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What Do We Really Know About Coaching in the NBA Playoffs?

The postseason shines a bright spotlight on the league’s playcallers, but do we actually know what we’re looking at? Why is it that some coaches draw ire while others skate by? How thin is the margin between hot seat and Hall of Fame? Brett Brown, Steve Kerr, and Jeff Van Gundy weigh in on what we talk about when we talk about coaching.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By his own admission, the beginning was basic. Brett Brown thought it had to be. Before the postseason began, the Sixers head coach said his team would start with what he called a “vanilla” approach and then build from there depending on how things developed. Every playoff series has its ebb and flow. Rather than pre-installing too much, Brown believed it better for his guys to “bite on simple from a starting point”—especially because his five starters had gone into the playoffs having played a grand total of 10 regular-season games together. Nearly a month later, things have changed.

“Take whatever flavor you want,” Brown said late last week before Game 4, “we’re past vanilla, this is for sure.”

Brown rattled off a number of things that the Sixers have changed as mid-April has funneled into May and they’ve gotten more comfortable in the playoffs. In Game 2 against Toronto, the Sixers had Joel Embiid defend Pascal Siakam for stretches; in Game 3, Tobias Harris got much of that assignment while Embiid moved over to guard Marc Gasol. During the regular season, the Sixers didn’t run much pick-and-roll; in the playoffs, they’ve run much more, particularly with Jimmy Butler as the ball handler and Embiid as the roll man. For most of his time with the team, Ben Simmons has been a ball-dominant point guard; in this postseason, his usage rate has dropped considerably (from 22.1 in the regular season to 16.5) as Butler has assumed more of the point guard duties while Brown has deployed Simmons “as a screen setter and roller,” on the baseline in the dunker spot, and as a spacer “to try to free up shooters on the perimeter.” Meanwhile, Simmons has assumed the difficult responsibility of guarding two All-Stars in two consecutive series—first D’Angelo Russell, and now Kawhi Leonard—thereby becoming, out of necessity, what Brown called “our defensive stopper” (though, with respect to Leonard, nobody is doing a lot of stopping). Along the way, Brown has shortened his rotation. T.J. McConnell was an innings eater during the regular season and averaged close to 20 minutes per game with a clearly defined role as a backup point guard. Brown used to play him all the time. “And now,” Brown said dispassionately, “I don’t play him.”

In the opening round, the Raptors led all playoff teams in catch-and-shoot 3s; against the Sixers, Toronto has fallen behind all the other second-round teams in that category. The Raptors defense held the Magic to 95.8 points per 100 possessions, which was 11 points fewer than Toronto’s regular-season defensive rating. Against the Sixers, the Raptors’ defensive rating has inflated to 105. In the first round, the Sixers took the second-lowest percentage of their shots from 3-point range. In the second round, only the Rockets, Bucks, and Celtics have attempted a higher percentage of their shots from distance than Philly.

For a guy who has been knocked for not making adjustments, Brown has made a bunch—not just in these playoffs, but throughout his career in Philly. Back when his roster was a rotating cast of G League cast-offs, he said last week, it “dictated that we’d better play with pace and space and pass and move and cut and all that” to hide the team’s many blemishes. When they folded Embiid into the mix, he said, “you’d better get some post feel.” With JJ Redick, “you better start flying people off pin-downs and get him open looks.” Regarding Harris and Butler, “it’s clear they shine in the pick-and-roll.” Regarding Simmons, “turn Ben loose in open court.” It’s all part of their ever-evolving tactics, plainly visible to critics who claim they haven’t seen the Sixers grow. And yet none of that might matter in the end.

The adjustments helped push the Sixers past the Nets in five games in the first round, and they’re tied 2-2 with the Raptors heading into Tuesday’s pivotal Game 5 in Toronto. The Raptors were better during the regular season and the heavy favorites going into this series. They’ve needed Kawhi to look more like a member of the MCU than the NBA just to stay even with Philly. And Toronto head coach Nick Nurse has tried some wild adjustments of his own in a desperate search for answers. All of that ought to reflect well on the Sixers’ effort to date, but by losing Game 4 in Philly their series win expectancy dropped from pretty good to something more charitably described as “ah shit.” Turns out there’s no clever coaching move that will counter getting a text from Embiid at 6:20 on the morning of a game announcing that he barely slept, wasn’t feeling well, and was unlikely to play up to his standards if he played at all. Not that Brown’s detractors would take that into consideration and give him a pass for elements beyond his control.

There’s a running joke on Sixers Twitter that Brown coaches all the losses but none of the wins. For whatever reason—the fatigue of having the same coach for the past six seasons, a general misunderstanding of what a coach does or does not do well, or just simply the reflexive anti-everything ethos that creeps into so much of Philadelphia fandom—there is a vocal segment of Sixers fans that doesn’t dig Brown. Some of them are people I know and love. When I was home for the first round, I commissioned an informal focus group of friends and family and asked what they thought Brown could do better. The only answer I got that didn’t amount to aggravated shoulder-shrugging was a desire for him to “run more pick-and-roll.” But when I asked why, I got what amounted to more aggravated shoulder-shrugging. We all think we’re Will Hunting when it comes to calculating who is and is not a good coach, but when we’re asked to show our work a puff of gray smoke shoots out of our ears.

It doesn’t make much sense. Brown navigated the Sixers through rough seas and kept the Process from sinking, and now the sailing is super smooth by comparison. Philadelphia has won more than 50 games for the second consecutive season—the first time that’s happened in more than three decades—and they’re just two wins shy of advancing to the conference finals. And yet despite the accomplishments and growth, there has been an ongoing discussion about Brown’s job security. It’s not just the fan element, either. You didn’t have to listen too hard to league gossip this season to hear someone whisper about whether Brown will be back next year.

If that speculation seems unfair, the Sixers could have put an end to it pretty easily. Instead, managing partner Josh Harris poured gas on the rumor mill fire when he said in March that not going deep in the playoffs would be “problematic” and would make him “unhappy.” He followed that up mere moments before the Sixers tipped off their first game of the first round against the Nets by failing to figuratively throw his arm around Brown. When he was asked whether Brown would be his head coach regardless of what happens this postseason, Harris replied, “Right now, I think we’re supportive of Brett.”

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets - Game Two
Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Right now. It wasn’t much of an endorsement.

Maybe now, considering how far they’ve come, Brown is safe—but as recently as a month ago it sure didn’t seem that way. It is a results-based business, but it can’t possibly be that Brown was a shaky coach perhaps worth replacing in April and is now suddenly much smarter and worth keeping in mid-May.

When it comes to evaluating coaches, so much of the debate seems subjective and narrative-based. That’s true for Philly and the league writ large. Terry Stotts and the Blazers won and avoided being a first-round out for the second straight year; Billy Donovan and the Thunder lost and didn’t. Is Stotts a better coach than Donovan? Is he smarter and craftier? Can he, in the old parlance, take his and beat yours and take yours and beat his? Or did Damian Lillard show out and make him look good? Or is the truth some combination of those things and therefore harder to decipher? I’m asking honestly, because I don’t know—and I’m not sure that many people do.

“It’s a players’ league when you win,” Jeff Van Gundy told me last week, invoking a familiar adage. “It’s a coaches’ league when you lose.” That might sound like an oversimplification, but it seems especially true during the crucible of the playoffs and the opinion-heavy, go-with-your-gut conversations we so often have about coaches. Around The Ringer, when it comes to players, we’re fond of asking Are we sure he’s good? When it comes to coaches, it seems like we ought to invert that to something like Are we sure they’re bad? And as an equally important addendum, Do the rest of us know for sure?

Stature and championships come with certain privileges. Leeway might be first among them. The Warriors made an otherwise boring first round harder on themselves than it needed to be. No one expected the defending champs to be one of the last two teams to advance—or to look so utterly out of sync while doing so.

After falling in Game 5 on April 24 to extend the series—the second home loss to the upstart 8-seed, which was so wild even the most out-there Clippers fanfic wouldn’t have dreamed it up—Steve Kerr said “things haven’t gone exactly smoothly” for his team this season and knocked his guys for giving up 129 points on their own court while allowing the Clippers to shoot 54 percent from the floor. Kevin Durant complained about their complacency, while Klay Thompson said “this game sucked.” It was not a good look for Golden State, and it only got more uncomfortable the next day at practice.

“Who’s in charge around here?” a reporter asked.

“Not me, obviously,” Kerr replied.

Had that unfolded on almost any other team, the coach would have undoubtedly gotten buried under an avalanche of fan and media recriminations about how he’d lost the locker room and very nearly blew the series to an inferior opponent. In January, Kerr told me that he thought a more accurate description of his job would be “manager,” but in this instance he didn’t look particularly effective in that capacity. Of course he is Steve Kerr, and they are the Golden State Warriors, and their many accomplishments rightly insulate them from the automatic disapproval that would otherwise occur in those situations. The same goes for Gregg Popovich, who signed a new contract after his team got bounced from the playoffs by the Nuggets in ignominious fashion. The Spurs absolutely short-circuited late in Game 7 by inexplicably declining to foul the Denver Nuggets. That wasn’t Pop’s fault. He did everything he could. But being Pop also got him a pass in the ensuing postgame press conference, when only one question was asked about what the hell went wrong.

Not everyone is so lucky. Before the Nuggets squeaked past the Spurs, Mike Malone was pressed about his team’s performance during the series. The Nuggets were near the top of the Western Conference standings all season, but it took them seven games to dispatch the Spurs. During the series, Malone vented his frustration to the media about his players watching “a guy just go to the basket for a layup.” He also had his decision-making questioned by armchair coaches everywhere. Should he ride the starters longer? Is he attacking the right matchups? Is he, and this is my favorite go-to coach criticism, putting his players in the best position to succeed?

That last one is particularly difficult to pin down. The layperson could spend hours deep-diving into the preponderance of player and team stats readily available on sites such as, Basketball-Reference, and Cleaning the Glass. Your two eyeballs are also helpful with evaluations. When it comes to coaches, there is far less public data to mine beyond how teams perform after timeouts and in sideline out-of-bounds plays. And while our eyes can tell us whether a player is giving effort on defense or has a good handle, they’re less effective when it comes to coaches. There are nuances and variables that we aren’t always privy to in terms of systems, in-game adjustments, and behind-the-scenes chemistry and communication. Mostly what we see is coaches standing on a sideline gesticulating and shouting. By those metrics, Tom Thibodeau is the best living coach, and we should bronze him for posterity the next time he hollers “Ice” and goes fire-engine red in the face.

It’s easy to blame the coach when things go wrong, and there are plenty of circumstances when that’s warranted—though identifying it isn’t always simple. Igor Kokoskov got fired after one bad season coaching a bad Suns team that was trying to lose. Dave Joerger overachieved with a Kings team known for underachieving and got fired after openly warring with members of Kings management. A year ago, Dwane Casey was named Coach of the Year after getting fired by the Raptors, only to wind up with the Detroit Pistons. Tyronn Lue won a championship in Cleveland—the first that city had seen in more than five decades—then got fired by the Cavaliers after starting 0-6 last season. He’ll reportedly be reunited with LeBron James as head coach of the Lakers, but it’s debatable how much Lue can possibly influence in Los Angeles given the organization’s instability.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics
Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports

As one longtime league executive told me when I asked him to evaluate Brett Brown and Kenny Atkinson after the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, “You have a handful of guys who are really good, and some guys who are really bad, and almost everyone else is in the middle.” Another NBA executive pointed to the Utah-Houston series as a good example of how coaching can affect only so much. Aside from some late-game heroics in Game 4, the Jazz’s only win, Donovan Mitchell did not play well for Utah. He shot just 32.1 percent from the floor in the series. Mike D’Antoni had Eric Gordon on Mitchell for much of the series and told reporters that Gordon “does a great job on him, as good as can be done.” It made D’Antoni look smart. Meanwhile, the Jazz—who had the second-best defensive rating in the regular season—spent the series trying to stop, or at least slow down, James Harden. As Zach Lowe pointed out, that is not easy to do. The Jazz tried to force Harden to his right for much of the series. There were moments when they stayed home on the surrounding shooters, and others when they tried hedging. Harden shot 37.4 percent in the series and missed his first 15 shots in Game 3. Didn’t matter. The aforementioned exec said “there’s no better-coached team than Utah,” but the Jazz still lost. Does that mean D’Antoni is better than Quin Snyder? Or are the Rockets more talented?

If we pull back further, Mike Budenholzer did a fantastic job with the Bucks this season, and the same could be said of Nick Nurse in Toronto. Both are Coach of the Year candidates. But Bud is battling the Celtics, and getting to the conference finals will be a loosen-your-tie slog. Same for Nurse, who faces tough questions with no easy answers against the Sixers. If they fail, does that mean we overestimated them? If they succeed, are they suddenly geniuses again?

Steve Clifford took the Magic to the playoffs with a roster that isn’t exactly overloaded. James Borrego nearly did the same in Charlotte. So did Joerger in Sacramento. If the basic principle of coaching is to maximize your team’s talent, they did that. And yet coaches of teams around or below .500 rarely have their backs patted when the plaudits are handed out. There is perhaps one thing all coaches have in common, regardless of record or perceived success/failure: When shit goes sideways, and it always does, you can bet they’ll be among the first to get fingers pointed their way. Fans do it. Front offices do it. The media does it too. Especially the media.

When I asked Van Gundy why coaches make such convenient scapegoats, he offered several reasons. He has a lot of thoughts on this topic. This is perhaps not surprising to anyone who has listened to him broadcast a game. The way he sees it, the league is big business and the players make big money. The general managers who make mistakes when constructing their rosters are many, but the ones who admit to those errors are few. That often leaves coaches as ready-made targets, and it’s easy enough for everyone to take shots at them—especially when you consider how NBA reporters so often take aim at stories.

“Most media are reluctant to criticize players or a GM because that’s where their information comes in,” Van Gundy said. “What do you guys call it, your anonymous sources. If you criticize a player, he might not talk to you—or, worse, his agent may not talk to you.” He said the same is true of a general manager if a reporter criticizes the personnel. In very general, broad strokes, Van Gundy isn’t wrong.

“So the guy left,” he continued, “is the head coach. He’s supposed to have some magical powers that can completely wipe away weaknesses of a roster or an individual player.”

And when he does not possess the necessary spells?

“Then you people come for him.”

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse
Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports

Again, Van Gundy is not wrong. Though I did quite enjoy the use of “you people” and told him so. He is technically a member of “you people,” which I guess makes him “us people,” though he did not see it that way. He said what he likes about his job and what differentiates him from “you people” is that he can just talk about the game and not look for “story lines, story lines, story lines,” which he thinks is part of the problem when it comes to how the media covers the NBA.

“I don’t have to talk about, you know, somebody eating peanut butter jelly sandwiches before games as some great thing or bad thing or funny thing or cute thing,” Van Gundy said. “These stories. Really, a lot of times, the results come last. I don’t think people care about the results as much as they do as all these story lines.”

Van Gundy thinks the story lines as much as anything else inevitably spell doom for coaches. The nuances of pick-and-roll defense or in-game adjustments can be difficult to decipher, but it’s easy for fans and the media to understand when a player reportedly “aggressively challenged” his coach or a coach is caught on camera mouthing “I’m so fucking tired” of his player. That kind of thing can create tension, and when the tension increases, front offices and owners often look to alleviate it by placating critics. Sometimes they signal as much to make a preemptive overture to the displeased. I suspect that’s what happened when Josh Harris said the Sixers were supportive of their head coach right now.

Right now, the Sixers are still alive. But what happens if the Sixers fall to the Raptors and they’re a second-round out for the second straight postseason? In that scenario, it wouldn’t be surprising if Brown were to start taking heat again. One minute Philly fans tattoo your name on their ribs or their ass, the next they come looking for their pound of flesh. Twas ever thus. There would be obvious problems with any potential arguments against Brown, though: Would it be fair to hold him accountable for the Sixers losing to a better/deeper Raptors team that had home-court advantage? What, exactly, would be accomplished by swapping out Brown for someone else? Is there a coach out there who is indisputably better and, just as important, available? Or would it amount to change for change’s sake—something that happens frequently in the NBA?

“Everybody always says, ‘You’ve got to try to be the Spurs. You’ve got to be like the Spurs,’” Van Gundy said. “But then they don’t want to do what the Spurs do, which is stay with the same coach. Value continuity. Handle disappointment and just come back. It’s not like the Spurs have never been out in the first round. But instead of thinking their coach is the issue, just come back. There can only be one winner. You take some tough losses and you keep going and try to improve.”

Every organization preaches the virtues of culture and continuity. Internalizing and living that sermon is easy in the beginning, and then not so easy after a while. Situations shift. Fans and media get impatient. Pressure increases. And then before you know it, for almost every franchise, the coach you hired to be your guy becomes your guy right now.