NBA Coach of the Year: Should Gregg Popovich Be the Frontrunner?
This season, the NBA saw some impressive feats.
The Golden State Warriors, of course, bested the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72-10 by piecing together 73 wins. The San Antonio Spurs posted an absurd 40-1 regular season record at home. And teams such as the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, and Charlotte Hornets all made improbable runs to the playoffs.
Those feats all helped to push their coaches to the top of the heap when it comes to the NBA Coach of the Year debate.
But who deserves it most?
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Much like LeBron James in the MVP vote, voter fatigue has pushed the immortal Popovich down the line of candidates.
In 20 seasons as Spurs coach, Popovich has five NBA Championships and has pushed the Spurs to 17 straight seasons with at least 50 wins. This season has been one of his best, having led the team to 67 wins, which was 12 more than the season before, among the top five in the league.
Some will argue that the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge has more to do with the team success, but Popovich continued to rest aging stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. Perhaps the most amazing statistic to prove this is that, in an age of offensive freedom, the Spurs were the only team with a Defensive Rating, a stat that measures how many points opponents score per 100 possessions, under 100.
Along with the top defense in the league, San Antonio had a top-four offense and outpaced Golden State with a nERD rating of 82.6. For a team that puts less emphasis on the regular season than most, Popovich’s ability to propel the Spurs to a 67-15 record proves his worth.
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
In any normal year, the coach of a 73-win team would be a unanimous choice for Coach of the Year. That may not be as easy of a case for Kerr this season, as there are an abundance of choices.
The case against Kerr starts with his early-season absence that saw assistant coach Luke Walton pace the team to a 39-4 record while also receiving the Coach of the Month award in both October and November. However, it should be pointed out much of the ground work was laid last year by Kerr, whose team again led the league with an Offensive Rating of 114.5.
Along with that, the Warriors came in second in nERD rating to San Antonio but a full 11.3 points above third-place Oklahoma City, which is the same gap between the Thunder and the 10th-ranked Hawks.
A few perplexing loses to non-playoff teams could hurt Kerr’s candidacy, but a 12-1 combined record against Cleveland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers showed that they brought their best in big games.
Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
It may seem strange that the coach of a 5 seed could have a stronger case than the 1 or 2 seeds in a conference, but considering what Portland lost from last season, that is certainly the case.
Stotts had to deal with the loss of 80% of his starting lineup last season: former all-star LaMarcus Aldridge, do-everything forward Nicolas Batum, ace two guard Wesley Matthews, and an anchor at center in Robin Lopez.
Despite all of these changes, Portland ended up with the fifth-best record in the Western Conference despite a middle-of-the-pack nERD rating of 49.6. Perhaps the loss of Lopez hurt as much as any, as Portland finished a lowly 20th in Defensive Rating.
Along with a boost from second year player C.J. McCollum, Stotts was able to bring along young role players such as Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu along to help the team to an impressive 108.8 Offensive Rating, which put them sixth in the NBA.
Getting this team to contend for home-court advantage and to beat a team like Golden State shows what a great coach Stotts is in the great northwest.
Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets
As a player, Michael Jordan is regarded as one of the best ever. However, as an owner, he has made some less than stellar moves. Those choices finally started to turn in a positive direction starting with the hiring of Steve Clifford prior to the 2013 season.
After treading water in his first two seasons, Clifford bumped the Hornets to 48 wins and the 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. The team surged to seventh overall in nERD ratings behind only Cleveland and Toronto in the East. Clifford, a defensive-minded coach, bumped up both sides of the ball this season, as Charlotte was one of only four teams to be a top-10 team in terms of both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency.
One of the best ways to prove Clifford’s candidacy is that Charlotte made the biggest improvement from last year, having gained 15 wins from just a season ago. The fact that his team only had to face the powerful Western Conference twice could hurt his chances, but Clifford has certainly proven to be a winner.
Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
Caping the candidates at five was tough because Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons and Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks also had strong cases, but it was Stevens' ability to take the Celtics back to prominence that really boosts him above the other fringe contenders.
In today’s NBA, a team generally is reliant on one or two superstars to lead their team, and although first time All-Star Isaiah Thomas had a spectacular season, Boston won playing a team-first game. Stevens ended the season with eight players averaging more than 20 minutes per night while the aforementioned Thomas led the team with just 33 minutes per game.
The balanced attacked showed in the statistics with Thomas leading the team in scoring and assists, while Jared Sullinger was the top rebounder, Jae Crowder led in steals, and Amir Johnson paced the team in blocks.
Stevens' attack also pushed the Celtics into the top 10 in both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency and to eighth in nERD. Because of all-time great seasons in Golden State and San Antonio, Stevens seems unlikely to win the award this year, but that does not take away from his being of the most feared late-game play designers in the league.
Even though the Spurs are the 2 seed in the West, Popovich's squad had a historic run of their own in 2015-16. Given their consistent success and Popovich's role in commandeering his team's rotation, he should be the frontrunner for the award.
If the voter fatigue is real and Popovich gets overlooked, then Stotts -- not Kerr -- should take home the award for his ability to make the most of a depleted squad, one that seemed more destined for the lottery than a playoff spot -- let alone the 5 seed.
But if the 73 wins are too hard to ignore for the voters, then Kerr, at least, is a very deserving candidate in his own right.
While it's hard to tell how the voters will decide such a diverse race, the most deserving candidates come from the Western Conference.