Being a coach is a tough job, but without it, no team could ever reach the heights of glory. Sometimes, the coach can be overlooked and so, in no particular order, here are 10 of the most underrated basketball coaches.
As a player, Kevin McHale was a one-team guy, staying with the Boston Celtics from his career’s start in 1980 to its end in 1993. When he moved into coaching in 2005 it was with the Minnesota Timberwolves first, and then the Houston Rockets from 2011 to 2015. McHale did benefit from some great players at the Rockets, but juggling competing egos from talented stars and stopping alpha athletes from butting heads can be quite the challenge. McHale accomplished this with aplomb and in 2015 took the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals.
Often, coaches outside the NBA are underrated by basketball fans who prefer the major league, but this would be a huge mistake when it comes to the likes of Dana Altman. He’s been coaching for over four decades and is still at it with the Oregon Ducks. It was under Altman’s guiding hand that players such as Dillon Brooks and Joe Young learnt their trade, and he once achieved a 46-game winning streak. How much longer his career goes on is hard to say, as he’s been at it for nearly half a century and recently fellow veteran coach Tim Jankovich called it a day and retired. When Altman does finally leave coaching, he will have one of the most formidable legacies in college basketball history.
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Brett Brown coached the Philadelphia 76ers from 2013 to 2020, leaving behind the San Antonio Spurs for a guaranteed contract of four years. Philadelphia was very much in the doldrums and trying their best to rebuild (as evidenced by how young the team was, topping the NBA chart in terms of youth). Things did not start well, with a 26 game losing streak in 2013-14, but Brown showed his mettle sufficiently to earn himself a contract extension. During his time with the 76ers, he helped to develop players like Michael Carter-Williams, named Rookie of the Year in 2014. Brown did end up being fired after his team was swept in the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, but considering where they were when he joined them, being in the playoffs at all was an achievement.
Formerly a player for the Lakers and Cavaliers, Walton’s later time with basketball came as head coach of first the University of Memphis (2011), and then the Warriors, Lakers, and Kings. In 2014-15, Walton became assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors and later became interim head coach when Steve Kerr took a rehabilitative absence. Walton did such a good job as the stand-in that he got the nod as permanent head coach at the Los Angeles Lakers. While he did oversee improvements each season these were deemed too slow and he parted ways with the team in 2019.
Dave Joerger did wonders for the Memphis Grizzlies as defense specialist, turning around a team that had been 24th in defense in 2010 and making them the 2nd best in 2013. When head coach Lionel Hollins was let go, Joerger got promoted to the top job for the 2013-14 season. During his debut, he was named Western Conference Coach of the Month in January and April. Yet in 2016 he was fired, and swiftly signed up with the Sacramento Kings. In 2019 Joerger coached the Kings to their best result since 2005-6, but the absence of a playoff appearance meant he was tossed overboard.
Erik Spoelstra has spent his entire time as head coach with the Miami Heat, from 2008 until the time of writing. Confidence in him was expressed by the fact he was the chosen successor of the great Pat Riley when he stood down as head coach. Spoelstra became the first Asian-American head coach in the NBA, and when it came to results he did not disappoint, taking the Heat to the playoffs in his first season. This is especially impressive considering they had the league’s worst record the previous season. After losing the support of the now legendary LeBron James it was decided to ask Pat Riley (in 2011) if he wanted to return as head coach. But Riley stayed loyal and kept his trust with Spoelstra, supporting him for the position instead of taking it himself. And his judgement proved wise, as Spoelstra led the Heat to win the NBA Championship in 2012, repeating the feat in 2013. The Heat has since appeared in the Finals, losing out to the Lakers in 2020.
When he was playing, Kenny Atkinson spent time with more than a dozen teams around the world, but when he became a coach his only time as head coach rather than assistant was 2016-20 with the Brooklyn Nets. Atkinson had a substantial mountain to climb when he arrived at the Nets, and much of their improvement is down to him helping both experienced and younger players to develop further. His first season saw a 20–62 record, but by his third year in charge this had become a 42–40 record and a spot in the playoffs. In 2020, Atkinson stepped down as head coach, leaving the Nets in much better shape than he found them.
Moving from NBA to college basketball, Roy Williams is a great coach who may be under the radar for basketball fans who focus exclusively on the major league. He coached teams including the North Carolina Tar Heels from 2003-21 and during his more than four decades of coaching won three NCAA championship titles. Even though it was in his latter years, Williams achieved the last of these triumphs in 2017 with the Tar Heels. He also had a pretty sharp eye for talent and made certain in 1981 his team signed up a young man who went by the name of Michael Jordan. Williams retired in 2021 with no fewer than 903 career victories.
As an assistant, Mike Malone worked for many a sides, including the Knicks, Hornets, and Warriors, before becoming the coach of the Sacramento Kings in 2013, (and then the Denver Nuggets up to the present day). The firing of Malone by the Kings was somewhat surprising and in 2015 he moved to the Nuggets. Malone helped to sharpen up individual players, particularly Jokic and Barton, and the Nuggets have undoubtedly been on an upward trajectory since his arrival including a first playoff appearance in years (in 2019).
When you’ve been around for a long time, it can be easy for people to forget your achievements. Tom Thibodeau’s coaching career (as an assistant) began way back in 1981 for Salem State, and, at the time of writing, he’s still the coach of the New York Knicks. During his career, Thibodeau was associate head coach of the Boston Celtics when they won the 2008 NBA Finals and was named Coach of the Year in both 2011 (when he was with the Chicago Bulls) and 2021 when with the New York Knicks. But it’s not so long ago that his star seemed to be dimming. In 2015, the Bulls let him go after some losses. And despite guiding the Timberwolves to their first playoff in 14 years, Thibodeau was let go after just a few years. The Knicks decided to give him a shot, and it proved wise as he coached them to their first playoff in eight years and got himself named Coach of the Year. It may be that the Bulls and Timberwolves underestimated the coach they had.
And that wraps up our little list of underrated coaches in the NBA and college basketball. While many coaches do get the credit they deserve, sometimes hard work can get overlooked in favor of flash types who are better at PR than actually being competent.