With only two games remaining Phoenix's tenuous chances of making the playoffs still hang in the balance. Are Jeff Hornacek's chances of winning NBA Coach of the Year dependent on that outcome?
This article could just as easily be about how the Suns falling just short of the playoffs might affect their players chances of winning Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year awards or, in Goran Dragic's case, an All-NBA selection (or whether he finishes second or third team). I actually pondered over agglutinating all of these topics into one article, but in the end my
blatant laziness hectic schedule swayed my decision to focus on the coaching award. If my workload was just a little lighter perhaps I'd be writing a more involved piece that included those other subjects.
Cause and effect.
I think it would be apocryphal logic to assume that the Suns making or missing the playoffs won't influence the sportswriters who vote on the award. With several other deserving candidates populating the landscape it may just be a few votes that swing the outcome. Perhaps faltering down the stretch sullies the team's feel good story in the eyes of some and the team morphs into "the little engine that couldn't."
While it seems like the national media finally caught on that something special was sprouting out of the sweltering Sonoran Desert, every time I hear someone say Horna "check" on a show or game that is nationally televised it makes me skeptical that person is doing a critical examination of Jeff's qualifications...
Here are a few other historical trends associated with the NBA Coach of the Year award that I'd almost guarantee the Horna "check" guys aren't aware of... This is a situation where the patterns don't dictate the selection process, but the end result establishes some pretty salient patterns.
The worst record by a team whose coach won the award was 33-48 when Johnny Kerr led the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs in their first season (1966-67). That record is bad enough that it wouldn't even make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this season. It was the only time a team finished with a losing record.
The only team not to make the playoffs was the 1999-00 Orlando Magic, who finished 41-41 when Doc Rivers won the award. That team was widely considered to be the worst team in the league at the beginning of the season, but managed to stultify the pundits despite falling just short of the postseason. The Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks both finished one game ahead of the Magic (42-40) and took the seventh and eighth seeds.
In the last 16 years only Gregg Popovich (2002-03 and 2011-12) and Hubie Brown (1977-78 and 2003-04) were repeat winners. It seems like the main criteria for the award is exceeding expectations/season to season improvement, so coaches like Phil Jackson, who had routinely outstanding teams, weren't able to stockpile Red Auerbach trophies. On another note, how impressive is it that Brown sandwiched two decades and change in between his awards?
Since 1988-89 (25 seasons) only three teams whose coaches have won finished below 50 wins (or a .610 winning %) - the 1994-95 Lakers (48-34), 1999-00 Magic (41-41) and 2006-07 Raptors (47-35).
Toronto Raptors - Dwane Casey
The Raptors are already +13 from last season's win total with 47. One more victory would set a franchise record for most wins in a season. Toronto has clinched the Atlantic Division for the first time since the 2006-07 season. That season Sam Mitchell was named coach of the year as Toronto finished 47-35. Also working in Casey's favor is the perception that winning in Toronto comes with a greater degree of difficulty than many other markets.
Chicago Bulls - Tom Thibodeau
The Bulls were 14-18 when they traded Luol Deng in a move that most people felt was akin to throwing in the towel. The main question then was not whether they could make the playoffs, but if there would be a fire sale that resulted in even more attrition for a team besieged by injuries to its star player. Since then the Bulls are 33-15 and site tied for the third seed with the Raptors. For what it's worth, Thibodeau won the award and finished second in the 2012 voting.
Charlotte Bobcats - Steve Clifford
The Bobcats will finish with a winning record and make the playoffs for only the second time in their 10 year history. Charlotte (41-39) is already +20 wins from last season's abysmal 21-61 record where they finished just one game above the Orlando Magic for worst record in the league. So basically worst in the league to making the playoffs. Clifford is also a rookie who has defied odds by succeeding in what may have been the worst coaching job in the league over the last decade.
Portland Trail Blazers - Terry Stotts
Portland is the third team in the NBA that has improved by at least 20 wins from last season. I'm guessing that there usually aren't that many teams with such vast improvement on a regular basis, but haven't fact checked the veracity of this assertion. The Blazers have the most victories of the teams on this list (53), but were also considered to be a team on the rise (and one that probably underperformed last season) heading into this campaign.
Dallas Mavericks - Rick Carlisle
Carlisle is another former winner of the award and piloted the Mavs back into the playoffs after they missed last season to snap a string of 12 consecutive appearances. He'd be lower on my pecking order, but he did get Dirk Nowitzki back in the postseason after I envisioned them following in the footsteps of the Nash Suns...
San Antonio Spurs - Gregg Popovich
You have to admire those rare instances where a person can make excellence seem so routine. If I had a vote I'd have to think long and hard about him and I'm a Suns fan...
Phoenix Suns - Jeff Hornacek
At +22 wins the Suns are already ensured of having the biggest increase from last season. Phoenix also boasts the advantage of having been viewed as an abhorrent team coming into the season. In terms of results compared to expectations the Suns top this list, competing for a playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference. The marked improvement in many players on the roster also lends credence to his ability to coach up the talent on the roster. The negative, the basis of this analysis and whatnot, is that the Suns are the only team on this list that might not make the playoffs.
Hornacek's coach of the year candidacy mirrors the trajectory of the team. He has wildly exceeded expectations and even his own optimistic predictions (e.g. 103 points per game). Maybe he can still follow the path of Doc Rivers and be the second coach to win the honor despite failing to reach the playoffs. After all, the situation is quite similar.
But I'm not sure I like the odds of him backing into the award. So just like the Suns season may not have a story book ending, maybe Hornacek's first year won't be recognized in the way it might have been. That would add another blemish of disappointment to what has been a great season.
Things can be great and end badly. I've seen a lot of great movies with completely disappointing endings. Right now the Suns season is kind of looking like one of those, but maybe instead this one still has a surprise plot twist left.