There is a healthy Kevin Love back to hanging up double-doubles for the Timberwolves, Russell Westbrook repaired and reloaded again in the Thunder lineup, Paul George planting his flag firmly into the elite class and LeBron James — ho-hum — routinely churning out more MVP numbers.
The focus, of course, is usually on the players. But unlike those tiny delivery drones that Amazon.com might one day have dropping books and blenders out of the sky onto our doorsteps and heads, most NBA teams don’t fly themselves. So as we creep up on the quarter pole in the 2013-14 season, here are five coaches who have steered into early consideration for Coach of the Year:
Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers — It’s always risky to make too much of a fast start. Just think back to a year ago at this time when so many gullible folks were lining up to buy tickets on the Knicks’ Fantasy Express. But the Blazers, while shooting 3s almost as much as those Knicks, could be in the mix more for the long haul because Stotts has them sharing the ball with an offensive style led by LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum that is a joy to watch at the same time that they’re paying more attention on defense. There are still miles to cover before they become stoppers. However, the defense that has been upgraded and anchored by Robin Lopez in the middle does a good job of guarding against the pick and roll while continuing to close out on long range shooters. A team that missed the playoffs the past two years and seemed to be in turmoil over the summer with rumors that Aldridge was looking to get out is suddenly the wildest of wild cards in the Western Conference race, sitting atop the list of heavy hitters as the No. 1 seed.
Frank Vogel, Indiana — There have been all the knocks on the Pacers’ schedule through the first five weeks. Sunday’s opener of a five-game road trip against the Clippers was their first of the season against a team that currently has a winning record. Even with a loss at Portland, 16-2 is still 16-2. Vogel has not only forged an identity for his team as the league’s top and most rugged defensive club, but has driven home the point that every night and every game counts. The Pacers don’t want to play Game 7 of any playoff series on the road next spring and that means maintaining focus and consistency through the long regular season. Vogel’s got them giving up the lowest field goal percentage in the NBA to opponents, the fewest assists and are ranked second-best in 3-pointers attempted in a league that has become behind-the-arc crazy. The Jersey Boy has established a blue collar contender out of a black-and-blue style that is built to last.
Mike D’Antoni, Lakers — What? We want to give recognition to a guy whose team ranks a thoroughly mediocre 16th in offense and 19th in defense and checks in with a smack-in-the-middle record of 9-9? You bet. Have you looked at the purple and gold roster and the way the favorite whipping boy of Laker lovers and haters has pushed and cajoled this team to keep its head above water while giving Kobe Bryant’s Achilles’ tendon a chance to recover? While the countdown clock is still ticking on the return of the Black Mamba to the lineup, it was not out of the question before the season began that the Lakers could have already been flattened and finished by now. Remember how ESPN ranked the Lakers 12th overall in the West? That was before Steve Nash went hobbling off again with back problems, before Jordan Farmar was sidelined. D’Antoni is getting it done by shuffling lineups with a leading scorer (Pau Gasol) averaging just 14.3 points a game, nine different players scoring at least eight and with the indiscriminate shooter Nick Young looking like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
Steve Clifford, Bobcats — What are we calling it for Michael Jordan — third time’s the charm? Or fourth? Or fifth? Can we finally stop counting the carcasses of Bobcats coaches now that Clifford has put a sense of organization, direction and purpose into the league’s perennial doormat? Did anybody think that five weeks into the season the Bobcats (8) would have as many wins as the Nets (5) and Knicks (3) combined? The long-time assistant coach waited almost forever to finally get his chance in the big chair and is relying on his two big guns inside and out in Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker at the offensive end, but making his mark with a no-nonsense approach that has Charlotte with the No. 4 ranked defense in the league.
Erik Spoelstra, Heat — It’s just not as easy as it looks getting a team that has won back-to-back championships and made three straight trips to The Finals to come out with the hot fire and the right attitude every time out. That’s especially true when you’ve got to keep the condition of Dwyane Wade’s knees in the back of your mind at all times. But Spoelstra has this machine humming as the No. 1 rated offense that usually gets the shots that it wants, also leading the league in effective field goal percentage. The defensive bite is always there, creating mistakes, forcing turnovers and thriving in transition. He’s learned to live in the shadow of Wade, James and Chris Bosh and be the rudder that keeps guiding the Heat ahead as a quiet roaring force, if you will, and still the team to beat.