The Western Conference has dominated the NBA for the last two decades. Of the past 21 NBA champions, 13 have come from the West (Spurs, ’99; Lakers, ’00-’02; Spurs, ’03,’05, 07, Lakers’09-’10; Mavericks, ’11; Spurs, ’14; Warriors ’15, ’17). Part of the reason Western teams have dominated is because of generational talent replacing generational talent. Kobe and Duncan were here, now they are gone. Dirk is nearly gone too. But Steph and KD and Harden and Westbrook have taken their place. Western teams have an advantage because they scout and draft well, take chances and build around their talent.
Over the years, the Western Conference has been known for their great coaches to mentor the talent: Don Nelson, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjonovich, Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich, Rick Adleman, George Karl, Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers, Steve Kerr. Coaches need talent. Plus, for the most part they have luck.
It is hard for a coach to break into Coach of the Year talk in such a powerful conference with such talent depth. Coach of the Year candidates usually are the mentors of unexpected contenders or overachievers. Here are four standouts for 2017-18.
Mike D’Antoni: Houston has rejuvenated the career of Mike D’Antoni. He took it on the chin in Los Angeles and New York but in Houston he has shooters who can play his system. He seamlessly added Chris Paul. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon give D’Antoni the shooters he needs. The Rockets are on a 13 game win streak. They had a similar streak, 14 wins, in Nov/December. They take the most threes, are third in scoring, fourth in steals. Their defense isn’t great but it’s not garbage and is an improvement over last year thanks to Chris Paul. The only worry spot is when the Rockets don’t drain threes, what then? They have stacked the deck with iso-Joe to bail them out when they are having a tough time on the perimeter. James Harden is going to win the MVP and D’Antoni might repeat as Coach of the Year. The regular season doesn’t matter. It’s what happens when they get to the Western Conference Finals and face the Warriors.
Doc Rivers: He won’t win Coach of the Year but Doc has proven that he can take a team of above average and they can compete. After the loss of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford, the Clippers are hanging in there, just out of a playoff spot. If they make the playoffs, all credit goes to Doc’s coaching job which is reminiscent of what he did in Orlando when he took a team everyone said was trash and they went 41-41. The Clippers have a lot of injuries and have leaned on Lou Williams to fill in the gaps. They are a top-10 defense and average everywhere else but will be in the playoff hunt all the way through April without an All-Star to carry the burden.
Quin Snyder: For the past several years, Utah has been predicted as the team to break out of the lottery scrum and make the playoffs. They made it last year, upset the Clippers in the first round and then over the summer lost Gordon Hayward to the Celtics. It felt as if the Jazz were back to the lottery. But picking up Donovan Mitchell in the draft changed the entire trajectory of the franchise. That they lost an All-Star and are still in the playoff hunt is a credit to Snyder. As usual, the Jazz are good at depriving shooters, 4th in the league in points allowed. On offense, they drain long shots with regularity and Mitchell has been tremondous, my pick for Rookie of the Year. With Mitchell and Gobert as their cornerstones, Snyder has the Jazz sharing the ball and winning games.
Mike Malone: The last time Denver was in the playoffs, Andre Iguodala was in town. It’s been a long drought for the Nuggets but the drafting of Nikola Jokic changed everything. Jokic can pass, rebound, score and block shots. The Nuggets play the team game and that is where Malone has excelled, in getting all of them to buy in. They are dominant at home but are a work in progress on the road. They have a shot at making the playoffs because they make threes, score the ball, are secondin the league in offensive rebounding. The only glitch is that they are the worst three point defense in the league. Going down the stretch, their self inflicted wound that may derail the playoffs will be miserable defense and an inability to win on the road. But absent an All-Star and over .500 in the West is a Mike Malone accomplishment.