There are established patterns to winning NBA Coach of the Year. You either guide a team with high expectations to its expected goal, stun with an eye-popping turnaround out of the Lottery or take a team from the playoff fringe into a team no one wants to face in the opening round by catching fire. We’ll call them the Excellence’s Status Quo, Out Of Nowhere, or Next Step plans to earning respect, respectively. With the curtain being drawn on the 2012-13 season tonight, Dime is projecting the major awards all week, and today we look at the top coach.
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10. SCOTT BROOKS, OKLAHOMA CITY
It isn’t woe-is-me for Scott Brooks after NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden was dealt away just days before the opener. Brooks and the Thunder got back a sizable amount in return to work with and Jeremy Lamb will be fascinating to watch play alongside fellow rookie Perry Jones III. And — oh yeah — he still has two of the top-10 players in the entire league on his roster. While many coaches need to fix two or even three positions, Brooks needs only to tweak his rotation to find a new sixth man and find a stable shooting guard rotation, likely through shifting Thabo Sefolosha. Keeping the status quo is never easy and the Lakers and Nuggets are improved challengers to Oklahoma City’s Western Conference title, but keeping that high but reachable standard marks a new chapter in Brooks’ coaching. Before it was always about incrementally improving, from one playoff layer to the next. Returning to the Finals with a re-tooled list of contributors won’t be easy, but Brooks should excel once again.
9. KEVIN MCHALE, HOUSTON
McHale had to wonder what his GM, Daryl Morey, was getting him into before training camp. And maybe once again at the end. Eight of the top nine players by minutes played off last season’s Rockets team are gone, whether by trade, free agency or attrition. In their stead is a starting lineup that is 80 percent brand-new, led by James Harden. For the casual fan expectations just jumped in Houston, but this is expected to take more than a season to recover from a wild offseason of moves. The Rockets weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until last season’s penultimate game, and in many ways this team is better than that squad and will have three more months to jell. Still, Houston’s season should resemble a stick-shift car with an inexperienced driver, jerking forward and back without any pattern. If McHale can get this team to the playoffs the performance would be deserving of this award.
The roster construction leaves, as you can imagine, a lot to be desired for McHale to work with. Yet the frontcourt is both dazzling in sheer depth while being woefully short on talent at the same time. While there are an amazing six options for power forward (even if Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones spend most their time at small forward, it’s still eye-popping) there is only one viable center in Omer Asik. One of McHale’s most important coaching moves this season is shoring up the center by instilling confidence in Cole Aldrich and finding ways to limit his liability defensively. McHale was a legendary big man, of course, but Aldrich is on the heels of a Summer League and preseason where he played very poorly at times.
Should he fix the frontcourt problem and keep Harden and Jeremy Lin under control â€” they both badly want to prove wrong critics who say they’ll never be No. 1 players â€” he might just steer this team into April.
8. GREGG POPOVICH, SAN ANTONIO
This team is one year older, and yet expectations are still to finish in the top-four range in the West for San Antonio. That alone should tell you about the respect for the reigning Coach of the Year, but then realize that he’s managed to keep such a standard in the Tim Duncan era despite wholly changing the way this team plays. Instead of the team that would turn opponents’ offenses into mush while succeeding with a just-the-facts offense, San Antonio plays offense you want to watch now. They are offenses â€” under Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who are basically professors emeritus of San Antonio by now â€” that you feel oddly compelled to watch because of how they’ve improved while getting older. Kawhi Leonard continues that push toward a more beautiful offense with his corner-shooting three acumen and fresh legs to drive when called upon. Popovich has also meted out the freedom to Danny Green to shoot from three more often â€” he’s now at almost four a game after 1.1 attempts as a rookie from deep.
What else is there to say about Popovich? He’s been voted best coach of the year by NBA GMs already this offseason, and that estimation won’t change because San Antonio will be at least a second-round playoff team. Look for the surge around the Rodeo Road Trip, as usual.
7. MONTY WILLIAMS, NEW ORLEANS
It is a lot to ask from a Hornets team relying on two rookies and a star who didn’t want to be a part of this team to begin with, but New Orleans could markedly improve this season. If New Orleans can stay out of the Lottery Williams should be in a top three race for this award given the NBA-approved leash he worked under last season and the inexperienced stars who are a part of his team’s core now. I point toward his role as liaison in July, though, for why I believe Williams is ideal for this job. When Eric Gordon was offered by Phoenix in restricted free agency, a way out of New Orleans that Gordon openly coveted, Williams was one of the first to contact his definitely disgruntled shooting guard star. He let him know that while the Crescent City was not Phoenix, the opportunity afforded for Gordon to become a star would be just as large.
That opportunity is why there’s even a bit of hope that the Hornets won’t hover around last place in the West again this season. Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Austin Rivers are all players brought in to score first. Their eagerness to score will buffet Rookie of the Year favorite Anthony Davis, whose offensive development lags behind his 7-5 wingspan on defense. It’s not an even trade, really, because if three can do the job of one Davis on offense, even a very good defender won’t last trying to make up for a porous wing defense. The pieces aren’t perfect but the most important are there, all together, in first years of a contract. Williams isn’t being asked to turn out a winner this season and given a few new pieces by GM Dell Demps and a grace period, this doesn’t have to be a slow rebuilding process.
6. RICK ADELMAN, MINNESOTA
I want to place Adelman higher because I believe in what he does. Entering his 22nd season as an NBA head coach he has endured only four losing seasons, but last year was his latest and this is likely to be the next. If Minnesota can simply break even this season it would be enough to drum support for his candidacy because of the setbacks he will have to gameplan around. The Timberwolves need both Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love healthy at the same time to be a playoff team â€” and even then it’s certainly no lock. As Minnesotans enter this long winter pondering what they did to endure the trinity of recent star athlete injuries between the T-Wolves and Adrian Peterson, finding a reason why the Wolves can make the playoffs is as ambiguous as finding a consensus for Rubio’s return from an ACL tear.
However, Adelman can be an effective coach still because this team can still do what he does best: space the floor (with Luke Ridnour, Alexey Shved and J.J. Barea), cut to the basket with back cuts (the provenance of a reinvented Andrei Kirilenko?) and know when to counter all of this via smart audibles from an experienced hand (Brandon Roy applies here). Rubio and Love made this team more of a pick-and-roll team with Love stepping back to three, but there isn’t that space-stretching forward right now without him. Whether Adelman adds in new wrinkles or doubles down on a strategy that’s won him .597 of his games will make the difference between this team holding on until the stars return or welcoming them back to a train wreck still in progress.
5. ERIK SPOELSTRA, MIAMI
The Boy Wonder has his title and even more pressure on top of it in Year Three at the helm of the Heat. Owner Micky Arison made his fortune in the business of cruise ships by making their trips seem like predestined realities needing only its customers’ most minimal effort. It won’t be that easy for the Heat this season. LeBron James may have won his third MVP in four seasons last year, in addition to his Finals MVP, but no one on this team can show up and expect the work to be done for them. That sustained excellence is where Spoelstra will prove his worth this season. He knows that in an 82-game regular season not every game will make or break Miami’s season despite the breathless media coverage that begs to differ. Instead, what Spoelstra did so well last season was to deliver a message that preached winning in spurts, like intervals for an elite distance runner.
Sure, this team could win 50 games by playing at a substandard effort, as if living off the interest of their collective wealth of talent while keeping the principle effort untouched. James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen are good and savvy enough to turn this thing on from game to game and make the top five in the playoffs. Spoelstra will have to find new ways to motivate this team, however, to get them into the top two of the East. The dirty little secret of Miami is that even after last season’s championship, the team’s psyche isn’t ironclad. Guiding it to a high finish in the regular season is paramount that confidence is in place for another run.
Ultimately, they will be judged by the hardest exam curve in the entire NBA, an NBA championship. Getting there will be evaluated in countless ways, but if I can make a sweeping generalization about Miami’s run to the title last season, something fundamental and obvious changed in their game in the Indiana series. We need to see that from Spoelstra’s group again before May this time.
4. MIKE BROWN, LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Big expectations, huge talent, and an enormous case of risk-reward: Welcome to Mike Brown‘s coaching life this season with the Lakers. A winless preseason dogged by Kobe Bryant‘s foot injury and a mess of players still learning the Princeton offense â€” a system that is either effortless when run well or a complicated system of bad reads and poor passes for the untrained â€” has cast a light into the soft underbelly of the juggernaut Lakers. For all its All-Star talent and unmatched achievement collected together in one starting five, it’s still a team that is getting to know itself.
Enter Brown in Year Two, where his success relies on his ability to inspire night-in, night-out effort from his superstars even though they ultimately hold more leverage for staying in L.A. than the coach does. He never seemed to win Kobe Bryant’s vote last season, and the team carried an identity crisis about whom teammates of Kobe should actually listen to. This team does not have to play perfect to win an NBA championship but it will have to find a competent bench to spell the marquee stars to be a factor in the playoffs. Knowing when to pull apart a starting five to bring in energy off the bench is crucial to any coach’s success, but doing so while managing the egos the size of the Lakers’ is a special skill indeed that Brown must get better at given what we know about his oft-testy relationship with Kobe last season. GM Mitch Kupchak may be NBA Executive of the Year already for the work he did to salvage a team staring rebuilding in the face last May into one whose expectation is Western Conference title or bust. Now it’s on Brown’s shoulders to finish it.
3. AVERY JOHNSON, BROOKLYN
Plucking the Nets out of New Jersey and into the sleek Brooklyn Barclays Center did not leave behind the team’s defensive flaws, nor has it healed Deron Williams‘ troublesome ankle. Those are but two of the issues Johnson has the opportunity to fix and deliver what many expect will be a top-four seed to the playoffs.
Look, it’s a wonderful situation to be in for Johnson rather than the preview three seasons, when New Jersey won 58 games total. The challenge is no longer insurmountable for the Nets and Johnson. With Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez next to Williams, the coach can tweak the pieces in place; no longer does Johnson have to consider wholesale changes to his style to make a difference.
Johnson is a favorable pick because the Nets have the possibility to win 50 games this season, a turnaround whose significance has already been noted. But these are not the ground-floor expectations of old any more. The infusion of talent means he’ll face pressure all season to meet these new expectations, and will a top-four finish in the East come April be seen as only meeting what many predicted? What will make a difference will be how the Nets fare in their division. If they can unseat the Celtics atop the Atlantic by playing Boston-like defense and push back the Knicks in their Subway Series, Johnson could be in line for COY.
2. GEORGE KARL, DENVER
It’s not a pick Karl himself wants after an offseason of being called the sexy pick for the league’s most improved team, but if other coaches would earn the award for leading their team from nowhere to respectability, Karl could do it for unseating a conference power. Arguably he stands the most to gain of any coach this season. His Denver team has the best shot to do it in the NBA, but doing so will take an extraordinary job of coaching.
If fitting JaVale McGee into Denver’s roster last season on short notice after a mid-season trade was hard enough, now try relying on him for 82 games and more. That’s Karl’s biggest obstacle this season, because an engaged McGee can unlock so much talent on defense and offense. The rest of the roster is known quantities: Andre Iguodala delivers ready-made defense, Danilo Gallinari can still score in bunches, Kenneth Faried will bring energy to rebounding as few others can and Ty Lawson could be in line for a Most Improved Award this season. Unlike the Sixers’ starless approach last season that knocked off the No. 1 seeded Bulls but faltered in the second round of the playoffs, Karl’s team without a go-to star on offense has the ability to take down Oklahoma City, weakened without James Harden, and to a lesser degree Los Angeles because the parts that make up the sum are simply more talented and experienced than Philly’s.
Should Denver knock off one of those Western contenders, it would be after voting closes for Coach of the Year. He can win it by staying close to the two juggernauts of the conference and riding an ascendant McGee’s transformation.
1. TYRONE CORBIN, UTAH
Put in the awkward position in February 2011 of following legend Jerry Sloan in Utah after Sloan’s even more awkward departure, Corbin is in line to bring Utah back to its days of being a perennial contender. He’s survived a franchise centerpiece’s departure, accusations from Raja Bell that his management style erodes team morale and the failed first season of a No. 3 overall pick. What he’s doing now is building one of the best teams few are talking about.
Corbin carved a playoff team last season, his first “full” season, out of a squad not ready for prime time and now he gets a deeper team with the experience built in. He will be even deeper this year with additions such as Marvin Williams and Mo Williams through free agency and the de facto addition of Enes Kanter at forward after he became essentially a new person this offseason, losing weight and playing well in limited minutes. And yet Kanter and Derrick Favors will be only complementary players behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, two forwards who somehow nullified last season that they are the same player who desperately needs the ball in his hands to succeed. That depth allows a margin of error for how Corbin can experiment with playing time in the front court, a freedom that will offset how thin his backcourt is with Williams, Randy Foye and Earl Watson. In between floats Gordon Hayward at forward, a player who has impressed in the preseason. Corbin’s piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance will be in how successfully he manages that logjam for playing time at forward and center. Should he find a way to get Millsap, Kanter, Favors and Jefferson into rhythm together, the Jazz could deliver a surprising season to the loyal fans that have sat through a two-year rebuild.
What do you think will happen?
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