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The 2023-2024 Nine NBA Coaching Tiers: Part Five

Michael Malone Coaching Tiers
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

As a fresh NBA campaign rapidly approaches, it is predictions, tiers, and rankings season across basketball media. Back Sports Page has already dipped our toes in the preview game so far, as we have already published our previews for all of the divisions. Additionally, last month, our team collaborated on picking the best games to watch during the first half of the year.

With all rosters decidedly set, a complete and clear examination of teams can begin. What better place to start than with the stewards of the group, the head coaches?

Introducing the 2023-24 Head Coach Tiers List! The tiers are not strictly based on who is good and who is terrible at their job. That would be too simple. Ordering them in tiers adds important context and filters coaches based on their situation.

The tiers can and will change this season. So, these rankings are just the first and are not final. Updates will be published at various points during the season.


Tier 2:  Solid, Championship Caliber Coaches

Rick Carlisle

Out of all the coaches in the NBA who have won an NBA title, Rick Carlisle is the furthest removed. After winning with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, Carlisle’s teams were habitually up and down. He never reached those heights again with the Mavericks; actually, he never made it out of the first round after the 2011 title. Still, Carlise’s stature as a head coach hasn’t wanned. 

Why is that? Most coaches would have had their time run out if that was the case. Or, at the very least, their abilities might be questioned. Granted, Carlisle was fired by the Mavericks two seasons ago, but he quickly went back home to his roots with the Indiana Pacers. Although the Pacers aren’t necessarily competing for a championship, the question has to be asked whether Carlisle still has the juice to elevate a young team. 

Last year, he added twelve wins to the Pacers win total, and during the early part of the regular season, the Pacers looked like a formidable play-in team. Those encouraging moments should translate to the current Pacers, who add more veteran leadership with Bruce Brown and more exciting young players like Jarace Walker. Like many coaches in the league, the time to show improvement with teams is coming due. That said, Carlisle gets a little more leeway because of his past success and winds up here on the tiers. Checking back in during the mid-season will be fascinating. 


Tyronn Lue

Consistently, Tyronn Lue is singled out as one of, if not the best coach in the league. Quite firmly, he has held that position over the years. How could he not be? Lue was able to steer the LeBron James-led Cavaliers to their first NBA Championship in 2016. More importantly, it revealed a lot that Lue could handle the superstardom of James and the personalities of Kyrie Irving and the rest to win a title. 

Lue’s stature as an upper-echelon coach was confirmed again when he was named one of the assistant coaches on the USA Basketball World Cup team. Much like Carlise, though, the clock is ticking on another signature run. The year after the Bubble, the Los Angeles Clippers fought to the Western Conference Finals without Kawhi Leonard. But so much has changed at that point that the landscape can’t even be compared. 

It’s hard not to think that time has passed the Clippers by. What was envisioned for this team, superstar duo, championships, and a new arena have all failed to muster any sort of credibility. Until we see it, we can’t hope for it anymore. That leaves Lue in the crosshairs after the season if the Clippers fail to meet expectations again. With the Clippers looking to move their new arena in 2024-2025, a new coach won’t be challenging to swing either.


Frank Vogel

Frank Vogel has a good eye for picking teams. His last two “free agencies” have nabbed him the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns gigs. Vogel has gotten a taste for titles and can’t escape it. That’s pretty much why he picked the Suns job this offseason. The interest went both ways, and Vogel wasn’t looking to rebuild a young team like the Houston Rockets or the Detroit Pistons. No, he wanted a contender he could push, and that’s what he got.

It feels like forever ago, but Vogel was an excellent coach during the Bubble for the Lakers. Apply him to a Kevin DurantDevin BookerBradley Beal trio, and it should be a guaranteed 50 wins. Vogel will have an even more substantial impact on the defensive end. Stretching back to his Indiana Pacers days, Vogel consistently ran out of top-10-ranked defenses. While a league-leading defense won’t be imperative this season because of the offensive firepower in Phoenix, a capable one will suffice. Expect Vogel to be creative with his lineups early to figure out what works. If things go right in the Valley, I forecast some Coach of the Year buzz for him.


Michael Malone

The coach of the reigning champions has its perks. One of which is listed high on the coaching tiers list. One other is experiencing a honeymoon period for the next season. It’s nice to bask in the glory for at least the first few months. The panic meter is on vacation for the first couple of weeks of the season. Well, newsflash, that’s not how Michael Malone will approach the season.

Malone is not the coach who will sit on his hands at the beginning of the year, basking in the prior years’ glory. There is too much work to do for him to do that. The Denver Nuggets lost a couple of their key rotation pieces during the offseason, and it’s up to Malone to work on adding in some of their newer additions. He has a Nikola Jokic-sized cushion to soften any fall. That sort of luxury will be welcomed by any coach, especially when the ingredients on last year’s team worked so well together. Getting back there could take a little time, but the comfort with Jokic should make Malone a lot more confident in his early decisions.

This year could wind up being a historic one for Malone, too. He sits 57 wins away from second all-time in coaching wins for the Nuggets franchise. If the Nuggets can have a similar season, Malone could pass the legendary George Karl.


Tier 1: Hall of Famers

Steve Kerr

It must be nice that the Golden State Warriors keep throwing new challenges at Steve Kerr to figure out; that way, things never get stale. Kerr is well-conditioned in anything that could occur with a basketball team. After his long career in the league as a player, general manager, broadcaster, and coach, Kerr arguably has the most overall experience. He probably welcomes these challenges (maybe not players punching each other), but the challenge of incorporating Chris Paul into their philosophy seems right up Kerr’s alley.

Kerr’s best coaching could come this season. The Warriors have retooled and look poised for another title run. Adding and, more importantly, managing Paul will be Kerr’s primary task. The Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Kevon Looney unit remains a top starting five. Using Paul off the bench makes more sense, but it could be a matchup-based thing where Kerr uses Paul against specific teams.

The nine-time NBA champion (five as a player, four as a coach) has nothing left to prove. The 2023-2024 season feels akin to the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls season in a last-dance sort of way. Kerr must channel his inner Phil Jackson for it to be replicated.


Erik Spoelstra

If there were people who were skeptical that Erik Spoelstra was in the Hall of Fame tier, then last year solidified it. It is written in stone now that he belongs in this tier. Spoelstra’s record with the Miami Heat is very impressive. What’s raised him up is how he has gotten his overlooked teams in 2020 and 2023 to make it to the NBA Finals. Not only were those teams overlooked, but they were undervalued, discounted, and flat-out disrespected.

Spoelstra is a great tactician and prepares his teams better than any other coach. But what separates him from a lot of coaches is his ability to craft an identity. It’s never the case that Spoelstra is out of touch with his team. The Heat will always try to drag teams down to their style, which is physical and aggressive. Ultimately, that’s where the 2023 version of the Heat is going to have to live this season, too. Spoelstra lost some firepower on his roster so the Heat will resort to their old “culture” tricks. We can already see it happening with Udonis Haslem returning to practice to lead by example. The moral of the story is never to count out the Heat, at least until Spoelstra is no longer the head of the snake.


Gregg Popovich  

Last but certainly not least is the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich. Coming into the tiers list, one of the only things I had figured out was where Popovich would land. It would always be one of the top tiers, but I never settled on the blurb underneath. It was going to follow a theme of the aging cowboy who has had this legendary career that still garners him immense respect while simultaneously seeing the game pass him by. Watching Popovich coach in the preseason, you can see that the presence of Victor Wembanyama reinvigorates him.

Popovich is utilizing the first overall pick in a multitude of ways. Clips circulating online of all the wonderous things Wembanyama has done are often due to Popovich’s imagination. In one instance, Popovich showed how he might use Wemby in transition. Because of his athleticism at his size, he will not be used solely as a rim protector but on the perimeter, too. After earning a steal, Wembanyama turned and spirited to the other end of the floor, looking back only when he reached the paint to catch a lob pass already in the air.

It’s safe to say Popovich will be experimenting a lot this season, and that is going to be fun to watch.


Matt Strout is a contributor to Back Sports Page. Matt studied Journalism and Sociology at Temple University for four years and graduated in May of 2022. While there, Matt wrote for multiple student and professional publications covering sports and the City of Philadelphia. Matt is originally from Maine and now resides in California. He has written content primarily for the NBA (Including Coaching Tiers List and Games to Watch Guide) and the PGA Tour. You can catch Matt frequently as a guest on the “Cut The Nets” podcast featured on the Back Sports Page network. When Matt is not writing, he enjoys cooking and playing golf. Follow Matt’s social media on Twitter @TheRealStrout or Instagram @matt_strout96.  

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