Training camp begins in a week, and players have already trickled into their respective cities to begin training in earnest. We're taking a look at coaches in the NBA this week at Eye on Basketball, starting today with this, your Coach of the Year preseason rankings.
As I looked at last year, ranking coaches is incredibly difficult, and the best way to do it is to break it into tiers because some coaches have different expectations, and that factors into their ranking. It's not just how good a coach they are; most of these guys are unbelievably terrific, which is why they coach in the NBA. It's about their ability to do the job they specifically are tasked with.
The following rankings come with a number on a 1-10 scale. The closer a coach is to 10, the closer they are to being considered the favorite for coach of the year. The closer they are to one, the closer they are to the possibility of being fired. So an 8.0 means that if that team were to win 60 games, that coach would have a great shot at winning coach of the year. Likewise, a 3.5 doesn't mean that that coach is close to losing his job right now, but if the team starts off something like 0-15, the fire under his seat will be insanely hot.
Overall, I wouldn't consider any one coach on the hot seat to start the year, which is rare. There are a few who could find the seats warming quickly with a slow start, but everyone's pretty safe right now, for once.
Coaches are judged on:
• Perceived X's and O's
• Personality management
• Motivational ability
•A little media management (since it's part of the gig) thrown in.
Legitimate Coach of the Year preseason candidates; considered best coaches in the NBA
1. Gregg Popovich
Team: San Antonio Spurs
Comment: I mean, come on. I shouldn't even have to write this paragraph, but I will do it because I am benevolent. Popovich is the best coach in the league. He coaches the best brand of basketball on the planet, a style that other coaches and players marvel at for how beautiful it was. He's consistent in his message, never lets ego interfere with the team's mission, rests his stars and has their trust, and he handles the media in such a gruff and brutal way that they love him for it. He is unmatched, not just in the modern NBA, but really across all sports.
Personally, I believe he's the best NBA coach of all-time. Phil Jackson has the hardware. Gregg Popovich has 15 years of legitimate contention, five titles, and is a three-time coach of the year. He's got the resume over Jackson and the competition level over Auerbach.
2. Rick Carlisle
Team: Dallas Mavericks
Comment: The Mavericks pushed the Spurs to seven games and the biggest reason how the 8-seed did so among media and folks in the league was "Carlisle."
Carlisle is a brilliant tactician, who adjusts as well minute-to-minute throughout a game as well as anyone. He gets the most out of veterans, has the trust of his players, and is a total pro. He can be gruff with the media, but a good coach always keeps them at arm's length and he's still insightful at times. Meanwhile, he took a team that was yogurt defensively and pushed them into the playoffs in the toughest division in the toughest conference.
The only knock? Carlisle hasn't developed much talent lately. He wants to win, and trusting young players gets in the way of that. Even Brandan Wright who has played well has struggled to get on the floor. But that's nitpicking a guy who could have the Mavericks back in the title hunt this season.
3. Doc Rivers
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Comment: How many coaches could have gotten his guys' heads together to respond in the Warriors series last year during the Sterling debacle? Meanwhile, Rivers has become one of the best coaches in the league not only in inbounding plays, but schematic adjustments and role player maximization. The Clippers' defense improved so much over a year with Rivers, they were hardly recognizable.
Rivers manages minutes well, gets his guys to buy in, spends time developing the younger players and doesn't drive his veterans into the ground. He's measured, but fiery when he needs to be. His guys know he wants to wants to win and that he has their back. The guy brought back Glen Davis, again, for crying out loud. Doc's the top "czar" (president of basketball ops and coach) on the list for a reason.
That said, the pressure will be high again for the Clippers. They were great last year but had everything that could happen happen. What about this year, with the shadow of Sterling gone?
4. Erik Spoelstra
Team: Miami Heat
Comment: This one is sure to rankle some folks. Spoelstra caught a lot of the runoff flack for the Heat, and now that the best player on Earth has headed back to Cleveland, many will expect the Heat to tumble. If they do, you can expect Spoelstra's ranking to fall as well.
But in the meantime, Spoelstra's system provides one of the best defensive alignments you're going to find, and he finds ways to maximize what his team does. He gets guys to buy in, and is meticulous to the point of obsession about his preparation.
If the Heat were to somehow get a top-three seed, you'd have to think Spoelstra would be at least a candidate for the award. Either way, he should be considered a top-five coach in the league. But there is an argument that he should be behind...
5. Tom Thibodeau
Team: Chicago Bulls
Comment: Thibodeau is beloved. That much is clear. He plays to win every game (no matter the cost), he coaches arguably the best defense in the league, his team always plays up to their opponent. No coach has his team ready to play night after night better than Thibs.
His scheme is one that has been replicated across many teams, he's an innovator and a leader; there's a reason he's on the Team USA staff. He's a lifer, and none of his players can imagine him doing anything besides coaching, including sleep. And you can argue that outside of Pop, no coach has his guys' loyalty and devotion like Thibs does. You talk about building a culture of winning? No one has done it as well as Thibs (in the East).
So why so low? There are two main questions. One is about his offense. As Zach Harper pointed out, with Derrick Rose healthy, the Bulls have had a top-flight offense. But without him, they've been a disaster. Makes sense, losing your best player will do that. But the Bulls have been so bad, it has to be asked how much Rose impacted that. After all, the players have even said before that Thibs doesn't take the same kind of care for the offense that he does for the defense, and Rose has said that he's mostly given the freedom to just kind of create. That's good when it works and bad when it doesn't.
Second, there is the question of minutes. Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, these guys have been driven into the ground because Thibodeau is never willing to sacrifice an opportunity for a win to save the health of his guys. There has to be an awareness of the big picture in order to have a better performance in the postseason, Rose or not.
Still, if Chicago wins 60 games as they did with Rose healthy three years ago, Thibs is going to get a lot of votes for COY.
HOT COMMODITIES (And Frank Vogel)
T6. Steve Clifford
Team: Charlotte Hornets
Comment: The Bobcats flew under the radar last year, and then just popped up in the playoffs randomly. They were swept away in a Heat supercurrent, made none the easier to stop after Al Jefferson went down with a torn plantar fascia. And on the surface, 43 wins is nothing to get excited about.
But Charlotte had a lot of really interesting trends. They were legitimately good against top teams often times during the year. Their record was greatly impacted by a couple of road-trip meltdowns that resulted in long strings of losses, to be expected for a young team. They had one of the best marks for defending the paint in the league... despite not having a rim protector.
On offense, they moved the ball and made the right play... they just didn't have any shooters. Still, the Cats were a tough out, and now with the Hornets logo on their chest instead of that depressing Bobcats set, they also have a lot more weapons to play with. The Hornets seem like a solid lock for the playoffs and could push for a top-three seed.
Clifford built his reputation as an assistant on being able to communicate clearly with players and get them to buy in. He's not a hardass or a coddler. He manages to find balance and stands as one of the more promising coaches for next season.
T6. Jeff Hornacek
Team: Phoenix Suns
Comment: The Suns were supposed to tank last year and instead wound up just a few games short of a playoff spot. That could have been just an outlier year where things went right, or a singular performance by a player. But while Goran Dragic was something special in 2013-2014, the Suns legitimately shocked the league with their playstyle. They shared the ball and played fundamentally sound. They shot extremely well but they also shared the ball and focused on playing inside and out.
Hornacek's spacing opened up new worlds for their roster and several young players made unexpected leaps under the tutelage of Hornacek's staff. The players also lavished Hornacek with praise not only for how he built and executed gameplans but also for how he handled the locker room and ran the team.
It's just a year, as it was with Clifford, but both of those coaches project as great long-term answers for their teams.
T8. Frank Vogel
Team: Indiana Pacers
Comment: Vogel coached one of the best teams in the league over the past three seasons, and coached the Pacers to the best record in the league and what looked like a legitimate shot at a title last year. And then February happened. The Pacers absolutely melted down, in a nearly unprecedented way that brought questions about whether the Pacers should look elsewhere, a shocking turn given what Vogel has accomplished.
So why is he so high, here? Because he has a track record and measure of success that goes beyond a bad four-month stretch. You can't look at the Pacers' roster and think that it was all talent; for the most part that talent was developed into star power by Vogel and his staff. Vogel was a huge part of their success, building the best defense in the league and finding ways to create offense with limited skills.
Vogel also benefits here from lowered expectations. Paul George is gone for the season after that horrific leg injury. With Lance Stephenson in Charlotte, the Pacers will start the year as a question mark for the playoffs. If they make it, he'll have exceeded expectations and done way more than you would think possible. If they don't and are terrible... you can't blame him, the team was missing its best player.
Vogel is both safe from criticism and able to easily defy expectations. After that, though, it could get dicey.
T8. Stan Van Gundy
Team: Detroit Pistons
Comment: SVG is back! Van Gundy has been a top name on coaching hiring lists since his departure from the Magic thanks to Dwight's whole... you know, thing. But this time, he comes in as a czar, head of basketball operations and coaching. And that lead to some interesting decisions in free agency.
Van Gundy is held in high regard for what he did in Orlando. He coached a team that wasn't high on defensive talent outside of Dwight Howard into an elite defense, and turned Dwight himself into a Defensive Player of the Year. It's often forgotten but Howard's weak spot was defense and rebounding before Van Gundy really started hammering it into him. And around Howard he formulated a spaced-three-point attack that set records.
Van Gundy is unfireable for several reasons, money, power, being a new hire. But you also can't just guarantee he'll be successful from the get-go. Rick Adelman, Flip Saunders, a lot of really good coaches don't benefit from a change of scenery. Van Gundy is high on this list, and could make a strong push for COY if the Pistons surprise, but it's not realistic to expect everything to immediately turn to roses and fireworks after so many years of garbage and feces.
T10. Mike Budenholzer
Team: Atlanta Hawks
Comment: While the turmoil in the Hawks organization continues to suffer from the fallout of their racist-comments scandal, it's important if we're looking at this list to remember the job that Mike Budenholzer did last year. The Hawks were the three seed on December 27th when Al Horford went down for the year with a shoulder injury.
They suffered through a huge downturn thanks to brutal West Coast road trips as they tried to figure out how to play without Horford. They figured it out in the final weeks of the season and the result was an impressive run vs. the Pacers in a seven-game loss that showed the Hawks playing five-out and spreading the floor. With Horford back this year and a few minor upgrades, if the locker room can withstand the turmoil in the front office, there's a good chance the Hawks are a top-four seed in the East.
Budenholzer is right out of the Popovich system, and it shows. The Hawks play the right way and the locker room has no outstanding issues internally. Now if they can just survive the circus this season will begin with...
T10. Terry Stotts
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
Comment: Stotts looked like a lock for the award last year when he had the Blazers as the best team in the West for half the year. They fell off thanks to a schedule difficulty increase, typical regression to the mean, and an injury to LaMarcus Aldridge, but they also really impressed me with how they weathered the storm to take the five-seed, and then of course had that brilliant first-round win vs. the Rockets.
Stotts engineered maybe the most fun-to-watch offense in the league last season (yes, even more fun than the Spurs, who used a surprisingly high number of mid-range jumpers in their games). They were an extra-pass machine, and yet took advantage of opportunities at the rim. Damian Lillard is a special talent, but the coaching staff deserves credit for getting him to become so much more of a game manager and such a solid decision-maker.
THE HIGH-EXPECTATIONS CREW
These coaches represent the middle-rung, and are all (for the most part) good coaches with established reasons why they should win. Some are dealing with expectations of building off a high-mark year, some are dealing with title pressure, and some jobs simply come with seats pre-warmed. These coaches are further away from being fired than some of their peers, but these are also coaches whose seats could get red hot if no-injury disaster befalls them.
T10. Scott Brooks
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Comment: Brooks should honestly be in that top tier. He's taken his team to a top-two seed in the West every year since 2011. He's made three Western Conference Finals, a Finals, missed the Finals one year because of Westbrook's injury, lost to an all-time Spurs team last year after an Ibaka injury.
And yet, at least outside the Thunder, there's pressure for either Brooks to "improve" or for the Thunder to move on. The knock on Brooks is basically all X's and O's. The offense becomes general and rudimentary in clutch time. The funny thing is, if the Thunder designed more complicated plays that resulted in someone else being open and shooting, Brooks would get killed for not getting Kevin Durant the ball. So really the charge is "find a way to get the best scoring player on the planet open when the entire defense's primary goal is to prevent him from getting open."
Brooks also takes hits for his reliance on Kendrick Perkins, something you can expect to decrease this year not only with the amount of time the Thunder will give Steven Adams, but given their drafting of Mitch McGary. He over-relied on Caron Butler... Butler's gone, too. So just by product of the roster, OKC should have a more equal distribution of minutes.
But the thought has formed in the zeitgeist that Brooks has taken them as far as he can, and that's evolved in the worse ends of fandom and league analysis into "Brooks is a bad coach." That's patently false.
Brooks has kept egos out of the locker room dynamic when there are quite a few, has overseen the development of Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Jeff Green, and there are promising signs for the youngsters. He's won playoff series vs. great opponents and been within reach of the title.
He's here because if the Thunder win 65 games and the West, it will be "because of Durant" and everyone's response will still be "let's see what they do in the playoffs." But that's probably not fair. It's just the way it is.
13. Dwane Casey
Team: Toronto Raptors
Comment: Casey came out of Dallas and said all the right things. He was going to preach defense. He was going to implement a winning culture. He was going to do things the right way.
And really, some of that happened and some of it didn't but for the most part, three weeks into last year, it looked like Casey might not survive the year.
And then the Rudy Gay trade happened, and sometimes in basketball, everything just clicks. Here's the trick to this. It's not that things magically came together and Casey had nothing to do with it, nor is it absolutely, black-and-white true that he wasn't doing a good job when the team struggled before. It's both. And that kind of leads to where we are with Casey.
When things are going great, he's phenomenal. When things aren't going great, you wonder if he's part of the issue. But that also overlooks how much Casey has grown as a head coach over the past three years. For starters, Casey fought with Kyle Lowry, but not only did the two eventually come to terms, they really bonded, and that was a big part of Lowry coming back in free agency.
Casey's discipline and culture-building have been great, and he allowed the team to really ride the good vibes last year. He's excited for his guys and shows emotion in the right doses, and is hard on them in the right amounts as well. The biggest criticism might be his inability to make adjustments both in-game and in playoff series, but that's an area he can make improvements in pretty easily, it would seem.
Casey could very well vault himself into that "hot commodities" tier with another solid year. There was always an air of "is this for real?" with the Raptors last year. If they come out and win the division again, that won't be there, and the Raptors may have actually built something, with Casey as a pillar in their House of North.
14. Lionel Hollins
Team: Brooklyn Nets
Comment: The grumpy old man is back. Two years after the Grizzlies said "Thanks, no thanks" to Hollins after making the Western Conference Finals, Hollins takes over a veteran Brooklyn team that's kind of a mess. Deron Williams is a shell of what he's supposed to be, Brook Lopez has more metal in his feet than Robocop, and Kevin Garnett is really sick and tired of the mortician taking his measurements.
Hollins is virtually unsackable; it's his first season with a broken-down veteran roster that lost key components in Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, and Andray Blatche. He's facing what could be a slightly-tougher division slate. And he's got to get his system implemented.
He's in a sweet-spot of expectations vs. talent... but there's also the fact of how his stint in Memphis ended. The people he clashed with are gone now, too, except for John Hollinger, but it's pretty firmly established that Hollins has zero patience for anyone. It would take a nuclear disaster for him not to be coach at year's end, but Hollins' temper carries with it a certain degree of radioactivity.
15. Dave Joerger
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
Comment: Joerger took over for Hollins and for three weeks it looked like a monstrous mistake, Custer-level bad. And then to top it off, Marc Gasol got hurt and Quincy Pondexter was lost for the year. That could have been it. But instead, Memphis found a groove and was one of the best teams in the league after January first, not only making its way back into the playoffs, but securing the seventh seed. And to top it off, they took Oklahoma to seven games, looking like the better team for most of it, and wound up losing Game 7 in Oklahoma City after Zach Randolph was suspended and Mike Conley was on one leg.
Joerger in particular acquitted himself by handling the frustrations over the changes to the offense by compromising while also making adjustments to what Memphis did, and in coaching circles around Scott Brooks in round one. Joerger was reportedly still on thin ice with owner Robert Pera, because, well, Pera seems to be a pretty intense guy but after a long conversation, the coach got the backing of Pera and turned down the Wolves job.
Joerger-Hollins, fittingly, is really the line between "almost definitely will not be fired" and "if they start out 2-10 the seat will be made of pure fire." Joerger has the full support of Pera... for now. As long as Memphis gets back to being a top-four seed in the West, everything should be fine. But if they have any significant meltdown, Pera could wind up being the scapegoat by association with the now-former regime.
Because Joerger coaches in the West, and specifically in the Southwest Division, his odds of winning COY are almost nil, but a division win would make for as strong a case as anyone can have.
T16. Randy Wittman
Team: Washington Wizards
Comment: There are two ways to look at Randy Wittman's status with Washington.
One, the guy put a team that has been a laughing stock for a decade (really more when you get down to it) and not only put them into the playoffs, but got them past the media darling Chicago Bulls, lead by that guy up there at No. 5 overall. You want the goods, Wittman brought the goods.
Two, why is Wittman getting lauded so much given that the team's management sold out, trading their first-round pick in a loaded draft to get a back-of-the-top tier center and pushing the salary future up, up, and away just to make the playoffs? Is Wittman behind the victory over Chicago, or did that have more to do with how the Wizards' veterans stepped up and the fact that the Bulls couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat into an ocean on a planet that is entirely comprised of water?
The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle.
On January 1st, 2014, the Wizards were 14-15, the fifth seed in the East. (One more time, the Eastern Conference everybody!) They managed to find their way to the fifth seed, thanks to the Al Horford injury and Brooklyn tanking back to get Toronto. Washington was at once a fun, fascinating, and horrifying team to watch last season. Night by night, the Wizards could be a smart, savvy team that exploited team's weaknesses and made the right plays, which made you think "You know, maybe Wittman really just clicks with this team."
And then some nights, they would look like they just rolled in off the lobotomy table. They put together enough to make a run, and legitimately played great vs. Chicago.
You just always get the feeling that this roster could do more, do better, with another coach at the helm.
Wittman is a lock not to get fired, because a. they just signed him to an extension b. he has the public support of the locker room and c. you pretty much have to steal food from Ted Leonsis' plate with him sitting right there for him to turn on you. In a league where so many owners have quick trigger fingers and think they can do a better job themselves, Leonsis represents the other side. "If at first you don't succeed, here, let me give you a five-year extension to see if you can pull it off."
Could Wittman win COY? It would shock me, I'm not going to lie, but if the Wizards came out with the No. 1 seed over the Cavs and Bulls, even if Rose goes down again, I don't know how he doesn't wind up as a candidate. Even if it was just John Wall making the leap to true superstar, Wittman would have to get credit for that. So it's possible. But I don't like the odds.
(Note: For years I have maintained the Wizards are the worst talent-development team in the league. Everyone looks at their draft history, but the guys they drafted had talent, Washington just never knew how to turn them into anything. But with Wall become a top-five point guard, Bradley Beal on the cusp of stardom -- if he'll stop shooting long-twos -- and if they can make Otto Porter into a rotation guy, that could be changing. That would shift a lot of what I think of Wittman. Winning with Nene, Webster/Ariza/Pierce and Gortat doesn't impress me much, those are veterans in a weak conference. But changing their reputation as a talent developer would be significant.)
T16. Byron Scott
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Comment: Scott takes over the Lakers, who are expected to win because they are always expected to win and because Kobe Bryant is a lunatic. He's supposed to bring the defense that was missing the last two years back into vogue, and he's got some veterans (Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, Jeremy Lin... and yeah, Nick Young) to try and actually win some games with Bryant back. At the same time, most expect the team to be a trainwreck.
Scott has a near-lock to keep his job, because despite the optimism you can manufacture, this team's third-best player might be Swaggy P. They purposefully didn't really go all out to build a playoff team because they wanted to keep cap room. Scott is dealing with the temp guys here, the replacements. The locker room would have to turn on him something fierce.
And there's good reason to believe Scott can do some things here, too. Scott's reputation is "hard on young guys, good defensive coach." But that wasn't really true in Cleveland. They had a bottom-16 defensive efficiency each year Scott was there. He needs good, veteran talent to coach defense well, and he certainly doesn't have that in L.A. But what he does have is some guys he can probably teach to be good players. He worked well with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, just as he did with Marcus Thornton and Darren Collison in New Orleans.
Scott will still be Lakers coach this time next year, and he probably won't be COY. He's basically free from evaluation until the team actually decides to try and go after the ring.
THE CAUSE-FOR-CONCERN ALLOTMENT
T16. Brian Shaw
Team: Denver Nuggets
Comment: Nuggets fans and media wanted a coach who wouldn't get eliminated in the first round by George Karl. And Brian Shaw didn't... because Denver failed to make the playoffs. That's the simple and easy joke to make about what happened in Denver last season.
Evaluating Brian Shaw is at once fascinating and incredibly difficult. Did he lose the locker room? Well, Andre Miller, the consummate pro blew up at him on the sideline, and eventually was suspended, then given leave, then traded. After the blow-up the Nuggets had an "airing of grievances," a series of meetings that took the entire day sorting through problems. After the Nuggets were waxed on national television by the Bulls in an embarrassing blowout which was proceeded by Shaw not only lambasting their effort but outright destroying their professionalism in a post-game interview, I thought that was it, there was no coming back.
But Shaw, to his credit, and the players, to their own, kept hold of the rope. The struggles were said not to be on Shaw, the veteran leaders in the locker room were adamant that Shaw was not to blame and that he hadn't lost the team. Towards the end of the year, after their playoff hopes were put to pasture, Kenneth Faried, who had battled with the coach for his confidence all year, made massive strides and looked like a real franchise player.
Now Shaw enters the season with serious expectations. Make no mistake about it. Last year was a "let's see what we've got outside of George Karl's system" year, and it was tarnished by massive injury problems in which four starter-caliber guys and their sixth man were lost for the year. Denver could either blow it up and start over, or double-down on this talent. They doubled-down, adding Arron Afflalo and keeping the core together. They believe this is a playoff team, even in the West.
If they were to fall apart, Shaw would take most of the blame. The idea is that if they can make the playoffs, Shaw's style, demeanor, and approach will get them out of the first round for only the second time in oh, man, eternity. Even if they were to go badly, management buys into what Shaw sells. But there are real expectations this year. This isn't a long process, not for Denver. They want to win. And that means Shaw has to build on the good things he found last year, not have any blowups, get more out of what he has, figure out JaVale McGee and Ty Lawson, and make a run in the brutal West.
T16. Flip Saunders
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
Comment: The worst-kept secret was that Flip Saunders wanted to coach the Wolves from the minute he came back to take over basketball operations. And after Rick Adelman stepped down and the Wolves couldn't find a suitable upgrade replacement, here we are, with Czar Saunders at the helm.
Anyone was going to look good in basketball ops after David Kahn. But some of Saunders' decisions and near-decisions (the Kevin Martin contract, the near-trade of Kevin Love for Klay Thompson) have to inspire some concern. But back on the floor, there's some positives here.
He's got an athletic team that he truly likes the talent of, and they should get up and down the floor. You can lose a lot of games as long as you play the young guys and run. But Saunders' reputation didn't seem to take the hit that maybe it should have after the D.C. disaster. There was no way to stop Agent Zero from sabotaging his career, but there were other problems both before and after Gungate that made you wonder if Saunders still has the touch.
Now he's got control of the franchise. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. The Wolves can test-drive this system and then move Saunders back to just front-office while Flip keeps face if it doesn't work out. But it's hard to have much confidence this is going to be a surprising story for Minnesota.
20. Monty Williams
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
Comment: Williams entered the offseason with a "So what's the deal?" vibe around him, but the Pelicans never made any noise about the possibility he might go. In truth, much as it was with Shaw, there was just no way to tell what last year's team would have been under Williams due to injury. The problem is that in the fleeting moments all of their stars were healthy, those units played well together but the team still wasn't winning.
Williams is a tough nut to crack. He's hard on his players, especially his guards and gets really frustrated with the mistakes of young players. But his roster is young. That comes with the territory. It did seem towards the end of last season that Williams had started to open up a bit and was maybe connecting with the players a bit more. Good vibes are important, even in lottery years (without a lottery pick).
The assumption on Williams is that because the team has failed to win anything, he must not be good. But we have to see what this team looks like when its considerable talent is actually on the floor before that decision is reached. But make no mistake about it. Williams and GM Dell Demps were hired before new owner Tom Benson took over. And often times new owners want their guys in place. If the healthy Pelicans still can't fly, Williams might get kicked out of the nest.
On the other hand, if Anthony Davis carries the team and they soar into a high-ish seed in the West, coming out of that brutal division, that's going to spark a lot of conversation on the other end.
T21. Kevin McHale
Team: Houston Rockets
Comment: It was a little shocking McHale survived the Rose Garden debacle. The Rockets should have been considerably better than they were last year, and even if you chalk it up to unfamiliarity, the way they were unprepared in key moments defensively was just atrocious. The Rockets had Dwight Howard last season and were still bad defensively in the fourth.
The Rockets enter the season with a worse roster on paper, but one that might be better together. Putting those pieces together will be on McHale. The problem is that if this were a confidence poll, McHale might be last. McHale has clashed with some players in the past (Kyle Lowry to name one recently), but he also built a really close relationship with some of the players, like Chandler Parsons... who isn't there anymore.
McHale doesn't just need to fight off the calls that he's why the Rockets aren't better this season. He needs to prove a reason why he's the guy for the job. He may have been helpful in recruiting Howard, but that part is over.
T21. Mike Malone
Team: Sacramento Kings
Comment: Or as I like to call it, the "Whatever poor guy has to coach the Kings" slot. Malone seems to have reached DeMarcus Cousins more than any coach before him. Both DMC and Isaiah Thomas had career years last year, and Rudy Gay looked the best he has in years.
And the team was still awful. If the Kings somehow made the playoffs, let alone grabbed a high seed, there wouldn't be talk of COY for Malone. There'd be talk of the stockades for witchcraft. Meanwhile, the Kings got worse on paper over the summer. If they go through another disaster season then the team could point to Malone as unable to put whatever pieces they think they have together.
T21. Jacque Vaughn
Team: Orlando Magic
Comment: Vaughn is basically in that spot that most rebuilding coaches get into. It's been two years, he's got some young talent, they've added some veterans, and ownership is getting impatient. The Magic have legitimately showed some life, especially in player development and gameplanning, but the locker room culture is more of a question mark than it's made out to be.
Vaughn deserves the season to see what he can do with the young guys. But the fact that Orlando seems so far away doesn't bode well for him.
T21. Jason Kidd
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Comment: Kidd isn't technically in charge of basketball operations in Milwaukee... but it sure feels that way. Jason Kidd has had a weird year. Retired, got the Nets job without any prior coaching experience, suspended for a DUI arrest, jersey is retired in preseason, team goes into the gutter right out of the gate, intentionally spills a cup to generate a timeout in a game they lost anyway, Kidd nearly fired, survives, coaches team to one of the best East records after January 1, makes the playoffs, beats the division champs on their home floor in Game 7, gets wiped off the map by Miami, attempts a coup on Billy King, fails, leaves, takes Milwaukee job with the guy who was his financial advisor as his owner.
I have come to the conclusion that Jason Kidd is Napoleon. This is like his being exiled to Elba. Meanwhile, he's got to coach a bunch of youngsters, which could be great or terrible, and that will determine a lot of what we think about Kidd as a coach. There were good things he did last year with the Nets, especially in the playoffs, but the overall performance was underwhelming. Was Kidd the one that dug them out of the hole, or was it just a product of their veterans not going down like that? We'll see how he does in Milwaukee.
T21. Brett Brown
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Comment: Brown seems like a good coach but we can't really tell because he doesn't actually coach a basketball team, he just coaches the idea of a basketball team. You can't possibly blame this guy if he loses 75 games. He has the lowest bar of any coach to clear.
T21. Brad Stevens
Team: Boston Celtics
Comment: The Celtics love Stevens. They love his energy and his approach, they love what he showed last year even with all the growing pains he went through. He's a pro with the media, the players responded, and at times, Boston was actually competitive. He's the guy, and he can lose a lot more games and not feel any heat.
First-year head coaches
27. David Blatt
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
Comment: Blatt has the highest upside of any of the new coaches (as reflected by his score) and is the second-favorite according to the sportsbooks for COY behind Popovich. Why? He combines three elements you need to win the award. One, he's a lifer, having coached overseas for years, so he has the respect of the fraternity. Two, he's got a great team, that with its talent will win 50 games almost in its sleep. But it's also a new team, in terms of playing together, so their coming together will seem like a really impressive coaching job. And three, he's a newcomer, and those guys carry some weight if they have outlier years.
I'm really the only person skeptical of Blatt. Why wasn't he given an NBA coaching job before if he was the super-genius he's been made out to be? Don't get me wrong, the hiring practices of the NBA in terms of coaching are wackadoodle, but you'd think someone would have paid through the nose to make him an assistant or given him a shot at head coach at some point. Second, we don't know anything about what kind of NBA coach he'll be. You can look at what he did in Europe, but as I constantly try and remind whenever there's a high-value prospect coming over... this is not Europe. It's not a different level of competition, it's an entirely different game. This doesn't mean I think Blatt will be bad, there's every reason to think he'll be good. But he's coming in with the most expectations I can remember for a first-time head coach. I just think pumping the brakes just a little bit might be in order.
28. Steve Kerr
Team: Golden State Warriors
Comment: Voters will be begging Kerr to give them a reason to vote for him. Former player, beloved in the locker room. Long-time veteran, former GM, long-time broadcaster, been around the game, a handful of gold rings, a team that is a media darling with superstar talent and an established locker-room hierarchy, and a great quote. Kerr is in a prime spot to steal this award if the Warriors can somehow snake the division out from under the Clippers. If that happens, it would take Blatt or Popovich winning 67-plus to really hold Kerr off.
But again, we don't know what kind of coach he will be. He seems like a natural fit, but there's so much the job entails, it's worth keeping a skeptical eye up.
29. Quin Snyder
Team: Utah Jazz
Comment: Longtime assistant, former college head coach (with quite the tarnished reputation in those ranks, which contrasts amazingly with how well-regarded he is at the pro level), young guy, fiery, excellent development coach, great quote. The Jazz aren't supposed to be good this year, so all Snyder has to do to keep his job is make sure they aren't abhorrent. If Favors and Hayward have bounce-back years after the money given to them, Dante Exum shows anything at all, and Rudy Gobert gives some flashes of what he showed in FIBA play, the Jazz could be a respectable 35-win team with another great pick and Snyder could have a good chance of building a team up that could keep him locked into Utah for the long haul.
His winning COY would be crazy, but I would have said the same thing about Jeff Hornacek last year and that almost happened.
30. Derek Fisher
Team: New York Knicks
Comment: Fisher is basically the puppet government set up by Phil Jackson. Fisher is "coaching the team" but Jackson is coaching the team. Fisher will be running the triangle in the World's Most Famous Arena and doing so without a true low-post presence, without a center, and without much in the way of playmakers.
Fisher has been a locker-room leader and a virtual assistant for years, but now a lot of the tasks will fall to him. Media, which is usually the bane of new coaches' existence, will come easy for him after his years as a player and head of the NBPA. Handling locker room egos will be another deal. Fisher is one of the few "friends" Kobe Bryant has, if you can call what Bryant has friends, so he's used to egos. But his role has always been facilitator. Now he actually has to manage that pride on a team that's got quite a few big personalities. He has to get Melo to buy in, because Anthony, after signing his contract last summer, doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to. Fisher has to develop the young guys and do all of this while Jackson looks over his shoulder.
There are easier jobs in the world.
But at the same time, Fisher's in a great spot. Overachieve and the media will fawn all over him, even if that just means the seventh seed. Struggle and the blame will fall to Melo and Jackson, while the rest talk about how it takes time to build a team. Fisher would have to be transparently awful in several aspects of coaching to wind up in trouble, and would have to be what Jackson is made out to be in the media (as opposed to what he actually is) in order to win Coach of the Year. There are a lot of questions about Fisher, but most of those questions seem to veer up and wind up aimed at the Zen Master himself.