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Head to Head: NBA’s Coach of the Year So Far?

Who deserves the Coach of the Year award at this point in the NBA season? Our experts debate.

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The 2014-15 NBA season has passed the halfway point, so some teams are starting to separating themselves from the pack. Just as teams are displaying their dominance, a number of head coaches are doing the same.

This year’s Coach of the Year race will be an interesting one, if the first half of the season is any indication. We asked our Basketball Insiders experts Eric Pincus, Lang Greene and Yannis Koutroupis to discuss who they feel deserves Coach of the Year at this point in the season.

Mike Budenholzer

It shouldn’t be surprise that Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer will represent the Eastern Conference All-Star squad on the bench, although his success with the Atlanta Hawks was certainly unexpected at the start of the season.

Atlanta, riddled with injuries last year (notably to center Al Horford), barely finished as the eighth seed in the East with a 38-44 record.

The Hawks (36-8) have since made a significant leap, owing a sizable advantage ahead of teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers (23-20), Chicago Bulls (28-16), Toronto Raptors (27-15) and Washington Wizards (29-14).

Only the Golden State Warriors (35-6) can boast a better record, and while the Warriors play in the more-competitive Western Conference, Atlanta has won 14 in a row and 26 of 28, including victories over the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Bulls and Cavaliers.

Budenholzer has his players out-scoring teams by 7.1 points a night.  The team is among the top shooting teams at 48.2 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from three-point range.

The Hawks also play very good defense, holding teams to 43.4 percent and 33.1 percent, respectively. Atlanta and Golden State are the only teams ranked in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency.

Atlanta may land some players on the All-Star team to play for their coach, but the Hawks don’t have any transcendent superstars.  The Hawks don’t have a Stephen Curry, but they play as a team.

Budenholzer is helping to guide quality players like Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Kyle Korver to some of the best basketball played in the NBA this season.

At the midway point of the 2014-15 season, Budenholzer has the strongest case to be named Coach of the Year.

– Eric Pincus

Steve Kerr

Say what you want about how talented the team he inherited is, Steve Kerr did not walk into an easy situation. Former Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson was as beloved by his players as he was loathed by ownership and management. Winning over that locker room was no easy task, despite how seamless and easy Kerr has made it seem.

Without any major additions this offseason and the team’s two starting big men from last year injured for a good portion of the season so far, Kerr has the Warriors atop the league’s standings with a 35-6 mark. The Atlanta Hawks, winners of 15 straight, are the talk of the league right now with how good they’ve been this season, yet they are two losses behind the Warriors, just to put into perspective how much better Golden State has been than the rest of the league.

Kerr came in with a championship pedigree as a player and front office experience, but without any coaching experience whatsoever the Warriors’ decision to hire him was viewed as questionable by many – myself included. He’s ultimately going to be graded by how he does in the postseason, but up to this point it’s hard to imagine any coach, even those with far more experience, doing a better job than he has done so far.

The Warriors are less than a point off of leading the league in scoring with 110.4 points per 100 possessions. They lead the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, giving up just 96.9 a night. Kerr has emphasized a more ball-movement heavy offense than the isolation-based attack Jackson used last year, and it has led to career years for Draymond Green, Marreese Speights, Harrison Barnes and most notably – Klay Thompson. Thompson, coming off of a record-setting 52-point outburst against the Sacramento Kings in which he scored 37 points in the third quarter alone, is now regarded as one of the league’s premier shooting guards – in the same class as Houston Rockets MVP candidate James Harden.

Although not a general manager anymore, Kerr was very vocal in his opposition of trading Thompson for Kevin Love. That’s a franchise-altering decision, just like the call to replace Jackson with Kerr. It may not have been a call that a lot of others would make, but it’s turned out to be the right one as Kerr is the clear choice for Coach of the Year.

– Yannis Koutroupis

Randy Wittman

The annual NBA Coach of the Year award has morphed into becoming somewhat of a gift and a curse. In recent years, coaches who have taken home the award quickly find themselves standing in the unemployment line shortly thereafter. However, the importance of an elite sideline general, one who can massage locker room egos and incorporate a winning strategy, is critical for a franchise ascending in the league’s hierarchy.

The job Randy Wittman is doing with the Washington Wizards must be respected. Some felt the Wizards would eventually be able to turn the corner led by All-Star guard John Wall, but the vast majority of folks believed if it happened, Wittman would be long gone.

But Wittman has silenced his critics, leading the Wizards to their first playoff appearance since 2008 last season and he currently has the franchise on pace for its first 50-win campaign since 1979.

One of Wittman’s strongest attributes has been his ability on the defensive side of the ball. Last summer, the Wizards lost forward Trevor Ariza to free agency and replaced him with future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. While Pierce is one of the best players the league has seen in the past 30 years, the veteran is nowhere near the defender Ariza was on the perimeter for the Wizards. So, in turn, most expected the Wizards to fall off the cliff defensively.

It hasn’t happened.

The Wizards have the sixth-best defensive rating (DefRtg) in the league this season giving up 99.9 points per 100 possessions. Offensively the Wizards are far from lacking, ranking in the top 10 in field goal percentage, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, three-point percentage and fastbreak scoring.

The Wizards’ roster runs the gamut of the NBA player journey. From future Hall of Famer, to players winding down their careers, young players, current All-Stars and mid-career guys. Yet, Wittman has been able to get the most out of the group and more importantly get the entire group to buy in.

There are bigger names out there who will get a lot of mainstream attention – and rightfully so. But ignoring the work Wittman is putting in with the Wizards would be lazy.

– Lang Greene

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