Not only does the Friday night game between the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns have major playoff implications, but it will feature two coaches in the Jazz’s Quin Snyder and the Suns’ Monty Williams who are thick in the conversation for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award.
Earlier this season, Snyder was widely seen as the heavy favorite to win it. Utah was largely expected to be a mid-tier playoff team or worse in the preseason, so the fact it had vaulted to the top of the ridiculously strong Western Conference made Snyder’s case.
Since Feb. 4, the Jazz have been at the top of the West, but has that consistency actually hurt Snyder’s candidacy?
That’s a theory ESPN’s Kevin Pelton floated earlier this week on Twitter.
It seems like the biggest obstacle for Quin Snyder's Coach of the Year case will be that the Jazz have been so good all season it's now taken for granted that was always the case (or was expected entering the season).— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) April 25, 2021
Within Pelton’s thought comes the interesting idea of narrative surrounding the Coach of the Year award. Perhaps more than any postseason award, the narratives that come up about candidates for CoY play a huge role in who gets it.
Entering this season, the prevailing national narrative surrounding the Jazz was that they were a good team but probably not a great one. When they did become great, however, Snyder became a CoY candidate. As Pelton alluded to, however, the fact Utah maybe hasn’t done anything too outrageously good since the early part of the season might hurt Snyder at this point.
Snyder was actually the beneficiary of this idea a few years ago. In the 2017-18 season, the Jazz weren’t supposed to be good after the departure of Gordon Hayward. Through the first 47 games of the season, that was indeed the case, as they were just 19-28 and 10th in the Western Conference.
But over the last 35 games of the season, Utah went a blistering 29-6, and Snyder got second in Coach of the Year voting.
This season, there are two coaches who fit that mold of leading teams to far better results than was expected, Williams and the New York Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau. In Phoenix’s case, the general thought in the preseason was that it would be a borderline playoff team. The Suns, of course, have been a lot better than that at second in the West behind Utah, and thus Williams is deservedly in the CoY conversation.
As far as the Knicks go, they have long been one of the worst teams in the NBA, but in Thibodeau’s first year in the Big Apple, they’ve been in playoff contention throughout the season. Then over the last 11 games, the Knicks have taken things to another level, as they’ve gone 10-1 (they had a nine-game win streak) and are now in a fight for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
In truth, there’s pretty strong precedent for coaches whose teams far exceed expectations to win CoY, even if they don’t finish among the league’s very best records (the Knicks currently have the 10th-best record in the NBA), and only eight times in the last 20 years has the coach whose team finishes with the league’s best record won CoY.
- In 2010, the Oklahoma City Thunder finished just eighth in the Western Conference, but they had more than doubled their win total from the previous year and Scott Brooks won CoY.
- (Warning: This one might hurt, Jazz fans) In 2004, Utah was supposed to be awful, but it finished 42-40 and just missed the playoffs. Many thought Jerry Sloan should have won CoY, but the Memphis Grizzlies were also supposed to be bad yet finished sixth in the West and made the playoffs, and thus Hubie Brown won CoY (Sloan was probably victim of being too consistently good over his 23 seasons with the Jazz to ever win the award).
- In 2000, the Orlando Magic finished ninth in the East and thus didn’t make the playoffs, but the prevailing thought in the preseason was that they would be terrible, so them far exceeding expectations made the case for Doc Rivers to win CoY.
It’s still very possible that Snyder wins the award. He’s actually still considered the favorite by oddsmakers. That said, the likes of Williams, Thibodeau and Rivers (in his first season with the Philadelphia 76ers) are right in the mix. As with a lot of things, the only way to try to take care of business is to win games.