- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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Here's where the beauty in all of this resides: Tom Thibodeau's Bulls beat the Heat, and the arguments get louder about him being the best coach in the NBA. Frank Vogel finds a way to lose four games in a row, but his Pacers still maintain the second-best record in the league. Gregg Popovich, aka Everyone's Greatest Coach Coaching, loses Tony Parker, Kawhi Lenard and Manu Ginobili for stretches during the season, yet his Spurs have the league's best record. Doc Rivers, in just a half-season, turns Blake Griffin into a complete player (which no other coach has been able to do), loses Chris Paul and J.J. Redick for blocks of games, and could still possibly win 60 games. Scott Brooks loses Russell Westbrook for over half a season and OKC barely (yeah, I said it, "barely") misses a beat, and starts playing below-average ball only when Westbrook returns. And not one of those aforementioned gurus above is front-running for this year's NBA Coach of the Year.
Yes, the least talked about, least sexy award in the NBA, the one that George Karl won for the first time in his career last year, only to get fired 29 days afterward, is the best under-the-radar race going in the NBA.
With all the talk and attention about Mt. Rushmores and GOATs between LeBron James and Kevin Durant and who is going to win (or is the real) MVP and who will be voted the Most Improved Player, it is the guessing game for Coach of the Year that, from now until the end of the season, could end up being the most intriguing.
Why? Because of the started-from-the bottom-now-we-are-here nature of the teams that seem to be attached to the coach who will eventually be anointed.
Of the six or seven coaches who honestly have a legit shot at winning it this year, there is a 1A, 1B and 1C before there is a No. 2. Between Toronto's surprise overachieving at the hands of Dwayne Casey, Portland's rise to elite status in the West under Terry Stotts, and Phoenix's doing the close to impossible by losing their best player (Eric Bledsoe) and remaining in the playoff hunt under rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek (who Magic Johnson already claimed is the Coach of the Year), there will be a great battle until the end of the season, by all three teams, to not only win games for better playoff positioning but also get their team's head coach an award that Erik Spoelstra (Miami, two rings) has yet to win and future New York Knicks employee Phil Jackson (11 championships as head coach) received only once.
Rarely does it come to this. Most times, this deep into the season, when it comes to coaches claiming the individual crown of Best in Show, either there is a clear-cut new favorite or one of the usual suspects emerges (coaches such as Popovich and Thibodeau in this generation, Pat Riley and Don Nelson in the past).
The annual listing of candidates for COY in the NBA often seems like the list of nominees for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Same names every year, with the exception of a first-time or second-chance head coach who has a breakout season and gets recognized.
But this time the nominees for COY will be a collection of non-coaching royalty. Michael B. Jordan instead of Leonardo DiCaprio. If 2014 is the Year of the Horse, for the coaches in the NBA it's the Year of the Beagle.
(Underdogs, get it?)
As a rookie head coach (in a season that has featured 10 rookie coaches), Hornacek is the one to beat -- and may at this point to be the hardest one to beat. The expectations of the Suns going into this season were clear: tank. Especially once Bledsoe went down after playing at an All-Star reserve level. Yet the Suns are eight games over .500 (36-28) and only two games out of the final playoff spot. Not only has Hornacek gotten a band of NBA misfits to unite in some form of Ukrainian-like solidarity, but he's done more with less talent than any team in the West that will make the playoffs.
Plus, by coaxing 37.8 bench points per game (fifth in the league) -- the Suns average 105.5 points overall per game -- and making the Suns fight every game down to the last second, he's given the team the opportunity to establish an identity that hasn't been a part of PHX basketball since Cotton Fitzsimmons was parading the sidelines in leisure suits.
But to ignore what Stotts is doing in Rip City would be dumber than mixing Pappy Van Winkle with anything but ice. Under Stotts this season, the Blazers have proved -- unlike in recent seasons before and despite a subpar February in which they dropped from fourth to fifth seed in the "if the playoffs started today" category -- that they can, when inspired (or mad), beat any team in a seven-game series.
Stotts has turned the Blazers into one of the most offensively complete and competitive teams in the West, and the only team in the league besides Golden State that is in the top 10 statistically in points, rebounds and assists per game. They rank second, first and eighth, respectively.
If the Blazers find a way to bookend their 25-7 start of the season over the final 18 or so games and find a way back into having one of the four best records in the West, Stotts could easily have the premature chants of "New Jack Ramsay" from the home Rose Garden crowds occupy the entire 90 seconds during every timeout.
Then there's Casey in Canada. His case (pun) is simple: He has created a 3-seed from nothing. There is simply no reasonable explanation as to how the Raptors are even being spoken of in terms of having the third-best record in the East (even as bad as play has been in the East this season). Because of Casey, this team could give any opponent problems. The Raptors began training camp at No. 23 in the ESPN Power Rankings and sit at No. 9. as you read this. His may be the most impressive job of all this season. But it doesn't mean it's been the best overall.
And those are just 1A, 1B and 1C at this point -- the trio of 1s that, at this moment, stand the greatest chance of being regarded as the leader of the new class of great coaching minds. The ones who want to breathe Popovich's heir.
And just to deepen the pool: Even though the Charlotte Bobcats' record is below .500, the fact that they are probably going to make the playoffs pretty much assures that coach Steve Clifford will get some COY votes too.
The beauty in this again: There is no guarantee that three weeks from now, these three coaches will be the same three coaches leading the race as the COY polls close. Not one of them has a team in first place, even though all of them have overachieved and taken the league by surprise.
As long as Pop keeps the Spurs with the best overall record, and Thibs keeps Chicago over .500, "front-runner" becomes a very, very relative term.
Trust this: As it proceeds, the COY race will be tighter and more suspenseful than the one LeBron and KD will go through for the MVP. More people are involved, with more uncertainty and more chances of controversy once the winner is announced.
There will be drama. Good drama.
And unlike the winner of the MVP, there is no guarantee that whoever wins the 2014 Coach of the Year will even have a job when next season begins.
41mBaxter Holmes and Larry Coon
30mMicah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information
1hIan O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer