Let’s face it. For all the talk about stability and commitment, most NBA franchises change coaches the way the rest of us change T-shirts on these sweaty dog days of August — often and without even thinking twice.
When the regular season begins in two months, there will be nine new coaches roaming the sidelines. Some will sink, some will swim and some will stand out from the pack.
So as our Summer Dreaming series continues, let’s take a bold leap to next April and have a look at the five candidates most likely to be filling the Coach of the Year ballot for 2014-15.
Send us your picks.
Doc Rivers, Clippers — After making the coast-to-coast jump from Boston to L.A., Rivers probably didn’t think his leadership duties on the West Coast would include being the spokesman and face of the team in the difficult scandal involving former club owner Donald Sterling. But as you might have expected, Rivers was out front, direct and kept a firm hold on the situation and his locker room, though it’s hard to discount some effect in the playoff loss to OKC. Now with a new owner and clean slate, he can get back to just concentrating on basketball, where he already upped the franchise record for wins from 56 to 57. He used an up-tempo attack to overcome the losses of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick for stretches. His fingerprints were all over the dramatic improvement of center DeAndre Jordan to become a mainstay rather than a sideshow in the lineup along with CP3 and Blake Griffin. The next step is the Western Conference finals and real bid for a championship.
Erik Spoelstra, Heat — Now you see him, now you don’t. One minute you’ve got the best player in the game in your starting lineup every night and the next minute he’s gone home to Cleveland. Maybe that’s what it takes to finally get Spoelstra noticed for being more than just Pat Riley‘s pupil and the guy who let’s LeBron James pile up wins. Truth is, he dramatically revamped the Heat offense after that 2011 loss in The Finals and that did lead to back-to-back championships. But as Phil Jackson learned with the Bulls and Lakers, there is nobody overlooked more than the coach of the reigning league icon. The Zen Master won the award just once (1996) despite his 11 titles. Now if Spoelstra can keep a reinvented Miami attack built around Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng in the top half of the Eastern Conference race, he’d finally get the credit he’s been due.
Dwane Casey, Raptors — Midway through last season, Casey was on many lists as the coach most likely to be fired next. But talk about pulling yourself back from the brink. Once the Raptors unloaded the contract and the bad fit that was Rudy Gay to Sacramento, Casey got his team to raise its level of play by getting the Raptors to tighten down on defense and make that a calling card. So much for the outside world that thought the Raptors were going into the tank for a lottery pick. They went from ranking 22nd in defensive rating the previous season to finishing 10th and used that identity to win 48 games and the Atlantic Division title. It all came together enough to convince free agent Kyle Lowry to remain committed to what Casey is doing and sign back on. Casey himself re-upped on a new three-year deal. With up and comers DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, there’s no reason to think the Raptors can’t build on their success and stay in the fight in a rejuvenated Eastern Conference.
Tom Thibodeau, Bulls — Admit it. After what he’s done just grinding out wins the past two seasons with holes in his lineup, we want to see just how far Thibs can take the Bulls if a healthy Derrick Rose stays on the court. And don’t forget that the front office dealt Deng out from under him at midseason. You have to know that Carmelo Anthony‘s decision to stay in New York was all and only about the money when he passed up an opportunity to be the perfect piece in the puzzle in Chicago. Neverthless, Thibodeau gets to supplement his frontline with the ultra professional Pau Gasol, who’ll fit in nicely alongside the semi-controlled frenzy that is Joakim Noah. There is no question that the Bulls have bought into the philosophy and completely taken on the hard-driving, do-anything, no-excuses attitude of their coach. Yes, he has overused players to the point of wearing them down to the nub. But that’s only because he’s been playing shorthanded for two years. Give him this full season with all of the key players able to stay healthy and the Bulls will be challenging LeBron and the Cavaliers at the top of the East with a real shot at championship contention for the first time since that guy with the statue outside the United Center was still in uniform.
Gregg Popovich, Spurs — Now that he’s won five titles and also this award three times in his career, it’s no longer fashionable to say that he’s taken for granted down there in little ol’ San Antonio. But you simply can’t have any list of top five coaches in the league without including the guy who is generally regarded by his peers as being the best. Far more than just a grumpy face, Pop has changed the focus of his offense during the 17-year championship run from being low post oriented with Tim Duncan to whipping the ball around the perimeter in an international style of unselfish frenzy and filling up the bucket with 3-point shots that Pop himself admits “I hate.” He’ll stick with his plan of managing the minutes of his core players Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to the point of sacrificing wins — but never too many — in the regular season. He’ll continue to shift more of the burden to rising young players such as Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green. They’ll likely be written off again as too old, too worn out at some point during the long regular schedule. But the Spurs will win 50 games, make the playoffs and, if physically fit next spring, Pop will have them once more as the team with know-how and the ability to win West again.