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Coach of the Year Race Highlights Different Styles

What makes this year’s Coach of the Year race particularly intriguing is how different each candidates’ situations have been, writes Matt John.

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Though there are still a few weeks left in the NBA regular season, a fair number of award races have already wrapped up. The Most Valuable Player race has been fun, but James Harden has been the consensus choice. The Most Improved Player award has some good candidates, but that award has Victor Oladipo’s name on it.

Not all the awards are set in stone. The Rookie of the Year race has been an exciting one thanks to a loaded class, but at this point, it’s a two-man race between Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons. There has, however, been one award with no clear favorite this season: Coach of the Year.

Coach of the Year is one of the more fascinating awards in the NBA because there are assorted reasons, listed below, for why a head coach can win the honor.

1. Health: The team has played well despite many injuries and/or season-ending injuries to its best player(s).
2. Roster Turnover: The team has played just as well or even better than last season despite the substantial roster changes it went through coming in.
3. Evolution: Even with basically the same roster, the team has played better overall.

A coach can also be in the conversation because of a combination of the above factors. Because of this, there are a plethora of worthy candidates for the Coach of the Year Award this season with no clear favorite. The three factors mentioned above are why the following coaches are in the discussion.

Health

Gregg Popovich: As long as his name is in the NBA, Pop will always be in the Coach of Year discussion, and this season is no different.

Poppovich’s calling card this season has been keeping the Spurs in the tough Western Conference playoff race despite missing superstar Kawhi Leonard for most of the season. What’s even more impressive is that the Spurs currently have the second-best defensive rating in the league (101.9) despite missing the two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. The fact that the Spurs have done this while relying on the likes of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Joffrey Lauvergne for production is yet another testament to Pop’s genius.

Alvin Gentry: It wasn’t too long ago that Gentry was on the hot seat in New Orleans, but his coaching in the wake of the Pelicans’ injuries cannot go unnoticed.

Gentry came into the season with a huge hole at the wing with Solomon Hill out with a hamstring injury. The Pelicans kept it steady thanks to the dynamic duo of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Once Cousins went down with his Achilles injury, many believed the Pelicans’ playoff chances went down with him. But, with the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic, the Pelicans have gone 16-10 since Cousins’ injury and are within range of a playoff spot. Gentry’s coaching has played a huge role in them staying strong despite the adversity.

Roster Turnover

Nate McMillan: McMillan was given almost an entirely different roster this season. With Paul George and Jeff Teague (among others) gone and fresh faces like Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in the fold, the Pacers were expected to rebuild. Somehow, McMillan and the Pacers have exceeded all expectation this season. They currently have the fifth seed in the east, Oladipo is the league’s newest superstar, and Indiana is going to finish with a better record than they did last season with George.

Managing an almost entirely different roster is no easy task no matter how much talent is on the roster. McMillan deserves a fair share of the credit for Indiana’s seamless transition from the Paul George era and its unexpectedly very bright future ahead.

Quin Snyder: Snyder was in the exact same boat as McMillan. His roster had taken a turn for the worse on paper, having lost team star Gordon Hayward and other key contributors. Utah started 19-28, but once their schedule became easier and guys got healthier, the Jazz took off. Amazingly, they have since gone 23-4 since then, thanks primarily to the brilliant play from both Rudy Gobert and hotshot rookie Donovan Mitchell.

Snyder’s coaching has looked as brilliant as it has ever been. Not only because of how well he’s done despite how much the team lost last summer, but because of how much he’s gotten out of his role players such as Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, and even Royce O’Neale. Mitchell has been a revelation as well, but the Jazz would not be where they are without Snyder’s play-calling.

 

Evolution

Mike D’Antoni: D’Antoni won the award last year, so it’s hard to envision him winning again since a coach has never won the award two years in a row. Yet somehow, D’Antoni has an even better case to win this season than he did last. Harden has been the league’s most valuable player, Chris Paul has been integrated into the team flawlessly, and Houston has the league’s best point differential.

However, what helps D’Antoni’s case more than anything this season has been the Rockets’ defense. D’Antoni’s Achilles heel has always been his teams’ lackluster defense, but this season, he’s flipped the script. Thanks to Clint Capela’s improvement, along with the team’s improved defensive personnel such as Paul, PJ Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute, Houston has the league’s seventh-best defensive rating (104.1), which shows that D’Antoni can coach defense if he has the assets to do so. Factor that in with everything else that Houston has done, and D’Antoni has a very good case to win his third Coach of the Year award.

Dwane Casey: For the past several seasons, Casey has done an excellent job coaching the Raptors, but this season has easily been his best. The Raptors have been regarded as an above average team for a while now, but they’ve finally taken that big step towards title contention.

Because of Casey’s coaching revisions, the Raptors went from dead last in overall assists to sixth, their point differential has almost doubled. They have the third-highest net rating in the league. The Raptors are talented, deep, and versatile, which on paper should be enough to power them to an extended run in the playoffs. Whether the Raptors can keep this up in the postseason remains to be seen, but Casey’s coaching has been impressive enough to earn him the honor.

Hybrid

Brad Stevens: The Celtics did some major re-tooling last summer, getting rid of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Crowder while bringing in Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Jayson Tatum, among others. Expectations were as high as they had ever been in the Brad Stevens era, but tragedy struck five minutes into the season when Hayward went down with a broken leg and a dislocated ankle.

Miraculously, Stevens has led the Celtics to the East’s second seed with a 51-23 record despite the team’s injuries. Besides Hayward, the team has lost Irving, Marcus Smart, and Daniel Theis for the rest of the regular season. Stevens’ name has been floated in the Coach of the Year conversation since his second season in the league, but this year might just be his year.

Honorable mentions: Terry Stotts, Brett Brown

Whoever wins Coach of the Year this season really is anyone’s guess. It will really come down to what voters value the most, but no matter who gets the award, one thing is for sure:

This season’s Coach of the Year race has one of the deepest pool of candidates in NBA history.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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