With rare exception, it takes top-tier talent to succeed in the NBA playoffs. But the stars on the floor aren't alone in determining whether a team lives or dies in the postseason. Coaches matter, and based on what we're seeing in the four conference semifinal series so far, guys like Frank Vogel and Gregg Popovich have proven themselves to be valuable commodities.
There aren't many highlight reels of shrewd substitutions or calculated mid-series adjustments. But without a steady hand doing the organizing, motivating and strategizing, all of the talent in the world won't make a difference.
Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers how things worked out for them with Vinny Del Negro mucking up rotations and failing to concoct any semblance of an NBA offense.
The guys in the jerseys are always the ones described as "warriors," but it's also worth turning an analytical eye toward the men in suits to see who's winning the battles on the sidelines.
Winner: Frank Vogel
Mike Woodson has been under fire since the New York Knicks' first-round series against the Boston Celtics for failing to field an offense that does much more than work in isolation sets. Aside from a few spurts of half-decent pick-and-roll action, little has changed against the Indiana Pacers.
New York still subsists on a pretty heavy diet of Carmelo Anthony trying to beat his man individually. The problem now is that the Knicks have run up against Frank Vogel's defensive scheme.
Vogel has his perimeter defenders forcing the action toward the hulking Roy Hibbert in the lane. That strategy has made Hibbert one of the most lauded stars of the postseason, but plenty of the credit for the big man's emergence as a dominant force belongs to Vogel, who saw the weapon he had down low.
Not only has Vogel enjoyed success by funneling isolation players like Anthony toward Hibbert, but he's also got his guards running the Knicks off of their beloved three-point line at every opportunity. The result has been a marked decrease in New York's triples, which has cut the legs out from one of the NBA's best regular-season offenses.
During the year, the Knicks made about 38 percent of their 29 three-point field-goal attempts per game. In their semifinal series against the Pacers, they've made only 33 percent and have attempted about six fewer long-range shots per game.
So Vogel's defense hasn't just limited the number of three-point shots the Knicks are getting, it has also decreased the accuracy of those attempts by a significant margin.
According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Vogel relishes the chance to focus on one opponent and make adjustments as the series progresses. The Pacers coach said:
You've got to understand that each game there's going to be adjustments that you have to make and anticipate the adjustments that your opponents are going to make. That's what I like about playoff basketball is that it's a bigger chess match than the regular season.
Woodson has yet to adjust in a meaningful way, as he continues to rely on isolation sets and a scattered transition attack to generate offense.
Vogel's Pacers have been the more disciplined, confident and effective team so far. For that reason, he's handily winning his coaching battle against Woodson.
Winner: Tom Thibodeau
It's really unfair to penalize Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra because he has the luxury of coaching the league's most talented roster. Opposing teams have to adjust to what the Heat do, not the other way around. So that makes for a uniquely static game plan that tends to rely on superior personnel to execute it.
I mean, LeBron James alone gives Spoelstra the option to do almost anything he wants to on either end of the floor from a strategic standpoint. The pressure of having to win when everyone expects it is real for Spoelstra, but it doesn't really factor in to the way he's been running his team during these playoffs.
Conversely, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has been playing with a patchwork roster throughout these playoffs and hasn't had his own former MVP—Derrick Rose—on the floor for a single second all season long.
His job is tougher than Spoelstra's.
Like Vogel's Pacers, Thiobdeau's Bulls make their money on the defensive end, where a similar scheme forces offenses to do damage from anywhere but the lane or the corners. What's different, though, is that the Bulls haven't had a fully healthy rotation all season.
The fact that the Bulls are where they are despite giving major minutes to guys like Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler (neither of whom were starters to begin the year) is a testament to the effectiveness of Thibodeau's system.
Plus, his hard-nosed demeanor and no-excuses attitude has clearly invigorated his team, creating a roster that never points to injury or illness as a reason for failure. His recent complaints about the officiating notwithstanding, Thibs has been a remarkable leader.
It's a close race, but because Thibodeau has done so much with so little, he's got a narrow edge over Spoelstra. The Heat coach probably doesn't mind, though, as his club seems destined to repeat as champs.
Winner: Lionel Hollins
This one's close, folks, as neither Lionel Hollins nor Scott Brooks has a reputation as a capable coach. I don't particularly feel like throwing stones, so it's a good thing Twitter exists as a way for me to hide behind the opinions of others in my analysis of this coaching debacle.
As bad as Brooks has been all season, Hollins has been darn close in this series. In a way, they're almost cancelling one another out.
I thought the worst coaching matchup of the playoffs was VDN-Hollins in Rd 1. Brooks-Hollins is quickly staking a claim to that title.— Brett Koremenos (@BKoremenos) May 8, 2013
Hollins' mistakes generally aren't as pronounced as Brooks' are, with the latter often making decisions that actually help the former.
Scott Brooks calls timeout, allows Hollins to sub his two best defenders in and … yeah, that happens.
— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) May 8, 2013
For what it's worth, the Twitterverse pegged Hollins as having the slight edge early on:
Anyone else watching this Game 1 and thinking by Game 3 Lionel Hollins will have made much better adjustments than Scott Brooks?— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) May 5, 2013
With the Grizzlies up 2-1 over the Thunder, it looks like Hollins is winning the coaching battle. But there's not much praise due for that achievement, as Brooks' clueless offensive strategy and wonky minute allotments have been totally exposed by the absence of Russell Westbrook.
But hey, at least Del Negro's out of the postseason, right?
Coming into the second-round matchup between Mark Jackson's Golden State Warriors and Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs, it certainly seemed like the biggest disparity in coaching skill would arise out of this series. After all, Pops' four rings give him a decided edge in experience over Jackson, who is in just his second year of head coaching at any level.
But a funny thing has happened: Jackson's been holding his own.
The Warriors badly outplayed the Spurs for the vast majority of the first two games of the series, with only a fourth-quarter collapse in Game 1 preventing the Dubs from pulling off an unthinkable two-game sweep in San Antonio.
Popovich adjusted in Game 3, sticking Danny Green almost exclusively on Stephen Curry and directing Tony Parker to pull up and shoot from the mid-range area when Andrew Bogut dropped back to protect the rim on the pick-and-roll. Both of those tweaks led to a Spurs win in Game 3.
But Jackson has been equally solid and often downright crafty in countering Popovich's moves.
He's used Harrison Barnes to attack Tony Parker in the post and managed to use Curry as a decoy during periods when his sprained left ankle has limited his ability to serve as the team's No. 1 option. Plus, Jackson has been getting the most out of mix-and-match lineups in the absence of David Lee, who has played sparingly since tearing his hip flexor against the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the Warriors' first-round series.
Popovich's Spurs still show a much more practiced composure, but Jackon's Warriors are painfully inexperienced in the rigors of postseason play, so a few late collapses and sloppy possessions are to be expected.
So far, the matchup that figured to be the most lopsided has been a draw, which, in some ways, is akin to a win for Jackson.