Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have propelled “the process” into the second round, and Anthony Davis showed that he belongs among the NBA elite by dominating the Portland Trail Blazers and putting up 33 points and 18 rebounds in a win against the defending champions.
But while these players were impressive, these playoffs have also shown the importance of having a top-of-the-line head coach.
Two coaches that have fully demonstrated their worth in the postseason this year are Brad Stevens and Quin Snyder, and both the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics have bright futures ahead of them due in large part to their coaches.
Stevens has shown that he can still win a playoff series without his two biggest stars in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward while Snyder has established that a combination of a suffocating defense and a rookie turning into a star right before our eyes can power a team to great heights more quickly than anyone thought possible.
Quin Snyder took the Utah coaching job in 2014, with the Jazz coming off a 25-win season. Utah had a lot of young players at the time, and only one player on their team had been in the league longer than five years.
In Snyder’s first year as a head coach, his squad improved from 25th in the league in offensive efficiency to 15th and from last in the league in defensive efficiency to 12th. The Jazz have improved their defensive efficiency and kept their offense production steady every year since, which has put them back into the NBA playoff picture.
Still, Snyder’s most impressive work has been this past season. Coming into this year, Snyder had just lost his best player, Gordon Hayward, to the Boston Celtics, so expectations were low.
Despite that lack of hope, Snyder led his squad to the playoffs by coaching the Jazz to the league’s second-best defense and riding the emergence of rookie star Donovan Mitchell.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Jazz drew the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that was built for the postseason and was supposed to take care of business against the Jazz, but Snyder wouldn’t have any of that. The Jazz absorbed Russell Westbrook and Paul George’s best shot and defeated the Thunder in six games.
While a lot of the noise coming out of this series focuses on Westbrook either winning or losing games with his heroball heroics, the more interesting conversation was about Snyder getting the best of Billy Donovan.
Snyder took the Thunder’s ability to get to the rim at will away by letting Rudy Gobert dominate the paint. On the offensive end, he relied on the three-point shooting of Joe Ingles and the one-on-one play of Mitchell to lead his team to victory.
But while Mitchell’s emergence made Utahans forget about their ex, Brad Stevens appeared like he would miss Hayward even more. Instead, he showed that the Boston Celtics might have the best-coached team in the NBA.
Stevens took over the Celtics in 2013, after Doc Rivers had forced his way out of the team’s rebuild. Danny Ainge, the general manager and president of basketball operations for the Celtics, had just traded away all of Boston’s aging stars to start his annual hoarding of all the NBA’s top draft picks (Well, maybe not all, but it sure feels that way sometimes).
Ainge also went out and hired a young coach out of Indiana that led an underdog college program, Butler, to the NCAA championship. Ultimately Stevens fell to college legend Coach K and his Blue Devils, but Ainge saw something in Stevens and knew that he could carry the Celtics back into glory, which is just a disgusting sentence to write.
Stevens made Ainge’s vision come to fruition, even if you had to squint to see it during his first year as head coach. Steven led his team to a 25-57 record in his debut campaign, and helped the Celtics rank 20th and 27th in the league in defensive and offensive efficiency, respectively.
Over the next four years, the Celtics steadily added talent from the draft and continued to improve on both sides of the court.
The most surprising part of the Celtics’ rise to the top in the East is Stevens has done it with a young group of guys. Players like Kelly Olynyk, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley have had the most productive seasons under Stevens, while Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum have all grown up fast because their coach puts them in the best situation possible.
And finally, this year Stevens was given two players in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving that are proven stars in this league, but his fortune quickly changed as Hayward broke his leg on opening night and Irving was taken out of the lineup with a lingering knee injury that forced him to opt of surgery.
While most Celtics fans, also known as the only people in this world that are inherently bad, might have given up on their season, Stevens knew that he could still thrust his team into contention. The Celtics still ended up as the top-rated defensive in the league and earned the second-best record in the Eastern Conference despite losing two essential pieces of their team, and Stevens still wasn’t done.
The Celtics defeated Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks in seven games in the first round and have taken a 3-0 lead against the NBA darling Philadelphia 76ers. Now while I hope the Celtics blow it against the 76ers, I wouldn’t bet on that happening, and it’s in large part because of their coach.
Now, you might ask why this post is on a Lakers’ blog. Well, I think that the Lakers have another top-tier head coach that will lead us back into prosperity. Luke Walton has endeared himself to Laker fans over his two years coaching the team by helping the Lakers get back to a level of respectability during his tenure.
In Walton’s first year, the Lakers looked like the same Lakers that were coached by Byron Scott. The purple and gold still couldn’t stop opposing teams imposing their will on the offensive end and needed to get hot offensively if they hope to win games.
The Lakers also ranked 24th in offensive efficiency and dead last in defensive efficiency, which led to a 26-56 record.
In his second year, Walton promised an improved defense, and while most people scoffed at the idea because it’s sold by every coach of a formerly bad defense every summer, Walton made good on his promise. The Lakers finished the year with the 12th-best defense in the league, an 18-spot improvement from the previous campaign.
With defense surprisingly becoming the only thing consistent for the team, the Lakers improved their win total to 35-47 this year, which has led to wondering if the Lakers will make a leap into the playoffs next year.
Still, many people will focus on the Lakers’ ability to convince stars to come to the purple and gold if they want to make such a postseason jump, but Walton has given the Lakers a chance to succeed whether they convince players like Paul George or LeBron James to join the young core or not.
Walton has shown his ability to develop players like Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram, all of whom have taken big steps under Walton. Also, veterans like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Isaiah Thomas showed they could thrive under Walton’s scheme. Finally, players like Josh Hart, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson were utilized in ways that maximized their potential.
Players always deserve a ton of credit for team improvement, given that they’re the ones on the court, but Snyder, Stevens and Walton are proving the value of having an excellent leader on the bench as well.
Moving forward, those coaches will not be the ones making the most headlines on their teams, but I believe that they all might be the reasons that their teams will have sustainable success in the long run.