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Coach Of The Year Watch

David Yapkowitz breaks down early Coach of the Year favorites.

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We’re coming up on about one month into the NBA season and there have been some interesting storylines so far regarding possible Coach of the Year candidates.

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics have withstood a season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward while incorporating several new players. Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic have gotten off to surprisingly good starts.

In the Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies have adapted to the loss of several key players while the Houston Rockets, playing without Chris Paul since the season opener, haven’t missed a beat. And don’t overlook the young Timberwolves who have also started the season strong.

Here’s a look a six of the early Coach of the Year candidates, in reverse order.

6) Mike D’Antoni

Last season, the Western Conference was thought to be a two-team race between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. For the most part, that was true, but the Rockets emerged as a team to be taken seriously. Mike D’Antoni moved James Harden to full-time point guard and the result was career-highs in points (29.1) and assists (11.2), the Rockets finishing third in the conference at 55-27, and D’Antoni taking home the Coach of the Year award.

This offseason, the Rockets added Chris Paul in hopes of closing the gap between them and the Warriors, but Paul has been sidelined since the season opener with a knee injury. Although the Rockets will need Paul if they want any chance at competing with the Warriors in the playoffs, they’ve managed to play through his injury so far.

The main staple of D’Antoni teams has always been high-powered offenses. The Rockets have used their strong offense to sit atop the Western Conference at 9-3. They are scoring 110.5 points per game, good enough for fourth in the league. There are four players averaging double figures in points, including a career-high 22.8 for Eric Gordon. Depending on how long Paul is out, and how much the injury affects him going forward, D’Antoni could find himself in the conversation once again for Coach of the Year.

5) Tom Thibodeau

Last season was the first time in Tom Thibodeau’s head coaching career that one of his teams finished with a losing record. He always got the most out of his Chicago Bulls teams and they became a playoff staple in the Eastern Conference. He had a young, inexperienced team last year and as President of Basketball Operations as well, he made sure he had a more balanced roster of young guys and veterans this year.

Jimmy Butler emerged as the last pick in the first round of the 2011 draft to a franchise caliber player under Thibodeau. Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks had career years under Thibodeau in Chicago. He added those guys plus Jamal Crawford to help balance the youth and experience on the Wolves roster. So far, it has paid off as the Wolves currently sit in the top four in the West. It was expected that they’d have a shot at the playoffs, but thanks to Thibodeau, home court advantage in the first round isn’t out of the question.

Thibodeau’s teams have always been recognized as strong defensive squads, and he’s often given much credit for the suffocating defense the Boston Celtics used in route to the 2008 championship. The Wolves, however, are giving up 111.2 points per game which is 27th in the league. If they can get the defense tightened up a bit, and hold on to the top four spot, Thibodeau might be looking at his second Coach of the Year award.

4) Frank Vogel

In Frank Vogel’s first four seasons as head coach of the Indiana Pacers, the team improved every year, made a few Conference Finals, and emerged as the only semi-legitimate threat to the Miami HEAT. The only year the Pacers missed the playoffs under Vogel was the 2014-15 season, and that was when Paul George missed pretty much the entire year with an injury.

This past summer, the Orlando Magic cleaned out their front office and brought in a new management team. They appear to have a clear direction, unlike last season, and they are thriving under Vogel. Aaron Gordon is playing his natural position at power forward and his having an All-Star caliber year. Evan Fournier is having a career year as well, and Vogel has taken advantage of Jonathon Simmons’ versatile skill set and has him closing games as the team’s point guard.

The Magic have not made the playoffs since Dwight Howard was traded back in 2012. Vogel’s teams have only missed the playoffs twice: once in Indiana when missing his star player, and last year when the Magic were out of sorts. Vogel has the Magic in the top ten in the league in scoring at 109.3 points per game. His Pacer teams were always tough and gritty defensively and this season he has the Magic in the top half of the league defensively. Their 105.6 points given up are right at 15th. It was unclear whether or not the Magic would be a legitimate playoff contender, but they’ve shown early on that playoffs are the goal. If they maintain their current pace, Vogel could be looking at his first Coach of the Year award.

3) Stan Van Gundy

Although he eventually resigned his position, under Stan Van Gundy, the HEAT improved each year he was there and looked well on their way to becoming the eventual championship team they became in 2006. His Orlando teams were a perennial playoff contender and in only his second year with the Magic, he took them to the Finals. He hasn’t seen that type of success in Detroit just yet, but it’s looking like they may have finally turned the corner.

The Pistons have come out of the gates with the second-best record in the East. They had an impressive West Coast road swing last month where, albeit losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, they beat the Warriors and Clippers. Stanley Johnson, who has seen uneven playing time in the past under Van Gundy, has been placed in the starting lineup and is responding accordingly. Although his numbers don’t jump off the page (8.5 points, 40.3 percent shooting), Van Gundy’s trust in him has seemingly done well for his confidence and he’s become an integral piece of the team. Tobias Harris is also having a career year, and Andre Drummond has seemingly returned to the All-Star form he displayed during the 2015-16 season.

Van Gundy has also been known as a good defensive coach, and the Pistons are currently giving up 100.8 points per game, good enough for 8th in the league. They’re scoring well too at 105.6 points per game. Prior to the beginning of the season, the Pistons were another team on the bubble. They could be a playoff team, but they could very easily not be as well. Unless the Cleveland Cavaliers get their act together, the East appears wide open. Van Gundy has had teams that have done very well in the regular season and if they can keep this up, he’ll be in the conversation for Coach of the Year.

2) Dave Fizdale

It’s not easy to bounce back when a team loses several key players like the Grizzlies did this summer after the departures of Tony Allen, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph. Even before this year, the Grizzlies have been overlooked and ignored yet like a lite version of the Spurs, they defy expectations and remain a force in the tough West. In his first ever season as a head coach, Fizdale kept Memphis competitive and they even put up a fight against the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

This season, despite their roster losses, Fizdale has taken a mostly young group and has them right in the thick of things in the West. They have impressive wins over the Warriors, the Rockets (twice), the Clippers, and the Trail Blazers. He’s taken James Ennis III and Jarell Martin, two guys who haven’t always had a defined role, and put them in the starting lineup where they’ve thrived. He’s moved rookie Dillon Brooks in the starting lineup as well.

Fizdale is also developing a reputation as one of the better defensive coaches in the league. Last year, the Grizzlies’ 100 points given up per night was good enough for third in the league. This season, they’re only giving up 98 points per game. Their offense is solid as well at 101.5 points per game. The Grizzlies look like they’re not content with just making the playoffs, they’re fighting for a top-four spot and home-court advantage in the first round. The West was supposed to be especially tough this season with several All-Star players shifting over from the East. Despite that, here are the Grizzlies right in the middle of it. Should this continue, Fizdale should be near the top when it comes to the Coach of the Year voting.

1) Brad Stevens

When Brad Stevens first became head coach of the Celtics in 2013, it was unclear whether not he could make the leap from college to the NBA. Since then, he’s established himself as one of the best coaches in the league. The Celtics have improved every year under Stevens, and while the team hasn’t always been one of the most talented in the league, Stevens has always gotten the most out of them.

The Celtics were dealt what could have been a crushing blow in their season opener. Their prized free agent signing, Gordon Hayward, went down with an injury that was later revealed to be a season-ending one. Not only were they down perhaps their second-best player, but the Celtics went through a roster turnover that left them with ten new players. Despite that, the Celtics not only have the best record in the East, they have the best record in the entire league. Stevens has transformed the Celtics into a legit threat to Cleveland’s dominance.

One of Stevens’ calling cards since arriving in the NBA is defense. Currently, Boston is the best defensive team in the league. They are only giving up 94.6 points per game, the best in the NBA. Kyrie Irving has taken his game to levels not previously seen. The Celtics are showing no signs of slowing down and, should Cleveland recover manage to get their act together, they could be in for a tough fight.

Should each of these teams mentioned continue their current pace, all of these coaches would be worthy of winning Coach of the Year. However, based on the circumstances surrounding Boston, from losing Hayward to having a high roster turnover, Stevens has to be the clear early favorite. It doesn’t matter much what these other teams do, the Coach of the Year award is looking like it’s Stevens’ to lose.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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