NBA Playoffs: Top 10 Head Coaching Mismatches in NBA Playoff History
The Spurs dominance in this series may very well have come down to having future Hall of Fame head coach in Gregg Popovich. The Clippers are coached by...Vinny Del Negro? The question mark is because many people believe Del Negro should not be an NBA head coach.
Before the series, analysts made a point of proclaiming Popovich versus Del Negro a legitimate mismatch in San Antonio's favor. This appeared to be true throughout the series. Popovich made the correct decisions throughout the series. Whether it was making adjustments necessary to come from behind in Game 3 or forcing the Clippers into matchups that heavily benefited the Spurs with his late game hack-a-Reggie Evans strategy, Popovich was aways one step ahead of Del Negro.
Popovich versus Del Negro is the most recent example of what have been numerous lopsided coaching matchups in NBA playoff history. Although Popovich has been involved in a few mismatches, this particular matchup against Del Negro is not one of the 10 most lopsided.
It should be noted that, Popovich, along with Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley and John Kundla have been the head coaches for 34 of the 63 NBA championship teams. It should come as no surprise that these five coaches dominate the list of playoff coaching mismatches.
Here is a look at the 10 greatest coaching mismatches in NBA playoff history.
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There were so many coaching mismatches in NBA playoff history that it was difficult to pare the list down to the top 10. Some tough decisions had to be made. Here is a quick rundown of two matchups that just missed the cut.
Lenny Wilkens vs. Chris Ford, 1992 Eastern Conference First Semifinals
No coach has ever won more games than the 1,412, including playoffs, won by Lenny Wilkens. In 1992 Wilkens was coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers in their playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics. Chris Ford was in just his second year coaching. Ford was never a great coach and would finish his career with a losing record of 323-376.
Even though the teams were pretty even and the series was close, Wilkens' Cavaliers were able to blow out the Celtics in Game 7.
Rudy Tomjanovich vs. Bob Hill, 1995 Western Conference Finals
Tomjanovich was in the process of leading his Houston Rockets to a second consecutive title. The Rockets made the conference finals as a No. 6 seed and matched up with Bob Hill's No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs.
Hill was actually enjoying a couple of successful regular seasons as Spurs coach. With MVP David Robinson leading the way, the Spurs won 62 games during the regular season.
But that regular season success was wasted, as the top-seeded Spurs fell to the Rockets.
Tomjanovich was the far superior coach in the conference finals and Hill was unable to get his team through the playoffs, even though they were the favorites to win.
10. Chuck Daly vs. Dick Versace, 1990 NBA Eastern Conference First Round
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The Pistons were led by Chuck Daly. Daly's Pistons were at the apex of a dynasty that saw them make five consecutive Eastern Conference finals from 1987-1991. During that period Daly led the Pistons to three successive trips to the finals from 1988-1990, winning it all in 1989 and 1990.
While Daly was winning championships, Dick Versace was in his first full year as a head coach. He had taken over the Pacers in the middle of the previous year, going 22-31. In his first full season, Versace's Pacers squeaked into the playoffs with a 42-40 record.
By the time they met in the playoffs, Daly had already won 47 career playoff games. Versace had never coached in the playoffs and had only 64 regular season wins to his name.
In the playoffs, Versace's Pacers were soundly defeated by Daly's top-seeded Pistons. None of the three games were close, with the Pistons winning each game by at least 12 points.
Versace was not long for coaching, He would be fired 25 games into the 1991 season. With that Versace finished his career with a 73-87 record and never won a playoff game.
Daly versus Versace was major coaching advantage in favor of the Pistons. Consider that Daly won more games during the Pistons' 1990 title run, 74, than Versace won in his entire coaching career.
9. Red Auerbach vs. Dolph Schayes, 1965 NBA Eastern Division Finals
In 1996 Dolph Schayes was selected as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. He did not enjoy similar success as a coach.
Schayes actually started his coaching career in 1963, as a player-coach for the Philadelphia 76ers. He retired from playing and stayed on as the head coach for the 1964-1965 season. In his first season as full-time head coach, Schayes' 76ers finished 40-40. After upsetting the Cincinnati Royals in the first round of the playoffs, Schayes faced the daunting task of playing Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics.
In 1965, Auerbach was working on a seven-peat and an eighth title in nine years. Auerbach was unquestionably the greatest coach at the time. He had proven himself to be too good a coach to lose to Schayes, a coach for the first time.
What chance did Schayes have of matching Auerbach's coaching acumen? He didn't. The Celtics disposed of the 76ers and would go on to win their seventh consecutive title.
8. Gregg Popovich vs. Frank Johnson, 2003 NBA Western Conference First Round
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A common theme among the losing coaches on this list is that many of them had very short careers. The reason, of course, is that they were bad coaches. Meet Frank Johnson.
Johnson was another coach who took over during the middle of a season. After going 11-20 in 2001, Johnson's Phoenix Suns posted a 48-34 record in 2002 and qualified for the playoffs. This set the stage for a matchup with the San Antonio Spurs.
Gregg Popovich led the Spurs to a title in 1999, and had just completed his fourth successive 50-plus win season. Popovich along with Phil Jackson, was considered the best coach in the NBA at the time.
Johnson had a talented roster but was unable to get the most out of his players. Johnson was unable to harness the significant abilities of Stephon Marbury, and the Suns suffered as a result. Johnson proved unable to match Popovich's ability to adjust, not only game-to-game, but also within games.
Popovich handily out-coached Johnson in the first round and would win his second title that spring.
Johnson was promptly fired the following season after starting the season 8-13. He would never coach again and finished his NBA career with a 63-71 record. Popovich has won more than 63 games, including playoffs, in seven separate seasons as Spurs' head coach.
7. Larry Brown vs. Terry Porter, 2004 NBA Eastern Conference First Round
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Larry Brown came into this matchup with over 30 years of head coaching experience at the NBA and collegiate levels. Terry Porter was in his first year as a head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. Brown had 987 career regular season wins, and 85 playoff wins. Porter finished his first regular season 41-41.
It wasn't just experience that Brown had on his side. Brown was flat out a better coach than Porter. In his years as a coach, Brown learned how to manage a roster, game-plan, and make adjustments. Brown was always respected for getting the most out of his players and maximizing a teams potential.
Porter, on other hand, never showed that he could reach Brown's level. He struggled to win games in his time as a head coach. He was fired by Milwaukee after two seasons in which he went 71-93. Four years later Phoenix fired him 41 games into his first season as their head coach. Porter just never had the natural ability for coaching that Brown did.
Brown's coaching acumen was apparent as his Detroit Pistons rolled to a five-game series win, beating the Bucks by double-digits in each of their four wins. Brown would go on to cement his legacy by winning his first NBA title later that spring.
6. Red Auerbach vs. Charles Wolf, 1963 NBA Eastern Division Finals
The Boston Celtics had a coaching advantage in every playoff series they played in from 1951-1965. That's one of the benefits of having Red Auerbach as your head coach. In no series did Auerbach have a greater advantage than 1963, when he was opposed by Charles Wolf.
Wolf was in his third year as the head coach of the Cincinnati Royals. Even though Wolf's teams were led by Oscar Robertson, the Royals were always mediocre under Wolf. He would be fired after three seasons in Cincinnati, but not before he had the opportunity to coach against Auerbach in the 1963 playoffs.
Auerbach's Celtics were right in the middle of dominating the NBA. Auerbach was chasing his sixth title, and fifth in a row.
The Royals actually played the Celtics well. They surprisingly took the Celtics to a deciding Game 7, as Robertson played terrific basketball. But in Game 7, Auerbach showed why he was the best coach in the game.
The Celtics won Game 7 fairly easily. Wolf became another casualty of Auerbach's knack for winning big games.
Wolf would never make the playoffs again and finished with a 143-187 career record.
5. Gregg Popovich vs. Kurt Rambis, 1999 NBA Western Conference Semifinals
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Popovich's second appearance on this list could be a lot higher. The only reason not to rank this higher is that Popovich was in only his second year as a head coach of the San Antonio Spurs and was still in the process of proving how great a coach he was.
But you can't ignore how bad a coach Kurt Rambis was.
Rambis took over the Los Angeles Lakers in midseason. After winning their first-round series, the four-seeded Lakers played Popovich's one-seeded Spurs. The result was a sweep for the Spurs.
The Spurs thoroughly dominated a Lakers team led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. This was the same Lakers team that would go on to win the next three championships. Of course, the Lakers' coach for those three titles would be Phil Jackson.
The Lakers had one of the top offenses in the NBA, but Popovich's Spurs limited them to just 81 and 76 points, respectively, in the first two games.
Popovich was effectively able to out-game-plan Rambis in the series. Once Popovich shut down the Lakers' high-powered offense, Rambis had no response and was unable to match Popovich's coaching acumen.
The Spurs dominated the 1999 NBA playoffs in route to their first title. Winning the title in general, and this series in particular, helped kick start what has become a Hall of Fame career for Popovich.
For Rambis, he was replaced by Jackson the following year, and didn't coach again until Minnesota hired him in 2009. In two seasons in Minnesota Rambis was an atricious 32-132. It's safe to say he didn't learn much from going against Popovich, and probably shouldn't have been coaching against him in the first place.
4. Pat Riley vs. Bob Weiss, 1988 NBA Western Conference First Round
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Bob Weiss' San Antonio Spurs made the playoffs in 1988 after a regular season in which they finished 31-51. Weiss' Spurs finished 13 games behind the next worst team, and 31 games behind a Los Angeles Lakers team they would face in the first round.
It was a fluke that Weiss' Spurs made the playoffs. The way they were dismantled by Pat Riley's Lakers was not.
Riley had already won three NBA championships and was working on a fourth when he met Weiss and the Spurs in the first round. The Lakers would win three seven-game series in 1988 on their way to a fourth title under Riley. But they faced no difficulties in sweeping past the Spurs.
Weiss was in his second year coaching the Spurs, and had actually improved by three wins from his 28-54 record as a rookie head coach. Unfortunately that minor improvement wasn't enough to help Weiss match wits with Riley in a playoff series.
Weiss would be fired by the Spurs after the 1988 playoffs. It was evident to the Spurs that Weiss was not a very good head coach and was never going to compete against coaches like Riley.
3. Phil Jackson vs. Bob Weiss, 1993 NBA Eastern Conference First Round
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Poor Bob Weiss. After suffering at the hands of Pat Riley five years earlier, he was given the opportunity to test his coaching abilities against Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls. He failed.
It's head scratching that Weiss was even offered another head coaching job after going 59-105 in his two seasons in San Antonio. Alas, he did manage two winning seasons in his three years coaching the Atlanta Hawks. He even won two playoff games, and brought a career playoff record of 2-9 into his matchup with Jackson's Bulls.
The Bulls were working on their first three-peat and quickly dispatched the Hawks, winning the three games by an average of 16 points.
As Weiss proved in losing to Riley, he was not a good enough coach to succeed against the NBA's best. Weiss was no match for Jackson, and was unable to design a game plan that gave the Hawks a chance.
Weiss was out of his league coaching against one of the NBA's best head coaches. His teams that did make the playoffs struggled to compete and were often swept in the first round. He managed a 223-299 career record, and was just 2-12 in the playoffs.
2. John Kundla vs. Doxie Moore, 1950 NBA Semifinals
The first significant coaching mismatch took place during the 1950 NBA playoffs.
John Kundla was in his second season as head coach of the Minneapolis Lakers. He led the Lakers to an NBA title in his first season. Kundla would go on to become the first great coach in NBA history, winning five titles before 1954. No other coach at that time had more than one.
Doxie Moore, on the other hand, was a first-year head coach for the Anderson Duffey Packers. In their only NBA season the Packers used three head coaches during a 64 game regular season. Moore took over head coaching duties for the final 26 games after owner, Ike Duffey, coached three games. This after Howie Schultz left the team after coaching 35 games.
Despite the coaching drama of the regular season, Moore's Packers won their first two playoff series' to set up a showdown with the Lakers.
Kundla's Lakers easily swept the best of three series, besting Moore's Packers by margins of 25 and 19 in the two games. The Lakers would go on to beat Syracuse for Kundla's second title.
Moore would coach just one more year, as head coach of the Milwaukee Hawks in 1951. With Moore as coach, the Hawks finished an NBA worst 17-49. This was Moore's last year as an NBA coach. He finished with a career record of 36-64. Kundla won more than 36 in every one of his first seven as a head coach.
Moore had no business coaching against a future Hall of Fame coach, and the blowout losses prove this out.
1. Phil Jackson vs. John Calipari, 1998 NBA Eastern Conference First Round
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Maybe if Phil Jackson and John Calipari faced each other in the Final Four things would have been different. Unfortunately for Calipari, he was coaching in the NBA and his New Jersey Nets were facing Jackson's Chicago Bulls.
Calipari has solidified his status as one of the great college basketball coaches. Yet, whatever it is that makes Calipari a great college coach was never translated to an NBA sideline.
Calipari would coach just two full seasons in the NBA, compiling a 72-112 record. He was fired during his third year after starting the season 3-17. Calipari just couldn't figure out how to win at the NBA level.
This was never more apparent than when Calipari's Nets played Jackson's Bulls in the 1998 playoffs. The Bulls swept aside the Nets on their way to a sixth title in eight years.
Jackson is arguably the greatest coach in NBA history and is well versed in the nuances of playoff basketball. From adjustments to not so subtly working the officials, Jackson was a master at maximizing his teams' potential. He coached some of the best teams in NBA history, helping make good players great and great players legendary.
Calipari was never able to get his NBA teams to succeed at even half the level that Jackson did. This is in stark contrast to the success Calipari has had in the college game. But, just like college ball is different from pro ball for players, so too is this true for coaches.
Ultimately, Calipari stood no chance against Jackson. He never adjusted to the NBA game and took his coaching skills back to the college game.