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Chasing Brad: Top Contenders For Coach Of The Year

Maddie Meyer - Getty Images

Who are the early contenders for Coach of the Year?

The season is still relatively young but contenders and pretenders are emerging, from the struggling Thunder to the stellar Celtics. Coaching is a big reason for each team’s successes and failures. In the Coach of the Year pool, Brad Stevens is ahead of the pack after leading his team to a 25-7 record and number one seed in the east so far without star Gordon Hayward. But who else is competing for the award?

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

Theoretically, Pop and LeBron James have the same problem: their greatness isn’t spectacular anymore. Averaging 27 with seven boards and seven assists is not exciting anymore, the same way winning at least 50 games for 20 straight years is not impressive anymore. But perhaps this year he gets over the boring hump.

Through the first 27 games, Pop’s Spurs went 19-8 without arguably one of the top five players in the world in Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs are not scoring a bunch of points without their superstar forward, only averaging 100.8 per game which is 25th in the league. However, with Leonard out, Pop has done something important with his other star.

LaMarcus Aldridge is back to his usual self. Aldridge is averaging the most points since he’s arrived in San Antonio at 21.9 points per game, and the most efficient in his career with a PER of 23.8. Last year, much was made of Pop trying to “change” Aldridge to fit into the system. But this year Aldridge praised Pop for letting him be himself: “I feel like Pop’s been great. I feel like this preseason has made me feel so much more comfortable out there.” Letting Aldridge be himself led to one of the best years of his career. But that’s still not the most impressive thing Pop has done this year.

The Spurs are only giving up 98 points per game this year, first in the league. They also have the second-best defensive rating in the league at 103.7. Again, all without Leonard, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and four-time All-Defensive team member. It’s hard not to give Pop credit given the fact that the Spurs are still up to their same old tricks without their superstar and with six players over 30 playing at least 18 minutes per game.

Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets

Where to start? Let’s start with offense, D’Antoni’s prized possession. The run-and-gun, three-point jacking Rockets average over 43 attempts from three per game and make 16, both of which lead the league. Houston surprisingly only checks in at eighth for pace, but are second in the league in points per game at 115.4 points per game with a league-best offensive rating of 116.1. Those are just the numbers, but the way D’Antoni has gelled this Rockets team with two ball-dominant point guards is astounding.

Last year, Chris Paul and James Harden held the ball for at least five seconds per every touch and were around five dribbles per every touch, near the top of the league in each category. Many had questions about the two ball dominant guards on the floor at the same time. This year, the two still see their fair share of the ball, as Harden averages 5.6 dribbles per touch compared to Paul’s 4.6. But D’Antoni has manufactured an unselfish brand of basketball that Chris Paul has fit right into.

Neither superstar is selfish with the ball as both are averaging over nine assists per game. Though the stats on touches paint Harden and Paul as selfish, having two of the best passers in the league along with great shooters opens up the court so much for the Rockets. Paul has said that he loves playing in an offense with so much space, and it shows up on the court and how happy Paul is in Houston.

Now the shocking stats.

Dray is wrong about Houston this year: the Rockets play defense (yes you read that right). The addition of Paul helps, but somehow D’Antoni’s learned about defense. The Rockets hold teams to 105.4 points per game, 16th in the league. Sure that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a huge improvement from last year when they gave up almost 110 per game, 26th in the league. And they are the ninth, yes NINTH, in defensive rating this year, way up from last year’s 18th. James Harden is actually playing defense. Seriously.

D’Antoni and defensive-minded coaches Jeff Bzdelik and Roy Rogers have the Rockets currently playing like one of the best defensive teams in the league. And any coach that can get James Harden to play defense deserves some type of award. 

Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers

Not a lot of people gave the Pacers a shot this year and it’s still early in the season with plenty of time to fade, but as of right now, Nate McMillan’s Pacers are a playoff team in the East. And they’re surprisingly doing it on the offensive end, something not a lot of people expected after losing Paul George in the Thunder trade.

Having Victor Oladipo helps. The former unwanted commodity is having the best year of his career with highs in points (25.3) and shooting percentage (55.8 effective field goal percentage), a lot of which comes from McMillian wanting the Pacers to get out in transition more. Oladipo is third in the league in transition points with over six per game, only behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.

As a team, the Pacers have scored the third most transition points this year, only behind the Lakers and Warriors. With more transition scoring and ball movement and less Paul George isolations (14% frequency last year), the Pacers improved from 15th in scoring and offensive rating last year to seventh and sixth respectively this year while losing their best scorer. In a wide-open Eastern Conference behind Boston and Cleveland, the Pacers find themselves in the thick of the playoff race early, thanks to unexpected offense from McMillan’s switch on offense.

Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

There was much hype surrounded by the Celtics this year, but then Gordon Hayward went down with a horrendous injury on opening night. Then the Celtics lost the second game at home against Milwaukee. Some people wrote them off. And then they won 16 straight and currently hold the number one seed in the east. Brad Stevens has done an amazing job with the Celtics defense.

Since his time at Butler, defense has been Stevens’ calling card. It’s no wonder why the Celtics are only giving up 98.4 points per game, second lowest in the league, and the best defensive efficiency in the league at 102.9.

Against the Warriors, Stevens had the Celtics locked in for all 48 minutes and held them to a season-low 88 points. In his fifth year in Boston, the young head coach has made the Celtics to one of the elite defensive teams in the league. You can see Stevens’ defensive philosophy in the way the Celtics play. Each player is committed to playing defense, aware and active on and off the ball. They finish possessions, another part of Stevens’ philosophy, grabbing almost 79% of the missed shots. And if that’s not enough, Boston is holding teams to an effective field goal percentage of 49.6%, second only to the Warriors.

On offense, the Celtics mainly run a motion offense with the floor spread, and use ball screens and dribble handoffs to get their guards into the paint to score and create.

This open scheme using ball screens allows Kyrie Irving to get into the paint and create for the Celtics offense. He draws defenders, which leaves open shooters like Jayson Tatum in the corner. The open floor also allows compliments Al Horford’s passing and shooting ability. It also stretches the floor out and keeps the opposing team’s shot blocker out of the paint, which benefits the Boston guards driving to the basket.

If the Celtics can continue their play and grab the one seed again, no one will be surprised if Brad Stevens runs away with this one.

Other Coach of the Year candidates will emerge as the season goes on, and Brad Stevens is the clear front-runner right now. Anything can happen in the coming months to change the conversation. Hopefully it’s not a blowout for Brad Stevens, but down to the very end of the season.

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

SQuiz
Who is the only active head coach to win three Coach of the Year awards?
Created 12/23/17
  1. Rick Carlisle
  2. Gregg Popovich
  3. Steve Kerr
  4. Mike D'Antoni

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