The 5 Coaches With The Most To Prove In The NBA Playoffs

The 2015 NBA Playoff bracket is set. The show starts Saturday with a quadrupleheader.

Our site will (Crossover) Chronicle the playoffs, and over the next few days, you’ll find plenty to read on the NBA’s postseason before the first game tips just after 3 p.m. Eastern on April 18.

More will be said on teams and players as we delve more deeply into the playoffs. Let’s start with a bit of an appetizer, as we look at the five coaches with the most to prove in this particular postseason:



When the Rockets failed to land Chris Bosh — through no fault of their own — and Chandler Parsons left, this team no longer carried championship expectations. For this reason, McHale exists outside the top three on this list. However, if McHale can’t at least get out of the first round this season, it’s going to be a rough offseason in Houston, even though the Rockets have been saddled with numerous limitations throughout their season, one in which McHale has actually performed quite admirably.

James Harden is too explosive a talent for his teams to fail to escape the first round in consecutive seasons. If Houston loses in its first series, McHale — right or wrong — will be viewed quite negatively, and no coach wants such a perception to gain any traction.


If your Twitter timeline has at least a handful of opinionated Chicago sports fans on it, chances are you’ve seen 764 spirited back-and-forths about the quality of Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls’ coach is a polarizing figure, and it’s very easy to understand: He came to Chicago with the expectation (from the fans) of winning a championship, and that expectation from the outside was matched by his own interior beliefs. Yet, the Bulls haven’t won a title; they haven’t even reached the NBA Finals; and they are not one of the top two contenders in the Eastern Conference.

Yet, Thibodeau apologists have an entirely reasonable and considerably convincing case to make: It’s a case which starts with “Derrick Rose” and ends with the words “always injured.” It’s not a secret that Thibodeau is a defensive wizard (even though this season has not featured the Bulls’ best defense over the past four years). Rose was supposed to be the player who created not only his own shot, but ample opportunities for his teammates. That vision came very close to fruition in 2011, before the wave of injuries that halted Rose’s career. Without Rose, it’s pure foolishness to have expected the Bulls to go any deeper than the second round of the playoffs the past three seasons.

Thibodeau is a prisoner of his defense-first mentality and the Rose injuries that have left his offense conspicuously underequipped.

As these playoffs begin, one has to be up front in saying that an evaluation of Thibs depends in large part on the health of Rose. The more Rose is able to play at his normal level, the more one should expect from his coach and the Bulls at large. If Rose looks strong as an ox and the Bulls bow out meekly in round one, yes, it is certainly time for Thibs to find a new home, possibly the Orlando Magic. If Rose is hurt and the Bulls still get out of the first round, only to get swept in round two, no one should be complaining about the Bulls’ bench boss.


The Los Angeles Clippers can no longer say that the Donald Sterling situation was a distraction. That was and is and always will be a 2014 problem. They can’t say they didn’t enter the playoffs playing their best basketball of the season. They can’t say that Chris Paul was more banged up compared to previous seasons. None of those claims will fly.

Yes, the Clippers’ story is more a story about Chris Paul, a player who — like the franchise he plays for — has never reached the conference finals. Yet, Rivers brought aboard his own son to play for him this season. He’s the central figure of the Clippers in a way many other coaches aren’t. He played a leadership role during L’Affaire Sterling and handled himself as well as one could have hoped. Yet, that centrality and visibility shine a brighter spotlight on him.

Doc Rivers knows better than anyone else that he — like his players — needs to perform at a high level this spring.




The Wizards seemed ready to take “the next step” after their very encouraging 2014 playoff run. A young team very easily could have knocked out the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, but played with fear and paralysis in Game 3 at home, and then blew a 17-point lead in Game 4 two nights later. That experience, though, is precisely what NBA teams historically have to endure before they graduate to a higher level. Decades of past playoff results point to gradual improvements in the postseason. Teams generally have to absorb punches in one playoff season in order to get it right the following year.

Well, here are the Wizards, 11 months after their loss to Indiana. They brought Paul Pierce into the fold specifically for this time of year. They tweaked their roster to make themselves a tougher, more physical playoff team. Randy Wittman will be closely watched by commentators from sea to shining sea. We’ll all know if he makes the grade or not, and if he doesn’t, it is hard to think he’ll be employed in the District of Columbia in October.


It was and is the kind of story which fuels endless speculation, and can create perceptions that outrun reality by a country mile.

Whether or not it’s true that LeBron James essentially coaches the Cleveland Cavaliers, the report that he signaled plays — while his coach repeated the signals from the bench — creates an indelible impression in the human mind. It’s easy to create intellectual distance from such a story, but it’s just about impossible to carve out emotional distance from that kind of report. It’s realistic to arrive at a firm conclusion that Blatt is very much the coach of his team, but it’s unavoidable that the mind will at least entertain the question: “Is Blatt really the man in charge?”

Sometimes, the mere legitimacy of a question itself can mean more than the actual answer you arrive at.

We will see how David Blatt handles the cauldron of coaching LeBron James in these playoffs… and being immersed in his first NBA postseason as a head coach. For better or worse, it is the supreme individual coaching drama of the postseason. (The biggest two-man coaching drama would be a Steve Kerr-Gregg Popovich Western Conference matchup.)

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |