Coach of the Year candidates: Popovich has a case

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Is San Antonio's grizzly general worthy of the league's highest regular season coaching honor in 2014?

The ambiguity of the annual awards season in the NBA never ceases to amaze. Hollow terminology like "most improved," and the absence of openness in voting inhibits the extent to which the casual fan can value the process.

In the coaches' category, it is almost as if the sideline stalwarts are inherently disadvantaged by having a talented roster. Head coaches blessed with the good fortune of a healthy, well-constructed, deep rotation (see: Spoelstra, Erik) can be casually discarded in favor of a strategist whose team simply showed significant improvement over a prior poor season, or caught forecasters by surprise. Furthermore, first-year coaches who are perceived to have "changed the culture," and of their team have the tendency to be catapulted to the upper echelon of the conversation.

There is little publicly accessible information/criteria on what specifically qualifies a coach for the honor. Throw in a sprinkle of "voter fatigue," and an ongoing search for narrative, and the waters are even murkier.

So, how do you decide who is truly deserving of the award? And what's more meaningful: a coach with two elite players who is steering his squad to one of the league's best three or four records, or a formerly lowly franchise sneaking into the eighth seed on the heels of a diverse supporting cast? After all, it is recognition for the regular season, and a search for either what is most impressive, or which coach exerted the most influence on his team's results.

The history of the NBA Coach of the Year award suggests that, more often than not, flash in the pan performances are honored. Having won the award in both 2003 and 2012, Gregg Popovich is already in an exclusive club -- he is one of just five coaches to have received the title on two separate occasions (since it was instituted in the 1962-63 season). Should this deter voters from commending the Spurs' status in the standings? Allow yourself to contemplate the likely field for the award, in no particular order (note: honorable mentions to Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City; Erik Spoelstra, Miami; Dwane Casey, Toronto).

Tom Thibodeau, Chicago

The primary cause for Thibodeau's candidacy is his staunch refusal to allow the tide to turn against the Bulls, and how he has mystifyingly managed to extract so much from so little. Even with the unwanted departure of franchise linchpin Luol Dengthe desolation of Derrick Rose's return, and Chicago's peculiar attempts to imitate the 2009 Charlotte Bobcats, one thing has remained a constant: the team's unflappable defense. Chicago registered a startling defensive rating of 96.7 -- ranked 2nd in the league -- across twelve games in the month of February. Further, all of this was achieved in four week stretch where veteran sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy led the team in total minutes played, with 462.

Since the All-Star break, the Bulls' relentless, suffocating D has held opponents' corner threes to a measly 31.9% conversion. Thibodeau's team's steadfast ball-stopping identity has even engulfed its lesser parts (to a certain extent), and contributed to the largely unforeseen revival of former lottery pick D.J. Augustin's career. Regardless of "name" players, the feather in Thibodeau's coaching cap is his ability to amass winning records with scant quality personnel. Under his tutelage, the makeup of the Bulls' reserve frontline rotation has drifted anywhere from Omer Asik and Taj Gibson to withered veterans like Kurt Thomas and Nazr Mohammed.

Thibodeau_interior_d

It doesn't seem to matter who is passing through the United Center's practice facilities. Ultimately, there is little evidence to suggest that we should doubt Thibodeau's capabilities as an evil genius.

(Thanks to Seth Rosenthal of Posting and Toasting for that one.)

Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix

Hornacek's Suns are unquestionably the darlings of this NBA season, surprisingly springing to life and leaping into playoff contention out West. The team's injury data is disproportionately inflated by the prolonged absence of Emeka Okafor, who has not suited up in the purple and orange at all in 2013-14. Hornacek's helter-skelter offensive system (Phoenix is presently eighth in pace of play at 98.25 possessions per 48 minutes, marginally behind the Houston Rockets), has helped to fuel the sharp rise of point guard Goran Dragic, and has hastily quelled the doubts of the league's tanking sceptics. The Suns' staff's quirky lineups and rotation combinations -- such as Dragic & Eric Bledsoe playing alongside one another, P.J. Tucker enjoying spot minutes at power forward, the easily mistakable Morris twins, and the pleasant renaissance of Leandro Barbosa -- have fashioned the team's identity.

For context, consider what Grantland's Zach Lowe had to say about the Suns in the preseason, when discussing their "watchability":

Shooting and turnovers are major issues, but he [Bledsoe] sees the floor well. But, yeah, it's going to be ugly overall. Bledsoe, Alex Len, and Archie Goodwin are exciting, and Marcin Gortat is going to say some crazy stuff before they trade him. And, seriously, it's wonderful to have Channing Frye back. But there's not much here.

The problem (for Phoenix, anyway) is that the Suns have slipped of late, at 7-8 over their past fifteen games, and with an aggregate point differential of just +1 during that time. Their postseason aspirations are teetering ever so gently in the balance, having been freshly dislodged from the conference's top eight by Memphis. ESPN Insider's Kevin Pelton offered the following, on the likelihood (based on mathematical simulations) of the Suns sneaking into playoff action:

Since the All-Star break, the Grizzlies have outscored opponents by 4.8 points per game (ninth in the NBA) as compared to plus-0.7 PPG for the Suns. So having caught up in the standings, Memphis can expect to make the playoffs.

Phoenix's remaining, road-heavy schedule pits them against ten above-.500 outfits, many of whom are fellow Western conference units jostling for playoff security. Thus, it begs the question, does the appeal of the narrative (and Jeff Hornacek's COY credibility) suffer if the Suns are not able to muster a postseason berth?

Frank Vogel, Indiana

The subdued leader of the Eastern Conference's pace-setters has set the league's defensive standard in characteristically stoic fashion. Vogel's Pacers have rested atop the lopsided East for the majority of the season, only really encountering hiccups on the fringes of the All-Star break. The ongoing duel for outright supremacy in the East (between Indiana and Miami) has been a continuing aside to the conference's otherwise forgettable outputs.

Indiana emerged in November with a blistering defensive efficiency of 88.6 points conceded per 100 possessions, and have remained reasonably steady since. The Pacers have not been entirely without their own problems, though. After entering the MVP fray at the outset of the season, Paul George's play has not-so-quietly slumped in the new year. Since January 1, the Pacers' wingman has struggled mightily from the field (read: 40.4% over 34 games), whilst his individual defensive rating has "risen" to 98.6 (in that window).

The unfriendly cocktail of George's faltering game and Roy Hibbert's offense coming to a relative halt is fundamentally connected to the reality that Indiana is just 8-7 in their fifteen most recent outings. To place Hibbert's scoring woes into perspective, here is a list of players 7-0 or taller from the past twenty seasons who have averaged at least 2.0 blocks per game, qualified for the rebounding leaderboard, and shot below 46.5% from the field (min. 1800 minutes played):

Limited company, no doubt. These concerning trends will likely correct themselves across the remainder of the season (and will need to, if Indiana aspires to the number one seed) -- although there are no guarantees. Vogel's charges have feasted on the lesser competition in the conference, going 30-7 against fellow East teams, including 12-1 against teams from the Atlantic Division. The Pacers' still comfortably maintain a winning balance in the ledger against Western opponents, and have compiled their fair share of comprehensive victories in that region -- including a double-digit win in San Antonio that saw them outscore the Spurs by 30pts in just two quarters in December.

The sole regular season objective for the Nap Town natives has been to secure the number one seed -- they are two games clear with eighteen games remaining on the schedule. For all of Frank Vogel's efforts, and for the Pacers' admirable defensive excellence, it is difficult to make a bulletproof case in his favor (despite his status as yours truly's preseason prediction).

Terry Stotts, Portland

If this award were routinely distributed in December, Stotts may have stood as a near shoe-in for it, or at least vied with Vogel for the honors. As of Christmas Day, the Blazers were tied with Indiana and Oklahoma City for the best record in the league, at 23-5. Alas, there is little disguising how Portland have since plateaued. Stotts' Blazers have been unable to right the ship that is their midrange game and, as such, unable to sustain the scorching start to the season. Since establishing league-leading status in the W-L column, Portland have attempted the fifth-most midrange field goals, yet have only netted the 16th best mark (40.0%). This is symptomatic of the team's flailing offense, which has also produced only the twentieth-best conversion rate in the painted area (37.7%) after December 25th.

Given that the team boasts an unsteady defense -- and is ranked just 19th in efficiency on that side of the ball on the season -- any semblance of jitters on the offensive end were certain to institute speed-bumps for Stotts' staff. Not unlike the Suns, Portland (and Stotts) took their place in the conversation overwhelmingly due to exceeding expectations. Now, however, just six weeks removed from the beginning of the postseason, the Blazers are delicately placed one and a half game away from the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio

What can you say about the Spurs that accurately reflects the complex nature of this season's performance? After a harrowing beginning to 2014 that saw the majority of the nightly starting unit promptly downed by injury, San Antonio has (once again) stubbornly persisted as a pillar of elite basketball. This team's fortunes will seemingly not be condemned by Father Time, nor by a "variety of maladies." Since February 1, the Spurs have won a league-best fifteen games, doing so by outscoring opponents by an average of 5.9 points per 100 possessions. This was achieved despite the fact that Tony Parker missed six straight games after the All-Star break (during which San Antonio went 5-1), while starting wing Kawhi Leonard was sidelined from January 22 to February 26.

Consider this: San Antonio's typical starting five (Parker-Green-Leonard-Splitter-Duncan) has logged fewer than 200 total minutes on the season together, having only appeared in 22 games as a collective, and yet, Pop has anchored the Spurs to the best record in the NBA. By comparison, Indiana's impenetrable starting core has featured in over 1100 minutes as a unit, playing alongside one another in fifty-seven of a possible sixty-four games. Among the groups that have started in victories for San Antonio this season are: Parker-Joseph-Belinelli-Ayres-Duncan on January 24Parker-Joseph-Brown-Splitter-Duncan on February 1, and Joseph-Belinelli-Green-Diaw-Duncan on February 18. Pop's proverbial potpourri of eclectic opening units has strategically evaded the entire auto shop's worth of spanners that have been thrown into the Spurs' works throughout the season.

Injury data can help to offer insight as to the availability of any given team's cattle, however, the broad stroke of the "games missed" label fails to address one glaring caveat: player quality. As it currently stands, the starting foursome of Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Tiago Splitter have missed a combined total of 56 games on the season, and subsequently (just as everybody predicted), Marco Belinelli is third on the roster for total minutes played.

Over the past six weeks alone, the silver and black have featured in the top five in the league for assist percentage (AST%), effective field goal percentage (eFG%), net rating, and true shooting percentage (TS%). This locomotive-like offense has functioned parallel to what has persisted as a top-ten defense across the same span, and thus, the Spurs have had little trouble dispatching opponents of all shapes and sizes. Pop's team is showcasing an identical record at home and on the road (24-8), and is somehow 26-10 against the jagged, bristly Western Conference. Oh, and they're on an eight-game winning streak, too.

Does Popovich's name get discounted from consideration due to his prior Coach of the Year wins? For those voting, it might be sexier to latch onto one of the aforementioned names. Perhaps what is more difficult to measure (but remains as much of a testament to the job at hand) is the level of individual improvement illustrated by certain Spurs in 2014. Undoubtedly, the growth of Patty Mills has helped to plug the unfriendly leaks in the player pipeline, while Marco Belinelli's Alamo City reformation has been something to behold.

Although he functions as just one example of the trademark mad science behind the Popovich ploy, reflecting upon Belinelli's shooting successes in San Antonio bears value. Below is a graphic representation of Marco Belinelli's shot distribution and conversion this past season (2012-13), with Chicago:
Shotchart_1394742069562
And here is the information reflecting Belinelli's single season in San Antonio:
Shotchart_1394742084169
It's a fascinating study. The chemicals (and experiments) in the Popovich basketball laboratory may fluctuate, but the results remain the same. The fluidity with which the Spurs' staff have been able to adapt to change is unmatched. The resilience and flexibility of the staff is perhaps depicted most accurately in tight situations.

Notwithstanding the degree to which Popovich's team has been beleaguered by injuries, few lineups can mirror the dominance displayed by the Spurs in clutch situations this season. Where "clutch," scenarios are defined as a team being ahead or behind by 5 or fewer points within the final five minutes of a game, San Antonio has outscored its opponents by 19.8 points per 100 possessions -- the second-best mark in the league. The following chart identifies how the Spurs fare when compared to the teams with the NBA's top ten win/loss records, with the dashed line representing the trend among the selected teams:
Net_rating_clutch
Unsurprisingly, Pop's squad is the only remaining team in the league to be undefeated in both games decided by three or fewer points, and games decided in overtime periods. That is quite possibly the most telling statistic of all.

There are any number of metrics that can be thrown together to assemble a case in Pop's favor. Don't expect a protest rally outside league headquarters if the Spurs' commissar is not named Coach of the Year. On paper, San Antonio should have no business holding the top win-loss ration in the Association -- but it is mid-March, and they do. When the dust settles on the season standings and the lesser likes have lost their luster, will Gregg Popovich be preparing to join Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches to have claim the award on three separate occasions?

He should be.

Advanced statistics are accurate as of March 12, 2014, courtesy of NBA.com/stats.
Injury data and "games missed" catalogue are accurate as of the end of the third quarter of the season (March 5), courtesy of Jeff Stotts' InStreetClothes.com.
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