Gregg Popovich is not the NBA coach of the century


(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Gregg Popovich was named the 2013-14 NBA coach of the year, guiding the San Antonio Spurs to the league’s best record at 62-20 and giving them home-court advantage throughout the postseason. This was his second NBA coach of the year award in the past three seasons and third of his career. He joins Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches to win the award three times.

“They’re on the hood of my car,” Popovich joked. “One, two, three, right on the car, the way players do license plates. … I’ve got three of those right on the hood.”

Rick Carlisle, the winner in 2001-02 while with Detroit and current head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs’ opponent in the playoffs, thinks Popovich deserves even higher honors.

“Why don’t we just give him coach of the century?” Carlisle said before Game 2 of the teams’ first-round series. “I mean, he’s the greatest. Obviously very well deserved. They were almost a wire-to-wire top seed in the league. And he’s the best.”

Is he? Depends on how you evaluate coaching. If you are going strictly by championships then yes, Popovich is a solid choice. But what about Phil Jackson?

One way to gauge this is by using Expected Winning Percentage, an adaptation of Bill James’s Pythagorean theorem of baseball where you could estimate the amount of wins by using runs scored and allowed. For basketball, a slight tweak gives us what we need via this formula: Points scored ^16.5 / (Points scored ^16.5 + Points allowed ^16.5).

For example, based on the 8,639 points the Spurs scored and 8,006 they allowed during the regular season we would expect them to win 64 games. Instead, they went 62-20 — still great, but below expectations. In fact, most of the championship teams this century have seen their regular season win totals below expectations.

Season Tm W PtsFor PtsAg Expected Wins Difference
2010-11 DAL 57 8220 7873 55 2
2008-09 LAL 65 8768 8140 63 2
2012-13 MIA 66 8436 7791 65 1
2002-03 SAS 60 7856 7412 59 1
2009-10 LAL 57 8339 7952 56 1
2005-06 MIA 52 8191 7874 54 -2
2011-12 MIA 46 6500 6105 49 -3
2007-08 BOS 66 8245 7404 70 -4
2001-02 LAL 58 8304 7720 63 -5
2004-05 SAS 59 7888 7248 66 -7
2003-04 DET 54 7388 6909 62 -8
2006-07 SAS 58 8079 7388 67 -9

The Lakers, however, managed to keep their heads above water in two of their three championship seasons under Jackson. Here is how Jackson and Popovich, each with three championships when they both were on the sideline, compared in the regular season:

Expected Wins    
Season Phil Jackson Gregg Popovich
2001-02 -5 -3
2002-03 1 1
2003-04 2 -8
2005-06 -4 0
2006-07 1 -9
2007-08 -5 -1
2008-09 2 0
2009-10 1 -7
2010-11 -3 2
2011-12 4 -1
Totals -8 -27

Popovich is a great coach, but when determining coach of the century, don’t forget about Phil Jackson.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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