Nets Yearbook: Ranking the Coaches

Don't worry Kiki... if I was grading coaches based on most stylish shirt and blazer combos, you'd be #1.

I figured I’d change up the Nets Yearbook format a little bit this week and try and generate a post that’s geared more towards creating some debate for our readers. Plus, considering how the lockout is likely to last a very long time, I’m going to have vary my posts in order to give you an effective look back at least once a week! I don’t want to run out of specific seasons to talk about which very well may happen if I write about one season every week.

So today I want to talk a bit about Nets coaches, especially since last week’s entry introduced perhaps one of the worst coaches of all-time, Butch Beard. And since nothing inspires debate more than an arbitrarily ordered list, I thought I’d rank the Nets coaches from worst to best during the timeframe where I’ve been a fan (1992-93 to present). The criteria for this list are simple. There is no criteria. This is purely my opnion and my opinion alone and you’re welcome to argue with me in the comments section.

So let’s start with the worst:

Butch Beard – As I mentioned last week, Beard was an abomination with the Nets. A guy with no experience coaching NBA players, being handed a roster full of prima donnas and combustible personalities like Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson, Chris Morris, Benoit Benjamin, etc. Even role players and 12th guys on the bench like Rex Walters were speaking their minds and launching verbal attacks on other players through the press under Beard’s watch. While there are a lot of Xs and Os and roster management involved in being an NBA coach, Beard failed at what may be the most important element of all – controlling his players. The Nets were a 47-win team with a boatload of young talent on their roster the season before Beard took over. The Beard era is marked by a downward spiral that really didn’t right itself until the early 2000s, two coaching regimes later.

Kiki Vandeweghe – I pause to even consider Kiki a coach. Taking over for Lawrence Frank after he was fired after 17 games during the 2009-10 season, Kiki’s coaching style was the equivalent of giving a bunch of high schoolers a basketball and asking them to run their own plays and sets. In his defense, Kiki was an accidental coach – forced to come down from the front office to take the reigns due to the budget-conscious owner, Bruce Ratner and perhaps a rumored personality clash with team president Rod Thorn. Kiki was able to get a horrendous roster of players to win enough games so they wouldn’t be dubbed the “worst of all time” but he loses points for trying to orchestrate his return to the front office by promising Del Harris the head coaching gig in 2010-11 and then backing away from the offer after Thorn found out and wouldn’t go along with it. For what it’s worth, I could not see Del trying to coach that roster that season or last season as well.

Don Casey – It’s hard to beat up too much on an interim coach who took over a mess of a roster due to the firing of John Calipari, but during the strike-shortened 1999 season, Casey never did anything to define himself as a worthwhile head coach once he took over more than 20 games into the season. I couldn’t tell you much about his coaching ability during the 1999-2000 season, since the team was so disappointing, I ultimately checked out on the Nets until they landed the #1 draft pick that summer and grabbed Kenyon Martin. However, it’s worth noting the bulk of Casey’s Nets coaching career is marked by the Stephon Marbury era. While Starbury put up all-star statistics, he did nothing to make his teammates better, and Casey was never able to get Marbury and Keith Van Horn on the same page.

John Calipari – I always get a chill when I hear an NBA team is looking at John Calipari. Cal is the quintessential college coach – a demonstrative personality who needs total control over his players in order to thrive. At a Memphis or Kentucky, that works just fine because if Cal and his college kids don’t get along, they can just enter the NBA draft or be scarlet lettered as not “buying into the program” and be buried on the back of the bench. However, in the NBA, players can’t be dismissed by their coach so easily. Like Beard, Cal failed in managing the personalities of his roster. But whereas Beard tried the best he could to keep his conflicts with players behind close doors, Cal was very candid about those who wouldn’t buy in to his coaching technique (Jayson Williams). Cal gets points for guiding a Nets team without a superstar to the playoffs in 1998,  butthe team fell on its face during the first part of the 1999 season and as the pressure started to mount, Calipari’s worst personality traits surfaced, even calling a reporter a racial slur for something that was written about him. The end of the Calipari-era created a chaotic, circus atmosphere around the organization, adding to the perception that the Nets are a perpetual embarrassment.

Avery Johnson – The jury is still out on Avery and it’s hard to celebrate a coach too much who only won 24 games in his first season with the team, but there was a sense of stability that came back to the Nets organization with Johnson as the coach, plus Mikhail Prokhorov reportedly loves him, which goes a long way towards his job security. Avery’s insistence on doling out playing time to “good guys” rather than good players could be infuriating, but it’s also not his fault that Travis Outlaw might have had one of the worst seasons for a player getting 30+ minutes a game in NBA history. And while I like to make fun of guys like Stephen Graham and Johan Petro, it’s not like they got major minutes until the roster was decimated by injuries at the end of the season. Then again, Avery reportedly had a hand in bringing all these guys into the organization in the first place. So we’ll see where he ultimately falls on the list in another year or two.

Lawrence Frank – My heart sank when I heard the Nets had fired Byron Scott midway through the 2003-04 season after back-to-back Finals appearances and went with a total unknown in Frank as the interim coach. Then of course the team rattles 14 wins in a row, giving Frank the best start to a coaching career in NBA history. Frank, interestingly enough is also the longest-tenured coach on this list. An incredibly nice guy and a good defensive schemer, he also drove some fans and analysts crazy (Hi Sebastian Pruiti) with his roster rotations and a lack of imagination on the offensive side of the ball. Still, the team made the playoffs four consecutive years under Frank, and considering the roster of rookies and misfits he had to manage in 2009, it’s difficult to blame him for the worst ever start to a NBA season that year.

Byron Scott – This is probably where I really get some pushback from readers as I did not rank the only coach to bring the Nets to the NBA Finals (twice) as the best coach since I’ve been a fan. But considering that Scott really only last three-plus season, and the issues he reportedly had with the team’s star player, Jason Kidd, I have to keep him as No. 2. Plus, Scott was able to guide his team during a notorious down period for the NBA and the Eastern Conference especially. The team looked out of place against the Lakers in 2002 and the following year, I thought the team choked away some opportunities to get some wins against the Spurs. Scott’s big-man rotations were especially questionable in 2003, as he had solid defenders in Kenyon Martin, Jason Collins, Dikembe Mutombo and Aaron Williams all at his disposal, yet seemed to forget/ignore them for key stretches of the game when Tim Duncan and David Robinson were taking over.

Chuck Daly – I’m probably just biased, but despite only being a Nets coach for two season, I always though Daly was the best I’ve ever seen in the position during my tenure as a fan. The Nets probably would have had him around longer if it wasn’t for his constant clashing with GM Willis Reed. Daly, of course, is the only coach on this list to win an NBA title (with the Pistons). He was a fantastic defensive schemer and while combustible personalities like Coleman and Anderson still had their moments, Daly kept them in check and nurtured them into all-stars in 1994. After the team tragically lost Drazen Petrovice in the summer of 1993, Daly was able to plug the relative unknown Kevin Edwards into Petro’s spot and go on to win 47 games in 1993-94. If he stuck around and had more say on roster construction, the Nets could have easily become a perennial 50-game winner in the Eastern Conference.