As the NBA regular season winds down, there are four candidates who have a realistic shot at winning the Coach of the Year Award.
The first is a rookie head coach who has led his team to totally unexpected success.
The second is the driving force behind one of the league's best teams and who has instilled confidence in his players by focusing on positive thinking.
The third is largely responsible for helping a talented team reach its full potential.
The fourth is one of the most respected motivators in the game, who somehow has his team playing their best basketball despite the loss of two top players.
So who wins?
First, let's take a closer look at each candidate.
Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns: The "Team Far Exceeded Expectations" Candidate
Prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, most NBA experts predicted that the Phoenix Suns would compete for the top pick in the upcoming draft, not a playoff spot.
In fact, oddsmakers in Vegas predicted the Suns would win the second fewest games of any team, assigning them a win total of 21.5. So much for that, huh? The Suns eclipsed 21 wins over two months ago.
Phoenix Suns get their 22nd victory this year and are first team to clinch a Season Win Total, going 'Over' 21.5 http://t.co/UPh4HAV7KZ— SportsInsights.com (@SportsInsights) January 16, 2014
How were the preseason projections so wrong? Well, in short, because a team full of unproven talent and devoid of any true veteran presence is supposed to stink. Add in the fact that their head coach, Jeff Hornacek, was in his first year, and Phoenix was an easy choice to finish at the bottom of the standings.
However, from the very beginning, it became apparent that the Suns had much higher aspirations, and most importantly, that Hornacek was no ordinary rookie ball coach.
The key to the Suns' success this year has been Hornacek's ability to get the most out of his players by putting them in positions to succeed. To see evidence of this, we need to look no further than the NBA's Most Improved Player race—a race in which Phoenix has three legitimate contenders: Goran Dragic, Gerald Green and Markieff Morris.
Let's compare each of those players' career statistics to their 2013-14 stats, just to show the effect that Hornacek's coaching has had on their all-around play.
|Player||PPG||APG||RPG||FG %||3-PT FG %||PER|
|Dragic (Career Stats)||11.2||4.5||2.5||46.0||36.4||17.1|
Pretty impressive, right? Literally every meaningful statistic (outside of Markieff's three-point field goal percentage) has improved for these three players. We haven't even mentioned the drastic improvement of Miles Plumlee or P.J. Tucker.
Hornacek deserves a ton of credit for his players exceeding expectations, and even more credit for inspiring this group to believe in themselves and their ability to win in the NBA from day one.
Oh, and managing to keep his team focused and confident after Eric Bledsoe was lost to an injury for 39 games...what more could you want from a coach?
If the Suns can snag the eighth seed in the West, Hornacek has to be the front-runner for COY.
Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers: The "Great Coach of a Great Team" Candidate
When you lead the Miami Heat by three games in the race for the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed at this point in the season, you're doing something right as a head coach. Regardless of the amount of talent you have on your squad, if you're able to get your guys to consistently perform at such a high level, you deserve Coach of the Year consideration.
Vogel isn't simply rallying the troops on game day, though. He's also developing his players—something that he deserves a great deal of credit for considering what Brian Shaw, who is now the Denver Nuggets head coach, meant to this team last season.
Paul George credits Shaw for his breakout season last year. Roy Hibbert benefitted from his tutelage, as well. So shouldn't Vogel get similar credit for the job he's done with Lance Stephenson this year?
In the following video, Lance's incredible dribbling skill and ability to get to the rim are quite apparent. However, heading into the 2013-14 season, we already knew he was capable of all that. What we didn't know was that he possesses tremendous court awareness and the ability to find the open man as well as anybody (fast-forward to 5:31 to see what I'm talking about).
That's what Vogel deserves the most credit for. He's made Lance a smarter, more efficient player.
Am I saying that Vogel deserves the NBA's Coach of the Year Award because he's transformed Stephenson into one of the league's most complete players? No, he's done far more than that.
However, would Indiana be in first place and have a legitimate shot at a title if Vogel hadn't worked such wonders with him? I don't think so.
If the Pacers win it all, or even get to the NBA Finals, I don't see how you give this award to anyone else.
Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers: The "Made a Good Team Great" Candidate
The additions of Robin Lopez, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright have undoubtedly made Portland a better team, but I credit the Trail Blazers' success much more to their overall chemistry.
Who's responsible for that? Well, I guess general manager, Neil Olshey, deserves a serious pat on the back, but in my mind, Stotts has been nothing short of brilliant in bringing this group together.
Portland has a roster full of talented basketball players, but under Stotts' watchful eye they have something even better: A team full of players who understand their roles and complement one another perfectly.
He's been able to find matchup advantages all season, but again, that's all due to his ability to get his guys to put the team first. If the combination of Damian Lillard and Mo Williams in the backcourt is working one night, Stotts will stick to it and ask Lillard to be more of a scorer than a facilitator. If LaMarcus Aldridge is better suited to play center than power forward against a certain team, then the Trail Blazers go small and players accept—and excel in—their slightly changed roles.
Stotts has also done a spectacular job with Portland's bench. They aren't a deep team by any stretch of the imagination, but their bench has still been able to contribute when called upon. Despite playing the least minutes and scoring the fewest points of any bench in the NBA, guys like Thomas Robinson, Will Barton, Dorell Wright and Meyers Leonard have really stepped up their games since Aldridge went down with an injury. Stotts deserves a ton of credit for keeping these guys, who were seldom used early in the season, poised and ready to contribute when their number was called.
Can Portland's incredible three-point shooting (check out this video of their NBA-record 21 threes in one game) carry them in the playoffs or will their sub-par defense cause an early exit?
Depending on how they perform in May and June will make or break Terry Stotts' case for COY.
Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls: The "Best Coaching Performance While Dealing with Adversity" Candidate
When the season began, the Chicago Bulls were championship contenders. Then Derrick Rose was lost to injury. Then the losses started to pile up. Then Luol Deng was traded. Then there were tanking rumors.
Now, there's hope and excitement in the "Windy City," and its all thanks to Tom Thibodeau.
The job that he's done this year in leading the Bulls to a 38-30 record and a half game out of third place in the Eastern Conference has been nothing short of amazing. The list of his accomplishments so far include:
- Jump-starting D.J. Augustin's career
- Developing Taj Gibson into a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate and a franchise cornerstone
- Finding consistent roles for players despite dealing with an array of injuries
- Having his Bulls team playing their best basketball at the end of the season despite losing their two best players
Thibodeau is a coach that clearly understands what it takes to motivate professional athletes, and he has mastered the art of consistency. What I mean by that is this: Thibodeau's players trust their coach's approach to the game so much that they would never even consider questioning him.
As Taj Gibson has said numerous times, "We do whatever Thibs puts on the board, and when we do that, we’re usually walking out with a 'W.'"
How awesome is that as a player? Being able to trust your coach to that extent makes the game of basketball so simple. Take the court and do your job. That's Thibodeau in a nutshell.
A guy like Gibson has been playing for Thibodeau for the majority of his career, though, so perhaps we should take his words with a grain of salt. He hasn't really known anything else.
So how about someone who has?
The newest Bull, Jimmer Fredette, has known plenty else, and unsurprisingly, Thibodeau has impressed him so far. In an interview with Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Fredette had this to say.
Here, there is definitely a mentality that we have to throw the first punch right from the get-go. Coach does a great job of getting our heads in the game, getting us prepared, and making it so there are guys that want to play as hard as they can every minute they’re out there. That’s a big difference.
Of all the candidates for Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau deserves the least statistical support, simply because his track record speaks for itself. If the Bulls can make an unexpected playoff run, this award could very well be Thibodeau's for the taking.
So who wins?
My money is on Hornacek. However, that's because I'm assuming the Suns make the playoffs.
History has not been kind to candidates whose teams aren't playing in May. In fact, 96% of the Coaches of the Year over the last 25 years led their teams to the playoffs, per SB Nation. The only non-playoff coach to win was Doc Rivers back in 2000, when he was the Orlando Magic's head coach.
If the Suns fall short and don't make the playoffs, I think the award goes to Thibodeau for the second time in his career.
Who is the NBA's Coach of the Year?
Here are my predicted final COY Award Rankings:
On the outside looking in: Gregg Popovich, Dwane Casey, Steve Clifford
What do you guys think? Sound off in the comments below and be sure to follow me on Twitter @kbaker0506. As always, thanks for reading!