With a league full of talented superstars and athletes doing all of the work on the court, we often forget that there is a method to the madness. Whether it’s determining rotations, drawing up plays or dealing with whatever obstacles get thrown in the way, coaches are essential to the success of a team.
In a season full of ups and downs, there are plenty of deserving candidates in the discussion for the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award.
With the playoffs less than a month away, here are the names that should be considered to win the prestigious accolade.
Tom Thibodeau – Minnesota Timberwolves
Before recently losing four straight, the Minnesota Timberwolves were in the conversation for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but the inexperience has caught up to them recently on the defensive end.
Aside from what’s happening now, this season has been an incredibly productive one for Thibodeau and his young Minnesota team. They’ve been solid in first halves, but have trouble keeping leads together. It will come with time, and with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as the foundation, the future looks very bright.
Mike Malone – Denver Nuggets
The emergence of Nikola Jokic as one of the most talented up-and-coming centers has helped, but as a whole, the Denver Nuggets are a top five offense in this league.
There have been injuries from time to time and Emmanuel Mudiay’s sophomore slump has disappointed, but the contributions across the board from Jokic, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Will Barton and the upstart Gary Harris have put the Nuggets in a position to potentially make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
THEY’VE GOT A SHOT
Gregg Popovich – San Antonio Spurs
What hasn’t been said about the wizard of NBA basketball? It’s not even necessary to break down Popovich’s track record of 19 straight – soon to be 20 straight – playoff appearances as the leader of the San Antonio Spurs. He’s got a system, and that system works year-in and year-out.
Kawhi Leonard is an absolute thrill to watch. Popovich has deemed him as the best two-way player in the league and he’s probably right. With an improved jump shot coming into this year, Leonard has been the focal point of an extremely efficient offense and an aggressive defense.
You can add whatever role players you want to this roster, and whoever it is, chances are Popovich will make it work. This year, it’s been David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon who have taken the responsibility in the rotation backing up LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, who was signed in the offseason.
He never fails this organization, and similar to the argument with LeBron James and the MVP, Popovich could win the Coach of the Year award every single season.
Scott Brooks – Washington Wizards
The beginning of Brooks’ tenure as head coach of the underachieving Washington Wizards didn’t get off to the best start. They lost five of their first six games. The group was playing as individuals. After scoring 52 points in a loss on December 6 to the Magic, John Wall called out his teammates for effort.
Since that day, the Wizards have responded by going 36-15, much in part to Wall and Bradley Beal’s contributions. But Brooks has gotten great efforts out of his role players like Markieff Morris and upcoming restricted free agent, Otto Porter Jr.
The success has come when Washington gets out in transition after forcing turnovers. Scoring 17.9 points per game off of miscues and 15.7 points per game on the fast break, they rank fifth in the league in both categories.
It’s been a couple of years since the Wizards have had swagger like this, and with the recent additions of Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings to increase depth, they could be a tough customer come playoff time.
WELL-DESERVING, IF CHOSEN
Quin Snyder – Utah Jazz
Over the course of three years, Snyder has established a true identity for the Utah Jazz. It’s a style that isn’t very popular these days in basketball anymore, but by sticking to the script, he’s rebuilt a franchise that was floundering when he took the reigns.
What’s that identity? Suffocating, in your face defense. Holding their opponents to a league-low 96.5 points per game, Utah forces teams to take bad shots because of their monster in the paint, Rudy Gobert, who is having a career season at just 24 years old.
On the offensive end, it’s been a methodical type of game for the Jazz, who are last in the NBA in pace and field goals attempted. They score the third-fewest points in the league with 100.4 per game, but they’re efficient in getting their points with a team true shooting percentage of 56.1.
Gordon Hayward’s been the go-to guy on this end and he’s having a career season on both sides, but the play of George Hill and even the improvement of a player like Joe Ingles has really helped Utah’s case as a potential second-round upset in the making over the top-seeded Warriors or Spurs.
Mike D’Antoni – Houston Rockets
When the master of the run-and-gun accepted the job as head coach for the Houston Rockets last summer, it was a match made in heaven. The plan for general manager Daryl Morey and D’Antoni was to surround James Harden with as many shooters as possible so he could transition him into a point guard role. Let’s just say the plan has worked to near perfection.
Regardless of what actually happens with the illustrious award, it’s been an MVP-worthy season for Harden. The pace of D’Antoni’s system with his style of play just connects naturally. The Beard is averaging 29.4 points, but he leads the league with 11.4 assists per game and ranks third among guards in rebounding. He’s getting to the line 11 times per game as well, which is also highest in the league.
What D’Antoni has done is force the opponents to choose: Defend Harden at the point of attack or secure a perimeter occupied by Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and, most recently, Lou Williams. There’s also option C, also known as throwing the lob for Clint Capela or Montrezl Harrell off the pick and roll if they can take away those first two plays.
Up to this point, it’s been a full-proof method that has worked almost flawlessly. A team that was in shambles at the end of last year with an undeserved playoff berth has now turned into an offensive juggernaut thanks to D’Antoni and a productive offseason. The Rockets are a real contender going into the playoffs, and it should be interesting to see how things shake out in the Western Conference.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Erik Spoelstra – Miami HEAT
Only three times has the Red Auerbach Trophy been bestowed upon a head coach who’s led a team to .500-record season or worse. The last time it happened was when Doc Rivers, in his first ever year as a coach 17 years ago, took over for Chuck Daly in Orlando.
Coming off of a 33-17 year, it was a team that had a complete roster makeover. Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson were both traded for new pieces and future first-round draft picks. Veteran big man Horace Grant was shipped off to Seattle for four players. It was a new beginning, so many had this franchise pegged for a down year during a rebuild. Rivers had different ideas, and in his inaugural season as a head coach, he led them to a 41-41 record and won Coach of the Year.
Although they’re two completely different scenarios as far as coaching experience is concerned, you can draw some similarities between that Magic team and this year’s group with the Miami HEAT.
Last summer, Pat Riley was unable to come to terms Dwyane Wade, who for the first time in his career jumped over to his hometown Chicago Bulls. The Miami legend wasn’t the only player they lost, either.
Over the past few seasons, Chris Bosh has been forced to stay off the court because of blood clots. His season was cut short last year on February 9, which is the last time he has appeared in a game. Things worsened before this season started, as he failed a physical and hasn’t been cleared to play since.
That’s two of the HEAT’s once-dominant “Big Three” that were gone in a matter of months for Spoelstra. It was the end of an era of amazing basketball in South Beach.
This year was assumed to be a rebuilding year for Miami. To compliment the team’s current core, Riley brought in an intriguing class of free agents: Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, Derrick Williams, Willie Reed and James Johnson. Undrafted rookie Rodney McGruder signed a multi-year deal and Luke Babbitt was acquired from the Pelicans in addition.
It’s been a trying season for Spoelstra, whose HEAT have struggled tirelessly to just stay healthy. Waiters tore his groin right before December started and missed over a month of action. As soon as he returned, second-year forward Justise Winslow tore the labrum in his right shoulder and was pronounced out for the season. Josh Richardson missed 19 games during that span as well.
That’s not even close to the level of adversity Miami’s faced. With multiple losing streaks in the opening months of the NBA season, the team hit a low point on January 13. After a 116-108 loss in Milwaukee, the HEAT dropped to 11-30. The record at the time was second-worst in the entire league behind only the Nets, and the franchise looked lottery-bound for the first time since LeBron James went back home to Cleveland.
But amidst all of the negativity, Spoelstra and his group didn’t quit. In a miraculous bounce-back stretch, Miami went on to win 13 straight games. They began to bring it on both ends of the floor, outscoring their opponents 109 to 99 while knocking down 49 percent of their shots and 42 percent from three. Over the course of 24 days, the HEAT had shot up from the basement of the East to putting themselves in the conversation for a playoff spot.
That alone made him a candidate for this award, but what Spoelstra has done for this team as a whole is really something. Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic have been nothing but spectacular, but their talent is more natural. What should really garner attention is the development of the HEAT’s youth.
Guys like McGruder, Reed and Okaro White, who were either undrafted or still finding their way in the D-League, have made significant contributions. He’s let Dion be Dion, and until his ankle injury sidelined him, Waiters was as confident and productive as he’s been in four years in the league. Tyler Johnson has been flourishing in a sixth man role. He’s gotten the best out of James Johnson, who has been essential as a scorer and top defender. He’s trusted Richardson by giving him a ton of minutes.
All of these things should be considered when discussing who truly deserves Coach of the Year, because not many other coaches in the league have faced a task as daunting as the one Spoelstra has taken head on.
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