Phoenix had best record, top offense under Gaines

Coach of the Year?

There’s one aspect of Detroit’s 2-0 series win over the Atlanta Dream that’s probably being overlooked: Marynell Meadors wasn’t the only Coach of the Year candidate in that series. But as impressive as Rick Mahorn has been this leading the Shock down the stretch, the Mercury’s Corey Gaines boasts the kind of numbers that make him a deserving choice for the award.

Meadors should be the runaway winner for Executive of the Year as the architect of Atlanta’s 14-win improvement in its second season, the second-best turnaround in league history behind the Shock’s unforgettable transformation under Bill Laimbeer in 2003. She gutted the Dream’s inaugural roster and quickly molded a young, exciting team that should become a fixture in the postseason.

But I think my decision to bypass her for Coach of the Year was validated by her performance against the Shock in the playoffs. Meadors forgot about Olayinka Sanni – a 69% free-throw shooter who had not played all night – when choosing Crystal Kelly, an 85% free-throw shooter, to come in for Deanna Nolan at the end of Game 1. Kelly made both free throws and Detroit prevailed. Had the free throws missed, Atlanta would have been in a one-point game and had the final possession to go for the win.

After Game 1, Meadors spoke glowingly of Detroit’s playoff experience and talent. She then praised the progress her team had made from being 4-30 a year ago, and how she expected the Dream to make it back to the playoffs in the future. She seemed to be making amends for calling the Shock “bullies” after their final regular-season meeting and, perhaps inadvertently, seemed to concede the series to the defending champions. If her players shared the same sentiment, it’s not surprising the Shock closed the Dream out so easily in the fourth quarter Friday.

Conversely, Rick Mahorn performed with a poise you wouldn’t expect from an assistant coach thrust into the head job four games into the season. Despite the Shock’s early struggles, Mahorn trusted his team to play like the champions they are when it mattered most. They rewarded him with a fourth straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals, a streak that began during Mahorn and general manager Cheryl Reeve’s first season on Laimbeer’s staff.

There isn’t another team in the WNBA that could have survived losing two of its top-six players, Katie Smith and Plenette Pierson, and still reach the WNBA’s final four. While that’s a testament to Detroit’s depth, Mahorn exudes a confidence – call it the Bad Boys-ness if you must – that his players share. It doesn’t matter who plays: those who do will get the job done.

In turn, the players showed a similar trust in Mahorn. He guided the Shock out of last place in the East in July to the conference finals in September. It’s remarkable job worthy of Coach of the Year consideration.

Unfortunately, Detroit’s postseason can only boost Mahorn’s candidacy after the fact. Looking at only the regular season, Gaines made a very compelling argument, and got my vote, after leading the Mercury to a league-best 23-11 record.

Gaines was an assistant to Paul Westhead when the Mercury defeated the Shock to win the 2007 championship, and elevated to head coach after the season. Despite boasting the league’s top two leading scorers, Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, the Mercury floundered in 2008, becoming the first defending champion not to qualify for the postseason. Not exactly how Gaines wanted to distinguish his first season as a WNBA head coach.

That put Gaines on the hot seat entering 2009. Either he would right the ship with a roster clearly capable of contending for a title, or he was the liability holding them back. The former came to fruition. After a 6-4 mark in June, the Mercury seized control of the Western Conference by winning eight of their first nine games in July.

A longtime disciple of Westhead’s up-tempo offense, Gaines orchestrated an offense that averaged an unprecedented 93.1 points per game in 2009. It is the third time in four seasons Phoenix has set the league’s scoring record.

A coach can really prove his mettle when on the road, where challenges abound. He must keep his players focused when they’re away from home, tired from travel and living out of a hotel; he must also show judicious use of his timeouts when the home team is making a run and the crowd is becoming a factor. The Mercury’s league-best 10-6 road mark says a lot about Gaines’ work this season.

But the farther the Shock advance in these playoffs, the more I want my vote back.