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Head-to-Head: Coach of the Year (So Far)

Mike Budenholzer, Dwane Casey and Steve Kerr are the three frontrunners for COY so far.

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Over time, the Coach of the Year award has lost a lot of its luster. It’s still a great honor, but when recipients are fired shortly after – or not even brought back like in the case of George Karl a couple of seasons ago with the Denver Nuggets, it’s hard to make too much of it. It’s actually developed a reputation for being something like the kiss of death that most coaches fear winning. After all, increased expectations do often follow, and the NBA livelihood of a head coach has seemingly never been shorter. If a shakeup is needed, letting go of the head coach is often one of the top options on the board.

However, there remains no better way to give a head coach proper credit than by mentioning him as a Coach of the Year candidate, so we asked three of our senior writers, Lang Greene, Nate Duncan and Jessica Camerato, to tell us who has earned their vote as the top coach so far:

The annual NBA Coach of the Year award has become somewhat of a gift and a curse. Often times the coach who takes home the hardware ends up on the unemployment line shortly thereafter. But what can’t be argued is that the sideline general who wins the annual recognition typically puts their franchise in a position to win at a high level.

Winning in Toronto, consistently, hasn’t been easy for those who have taken over the job. Top tier talent routinely ignores overtures from the franchise in free agency and the mainstream coverage is often lacking.

However, the job Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has put together in Toronto this season simply cannot be ignored. The Raptors currently sit third in the Eastern Conference standings and are on their way to consecutive Atlantic Division crowns.

Now the argument can surely be made that the Atlantic Division is the weakest in basketball at the moment, but Casey has kept the club competitive despite All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan missing half of the season due to injury.

Let’s look deeper at the numbers:

Toronto ranks third in the entire league in points per game (107.7), sixth in effective field goal percentage (.558) and has fared pretty well versus the Western Conference’s top eight teams (3-4). Digging deeper, Casey’s nightly bench rotation ranks fifth in the Association, averaging a strong 40.4 points per contest.

But where a coach’s true effectiveness resides is their ability to get their superior team to play strong basketball against inferior opponents. The Raptors are 15-2 against teams under .500 around the league and averaging double-digit victories in those contests.

There will be other coaches that possess more overall talent at their disposal garnering attention in the Coach of the Year race. But Casey has overcome a major injury to a star player, fares well against over .500 teams, motivates his squad against lesser opposition and he’s at the helm of one of the best teams in the entire league.

– Lang Greene

The Coach of the Year award too often defaults to a proxy for which team has improved the most. But in the case of the Atlanta Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer, it is justified. What the Hawks are doing can no longer be dismissed as a fluke. Atlanta now leads the Eastern Conference by three games at 28-8, sporting the number eight defense and the number five defense by points per possession (per Nylon Calculus). A year ago, the Hawks were 16th and 14th, respectively, as they stumbled to a 38-44 record and -0.3 net rating. The return of Al Horford from injury is not to be discounted, but he alone cannot explain the transformation. Simply put, the Hawks don’t have anywhere near the individual talent level to be the third-best team in basketball at the moment. It is a well-worn ethos that superstars drive wins in the NBA, and the Hawks do not have a single player who ranks clearly among the NBA’s top 20.

As a San Francisco resident, I am treated to the nightly brilliance of the Golden State Warriors at every Oracle Arena home game. Steve Kerr and his staff have done a wonderful job, and he very likely will win Coach of the Year if they keep up anything like this sort of pace. However, the Warriors won 51 games a year ago, while many deemed them to have underperformed relative to their talent level. If healthy, it made sense for the Warriors to potentially touch 60 wins. With Atlanta, nobody saw this coming.

It may be unfair to let last year’s performance and preseason expectations play such a large role in Coach of the Year talk, but that is not the only reason Budenholzer gets my vote. Unlike with some past CoY seasons, this surprise season is not only individual players breaking out. The Hawks are universally regarded as extremely well-coached on both ends. Defensively, every player has mastered the scouting report–the Hawks help only when they need to, and only help off the right guys. They know individuals’ tendencies as well as any team in the league, and are masters at taking away what the opponent likes to do.

On offense, Budenholzer is lauded for having some of the best sets and after-time-out plays (ATOs). But more importantly, the Hawks move the ball patiently for great shots. Certainly the one-on-one and pick-and-roll abilities of players like Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap deserve credit, but the Hawks’ ball-movement helps make everyone a threat at any time. Budenholzer has been instrumental in developing a philosophy based around the fact that nearly everyone in Atlanta’s rotation can shoot, and it is beautiful basketball. With the recent struggles in Chicago and Toronto, Atlanta is looking like a slight favorite to make the Finals. Budenholzer and his staff deserve much of the credit.

– Nate Duncan

Was there supposed to be a learning curve? If so, Steve Kerr didn’t get the memo.

In his first season as an NBA head coach, Kerr has led the Golden State Warriors to the best record in the league. The team kicked off the season with a five-game winning streak, followed that up with 16 straight victories and keeps on pushing.

Kerr had the luxury of stepping into the situation with an established roster that already included the dynamic duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Nothing was guaranteed, though. The Warriors were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last year and are battling in the competitive Western Conference.

What has been impressive is how Kerr has kept the Warriors’ winning momentum throughout the season. They didn’t let up after their hot start and have not lost more than two games in a row. The Warriors are consistently playing high-level basketball.

Improvement is key to a team’s long-term success, and players have increased their production this season under Kerr. Thomspon is averaging more than 20 points a game for the first time in his career. Draymond Green is averaging 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game as a starter, up from 6.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists last season in a lesser role. The Warriors as a whole are scoring a league-best 109.2 points per game (compared to 104.3 last season) and outscoring their opponents with a +10.9 differential (up from +4.8).

The fact the Warriors are winning at this level with Kerr just a few months into his coaching career makes him the frontrunner in this category.

– Jessica Camerato

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