NBA

NBA AM: Forecasting 2016-17 Coach of the Year Race

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Winning the NBA’s Coach of the Year award is no easy task and predicting it can be difficult too. This year, the race for the honor seems relatively wide open.
Historically, this award is given to the individual who either exceeds expectations significantly or leads their team to a dominant record that can’t be ignored. Last season’s Coach of the Year was Steve Kerr, who falls into the latter category after guiding the Golden State Warriors to an NBA-record 73 wins. In 2015, Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks won the award with an impressive 60-22 record, which exceeded expectations. In fact, Westgate Las Vegas predicted that the Hawks would win just 40.5 games that year.

Looking at past recipients of this award, every single winner has unsurprisingly boasted a winning record. So while exceeding expectations can help a coach get some votes, a coach whose team falls outside of the playoff picture isn’t taking home this hardware.

Let’s take a look at some coaches who may be in the mix for this season’s Coach of the Year award, splitting the list up by top candidates and dark horses.

TOP CANDIDATES

1. Gregg Popovich

It seems like every season the Spurs are expected to take a step back, they beat expectations. This could certainly be one of those years. Last year, expectations were very high because of the additions of LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. But now, with the retirement of Tim Duncan, it seems people are again predicting that San Antonio could take a step back the Western Conference race. Most are assuming the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors will be ahead of them, while very few still believe the Spurs can replicate their past success without Duncan.

Last season, the Spurs finished above Golden State in net rating (11.8 points per 100 possessions). They were also one of only two teams to allow under 100 points per 100 possessions, only allowing 96.6 points. Considering the fact that Aldridge had to adjust to Popovich’s systems, these numbers are very impressive.

Give credit to Popovich for a large portion of the teams’ success. His willingness to adjust lineups, paired with his ability to plug new players into their required roles is unmatched. Preaching his system to every player that comes into the organization, Popovich is able to utilize his players in a way that maximizes their talents while covering their shortcomings. With a proven track record of success, incoming players know that if they do what is asked of them, the team will win at a high level. It’s a very simple idea that requires an immense amount of buy-in and trust, which Popovich has earned over his career as the Spurs’ head coach.

With the Spurs adding Pau Gasol this offseason, San Antonio still possesses a deep front-court. But the real question is how will the team adjust after losing its leader and former franchise cornerstone, Tim Duncan. If Popovich can overcome the loss of Duncan and maintain a strong defense despite replacing him with Gasol, it’s likely that Popovich will be in the running for Coach of the Year.

2. Brad Stevens

Despite his young age and short time in the NBA, Stevens is arguably one of the best coaches in the league. He’s taken the Boston Celtics from 25 to 48 wins in just three seasons, almost doubling his first-year win total. Creating proper spacing and consistent execution have been the foundation of Stevens’ early success as an NBA head coach. The free-agent acquisition of Al Horford has certainly heightened expectations for the Celtics this upcoming season. Last year, the Celtics ranked eighth in net rating and top-ten in defensive efficiency. The addition of Horford should only help those numbers go up moving forward.

What becomes increasingly clear is that Stevens is one of the best tacticians in the NBA. He utilizes mismatches, makes in-game adjustments and has his players prepared each night. James Jones of the Cleveland Cavaliers talked about playing against Stevens and the Celtics in a recent article by Jackie MacMullan of ESPN.

“We knew he’d come back with an adjustment he hoped would change the series — and he did,” Jones said. “He hit us with all sorts of wrinkles we’d never seen.”

Westgate Las Vegas set their win total for the Celtics at 51.5, which is only 3.5 wins higher than last season. If Boston wins 55 or more games this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Stevens become a front-runner for the award.

3. Tyronn Lue

As crazy as it may seem, Lue has only been a head coach for 41 regular season games. After taking over as head coach, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ team chemistry seemed to improve as they approached the postseason. The Cavaliers ultimately came back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to upset the Golden State Warriors, which Lue rightfully deserves a lot of credit for.

This season, the challenge for Lue will be to keep building off of the chemistry the team developed last season, keep LeBron James’ minutes in check to keep him healthy for the postseason and to maximize the talent available to him, which will be extremely important now that Kevin Durant is playing for the Warriors.

The Cavs are projected to win 56.5 games, so Cleveland will likely have to win around 60 games or so for Lue to become a favorite for Coach of the Year. Being healthy for the postseason will be his biggest priority but with all the buzz surrounding Golden State and their super team, LeBron James, Lue and company may want to push for a strong regular season record. If that happens, Lue could be in the conversation for Coach of the Year.

4. Steve Kerr

Kerr won the award last year and could be in line to repeat despite the extremely high expectations surrounding his team. Pegged to win 66.5 games, Kerr will likely need to log close to 70 regular season victories to be in the running. However, after last year’s playoff injuries and concerns, it seems unlikely the team will go all out in the regular season. In order for Kerr to win the award, it’ll take another incredible, record-setting year. But if there’s any coach that can do it, Kerr is right at the top of that list.

Kerr is one of the NBA’s best coaches for a number of reasons. He has a calm and cool demeanor but can also be very intense in high-pressure situations. Players feed off his philosophy and it’s shown on numerous occasions. His motion-based offensive system maximizes the talent he has available to him and his use of Draymond Green on defense has been one of the major reasons why this team has been so dominant over the last few seasons. Between connecting with his players and being one of the better tacticians in the NBA, Kerr will likely be a top candidate for Coach of the Year this upcoming season. However, if the Warriors face any sort of rough patches or prolonged losing streaks, he will face a lot of scrutiny considering how much talent this team has.

5. Terry Stotts

The Blazers surprised almost everyone last year. Being picked to finish last or close to last in the Western Conference, they beat expectations, made the playoffs and even advanced to the second round. His understanding of the game and ability to get the most out of players is a big reason for Stotts’ and the Blazers’ recent success. But after doing a tremendous job last season, Coach Stotts has much higher expectations coming into this season.

Stotts is known for his brilliant offensive mind. His ability to recognize his personnel and fix problems quickly are what separates him from other coaches. Additionally, out of timeouts, he is extremely effective and has proven to be one of the best play-callers in the league.

The Blazers went out this offseason and spent big on free agents like Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. Locking up their salary cap for the foreseeable future, this team is clearly in a win-now scenario. After winning 44 games last year, people now expect them to win roughly 45-50 this season. If Stotts can overachieve that win total, you’d certainly have to put him in the conversation for Coach of the Year. He’s been in the running for the past few years and was a close second to Steve Kerr last season. If he can do another impressive job of coaching this team up, voters will likely cling to Stotts for exceeding expectations in back-to-back years.

DARK HORSES

6. Quin Snyder

Had it not been for injuries the past couple seasons, Snyder would’ve firmly been in the Coach of the Year conversation. This season, many people are projecting the Utah Jazz to be a playoff contender with all their new additions and players returning from injury.

There are some who still question Snyder’s coaching ability, even with the injuries to players like Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, and Derrick Favors. He’s failed to win over 50 percent of his games in each of his first two seasons with the Jazz. However, is critics need to realize that he has taken a young roster further than many expected since taking over as head coach, that many of his players have developed quite a bit since his arrival and that he is one of the better overall tacticians in the league.

Projected to win 47.5 games, this team has all the makings to achieve that and much more. Very similar to the Boston Celtics, the Jazz plays with discipline and ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency last year. As long as their most important players can stay healthy, they’ll be firmly in the playoff mix and could reach 50 wins. Doing so would put Snyder in the mix for Coach of the Year.

7. Frank Vogel

Another defensive-minded coach, Vogel has a good chance to jump into the Coach of the Year conversation. Previously in Indiana, Vogel was praised for his work on turning the Pacers’ around and consistently beating expectations. His ability to coach defense and get the most out of what he was given was notable. Even when his players went down with injuries, Vogel’s coaching managed to keep the team relevant and his team’s defense never wavered significantly.

Now head coach of the Orlando Magic, Vogel has an extremely talented frontcourt. With new additions like Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, paired with Nikola Vucevic and the rest of the team’s young talent, the Magic are in position for a breakout season. A projection of 36.5 wins seems a little low for a team with as much talent as the Magic. With Vogel as the coach and a clear direction in place, it seems inevitable that they could be in the playoff discussion. If so, Vogel should be a prime candidate for the award.

8. Rick Carlisle

What more do you need to know about Carlisle? He’s one of the best coaches in the league, consistently doing more with far less than his colleagues. Carlisle is one of the best at making in-game adjustments. His ability to change a lineup and scheme to match up better with his opponent is usually overlooked. He’s done great with two point guard lineups and his other small-ball scenarios have mostly worked to the Mavericks’ advantage. But as we’ve also seen, he’s unwilling to play young players as much as some other coaches do.

Offseason additions like Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut have certainly bolstered their squad but on paper, but the Mavericks are still far inferior to the top-level Western Conference playoff teams in terms of talent. If Carlisle can get this team to outperform their collective talent and make some noise in the Western Conference playoff race, he will reaffirm that he is one of the best overall coaches in the league and will be in the running for Coach of the Year.

9. Tom Thibodeau

Thibodeau is back in the league and ready to prove that he’s a great coach. Thibodeau is taking over one of the most promising teams in the league, which possesses back-to-back Rookies of the Year (Towns and Wiggins) and a number of high-potential players. Known for his defense, Thibs has typically always gotten the most out of his players and has been instrumental in developing young talent (see Jimmy Butler).

In his year off from coaching, Thibodeau was reportedly going around the league and spending time with some of the best coaches around. Part of coaching is learning from others and that’s clearly something he’s done. He’s come into the season with a fresh mindset, which should benefit the Timberwolves.

Minnesota has the longest active playoff drought in the entire league, so taking this young team to the postseason would certainly make Thibodeau a Coach of the Year Candidate. Teams this young historically aren’t able to compete at a high level, but this team is stacked with young prospects. If Thibodeau can harness them into a disciplined defensive unit, this team could really exceed expectations this upcoming season.

10. Mike D’Antoni

While D’Antoni hasn’t done so well in his previous two jobs, this new situation presents a new opportunity to get his coaching career back on track. The Rockets are only one season removed from a Western Conference Finals berth and a runner-up MVP candidate in James Harden.

With a career 51.6 win percentage, D’Antoni’s reputation has dropped off somewhat since his days with the Suns. After having one of the best offenses in the league in Phoenix, D’Antoni has only averaged 31 wins per season in his last five as a head coach.

While Houston lost Dwight Howard in free agency, they also added some excellent offensive firepower in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The combination of potential “small-ball” lineups and shooting fits right in with what D’Antoni loves to do. In addition, they’ve moved star shooting guard James Harden to de facto point guard in an attempt to make him more of a facilitator and to replicate some of what the Suns did with Steve Nash years ago.

There are some deep concerns with this Houston team, including the knee injury to Patrick Beverley, the lack of defense from Harden and the durability issues with Gordon and Anderson. However, if those and other issues correct themselves and D’Antoni can supercharge the team’s offense while maintaining a league average defense, he could find himself in the Coach of the Year discussion.

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About Oliver Maroney

Oliver Maroney

Oliver Maroney is an NBA writer for Basketball Insiders. He is based in Portland and covers the league as a whole.

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