Mike D'Antoni leads Stein's Coach of the Year race

AP Photo/Darren Abate

Imagine a world where you can be the winning coach in 23 of the first 27 games of the season and generate nothing but shrugs.

Imagine a world where, after losing your self-proclaimed "soulmate" in Tim Duncan, you coach your team to a 20-5 start without No. 21 and get about as much praiseworthy press as Steve Kerr.

Imagine a world where you have a rookie named Pascal Siakam starting at power forward, you steer your team into the top spot in offensive efficiency (ahead of the mighty Warriors!) anyway and you still toil in virtual north-of-the-border anonymity.

That's just how it goes sometimes in the perennially deep NBA Coach of the Year pool.

The three aforementioned head coaches -- Golden State's Kerr, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and Toronto's Dwane Casey -- aren't getting much love in this first grading period. Not with a couple of newcomers to the Southwest Division -- Houston's Mike D'Antoni and Memphis' David Fizdale -- hogging the spotlight.

The 19-7 Rockets, quite simply, have been a revelation since D'Antoni arrived. Despite facing 14 of its first 20 games on the road, with no All-Stars other than Harden, Houston has staked the early claim to answering one of the season's nagging October questions -- Who's the fourth-best team in the West? -- by flinging 3s with abandon and going 7-1 in games decided by five points or fewer.

Houston's only loss in that scenario, Nov. 16 at Oklahoma City, came without the injured Patrick Beverley, whose recent return has pumped life into the Rockets even when the best Harden we've ever seen is on the bench taking a rare breather.

D'Antoni's impact on the Rockets has been so profound that, when December began, we thought he was a lock to snag our maiden dose of COY props.

Then you start studying what's been happening with the Grizzlies since Fizdale's arrival -- most notably Memphis' 10-0 record in games decided by five points or fewer.

Oh, wait. Memphis' 7-2 record in its last nine games without the injured Mike Conley is actually even more notable, given how Conley was off to the best start of his pro career when he suffered a serious back injury.

The Grizz, as our pal Tim MacMahon noted Thursday night on Twitter, have had their preferred starting lineup on the floor for all of 13 minutes all season. Fizdale has likewise been forced to used 11 different starting lineups, while D'Antoni's Rockets have needed only three.

In the end, though, D'Antoni narrowly prevails here, harsh as that is on Fiz.

The cynic would say that Memphis finding ways to win in the face of myriad injuries isn't exactly new; remember last season's 42 wins and a playoff berth despite the Grizzlies' need to employ an NBA-record 28 players. But that's not really why D'Antoni has the lead on our COY ballot heading into Trimester 2.

The introduction of D'Antoni's trademark spread-the-floor system, don't forget, is at the heart of Houston's fairy-tale start, which is a primo compliment for any coach. The way Harden has taken to the structured freedom D'Antoni gives him, if you know what we mean, is what has tipped the scales.