COMMENTARY | With 20 hours a day devoted to free agent speculation fueled by anonymous "sources," surely we can find five minutes to argue about something else. No, I'm not talking about whether the New Jersey Nets should buy Kevin Garnett a folding walker or a walker with wheels; after only 30 seconds, wheels are obviously the preference. But with all the focus on players, let's spend a few minutes on coaches. Who's the best coach in NBA history?
With no apologies to Red Auerbach, the Los Angeles Lakers have had the two best coaches in NBA history man their sidelines for a combined 20 seasons. And then? Then Greg Popovich makes it past the bouncers before Red. Sidebar: Would anyone be surprised if you showed up at a club, and Popeye Jones and Shawn Kemp were the bouncers?
Red won nine championships as a coach, and his accomplishments aren't diminished simply because they occurred when color television sets and microwaves were new. Still, the evolution of the NBA since that time helps shape this dialogue. Nearly all the historical data cited below comes from various seasonal, team and personal records available at the Basketball Reference site
Red coached the Boston Celtics for 16 years. After moderate success his first six seasons, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals in 10 consecutive seasons from 1956-57 to 1965-66, winning nine championships. A 90% success rate is impressive, but it needs to be reviewed in proper historical context.
In five of those 10 seasons, the Celtics were one of eight NBA teams; the league expanded to nine teams in the latter five seasons. In all years, six of the teams (i.e. 66% or 75%) advanced to the playoffs. On average, 32% of the teams who advanced to the playoffs in those years (19 of 60) had sub-.500 records. Incredulously, the 1960 Minneapolis Lakers swept their first round opponent and were one win away from the NBA Finals, despite a regular season of 25-50!
Oh, and the best team in each division received a first round bye; the Celtics had nine such byes in 10 seasons. If you think that doesn't matter, just ask the 2007 Dallas Mavericks or 2011 San Antonio Spurs if they think their seasons might have ended differently if they had first round byes. Until the last championship in 1965-66, the Celtics only had to win 7 or 8 playoff games to be champions. The NBA's regular season was also shorter back then (between 72 and 80 games, depending on the season).
Finally, the commentary on Red can't be complete without observing that, after Red retired, Bill Russell won two more championships as player-coach of the Celtics. You remember player-coaches? They were so wildly successful and popular that Lenny Wilkens and Dave Cowens marked the end of that disastrous experiment in the 1970s. But perhaps Russell was actually a decent coach? Well, his subsequent record with Seattle and Sacramento (a combined 179-197 and only two playoff appearances in five years) suggests otherwise. It suggests he was a mediocre coach, but the talent on that Celtics team, combined with the NBA's demographics at the time, was sufficient to win championships. Even more intriguing, Russell's playoff win percentage as player-coach of the Celtics (28-18; 60.8%) actually compares very favorably with Red's NBA playoffs resume (91-60; 60.2%).
To recap, Red's success was spurred by (i) a league with fewer teams, (ii) resulting in far less travel, (iii) shorter regular seasons and post-seasons, (iv) additional rest provided by first round byes, and (v) playoff opponents who, 1/3 of the time, had losing records. History also suggests Bill Russell, at best an average coach in the 1970s and 80s, was equally qualified. And we didn't even touch on the emergence of free agency in the modern era, and the challenges that player mobility raises to sustained success for today's coaches.
Now let's contrast the NBA's structure during Red's reign to that of Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. To clarify, the Lakers can't exclusively claim the accomplishments of either, but the fact that both coaches were successful with multiple franchises simply helps elevate their status over Red Auerbach.
With the exception of one year (the 1981-1982 Lakers), neither coach has known the benefits of a first round playoff bye, and their teams have had to win twice the amount of playoff games (15 or 16) to secure a championship. Both coaches have routinely guided their teams through 82 regular season games, followed by four rounds of playoffs. And the playoff competition has been stronger than it was in the 1950s.
From 1984 to 1988, the percentage of teams who qualified for the playoffs was equivalent to the corresponding ratio in Red's era. However, in all other years, the ratio has been slightly less, between 50% and 60%. More importantly, in the 29 seasons that either or both coached from 1982 to 2011 (neither coached the 2004-2005 season), only 8.3% of teams (38 of 456) who qualified for the playoffs had a losing regular season record. That's one-quarter of the volume of mediocrity that seeped into the playoffs during Red's reign.
Surely, there have been some less-than-worthy playoff teams in the Jackson-Riley era; the 1986 Chicago Bulls (30-52), the 1988 San Antonio Spurs (31-51), the 1995 Celtics (35-47), the 1997 Los Angeles Clippers (36-46), and the 2004 Celtics (36-46) come to mind. But the combined record of all five teams in their respective playoff matchups was 1-16. Unlike the 1960 Minneapolis Lakers, none of these stinkers was one win away from the NBA Finals.
When Riley left the Lakers at the conclusion of the 1990 season, Mychal Thompson didn't lead the Lakers to more championships as player-coach. Neither did Udonis Haslem after Riley stepped down as coach of the Miami Heat in 2008. Neither did Jason Caffey, Derek Fisher, nor Metta World Peace guide their respective teams to championships as coach after Phil Jackson departed his respective thrones.
Need I even mention Phil Jackson's 69 percent success rate in the NBA playoffs? Most hats are one-size-fits-all, so you, Red and I could all wear the same hats. This one only fits Phil.
Even the most respected player, the leader feared most in the locker room, commands a different type of respect from his peers than that given to a successful coach. At least, that's the case now. 50 years ago, perhaps the impact of coaching wasn't as great. Bill Russell's success makes you wonder if the title of "head coach of the Boston Celtics" at that time was akin to being the "Vice President" of a bank today; there's little distinction between you and the 60 other vice presidents.
Few coaches will finish their careers with the same amount of accolades as Red Auerbach. But honestly, when the greatest coach in NBA history is debated, the inclusion of Red Auerbach is nothing but a red herring. The truly worthy candidates have walked the sidelines of the Lakers or Spurs. Those sidelines are colored with purple and gold, silver and black; not red.
Lucas Tucker has been a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers since 1983, and his legal education demands that he present well-researched, eloquent opinions not common to most fans.
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- Red Auerbach
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