Most years the NBA Coach of the Year award is pretty easy to predict. If a team that was predicted to be in the lottery makes the playoffs, the coach of that team ends up winning the award. If that doesn’t happen, then the coach of the playoff team that dealt with the most injuries tends to win the award. And, if for some reason, no team really dealt with major injuries, then either Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr, the leagues two best coaches, would likely walk away with the award. But this season isn’t like usual. Instead, as many as 10 coaches have realistic shots at the award.
What that means is the award could very well come down to a few down-ballot votes to push one of the candidates just far enough ahead of another to win. That makes trying to predict exactly who will win the award futile, but it does make for trying to handicap the race quite a bit of fun. Below are all the candidates that have a realistic case to win the award broken down by which of the aforementioned category they best fit into.
Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers: Perhaps no team in the league has outperformed expectations this season quite like the Pacers. After trading Paul George this summer, Indiana has reinvented itself around the likely Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo. McMillan deserves a ton of credit for that turnaround. Thanks to his encouragement, the Pacers have feasted all year long on the first open shot they get, even if it was a mid-range jumper. Getting an entire roster, especially with as many veterans as the Pacers have, to buy in isn’t easy and McMillan has done so. Most seasons, McMillan would be the runaway winner of the award. While he is probably the slight favorite right now it is hard to say with any confidence that he will definitely take home the title.
READ MORE: Injuries are ruining a great season
Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers: While McMillan and the Pacers have been the leagues biggest surprise this season, Stotts and his Blazers aren’t far behind. Heading into the season many expected the Blazers to be in the jumble of teams fighting for one of the final spots in the Western Conference playoffs. Instead, they currently look likely to finish as the third seed in the West behind only the two best teams in the NBA in the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Perhaps the most surprising part of the entire thing is that Portland is doing it with defense and not offense. Entering play on Sunday, Portland ranked as a top-10 team in defensive efficiency per ESPN.com. Considering the defensive limitations of Portland’s two best players, that is incredible scheme work from Stotts.
Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets: Everyone expected the Rockets to be good this season after adding Chris Paul and a host of very good role players to an already good roster. But there was plenty of worry about how quickly all those new players would adjust and how Paul would fit into the Rockets mid-rangeless offense. Turns out it all worked. Houston has been the best team in the NBA for the majority of the season and D’Antoni deserves a ton of credit for how quickly things came together.
Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors: It wasn’t that long ago that people were clamoring for Casey to be fired after yet another tough go of things during last season’s playoffs. Instead, Toronto stayed with their guy and Casey has rewarded them by completely changing the culture around the team. All season long Toronto has moved the ball better than in the past, generated the types of shots a more modern offense takes and seen the emergence of a young “bench mob” type unit. All of those things combined have allowed Toronto to be in a position to land the top seed in the Eastern Conference and a real chance to make the NBA Finals.
The Injury Managers
Alvin Gentry, New Orleans Pelicans: With Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins together for a full season, the Pelicans were expected to compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Then Cousins went down just over halfway through the season leaving the Pelicans, and Gentry, in a precarious spot. Yet Gentry never let the Pelicans, who were also missing Solomon Hill, their starting small forward and best perimeter defender, quit. New Orleans is currently in a position to make the playoffs despite the losses and a roster that lacks talent compared to many around the league. Gentry has pushed the right buttons all season long, coming up with creative rotations and combinations among the Pelicans many unique talents.
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard, one of the 10 best players in the NBA has not played all season. LaMarcus Aldridge has missed seven games. The Spurs still have an outside chance to continue their streak of winning 50 games each year since 1999 (they need to end the season 5-0). Gregg Popovich is absurdly good at his job.
Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics: The Celtics were expected to be one of the best teams in the East this season and then saw Gordon Hayward go down injured in their season opener. Then throughout the season, Boston has lost Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis and Shane Larkin to injury as well. Yet somehow through it all, Stevens has Boston in one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference. As always the Celtics play hard, play together and execute well and Stevens deserves a ton of credit for making it all work and allowing players to break out and grow in the roles they have been thrust into due to injuries.
Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz: When Hayward left Utah to head to Boston this summer, the Jazz rebounded as best they could. But it still left them in a tough spot as they had to replace the best offensive player, and arguably best overall player, and still, compete for a playoff berth. Something that didn’t help matters at all was the loss of Rudy Gobert to injury in November and then again in December and January but Snyder steered his team through the troubled times and has them in position to make the playoffs again. He has done it all despite his leading scorer being a rookie that was supposed to take time to develop his offensive game. Snyder has been one of the best coaches in the game for a few years now while winning the award this year seems unlikely it might be only a matter of time before he gets one.
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors: Yes, Kerr coaches four potential Hall of Fame players. But so far this season all four, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, have missed a chunk of time due to injury. Golden State is also dealing with the general effects of three trips to the NBA Finals in a row which would surely tire any normal team out. It doesn’t matter. The Warriors still have the second most wins in the NBA and are one of the favorites to raise the Larry O’Brien this June. Kerr deserves credit for that.
Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers: After years of processing in Philadelphia, the 76ers emerged this season as a no doubt about it good team. That they did it with a rookie point guard is impressive. That they did it with a 6-foot-11 point guard is a testament to Brown’s creativity and skill. Brown feels like another one of those candidates that would have run away with this award in a normal year. This year? Who knows if he even finishes in the top three.