What makes a great NBA coach? Is it X’s and O’s and ATO plays? Interpersonal skills, including the necessary massaging of egos when leading a group of highly paid, widely-known professional athletes? Could it be game and clock management? Leveraging the media for an advantage? Interplay with officials to cinch a debatable, non-reviewable call at the end? Maybe it’s the intrinsic ability to motivate and inspire? Whatever answer analysts, fans, fanalysts and the media who vote on Coach of the Year give about their decisioning making process says more about them than the coach.
The attributes we––anyone other than a coach––ascribe to success as an NBA coach have fluctuated wildly over the history of the league, never more so than when trying to keep track of the greatest NBA coach of all time.
Your father’s generation used to consider Red Auerbach the GOAT. He possessed a penchant for CREEP-esque shenanigans against opponents––like a 2:00 a.m. fire drill at the opposing team’s hotel the night before the game, or turning off the air conditioning and water in the opponent’s locker room at the old Garden (a building with built-in blame for that sort of sabotage)––combined with a gruff, antagonistic persona that raised enough hell from the bench that refs and opponents were often intimidated into capitulation. Red’s domineering demeanor was the model for coaching triumph; he was the NBA’s Vince Lombardi, with Bill Russell as his Bart Starr. But no one lights cigars indoors these days and the Celtics have cheerleaders.
After time in Puerto Rico’s world renowned Baloncesto Superior Nacional, an angular, ambling former Knick would be crowned as the next greatest coach of all time. Phil Jackson won 11 titles (two more than Red) with the Bulls and Lakers. But some time during, or directly before, his patronizing turn in New York as the head of basketball ops for his beloved Knicks, some NBA influencers explained to the poor plebes offline that maybe Phil just cribbed the Hermann Hesse sparknotes when he coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Around the time Jackson began dealing with Knicks Twitter, Hoosier-born Soviet Studies grad with an eye at being a spy when he was a youngster put the finishing touches on his time coaching the greatest power forward ever, Tim Duncan. Gregg Popovich has been ordained in “The Right Way to Play” priesthood by Larry Brown, but he’s long since passed his mentor in the NBA coaching hierarchy. Five rings will do that. Pop (not Warner, though the similarities work) has less than half the number of rings as Phil, but he’s kept the Spurs humming through a strike, a lockout, hundreds of injuries, the end of hand checking, a stupid synthetic ball, the introduction of zone and strong-side defense, the NBA’s 3-point-heavy, space-and-pace revolution and so much more. He’s kept winning through it all, and––perhaps most of all––the current coaching GOAT didn’t get to coach the GOAT, like Phil.
The explicit differences between the three potential candidates for the greatest NBA coach of all-time show how tricky it is to say with any certitude what makes a great coach. The ambiguity stems from the lack of any clearly defined rubric to evaluate them. So much about coaching is done offstage. And even the stuff we see––the schemes, the inane in-game interviews, a team’s effort and execution down the stretch, the intensity in practice, in-game adjustments, etc.––only hints at what actually goes into being an NBA coach.
Don’t forget, even the most dialed in media members––save Jack McCallum during a much different NBA more than a decade ago––are eventually kicked out of the locker room. You won’t find Phil’s pregame speech or book recommendation, Red’s sociopathic competitiveness and fire alarm caper, or Popovich’s whispered words before a substitution on NBA Classic. You can’t even say with certainty those things caused their teams win more basketball games. And even sitting in the locker room, airplane seat, and hotel lobby day after day as the member of a team doesn’t equip you with enough knowledge to accurately assess how a coach is doing in relation to other coaches. So, we’re left with a coach’s record and the tidbits that trickle out from beat guys who are themselves at a remove from everything that goes into coaching.
That leaves most to rely on a coach’s record, but it’s worth remembering something former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy has frequently alluded to while working NBA games as a commentator: Coaches are only as good as their talent. Mike D’Antoni can lead this season’s Rockets to a franchise record 65 wins, but when you give him an overworked Amar’e Stoudemire, and a quarter season of Carmelo Anthony, it might be a .500 record, a first-round exit and a firing to be named later.
Assessing an NBA coach is akin to measuring the size of an ethereal vapor that’s already been lost to the wind. It’s so far removed from the end result, there’s more of us in the appraisal than the coach’s we’re trying to rate.
Determining Coach of the Year has always left voters fraught precisely because of this built-in blindspot. Like MVP and other NBA awards, narratives tend to rule, which makes sense; it’s the storytellers who vote. Last year, Mike D’Antoni won after moving James Harden to point guard and unleashing Seven Seconds or Less with a beard as the fulcrum instead of some perfectly conditioned Canadian tresses. But he might’ve done an even better job leading this year’s Rockets team––that acquired a top-five all-time point guard (Chris Paul), and versatile defensive wings who can also shoot a three (P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute)––to the best record in the NBA. Despite this, and even if voters knew defensive wunderkind Jeff Bzdelick had come on board this year, you’d be hard-pressed to find him on a COY ballot when they’re revealed in late June. Since the award was first handed out to St. Louis Hawks coach Harry Gallatin in 1962-63 no coach has ever won it in consecutive years.
Aside from D’Antoni, there are more than half a dozen COY candidates this season. As we’ve already noted, whomever someone selects as Coach of the Year, says more about them than the selection. So, it’s possible to infer things about each selection in such a wide-open race.
If Gregg Popovich gets the nod, you likely place a premium on Kawhi Leonard’s value and his consistent ability to craft a competitive lineup despite a dearth of talent. Pop’s aforementioned spot as the current GOAT likely leaks into your decision as well. It’s a lifetime achievement appointment, like having LeBron No. 1 on your MVP ballot for the last decade, and or the constant complaints about Karl Malone’s win in 1997. You’re also tacitly giving Pop credit for swallowing his culpability concerning LaMarcus Aldridge’s inconsistent play in his first two seasons back in Texas.
If you’re voting Brett Brown, you may have a Processing t-shirt hidden in your dresser, or you think Philly’s turnaround had more to do with his pass-and-gas offense than Ben Simmons and 60-plus games with Joel Embiid. Maybe you’re even conflating Philly’s valuable late-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova with the general manager, Bryan Colangelo. It’s certainly not because of his accent; those are more likely to venerate Brad Stevens.
If Erik Spoelstra is the pick, you’re a nonconformist who values making the most out of what you have. A chameleonic ability to play many different brands of basketball, and a dictatorial approach to defensive effort are the hallmarks of Miami the last two seasons. The Heat don’t have a superstar, unless you’re from Slovenia, or spent the winter months of 2013-14 in Phoenix, so what the Miami coach has done deserves more credit than the five coaches with supposedly better personnel who finished higher in the Eastern Conference. That, or you took the title to Dion Waiters Players’ Tribune screed at face value.
But those same Spo voters switch it up and give Nate McMillan the nod for the very same reason; Indiana just finished with four more wins. But then, the Spo voters will counter with Victor Oladipo––an actual superstar now––and you’ll spend the rest of the afternoon arguing the merits of his surprising 17-18 season. As a bonus for McMillan voters, he did coach Lance Stephenson for an entire year without an attempted strangulation.
Perhaps Terry Stotts is your guy. He led Portland back from the brink of mediocrity to snatch the No. 3 seed in the backbreaking West, improving a flow offense that was standing still earlier in the year. But you’d have to overlook Damian Lillard’s All-NBA performance, Al-Farouq Aminu’s shooting, C.J. McCollum’s shot-making, Moe Harkless’ positionless defense, and whatever Evan Turner does that justifies his contract. Perhaps, you attribute all of those things to Stotts’ tutelage. Again, a lot of this is guesswork.
Maybe you’re an Alvin Gentry voter because he’s the architect for New Orleans’ punishing pace that catapulted them into the playoffs after DeMarcus Cousins went down midseason. You probably remember Gentry’s Phoenix days, when he was last near the top tier of assistant as the de facto offensive mind behind the still-plucky 2015 Warriors. However, there’s only one Anthony Davis, and the unibrow might negate Gentry’s pivot to the speedy attack that beat back Denver, Los Angeles, Minnesota and San Antonio for their slot at No. 6. Maybe, it’s just Ant. Maybe it’s more Gentry. Maybe it’s a mesh of both, some Jrue Holiday thrown in and a soupcon of Nikola Mirotic throw in for good measure.
Quin Snyder is sexy pick for Coach of the Year among many NBA scribes. After all, following Rudy Gobert’s return from injury, the Jazz went an unbelievable 26-6 in February, March and April. Their January record led many a national columnist to opine they blow it up and rebuild around Gobert and that precocious kid from Louisville. But Quin survived the loss of Gordon Hayward over the summer, and the naysayers who said a twin tower frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Gobert would muck up their spacing. He turned Utah into an all-time defensive juggernaut, which isn’t as simple as putting Gobert in the restricted area. On offense, the Jazz play smart, mistake-free motion, with the ball whipping around the court, and players who cut hard and smart and with their hands up. That sure sounds like it’s the consequence of the coach. But how do we know for sure? We don’t.
Perhaps it’s time to reward Dwane Casey with a COY win. He altruistically agreed to cede Toronto’s offense to Nick Nurse and went 11- and 12-deep most nights to develop Toronto’s roles players while saving his star-studded backcourt for the postseason––where they’ve infamously floundered in the past. The result was a 59-win team that’s the best of the Masai Ujiri era, and––with LeBron’s Cavs looking the weakest they’ve been since Mike Brown was at the helm, the Celtics banged up, and Philly too inexperienced––appear to be the frontrunners to come out of the East (but only after they actually won their first two games at home, which doesn’t matter in this discussion).
Brad Stevens has taken on a Svengali-like aura in Beantown and among the types that see Synergy in their sleep. He looks like the college kid who wraps your mozzarella at the deli on Hanover St., but beneath that baby face is a tactical maestro who dragged a hobbled Boston squad to the No. 2 seed in the East. No one sends NBA Twitter into a convulsions of delight quite like a fourth quarter ATO play that gets Boston a layup; Nevermind that the players actually executed Stevens’ whiteboard masterpiece. Boston’s league-leading defense this year felt like Ubuntu. But was that more Al Horford, Marcus Smart before the injury, super long wings like Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum? Or was it the shrew scheming of assistant Micah Shrewsberry, like Tom Thibodeau with Ubuntu and Ron Adams in the Bay? Again, that’s up to interpretation.
Almost everything is when it comes to coaching.