Coach of the Year
Phoenix coach Monty Williams celebrates with guard Devin Booker. Photo: Phoenix Suns/Reddit

2021 NBA Coach of the Year: The Contenders

As the NBA season begins to wind down it’s time to turn our eye towards the end of season awards. This season – in many ways the most tumultuous season in the history of the NBA – most of the NBA’s awards are up wide open; none more so that the Coach of the Year award.

Between the compacted schedule and the injury mitigation that comes with that, the enforced COVID absences through protocol requirement if not the virus itself and game postponements, in game coaching has taken on an importance never seen before.

Who are the front runners for the 2020/21 NBA Coach of the Year award? Let’s take a look.

Monty Williams

Phoenix Suns

In acquiring Chris Paul in the off season, the Suns made their intentions clear: after 10 seasons standing on the outside looking in, Phoenix were going all in on a playoff push. With a solid young core led by Devin Booker and perhaps buoyed by a white hot run in the Orlando bubble, Phoenix’s bet looked a reasonable one.

At the time of writing, Phoenix’s record stands at 46-18, tied for the best record in basketball with the Utah Jazz (more on them in a moment) over whom they hold the tiebreaker. So we can probably give the Suns a pass mark on the trade.

To credit this improvement solely on Paul’s arrival does coach Monty Williams a huge disservice. For starters, Phoenix’s starting unit outscores their opposition by less than 5 points per 100 possessions – that’s around 10 points lower than those of the Jazz, Sixers, Bucks and pre-Drummond Lakers. Around Paul, who for all of his excellent play, is no longer Prime Chris Paul, the Suns have a star that has never made the playoffs, a first overall draft pick who isn’t by any means dominant, and a series of either young role players or castoffs.

Williams has taken that eclectic group and formed a team that is 2nd in the NBA in net rating at +6.2. Phoenix sit alongside the Jazz and Bucks as the only teams in the league with a top 10 offense and defense. He’s turned a bench full of retreads into the best in the entire NBA.

Paul’s swagger and know-how have clearly made an impact on the psyche of the Suns, but Monty Williams’ coaching has arguably been the most significant factor in the Suns rise to the top.

Quinn Snyder

Utah Jazz

Snyder’s coaching this season has been nothing short of marvellous.

For so many years Utah were a throwback to an antiquated style of basketball, with an offense that only succeeded through intricacies of Snyder’s complex, whirring sets and the brilliance of Donovan Mitchell.

Now, with a lineup that promotes spacing, Utah’s offense trails only a Nets team containing a trio of offensive geniuses and a Clippers team currently on track to be the single best shooting team in the history of the NBA. Heady company, indeed.

As it turns out, perfect spacing, a cadre of excellent and intelligent shooters and a dunking machine rolling to the hoop makes for good basketball. That’s not to downplay Utah’s success as a consequence of it’s personnel. Snyder’s detailed, cut heavy offense is still the basis of the Jazz attack.

At the other end of the floor, Utah have maintained their excellent defense, currently ranked 3rd in the NBA. Presumptive Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert obviously plays a large part in that.

But look at what Gobert has in front of him: a pair of undersized guards (one of them in his mid 30’s), and undersized wing ‘stopper’ in Royce O’Neal and a defensive liability in Bogdan Bogdanovic. Off the bench comes Joe Ingles (whip smart but limited physically), Jordan Clarkson (what is this ‘defense’ of which you speak?) and Georges Niang (mobility of an oil tanker). Fellow defensive monster Derrick Favors only plays 15 minutes a game and in addition has only shared the court with his former front court partner for a mere 20 minutes all season. Favors allows Utah 48 minutes of excellent interior defense, but he’s not the reason the Jazz are elite at that end.

No one man can anchor a top five defense. Especially with that sort of perimeter defense in front of him. Snyder’s scheme’s have played a huge role in Utah maintaining their defensive dominance, whilst asserting themselves at the other end of the court.

Tom Thibodeau

New York Knicks

In case you’ve been living under a rock, let me catch you up: THE NEW YORK KNICKS ARE CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD!!!! Or something. Maybe they’ve solved world hunger. (Ed’s: please check)

The ridiculous hype that has surrounded the Knicks rise to mid level Eastern Conference playoff team (currently 4th, but closer to 7th than 3rd) is the perfect example of why the rest of the NBA world has revelled in the Knicks’ unparalleled ability to repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot over the past 20 years.

This latest re-animation of the club might be the start of something sustainable. It might be another flash in the pan. Either way, it would be most churlish to diminish the magic Tom Thibodeau has conjured this season, simply because of the team he’s done it for.

Look at the tools that Thibs has to work with. RJ Barrett is a recent high pick, sure. Julius Randle has gone from talented-empty-stats guy to legitimate All NBA contention. Reggie freaking Bullock is 3rd on this team in minutes. Other retreads like Alec Burks, Elfrid Payton and (of course) Derrick Rose are key contributors. Bouncy big man Mitchell Robinson has spent half the season injured so Thibs only went and turned journeyman Nerlens Noel into Marcus Camby.

The Knicks are 3rd in the NBA in defensive rating and are ninth in net rating. Last season they were 23rd and 26th respectively. Despite starting the offensive liabilities that are Payton and Camby Noel, Thibs has even improved the Knicks offense from 28th in 2020 to a passable 19th this campaign.

What Thibs has done this season is right up there with what Gordon Bombay did with the Mighty Ducks.

Doc Rivers

Philadelphia 76ers

Doc Rivers has arguably never been properly rates as an NBA head coach. For every pundit that talks up his championship in Boston, his star studded Clipper teams or his underdog Magic squads, there is another that thinks the Celtic’s were lucky, that the Clips underachieved and that the Magic ultimately achieved nothing.

His stubborn refusal to bench Montrezl Harrell in last season’s playoffs, when Blind Freddy and his deaf dog could see that Harrell was getting torched, gave further ammunition to that second group.

Doc’s highly publicised move from Los Angeles to Philadelphia has the chance to cement his reputation, one way or the other.

Whereas predecessor Brett Brown was a disciplinarian on the court, but appeared to let the inmates run the asylum away from the floor, Rivers is the opposite. He has all his players singing form the same hymn sheet, but on the court has given them the freedom to flourish in their own ways – round pegs in round holes, if you will.

He’s allowed Joel Embiid to embrace his mid-range game to devastating, MVP-esque effect. Tobias Harris is playing his best basketball since his days a a Clipper (who was his coach there, I wonder?). He has not pressured Ben Simmons into trying to be the 20 point scorer that he’s clearly not wired to be, instead allowing him to zip passes around the floor and be as destructive as possible on defense. He’s drawn career years out of limited players like Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton. He’s getting production out of old men in Danny Green and Dwight Howard.

The post-Process Sixers have always had elite talent, but something was always missing, be it chemistry, attitude or an on court plan. Under Doc, the Sixers appear to have found all of those ingredients.

Steve Nash

Brooklyn Nets

It’s easy to diminish the contributions of rookie head coach Steve Nash to Brooklyn’s success this season. That can happen when you have three all time offensive maestro’s on your roster, as well as a man in Joe Harris who can lay legitimate claim to being one of the best handful of shooters on the planet.

The Nets are currently sitting 2nd in the East, a half game behind Doc’s 76ers. With the roster at his disposal, that should be expected. But what about the roads travelled by Nash and his Nets to get top this point?

Coming into the season, Nash – remember, a rookie with no tangible coaching experience at ANY level – had to work with Kevin Durant coming off an achillies tear, Kyrie Irving’s notorious mood swings and the push/pull of the Deandre Jordan/Jarrett Allen centre battle.

Just as he thought he might be getting a handle on all of that, the team loses most of it’s depth and defense to bring in a possibly unfit James Harden. Nash has had to find a way to keep a trio of ball dominant stars happy with their lot in life, whilst also managing their not insignificant ego’s.

He’s also had to find a way to craft a passable defense whilst playing Jordan – a liability at this point of his career – Harden and the flammable Irving. Harris and Durant are not exactly Pippen and Jordan at that end, either. To his credit he’s developed Nic Claxton to the point where he is a genuine all-situations defensive option. He’s brought more defense onto the floor by turning the 6’4” Bruce Brown into a centre! He’s reanimated the corpse of Blake Griffin. He’s turned Jeff Green into the best version of himself at age 34.

Then you have to consider the injuries that the team has suffered. Durant has missed 40 games, Harden 31, Irving 17. Every time Nash has had one of his three pillars return from a stint on the sideline, another falls over. The juggling act has been quite impressive.

This is as close a race for Coach of the Year as there has ever been. Outside of these five you could make a case for James Borrego or Terry Stotts, though in this writers eyes they fall a level below.

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