Ranking Anne Donovan

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  • Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | Dec. 1, 2004
    The Seattle media made a great deal of fanfare during the WNBA Finals about the possibility of Anne Donovan becoming the first female coach to win a WNBA Championship. With the Storm's victory, Donovan - one of only three women to even coach in the Finals, joining Nancy Darsch (New York) and Cheryl Miller (Phoenix) - achieved that milestone.

    It's generally believed at this point that Donovan is the best female head coach in WNBA history, and our local perception is that there's no one better in the league right now.

    Donovan ranks fourth in WNBA history in wins. How does her coaching career stack up?
    Otto Greule Jr./NBAE/Getty
    I'll confess to disagreeing with the talk of Mike Thibault and eventual winner Suzie McConnell Serio for Coach of the Year because of my feeling that Donovan was a superior coach to both of them overall, something I felt was proven on the court during the playoffs. Admittedly, however, I'm incredibly biased. So how can we objectively rate Donovan's ability relative to other coaches?

    To do so, I'm going to borrow the "Win Expectation" method pioneered by John Hollinger of CNNSI.com and Pro Basketball Forecast/Prospectus fame. It's easily the best way I've ever seen to rate coaches based on their performance.

    What Hollinger's method (employed for the NBA in this column) does is predict how many wins should be expected from a team based on the record the year beforehand (weighted by .5), the record two years ago (.25) and .500 (.25). The coach's rating is the team's actual wins minus its expected wins. This way, a coach of a regular 20+-win team gets credit for their repeated excellence, while the coach of a poor team has to get it moving towards .500 to get credit.

    In the NBA, the problem I have with this method is it really rates the whole organization's performance - front office and coaches. When the New Jersey Nets went from 26 wins to 52 during the summer of 2001 because of the Stephon Marbury-Jason Kidd trade, the signing of Todd MacCulloch and the drafting of Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins, that spoke much less to the ability of coach Byron Scott than it did the work of GM Rod Thorn.

    This isn't as big of a problem in the WNBA. With some prominent counterexamples - Carol Blazejowski in New York and Seth Sulka in Phoenix being the most obvious ones, but also Chris Sienko in Connecticut, Kelly Krauskopf in Indiana and Penny Toler in Los Angeles - most WNBA coaches also have control of player personnel decisions, with someone (like Karen Bryant here in Seattle) running the business side of the team. Since there are so few personnel decisions to be made in the WNBA, it's safe to say coaches control their own destiny much more than in the NBA.

    That's not to say there still aren't problems. As in the NBA, this system can't recognize outside issues. It sees the 2004 Phoenix Mercury as a team coming off two lottery seasons and doesn't realize that unlike similar teams, it added two of the best players in the WNBA. Also, the WNBA sample sizes are far too small - Hollinger doesn't even evaluate coaches with less than five years experience, a criterion only five coaches in WNBA history meet.

    Rank Coach
    1 Michael Cooper
    2 Anne Donovan
    3 Sonny Allen
    3 Bill Laimbeer
    5 Nancy Darsch
    6 Van Chancellor
    7 Suzie McConnell-Serio
    10 Carrie Graf
    14 John Whisenant
    17 Michael Adams
    21 Pattie Coyle
    21 Karleen Thompson
    21 Mike Thibault
    29 Shell Dailey
    29 Brian Winters
    34 Trudi Lacey
    With that being said, the system reinforces some observations that should be obvious while also providing some insight. At right are the top five coaches in WNBA history by wins versus expectation, along with active coaches at the end of the 2004 season.

    (Technical notes: I used .25 as the mythical past winning percentage for expansion teams (setting an expected first-year record of 9-23 for the 2000 teams, which is about what they averaged (9.5-22.5)) and have used only the number of games actually coached for each coach when there was a mid-season change. The extreme minutiae note is that Dee Brown was credited with the two games between when he resigned near the end of July and when Shell Dailey was named interim coach for the Silver Stars. Officially, Dailey and Vonn Read were listed as co-coaches.)

    Michael Cooper, the ex-Los Angeles coach who resigned for an assistant position with the Denver Nuggets - and the outside perception he'll eventually get the head job in Denver - stands above all other WNBA coaches by this method. While Cooper has his critics around the league and he had plenty of talent to work with, the fact remains that the Sparks never accomplished anything like what they did under Cooper with any of their first three coaches. Cooper's one-time L.A. counterpart, Phil Jackson, tops Hollinger's NBA list, and while Cooper can't match Jackson's longevity, the comparison is apt from a results and stylistic standpoint.

    The numbers confirm the observation that Donovan is the best female coach in WNBA history, though she gets a surprisingly fierce challenge from Darsch - who admittedly benefited from adding Chamique Holdsclaw to a 3-27 Washington team she inherited. With continued strong performances with the Storm, Donovan has the opportunity to overtake Cooper - though both by this method and anecdotally, the pressure will be on her and the Storm next season. Still, Donovan seems well on her way to joining former Sonics Coach Lenny Wilkens and John Wooden as the only two people enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both players and coaches.

    Bill Laimbeer is on track to challenging Cooper and Donovan for the top spot in WNBA coaching history. While it's obviously more difficult to maintain a yearly rate of wins versus expectation as a coach's career grows longer, Laimbeer has the ring to prove his ability and took over an 0-10 Shock team in 2002 and posted a 9-13 record with largely the same cast of players.

    Van Chancellor's rating will be a surprise to some people, and it won't surprise others. Leading the 1998 Comets to a 27-3 record rates as one of the best coaching seasons in WNBA history at +10, but it set up high expectations. Chancellor was blessed initially with three of the top ten players in the WNBA; with the Houston talent base no longer as strong, the Comets have struggled. Can they bounce back in 2005 after missing the playoffs for the first time?

    McConnell Serio rates as a deserving Coach of the Year; while I think Donovan's the better coach, there's little question McConnell Serio has gotten the most out of talent that did little before her in Minnesota. Thibault doesn't rate nearly as well, but keep in mind his best work has been in the postseason, which isn't factored in here.

    This is a timely study, as the San Antonio Express-News recently reported that Dailey will not be the Silver Stars next coach. Dailey rates as a -2, but her record as an interim coach was better than San Antonio's record at the time she took over. Ultimately, it's impossible to evaluate the Silver Stars decision without knowing who will eventually get the job.

    One of the reasons I did this study was to look for potential coaches, since I've had a hard time coming up with names in the past. Frankly, the results there were not very good. Sonny Allen rates as a Hall of Fame-type coach, but the vast majority of that is having an MVP (Yolanda Griffith) dumped in his lap when he took over the Monarchs. Allen was thoroughly outcoached in 2001 by Maura McHugh, who went 14-6 with the same players than were 6-6 under Allen.

    That's a recurring theme; even the coaches out of the WNBA who rate well come with question marks (with the possible exception of Darsch, who did well in New York and wasn't that bad in Washington). Nancy Lieberman got great results with an expansion team, but she lost the team in the locker room two years later. Fred Williams, like Allen, got off to a good start but was outcoached in 2001 after being replaced (the parallels between McHugh and Candi Harvey are positively eerie).

    The list of coaches out of the league I and the system would both recommend begins with Ron Rothstein (+7), who turned the Miami Sol into a defensive juggernaut and made them one of the league's best teams in only their second year of existence. (Rothstein is now an assistant coach for the NBA's Heat.) Carolyn Peck (+5) had the Orlando Miracle contending immediately, though she left voluntarily for the University of Florida job and probably wouldn't want back. Nell Fortner (+5, University of Auburn), Linda Hargrove (+4, assistant in Washington) and Donovan's predecessor, Lin Dunn (+3, assistant in Indiana), all did good jobs with expansion teams. I like Dan Hughes (+3, working for the MAC conference) more than the system does, but his WNBA coaching resume is solid.

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