There are two types of strategically minded coaches: System coaches and in-game coaches. And when it comes to installing a system, there might not be a better leader than the reigning Coach of the Year. Budenholzer is entering just his third season on the bench, but more than a decade sitting next to Gregg Popovich before taking the Hawks job surely expedited his learning curve. In fact, Popovich is the only coach who can rival Budenholzer when it comes to executing a specific approach to the game. If you want to watch a disciplined team with free-flowing offense and wonderful defensive communication, look no further than Atlanta.
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Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Take working apprenticeships under Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich and add a front-office partnership with Mike D'Antoni and you've got one of the greatest coaching debuts in professional history. It took Kerr just one season to vault into the upper echelon of NBA coaching. He understands both sides of the court and the importance of finding the right balance -- a simple-sounding concept that's more complicated than it seems and an essential component of championship teams. Some might point to Kerr's fantastic assistant coaching corps as evidence that he's overrated, but finding quality employees and empowering them allows Kerr to keep his eye on the bigger tasks at hand.
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Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
In two seasons as an NBA head coach, Brad Stevens' overall record is 65-99, a gloomy 14 games below .500. But sometimes numbers can be deceiving. Here's the proper context: Stevens has been able to get the absolute most out of players other franchises left for dead. The Celtics won 25 games his first year, which was also the first in the post-Big Three era after Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett went to Brooklyn. In Year 2 under Stevens, the Celtics took a huge step forward, winning 40 games and making the playoffs despite several trades from a front office that clearly wanted Boston to lose more than it won. The Celtics' talent is still somewhat questionable, but Boston is a trendy pick to rise in the East. That's because of Stevens.
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Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks
Coaches rarely win or lose a game. Their influence is more subtle than it is binary. After all, a coach is limited to putting his players in the most comfortable positions to succeed. And only one coach does that better than Carlisle. Whether it's getting the shots for his players that dovetail with their skill sets or staggering a guy's playing time so that he has the right amount of energy to be a defensive game-changer, he is brilliant at accentuating the positive and minimizing the negative. And because of his versatility and deft touch, his teams are consistently near the top of the West despite massive roster overhaul in recent years.
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Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Free agents leave tens of millions of dollars on the table to play for him. Sideline reporters fear him. He has five titles and is one of only five coaches to reach that plateau. Earlier in his tenure with the Spurs, he commanded some of the greatest defenses in NBA history. He's recently integrated the ideas Mike D'Antoni had with the Suns to create an offensive juggernaut that's redefining the game. And he's one of the greatest coaches ever in any sport. He's Pop. Enough said.