Early Coach of the Year Candidates

Through a month and some change, we’ve had some hot starts, some cold starts, and then finally, some god awful starts. We also are a little more than a quarter of the season in and are starting to get a sense of how the league is going to look for the rest of the year. This week, we will be diving into each of the major awards, and who I believe are the current frontrunners for each. To start, we’ll look at Coach of the Year and see, as of now, who’s leading the charge.

  1. Dwane Casey, Pistons (13-8 4th in the East)

Last year’s recipient of this award, and one of the few coaches in history to get fired after winning it, we have Dwane Casey. He’s back this year with the Pistons, and once again, he’s putting forth another quality season coaching. The Pistons acquired Blake Griffin last year to go alongside Andre Drummond. A weird combo as the two were used to playing in the post and it seemed like they’d get in each other’s way. Casey decided that the best way to run this team would be to play through Griffin on offense and keep him on the outside, while Drummond occupies the paint. Blake’s averaging some of the best numbers of his career (24/9/5) and the Pistons are up 6.4 ppg from last season’s mark (103.8 to 110.2). This, on top of their rebounding (7th overall in the NBA and 2nd in rebounding percentage) have vaulted the Pistons up to the upper echelon of the conference and Casey deserves praise.

  1. Mike Budenholzer, Bucks (15-7 2nd in the East)

No stranger to the award, as he won it in 2014-15 when his Hawks won 60 games, Coach Bud is back in the mix for the honor of Coach of the Year. He has the Bucks at 15-7 and they are scoring an outrageous 121.4 points per game (1st in the NBA) and sport an offensive rating of 115.5 (also 1st in the NBA). For a team who didn’t make many moves in the offseason, how have they done this? It’s quite simple when you dive into the numbers. This season, they are 2nd in the NBA in 3s attempted at 40.5 per game and they hit 36.1% of those threes. In comparison, last season they only took 24.7 per night (25th in the league) and hit 35.5% of those. Their scoring has ballooned from last year’s mark of 106.5 ppg and I attribute this to, not only the players, but to Budenholzer for making this adjustment and having a focus on 3-point shooting.

  1. Mike Malone, Nuggets (16-7 T-1st in the West)

Moving into the Western Conference, we have Mike Malone and his Nuggets team. While he’s seen his players improve and Jokic has become more aggressive, some lower level moves are the ones I want to go over. On 11/11 he inserted Juancho Hernangomez into the starting lineup and he’s been there ever since. He’s averaging 12.2/6.9/1.1 on 47/48/80 shooting splits as a starter and has made a clear difference. He brings energy and even had a game winning block against the Warriors early on. Another thing is the production he’s gotten out of a thin bench on paper.

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All of those guys have been great and hold the 12th position in bench points per game (38.5), as well as the 4th position among benches in terms of FG% (48.4) and 3FG% (37.4). He’s gotten the most out of his players and has the Nuggets in a prime position to make a deep run in the playoffs down the road.

  1. J.B. Bickerstaff, Grizzlies (13-9 6th in the West)

After assuming interim coaching duties last season, after David Fizdale got fired, Bickerstaff led the Grizzlies to 15 wins in his 63 games as head coach. They were bad, really bad, but also had lost Mike Conley for the season which was a huge blow. Coming into the off-season it was unclear what the Grizz were going to do about their coaching vacancy. They decided to bring Bickerstaff back as the head coach and gave him a three-year deal. After a lost season, there were questions regarding this team’s ability to compete in a packed Western Conference with such an outdated style of play. Bickerstaff decided that this team’s identity was grit and grind and that their best bet would be to just roll with that. Just like in the heyday of the grindhouse, they’re last in the league in PACE (Possessions as a team per game) at 96.51, and have a top 5 defense, both in terms of rating (104.8) and points allowed per game (103.1). They lock up at a high rate and they force teams to play their style of basketball. Also of note is what he’s gotten out of rookie sensation Jaren Jackson Jr. while trying to integrate him into the Starting 5 alongside Gasol and Conley. Jackson Jr. is averaging 14.9/4.5/1.5 with 2 blocks on 52/35/78 shooting and has thrived in Bickerstaff’s system. What Bickerstaff has done is a little bit more simple than the others (staying with grit and grind), but could end up being the most effective strategy out that of his competitors for the award.

  1. Doc Rivers, Clippers (16-7 T-1st in the West)

This was an easy choice, he’s doing the absolute most with his roster and they’re actively maxing out their potential. Without an All-Star on the roster Rivers has led the Clippers to 16-7 and a tie atop the Western Conference. For comparison, every other team in a playoff spot today (besides Orlando) has at least one player who has made at least one all star game. Hopefully, for the Clippers, this changes come the All-Star game and Tobias Harris gets a spot on the team that he deserves. Until then, they sport no All-Stars and Doc has had the task of piecing this roster of misfit toys together. He has them scoring 117.7 points per night which ranks third in the league behind Milwaukee and New Orleans. With players like Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, and Harris, the offensive firepower of this team is easy to understand. They’re also top 6 in every shooting category which speaks volumes about their offense as a whole. Lastly, they have the 9th best PACE mark in the league as a team at 102.73. On top of this, the decision to keep Williams on the bench, and the development of Montrezl Harrell has propelled the Clippers to a league lead in Bench points per game at 53.5. Doc has let them go on offense and he hasn’t looked back. He has them playing some of the best basketball in the league right now and if they keep it up, expect Doc to be a real contender for COY.

-Chuck

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