Who's Leading The NBA Coach of the Year Race?

The NBA Coach of the Year isn’t exactly a flashy award compared to the praises that are given to players. Fans and analysts spend the season talking about the Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA teams, but the Coach award doesn’t get nearly the same attention. But it should.

Coaching in the NBA is hard. An easy sentence to say, but coaching the best basketball players on Earth is incredibly difficult. Getting them to buy in on both ends with the schemes that have been chosen to run or perhaps getting some players to buy into smaller roles than they believe they are worthy of (most players deep down want to be the guy, not the guy leading the bench unit). There are so many layers to coaching.

That’s why in reality, there aren’t 30 elite coaches in the NBA. There simply aren’t. This is why the coaching carousel moves so quickly. Sometimes too much so, particularly in cities like Sacramento and New York among others. It’s also why five of the head coaches that started the season are now unemployed. Expectations are high and unfortunately not everyone can do well.

This can also be down to the culture that is created around the coach by either the coach himself or the organization who hired him. Upper management (meaning the front office and ownership) play a role just as important as the coach does to success on the court. Patience, knowing how involved to be (or how much not to be) are vital in sustaining a culture that breeds success.

San Antonio is the model for this, and it’s probably why Gregg Popovich has won only three Coach of the Year awards despite stunning years of consistency and success. The Spurs are simply so good that 50 plus wins is the norm. This year (barring disaster) will be their 17th straight 50 win season. That is phenomenal. But that’s the value of having the right people in place to create a culture of winning.

So who’s making the biggest impact on their teams this season that merits consideration for the award? The aforementioned Popovich is an obvious candidate. Arguably already the best coach in the league and one of the greatest of all time, Popovich has worked in new acquisitions such as LaMarcus Aldridge and David West seamlessly. Kawhi Leonard has shaped as a legitimate MVP candidate in a non-Steph Curry season, leading the league’s best defense. Combined with the league’s 3rd best offense, Popovich’s case stacks up well against the rest.

The Steve Kerr/Luke Walton combination in Golden State perhaps should take home the award alongside the championship they currently look like winning. 52-5 at the time of writing, with a historically good offense (a ridiculous 112.5 points per 100 possessions) and 3rd best defense (that coasts half the time nowadays), they are undoubtedly one of the best coached teams in the league. They lost brilliant offensive mind Alvin Gentry to New Orleans and haven’t missed a beat. Considering this is very much the same group of players who Mark Jackson had, it’s all the more impressive the better they get.

But there are dark horses clouding the race, and this is where the decision gets complicated. Terry Stotts is currently the coach making headlines as a potential candidate. Damian Lillard’s All-Star snub has seen him playing out of his mind since players returned from the break, and a Blazers squad predicted to win around 25 games in preseason predictions currently stands at 30-27.

They are fast becoming a team none of the Western Conference elite want to see in the first round of the playoffs. Their offense is 7th in the league and climbing, and if they can make the right additions this offseason in free agency (a rim protector and more quality) with plenty of cap space to use to find that, the Blazers could fast forward their supposed rebuild far ahead of what anyone could have predicted. Neil Olshey is fast making a case of his own for Executive of the Year.

In the process of Stotts’ and the Blazers success, they make a similar case to the one of Rick Carlisle, who has somehow managed to coax a 30-28 record out of a veteran Mavericks unit full of players who are on the downslide of their careers. They are currently on the slide having lost six of their last eight, but there’s no doubting Carlisle can still make a case for the award if he can maintain the pace they have set all season long.

Meanwhile in the Eastern Conference there are some worthy candidates in their own right. The Boston Celtics have surprised everyone outside of Massachusetts and are a startling 9 games above .500 with a 34-25 record. They have both a top 10 defense (5th) and offense (10th), one of only six teams in the league who can boast that. They have a team of versatile defenders able to switch onto multiple positions, with a set of bigs who make life tough at the rim. With cap space for potentially one or two stars in the summer, Brad Stevens team could be about to take another leap in the offseason.

But what the supposedly inexperienced coach is doing right now is outstanding, and he is coaching the absolute best from his team. His out of timeout play calling is amongst the league’s best, and to be doing so well (even in the East) with his current group of players merits serious consideration.

Maybe it’s because of the city he coaches in, but for whatever reason Dwane Casey has not gotten a lot of the Coach of the Year buzz. But the Toronto Raptors coach absolutely should be considered come the end of the season. The Raptors are only 3 games behind the Conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers with an outstanding 38-18 record, which is currently 5th best in the league.

The Raptors have been led by their all star backcourt Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and have somehow managed to be 20 games above .500 despite having to start Luis Scola most nights. They are loaded with depth, and have so much of it they can’t get all their young stars the minutes they’d like to. Regardless of the fact he hasn’t been getting recognition, that doesn’t mean Casey shouldn’t. He’s a bonafide candidate.

There are plenty of worthy winners, and it might come down to personal preference by the writers who vote for the award. No doubting though that this year’s race will be tight, and it will soon be decided whether voters prefer amazing overachievement or downright excellent and domination.