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Digging Deep: What Stats (And History) Tell Us About This Coaching Search

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President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman is underway in his search for the next Cavaliers head coach.

Official requests have been placed to interview assistant coaches Chris Quinn, Micah Nori, Johnnie Bryant, and David Adelman while seeking to interview former head coaches James Borrego and Kenny Atkinson. Dave Joerger and Alex Jensen also may get consideration, sources have told RealCavsFans.com. Reports have also linked Terry Stotts to the job.

But with all the choices out there, what makes a good head coach? How do you increase your chances of finding a successful head coach?

Donovan Mitchell’s future in Cleveland will be top of mind all offseason and will take center stage in the head coach search. If Mitchell is to re-sign, the Cavs will be on Mitchell’s timeline to win now and may prefer a coach who can help him just do that.

Is a rookie head coach ready to win right away? Would a retread coach make a greater impact despite uneven success on previous stops?

The questions are plentiful, and so is the history of hiring head coaches in the NBA.

That’s why we combed through the last 100 head coaching hires of the last 10 hires to provide some answers.

Here’s what they told us.


Start at the top

With the NBA Finals on deck, it’s only fitting to start there.

Three of the last four NBA champions have been coached by retread head coaches – surprising? It could be four out of the last five if Dallas wins with Jason Kidd.

This comes on the heels of eight straight NBA champions with a coach on their first coaching stop.

Zoom out to 2000: In that time span, 12 of the 24 Finals winning coaches have been first time hires; however, that includes four titles each by Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich and two by Erik Spoelstra.

Ty Lue and Nick Nurse are the only other first time head coaches in that span to win a title, and they both did so in their first year. It took Kerr just one year to win his first title; three years for Popovich and Spoelstra

For the retreads, they run the full gambit. You have retreads who won it in their first year like Phil Jackson and Larry Brown. You have others who took some time to build but won it by year three or four like Doc Rivers, Mike Budenholzer and Rick Carlisle. And then you have the long build in year eight for Mike Malone.

Expand the search to Finals runners up, and you get 17 of the last 24 finalists being coached by first time head coaches.


Speaking of Finals success

Only three teams won the Finals with an offensive rating outside of the top-10: 2022 Warriors (17th), 2020 Lakers (11th), 2010 Lakers (11th), and 2004 Pistons (18th). Three of those teams had Steph Curry, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant while the 2004 Pistons may have been the greatest "team" ever.

So, unless you have one of those guys, you need an elite offense to win.

In case you’re wondering: The Mavericks were 10th in regular season offensive rating while the Celtics were 1st.

Flip to the other side of the ball, and only three teams have won the Finals with a defensive rating outside of the top-10: 2001 Lakers (21st), 2003 Nuggets (15th) and 2018 Warriors (11th). All those teams had top-5 offenses to drive their success.

It shows without a balanced team it’s hard to win.


So, what about those first-time guys?

A 2016 study found, “first-year head coaches have historically detracted value from their teams (on the order of approximately 1.5 wins), while fifth-year head coaches have added approximately that much value.”

It’s ironic because our research from the last 100 hires say the same thing.

While first-time head coaches over the last 10 years have won at a slightly higher rate (47.6%) in their first coaching stint than their retread counterparts have in their second, third, or fourth stint (46.2%), it doesn’t tell the whole story.

First year win percentage is about even for first time coaches (45.3%) and retreads (46.5%) but retreads typically take over worse teams (42.5% prior year win percentage) than first time coaches do (46.5% prior year win percentage).

First time coaches on average decrease their team’s win percentage by 1.2% in their first year while retreads increase their team’s win percentage by 4.1%. That’s about one-loss for a first-year coach and about a three to four-win improvement for a retread.

So, if the Cavs are hoping to see immediate improvement from a coach a retread historically has had the best odds of delivering immediate results.



Then what outlines a successful first year head coach…

You can tell how successful a first-time coach will be in their first year. There is a strong direct relationship between the two. The average first year win percentage of a plus-.500 coach throughout their tenure is 55%. The average first year win percentage of a below .500 coach throughout their tenure is 36.8%. Their first year will tell you a lot about how the rest of the tenure will go.

We looked at things like regular season winning percentage as an assistant, playoff appearances as an assistant coach, playoff winning percentage as an assistant, age when hired, how many years they were an assistant for to find a trend.

Surprisingly, playoff win percentage as an assistant didn’t correlate to head coach success for first timers. In fact, sub-.500 coaches in their first job had a higher playoff winning percentage as assistants than plus-.500 coaches in their first job.

Age didn’t matter as the sub-.500 and plus-.500 coaches both averaged around 44 years old in their first stint. Neither did how many teams they were previously assistants on, as both side of the coin averaged to around two teams before becoming a head coach.

We found two things that mattered a bit.

First time coaches with a plus-.500 first head coaching tenure averaged 6.7 years as an assistant before becoming a head coach while sub-.500 first coaching stint averaged 7.7 years as an assistant. Not a huge number but it makes sense. If you’re good, teams typically know quickly as opposed to spending many years in the assistant ranks. Steve Kerr never coached before; Ty Lue, Gregg Popovich and Nick Nurse all spent around five years as an assistant before taking over. Joe Mazzulla has three years to his name as an assistant.

The other was regular season winning percentage as an assistant. Plus-500 coaches in their first stint had a regular season winning percentage of 56.3% as an assistant coach while sub-.500 coaches had a regular winning percentage of 54.5%.

So, if you’re looking at a first-time head coach, look for one that hasn’t been a coaching lifer but has had regular season success as an assistant. Alex Jensen (48 years old, 10 years as an assistant, 57.3% regular season win percentage) or Chris Quinn (40 years old, 10 years as an assistant, 54.4% regular season win percentage) would be the two candidates that most closely align.


But what about a retread helping to win now…

It makes sense: Hire an experienced coach ready to quickly elevate this team as opposed to living through rookie head coach mistakes.

On average, retreads deliver an offensive rating rank of 16.42 and a defensive rating rank of 18.22. Compare this to first time hires with an average offensive rating rank of 17.96 and defensive rating rank of 18.1 in their first year. So, while the retreads score significantly higher on delivering a better offense, first timers deliver an ever so slightly better defense.

But there’s a catch. On average, retreads improve first year offense almost a full rank from prior year to their first year and improve defensive ratings two full ranking spots in their first year. In turn, first time head coaches slightly worsen their team’s offensive rating in the first year and significantly worsen their team’s defensive rating by almost two slots.

So, in the context of making quick improvements, retreads have consistently delivered better results.

In trying to find other correlations, there was not a significant link found between what stop they were on (second, third, fourth), how many teams they were assistant coaches on or how long they were assistant coaches for.

Their assistant coaching playoff win percentage is a bit unclear: It flips between showing a link between overall head coach win percentage then unlinking as it pertains to first year win percentage.

However, there is a consistent link between past regular season and playoff win percentage in prior stops as head coach to future head coach percentage and playoff win percentage in their current stops.

Plus-.500 retread coaches in overall win percentage had a prior 51.2% regular season win percentage and a 45.6% playoff win percentage as head coach. Sub-.500 retread coaches in overall win percentage had a 50.1% prior regular season win percentage and a 43.5% playoff win percentage.

Likewise, plus-.500 retread coaches in their first year win percentage had a prior 53% regular season win percentage and a 47.3% playoff win percentage. Sub-.500 retread coaches in their first year win percentage had a prior 48.6% regular season win percentage and a 41.8% playoff win percentage.

All the Cavs retread candidates have underwhelming regular season success (only Terry Stotts is above .500 for his career) and none have strong playoff success. But Dave Joerger is a candidate to look further into due to his 49.8% regular season winning percentage, 40.9% playoff win percentage and 22 added wins over his six years of coaching.

Basketball Reference has an expected wins formula and Joerger’s teams consistently outperformed their expected win loss total better than any retread option linked to the Cavaliers. On the flipside, someone like Kenny Atkinson severely under-performed by that metric losing the Nets 6 additional games over his 4-year tenure. Even James Borrego added 7 wins in 4 years.


…and for the long haul?

First time head coaches were in their role by about a half a year longer than retreads but also experienced significantly higher playoff win percentages (47.9%) in their role than retreads did (38.2%) and ever so slightly more successful stints overall (47.6% to 46.2%).

Of the 23 coaches on their second job within the last ten years, only 8 of them have had a plus-.500 record – two of those were this year with Nick Nurse and Ime Udoka. Those other 6 coaches were in their job for at least 6 years with Michael Malone and Ty Lue still being on the clock.

However, the other 15 coaches only lasted an average of 2.5 years with an average win percentage of 38.4%. So, when retreads on their second try flame out, which they do often, they flame out hard.

Third timers (Joerger) weren’t any better, as they had the worst win percentage and playoff win percentage and next to last first year win percentage but somehow longest tenure of any of the groups. Figure that one out.

Fourth timers and above (Stotts), had the shortest tenures but had the highest overall winning percentage, first year winning percentage and were second in playoff winning percentage. They also typically produced the best offensive rating but worst defensive rating.

Confused yet?

Unfortunately for the Cavs, their extended season took them out of the market for the best experienced coach in Mike Budenholzer, who sources tell RealCavsFans.com was of intense interest for Governor Dan Gilbert, and the best assistant coach on the market in Jordi Fernandez.

Now, the Cavs are left to parse through other options to improve upon JB Bickerstaff.

The average coaching hire within the last 10 years was in their role for 3.5 years, won regular season games at a 46.9% and won playoff games at a 42.5% -- so you could say Bickerstaff was above average by those standards.

As they stand, Bickerstaff’s resume stands up against many of the available options. However, if one is chosen, the hope is their acumen can help renew this team offensively and elevate it to the way it’s needed to make it further in the playoffs.

If the Cavs choose to go a first-time head coach route, don’t be surprised if they elect to bring in an experienced former head coach to serve as an associate head coach. They did it with Ty Lue and David Blatt; did it with JB Bickerstaff and John Beilein; and being the only job left on the market after the Lakers finish their flirtation with Bobby Hurley, they very well may have the leverage to attract two top candidates instead of one.

Stats can tell you whatever story you want them to tell you, but they paint a very clear picture: Focused on short-term results, hire a retread. Focused on long-term results, consider a first timer.

In a recent interview, Brian Windhorst broke down the expected process of Altman bringing a list of final candidates to Gilbert for approval and then sharing those candidates with Mitchell for his thoughts. While some may have concerns with how involved Gilbert may be in the process, this team is aiming to be aligned from top to bottom for the first time in a long time.

And if they can do that, that may mean more than whoever the next coach is.
 
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