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Is Doc Rivers the Coach of the Year Front-runner?

The Clippers have defied expectations this season and secured Rivers’s job in the long run, but is that enough to earn Doc the trophy over the likes of Mike Budenholzer and Gregg Poppovich? We dig into his biggest competition.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Los Angeles Clippers have been one of the best stories in the NBA this season. Twenty months after trading Chris Paul and 13 months after moving Blake Griffin, the Clips have evolved into a more dynamic organism, one that can ship out two stars—three, really, when you count Tobias Harris—and not only survive, but thrive. After Tuesday’s win over the Indiana Pacers, L.A. sits at 42-30, seven games ahead of the Sacramento Kings for the West’s final playoff spot, and only two games behind the fourth-place Portland Trail Blazers with 10 games to go.

At the heart of it all is Doc Rivers, an excellent coach turned deposed basketball czar who has spent the 2018-19 campaign reminding everyone of the roots he planted before Doc’s Decision Tree became a meme. Rivers has mixed and matched his lineups beautifully, changing configurations and switching styles to take advantage of favorable matchups and hot hands; he has approached this season with the calm and dexterity of a Chopped contestant unbothered by whatever the mystery basket has to offer. (It hasn’t hurt that president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, general manager Michael Winger, assistant GMs Trent Redden and Mark Hughes, and consultant Jerry West have given Rivers a full pantry and fridge to work with.)

Owner Steve Ballmer has furnished Rivers with a top-flight front office that has stocked L.A.’s roster with versatile veterans and talented youth, plus the financial flexibility to go big-game hunting in free agency this summer; as our John Gonzalez wrote Wednesday, “The Clippers have done everything right.” That might be why, despite rumors to the contrary, Rivers says he’s not looking for greener pastures.

One day after longtime NBA journalist Peter Vecsey reported that Rivers might be interested in coaching the Los Angeles Lakers should Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka fire Luke Walton following a disappointing season, Rivers announced that he’d agreed to a contract extension last May that would keep him with the Clippers “until [Ballmer] says, ‘Get out,’” and that while the initial agreement had included an opt-out clause that would have allowed Rivers to pursue another job this summer, the two sides recently agreed to remove the option, locking Doc in as Clippers coach for “a long time.”

Of course, whether or not that is true remains to be seen. There was a time when Doc wasn’t leaving Boston, too; things can change quickly in the NBA, and Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times reports that Rivers’s new contract “hasn’t yet been finalized.” For now, though, Rivers and Ballmer are projecting stability, hoping to shift focus away from speculation about wandering eyes and back toward a playoff push propelled by sideline work that could result in Rivers’s second Coach of the Year trophy.

But Doc’s got some competition in that race. With only three weeks left in the 2018-19 regular season, let’s take a spin through some of the other top candidates for Coach of the Year honors, starting at the top of the standings ...

Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks

The two most common types of Coach of the Year winner are coaches who lead teams to the no. 1 seed in their conference and coaches whose teams make massive year-over-year improvements. Well, peanut butter, meet jelly: In Coach Bud’s first season in Milwaukee, the Bucks have soared to the top of the East, already rolling up nine more wins than last year’s model—and the franchise’s highest win total since the mid-’80s—with 11 games still left.

By now, you know the résumé. Budenholzer, who previously won the award for his work with the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks, came to Wisconsin and promptly instituted a scheme that empowered a Milwaukee roster teeming with talent. Playing in a five-out offense surrounded by viable 3-point shooters has unlocked Giannis Antetokounmpo, turning the 24-year-old who was already pretty damn good to begin with into an MVP favorite; it’s also made the Bucks the second most efficient offensive team in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass, up from 12th last season. Similarly, a more conservative defensive approach that forces ball handlers into mammoth rim protector Brook Lopez and funnels 3-point looks to iffy shooters has produced an elite defense that ranks second in points allowed per possession, a huge leap from last season’s 18th-place finish under Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty.

Coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich love to remind us that their players deserve all the credit for great production and performance. It’s true that the Bucks wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful if Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, and a slew of other contributors hadn’t put in the time and effort to level up; maybe, after last season’s disappointing first-round exit at the hands of a wounded Celtics team, those players would’ve come back ready to have career seasons no matter who was on the sideline. But it sure doesn’t feel incidental that the Bucks transformed from a middling lower-tier Eastern team into a bona fide juggernaut right after Budenholzer came to town.

Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers

The Pacers’ lone All-Star, guard Victor Oladipo, went down for the season in late January. And since, Indiana has relied on a rotation full of solid-but-sub-star types—Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Darren Collison, Wesley Matthews, et al.—to keep pace in a race for home-court advantage. That the Pacers are still in line for a top-four spot with 10 games to go is a testament to McMillan’s work.

The Pacers are on track to equal or surpass last season’s 48 wins, even with Oladipo limited to just 36 games and injuries shelving Turner, Evans, Domantas Sabonis, and Doug McDermott for stretches. McMillan has kept his team afloat with a constant emphasis on defensive havoc (Indiana ranks fourth in the league in points allowed per possession and first in opponents’ turnover percentage) and on moving the ball (the Pacers sit in the top 10 in per-game passes made, assists, and secondary assists, as well as assist-to-turnover ratio).

Eight Pacers are poised to hit free agency come season’s end, including five of the team’s top seven minute-getters, and yet you scarcely hear a peep about insufficient roles or opportunities to showcase talents before reaching the market; McMillan has found a way to galvanize a roster in transition, keeping everyone pointed toward the collective goal of putting together a deep playoff run even without Oladipo.

They might not accomplish that objective. Indiana’s in the middle of a brutal season-closing slate, one that could drop the Pacers behind Boston, which is currently just a half-game behind Indy in the standings, and put them on the road-heavy end of a 4-vs.-5 matchup in Round 1. But no matter how long the Pacers stick around in the postseason—and we should definitely not count them out as an underdog against the talented but inconsistent Celtics—McMillan’s work in stabilizing them after Oladipo’s injury deserves recognition.

Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets

Malone’s case strikes something of a middle path between Budenholzer’s and McMillan’s. The Nuggets have established themselves as one of the league’s best teams, surpassing last season’s win total and clinching the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2014 thanks in part to Malone’s work in coaxing ongoing development out of a talented young core led by fringe MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. They’ve done so while navigating more injuries than just about any other contender: Despite starters Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Will Barton missing major time, and with first-round draft pick Michael Porter Jr. still under wraps, Denver sits just a half-game behind the Warriors for the West’s top spot.

Malone helped foster Jokic’s growth, talking him up as a world-beating force of nature well before the Serbian giant was ready to assume that sort of mantle himself. He found a way to nudge the Nuggets toward defensive respectability; while they’ve slumped some since their stellar start on that end, they still rank 12th in non-garbage-time defensive efficiency, just a tick behind the Sixers and Warriors.

Malone also deserves credit for instilling confidence in rising reserve difference-makers like elite backup point guard Monte Morris, crackling scorer Malik Beasley, and playmaking rim protector Mason Plumlee. He also deserves credit for doing a hard thing when it needed to be done for the good of the team: pulling Isaiah Thomas from the Nuggets’ rotation rather than continuing to try to force-feed his fellow former Sacramento King.

Five seasons back, Malone caught a bad beat, seeing a promising tenure in Sacramento scuttled just 24 games into his sophomore run on the bench after DeMarcus Cousins contracted viral meningitis and Kings brass ran out of patience with a not-so-go-go offensive approach. Now, in Denver, with Jokic in the middle and a passel of bright young things around him, Malone’s getting his second chance to establish himself as a top-tier coach. He’s making the most of it.

Dwane Casey, Detroit Pistons

Griffin deserves the bulk of the credit for Detroit’s rise, but Casey has helped put Griffin in positions to succeed as a facilitator and a finisher, and has found ways to wring points and wins out of a rotation with hardly any bankable wings. After a trade deadline that saw Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson leave town, Casey has given Luke Kennard the time and opportunity to stand out, and the second-year swingman has responded by chipping in 12 points per game on 42.5 percent 3-point shooting since the All-Star break.

I don’t expect Casey to repeat as Coach of the Year, following up last season’s nod for a 59-win campaign in Toronto with another in recognition of a barely-.500 record in Detroit. But “barely-.500” should be cause for celebration considering the decade the Pistons have had and the roster he took over after Stan Van Gundy’s firing; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get some down-ballot consideration.

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

On one hand, you could probably slot Popovich in here every year. He’s one of just three coaches in league history to win Coach of the Year three times, and honestly, given just how much success he’s seen in his decades in San Antonio, that seems downright light:

But this wouldn’t just be a lifetime achievement award for the coach of Team USA. The road has been rockier than usual for the Spurs this season, but Pop and Co. have persevered, and now find themselves riding an NBA-best nine-game win streak to within 1.5 games of Portland for the no. 4 seed out West.

Popovich figured out how to construct ostensibly parallel offenses, taking advantage of the isolation-and-midrange-heavy skill sets of stars LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan when his starters are in, and then unleashing a freewheeling second unit to push the tempo and bomb away from 3-point range. After a Rodeo Road Trip in which San Antonio’s defense got gashed near-nightly, Pop went under the hood after the Spurs returned home and got the team properly tuned up; since that trip’s end, only the Jazz have posted a better defensive rating.

It’s not surprising that the Spurs will end the season in the thick of the Western race; in fact, their postseason presence is just about the only constant we’ve got left in the league. This time, though, Pop’s doing it without any of the signature superstars that have defined San Antonio in years gone by—no David Robinson, no Tim Duncan, no Tony Parker, no Manu Ginobili, no Kawhi Leonard—while also continuing to build comparatively unheralded pieces (Derrick White, Davis Bertans) into vital contributors. Pop used to joke pretty frequently that the second Duncan that hung up his high tops, he’d be following the Hall-of-Famer-to-be right out of the gym and into retirement. It’s a good thing he didn’t, though. He’s clearly still got a hell of a lot to offer.