Stein's Coach of the Year: Mike D'Antoni

D'Antoni pushing Rockets to the next level (1:09)

During his first season in Houston, Mike D'Antoni has James Harden producing career-high numbers and the Rockets with the third-best record in the league. D'Antoni's quick success has earned him Marc Stein's pick for Coach of the Year. (1:09)

The NBA's 2016-17 Coach of the Year derby is a typical and unique COY race all at once.

Typical in that the field is overflowing with worthy candidates like always.

Unique in that the guy who's getting our vote has the rare ability to separate himself from the usual deep pack by virtue of the dramatic impact he made on his team through the signature system he implemented as well as the positional change he conceived.

At Mike D'Antoni's behest, James Harden became a full-time point guard for the first time and quickly morphed into the best James Harden we've ever seen, hiking his assist rate on his teammates' buckets from last season's 35 percent to better than 50 percent this season.

At D'Antoni's urging, Harden and the rest of the Houston Rockets have launched 3-pointers at every opportunity with the sort of freedom that even the Steve Nash/D'Antoni Phoenix Suns could envy. The result has been one of the most dynamic offensive seasons ‎in league history.

‎The preseason over/under projection in Las Vegas for the Rockets was 44 wins. They hit that mark on March 4, in game No. 63, with our choice for the NBA's Sixth Man Award -- Eric Gordon -- unleashed by his new coach into a career year of his own alongside Harden.

No team is exceeding preseason expectations, whether they emanate from Sin City or #ESPNForecast or anywhere else, like the Rockets are.

Yet there's no guarantee D'Antoni will prevail here. Not with the amount of quality competition ‎he has to overcome.

Miami's Erik Spoelstra, who has somehow never won this award, has the Heat on the brink of a .500 record and a Cinderella playoff berth. Despite losing Chris Bosh going into training camp and the subsequent disaster of an 11-30 start, Spoelstra oversaw the most improbable 13-game winning streak in NBA annals and has rejuvenated the likes of Dion Waiters and James Johnson to the point that they're trusty contributors alongside Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside.

Boston's Brad Stevens, with a growing reputation in his own right, suddenly has the guard-heavy Celtics -- with their 5-foot-9 first option -- just one win away from a No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference that no one saw coming.

Washington's Scotty Brooks, after the Wizards' disastrous start, has recovered from the depths of 2-8 to guide them to the franchise's first division title since 1978-‎79 and a shot at 50 wins (that '78-79 season also happens to be the last time this team won 50).

Toronto's Dwane Casey and Utah's Quin Snyder, meanwhile, rank as two of the eight coaches who awoke Tuesday morning with their teams already in 50-win territory and with both having navigated the significant injury crises their teams have faced.

And a certain Gregg Popovich, of course, has responded to the challenge of his first-ever season as an NBA coach without the luxury of leaning on Tim Duncan by combining with MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard to lead the Spurs to 61 wins. It also happens to be the first time in franchise history that the Spurs have cracked the 60-win club in back-to-back seasons, with ‎Pop using 10 different players for at least 1,200 minutes this season.

Since the NBA began tracking minutes for individual players in 1950-51, none of the nearly 300 teams that have posted a 50-win season in that span has ever allotted 1,200-plus minutes to that many different players.

All of the above are bound to get votes. Golden State's Steve Kerr (merely owner of the best record in the league for the third successive season) and Milwaukee's Jason Kidd (who has the Bucks back in the playoffs despite the lengthy injury absences of both Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker) figure to get some COY love, too.

Yet none of them, on this scorecard, overtly impacted the teams and stars involved with their philosophy and strategy as profoundly as D'Antoni has with the Rockets.

Moving on at last from those nightmare stints with the Knicks and Lakers, D'Antoni unlocked Harden's playmaking gifts, helped heal a fractured locker room and is finally winning appreciation for his ever-bold offensive approach that proved far tougher to come by in the initial wake of his Seven Seconds Or Less success in Phoenix.

Especially in L.A. and New York.

D'Antoni recently became the first coach since our ESPN colleague and dear friend Hubie Brown to go at least nine seasons between 50-win campaigns. Before this season, D'Antoni last managed 50 wins with the Suns in 2007-08. (Hubie, of course, set the NBA record by pulling that off 24 seasons apart, first with Atlanta in 1979-80 and then again with Memphis in 2003-04.)

We suspect, as a result, that the wait for D'Antoni's second career COY trophy can be measured in a matter of weeks from here.

Stein's official ballot: 1. D'Antoni; 2. Spoelstra; 3. Brooks.

October prediction: Rick Carlisle