The NBA’s annual Coach of the Year award doesn’t usually go to the smartest coach or the coach who does the best job connecting with his players that season (how could anyone know that?). Voters often just look for which of the league’s best teams exceeds expectations by the most and rewards that squad’s head man.
While the award may be a slight misnomer, the honoree does usually end up being an excellent coach.
The 2016-17 season, like any campaign, is very tough to predict on the Coach of the Year front. Since voters do often tab coaches on surprisingly great teams, it’s merely a matter of guesswork as to which squad breaks through to exceed expectations.
But we’re going to attempt to predict how the race will pan out.
Keeping in mind that the voting panel usually looks for great teams that exceed expectations rather than good or average ones who do the same (the average win total of the COY’s team since 2000-01 is 58.3), let’s take a stab at predicting the top five in the race, along with several honorable mentions who are among the more respected coaches in the league.
Honorable mentinons: Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors), Jason Kidd (Milwaukee Bucks), Tom Thibodeau (Minnesota Timberwolves), Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta Hawks), Stan Van Gundy (Detroit Pistons), Terry Stotts (Portland Trail Blazers), Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat), Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks), Mike D’Antoni (Houston Rockets), Michael Malone (Denver Nuggets)
5. Tyronn Lue, Cleveland Cavaliers
2015-16 record: 27-14 (became head coach at midseason), won NBA Finals
The difference in regular-season results last season between David Blatt’s portion of the season and Lue’s portion were basically nonexistent. In fact, Cleveland actually had a better record (30-11) before Blatt was ousted.
But Lue was more respected by the players and helped maintain chemistry better. Obviously, it worked out when the Cavs upset the 73-win Warriors in the Finals following a dominant run through the Eastern Conference.
If the Cavs seize the East’s No. 1 seed early on without breaking a sweat or inciting rumors of locker-room issues, Lue will rightfully get a lot of love for Coach of the Year. After winning the Finals without home-court advantage last season, though, the main obstacle Lue will have to face for this award is sufficiently motivating his crew to compete hard all year long.
Projected range for 2016-17 wins: 57-63
4. Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
2015-16 record: 55-27, lost in Western Conference Finals
Donovan’s reputation enjoyed a huge bump last season during the playoffs. After questions all regular season about defense and crunch-time execution, he unlocked Oklahoma City’s defensive potential and made it a little less predictable offensively during the postseason.
Even with the disappointing finish in the Western Conference Finals, voters should be quick to credit Donovan in 2016-17 if he can coax good effort and execution out of the Thunder following the losses of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.
In some ways, Donovan’s case in 2016-17 could be a lot like Terry Stotts’ second-place campaign for the Trail Blazers last season. He’s relying heavily on an explosive point guard (Russell Westbrook) like Stotts did (Damian Lillard), along with a bunch of other limited, but decent, players after losing some major pieces.
The Thunder are expected to be better this year than what pundits expected the Blazers to accomplish last season, so OKC will need to crack 50 wins for Donovan to get serious consideration. But I could see it happening.
Projected range for 2016-17 wins: 43-53
3. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
2015-16 record: 67-15, lost in Western Conference Semifinals
Alright, Gregg, it’s time to prove yourself. Tim Duncan has finally retired — are you a great coach on your own or just a product of the leadership, character and talent the Big Fundamental provided all the years?
It’s silly to even ask that, but you’d be surprised how often people actually use Popovich and Duncan to diminish each other’s legacies. “Duncan’s just a system player who looked good because Pop set him up for success” and “Popovich hasn’t succeeded without the best player and leader of his generation on his squad” are things you legitimately see on Twitter.
In 2016-17, Pop’s biggest tasks will be trying to coax at least passable defense out of Pau Gasol and David Lee, continuing to give Kawhi Leonard more offensive responsibility and maintaining the team’s offensive efficiency despite having relatively few three-point threats.
If Pop goes 3-for-3 on those tasks, the Spurs should have another 60-win season under their belts and their fearless leader will be a heavy contender for his record-breaking fourth Coach of the Year.
By the way, if you really don’t think Popovich is a contender for this honor, please be reminded that he’s been at least fifth in each of the last six seasons.
Projected range for 2016-17 wins: 52-62
2. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
2015-16 record: 48-34, lost in Eastern Conference First Round
The Celtics are projected to be very good and have a great roster with Al Horford now in the fold. However, if they push the Cavaliers for the first seed and Stevens’ troops continue to lock down opponents nightly, their surpassing of expectations and Stevens’ budding reputation could lift him to the first Coach of the Year award in his young NBA career.
The 39-year-old mastermind has garnered praise from around the league for his preparation and professionalism despite just three years as a head strategist in the world’s best basketball league. Here’s a comment from Popovich regarding Stevens from the All-Star break in February, per CBSBoston’s Brian Robb:
He’s a clinician, he’s a technician, he’s detailed. He knows what he’s doing with his demeanor, and how young he is, he’s unbelievable the way he carries himself. He’s truthful and straight up with players. And in this league, that’s the biggest thing they respect. That you’re comfortable in your own skin. You don’t try to trick them. You just tell it like it is, and he did that and gained their respect very quickly.
The Celtics still don’t have a top-15 (maybe even top-20?) player in the league, which is rare for a squad that’s as good as they are. But with Stevens, we know they’re going to play disciplined and with good chemistry.
Projected range for 2016-17 wins: 49-57
1. Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
2015-16 record: 40-42, did not qualify for playoffs
Winning the Coach of the Year award in 2016-17 wouldn’t just be a result of one good season for Snyder’s Jazz. He’s been gradually working toward instilling a winning culture in Utah since the summer of 2014, and he’s been successful, despite some underwhelming results.
The 2014-15 season ended with an excellent stretch of defensive ball, where the Jazz went 19-10 and flashed some serious potential for the future with their young roster. In 2015-16, significant injury problems afflicted Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, two of the team’s best three players. Plus, rising defensive stud Dante Exum tore his ACL, hijacking the team’s potential.
Even so, the Jazz were a respectable team and had the point differential expected of a 46-36 squad, though persistent crunch-time problems cost them several close games.
In his tenure, Snyder has unlocked the potential of Gobert, Favors and Gordon Hayward (none of whom looked like the cornerstones of an upper-echelon team two years ago) and found excellent use for most of the roster’s complementary players. Expect him to do the same with offseason additions George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw.
Assuming decent health, there’s nothing that should keep the Jazz from being a top-five (or higher) seed in the Western Conference.
Projected range for 2016-17 wins: 44-54