How WNBA teams have fared under first-year head coaches
How WNBA teams have fared under first-year head coaches originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
If the past several seasons have taught us anything, there hasn't been much of a learning curve for rookie WNBA head coaches. In fact, not only do rookie head coaches do well, they often tend to have more success than their predecessors did with the same team.
Washington Mystics head coach Eric Thibault hopes that course continues as he steps up to being the top coach on the bench this year. Filling in for the winningest head coach in league history certainly presents a difficult bar to meet.
But if you analyze the overall trends, they favor the young.
Taking a look back at the previous five seasons there have been nine rookie WNBA head coaches hired for seven different teams. Of those nine, seven of them (like Thibault) came into the job without any prior head coaching experience at any level. The exceptions were Vanessa Nygaard (Phoenix Mercury), who coached high school for a decade, and Derek Fisher (Los Angeles Sparks) who had a short stint with the New York Knicks.
Two of those seven coaches obviously stand out, winning the last two championships. Becky Hammon won the title in just her first year in charge a year ago. It took James Wade just three seasons to get it done in Chicago.
Prior to the two, it had been mostly veteran coaches who won championships and were contenders for multiple years. The likes of coaching vets Dan Hughes, Mike Thibault, Gary Kloppenburg, Brian Agler and Cheryl Reeve were the championship-touting leaders. Aside from Reeve (who won a championship in her second season in 2011), it took a long time for the rest to raise the WNBA Finals trophy.
That makes all the recent success of budding coaches all the more surprising. Of those nine coaches, six of them made the playoffs their initial season - right on pace with the league average (66.7% - eight of the 12 teams make the playoffs).
Continuing further, five of those advanced to at least what would be considered the Second Round today (55.6%). Three made the WNBA semifinals (33.3%). Hammon was the only one to advance further than that.
Rookie WNBA head coaches over the last five seasons
Nicki Collen (Dream): 23-11 (2nd place) - WNBA Semifinals
Katie Smith (Liberty): 7-27 (11th place) - Missed playoffs
Derek Fisher (Sparks): 22-12 (3rd place) - WNBA Semifinals
James Wade (Sky): 20-14 (5th place) - Second round
Walt Hopkins (Liberty): 2-20 (12th place) - Missed playoffs
Noelle Quinn (Storm): 16-10 (4th place) - Second round
Tanisha Wright (Dream): 14-22 (11th place) - Missed playoffs
Becky Hammon (Aces): 26-10 (1st place) - WNBA Champion
Vanessa Nygaard (Mercury): 15-21 (8th place) - First round
If Eric Thibault continues that trend, he would advance further in the WNBA playoffs than his dad did a year prior. Washington lost in the first round with a two-game sweep by the fourth-seeded Seattle Storm.
Of course, those numbers and accomplishments are next to meaningless without context. The only thing it has established is that rookie head coaches, without any prior head coaching experience, can have success. Every season has a different story.
For instance, Hammon inherited a team that had a .778 winning percentage over the previous two years combined. Those seasons ended with a WNBA Finals appearance and a WNBA Semifinals exit as a No. 2 seed. A majority of the championship roster was already in place and playing at a high level. Credit to Hammon for getting the team across the finish line, but she inherited a really, really good team with one of the best players in the world, A'ja Wilson.
Some could say that position is a similar spot the Mystics are in right now.
Well, what about the other coaches? Noelle Quinn (16-10* record in 1st season, 4th place) took over for the 2020 champion Seattle Storm six games into the season. Derek Fisher (22-12, 3rd place) inherited a 2018 playoff team. Nygaard (15-21, 8th place) also made the playoffs with the Phoenix Mercury who made the WNBA Finals in 2021. The loss of Brittney Griner, due to her Russian detainment, being a huge factor in the team's drop-off year over year.
The remaining five were new coaches of lottery teams. Two of those coaches (Wade and Nicki Collen) would show progress by making the playoffs during their rookie year on the bench when their predecessors did not.
So, the statistics and context favor Eric Thibault continuing the success that his father Mike had in D.C. for at least 2023. The core of the franchise is in place, spearheaded by two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne. Building off a fifth-place regular season finish combined with more availability for Delle Donne should set things up nicely to begin a new era of Mystics basketball.
Since 2018, rookie coaches are 4-0 at making the postseason when acquiring a previously playoff-bound team. All things are in place for that to be 5-0 this upcoming year.