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The Silly Way Coaches’ Wins Are Counted

If his Spurs win Wednesday, Gregg Popovich will reach a coaching milestone: 1,150 career wins. Or, if you look at it another (admittedly kookier) way, he could record his 23,787th win.

Popovich reached a different sort of milestone Monday: his 1,000th career regular-season win as head coach. Although several NBA players, including LeBron James, congratulated him on the achievement, Pop’s reaction was subdued. Perhaps that’s because he remembers that he really won his 1,000th game more than two years ago — on Jan. 25, 2013, against Dallas. That night, he won his 882nd regular-season game, to go with 118 playoff wins to that point — although coverage of the game suggests that few did the arithmetic at the time. (An ill Popovich wasn’t even there to celebrate, although the game still counts in his ledger because he remained the team’s head coach.)

The standard across most North American professional team sports is to omit playoff accomplishments from career totals even though postseason performance is much more important than regular-season feats for winning titles.1 The typical reason given for doing this with player stats is that players can’t choose their teammates. Charles Barkley isn’t any less great for not winning a title — it says more about his teams. It’s not Ernie Banks‘s fault that he didn’t make the playoffs, so he shouldn’t fall behind Gary Sheffield on the career home-run list. Or so the thinking goes.

Even if that argument holds for players, though, it’s a lot shakier for coaches. The whole notion of counting their wins, and celebrating when that count reaches a nice round number, implicitly credits the coaches for the sum of their players’ accomplishments (however flawed that idea is; in Popovich’s case, it does seem like he deserves quite a bit of credit). If coaches get the credit for regular-season wins, then surely they should also get credit for the postseason wins those regular-season wins make possible. By that math, Popovich falls a bit further behind Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, the two other most successful coaches in modern NBA history; each has more playoff wins than Popovich’s 149, earned along the way to five titles.

If we’ve convinced you that playoff wins should count toward a coach’s career total, then perhaps you’ll walk with us a little further down this plank. Surely playoff wins shouldn’t only count alongside regular-season wins but should count more than them. Most NBA executives, coaches and players would agree — and perhaps few would agree more than Popovich, whose reputed coaching style is to use the first half of the regular season to test lineups and try out new players, rather than, say, to win as many games as possible.

So just how much more should a playoff win count? A whole lot more, by our calculations. For every playoff game since 1984, we calculated how much that game’s outcome swung the teams’ chances of winning the title, relative to an average regular-season game.2 So, for instance, Game 3 of last June’s NBA Finals counted as much as about 487 regular-season games in terms of championship impact, while Game 4 of Miami’s sweep of Charlotte was worth just 15 regular-season games.

Add up the regular-season value of Popovich’s playoff wins, and you’ll find that they were worth 22,786 regular-season wins — or nearly 23 times as much as the sum total of his 1,000 regular-season wins. That’s pretty impressive, but he and his players have some work to do to catch Jackson and Riley, who top all coaches whose first playoff appearance was in or after the 1984 postseason.

COACH REGULAR
SEASON WINS
PLAYOFF WINS
(REG SEASON
EQUIVALENT)
TOTAL
Phil Jackson 1,155 45,592 46,747
Pat Riley 1,210 31,430 32,640
Gregg Popovich 1,000 22,786 23,786
Chuck Daly 638 13,761 14,399
Erik Spoelstra 336 12,692 13,028
Doc Rivers 678 10,425 11,103
Rudy Tomjanovich 527 10,345 10,872
Rick Adelman 1,042 9,681 10,723
George Karl 1,131 9,094 10,225

We don’t really mean that Popovich has won 23,786 regular-season games. It would be just as accurate to say that in the regular season, he has won 6.5 playoff games since his average playoff win counted for about 150 regular-season wins. A playoff win isn’t the same as a regular-season win, but that’s not a good enough reason not to include them when summing and assessing a coach’s accomplishments. These calculations show just how much of a coach’s value comes after his wins stop counting. The regular-season wins reflect a coach’s longevity. (“The time, that’s the most important element,” Popovich said Monday. “You have to be around for a while, I guess.”) The playoff wins reflect his true value — and that of his players.

Footnotes

  1. College stats typically include postseason numbers.

  2. Similar to what we did for our post about Tom Brady’s accomplishments, we used the number of teams in the NBA each season, the number of playoff teams and the length of the schedule to determine how much the average regular-season game changed an average team’s championship probability. For instance, in 2013-14, there were 30 NBA teams, so each started with a 1-in-30 — or 3.3 percent — chance of winning the title. After the regular season, 16 teams’ chances rose to 1-in-16 (6.3 percent) and 14 teams’ odds fell to zero. That means the average NBA game last season moved a team’s championship needle either up or down by just 0.04 percentage points.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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