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The List: Eight early Coach of the Year candidates

POSTED: Dec 29, 2014 1:42 PM ET

By Joe Bozell, special to NBA.com

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Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks are the biggest surprise team of the season so far.

The NBA has long been referred to as a players league, and on the surface, it's hard to dispute that. But a philosophy tweak here and a coaching adjustment there can make bad teams look mediocre, mediocre teams look competent and competent teams look great.

The league is loaded with world class talent, and it is up to the masterminds on the bench to maximize that ability. There are many great coaches in the NBA right now, as shown by the fact that (spoiler alert) Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich were left off this list. That's not to say they aren't two of the eight best coaches in the game, it's simply saying that based on the circumstances of this season, eight coaches can make a better case for Coach of the Year than they can.

As usual, it's important to stress that it's still early. Pop and Carlisle could easily find their way back in this discussion. But based on what's transpired so far, here are the top eight Coach of the Year candidates for 2014-15.

8) Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks

Many mocked Kidd's Frank Underwood-esque attempt at taking over full control of the Brooklyn Nets front office, because it failed miserably.

Or did it?

Nets management was turned off by Kidd's act, and he was ultimately jettisoned to Milwaukee. The Bucks won 15 games last year, the least in the NBA. But Kidd has the Bucks playing near .500 ball and looking like a sound bet to make the playoffs. He has the long limbed Bucks playing near top-10 defense, and Brandon Knight has made great strides under the former point guard's tutelage. Perhaps the most telling stat of all is that Kidd's former team, the Nets, are struggling to hang on to the no.8 seed with a 13-16 mark.

7) Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards

Wittman simply hadn't experienced much success as an NBA head coach until the last two seasons with Washington. It's funny how John Wall can have that type of effect on a coach's career.

In all seriousness, Wittman deserves some credit for Wall's development, as the Kentucky product came into the league as an athletic point guard without much feel for the game. Now, he's like Steve Nash with three extra turbo gears. That's no accident, and backup point guard Andre Miller deserves credit as well.

Outside of Wall, Wittman has had to deal with the losses of Bradley Beal and Nene for extended periods of time, but the Wizards haven't missed a beat. Washington currently sits at 21-8 and has the fourth best defense in the NBA.

6) Dwayne Casey, Toronto Raptors

Speaking of coaches that hadn't experienced much success prior to the last two seasons, Casey has gone from being on the hot seat in 2013-14 to a Coach of the Year candidate in 2014-15. The Raps now have the best offense in the NBA, and that's been without leading scorer DeMar DeRozan for the last few weeks.

Casey has plenty of depth at his disposal, and he knows exactly how to use it. Lou Williams seems rejuvenated in Toronto and Kyle Lowry has found a home in Canada after clashing with numerous head coaches in the past. Casey deserves plenty of credit for maximizing Lowry's game as a whole.

5) Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls

"We have more than enough to win with," -- Tom Thibodeau, every press conference.

Most people roll their eyes at this type of coachspeak, but with Thibs, it's actually true.

Aaron Brooks is the latest undersized, relentless point guard to thrive in Thibodeau's system, and this team is looking more and more like it doesn't need Derrick Rose to return to MVP form in order to win the East. The Bulls have had their intended starting lineup for just 12 of 30 games this season and easily have their best offense of the Thibodeau era, a real testament to the coach's performance this season.

4) Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets

Arena Link: Kevin McHale

Rockets' head coach Kevin McHale joins GameTime via Arena Link before taking on the Grizzlies in Memphis.

Similar to Chicago, the Rockets have been lacking major weapons in their attack for most of the season and still sit at 21-8 in a nightmare of a conference. Houston locked up McHale to a three-year extension this week and just signed Josh Smith, so it will be interesting to keep an eye on the Rockets during the rest of the season.

Houston has had their opening night starting lineup intact for just two games, with Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverley and Dwight Howard all missing significant time due to injury. Despite that, the Rockets have ramped up their play on the defensive end of the floor, currently sporting the second ranked defense in the league after being a mediocre unit in 2013-14.

3) Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers

Portland's offense was never the question. With Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and shooters all over the place, they could always score. The question was defense, as the Spurs exposed the Blazers unit in the playoffs in May.

Stotts and the Blazers took that to heart. Continuing with their ultra-conservative defensive scheme, the Blazers are now the third best defense in the NBA behind Golden State and Houston. Continuity certainly makes Stotts' job easier, but as an offensive minded coach, he has to be lauded for getting his troops to play the stifling defense they have this season.

2) Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks

Spurs East, anyone? The former San Antonio assistant has implemented the pace and space system in Atlanta, and it's absolutely paid dividends. Almost everyone on the Hawks' roster is playing at the highest level of their respective careers, including Kyle Korver at age 33. To go from a spot up shooter to a possible All-Star speaks volumes not only about Korver's work ethic, but his coach's ability to use him.

If nothing else, the Hawks are one of the most fun teams to watch in the NBA. Atlanta records an assist on 68.2 percent of their field goals, first in the league by a mile. That has to be attributed to Budenholzer and his system, which has the Hawks at an impressive 22-8 mark.

1) Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors

Poor Phil Jackson and the Knicks. Kerr was long thought to be Jackson's protégé for the New York job, but he spurned them for Golden State and its wealth of resources.

And boy has it paid off. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA at 24-5, and Kerr has the Dubs as a top-five offensive unit after being mediocre on that end last year. Key moves such as inserting Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green into the starting lineup and unleashing Andrew Bogut's expert passing ability have enabled the Warriors to be the best in the West thus far. The season is far from over, but if it ended today, Kerr would have to be considered the favorite to take home Coach of the Year honors.