- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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You see Seattle at Memphis on the Tuesday schedule and the reaction is inevitable.
OK, maybe not. So let us clarify. Allow us to explain why the importance of Sonics at Grizz in late March extends beyond a chance for Seattle to clinch its first playoff berth in three seasons:
Of greatest significance, it's a matchup featuring two of the leading Coach of the Year candidate. You have the foremost Coach of the Year candidate, specifically, up against a Coach of the Half-Year candidate.
It's Seattle's Nate McMillan, who sits atop our Coach of the Year ballot with just over three weeks left in the regular season, matching play calls against Memphis' Mike Fratello, whose success resurrecting the Grizzlies has spawned one of the season's more interesting debates. McMillan appears to have the edge over Fratello after the Sonics' 102-99 victory at Memphis on Tuesday.
The issue: Should a coach who doesn't coach a full season be eligible to win his profession's highest individual honor?
Our stance: Why not? The best coaching job is the best coaching job. And it takes a good one to take over 16 games into a season, with an injury-ravaged team sitting at 5-11, and haul that team back into playoff contention in the ever-competitive West.
Fratello shouldn't beat out McMillan. Truth is, it'll be tough for The Czar just to crack the top five on my ballot. But it's not because he hasn't coached enough games.
It's simply because the Coach of the Year race, as usual, is teeming with worthy contenders. Fratello might not even be leading the Coach of the Half-Year race, because George Karl is 21-6 in Denver after inheriting an underachieving Nuggets squad mired at 17-25. Even Avery Johnson should be considered in the Half-Year category, having helped keep Dallas among the league's elite through countless injuries, a couple of fill-in stints and, ultimately, Don Nelson's resignation.
The official COY ballot doesn't arrive from the league office until mid-April, but here's a sneak peak at how we're leaning with our votes.
1. Seattle's Nate McMillan
It was hard to believe Seattle's 17-3 start, especially after that 30-point loss to the Clippers on Opening Night. Yet it's even tougher to explain how the Sonics, long after that magical launch, remain a force on pace to win 57 games. Just three more victories and they'll clinch the Northwest Division ridiculously early, even though Seattle has a roster filled with free agents-to-be, starting with McMillan himself.
To emphasize its staying power, Seattle just reeled off a 8-1 stretch despite losing Vladimir Radmanovic to a leg injury and in spite of enforcer Danny Fortson's deteriorating relationship with the coach.
The world keeps waiting for the Sonics to re-enter this atmosphere, and you can be sure that plenty of folks will pick them to be upset by Houston or Sacramento in the first round of the playoffs. McMillan, however, has to be the COY choice. Has to be. While true he has two All-Stars (Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis), McMillan also has no dependable centers and only undersized power forwards (Fortson and Reggie Evans). And still his Sonics have ranked in the top three in rebound margin all season.
2. Indiana's Rick Carlisle
It won't surprise Pacer People if Carlisle fails to win his second COY trophy, because it's been the sort of season in Indy when the locals feel as though every conceivable external force is conspiring against them.
But know this: Carlisle has never coached better, and this is a guy whose first three seasons in the hot seat produced records of 50-32, 50-32 and 61-21. Carlisle provides the structure and optimism for a team that was supposed to contend for a championship ... but which hasn't seen its projected starting lineup (Jamaal Tinsley, Reggie Miller, Ron Artest, Jeff Foster and Jermaine O'Neal) together even once this season because of injuries and the suspensions stemming from the Nov. 19 melee at Detroit.
No wonder O'Neal was moved to make a passionate plea to us the other night in search of our COY vote for Carlisle, just as Carlisle has been known to call writers to lobby them for award votes. "I can't believe," O'Neal said, "that he hasn't even gotten a Coach of the Month award [this season]."
Knowing Carlisle, who never credits himself for anything, all he wants is the playoff berth that we're betting the Pacers wind up getting.
3. Chicago's Scott Skiles
Told you the field was deep. How deep? Well, it's like this: We can't figure out a way to get poor Skiles any higher on our ballot even though the Bulls already in Year 7 of their interminable post-MJ rebuilding project are suddenly challenging for home-court advantage in the first round of the East playoffs.
Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler actually qualify as grizzled vets in this locker room, yet somehow Skiles has rallied the babes from an 0-9 start to the point that they're winning even when the schedule is toughest. In February and March, months filled with road games, Chicago is a combined 16-11. (So much for the collapse many feared.)
And in spite of its inexperience, Chicago still leads the league in opponent field-goal percentage at .420, ranking ahead of mighty San Antonio. Did any of this seem possible when the Bulls were 0-9? Sixty games later, even the skeptics would have to agree that these Bulls in one of the season's biggest surprises have taken on Skiles' gritty, gutty persona.
4. Phoenix's Mike D'Antoni
Judging by the on-air plaudits for D'Antoni these days, chances are he'll place higher on some ballots. And we'll have no problem with that, because D'Antoni's commitment to nonstop running can't be overlooked on the list of factors contributing to the Suns' amazing rise to elitism.
It surely helps to have Steve Nash as a coach on the floor and Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion catching Nash's passes as well as Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson but don't be fooled: D'Antoni has done plenty of coaching this season with such a young team, especially during the Suns' stunning 31-4 start. That, remember, was before D'Antoni had veterans Jim Jackson and Walter McCarty to bring off the bench. In the first half of the season, the coach had virtually no bench. Dealing with depth issues falls directly on the coach and D'Antoni has coped masterfully, as evidenced by the Suns' ever-improving chances of posting the West's best record.
5. Denver's George Karl
Don't be silly. Karl noses out Fratello, but not because Furious George is our former NBA Fastbreak colleague. We simply cannot overlook the fact that Karl, despite spotting Fratello almost two months, has the Nuggets on the verge of passing the Grizzlies for the seventh spot in the West.
The schedule has undoubtedly helped, as only 10 of Denver's 26 games under Karl thus far came against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. But it's not all schedule. Karl's decisions to hand key roles to Eduardo Najera and DerMarr Johnson, along with his role in sparking the resurgence of Carmelo Anthony and better team-wide ball movement, are equally pivotal factors.
Fratello, meanwhile, merits serious kudos for holding Memphis together through a spate of injuries, including the nearly two-month absence of leading scorer Pau Gasol, but it's actually the Grizzlies not the Nuggets who look like the team Minnesota is chasing for the West's final playoff spot. The Grizz, strangely, have looked vulnerable lately, even though they're as healthy as they've been for months.
Besides Fratello, you hate to exclude Washington's Eddie Jordan from the top five, since Jordan has been forced to coach long stretches without either Larry Hughes or Antawn Jamison. But, again, the competition is brutal.
Both of the Van Gundy brothers also merit a mention, with Houston's Jeff ahead of Miami's Stan because Stan has Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade and also because JVG had to relax his slow-down tendencies and work with management to tweak the roster when the Rockets started 6-11.
With three weeks remaining, Seattle's Nate McMillan is front-runner for Coach of the Year.