Lenny Wilkens missed the postseason altogether in his first five seasons as coach. Cotton Fitzsimmons missed it in six of his first seven seasons, and was 4-10 in his first 14 playoff games. Jerry Sloan was 3-9 in his first 12 playoff games. Dr. Jack Ramsay was 3-11, and Dick Motta was 4-14.
Doc Rivers? He was 2-6 to start his postseason career, and followed that by blowing a 3-1 lead against the Pistons as coach of the Magic in 2003.
All six of those coaches have something in common: They rank among the top 15 in NBA coaching wins all-time. Three of them (Wilkens, Sloan and Ramsay) are in the Hall of Fame.
In the past week, with the Celtics down 0-2 to the Bulls despite ranking as the East’s top seed, the spotlight has landed on Boston’s coach, Brad Stevens. His record now stands at a mere 2-10 in three playoff appearances. That has caused a backlash in some corners over his sterling reputation juxtaposed on his paltry postseason winning percentage, the worst among coaches in history with 12 playoff games to their credit.
But, as guys like Wilkens, Sloan and Ramsay can attest, early returns on coaches in relation to the playoffs can be deceiving. That’s happening to Stevens as his team bungles its way through its first-round debacle against Chicago. His playoff record is unsightly, but it is early in his career. He is a better coach than 2-10 would indicate.
That’s not to say Stevens is a future Hall of Famer, either. Part of the reason for the boomerang of opinion against Stevens has been the way he’s sometimes portrayed as a golden boy of the NBA. That was compounded by an ESPN ranking that had Stevens as the NBA’s third-best coach. The truth — as always — is somewhere in between.
Stevens is a sharp Xs and Os guy, and he has rebuilt the Boston offense to thrive in today’s NBA. He’s helped some mediocre players on the roster get the most out of their ability. On the downside, he can be slow on in-game adjustments. Another knock on Stevens that has been floated from players is that he’s not a great communicator — players can deal with alterations to their roles within the rotation, but Stevens does not always explain those alterations.
But for a purely impartial look at Stevens and where he sits among coaches in the league, we went to three league observers: an Eastern Conference scout, front-office executive and assistant coach. Their takes are as follows.
Eastern Conference scout: "No one wants to say this, but in a lot of ways, they were a better team last year. They won five more games this season, that’s not a giant leap ahead, year-over-year. Especially because the East was worse this season — you had six teams that won 48 games (or more) last year. They played slower this season, they were a little more of a half-court team. I think the offense is good, but they still don’t have the pick-and-pop big man they need for how the offense is set up. The bench isn’t great, either. That’s the roster, that’s not Brad.
"So I think maybe the expectations are too high just because they got the first seed, and again, that is not something that is Brad’s fault. What would bother me, though, is they went and got (Al) Horford, and I don’t think they necessarily got better. He is not a big enough part of the offense. And Brad has not gotten them to defend the way they did last year where they were so good at forcing turnovers and converting on the other end. They overachieved on defense last year, and you’d expect them to come back to reality a little. But they’re only a so-so defensive team now. I think on that, you point to the coaching."
Front-office executive: "To me, there are two great coaches in the league, and that’s Pop (Gregg Popovich) and Rick Carlisle. That’s it. After that you have some very good coaches, guys who you would trust like Steve Kerr, Dwane Casey, Doc (Rivers), Thibs (Tom Thibodeau), I think Terry Stotts falls in that category now, Scotty Brooks. There is that tier of guys.
"Then you get young guys who are still getting better on the job. To me, Erik Spoelstra is the best one in that category. He is a coach who can adapt, he can be a leader, he is steady in how he handles himself and his team, and he has proven himself. I like Bud (Mike Budenholzer) a lot, too, I would probably have him behind Spo. Then I would say Stevens, third in that group, and guys like Quin Snyder, Ty Lue and Billy Donovan after that. I think David Fizdale and Kenny Atkinson could be guys like that in time, and maybe Luke Walton."
Assistant coach: "What I like about Brad Stevens is that he is able to look at different things from around the league and absorb what he likes or what he thinks might work for his guys and put it in there, add a wrinkle. If you watch over time, the playbook evolves, and some things you saw in November you might not see in February, you might see something different. Good coaches should always be stealing stuff.
"In-game, I don’t think the Celtics surprise you much, and that might just be an experience thing that he will gain as he goes on. I don’t know, but he is a cerebral guy and maybe he needs to go with his gut sometimes and not his brain. That’s just me guessing.
"And I’d say he’s not what we call a scab-picker, and by that I mean, coaches will find something that is working and go back to it over and over until you force the defense to adjust. You know, picking the scab. Our guys hate coaching against that. The Celtics are not set with their play calling, they do a lot of read-and-react, a lot of handoffs, but I think it would benefit them to go at certain plays over and over when they’re working."