That’s especially true when it comes to coach of the year, where at least five candidates have earned serious consideration. Indeed, there’s somebody for everybody this year, whether voters prioritize team success, culture changes or overachievement in an award that tends to be one of the trickiest to predict.
The conversation starts with Quin Snyder, whose Utah Jazz rank first in winning percentage and point differential while being the only team to boast a top-five offense and defense. Utah (44-16) is on track for its best season since the peak years of John Stockton and Karl Malone in the late 1990s, and it has already surpassed Las Vegas’s preseason projection of 41.5 wins with 12 games left.
Utah is one of the few teams that has made it look easy, leaving Snyder’s candidacy without major flaws. Although nit-pickers will note that he has benefited from excellent lineup stability, Snyder has elevated a perennial second-tier playoff team into title contention with a disciplined defense and an elite offensive attack predicated on ball movement and outside shooting. His two stars, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, have put any hard feelings after their positive coronavirus tests last March in the rearview mirror, performing at an all-NBA level and carrying a veteran-dominated team to a league-leading 34 double-digit victories.
Monty Williams’s Phoenix Suns share several qualities with the Jazz: They have vastly exceeded expectations, displayed strong two-way balance and received quality contributions from relatively unheralded supporting casts. Perhaps the biggest difference between the West’s top two seeds is experience. Chris Paul aside, Williams has forged a winner out of under-25 talent and veterans with limited postseason resumes.
If Snyder is the pick for voters who prize sheer dominance, Williams’s case is based on maximizing his team’s talent and reshaping a wayward franchise after a forgettable decade. Yes, Paul deserves much of the credit for putting Phoenix on pace for its first playoff trip since 2010 and its best record since 2007. But the Suns’ two-year rise began with the arrival of the understated and compassionate Williams, whose professionalism and ability to connect with Paul and to guide Devin Booker’s development have been crucial drivers of their shared success.
This year’s undisputed turnaround king, though, is Tom Thibodeau, whose New York Knicks continue to defy skeptics who assumed that they would taper off after a surprisingly strong start. Instead, the Knicks are riding a nine-game winning streak entering Monday and fighting for home-court advantage in the East after Las Vegas oddsmakers predicted they would finish with one of the league’s five-worst records.
The Knicks’ narrative is neat and tidy: Thibodeau has breathed new life into a woeful franchise with his signature intensity and focus on defense. New York ranks fourth in defensive efficiency after ranking in the bottom 10 for the previous four seasons. Meanwhile, Thibodeau has successfully unleashed Julius Randle as a do-everything point forward and has even gotten strong contributions from youngsters such as RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, contrary to his reputation for prioritizing short-term success over long-term development. Absolutely no one saw the Knicks bringing joy back to the Big Apple this quickly, and it’s easy to envision voters flocking to Thibodeau’s unexpected redemption story after his messy exit from Minnesota.
Thibodeau and Steve Nash are perfectly cast crosstown foils: The former shouts himself hoarse and revels in forming staunch defenses out of anonymous cogs, while the latter dances on TikTok and oversees a superstar-laden offense that might finish as the most efficient in league history. Voters shouldn’t be fooled by Nash’s easygoing manner or rush to direct all the credit for the Brooklyn Nets’ remarkable attack to Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Brooklyn might have the league’s most talented roster, but Nash has rarely had all that talent at his disposal.
Throughout his rookie season, Nash has rolled with the punches brilliantly in response to Irving’s personal absences, Durant’s contact tracing episodes and Harden’s midseason arrival. Brooklyn (41-20) has the East’s best record, and preseason questions about internal chemistry and the stars’ pecking order have faded. Nash surely wouldn’t have been able to squeeze as much out of the Knicks’ underwhelming roster as Thibodeau, but could Thibodeau have managed the Nets’ major personalities as well as Nash?
The self-assured and media-savvy Rivers inherited an organization that desperately needed an injection of confidence, and his arrival has helped turn the 76ers into the league’s most ravenous campaigners. Joel Embiid declared himself the league’s MVP, Ben Simmons argued that he is the defensive player of the year and Tobias Harris repeatedly expressed his frustration with his all-star snubbing. Philadelphia has walked the walk, too, ranking third in defense and playing with far more cohesion than last season.
On this hypothetical ballot, the vote would go: 1) Snyder, 2) Thibodeau and 3) Williams. Utah’s exceptionally high level of play has been normalized by its consistency, making it easy to overlook the fact that the Jazz have the NBA’s seventh-best point differential in the past decade. Jumping from “good” to “great” is the hardest leap to make, and Snyder should be rewarded for the Jazz’s steady excellence just as Mike Budenholzer of the Milwaukee Bucks was two years ago.
In addition to Nash and Rivers, honorable mentions go to Nate McMillan for the Atlanta Hawks’ remarkable midseason reversal and to Taylor Jenkins for squeezing every last win out of the Memphis Grizzlies during a trying season filled with injuries and coronavirus protocol absences.