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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Six NBA coaches who have done standout jobs this season

Coaches are leaders. Coaches are mentors. Coaches are tacticians. Coaches are father figures. Coaches are communicators. Coaches are jokesters and woke-sters (in the cases of Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich). Coaches are meme material (in the case of Doc Rivers). Coaches are disciplinarians (in the cases of Rick Carlisle and Tom Thibodeau). Coaches are punchlines (in the case of Tyronn Lue). But most importantly, coaches are winners and results-getters. Here are the coaches who have best lived up to that billing so far this season.

Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons

Don’t look now, but the Pistons are a top-four team in the league through 13 games. Here’s something even more remarkable: they currently sport both a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense. No other team in the East can say that, and only the Houston Rockets and our defending champions/dictators Golden State Warriors fall into that category out West. In fairness, Van Gundy has had the benefit of an improved roster: the addition of Avery Bradley, a more consistent and better all-around player than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the autumn miracle known as Tobias Harris’ awakening from the three-point line, to name a couple. But SVG’s strategical decisions deserve some love too.

He’s finally trusting Andre Drummond to play regular crunchtime minutes (perhaps due to that miraculous improvement from the free throw line). And though player development hasn’t been much of a strong suit for him in recent years, the Stan Man is getting fairly solid production from the likes of Stanley Johnson and rookie Luke Kennard. Yes, Detroit finally appears to be washing away the miasma of mediocrity that has haunted them throughout 2010s, so claim your spot on the Van Gundy bandwagon now before it gets full.

Jay Triano, Phoenix Suns

It feels weird and illogical to put the interim coach of a 5-10 team on a list like this. But considering the raging dumpster blaze Triano successfully managed to put out in Phoenix these last few weeks, it’s only fitting.

After Earl Watson was fired three games into the season, Triano inherited a disaster film: a -92 point differential had been amassed, the rotation was chaos, the culture was virtually non-existent, and star players were airing out their dirty laundry all over the floor of the hair salon. Since the changing of the guard however, the Suns have gone a respectable 5-7 with quality wins over the Wolves, the Jazz, and the Wizards.

Credit to Triano, who has asserted Devin Booker and TJ Warren as co-headliners and is doing all the little things Watson didn’t, be it starting Marquese Chriss and bringing Josh Jackson off the bench or playing Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis in their more natural habitats. Phoenix won’t be a playoff team, but thanks to Triano, they won’t be the Toilet Brigade either.

Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets

How you build off 55 wins and Coach of the Year honors in your first season at the helm? Just ask Magic Mike. The indefinite absence of Chris Paul, a player the Rockets sacrificed some precious depth to acquire this summer, should have thrust the team into pandemonium. Instead, the exact opposite has happened as Houston is currently the second seed in the Western Conference at 11-4.

D’Antoni has run a tight ship, relying almost exclusively on Luc Mbah a Moute, PJ Tucker, and Nene off the bench for a compact eight-man rotation. The pace isn’t quite as helter-skelter as it was last season (dipping from third in the NBA to 14th), and the ball isn’t whizzing around the perimeter nearly as often (from 25.1 assists per game to 21.8 this season). But D’Antoni is helping the Rockets become a more methodical machine while still retaining their status as the best non-Warriors offense in the league, and that should help make for a seamless transition upon Paul’s return to the court.

Frank Vogel, Orlando Magic

In perhaps the most surprising NBA development since Steven Adams shaved his mustache, the Orlando Magic look like an elite Eastern Conference team. Credit to Vogel, for he hath welded a mismatched roster with no true franchise cornerstone (or so they said) into a legitimate playoff contender.

The 44-year-old has transmogrified Orlando into a three-point shooting juggernaut, taking them from 25th in triples per game last season all the way up to fourth this season. Defense, Vogel’s primary forte, has also been improved for the Magic, who have leaped seven spots from 24th to 17th in defensive rating since 2016-17.

Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, and new arrival Jonathon Simmons are all basking in the glow of career-best years. The five double-digit victories that Orlando already has on the season seem to suggest that Vogel’s work here isn’t just a small sample size-driven facade.

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

Tony Parker is still nursing an Achilles tear, 37-year-old Pau Gasol and 40-year-old Manu Ginobili are being relied upon for fairly significant minutes, and superstar nucleiod Kawhi Leonard hasn’t even played in a single game this season. And yet Gregg Popovich’s facial expression still hasn’t changed.

It’s another season of deadpan dominance for the Spurs, who have shrugged off those aforementioned body blows to the tune of an 9-5 record, third-best in the West. A major key (blessings to DJ Khaled) has been Pop’s installation of a very ’90s-style attack centered around LaMarcus Aldridge eating in the post. While that has kept San Antonio in the middle of the pack offensively, it is also limiting the number of possessions and transition opportunities of their opponents, allowing them to field a top-seven defense. Popovich is also placing more confidence in youngsters Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson for heavy run, and he has somehow rebuilt Rudy Gay into a functional team player. True midseason form for basketball’s most beloved coach.

Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

If this first month of the NBA season has been any indication, it’s Brad Stevens for President in 2020 and everybody else get out of the way. Stevens lost a two-way fulcrum less than six minutes into the season in his former college star Gordon Hayward; had to move from one point guard-alpha dog in Isaiah Thomas to a completely new one in Kyrie Irving; and was given a bunch of 19-to-23-year-olds to fill out the rest of his starting lineup and rotation. He has responded by rattling off 13 consecutive wins since dropping the first two games of the season in one of the most impressive coaching performances of this millennia.

Under Stevens’ guidance, the Celtics not only have the best record in the league, but the best defense as well (over three points better per 100 possessions than second-ranked Oklahoma City). Just as impressive is that the fifth-year coach is getting peak performance from veterans like Al Horford and Aron Baynes while also developing and building the confidence of his young players. He’s getting results from top-of-the-lottery talent such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, as well as unheralded prospects like Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis. Don’t let the youthful charisma fool you. Brad Stevens is a cold-blooded killer, and he and his after timeout plays are coming for you next.

*Stats courtesy of NBA.com and ESPN*

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