With the NBA’s coach of the year race proving to be as competitive as ever, we asked our analytics writer Neil Greenberg and national NBA reporter Tim Bontemps to make the cases for their picks. Here’s what they said, starting with Greenberg’s thoughts.
Neil Greenberg: Mike D’Antoni seamlessly integrated guard Chris Paul into the Rockets’ lineup and unleashed James Harden’s full potential while transforming Houston from a perennial playoff team into a true title threat. Brad Stevens didn’t let injuries to Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving stop the Boston Celtics from earning the No. 2 seed in the East with a 53-24 record. Nate McMillan made the most of the Indiana Pacers’ acquisition of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George, guiding his team to its most wins since 2013-14, when they made the Eastern Conference finals.
And those three aren’t even the favorites.
Based on preseason expectations, the Toronto Raptors’ Dwane Casey and Philadelphia 76ers’ Brett Brown should be in position to win coach of the year.
Before the season, win totals for each NBA team were set by oddsmakers and, not surprisingly, the Golden State Warriors had the highest total in the field (67.5) followed by the Houston Rockets (55.5) and San Antonio Spurs (55). In addition to the win totals, a money line — a number that, if negative, represents the amount that must be wagered to win $100 or, if positive, the amount that is won on a wager of $100 — was set for the under and over. For example, the Rockets had a money line of minus-110 for both the over and under, meaning that to win $100 on either side, $100 must have been wagered. Not only does this tell us the wager amount required, it also gives us an implied probability, with higher numbers representing lower probabilities of success, at least in the eyes of the oddsmakers. A minus-110 money line implies a 52.4 percent win rate and since the probabilities for both the over and under for a specific team must equal 100 percent, this would equate to a 50-50 chance Houston’s win total would be higher or lower than 55.5.
The Raptors, on the other hand, had an implied probability of 48 percent to go over their 48.5 win total, putting Casey’s 55-22 record in a new light: His team was not expected to go over the total, yet he exceeded it by at least 13 percent. Same for the 76ers. Brown’s team was given a 48 percent chance of going over 39.5 wins and is currently the fourth seed in the East with a 47-30 record, 19 percent higher than the win total established before the season.
Fans of the Pacers may think McMillan is getting robbed — his team is 46-32 with a lower preseason win total (31.5) — but Indiana was given a 57 percent chance of going over (minus-135 money line) so it isn’t as much of a surprise as Philadelphia’s campaign. The 76ers have also been the better performing team despite similar win-loss records. After adjusting for strength of schedule, Philadelphia is 3.8 points per game better than an average team, second only to the Raptors (plus-7.1) in the East. Indiana, meanwhile, is 1.3 points per game better. In other words, if the 76ers and Pacers were to meet on a neutral court, the former should be a 2.5-point favorite.
Tim Bontemps: You’re undoubtedly right, Neil, that this year’s coach of the year race is as competitive as any in the award’s history. There are at least eight coaches with strong cases to win the award (the five you mentioned — Casey, Stevens, Brown, McMillan and D’Antoni — plus San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Portland’s Terry Stotts and Utah’s Quin Snyder). Even in a normal season, the number of realistic candidates typically tops out at four or five.
So while I can understand where you’re coming from by saying Casey and Brown are the top two choices, I simply can’t follow your logic.
If you’re going to be choosing the winner based off defying Vegas’s preseason expectations, not putting McMillan atop the ballot is awfully confusing. Even if the Pacers did have more money going on the over, the number was 31.5. Indiana has a chance to win 50 games, if it wins its last two contests. Absolutely no one expected that to happen.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, had the league’s most impossible over/under to predict going into the season. The basis of the 39.5 number was because of the uncertainty over Joel Embiid’s health status. If anyone had been told he’d play 60 games this season, any bettor would have hammered the over. But given he’d played only 31 games combined in his first three years in the NBA, it was hard for anyone to expect that to happen.
My personal choices have shifted practically by the day over the past few weeks, given how close this race is and how strong the various candidates are. But, as it stands, my choices, in order, are Stevens, Snyder and Casey.
Consider that yes, Boston is right about where it was projected to be before the season began. But the Celtics arrived here with:
- Gordon Hayward playing five minutes before suffering a gruesome ankle injury that ended his season.
- Kyrie Irving playing 60 games and now ruled out with a season-ending knee surgery.
- Key reserves Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis all missing at least 19 games.
- Rookie Jayson Tatum and sophomore Jaylen Brown pushed into huge roles early in their careers.
- Boston having the NBA’s best defense and having outperformed its expected won-loss total by four wins.
The Celtics were supposed to do this with a healthy roster. With a banged up one? No chance. That’s why Stevens should win this award.
Snyder deserves similar consideration for the job he’s done with a Utah team that not only has survived the loss of Hayward as a free agent last summer, but thrived in his absence thanks to rookie Donovan Mitchell looking like a future superstar. Rudy Gobert, meanwhile, has missed 26 games with various injuries, which is the only reason Utah will finish the season in the top three in defense. And, despite all of this, Utah has a chance to finish third in the West, and likely will have home-court advantage in the first round.
Casey has been in the top spot for me for most of the season because of his ability to perform the most difficult task a coach can be presented with: take a team that played one way one season and then mold it into something different the following year. The Raptors went from a stationary offensive team that didn’t move the ball, didn’t shoot threes and relied on stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to one that moves the ball, shoots threes, has the league’s best bench and the Eastern Conference’s best record. In just about any other year, he’d win easily.