Early NBA Coach of The Year Candidates

Coach of the Year is always one of my absolute favorite awards, in any sport. It is a testament not only to one’s knowledge but personality, practical skills and communication as well; all of that goes in to building a winning culture. The most interesting part, in my opinion, is the variety of ways in which coaches can make a case for the award.

Many awards in the NBA are a specific recognition of excellence within very specific circumstances, such as Sixth Man or Most Improved Player, both of which essentially require you to be some area below the highest echelon of skill in the league.

Coach of the Year isn’t quite like that. It can be won through stellar management of tough circumstances, or rapid adaptation to a changing basketball landscape, or even something as simple as delivering a team their winning-est season ever. With that in mind, here are a few coaches who, thus far into the season, are making a statement to put themselves in contention for this award.

Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets:

The Denver Nuggets have been the product of one of the most dramatic culture shifts this year, and are by far the most surprising team among expected contenders. Last season, the Nuggets were among the worst in the league in defending field goals and 3-point attempts, having one of the highest opponent completion percentage for both metrics. This year, they are in the 5 lowest opponent percentage for field goals and 3-pointers. Coach Malone made a huge statement about the team’s commitment to improving on defense during the off-season, and this drastic shift proves he was dead serious. In addition to Denver’s rapid improvement on defense, the Nuggets have maintained one of the best and most stable records in the league, despite injuries to notable depth players such as Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Isaiah Thomas, who still has yet to suit up for the Nuggets. Being able to take injuries in important role players who fulfill a variety of needs for the team, and still holding on to an elite record of 21-9, is the direct result of a team-centric culture within the roster and even better player management on behalf of Mike Malone. Taking the Nuggets from an inconsistent playoff snub, to being rock solid and potentially making a conference final appearance, is nothing short of noteworthy when discussing the best coaches this year.

David Joerger, Sacramento Kings:

The Sacramento Kings were widely expected to be the absolute worst team in the league this year. With the earlier caveat that the Nuggets were the most surprising contender, the Kings are far and away the most surprising team, period. The expectations being so low came from the talent vacuum, lack of a veteran presence, and there was really no reason for them to be in a rush to make the playoffs this year, so they should have had their sights set on developing young players anyways. They don’t have their first round pick this year if it ends up in the lottery, so they lack incentive to tank. The most important facet of the team catching people off guard is the rapid improvement of Sophomore De’Aaron Fox. The lineup lacks any tried and true stars, but in the absence of one, the Kings young back-court has been enabled to succeed. Credit where it’s due, there’s no way I’d look at that Kings roster and say, “Let’s go to the playoffs.” While an attitude adjustment from the tank to the hunt isn’t astounding, it also isn’t easy to balance making a push for a winning season with the development of young players (like 2nd overall pick Marvin Bagley III, who is injured for the moment but has made a notable impact off the bench during some of Sac-town’s surprising wins). Joerger has been controversial within his own franchise, as he’s gotten into problems with the front office structure, but I personally don’t blame Joerger for wanting delivering wins to the badly-mistreated Kings fan-base. For what it’s worth, he’s giving the current core solid run and is still doing what he needs to by Bagley, so I think the front office should back off and let the man work.

Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors:

To the best of my knowledge, no coach has won Coach of the Year in their first year as an NBA head coach (the only person would be Johnny Kerr, who won the award as the coach of an expansion team in their first year, the 33-win Chicago Bulls). Regardless, no Coach has done it in the modern era after taking the reigns on an already existing and constructed franchise. Nurse’s job would have been a lot easier without the off-season move of trading Demar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, as he would have only needed to continue doing what he did in the prior years as the team’s offensive brains. But adding a new star player, and one with extremely different skills than DeRozan, is a very difficult task. In addition to seamlessly integrating Kawhi, he’s unlocked the dormant potential in players like Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, both of whom are integral to the depth and defensive prowess of Toronto this year. Being able to find significant production in players already on your roster, and converting them into systemic role players can change the destiny of a team for a whole season. It hurts a lot less when Kyle Lowry isn’t shooting well if Siakam is shooting 60% from the field on nearly 10 attempts per game. 538 projects the Raptors to win 59 games this year, which is the second highest projected win total in the league, and would match their record last year-which earned his predecessor Dwane Casey the award. I would say having a top 3 record and matching your team’s best record in franchise history in your first year would be grounds for some Coach of the Year votes.

Honorable Mention | Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder: The Oklahoma City Thunder began this year as down in the dumps as a contender could be. The most pressing question after the team became a first-round exit last year was “What is the next step for Russell Westbrook?” For once, this question wasn’t posed with free agency in mind. At this point, the team was unlikely to keep Paul George, and still had the Melo virus to deal with. With Melo gone and George staying, Billy Donovan finally had the blueprint for a defensively strong team. While they were good on defense last year, Carmelo Anthony got hunted out. Hard. And with George staying, it became 100% clear that Westbrook would have to become a better player off-ball. While his own efficiency and production has taken a hit, relieving themselves of the stat-padding has enabled the other strong and consistent players like Paul George and Steven Adams to keep the offense moving and put more energy towards defense, as well. The Thunder, despite a losing-streak out of the gate, have a chance to win mid-50 games or so, and their play even without Westbrook has convinced me that it’s not a far cry for this team.

It’s still early yet, but Coach of the Year isn’t the kind of award you win with a long win-streak in March; it’s the kind of award you make a case for night-in and night-out through 82 games. So with that in mind, those are 4 coaches worth keeping an eye on this year.

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Who Can Tame the NBA’s Western Conference?

As the 2018-2019 NBA season trudges on, it is becoming increasingly clear who is a real contender and who is not. There is still plenty of stratification that has yet to occur, but in the meantime, many pundits have been asking who they believe is the West’s 2nd best team (presuming the best is still the Golden State Warriors, which is the right assumption in my opinion).

I find this question problematic for a number of reasons. For starters, win/loss record is not always indicative of who the “best” team is. The best team might have the 2nd best record (like GSW last year) and the 2nd best team might have the 4th best record. 

The consensus answer for the West’s second best team at the moment seems to be the Denver Nuggets, who sit at the top of the WC standings with a record of 18-9. While I do think the Nuggets aren’t a bad choice, I disagree with the logic that they are the West’s second best team because they have the best record near 25% of the way through the season. I think there is a much more accurate and interesting way to find out who’s for real in the West: Who is likely to host a first round playoff series? In other words, who will finish with one of the top 4 records in the Western Conference?

The reasoning behind posing the question in this way is two-fold. First, it allows for a lot more room for interpretation of how you determine who is the “best.” Second, with the depth of the Western Conference as currently constructed, you need every advantage you can get, and home court advantage in the first or second round can be the difference maker. Styles make fights, and you don’t want to be taking any risks when you might be playing against Anthony Davis or the deep, deep LA Clippers in round 1. Not necessarily in any seed-based order, here are the 4:

Warriors: The first team that I believe will keep a top 4 spot is obviously the Warriors. I think they likely take the 1 seed, as I don’t think any team can beat their long term win/loss record. Regardless, they are easily a lock for a top 4 seed even with taking some minor injuries along the way. With that said, if Steph Curry were to suffer a season-ending injury (knock on wood) the Dubs could be in trouble. I still think they’d be fine, though.

Nuggets: The second team that I think is taking a top 4 seed is the Denver Nuggets. As I said before, they currently lead the West and look poised to keep on rolling over mid-tier teams. They have racked up impressive wins, and star big-man Nikola Jokic really can do anything except jump. He still shows weaknesses defensively, but the team has stepped it up as a whole in that regard making it less of an issue. They will likely add even more depth as the season goes on, as they look to incorporate Isaiah Thomas as he returns from injury soon, and we still haven’t heard a peep about Micheal Porter Jr. whose status is still pretty unclear as far as this season is concerned. Regardless, the Nuggets are one of the more flexible, amorphous teams in the league. Denver has shown they’re more than a statistical anomaly and shows no signs of slowing down in their current state.

Thunder: The Oklahoma City Thunder, who started out the season painfully sluggish, have displayed that they can do it with or without Russell Westbrook, and this team looks like a defensive bastion as of late. Steven Adams is top 5 in the league in offensive boards, and with weapons like Paul George around the perimeter, that pays dividends. Speaking of George, he leads the league in steals, and continues to show his prowess as a two-way player. Now that they’ve worked the kinks out, the best way to describe the Thunder appears to be one word: consistent. Of course they have their fluke losses like all teams, but for the most part the Thunder eat mid to low-tier teams for breakfast. That alone should be good enough to keep them in the playoff bubble, and the teams’ upside as a whole gives me reason to believe they’ll land in the top 4.

Paul George’s night to night production allows a necessary buffer for the other primary scorers on the team.

Lakers: I did some light research on this one, and last I checked, LeBron James is still on the Lakers’ roster. They have definitely figured out their defense, and since the start of the season have completely turned around on that front. More importantly, the team has figured out which players of their young core function next to LeBron, which is basically the key to succeeding with LeBron. It’s not easy to play on-court with the King, but if they figure it out and stick to their guns from there (the guns seem to be Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma) then they can make waves. Not to mention, even the guys they have that aren’t particularly good fits with LeBron are still solid, athletic players. If they can rest LeBron a few more minutes per night without that throwing the game into the fire, that could go a long way in terms of wins through the rest of the season and into the playoffs. LeBron will turn it on when he needs to, and albeit this may be an earlier time to do so than in years past, nothing is guaranteed in the West right now. Having home court matters way more this year than in his past decade of being in the East.

So, there are my 4, not in any order. I could see any of those 4 in any order being logical at the end of the regular season.

Some notable omissions would be the Houston Rockets who topped the seeds last year. They look stronger, but if they want to even see the playoffs this year, they need to get it together-and fast. 

I think the surprise teams of the Clippers and Grizzlies will stay strong, but I think they will have to falter a little bit, the Grizz especially. They are one multiple-week injury away from a serious losing streak. The Clippers are one of the deepest, most well-rounded teams in the league, meaning they are less prone to regression and more likely to adapt long-term, but I also think they are due for a little bit of cooling off. That said, Doc Rivers is making a Coach of The Year case. 

Aside from those two, who have flirted with top positions thus far this year, everyone else is in the hunt to even make the playoffs. The Spurs, Jazz, Pelicans, and Trail Blazers all have the talent to make it, but cannot spare a single loss. Those are the types of teams that I’d be skeptical of being able to win consistently enough from night to night to clinch a top 4 seed.

The Other 29: 12/10/18

The last few weeks have been a stratifying force in the NBA, and while the rankings in the West are still quite complicated, there is a much greater sense of who’s fake and who’s for real across the board. So without any further ado, here is a sneak peak into the upcoming week’s notable matches in the NBA:

Grizzlies @ Nuggets: This game taking place in the Mile High city Monday night will be a battle of two teams who have exceeded expectations in the season thus far. Not only have they both made surprise appearances at the top of the Western Conference leader board, but both teams continue to make a statement on defense in ways that they failed to last year. Both teams are in the top 4 of opponent points allowed (per teamrankings.com), so you can probably bet this game will get dragged into the mud. Impact players for Memphis include the renewed Marc Gasol and early ROTY contender Jaren Jackson Jr. who have both been dynamic scorers and capable defenders down low. Mike Conley continues to show strength as a veteran 1-guard, and it makes you wonder how you forgot that this team was good when they weren’t injured. Nikola Jokic continues to be a triple-double threat every night, and the depth of scoring potential with guys like Jamal Murray and Gary Harris proves to make Denver one of the most well-rounded teams in the hunt right now. Both Denver (17-9) and Memphis (15-10) are in the playoff bubble right now but nobody in the West can spare even a single win, although it matters more for the Grizz specifically.

Trail Blazers @ Rockets: This game, which will be one of 3 games played Tuesday night, is probably the most entertaining on the docket. Both teams need to keep any and all momentum they can build, as Houston is at the 2nd lowest spot in the West (but also have the highest potential to improve out of any West team, I’d argue) and Portland is hanging on to a playoff seed by a thread. Both teams are lethal on offense, but struggle on defense, so hitting the over wouldn’t be an awful bet. Chris Paul hasn’t looked like himself much this year, making the 1-2 punch that usually is Harden and Paul more like a 1-punch, 2-open-handed slap. Nevertheless, the Rockets are back on track on offense. Dame Lillard, meanwhile, has been beasting lately putting on some performances that make me thankful I wasn’t playing against him in fantasy that week. In the past 2 weeks, Dame has averaged just under 30 PPG, which would put him 4th in the league for that time frame. Whether or not either of these teams can sustain into the post-season I can’t say, but a nice little midseason shootout would be fun.

Raptors @ Warriors: I mean, you all knew this was coming, right? The early projection for a finals preview, the last meetup between these two saw a Raps’ win at home despite Kevin Durant joining the 50+ club that night, although this time it will take place at Oracle, which is probably the most hostile arena to play in at the moment, Toronto being a close runner-up. Toronto has looked absolutely pristine on defense, as they have many well-sized, switchable disruptors and a lineup of bigs that can protect the rim. They also have that Kawhi Leonard fellow, who I’d argue plays the most disruptive, aggressive style of defense in the league that won’t get you a foul. Golden State, however, has just gotten Steph Curry back into the rotation, and when he was out, it was painfully clear how much he matters for them on the court. Klay’s efficiency plummeted, Durant was tired and taking more contact, and there was that drama with Draymond Green which came from the fact that there wasn’t a clear option to take the ball down court for the game-winner. Which, I mean, Kevin Durant is a pretty obvious choice, but I suppose without your point guard it’s a little less straightforward. This game has little implication total-wise, but it matters in team’s abilities to test out lineups and start making long-term adjustments for the post-season. Plus, the last game was a thriller.

Alright guys, that’s gonna do it for The Other 29 for this week. I’m hoping to get the finale of my Sixers’ Big 3 piece up soon this week, once finals are all sorted out and it gets a bit less hectic, so be on the lookout for that! Thanks for reading and TTP!

The Other 29: 12/3/18

The NBA continues to break into the middle part of the season, with every team now having played 20 or more games. So, without further ado, here is this week’s docket of exciting and interesting games with non-Sixers teams:

Nuggets @ Raptors: The Nuggets (15-7) and Raptors (20-4) both sit in the upper echelon of their respective conferences, with Toronto leading the East and Denver at number 2 in the West. The aspect of this match is how Denver’s star big man Nikola Jokic will perform against Toronto’s deep rotation of defensive bigs in Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and occasionally flashes of defensive strength from Pascal Siakam. The biggest knock on Jokic, for obvious reasons, is his lacking defense-especially against other bigs. As complete as he is on offense, you can’t score points if you get benched for being in foul trouble, which has proven to limit Jokic’s ability to shift a game in Denver’s favor. Further developing storylines also include Kawhi Leonard, who despite sitting games now and again has stepped up offensively in the past few weeks, and continues to assert his defensive dominance.

Spurs @ Jazz: This game takes place Tuesday night, and it comes at a big crossroads for both teams. Despite being only two wins back from the 8th seed, both sit in the bottom 3 of the Western Conference, record-wise. Both teams are usually great defenses that have struggled incredibly often this year, as the Spurs have allowed 130 points or more multiple times this year, and the Jazz just look clumsy sometimes, despite having reigning DPOY Rudy Gobert. On offense, the Jazz need to find a way to continue to empower shooters like Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles, although Mitchell’s success usually comes at a very high volume and with low assist numbers, making efficiency a problem as well. The Spurs have struggled to find a coherent gameplan, as often individual players have good performances, but not enough to match the amount of points they’ve been allowing lately. A win means a lot for both of them, and boy, they both need a reason to celebrate, too.

Warriors @ Bucks: Last week, the Warriors saw the Raptors for an overtime thrilled in which Kevin Durant scored 51, but the Dubs fell short. This time, GSW will visit another Eastern Conference leader in the Milwaukee Bucks, who despite their long win streak to start the season have begun to falter. The Bucks’ shooting has regressed a little bit as was expected, and it will be a test on Mike Budenholzer’s ability to manage how many shots players are taking if all of them aren’t shooting the lights out, and of course, how Giannis factors into all of that. The Warriors, thankfully, graciously, have regained Steph Curry from injury, which couldn’t have come enough for the Warriors or my sanity. I just can’t hear about Draymond and KD beefing anymore. It’s boring and dumb and the media is annoying me by trying to force a storyline, but that’s neither here nor there. It is perfectly reasonable to expect this game to be into the 125-135 range for both teams, especially once Steph has had a game or two under his legs again.

This stretch of the season has the potential to be a large stratifying force in both conferences. Will those in the hunt fall further behind? Can those in the playoffs solidify their position? Will the West ever get a clear pecking order, or at least win records that actually reflect a team’s capabilities? This is what keeps the middle of a season, what could normally be the doldrums of garbage time games, fun and interesting.