Blogtable: Best Sideline Tacticians

Point guard Tony Parker, left, with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich (by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

Point guard Tony Parker, left, with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich (by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.

Week 26: Coaching vacancies | Best sideline strategists | First-round impressions

Who are the best sideline tacticians in the playoffs?

Steve Aschburner: Let’s do this countdown style, for some semblance of suspense. My No. 3 is Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau because he’s the league’s consensus defensive genius and defense looms larger at playoff time. The adjustments against Brooklyn’s Big 3 Monday produced 2013’s first road playoff victory. At No. 2, I’ve got Miami’s Erik Spoelstra because, even with a star-studded lineup, no one works harder. The refinements in the Heat’s offense around LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are impressive. And my No. 1, based on which coach I’d want working my sideline for one game or one series, remains San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. You’d think he had Manute Bol arms for the number of tricks he always has up his sleeves. Game plans, late in games, out of timeouts, there’s no one consistently better.

Fran BlineburyGregg Popovich.  Watch the Spurs coming out any timeout.  Pop excels at drawing up plays in the huddle that just plain work.  And he’s transformed the core of a plodding, pound-it-inside power team into an up-tempo, highly efficient offense. Doc Rivers. He kept the Celtics thriving over the last two months of the season without a point guard, using all of his positions to start and run the offense at times.  Lionel Hollins.  The bite in that Grizzlies defense comes from the boss.  And he knows what he wants in games.  Down 91-89 with 21.6 seconds left in Game 2, he drew up play that got Marc Gasol wide open at the rim for a dunk.

Erik Spoelstra (by Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

Erik Spoelstra (by Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan: Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau just keeps coming up with more reasons to tab him No. 1. Just look at Game 2. He wanted to play Joakim Noah between 20-25 minutes and Thibodeau got absolutely everything he could out of Noah in 25:29. And adjustments with Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler limited Deron Williams to 1-for-9 shooting and eight points in 38 minutes. The Godfather of the group remains Gregg Popovich. Look, this guy only changed the entire identity of the Spurs to keep up with the rest of the league as his Big Three got older. And finally, give me Erik Spoelstra. He’s  managed to find the proper role for every player on the roster, and that includes the great LeBron James, whose position-less game has greatly expanded and flourished under Spo. Plus, look at all the games Miami won down the stretch when one, two or all three of the Big Three didn’t play. That’s coaching.

Scott Howard-Cooper: Gregg Popovich, George Karl, Tom Thibodeau. As if there was any doubt about the greatness of Pop, the move to the up-tempo game the last couple seasons shows he can make different systems work with the same roster core. It is impossible to overstate the difficulty of crossing that bridge.

John Schuhmann: No. 1: Gregg Popovich. You have to love the way that he’s opened up the Spurs’ offense over the last few years, how they’ve evolved from a post-up team to a pick-and-roll team, how he was one of the first coaches to embrace the corner three, and how he always seems to have something up his sleeve in late-game timeouts. Oh yeah, San Antonio ranked in the top three defensively in his first 11 full seasons on the bench and, after some adjustments to its approach, got back there this season. No. 2: Tom Thibodeau. He’s the architect of a couple of the best defensive teams of all-time, has basically changed the way most of the league defends now, and has managed to make this team with limited talent a group that no one wants to face in the postseason. No. 3: Erik Spoelstra. He’s made the most of the talent he’s been given by formulating an offense that spaces the floor and makes you pay for whatever defensive decision you happen to make and by formulating a defensive system that attacks the ball and utilizes his rosters’ length and athleticism.

Sekou Smith: From a purely tactical standpoint, it’s hard to go against the coaching holy trinity of Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau, three of the best coaches in the game in every facet of the job. But picking just three squeezes out the guy who has become what I would consider the ultimate tactician, and that’s Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Being a great tactician is not just about in-game moves. It’s about preparation for all things that could be encountered against a particular opponent. Pop showed in Game 1 against the Lakers that he’s going to search throughout his roster for the right mismatch (Matt Bonner) and exploit it every time. Doc has his work cut out for him heading into Game 3 of that series and is sure to come up with the right moves. Thibs showed us in Game 2 that he can always get his team to rebound from adversity, as the Brooklyn Nets found out. Spoelstra’s use of Chris “Birdman” Andersen as his team’s instant energy booster remains one of the most surprising tactical moves any coach has made this season. So I’m going with all four of these guys instead of just three.

Lang Whitaker: I think it starts with Pop. His system is so versatile and applicable to so many different situations, and he’s able to swap in and out different pieces with remarkably similar results. I also always enjoy watching Tom Thibdoeau do work. He’s got a roster of guys that had trouble finding work elsewhere (Nate Robinson, anyone?), but he has them defending and covering for each other’s weaknesses. And I have been continually impressed with Mike Woodson this season, especially on the offensive end. Having watched him in Atlanta forever, it seems like a completely different person in NYC, as the Knicks use a motion offense and share the ball. That triple screen they run Kidd off of is the stuff of a kid doodling in class.


  1. GPT Prize says:

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  2. Bob says:

    LOL, let Spo try and coach a team without at least two HOFers in their prime (including the golden child who is pampered by the NBA like nobody since MJ) and see how well he does. GMAFB.

  3. Doc. Pop, Karl. & Thibs-nuff said!!!

  4. Monjimboo says:

    What about Vinny Del Negro? I know cp3 is doing a lot with this team but the rotation throughout the season and playoffs? Man, the starting 5 in the Clippers play much fewer minutes than other teams even in close games. They have the most efficient bench and VDN has been very efficient in finding the right 5 guys to play

  5. Kamote says:

    I have to give mention to Adelman. Though he has survived loads of disappointments in his line-up in Houston and now TWolves (due to injuries), he still makes his team work hard every night. There are teams with better manpower doing worse. I just hope he’d coach next year and have that chance in having a complete line-up (not expecting Roy to be there, though).

    But yeah, Pop, Thibs and Doc are at the top. Pop finding time not to grind his big 3 and give ample opportunities to the young players. Thibs playing grit w/o their star player, and Doc still giving that swagger to a rather depleted line-up.

  6. Jeff says:

    None of those coaches even come close to Pop…sorry!

  7. Put a little more says:

    I really hate it when people have to put another person down when hes doing a nice job, you people need to start thinking first before posting here, i get that because of the talented roster team that the HEAT have SPO won’t get a appreciation for his coaching job even if MIAMI wins all of its game, but give the man his due its not easy to mesh superstars together, change there roles on the court and believe in a new system that will benefit the team and don’t even forget about managing the egos of known players doing all those work require lots of dedication and hardwork. Thats why he gets a vote as one the best coaches in the game today.

  8. aron says:

    Spo is a good coach. He’s guided the Heat in four regular seasons in winning percentage and won a championship last year in all his 4 years as the head man. He has successfully managed the superstar egos (he’s not a pushover like Brown who James casually shrugged away). The heat has beaten all of the NBA teams in the east and west this 2013 season so out goes the argument that they are playing in a weak conference.

    I don’t get the reason why anybody would disagree that he isn’t a good coach. Coach Pop gets best tactician this season but second goes in a two-way tie between Spo and Thibs.

  9. aron says:

    Spo is a good coach. He’s guided the Heat in four regular seasons in winning percentage and won a championship last year in all his 4 years as the head man. He has successfully managed the superstar egos (he’s not a pushover just like Brown who James casually shrugged away). The heat has beaten all of the NBA teams in the east and west this 2013 season so out goes the argument that they are playing in a weak conference.

    I don’t get the reason why anybody would disagree that he isn’t a good coach. Coach Pop gets best tactician this season but second goes in a two-way tie between Spo and Thibs.

  10. Wilson says:

    Never ever mention Pop and Spoelstra in the same sentence ever again pls!

    • glazed says:

      Pop, Thibs, Doc, then the rest. I agree with Wilson, please don’t mention Pop and Spoelstra in the same sentence.

  11. LebronKingOfNba says:

    if the gsw win the series against the den. i’d say george karl is for regular season only. when playoffs that adjustments are the most important in coaching, karl can’t handle this kind of coaching. no disrespect but he fast pace denver nuggets will be the reason that they might lose the series

  12. theholyspectator says:

    coach spo is the next great coach on the rise…coach pop has the rings to back it up but hes not gettin em anymore, coach tibs..hes good just doesnt have the talent to execute and show just how good he is…the rest are aight

  13. Scott Cason says:

    we have a saying in S’anton… “Team Is Everything”… it’s a code that Pop established and one that is is supported all the way up to Peter Holt, break the code and you be gone ….and Team won’t skip so much as a free throw…. Stephen Jackson can verify this. Sometimes Pop can be frustrating, but when you look at the, what, 20 years of consecutive playoff runs, his ability can’t be questioned for even a second. Players don’t make teams, they put up stats…Coaches makes teams

  14. BOXER says:

    Very good Players in the team make a very good coach

  15. BOXER says:

    SPO , few years as coach then won a championship , he’s very good tactician , and his w/out dominat center to cover defense and make a big score, still winning and limited other teams less than 100 pts.

  16. #loveplayoffbasketball says:

    I love that Pop is recognized as a great coach, and that he is able to achieve a standard without asking his older Future 1st Ballot Hall of Famer Duncan or NBA AllStar players Ginobili and Parker to play 40-48 minutes of the game. Poppovich took a harsh penalty this year when he rested his starting lineup and the NBA who sold the SPUR/HEAT matchup felt jipped. Pop reminds us that though the NBA wants to sell MEDIA attention and merchandise, Coaches are about Winning. Thibs is still suffering from the lose of rose who played 45+ mins a game till his body quit. Spolestra really? The Eastern Conference is hardly balanced as the west and since Miami has been a high seed entering the last several years the heat haven’t exactly played the cream of the crop….
    Doc Rivers is another great coach, whose managed his team through several transformations of the supporting cast and through multiple injuries to his starting lineup. Yes he too plays in the East but Boston has remained competitive with a roster that doesn’t strike fear into most teams

    1. Pop 2. Doc 3. Karl 4. Vinny Del Negro 5. marc Jackson (golden states playoff appearance as a contender due noted!

  17. Thunder, the, fudge, up! says:

    I say scotty brooks. I like his style. He’s a young coach, surrounded by young stars. In ten years, he will be a Doc rivers/Pop. Spoelstra has done well, but lets be honest… he won the lottery.

  18. herpdederp says:


    lol no

  19. Runamuk says:

    What, no love for Scotty Brooks? He’s had the Thunder progress in each Playoff’s series and works just as hard as Spoelstra (albeit in a different coaching style). I’m not saying he reigns over the coaches listed above but goddamn he deserves a mention!

  20. StevenSAS says:

    I’d give Lebron coach of the year before I’d give it to Spoelstra.. Pop, Karl and Doc for me, Thibs, Hollins, Scott, and Vinny and up there to name a few

  21. Mario Gaitan says:


  22. bunbury says:

    no question pop is the best. but i think doc rivers follows him. i think the doc outcoached the great phil jackson in the 2008 finals. if it wasn’t for garnett’s injury in 2009, the lakers and the celtics would’ve played 3 finals in a row. magic and bird couldn’t even do this in a decade dominated by their two teams.

  23. fg says:

    I agree, Spo is a terrible coach, and his timeout speeches are like training camp motivational mumbo-jumbo, plus Miami plays ugly basketball, efficient but ugly.

  24. heat_champs says:

    spo deserves the COY award.

  25. steppx says:

    what is this love fest for a 3rd rate coach like Spolestra? Pop is best, Karl second, thibs third and then Doc. After that there is a wide gap actually. Look at memphis with HOllins, who cant figure out a rational rotation post season (AGAIN). But pop is best….and karl……and thibs….watch those guys during a game……they make adjustments. You know who was worse than spolestra? Ty corbin.

    • alexTD21 says:

      come on steppx, coach Spo has earned all that he’s achieved, give him credit. It actually ain’t easy, having multiple stars on one team. (See how the Lakers are imploding, and how awful D’Antoni is handling it). I agree, that coach Pop is a genius. But Spo ain’t that far away from Doc, Thibs and the others. But this year’s coach of the year should be between coach Karl or Mark Jackson. By the way, I’m Spur for life. Just sayin’.

      • The Worm 91 says:

        but having 3 superstars is easier compared to having 1 superstar who is injured. Let Spo coach the current Bulls team lets where he could bring them.

    • The Wise says:

      you forgot mike woodson. seeing what he has done since taken over the knicks, you would have to put him at 5 before the gap in coaching. he has really been impressive and taken the team to where it needs to be.

    • JohnDoe says:

      you could throw Scott Brooks in before even thinking about Spoelstra. Other than that Popovich, Karl, Thibdoeau and Rivers are the only real coaches in the NBA right now.

    • T-Wolves! says:

      Spo is a great Coach. Lebron, D-Wade and Bosh are having the most effective seasons of their careers and all 3 are shooting over 50% for the Regular season. That doesn’t come from only great players; you need a great Coach too. Example: Kobe.

    • Thomas D Garza says:

      Yes, third rate indeed. It’s difficult to dispute Erik Spoelstra as a top tier coach when the Eastern Conference can only show for one championship contender: the Miami Heat. Until teams can expose the flaws of the Heat and the coaching deficiencies of Spoelstra, writers and broadcasters alike will continue to mistake him as an elite coach.

    • Aram says:

      Leave it to the experts, steppx – Make your mark and then you’ll be an expert. Their point of view values, yours – worthless.

    • Do you have any reasons, facts to back up your claims? You’re useless.