Brad Stevens might not have received the recognition he deserved from his peers, but at least he still has his job.
The Celtics head coach did not receive a single vote for the Coach of the Year award voted on by the league’s 30 coaches. Stevens said that there was no one on the list that he would have voted for over himself, adding, “The guy that should have won got it.”
The guy that won, Dwane Casey, was fired by the Toronto Raptors on Friday. Now, Casey and Stevens are finalists for another Coach of the Year prize, this one voted on by the media and announced at the league’s awards ceremony on June 25. Combined, they won a total of 114 games and captured the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference. The third finalist, Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz, led his team to a 48-34 record and the fifth seed in the West.
Stevens and the Celtics are still playing deep into May, while the Raptors were sent packing by the Cavaliers in four games for the second straight year, and Utah fell short against the Rockets. Boston overcame losing one All-Star minutes into the season opener and a second on the eve of the playoffs. Two of their young talents, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are way ahead of schedule, and their development, combined with the league’s top defense, might make this the best Brad Stevens team yet.
Here’s a look at the other Coach of the Year candidates:
After Toronto fired Casey, the team’s Twitter account sent its congratulations and Raptors president Masai Ujiri said, “I hope coach Casey gets coach of the year because he deserves it. I saw everything he did here. I saw the job he did this year. He deserves it.”
While the kind words probably don’t do much to ease the sting of a pink slip, they do speak to the high regard Casey is held in around the league. The 61-year-old enjoyed plenty of regular-season success in Toronto, leading the Raptors to four Atlantic Division titles in five seasons and three consecutive 50-win seasons. This year, the team earned the No. 1 seed in the conference for the first time in franchise history.
However, Casey was never able to translate regular season trophies into the championship the organization craved. The Raptors reached the conference finals in 2016, where they were cast aside by LeBron James and the Cavaliers, then swept by Cleveland in consecutive second-round series.
Playoffs aside (the Coach of the Year votes are cast before the postseason begins), Casey has a sparkling resume for the honor. The Raptors had the second-best record in the league and were the only team in the NBA to finish in the top five in both offense (third) and defense (fifth). Casey changed his systems on both ends of the court to make that possible, as well as switching his rotations.
Instead of keeping one of his All-Stars, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, on the court at all times, he sent five reserves out as his second-unit. That lineup outscored its opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, per NBA.com. That allowed Casey to keep his stars fresh for the fourth quarter. The Raptors were the best team in the league in the final 12 minutes, outscoring their opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions.
After a 104-90 defeat to the Atlanta Hawks on January 22, the Utah Jazz were 19-28 and five games out of the last Western Conference playoff spot. Even the players were looking at the remaining schedule and saying, “OK, there’s no way we can make the playoffs.”
They made the playoffs. Quin Snyder’s Jazz went 29-6 to finish the regular season and claim the fifth seed in the West. The turnaround was spurred by Rudy Gobert’s return from injury and Donovan Mitchell’s lightning-quick learning curve. But Snyder was also a major part. His Coach of the Year nod came as no surprise to Kevin Durant, who told The Ringer, “Quin Snyder is one of the best coaches I’ve seen since I’ve been in the league. He’s incredible.”
Gobert and Mitchell are nominated for Defensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year respectively.
Gobert missed 11 games in November with a bone bruise in his right knee, then suffered a sprained PCL in his left knee in December and missed 15 more. The 26 games he sat out would be the most of any player to win the award, but he’s still in the conversation because of his dominance over the second half. The Jazz allowed 97.9 points per 100 possessions when Gobert is on the court. For reference, the Celtics led the league in that category with a 101.5 mark.
Mitchell, the 13th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, led the team and all rookies in scoring with 20.5 points per game. He added his name to a list of rookies (Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and David Robinson) who were the leading scorers on teams that won at least 48 games.
Snyder and his assistant coach Johnnie Bryant, the developmental guru who helped Gordon Hayward develop into an All-Star for the Jazz, worked with Mitchell in individual film sessions throughout the season. His progress is a testament to their work. So is Utah’s first-round series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, for a team that lost Hayward, George Hill, and Joe Johnson from last year’s outfit.
Snyder, like Stevens at Butler, was something of a coaching prodigy at Missouri. He was hired at 32 and led the Tigers to the Elite Eight at 35 before resigning after the program was placed on probation by the NCAA for recruiting violations. He then spent time on the NBA D-League sidelines on his way back up the professional ranks.
His Jazz finished with seven fewer wins than Stevens’ Celtics, but did so with no All-Stars and a rookie as their go-to scorer. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see either former college boss take home the award.