Head to Head: NBA Coach of the Year Race

We independently review everything we recommend based on our strict editorial guidelines. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Learn More

Now that we are halfway through the 2015-16 NBA season, it seems like an appropriate time to evaluate which coaches have done the best job leading their respective team. In today’s Head to Head, Ben Dowsett, Moke Hamilton and Alex Kennedy discuss which sideline general they feel is the current frontrunner in the Coach of the Year race.

Ben Dowsett: Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks

Determining the Coach of the Year in the NBA is about more than just picking the most visible bench boss from the league’s few elite teams. Maximization of available talent is the key – how much is a given coach adding to his group, both visibly and behind the scenes, above and beyond his peers? Are his schemes optimizing his personnel? Are his developmental tactics bringing players along at a high rate? And how are these factors contributing to team success?

Through this lens, though it’s impossible to discount the incredible work being done by Luke Walton and Gregg Popovich as their respective teams chase NBA history, your Coach of the Year leader through nearly half the season should be Dallas’ Rick Carlisle. His counterparts in Golden State and San Antonio have perfectly good cases, but even with Carlisle’s Mavs well behind them in the standings, no coach has done more with less on the year.

Consider the turnover Dallas has undergone since last season – one after which many labeled their multi-decade run of contention finally over. Five of the Mavs’ nine highest minute loggers from the 2014-15 season are now elsewhere, including a pair in Monta Ellis and Tyson Chandler who played the two most minutes of any Maverick last year. Dallas’ new highest volume players? In order: Wesley Matthews (not a year removed from Achilles’ surgery), 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, Zaza Pachulia, Raymond Felton (played under 10 minutes a game last year for this same team) and Deron Williams (left for dead as a star player by, well, everyone).

No matter. Dallas is humming along at five games over .500, tossing egg white all over those who predicted they’d be in the lottery and perhaps even subtly tanking to keep a top-seven protected pick they owe to Boston in the upcoming draft. Carlisle has coaxed a top-10 offense and a roughly league average defense out of a group that looked like a strange mix of veterans and misfits heading into the season.

Their 23-18 record is perhaps slightly deceiving – their Pythagorean win percentage (based on point margin) suggests they’re more like a 21-20 team. But Carlisle is also maybe responsible for some of this; Dallas ranks fourth in the league for per-possession net rating during “clutch” play (under five minutes remaining in regulation or overtime, score within five in either direction), and boasts a 13-10 record in these games.

These figures can often be very noisy and reflective more of chance than any skill on the court or behind the bench, but with the Mavs now over 100 such minutes on the season (only the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets have played more), a trend is beginning to appear. It becomes even clearer with a look at previous seasons: six of Carlisle’s eight in Dallas have seen his Mavericks perform as one of the top 10 teams in the league during clutch minutes, including five that have been among the league’s five best for a given year. The poise and readiness he instills in his group clearly separates him from many of his peers, and this year it’s done them a couple favors in the win column.

Others have more successful teams and flashier results so far this year, but no one has added as much to his group both on the court and off than Rick Carlisle. He should remain a viable candidate alongside the Waltons and the Pops of the world if the Mavs continue this unexpected success.

Moke Hamilton: Gregg Popovich

The Golden State Warriors have made NBA history, already. At this point, though, it is safe to assume that it is not the only type of history they are chasing. Very quietly, though, the San Antonio Spurs have found themselves right where they have been every year for what seems to be the duration of Tim Duncan’s career.

The Spurs, despite losing some key members of their rotation from the past few years, are near the top of the Western Conference as they’re accustomed to being. Gone are Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli and Cory Joseph, yet still, somehow, the Spurs have reinvented themselves on the fly.

Now, firmly built around Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs are just two games behind the Warriors in the standings. The two teams are poised to square off on January 25 in a battle that has been widely anticipated and discussed for the majority of the first half of the season.

Despite the Warriors’ success, the fact that the Spurs have been so good while making big changes and getting new players acclimated shows why Gregg Popovich deserves serious consideration for Coach of the Year. Popovich is a three-time winner of the award, but one would be hard-pressed to argue against his deserving the honor for the fourth time in his career.

Entering play on January 19, the Spurs have the league’s best defense by a wide margin, allowing just 89.6 points per game; meanwhile the second best team, the Miami HEAT, is allowing 95.5 per game. The Spurs also rank sixth in the league in points per game as well as third in the league in assists per game.

From top to bottom and left to right, the Spurs can certainly produce evidence that suggests they are the top team in the NBA. That Popovich has done this while reinventing his team around Leonard and Aldridge could similarly be evidence of him doing his finest coaching job ever.

I can’t wait until January 25.

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.

Do you agree with Ben, Moke or Alex? Do you have a different head coach in mind? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.