Many NBA pundits are quick to tell you it’s a player’s league, and in many respects that’s true. Without a game-changing talent like LeBron James or Kevin Durant, it’s hard to compete with the league’s upper echelon.
Ignoring the impact of a good coach would be foolish, however, as we see from year to year the impact that an upgrade on the bench can bring to a team. Unless your team is one of the top seeds, coaches usually receive too much blame for failure and not enough credit in periods of success.
Last year’s Coach of the Year winner, George Karl, is the perfect example of the intense scrutiny NBA coaches face. His Denver Nuggets team defied expectations with a no-stars lineup and won 57 games in the always brutal Western Conference. Karl was rewarded for this performance by being handed his walking papers less than a month later.
It’s a cruel, stressful environment, so let’s take the time to show love to some deserving candidates for the NBA’s top coaching honor this season.
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10. Doc Rivers – Los Angeles Clippers
Brought in to implement the defensive concepts that made his Boston Celtics teams successful, Rivers’ first year in Los Angeles has been highlighted by a surging Clippers offense. The Clippers are scoring more than four more points per game under Doc, jumping from 101.1 last year to a scintillating 105.9 so far this year.
Part of the reason the Clippers are scoring more is due to an uptick in pace from previous years. Despite their reputation as a fast-breaking, high-wire act, the Clippers actually ranked 19th in pace last season, atypical of a team with Chris Paul at the helm. Recognizing the unique athletic talents of the roster, Rivers has the Clips pushing the tempo more, with the team using almost five more possessions per game.
Rivers has done all this while maintaining the team’s offensive efficiency, despite losing key players like Chris Paul and J.J. Redick for prolonged stretches of time. He may have a ton of talent on hand, but he’s doing a solid job at playing to their strengths.
9. Brett Brown – Philadelphia 76ers
That’s right: a coach at the helm of a 13-25 team deserves some credit for his team’s performance. After trading away All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, many expected the Sixers to be one of the worst teams in the history of the league. Vegas odds makers set the over/under on their win total at 16.5, a full five games behind the next closest team. The Sixers are within range of that number a month before the All-Star break.
Brown’s emphasis on the three-point shot has brought the best out of Spencer Hawes and Thad Young, who are in the midst of career years after being freed from Doug Collins’ shackles. While the win totals are actually a concern for a team gunning for the top pick, it’s possible the Sixers found their long-term coach in a year prefaced by doom and gloom. That’s no small feat.
8. Mark Jackson – Golden State Warriors
Turnovers are typically a death sentence for defenses around the NBA. And yet somehow, the Warriors are ninth in points allowed in game, despite giving the ball away an average of 16.7 times, trailing only Philadelphia.
How is this possible? Having defensive stalwarts in Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala doesn’t hurt, but having pieces in place is half the battle. Last season, Mark Jackson revealed that he redesigned the team’s defensive scheme with input from Bogut, the team’s anchor on that end. The results are finally coming in Oakland – the Warriors are allowing just 99 points per game, the first time the franchise has been below triple digits since 2006.
Any team with Stephen Curry, aka The Human Torch, is a threat to go deep in the playoffs. But it’s their coach’s willingness to adapt based on his personnel that has the Dubs looming as a dark horse contender.