Can Flip Saunders deliver come playoff time?

Originally Published: January 24, 2006
By John Hollinger | ESPN Insider
Can't win in the playoffs.

That reputation has dogged Flip Saunders for his entire coaching career. In eight full seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, his team lost in the first round of the playoffs seven times before breaking through to the conference finals in year No. 8.

That track record has become an important issue now that he's the head coach in Detroit. The Pistons, with a record of 33-5, seem to be a mortal lock to have the top seed in the East in the postseason. The question is what will happen once they get there. Saunders' overall record in playoff series is just 2-8, which hardly inspires confidence in this regard.

Flip Saunders
Saunders must win over Detroit fans quickly after a 17-30 playoff mark in Minny.

But is Saunders really that bad as a playoff coach? His teams had home-court advantage in only four of his 10 playoff series, and in at least five series they were overwhelming underdogs. One could argue that few coaches would have fared much better given how stacked the odds were against Saunders.

To shed some light on this question, I broke down each of his 10 playoff series as coach of the Wolves. For each, I examined how the Wolves might have expected to perform based on their regular-season results and those of their opponent, and compared it to Minnesota's actual performance. Taken as a whole, that should give us a fairer picture of whether his teams have underachieved in the postseason.

Here's my approach: Based on the average victory margin of the Wolves and their playoff opponent in each series, and the number of games played on the home court of each, I calculated the expected wins for the Wolves in each of these playoff series. From that, we can compare Saunders' actual performance to the "expected" performance and see if the complaints about Minnesota's playoff underachievement have merit. Let's take a look:

1997: Lost 3-0 to Houston. Tough to blame Flip for this one -- the Wolves slipped into the playoffs at 40-42 and faced a Houston team that had won 57 games. Minnesota made the postseason despite allowing 121 more points than it scored, so the Rockets' 3-0 sweep was hardly a surprise. Still, the formula says the Wolves should have at least been able to take a game from Houston (well, 1.033 to be exact), so Flip is down a game already.

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