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Which NBA Coaches Step Up in the Playoffs?

To win a championship, coaches almost always need to make sure their teams can play better in the postseason than they did in the regular season.

Edited by Tiffany Villigan

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been said that the playoffs are where stars are born. Likewise, it’s also a place where coaches come to die.

The playoffs are a brand new season. With the exception of homecourt for a Game 7, what happened in the 82 games before becomes irrelevant. Winning 60 games in the regular season matters for not if a team doesn’t hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in the end, or worse, doesn’t even get past the first round.

As much pressure as there is for the players, there’s also a lot at stake for the coaches. Playing a best-of-seven series really showcases one’s ability to strategize, work out matchups, make adjustments, and truly examine the tape. The coach is responsible for reallocating minutes, keying in on what works, and making sure the players aren’t affected by the postseason jitters. Like how a great regular season coach will have his team exceed preseason expectations, a great playoff coach will have his team exceed the expectations established once the regular season ends.

With that said, my curiosity led me to seek out the answer to who is the best postseason head coach, among men whose teams were in the second round. My methodology was simple. I compared the Simple Rating System (SRS) for a coach’s teams, which is margin of victory plus opponent’s margin of victory, during the regular season to the postseason. The SRS for the regular season is listed on Basketball-Reference, but I painstakingly calculated the playoff SRS on my own through the information provided by Basketball-Reference. This gave me an objective playoff rating that I was able to assign to each coach.

Of course, this isn’t a flawless system. Injuries and matchups influence how one may have played during the regular season or playoffs. As well, choosing to focus on SRS rather than wins is debatable. Still, I feel evaluating coaches this way provides at least a proximity to how well their teams perform in the "second season."

I only looked at the coaches with multiple postseason appearances prior to this season (I didn’t include this year), which meant I only came with ratings for Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Scott Brooks, Erik Spoelstra, and Frank Vogel. So what were the results? They were a bit surprising, in my opinion.

The highest-rated playoff coach was Erik Spoelstra, whose teams performed +1.76 points better in the playoffs than in the regular season. I guess this is understandable due to the fact that during the "Big Three" era, the Miami Heat had seven different series between 2011-13 where they’ve won in five games or less, including a 4-1 victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.

For all the talk of whether Vogel deserved to be fired if the Indiana Pacers lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, Vogel actually ranked second among active playoff coaches, with a rating of +1.04. There’s a good chance that number goes down after this year, but considering Indiana put up a competitive series against Miami in each of the past two years, this shouldn’t be too much of a shock.

What is a shock, to an extent, is that one of the greatest coaches in NBA history is ranked third among the five coaches. Teams under Popovich only showed a +0.52 improvement between the regular season and postseason. Undoubtedly, Popovich is a great coach. In every full season he’s coached, his Spurs have won 50 games (or the equivalent of 50 games) in every single season. However, there have also been three different seasons where, despite winning 50+ games, the Spurs have exited the playoffs after just the first round, including a 1-8 upset at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2011.

Just behind Popovich is Brooks, who records a +0.50. Brooks has been inconsistent in how competitive his teams have been. During some instances, like defeating the San Antonio Spurs four games in a row to make the NBA Finals in 2012, or battling the eventual-champion Lakers to six games in 2010, the Thunder looked like they "came to play." In other instances, such as losing in five to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 or Miami in 2012, there was more to be desired from his teams. One can also probably assume that if Russell Westbrook were healthy last year, Brooks’ rating would be higher.

To my surprise, there was only one coach in the negatives and that was Rivers, who posted a -0.03. As we saw this season, when the Clippers struggled to get past the Golden State Warriors (though it’s important to note the non-basketball circumstances surrounding the team), the first round has not been Rivers’ shining moment. In 2008 and 2009, the Boston Celtics won 60+ games, yet were taken the distance in the opening round by teams who didn’t even have winning records. In the 2008 season, despite winning the championship, Rivers actually recorded a negative score because his team posted an SRS of 9.31 in the regular season, compared to 7.72 in the playoffs.

So does any of this matter? As you’ve probably noticed, the point differentials are pretty small numbers. At the same time, though, a point differential of 1.0 is usually equivalent to about two and a half wins in an 82-game season. So while a number like +0.5 may not seem like it matters, and might not in the early rounds, it makes a difference when playing against a team of equal talent in the conference or NBA Finals.

The second question that comes to mind is whether these numbers are flukish or any indication of the abilities of a coach. Pop and Rivers are arguably the two best coaches in the NBA right now, but posted playoff improvements that were not outstanding. For purpose of comparison, I decided to calculate the postseason ratings for some past coaching greats.

Interestingly, three legends of the game posted very much identical scores. Red Auerbach rated a +1.22, Pat Riley a +1.21, and Larry Brown a +1.16. There was one coach, though, that far and away blew all the other coaches away in playoff rating. Who was that coach? Well, there’s only one person that it has to be.

Phil Jackson.

During his time, Jackson posted a whopping +2.78. Even in 1996, when the record-setting 72-10 Chicago Bulls had an SRS of 11.8, they played even better in the playoffs, putting up an SRS of 15.08. Five of the eleven championships Jackson won came without his team finishing the regular season with the top SRS in the league. Some could argue that Jackson was fortunate enough to play with veteran guys who had plenty of postseason experience, but Popovich has more or less been in the same boat, yet his teams didn’t elevate their game anywhere close to how Jackson’s teams did.

The regular season and the postseason are two separate but connected times. A superstar in the regular season is expected to perform like one in the playoffs, and their legacy is hurt if they fail to live up to the challenge. Similarly, a head coach is held to the same standard. To be a truly great coach, it’s not just how your team performs in the regular season, but if they can spur their team to take it to another level in the postseason. Coaches like Jackson, Auerbach, and Riley have all done that on the road to winning multiple championships. Now it’s time to see whether another coach, maybe Spoelstra, will be able to do the same.