The NBA Coach of the Year Award is known as the kiss of death in league coaching circles. Just ask five of the past 10 winners who are no longer employed as head coaches in the NBA.
The highest honor in the pro basketball coaching business (other than winning a championship) is littered with the ever-updating resumes of those who’ve won it, only to be subsequently “relieved of their duties,” or whatever euphemism was used at the time. In fact, eight of the past 10 winners have suffered this fate: George Karl, Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks, Mike Brown, Byron Scott, Sam Mitchell, Avery Johnson and Mike D’Antoni.
Only last year’s winner, Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, and two-time winner Gregg Popovich of the Spurs remain unscathed.
Johnson and Scott have been fired twice. Brown has been fired three times — once by the Lakers and twice by the same team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Scott was fired by New Orleans in 2009 and the Cavs in 2013. In a few weeks, he’s expected to join Brown among the aforementioned coach of the year winners to be fired three times when the Lakers try to chart a new course in the post-Kobe Bryant era this summer.
As for Karl, league sources tell CBS Sports that his tenure in Sacramento is likely to come to an end this summer as he has been unable to corral headstrong star DeMarcus Cousins. Despite Cousins’ one-game suspension for his latest tirade against Karl, there are strong signs that the front office is leaning toward siding with the star over the coach in this classic mismatch. If so, Karl would become the fourth coach of the year winner to be let go at least twice after winning the award since 2004-05.
Despite the baggage that comes with it, coach of the year is nonetheless an honor worth bestowing. It recognizes exemplary coaching work in a sport in which that job gets more difficult every year. The personalities, the egos and the never-ending flow of transactions reshaping rosters multiple times in a calendar year have heaped impossible expectations on the men who hold these jobs.
(Just ask David Blatt, who was fired by the trigger-happy Cavaliers in January despite leading the Cavs to the 2015 NBA Finals and having the best record in the Eastern Conference.)
There’s still a month to go before my coach of the year ballot is due, and much can change. But as we bear down on the stretch run of the regular season, here are three tiers of curse … I mean, coach of the year candidates, in one of the most difficult races in memory:
Steve Kerr, Warriors: If Golden State breaks the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 regular season wins, how could the Warriors’ coach not win coach of the year? Well, in this case, there’s an asterisk: Interim coach Luke Walton coached the first 43 games — going 39-4 — while Kerr recovered from complications related to offseason back surgery. Which coach do you even give the award to? Due to a quirk in NBA record-keeping guidelines, Kerr gets credit for all the victories. So if Golden State is your pick, then the award has to go to Kerr. And if you want to make that case, you’ll get no argument from me. Even when Kerr wasn’t technically there, his presence was felt “every waking moment,” a coaching industry source said. “It wasn’t like he was lying down putting icepacks over his head in a cone of silence. He was talking to everyone all the time. … If they get the record, you almost have to give it to him.”
And if you want to make the case that Kerr doesn’t deserve the award because he only coached half a season, I won’t argue that either — especially when there are so many deserving candidates. Such as …
Gregg Popovich, Spurs : Pop’s credentials have been well chronicled. The Spurs’ core is still together, but the focus has shifted from Tim Duncan to Kawhi Leonard, and Popovich was able to seamlessly integrate LaMarcus Aldridge and David West into the mix. Those are all good problems to have, but the fact remains that the Spurs’ dynasty has outlived several iterations. Popovich has been a constant. And as historically unstoppable as the Warriors have been, the Spurs are only four games behind them. Think about that.
Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers: Much has been made of Stotts putting the Blazers in position to make the playoffs despite losing four of his five starters in trades or free-agent moves. The thing is, it shouldn’t be that surprising. Stotts did the same thing in Milwaukee in 2005-06, when he took over a Bucks team that had won 30 games, changed four starters (all except Michael Redd) and made the playoffs. “The No. 1 overachiever, far and away, when you talk to anyone out there,” one coaching industry source said. And my pick right now for COY. (Sorry, Terry.)
In the Running
Brad Stevens, Celtics: Danny Ainge has a history of picking a coach and sticking with him through thick and thin (see Rivers, Glenn in your coaching manual.) Hiring Stevens out of Butler in 2013 was a wise choice, and allowing his coach to grow with a young roster has been an even better one. Stevens has the Celtics 11 games over .500 and battling for the No. 3 seed with only one borderline All-Star, Isaiah Thomas, in the building. However the postseason pans out, Boston is flush with draft picks, cap room and movable contracts heading into what could be the wildest free-agent summer in NBA history. If there’s a knock on Stevens’ candidacy, it’s that he has the same record as Dave Joerger in Memphis – though that won’t continue, as the Grizzlies are down to one healthy starter on most nights and will fade quickly in the Western Conference race unless they get healthy fast.
Doc Rivers, Clippers: First, Rivers orchestrated the biggest coup in Clippers history other than the ouster of Donald Sterling when he personally snatched free agent DeAndre Jordan from the clutches of Mark Cuban and the Mavericks in July. After a breakthrough playoff victory over the Spurs last spring, this was supposed to be the Clippers’ year to take the next step. Instead, Golden State and San Antonio ran away from the rest of the West. Blake Griffin got hurt on Christmas, and then hurt himself and the team when he foolishly punched an equipment staffer and fractured his hand in January. He hasn’t played since, but the Clippers are 25-11 without him. Their season will be judged on how they perform in the postseason once Griffin is back. But COY is a regular season award, and you can’t diminish the coaching job that Rivers has done without his most impactful all-around player.
Steve Clifford, Hornets: Charlotte took a step back last season after a 43-win season and first-round appearance in 2013-14. Instead of panicking, Michael Jordan’s regime showed confidence in Clifford, rewarding him with a contract extension in December. Despite losing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for all but seven games and only recently getting Al Jefferson back from a five-week absence, Clifford has the Hornets (37-29) in the sixth spot – only one game in the loss column behind Boston for third. In an industry obsessed with change, sometimes the best coaching change is the one you don’t make.
Dwane Casey, Raptors: Sure, Toronto has had disappointing first-round exits the past two seasons. Sure, the Raptors still can’t beat the Bulls. None of it diminishes the job that Casey has done instilling a defensive-minded toughness in a team that, before he got there, was all about finesse. It’s another example of a team sticking with a coach long enough to see results, instead of hitting the panic button at the first sign of trouble. GM Masai Ujiri doubled down on Casey by giving him the prototypical player for his system this past summer, DeMarre Carroll. Casey has the Raptors only two games behind Cleveland for the No. 1 seed despite Carroll being out since early January with a knee injury.
Erik Spoelstra, Heat: When Spoelstra had the Big Three, he got no credit for the success and was the one everyone wanted to blame for the failures. When Miami lost LeBron James and had Chris Bosh go down for half the season with a blood-clotting issue, was that supposed to have been Spoelstra’s fault, too? His public coach-speak and evasiveness may be off-putting, but there’s no denying he’s one of the very best coaches in the NBA. And in completely adapting the team’s style of play with Bosh out again, he’s only proved it again.
Rick Carlisle, Mavericks : When the Mavs landed a verbal commitment from free agent DeAndre Jordan, Carlisle thought he was going to be coaching Jordan, Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews – with more free-agent moves on the way to add some finishing pieces to what could have been a Western Conference power. Instead, Jordan retreated to the Clippers, the Mavs honored their commitment to Matthews anyway, and pieced together a starting lineup including the supposedly washed up Deron Williams and journeyman Zaza Pachulia. I mean, Raymond Felton has started 23 games for the Mavs, and Carlisle still has them clinging to the seventh spot in the West – proving once again that he’s one of the best in the league at getting the most out of whatever five he has on the floor.
Given the history of what happens to coaches who win the award, Carlisle will probably be happy to take a pass.
Another person, based on my reporting, may soon not be so fortunate. The early favorite for 2016-17 coach of the year? Utah’s Quin Snyder. Without a bonafide star, and with 2014 No. 5 pick Dante Exum out all year with a torn ACL, Snyder has the Jazz on the cusp of a playoff spot, only two games behind Houston.
“Once he gets Exum,” a coaching source said, “he’ll be the runaway winner.”
Or loser, as cursed as this award has so often proved to be.