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Coach of the Year ‘buzz’ for Steve Nash has begun

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Charlotte Hornets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

There’s no doubt that Sean Marks trade for James Harden was his big move this season. Harden was playing at an MVP level before suffering the worst injury of his career (Harden had never missed even seven straight games before his hamstring laid him low.)

But what about his shocking decision to hire Steve Nash as the team’s head coach. an out-of-the-blue move that caught everyone napping. Now, with nine games left, there is growing sentiment that the 46-year-old rookie coach should be “in the conversation” for coach of the year honors. How about that?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Monty Williams has the lowly Suns in the playoffs for the first time in 11 years and Quin Snyder’s Jazz have the best record in the NBA. Not to mention the job Tom Thibodeau has done with the cross-river rivals.

But slowly, Nash, who won two MVPs as a player, is getting “buzz.” There is “chatter.” And no one makes a better argument that Joe Vardon of The Athletic did Friday. For Vardon, Nash has kept the Nets ship sailing through adversity during one storm after another: a big trade that depleted his depth, injuries to Spencer Dinwiddie, Kevin Durant and Harden, Kyrie Irving’s unexplained absences, health and safety protocols, etc.

In his piece, Vardon argues that everyone expected the Nets to do well, no one expected the seas would be this choppy.

The weight of expectations be damned, Steve Nash deserves to be the NBA Coach of the Year. The Brooklyn Nets are where they were supposed to be when the season started — atop the Eastern Conference — but their path to get there was unimaginable, with Nash guiding Joe Harris and Jeff Green and Alize Johnson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot most nights, while either Kyrie Irving, or Kevin Durant, or James Harden, or two of them, or all three, were out. Nash has been spectacular in his first season as an NBA coach and I will not take “no” for an answer on this.

Unless it’s coming from the other side of the East River.

Vardon has the receipts, too. He went through the “Big Three’s” attendance record, not just the 5-2 record — 186 minutes— with KD, Kai and James on the court together but the details.

Irving and Durant only played 12 games together without Harden. Irving’s played nine games without either of the others on the court, and Brooklyn won five. The Nets’ best stretch was a 15-3 mark with Irving and Harden together, but KD out. In Thursday night’s 130-113 win over the Pacers, it was KD on the floor (42 points, 10 assists), and Irving-Harden out.

He, like us and others, noted that Nash has used 34 different starting lineups (a franchise record) utilizing 18 different starters (a franchise record) and managed a total of 27 different players (yup, a franchise record.)

Vardon also likes Thibs’ chances but as our former colleague Anthony Puccio points out, over the last 10 years, NO coach with less than a 65 percent winning record has been selected Coach of the Year. Nash, Williams and Snyder meet that mark. Thibs doesn’t.

What makes Nash’s success all the more impressive is that he did without any coaching experience. None. He had been a consultant to Steve Kerr for five years and general manager of Team Canada, but that’s not running a team full of egos and with high expectations ... in New York City.

He certainly has his players’ endorsements from KD with all his experience to Landry Shamet now in his third year.

“When you get lineup changes and guys in and out with injuries you have to be able to dig down deep and work together and problem-solve, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing the whole season,” Durant said this week. “That communication with the coaching staff and the players is only going to make us tighter, especially when you go on the road too.”

“Steve’s done a great job,” added the always articulate Shamet. “Being a first-year, first-time head coach, that presents a number of issues. He’s obviously a great player, but it’s a different dynamic when you start coaching and there’s new challenges and probably nuances that he didn’t expect. He’s handled it all great. Not to mention coming into a team with this type of expectation and the scope that’s been on us, it couldn’t have been easy. I know it wasn’t easy.”

And it’s not just been his management of superstar egos and expectations that have won him plaudits. Something simple like encouraging the “stay-ready group” deserves some attention as well.

You’re not going to hear much for Nash on the subject. That’s for sure. But after last night’s win in Indianapolis, he spoke about the challenges met and still to come as well as his philosophy.

“I think we definitely prioritize our environment from day one,” said Nash. “We create an environment where the players feel all the human qualities, you know — hope, reward, value, progress, togetherness, connectivity – so simple stuff really. You step back and that’s what everyone wants in their working environment and careers. We try to create that and try to value everyone. Regardless of who’s playing, foster a belief in connectivity and competition.

“Win or lose, we are trying to get better and we are trying to compete and trying to connect and improve our level of play our level of play through that connectivity and competition. So, all the technical stuff comes along with it but those are the fundamentals.”

Nash, of course, has people to handle “all the technical stuff,” starting his former head coach and mentor, Mike D’Antoni who no doubt could have had the big chair on another team if he had chosen to sit to Nash’s right this season. Indeed, his staff —eight, count ‘em, eight, assistant coaches — is the biggest in the NBA. (And that doesn’t count the director of coaching analytics, the strength and conditioning coach or the physical performance coach!)

Vardon doesn’t think Nash will win it. Nor this colleague Zach Harper who in handicapping all the NBA awards gives Nash (and the Sixers’ Doc Rivers) honorable mention behind Williams, Snyder and Thibodeau. But that shouldn’t diminish the job Nash has done, argues Vardon. Bottom line for him...

“Nash was handed the roster with the most talent, and also a hornets’ nest of injury, illness, and the potential for dizzying drama in the locker room. He’s navigated it with aplomb,” Vardon writes.

Can’t argue that.