2021 Playoffs: The Terrible Coach Redemption Tour

Editor’s Note: I made the mistake of assuming Brooklyn would win Game 7 of the East semis and wrote this column accordingly. Of course, Milwaukee won that game, so Mike Budenholzer, not Steve Nash, is coaching against McMillan and the Hawks in the ECF. Pace and Space regrets the error.

The NBA was, for decades, a coaches’ league. Great leaders like Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, and Pat Riley became synonymous with the teams they led to greatness and were linked to the careers of their star players in Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan (and later Kobe Bryant), and Magic Johnson.

In 2021, your final four teams in the conference finals are coached by Steve Nash, Nate McMillan, Monty Williams, and Tyronn Lue. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

Granted, Nash is a first-year coach who has a lot of Steve Kerr‘s coaching DNA—both of them are enthusiastic believers in modern analytic concepts who get the most out of a team of shooters. But we’re still talking a guy who’d never coached a game in the NBA before getting the job before this season.

McMillan won his first playoff series since 2005 after taking over for Lloyd Pierce midway through what was looking like a lost season in Atlanta. He got run out of Indiana because he couldn’t get the Pacers out of the first round, and before that he got himself forced out of Portland largely for the same reason. The guy was practically synonymous with playoff failure.

Then again, McMillan beat Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers. Thibodeau got the Bulls to the conference finals in 2011 with Derrick Rose in his MVP year, but he’s riding that like a dead horse these days. And Rivers…well, the best-performing article on this site by a mile over the past week is a piece calling Doc the worst coach ever to win a title and saying that a bowl of oatmeal could’ve done a better job with that late-aughts Celtics roster.

Out west, Tyronn Lue was a bit of a wild card. Was he a good coach to get the Cleveland Cavaliers to three straight Finals between 2016 and 2018, winning the 2016 title, or was he just a useful puppet for LeBron James?

In his first full season coaching after Cleveland tossed him out after an 0-6 start in 2018-19, he’s back in the conference finals and may very well push Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to the championship round. That’s less a redemption tour and more a “hey, it wasn’t just LeBron, guys” statement year in the playoffs.

Of course, Lue also established he’s a better coach than Rivers, his boss in 2019-20, who presided over a choke job in the playoffs. The guy once best known for being humiliated by Allen Iverson in the 2001 Finals not only led the Cavaliers to the first championship in any sport the city of Cleveland enjoyed in 52 years, but now he’s led the Clippers to the first conference final in a 50-year franchise history.

And then there’s Williams, who led the Suns to 51 wins in 72 games, which is five more wins than Williams ever managed in an 82-game season.

This is the guy who couldn’t get anything out of Anthony Davis and got run out of New Orleans for being seen as the reason the Brow never developed into a championship leader until he became a sidekick to LeBron James on the Lakers last year.

Then again, Williams’ 46-36 season came in 2011, the last year Chris Paul played in New Orleans. And guess who his star player is in Phoenix a decade later.

That’s a double redemption, really, especially if the Suns, who won Game 1 of their first-round series against the Clippers, get CP3 to his first Finals and out of the discussion with guys like Nash when discussing the best players never to make the championship round.

But that’s your conference finals. Two washouts, a puppet, and a rookie on the sidelines coaching, and one of them is going to end up winning the title. What a weird, wacky playoff season.