NBA

Coach-of-the-Year Race Lining Up

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Without a good coach, it’s nearly impossible to have a successful season.

Coaches are the lifeline for player performance on the court and success throughout a season. Luckily for us NBA fans, we have been gifted to witness handfuls of talented coaches over the past couple of decades. This season specifically, there are a few coaches that deserve acknowledgement for their team’s success.

Let’s take a look at this season’s top-five head coaches. This ranking will be based on the following components:

  • Overall team improvement
  • Development of younger players
  • Usage of schemes to enhance player performance
  • Rotation management (hence the COVID-ridden season)

Honorable Mentions

  • Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks
  • Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat 

As a former player, Jason Kidd has embedded a strong defensive system for the Dallas Mavericks. As of January 18th, the Mavericks ranked third in opponent points per game and fifth for team defensive rating. Not only is this a significant improvement from previous years in the late tenure of Rick Carlisle‘s reign, it’s even more impressive considering Luka Doncic is not a top-tier defender.

Teams like Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Miami can construct talented defense around their stars. While Doncic is an average defender, he is not a player to build a strong defensive system around.

Kidd’s defense is only half the reason to consider him as an honorable mention, however. Dallas has been strongly impacted by COVID this season. The Mavericks rank sixth in minutes lost, ninth in WARP, and third for players signed on hardship contracts. Even with Dallas’s health-and-safety-protocol-damaged roster, Kidd has kept the Mavericks well afloat, as Dallas is 5th in the Western Conference as of February 3rd.

Like Kidd, Spoelstra has also kept Miami as one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. The Heat are currently sixth in opponent points per game and seventh in defensive rating. Despite injuries to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Spoelstra has led the Heat atop the competitive Eastern Conference. Omer Yurtseven, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin have all blossomed under Spoelstra’s rule.

The Heat are a team that deserve more credit. With Adebayo returning from injury, Miami could be on top of the East before the All-Star break.

5. Billy Donovan, Chicago Bulls

Yes, the Bulls are finally playing at a serious contention level. Yes, DeMar DeRozan can be considered an MVP candidate. Yes, Billy Donovan has been a significant factor for Chicago’s success.

But Donovan isn’t higher on this list because Bulls General Manager Arturas Karnisovas should receive most of the credit for building this successful team. Out of Chicago’s top-four leading scorers, three (DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, Lonzo Ball) were acquired this summer. Not to mention Alex Caruso, also acquired thie summer (what a big loss for the Lakers that was), has been a cornerstone to their defense.

Despite Chicago’s colossal offseason victory, Donovan should still be in talks for coach of the year.

At the moment, Chicago ranks first in three-point percentage, second in field goal and true-shooting percentage, and seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio and turnover percentage. Though DeRozan and LaVine are two ball-dominant scorers, Donovan has been able to mesh the two wings together.

Many, including myself, believed that chemistry would be an issue for the Bulls. 

But that has been anything but the case. Chicago’s basketball has been appealing. It’s obvious that Donovan and the front office have turned Chicago into a contending threat.

4. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

Though Tom Thibodeau won coach of the year last season, Monty Williams really should have brought home that award. Along with the Golden State Warriors, the Suns seem like they have the most fluid and versatile offenses in the NBA.

Williams keeps defenses guessing with Phoenix’s diverse offense. Deandre Ayton and a ball handler (usually Chris Paul) can perform a forceful pick & roll. Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are consistent three-point-shooting threats to space the floor for CP3 and Devin Booker. Along with Paul, Book is one of the league’s best isolation scorers.

Defenses have to keep guessing what Williams’s next move will be, which always tends out to be tricky.

Let’s also not forget about Phoenix’s early-season dominance. Remember when the Suns won 18 games in a row? It’s easy to forget about Phoenix’s remarkable run in November and early December. Williams led his team to an outstanding 25 wins over 27 games before finally running into some hiccups.

Unlike last year, Phoenix has a deep front court due to the emergence of Jalen Smith and veterans like Bismack Biyombo. With one of the easiest remaining schedules, consistent quality performance and a deep roster, expect Phoenix to make a push for another Finals appearance. 

3. Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies

Midway through this season, it has been clear that the Grizzlies are one of the league’s best teams. Jenkins has developed a strong, deep and young nucleus in Memphis. As of January 26th, the Grizzlies had the league’s sixth-best offense and led the NBA in rebounds. Ja Morant has proven to be an MVP-caliber player, impersonating Derrick Rose’s 2011 MVP season at times.

Rising Star Desmond Bane has nearly doubled his points per game from last season, scoring just under 18 points a game while shooting 42% from three-point range on seven attempts. Jaren Jackson Jr. (a personal favorite) has been looking like one of the better interior defenders in the league midway through the season. 

There is no doubt that Memphis is one of the NBA’s deepest teams, which says a lot about Jenkins. He has developed De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke and Tyus Jones into consistent, trustworthy players off the bench.

Players like Xavier Tillman, Zaire Williams and John Konchar all have been important for the Grizzlies as well. Similar to the Denver Nuggets a season or two ago, Memphis might have too good of a problem on their hands. With so many mouths to feed, can Jenkins find a way to give minutes to those who have rarely seen the court this season? Or at least deserve more playing time?

Jenkins has proven himself as a developmental specialist, which has paid off for Memphis, who currently stand third in the West.

2. J.B Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers

Similar to Jenkins, J.B. Bickerstaff has a real talent for developing young players. That makes sense considering Bickerstaff was an associate and interim head coach for Memphis before receiving his head-coaching gig for Cleveland in 2019. Despite some unfortunate injuries to Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio, Cleveland is well above .500 and stands 4th in a competitive Eastern Conference.

It’s weird to see the Cavs perform so well without LeBron James, but Bickerstaff’s squad could be the best team the team has had without LeBron since 1997. Darius Garland (20 PPG, 8 APG) and Jarrett Allen (16 PPG, 11 RPG) should be considered as first-time all-stars. Evan Mobley is the front-runner for rookie of the year, while Kevin Love has revived his basketball career under Bickerstaff.

Bickerstaff should be solely credited for developing Cleveland’s promising core. Garland, Allen, Mobley, Sexton, Isaac Okoro and Lauri Markkanen could take over the East in a matter of years.

1. Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors

Whether you like it or not, Steve Kerr should be the front runner for coach of the year. Despite officially being the best three-point shooter of all time, Stephen Curry is having a down year. Draymond Green has missed a considerable amount of time and for the first time since the 2019 Finals, Klay Thompson is back in the rotation. Not to mention 2020’s second-overall pick James Wiseman has yet to see the floor, either.

Kerr has had many obstacles to work through this season and somehow, the Warriors sit second in the Western Conference.

With a handful of injuries plaguing Golden State, many have had to step up while others watched from the sideline. Both Jordan Poole (16.7 PPG) and all-star starter (?!) Andrew Wiggins (once was presumed as the next LeBron James) are having career-best years.

Additionally, Gary Payton II has found some spotlight in San Francisco after bouncing around for six years. A 2016 undraftee, the ex-Oregon State Beaver played for six G-League teams with occasional callups to the NBA. Payton eventually found his way onto the Warriors’ roster this season and proved his value immensely. He won’t take over games, but he fits into Golden State’s system nearly perfectly.

Kerr runs the Warriors strictly through off-ball movement, strong perimeter defense, and smart decision-making. Even with Steph’s shooting slump, Draymond Green’s absence and other important injuries, Kerr can still win games. It’s exciting (but also terrifying) to see how Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga and James Wiseman develop through Kerr’s system to resume Golden State’s dominance.

About Rex Foster

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