With the regular season winding down, there are several candidates for NBA Coach of the Year. Let’s dive in to the case for each coach to win the award.
Coaching is one of the hardest things to evaluate in professional sports. How can we truly tell when a coach is doing a good or bad job? When a team exceeds expectations, do we give most of the recognition to the coach? Vice-versa, when a team underachieves, is the coach the person who deserves the most blame?
Because we as fans and analysts aren’t in the locker rooms, there’s no way of knowing the true reasons a team over/underachieves. but regardless, the head coach is the first person to receive acclaim or criticism.
The other tough thing to evaluate when handing out an award like Coach of the Year is which coaching job deserves the most success? Is it dramatically turning your team around from bottom three in the standings to the playoffs? Is it greatly exceeding expectations right from the start of the season?
Those story-lines are present in various ways with this season’s candidates for the award. From Mike D’Antoni and Scott Brooks to Erik Spoelstra, there are three clear candidates vying for the award this season. Before I get in to how I would rank the three coaches, let’s step back and gain some background information on past Coaches of the Year.
As Dar-Wei Chen pointed out in his article regarding the Coach of the Year race, there are certain indications that point to a clear front-runner this season: Mike D’Antoni. Those indications? How teams perform relative to their preseason expectations. Here’s the proof (from the award winners since the 2002-03 season):
Now that we have some history on the main reason why coaches are given the award, let’s evaluate how this season’s candidates fare:
There’s your reasoning as to why most people have D’Antoni as their front-runner this season. The Houston Rockets are blowing away their preseason expectations. Why isn’t the race decided already you may ask? Because the turnarounds that have occurred in Washington and Miami are nothing short of incredible.
So without further ado, let’s get to my rankings of the top three candidates for NBA Coach of the Year this season.
3) Erik Spoelstra
On January 14th, the Miami Heat were 11-30. Today they are 35-37. Let that sink in for a moment. Ready to move on? Great.
Since January 14th, the Heat have the best record in the entire league at 24-7. This is due to their elite play on both ends of the floor as they are fifth in offense and third in defense during this time period. That’s no joke.
The Heat are especially using effort and determination on the defensive end of the floor to win games. For the season, Miami has the fifth best defense in the league, and that’s with some of their best defenders like Josh Richardson (missed 29 games) and Justice Winslow (only played 18 games) missing significant time.
The turnaround in Miami is incredible, and sees them controlling their own destiny in the playoff race. The Heat currently sit in the eighth seed, one game ahead of both the Pistons and Bulls yet just 2.5 games out of the fifth seed!
The only problem is that there is a coach who carries a similar narrative for a team that is certainly a playoff contender.
2) Scott Brooks
Many people were extremely surprised when the Washington Wizards got off to a 7-13 start this season. After all, their Vegas over/under was 42.5 and many predicted they would at least be .500 and make the playoffs.
Well since then (December 6th), the Wizards have had a 36-15 record, good for third in the league. How have they done this you may ask? by riding an excellent starting lineup and offense. The Wizards’ starting lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat has played the most minutes in the league, and boast a very good net rating of 10.0.
As a team the Wizards have the fourth best net rating in the league since December 7th, as their offense has been sixth in the league and their defense has been eleventh in the league.
When Washington got off to that bad start, it would’ve been easy for them to point blame at each other and just go through the motions of another near .500 season. However, Brooks wouldn’t allow it to happen in his first season in D.C.. Brooks made some changes to stagger minutes more effectively, and his offensive game-plan is much evolved since his days in Oklahoma City.
For those reasons, Brooks should feel pretty good about his chances to win Coach of the Year. However, he’d feel a lot better if there wasn’t a team greatly exceeding expectations this season.
1) Mike D’Antoni
Referring to the chart from above, the Rockets have exceeded expectations in a way that no one expected. In that respect, Mike D’Antoni blows away the rest of the field for Coach of the Year.
D’Antoni has brought what most people expected to the Rockets: an elite offense that is extremely fun to watch. The Rockets are currently second in the league offensively and are having one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history. But many people expected that.
What people didn’t expect was that the Rockets would win nearly 70 percent of their games using that elite offense coupled with a league average (15th in the league) defense. The Rockets posted two winning streaks of at least nine games this season, and posted the league’s best record from December 1st to January 15th.
Another big reason D’Antoni should be rewarded this season is his ability to get James Harden (and other role players) to buy in to his system and culture. One of the first moves D’Antoni made when he was installed as head coach was move Harden to point guard, a move that, along with the right pieces alongside him, has produced one of, if not the best offensive season ever.
The Rockets are winning (a lot more than people expected), and their players have happily bought in to D’Antoni’s system. Therefore it’s time D’Antoni was rewarded with his second NBA Coach of the Year award.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com