July 19, 2020
Crunching the Numbers: WNBA coaching milestones
With the 2020 schedule officially set, it's time to dive in to the upcoming regular season coaching milestones
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Rings. It’s well-known around the WNBA that the Minnesota Lynx’s coaching staff leads all others in that category.
By my count, they have 18 championships as player, assistant coach, or head coach between them, if we’re counting ABL and WNBA experience. No one’s catching that number this season. Or next.
However, even with a shortened season ahead of us, a number of coaching milestones and records are in play when the league starts play on July 25, so let’s dive in!
Note: Unless noted otherwise, all totals refer to regular season games coached. All data courtesy of Across the Timeline.
While there are still unknowns around who all will be available to play in Bradenton, Florida, the head coaches are all known and on campus getting their teams in to game shape.
The only opt-out on the head coaching front came from the Seattle Storm’s Dan Hughes, who was advised he could be “at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” according to the team, who announced that assistant Gary Kloppenburg would take over this summer.
While the league and all of us around it will miss the sideline presence of the WNBA’s all-time leader in games coached (592), the anticipation for his 600th game in 2021 will be higher than ever.
On the other end of the spectrum, Walt Hopkins will tally his first game coached as he leads the New York Liberty in to a new era. He’s the 84th head coach in the history of the league, making his debut in a year that marks six straight with at least one rookie head coach.
The abbreviated season will keep Hopkins from challenging for the record for wins for a first-year head coach, as Michael Cooper set the bar high with 28 wins with the Los Angeles Sparks back in 2000, and Hopkins will have just 22 games total to coach this season.
Theoretically, he can still shoot for the win percentage record for a first-year coach, but it’s likely Cooper will hold on to that for a very long time, too. His 28-4 record in 2000 equates to 87.5% of games won. Hopkins and the Liberty would have to win 20 or more of their 22 games to beat that.
Leader Board Moves
There’s a ton of uncertainty as we inch toward opening day, but for the purposes of talking about what’s possible, I’m assuming all 22 regular season games will end up being played.
Let’s start with the leader board for total regular season games coached, looking at each of the active coaches’ current rank in league history and projecting out where they would end up with 22 more games added to their totals.
In the absence of Dan Hughes, three of the top four in games coached will continue to add on to their totals, with Mike Thibault moving past Hughes to become the new all-time leader. Both coaches would have an opportunity to log their 600th games next season.
Also in the top 10, Cheryl Reeve will be the 7th coach to log 350 total games coached in the August 15 matchup against New York and her former assistant coaches, Hopkins and Liberty assistant coach Shelley Patterson.
Sandy Brondello will be the 13th coach to 250 games on August 19 against the Los Angeles Sparks, the franchise she spent three summers with as an assistant coach before getting the Mercury job.
Curt Miller will hold tight at 20th all-time this summer, but he’ll coach his 150th game on August 22 against the New York Liberty.
As Bill Laimbeer continues to move up toward his 500th WNBA game coached, he’ll make some big moves on the Las Vegas Aces franchise leader board. Including all of games from the San Antonio Stars / Utah Starzz days, his seventh game this season will give him 74 total with the team, moving him past Fred Williams and Candi Harvey for 2nd all-time behind only Dan Hughes, who coached 374 games with the Stars.
Multiple coaches have a good shot at some big milestones in terms of total wins in the league, while others will likely inch up toward numbers to reach next year.
The Atlanta Dream winning at least half of their games this season would move Nicki Collen up from 31 wins in to the top 30 all-time in career wins. Nell Fortner, Linda Hill-MacDonald, and Steven Key are all tied at No. 30 all-time with 42 wins each.
Mike Thibault is already the league’s all-time leader in wins with 335, so if he can get the Washington Mystics to 15 wins in 2020, he would be the first to record 350 wins in the WNBA.
With his third win this summer, Brian Agler (279 wins) will pass Dan Hughes (281) for 2nd all-time. He’s 21 wins from 300, so he’ll likely be looking to eclipse that goal next season.
With her second win this season, Sandy Brondello will move in to a tie with Richie Adubato and Pokey Chatman for 10th all-time in the WNBA in wins with 134 total. Her third win would then give her sole ownership of that spot, looking up to Lin Dunn (168 wins) at 9th. She would need 18 wins to become the 10th coach to record 150 wins.
Now for the long shots (though I won’t be caught betting against them). These coaches would have to have record-breaking seasons to reach these marks, so we’ll most likely want to keep these in mind for next year.
Curt Miller (79 wins) is 21 wins from becoming the 16th coach to get to 100 wins.
Cheryl Reeve (231 wins) is 19 wins from becoming the 5th coach to get to 250 wins.
There are several other fun notes and potential records to keep in mind as we proceed through the season:
After helping guide the Washington Mystics to a championship as an assistant coach last year, Marianne Stanley returned to the head coaching ranks by accepting the Indiana Fever job. She was head coach of the Mystics herself back in 2002 and 2003, winning Coach of the Year as a first-year head coach, so she also holds the record for longest gap between head coaching stints in the league (2003 to 2020). The previous record belonged to Fred Williams, who coached the Utah Starzz from 1999 to 2001 and didn’t lead another team until his time as head coach with the Atlanta Dream in 2012 and 2013.
Speaking of Coach of the Year winners, James Wade (Chicago Sky) is the reigning award-winner coming in to 2020. If he were to win again this year, he would be the sixth two-time winner, joining Van Chancellor and Thibault (three each), along with Hughes, Laimbeer, and Reeve (two each). He would also be just the second to win the award in consecutive years, joining Chancellor, who won the first three (1997-1999).
Cheryl Reeve has led the Lynx to unprecedented postseason success in her first 10 years, including a record-tying four rings. She is currently tied for fifth all-time with nine postseason appearances, already holding the all-time record with nine in a row (2011-2019). She can also break a tie with Chancellor with another season above .500. The two four-time champions each have nine such seasons, trailing only Thibault (12).
Speaking of Mike Thibault, he and Reeve are caught in a fun deadlock. In the regular season, they are stuck at 12-12 when facing each other. Will one take the lead this season, or will they each get a win this summer?
With as winning a career as he’s had, there’s a lot to consider with Thibault’s 2020 season alone:
Going back to his time with the Connecticut Sun, Thibault currently holds the record for most wins as head coach of the Mystics (129) and against the Mystics (29). That could end this year, given Laimbeer has 28 wins against the Mystics and has a chance at two more.
While we’re thinking about Laimbeer, he and Thibault own the record for the most matchups in WNBA history with 47. Laimbeer owns that matchup with a 29-18 record in the regular season against the all-time wins leader.
This is Thibault’s 18th year coaching in the WNBA, tying him with Dan Hughes as the all-time leaders in that statistic.
Though the Mystics will look far different from their 2019 championship team with opt-outs already from Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders and likely missing Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles, he’ll still have a shot at adding on to his all-time records of 12 seasons above .500 and 14 appearances in the WNBA Playoffs.