The last month of the regular season is good for two things: anxiety over playoff seeding and debates over end-of-year awards.
It’s all good fun, though — when the NBA award races are close, it’s entertaining to debate resumes and what the important factors are for deciding a winner. We’re seeing that right now with the Coach of the Year award, which appears to be down to two candidates (sorry Mike D’Antoni).
Toronto’s Dwane Casey has been a darling for the award since the Raptors overtook the East’s top spot. Even without the seed, Casey has been straight up impressive. Ten months after Masai Ujiri’s “culture change” comment jumped many to the conclusion that Casey’s goose was cooked, the head coach was brought back, helped institute a new, personnel-focused offense, and brought the Raptors to where they are now: 55 wins with seven games to go, a shocking 60 wins still in play for the team that many predicted to finish in the 43-45 range.
Right behind him in the standings, though, is another case that’s picked up steam over the past month. Punctuated with another close win over Utah yesterday, Boston’s Brad Stevens has been fantastic through more unpredictable circumstances than Casey. Stevens’ Celtics are 52-23, three games back of Toronto for the first seed and seven games clear of Cleveland in third. Boston has managed this record despite missing 15 games from first-half MVP candidate Kyrie Irving, 21 games from Marcus Smart, 26 from Marcus Morris and 11 from Jaylen Brown. That’s without mentioning Gordon Hayward has been out all but five minutes at the start of the year.
The Celtics have been banged up, but Stevens has taken many moving parts and maintained the league’s best defense. No hate, it’s a fantastic coaching job.
Make no mistake, though — even if last night’s Jaylen Brown buzzer-beater has you feeling some type of way toward Stevens — this race is close. Lining up the resumes of these two coaches should leave you deciding what’s important to a Coach of the Year, not unlike the razor-thin discussion around last year’s MVP (James Harden or Russell Westbrook).
I just don’t know how you can look at their overall performances in net rating, or the big wins, or how many double digit comebacks they’ve needed and say it’s not close. I’m leaning back towards Stevens, but it’s definitely close. https://t.co/XkxSHRmttY— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 29, 2018
For those who have Stevens as a shoo-in winner, there are a couple arguments to debunk.
Stevens has coached young players through more adversity
Yes, Boston has gone through more injury adversity than any top eight team outside Golden State. The laundry list of players above, starting with Hayward and going all the way through Kyrie’s knee, means Stevens has been constantly experimenting. Good coaching can find success through this — the Celtics have maintained a high defensive level by staying true to fundamental principles. To put it simpler: Boston’s young players buy in to their coach’s strong system with a high level of commitment.
Sound familiar? Flip the end of the floor, and it’s the same story in Toronto. The Raptors have an entirely new offense, along with seven rotation players under the age of 25 who had pretty low expectations coming into the season. All of them have bought in and found success.
Show me a Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, and I can give you a bench mob member. Casey’s offense has helped turn undrafted Fred VanVleet into a Kyle Lowry clone, a guard who can play three positions and close games reliably. Pascal Siakam, a player who couldn’t buy a productive minute in 2016-17, has turned into a modern two-way combo forward. Jakob Poeltl, who was graciously labelled a second-tier lottery pick by some and not so graciously labelled a bust by others, has become a fearsome rebounder and help-side rim protector. Rookie OG Anunoby, who wasn’t even supposed to play until February, had a tremendous first half shooting the ball (though has hit the wall since the All-Star break). Hell, Malcolm Miller has started four games for the Raptors.
One of Toronto’s best offensive lineups (119.5 rating) is Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl. Four out of five of those guys were playing G League minutes last season. Despite being a more predictable situation, this is a product of good coaching and a personnel-driven offense.
Casey shouldn’t get credit for a late adoption of modern basketball
This over-simplifies the changes to Toronto’s system, I think. It was more difficult than just deciding to play modern basketball. The entire coaching staff had to ask for sacrifices and adjustments from their star players, and find areas for the young guys to build confidence.
Casey and Lowry have had a spotty relationship over their four years together, but Lowry was ready to sacrifice — he has less possessions as the focal point of the offense, doesn’t bring the ball up as much, and has admitted working through frustrations. DeMar DeRozan has been challenged to shoot threes in-game, not just in practice. Serge Ibaka is driving more from the three-point line in. Jonas Valanciunas has similarly stretched his game to be more efficient.
How much can this be attributed to coaching, and how much of it is player development? That turns into an existential question, because each plays into the other. It certainly takes a good coach to bring changes together into something successful, and make adjustments on the fly. Dwane Casey has done that. It’s more than just flipping a switch and playing like the Warriors.
With two weeks left in the season, it’s still a neck-and-neck race for Coach of the Year in my eyes. Any argument you can make for Stevens can be matched by a similar argument for Casey — getting the best out of young players, coaching through adversity, even winning games in difficult circumstances.
What this may come down to, and I hate to put it this simply, is standings. The resumes for Casey and Stevens look a whole lot better with “number one seed” at the top. The Raptors and Celtics play twice still this season, with just three games separating them. Starting this Saturday, there may be more on the line than playoff seeding — hardware might be changing hands based on how these two teams finish the season.
Not that you needed another reason to get fired up for a Raptors-Celtics game.