Alex Kennedy: Luke Walton, Golden State Warriors
While Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich have certainly done a terrific job this season and are widely regarded as two of the best coaches in the NBA, I think the current frontrunner for the Coach of the Year award has to be Golden State Warriors head coach Luke Walton.
The Warriors made history with their amazing start to the season and they currently hold the NBA’s best record at 38-4. But it’s how they’re winning games and the circumstances surrounding their season that separates Walton from his peers, in my opinion.
Walton had never been a head coach at any level prior to this season and found out he’d have to step in for Steve Kerr due to his back surgeries with very little time to prepare. Yet even though he’s inexperienced and learning on the fly, he has been extremely successful. While Kerr has helped from a distance, even he has said that Walton deserves credit for the team’s success and begged the league to count the wins on Walton’s record rather than his own. While the NBA declined (meaning Walton technically has zero wins on his record), they did give Walton a Coach of the Month award recently, proving he is eligible for such honors (like, say, Coach of the Year).
And not only are the Warriors winning a ton of games, they are incredibly well-rounded and capable of dominating on both ends of the court. They currently have the NBA’s first-ranked offense (by far), scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions. They also have the NBA’s third-ranked defense, allowing just 99 points per 100 possessions.
While some people have stated that just about anyone could win with this Warriors roster, that’s simply not true. Walton should get credit for unleashing the super-small lineup (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green) early in the season because it was absolutely destroying everyone before Barnes got hurt. He also deserves props for earning the players’ respect despite his inexperience, emerging as a strong leader and motivator, limiting his stars’ minutes (with an eye toward another Finals run), learning how to manage his rotation, managing the egos on the team, preventing the players from getting complacent after their championship, knowing when to rely on his talented assistant coaches and avoiding any kind of colossal errors.
That last one may seem easy, but think about how many first-time head coaches make big mistakes before becoming competent sideline generals. David Blatt had his share of blunders last year, Jason Kidd tried spilling soda to earn an extra timeout his first year and so on. The point is that Walton is making this look easy and avoiding major screw-ups, even though being a first-time head coach (particularly when you’ve never done it at any other level) is extremely hard.
And let’s not forget that Walton is doing this under ridiculous pressure. Leading the defending champs and chasing NBA history is a terrifying first head coaching job. The team has a target on its back and Walton would be the obvious scapegoat if anything were going wrong in Golden State. Fortunately for him, they’ve been excellent. But you know that if the team were struggling even a little bit, he’d be blamed and criticized.
Also, Golden State has faced quite a few obstacles this year. They have silenced anyone who said that they only won last year’s title because they were lucky and completely healthy during their Finals run, as they have proven to be extremely resilient in the face of adversity this season.
In addition to being without Coach Kerr all year (with no timetable for him to return), they’ve only had one player (Iguodala) appear in all 42 games this season. Barnes, who is incredibly important to the team, missed 17 games. Andrew Bogut has missed nine games. Curry has missed several games and played through injuries (shin contusion), as has Thompson (ankle sprain and back injury) and, most recently, Green (injuries to both legs).
Finally, I think it has to be said that voters love a good storyline. Popovich and Carlisle are great, but that’s expected at this point in their careers because they’ve won so many games and been successful for years. I can see voters going with Walton because of the fact that he came out of nowhere and is now making history. That’s just too good of a storyline for voters to ignore. You may think it’s stupid that the storyline factors in, but I can tell you that some voters love that stuff.
With all of that said, there are two scenarios that could derail Walton’s shot at the award.
The first one is the Warriors completely falling apart in the second half of the season. Keep in mind, they played more games than any other team last year due to their Finals run and had a shorter offseason than every West team. If fatigue sets in or even more injuries pile up, Walton may not cruise to the award. In fact, that’s when the criticism could star (fair or not). However, I find this scenario relatively unlikely given how well this team is playing and how they’ve managed to overcome obstacles thus far.
The other scenario has a much greater probability: Coach Kerr coming back relatively soon and taking his job back. For the record, I hope this happens because it would mean Kerr is finally pain free and no longer dealing with his health issues; get well soon, Coach. But if this does happen, Walton likely doesn’t win the award since – even though he was terrific – he would’ve only coached the team for half of the season.
There’s still plenty of basketball to be played and a lot can happen between now and the end of the campaign. However, from what we’ve seen so far, I think Walton has to be considered the frontrunner.