When NBA coaches talk about how the media knows nothing about what goes into the job, they're not lying. The biggest thing are the decision trees. It's not just rotations and rest patterns and a few Xs and Os -- it's ego management, player relations, media relations, hell even agent relations. It's things like schedules and game plans and film breakdown and practice habits and little tweaks here and there that most people don't notice but can change a team's course. It's everything.
The complexity of coaching is underestimated by most, and this list isn't necessarily reflective of who's doing it the best right now, but rather, who's doing it the best relative to their team's roster and expectations. Overcoming roster limitations, and subsequently exceeding expectations, is the biggest factor in Coach of the Year voting.
With that in mind, here's an early Coach of the Year rankings:
1. Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets: Remember that sometimes, the Coach of the Year award operates on a delay. The Hornets emerged last year and are even better this season. He's helped turn Kemba Walker into East Coast Curry and helped craft a top-five defense. It's hard to argue anyone's doing more with less than Clifford so far.
2. Mike D'Antoni, Houston Rockets: Welcome back, Pringles. (Seriously, Mike, you gotta regrow the mustache.) Houston's been reinvigorated and James Harden has been unleashed. Eric Gordon has been maximized and Clint Capela could win Most Improved Player. Seven Seconds or Less has become Seventy Threes Or More and the Rockets are the most fun team in the league. Oh, and they're winning, too.
3. Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz: Snyder would be my pick to make it to the top of this list by season's end. It's this simple: when the Jazz are healthy, they have the profile of a top-five or six team, and they're good in every area when at their best. Snyder makes for a good story as a franchise that took the long way back.
4. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs: He's Pop. The Spurs are always good. They're good again. san Antonio looks like the same team on paper that it usually does, and the record's right there all the same. Under the radar there are some worrisome signs, but if no other coach really separates himself, Popovich is always the default option.
5. Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors: Casey has taken the Raptors from lottery team to playoff squad, and then playoff squad to East contender (or at least runner-up contender). They make gains every season and their consistency on both sides makes them better than the sum of their individual parts.
6. Fred Hoiberg, Chicago Bulls: The Bulls are trending down, otherwise Hoiberg would be higher. He's making it work with a roster thrown together at the last minute, and they have wins vs. good teams. After last year's disappointment, Hoiberg winning would be a good story.
7. Luke Walton, Los Angeles Lakers: Another coach whose team's recent dropoff knocks him down a few spots. Walton's working with less than Clifford in Charlotte, just not getting more out of his team. Still, he has entirely changed the vibe and feel of the Lakers now and in the future, and he's only been on the job a few months. Walton seems destined for one of these sooner-or-later Coach of the Year wins.
8. Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers: If the Clippers finish with 65-plus wins and the No.1 seed in the West, Rivers would have a pretty strong case for the award. He's got a stacked roster, which makes it tough, but winning trumps everything...
9. Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors: ... Unless you're the Warriors. Kerr's not going to get the credit he probably deserves for having and implementing a system that integrated Kevin Durant, a high-usage superstar, so fluidly. But after winning 73 last year, how is he going to put in a performance that doesn't seem like a letdown, coaching wise?
10. Jeff Hornacek, New York Knicks: The Knicks are .500 and this mishmash roster is getting big win after big win. Hornacek's managed to handle Phil Jackson's Triangle nonsense, resuscitate Derrick Rose's career and make the Knicks into a possible playoff team. If they can sustain, he's going to look like a good option.
11. Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder: So, the Thunder are the fifth seed in the West after losing the second-best player in the league. They are top-fifteen in offense and defense the last three weeks and it's not all Russell Westbrook. We might want to, you know, look at Billy Donovan every once in a while as a good coach.
12. David Fizdale, Memphis Grizzlies: If Conley and Parsons miss significant time this season and the Grizzlies manage to land as a mid-tier seed, his case will be excellent. It should be noted, however, that this team is still great at defense and terrible offensively. Marc Gasol hitting 3s doesn't mean their profile has really changed.
13. Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks: Is the answer to the Bucks' success simply "Giannis?" Or does Kidd get credit for unleashing him? Milwaukee's ninth in net differential and trending up, even with Khris Middleton out. If they finish at .500, Kidd's going to have done an impressive job.
14. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics: They added Al Horford and so far have been worse. The defense falling off a cliff is perplexing, and the team's been frustrated with its own performance. Stevens is well regarded but so far this hasn't been his year.
15. Frank Vogel, Orlando Magic: Sure enough, Vogel shows up and the defense becomes elite. This roster makes zero sense, Aaron Gordon's slumped out of the gate and after looking like the worst team in the league for two weeks, they're honing in on .500. The offense is bad, even by Vogel standards, but they're finding a way to win, which shows what he can do on the defensive side.
16. Tyronn Lue, Cavaliers: No, it's not fair. Lue's gotten the most out of Kevin Love, won the title, brought the squad together, held LeBron James accountable. He deserves more credit. But the perception remains that this is LeBron's team and the Cavs would have to make a run for a win mark they know they don't really need for Lue to get up there.
17. Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons: The Pistons have flown under the radar while Reggie Jackson got back into the rotation. They're good, they're just not catching a lot of attention. Counting out SVG is always a bad plan, though.
18. Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers: Well, they're the worst defense in the league, so that's going to be a tough sell. That may seem hypocritical given D'Antoni's Rockets are bottom-five as well. But the Blazers' win profile is worse and compared to last season, they seem to have regressed.
19. Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks have plummeted off a cliff the last few weeks. I'd say to put this one in the "check back later" tier. There's no way of knowing how the Hawks will turn out.
20. Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are bad but pesky as all get out. Atkinson's got no shot because of the roster, but the Nets play together and so far, he's done a great job of making a bad team something that's at least within range of being competitive.
21. Dave Joerger, Sacramento Kings: This ranking has nothing to do with Joerger, who has done some good things and some weird things so far on the job. But he coaches the Kings, and the Kings are a mess, as always.
22. Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks: Carlisle's a top-five coach, which is why we all kind of assumed the Mavericks would be decent this year. It turns out the answer to "How bad do the Mavericks have to be for Carlisle to be unable to drag them to the playoffs?" is "this bad."
23. Alvin Gentry, New Orleans Pelicans: Gentry's a second-half sleeper candidate. Did you know this team's actually decent on defense? If they can just get a little more offense (and Tyreke Evans should be back eventually), they might make a run with a low-budget roster.
24. Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers: I know, how can he be this high? Well, it's not going to happen, but considering four of their six best players have been injured to start the year, it's understandable. Brown's approach is still sound, Embiid looks terrific, and what if Simmons really does make that much of a difference when he gets back?
25. Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers: It hasn't been a seamless return to head coaching for McMillan. The Pacers are below average on defense and surprisingly worse on offense, and they're far from the team they hoped they would be and many people thought they would be.
26. Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets: Denver's had real struggles with its rotations. Malone has to play too many guys, and few of them fit together. They've also been terrible at closing games at home, games they really needed with a brutal early schedule.
27. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat: Spoelstra's a good coach but this roster is like the stew you tried making with whatever was in the fridge, and you weren't even working from a recipe. The Heat still play hard, but Spoelstra's wasted with this particular team.
28. Tom Thibodeau, Minnesota Timberwolves: The Wolves under-performing, even relative to how young they are, is not something anyone saw coming headed into this season, but here they are. A strong point differential masks that they've lost to good teams and bad.
29. Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards: The Wizards have too much talent to be so dismal.
30. Earl Watson, Phoenix Suns: The Suns are bad, but that's one thing. They have no identity, and that's considerably worse. It's hard to identify the Suns' strengths.