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The Celtics are set to embark on their first playoff quest under coach Brad Stevens. Stevens helped lead his young team to an additional 15 wins this season, a pretty dramatic improvement, and only the Bucks, Hawks, Cavaliers, and Warriors can claim better improvements this season.

So, what should we expect? Given the matchup against the Cavaliers, not much, but if the team holds one advantage over most teams it’s in the coaching department.

With this being Stevens’ first postseason experience, we thought it would be interesting to look back on the experiences of other NBA coaches making their playoffs debuts.


Of the 29 other active coaches, 21 of them have reached the postseason (David Blatt of Cleveland and Steve Kerr of Golden State will join Stevens as first-time playoff coaches this year).

Thirteen of them didn’t win their first round series, and five of them topped at one win in their first playoff series.

In fact, only three of the 21 won more than one round.

Current NBA coaches' playoff debuts
Current team First playoff season First playoff team First postseason results
Flip Saunders MIN 1997 MIN Lost 1st round 0-3 vs HOU
Steve Clifford CHA 2014 CHA Lost 1st round 0-4 vs MIA
George Karl SAC 1985 CLE Lost 1st round 1-3 vs BOS
Doc Rivers LAC 2001 ORL Lost 1st round 1-3 vs MIL
Frank Vogel IND 2011 IND Lost 1st round 1-4 vs CHI
Scott Brooks OKC 2010 OKC Lost 1st round 2-4 vs LAL
Monty Williams NOP 2011 NOH Lost 1st round 2-4 vs LAL
Kevin McHale HOU 2013 HOU Lost 1st round 2-4 vs OKC
Dwane Casey TOR 2014 TOR Lost 1st round 3-4 vs BRO
Mike Budenholzer ATL 2014 ATL Lost 1st round 3-4 vs IND
Dave Joerger MEM 2014 MEM Lost 1st round 3-4 vs OKC
Terry Stotts POR 2006 MIL Lost 1st round, 1-4 vs DET
Erik Spoelstra MIA 2009 MIA Lost 1st round, 3-4 vs ATL
Gregg Popovich SAS 1999 SAS Won 1st round 3-1 vs PHO, lost conf semis 1-4 vs UTA
Rick Carlisle DAL 2002 DET Won 1st round 3-2 vs TOR, lost conf semis 1-4 vs BOS
Randy Wittman WAS 2014 WAS Won 1st round 4-1 vs CHI, lost conf semis 2-4 vs IND
Lionel Hollins BRK 2011 MEM Won 1st round 4-2 vs SAS, lost conf semis 3-4 vs OKC
Stan Van Gundy DET 2004 MIA Won 1st round 4-3 vs NOH, lost conf semis 2-4 vs IND
Jason Kidd MIL 2014 BRK Won 1st round 4-3 vs TOR, lost conf semis 1-4 vs MIA
Byron Scott LAL 2002 NJN Won EC Finals, lost NBA Finals 0-4 vs LAL, 11-9 in playoffs
Tom Thibodeau CHI 2011 CHI Won two rounds, lost EC Finals 1-4 vs MIA, 9-7 in playoffs
SOURCE: Basketball-Reference.com
Paul Swydan/Globe Correspondent

George Karl, Doc Rivers, Scott Brooks, Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle, Stan Van Gundy, Gregg Popovich, and Byron Scott have gone on to reach or win the NBA Finals. So there is certainly plenty of historical precedent for coaches improving in the playoffs after their first shot at it.

That is encouraging, though the hope isn’t that Stevens leads the Celtics to one or two playoff appearances, but rather multiple playoff appearances. There have been 33 coaches who have coached at least 75 playoff games. Let’s look at their playoff tenures:

Getting better with experience
Minimum 75 career playoff games coached.
1st playoffs win % Remainng playoffs win % Championships Win % differential
Phil Jackson .625 .691 11 .066
Red Auerbach .333 .599 9 .265
Gregg Popovich .444 .630 5 .186
John Kundla .833 .602 5 -.231
Pat Riley .857 .593 4 -.264
K.C. Jones .429 .595 2 .167
Chuck Daly .400 .603 2 .203
Red Holzman .500 .557 2 .057
Erik Spoelstra .429 .652 2 .224
Rudy Tomjanovich .500 .577 2 .077
Tom Heinsohn .455 .609 2 .154
Alex Hannum .600 .565 2 -.035
Larry Brown .583 .514 1 -.070
Lenny Wilkens .591 .429 1 -.161
Doc Rivers .250 .531 1 .281
Dick Motta .200 .455 1 .255
Rick Carlisle .400 .520 1 .120
Bill Fitch .462 .510 1 .049
Billy Cunningham .600 .632 1 .032
Jack Ramsay .200 .443 1 .243
Jerry Sloan .333 .490 0 .156
George Karl .250 .436 0 .186
Don Nelson .556 .446 0 -.110
Rick Adelman .000 .513 0 .513
John MacLeod .526 .451 0 -.075
Flip Saunders .000 .495 0 .495
Del Harris .286 .444 0 .159
Jeff Van Gundy .500 .500 0 .000
Stan Van Gundy .462 .568 0 .106
Cotton Fitzsimmons .333 .423 0 .090
Mike Brown .538 .571 0 .033
Doug Moe .000 .407 0 .407
Gene Shue .000 .411 0 .411
Totals 0.492 .540 .048
SOURCE: Basketball-Reference.com
Paul Swydan/Globe Correpsondent

This is essentially a list of the best coaches in NBA history. Fifty-seven of the 68 NBA championships are accounted for by these 33 coaches. Most didn’t fare well in their first trip to the postseason. Jackson and Riley made it pretty far, but both were handed loaded rosters. Many, such as Auerbach, Karl, Rick Adelman, Jones, Rivers, Chuck Daly, Dick Motta, and Dr. Jack Ramsay, didn’t escape the first round. Overall, they averaged 4.4 wins and 4.5 losses in their postseason debut, for a .492 winning percentage. And they would improve in the aggregate as well – nearly five percent (to .540) in their subsequent playoff trips. The sample is a little biased because I’m only looking at the most tenured playoff coaches, but the point is that even the best improved after their season.


Stevens is the Celtics’ 17th coach. Seven – John Russell, Alvin Julian, Satch Sanders, Dave Cowens, Jimmy Rodgers, M.L. Carr, and John Carroll – coached the team for two seasons or fewer, so we’ll leave them out of the discussion. Stevens is only in his second season himself, but we’re pretty confident he’ll be back for season three in the fall.

The other nine Celtics coaches had a pretty good track record in their first trip to the postseason. At least, the coaches who got there. Unsurprisingly, the only one of the nine to never reach the postseason was abominable failure Rick Pitino, who thankfully will never walk through that door again.

The other eight reached the playoffs almost immediately. Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Bill Fitch, KC Jones, Chris Ford, Jim O’Brien, and Doc Rivers all reached the postseason in their first seasons. Russell and Jones inherited championship rosters, and Ford and Rivers inherited teams that had reached the postseason the year before each took over, so it wasn’t all thanks to their coaching prowess. The remaining coach, Tom Heinsohn, reached the playoffs in his third season as coach, so Stevens has him beat.


Once there, many of the coaches found immediate success. Jones’ 1984 squad won it all. Four of the coaches -- Russell, Heinsohn, Fitch and O’Brien – reached the conference finals.

Of the four, O’Brien’s was probably the biggest success story. For starters, his 2002 squad ended the team’s franchise-record six-year playoff drought. Second, his team won two series en route to the conference finals, whereas Fitch, Heinsohn, and Russell only needed to win one. In fact, Russell’s 1967 series win was a best-of-five.

Whether Russell’s is a success or failure depends on your perspective. On the one hand, Russell was a player/coach in his very first year on the job, and that was surely difficult to manage, especially considering he was one of the best players on the court, if not the best. On the other hand, Boston had won the previous eight NBA titles, so anything but a ninth straight championship was sort of a failure at that point.

Chris Ford also won a round in his playoffs debut, though by the time his 1991 Celtics played postseason ball, there was another round, so his team bowed out in the conference semis rather than the finals. That leaves just Doc Rivers and Red Auerbach, both of whom lost in their first trip to the postseason. In fact, Auerbach lost in his first two tries.


As we all know, the Celtics have been an extraordinarily successful franchise. Is this sort of first-timer success common across the game?

The Celtics have righted the ship in a hurry, and a lot of that success has been due to coach Brad Stevens. Just by reaching the playoffs, he has already proven himself a better coach than the worst coach in team history, Rick Pitino.

By the end of the first round series against Cleveland, he’ll be in the top half of all 315 NBA coaches all-time in terms of playoff games coached.

While Stevens may be unable to lead them to much playoff success this season, he will certainly have plenty of coaching company in that respect, including a man known in these parts for being fond of chomping (and lighting) the occasional cigar.


For Isaiah Thomas, long road to success ended in Boston

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Paul Swydan is a writer and editor for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter at @swydan.