struggling in the playoffs looked nothing like the team that once challenged for the best record in the league. At the end of the day this falls at the feet of Coach Bud.
9. Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers -- Vogel has a single losing season to his name. You'd never guess it after watching the ghost of an Indiana Pacers team that once challenged the Miami Heat.

Vogel deserves credit for verticality.
Vogel deserves credit for helping devise the pace and space wing defender.
Vogel deserves credit for clawing at a Miami Heat team that in retrospect seems underrated because the Western Conference was so good.
Vogel deserves the blame for a team that collapsed under the pressure of being the best team in the Eastern Conference for the first half of a season.
Vogel deserves blame for not being able to preserve team chemistry.
Vogel deserves the blame for the absolute collapse of an all-star center.

It's a give and take situation.

The Upside Guys:

This is the NBA. The "ceiling" of your skill is worth millions of dollars. For a decade high schoolers and foreign teenagers were given millions of dollars for being seven feet tall and walking a stage. Darius Miles left the NBA at the age of 27. By that point he made made $62 million based almost entirely on the player he could become, not the player he ever was.

The Rockets know what we're talking about. Just ask Mo Taylor, Kelvin Cato, Matt Maloney or Bob Sura.

Point being made, these coaches get and extra bump because of their potential. Neither has reached their ceiling as a head coach. They both lead up-and-coming franchises and the league will be on notice if and when they get their hands on a generational talent.

8. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics -- In a true Bill Simmons moment I overrated the Celtic. Brad Stevens has very little to work with. He's yet to have a player on his roster that could be considered a potential all-star at the start of the year. He made the playoffs last year and put a team on the court that didn't look incompetent despite being wildly outmatched by the Cavaliers. Stevens' season looked surprisingly like McHale's first season on the bench for the Rockets. Making the most with what he has and finding a level of relative success.

7. Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks -- Kidd gets the nod over Stevens because of his tenure in the NBA. Jason Kidd has the same chips Kevin McHale does: Won an NBA title. Lost in an NBA Finals. Legend. Played alongside and recognized players better than him. The Milwaukee Bucks last season proved the New Jersey Nets had rolled over the previous season and that Kidd has coaching chops. Kidd appears poised to have a long coaching career and if he doesn't find long-term success with the Bucks he'll be at the top of the list for the next best coaching position.

Coin Flip:

This is the break even point. At this point in the rankings I wouldn't rather have either of these coaches over Kevin McHale, but either would serve as ably as McHale if given this Houston Rockets team tomorrow.

They're both tacticians who make quality personnel swaps and keep up with the latest space and pace trends. They're both able to identify their deficiencies and find members of their staff to handle them. And most importantly they're both capable of handling superstars.

6. Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors -- The hot new guy. Kerr made the most of his years in front of a microphone and racking up NBA titles on the court. The game has changed from when he took the court with the Spurs but it clearly hasn't phased him. Letting go of Mark Jackson was a controversial decision that not a single person in the Bay Area remembers or cares about anymore. It's entirely possible, but not probable, that Kerr and the Warriors stumble next season. We'll get a better taste of Kerr's coaching acumen as the Warriors face stiffer competition after the best teams in the Western Conference got even better, but there's little chance Kerr isn't at the helm of this team with a winning record four years from today.

5. Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks -- Tried and true. Tested and proven. Carlisle's tenure as a successful coach has spanned thirteen seasons, three teams, many all-stars and several styles of play. If Frank Vogel or Mike Budenholzer had beaten LeBron we'd still be talking about it. Carlisle did it. Carlisle has been able to get the most out of all types of players: all-stars, former all-stars, grizzled veterans, young guns, role players and whatever we call DeShawn Stevenson. Each year the Dallas Mavericks come into the season looking like they're going to miss the playoffs and Carlisle engineers a playoff seed higher than they appear worthy of. DeAndre Jordan or not, Carlisle and Cuban are almost enough to make the playoffs on their own.

Kevin McHale

4. Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets -- I wrote a 1,000+ words on why Kevin McHale is the Houston Rockets coach last week.

The break even point: Quick break from the list. This is the point where Kevin McHale is surpassed. If the Houston Rockets could trade two second round picks for one of the remaining three coaches, I'd positively overreacted to the trade on Twitter. These are the best coaches in the NBA and they meet all the needs of the current Houston Rockets roster from NBA titles to superstar management.

The Top Three:

3. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat -- Spolestra deserves praise for the solving the most opulent problem in recent NBA history, having too much superstar talent. The scenario is a joke to even entertain: Spolestra was able to fit LeBron James, Dywane Wade and Chris Bosh on the court together and execute four consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

Spolestra never took LeBron for granted. He never underestimated the Bulls, Celtics, Pacers or Spurs (perhaps he did underestimate the Mavs) and he made the most out of role players foisted on him by budget constraints, Chris Andersen anyone? Spoelstra achieved his success by being a player's coach, outworking his opposing coaches and commanding respect based on his own coaching acumen and hard work.

2. Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers -- We're grading Doc the coach here, not Doc the general manager. If anything Doc the general manager is sandbagging Doc the head coach. Yes, Kevin McHale beat Doc Rivers in the playoffs this season. But not before Rivers went up big and forced a historic comeback from a Houston team reliant on tenacity and pluck. Rivers has commanded the respect of some of the NBA's most hard-nosed players (Garnett, Pierce and Paul) and served as a mentor for countless players young and old. Rockets fans don't like Doc because he's hot-headed and complains at every call. That's a fair complaint. Doc generally creates and atmosphere that allows Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Matt Barnes to act the way they do.

Doc is annoying, brash and irritating if you're facing him. If he's your team's coach he's miraculously steadfast, determined and motivating. You want him coaching your team the same way you want him to stop being so irritating to play against.

1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs -- Insert praise here.

Who did I overrate and underrate?