Who Should Be the NBA's Coach of the Year?
As the NBA season winds down, we begin to focus a little more on end-of-the-year awards. We already know that that's been the case for quite some time with the crazy MVP race, and even with the Defensive Player of the Year Award to a lesser extent.
But what about Coach of the Year, one of the more underrated awards?
At the beginning of the year, the favorites were Steve Kerr, Tyronn Lue, Gregg Popovich, Tom Thibodeau and Brad Stevens, in that order. According to Sports Interaction, these were the only five coaches with odds at 7-to-1 or better, led by Kerr at 3-to-1 to repeat from a year ago.
Kerr's Golden State Warriors are first team in the league with 63 wins and are well on their way to closing out the season as the 1 seed in the Western Conference. That is, after the team was tasked with introducing Kevin Durant into its pace-and-space system.
So you could make an argument that Kerr's deserving, but in the history of the NBA, no coach has ever won back-to-back Coach of the Year honors. Guiding the most talented team in the NBA, Kerr's probably not going to be the first to accomplish that feat.
With that being said, there are several other worthy -- and maybe more deserving -- candidates. The consensus short list consists of San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, Houston's Mike D'Antoni, Utah's Quin Snyder, Boston's Brad Stevens, Washington's Scott Brooks and Milwaukee's Jason Kidd. For argument's sake, we can likely add Oklahoma City's Billy Donovan, Toronto's Dwane Casey and Miami's Erik Spoelstra into the discussion.
For a lot of fans and voters, the question isn't necessarily about who has the best team. It's more about which coach has had the greatest impact on his team, or who has gotten the most out of the least.
To find the answer to that question, I first revisited our own algorithm-based preseason win projections in order find which teams coached by the guys above have exceeded expectations the most to this point. Putting our projections next to each team's win total to date created a difference for each team, and here's how that worked out.
Clearly D'Antoni's high-paced, three-point firing Rockets have far outperformed our preseason projections. With James Harden running the point in D'Antoni's system, they sit third in the Western Conference and have proven to be one of the best teams in the league through 77 regular-season games.
The Wizards and Bucks come in a distant second and third, having won 4.2 and 3.8 more games than projected. While Brooks has found a way to get the most out of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, Kidd has helped Giannis Antetokounmpo completely take over despite the absence of injured star Jabari Parker. The former point guard has even managed to groom rookie Malcolm Brogdon into a valuable first-year contributor.
For the next step toward tackling this query, I dove into Basketball Reference's Pythagorean wins (current) -- expected wins based on points scored and points allowed (the formula for these calculations can be found in their glossary). Using these projections, we can see where each team is in relation to their expected record given their performance. This allows us to compare and contrast from a different angle, using their projected wins as the barometer to come up with the difference.
Per these numbers, the Rockets drop off a bit. Meanwhile, the Celtics, Wizards and Thunder make up the teams with the largest positive difference. This is a plus for Stevens, Brooks and Donovan.
We already talked about Brooks' success in Washington, but Stevens has the Celtics in first in the East, which would give them home-court advantage for the entire playoffs -- even over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. As for Donovan, he and Russell Westbrook have managed three more wins than their point totals would expect. They're sixth in the Western Conference and have made a mark absent the services of Durant.
After looking at two distinct angles to this, let's combine the two approaches to get a better feel for which coach has been the biggest difference-maker from both preseason and current expectations. By averaging out the projected and Pythagorean win totals and subtracting them from each team's actual win totals, this is the result.
|Team||Wins||Avg. Projected Wins||Difference|
If we were to decide on second- and third-place winners, Stevens and Brooks would be next on the list. By comparison of both projection methods, their teams have been better than most expected, and they sit first and third, respectively, in the Eastern Conference.
In unifying the two perspectives, the Rockets' level of play has been so beyond their preseason expectations that a negative difference from Pythagorean wins to actual wins wasn't even enough to prevent them from taking the top spot in our exercise.
By this, D'Antoni would appear to be the best choice for Coach of the Year. His system has Harden producing on a whole new level, and D'Antoni has put the Rockets in a position to compete for a title -- a position no reasonable mind could have anticipated some six months ago.