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 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|
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:
|1st playoffs win %||Remainng playoffs win %||Championships||Win % differential|
|Jeff Van Gundy||.500||.500||0||.000|
|Stan Van Gundy||.462||.568||0||.106|
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.
Paul Swydan is a writer and editor for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter at @swydan.