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Coach of the Year Debate: Who has helped their team meet, exceed or change expectations?

When evaluating the WNBA’s Coach of the Year, expectations inevitably impact candidacies. How did the Connecticut Sun’s Stephanie White, New York Liberty’s Sandy Brondello, Dallas Wings’ Latricia Trammell and Los Angeles Sparks’ Curt Miller meet, exceed or change their teams’ expectations?

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Las Vegas Aces v New York Liberty
Should Sandy Brondello’s management of New York’s super team earn her Coach of the Year honors?
Photo by Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

On Aug. 1, the Las Vegas Aces defeated the Atlanta Dream to extended their record to 24-2, good for a winning percentage of .923. If the Aces had continued winning at such a pace, thus besting the 1998 Houston Comets for the highest single-season winning percentage in WNBA history, Becky Hammon would be a shoo-in for a second-straight Coach of the Year Award.

Instead, the Aces since have dropped four more games, and Hammon did not make our list of Coach of the Year candidates.

This circumstance illuminates the degree to which expectations determine the estimation of coaches. As recently discussed by Matt Cohen for Winsidr, it is difficult to quantify a coach’s impact on his or her team. In turn, coaches tend to be evaluated against expectations. The reigning Coach of the Year, Hammon would have had to do something incredible with the defending champs to exceed expectations—and she nearly did.

Chelsea Leite joins Eric Nemchock, Edwin Garcia and Cat Ariail to highlight four coaches who met, exceeded and changed expectations for their teams. Eric praises the Connecticut Sun’s Stephanie White, Edwin elevates the New York Liberty’s Sandy Brondello, Cat trumpets the Dallas Wings’ Latricia Trammell and Chelsea gives kudos to the Los Angeles Sparks’ Curt Miller.

Stephanie White (Connecticut Sun)

New York LIberty v Connecticut Sun
Stephanie White.
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

While some new coaching hires are tasked with turning a team around, Stephanie White’s first year in Connecticut has been all about upholding the Sun’s recent run as one of the WNBA’s best teams. Curt Miller (now with the Los Angeles Sparks) led the Sun to 21 or more wins in five of the last six seasons, so expectations for White were high right from the jump.

Those expectations have largely been met—the Sun currently are 26-12 and will enter the playoffs as the third overall seed. And considering some less-than-ideal circumstances, White’s first season at the helm of the Sun has been a hands-down success. A season-ending injury to starting center Brionna Jones forced White and her staff to overhaul the team’s approach on both ends of the court. Without a true low-post scoring threat, White has run even more of the team’s offense through forward Alyssa Thomas, who has responded with an MVP-caliber season. Defensively, White has gotten creative, starting Thomas at center while flanking her with long, active defenders in DeWanna Bonner and Rebecca Allen. The Sun have been excellent there, ranking third in the WNBA in defensive rating (98.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) while forcing turnovers at a higher rate than anyone else at 19.9 percent.

White should get credit for DiJonai Carrington’s emergence, too. In her third WNBA season, Carrington has become the Sun’s unquestioned go-to bench scorer, carving out a role in which she’s averaging 8.1 points in 16.8 minutes per game while shooting a career-best 40.4 percent from 3-point range. Empowering young players is just one of many indicators of good coaching, and what Carrington has done under White shouldn’t be overlooked.

Granted, regular-season success is not exactly something the Sun have been lacking in recent years, and only time will tell if White can lead her team to the ultimate goal. In a season many expected to be defined by the WNBA’s upper echelon of teams, however, the Sun have not only remained relevant, but have flourished, and White should get her fair share of credit for that. — Eric Nemchock

Sandy Brondello (New York Liberty)

2023 Commissioner’s Cup Championship - New York Liberty v Las Vegas Aces
Sandy Brondello.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The moment Brenna Stewart joined the New York Liberty the “super team” moniker was stamped on this team and expectations were sky-high. Other than a rough season opener, the Liberty have lived up to the hype. They have the second-best record in the league and have the longest current winning streak with seven straight victories.

Head coach Sandy Brondello is a big reason why.

She’s optimized her rotations and maximized her stars’ talent, with Stewart producing a career-high 23.3 points and 9.4 rebounds and Sabrina Ionescu shooting a career-best 3-point percentage at 44.4 percent. The Liberty won the Commissioner’s Cup against the Aces in Las Vegas and tied the season series against the defending champ. And at 31-7, this will be the best regular-season record in the franchise’s 27-year history.

Rarely does Coach of the Year go to a team that can be labeled a “super team.” But this year is an exception. With all the pressure that comes with playing in the New York market, this team could’ve crashed and burned, or just been very good but not elite. Instead, Brondello has this team playing their best basketball at the perfect time. With all the talent she was given, she found a way to maximize it—and isn’t that the coach’s job? Who has done that better than Brondello? — Edwin Garcia

Latricia Trammell (Dallas Wings)

Indiana Fever v Dallas Wings
Latricia Trammell.
Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Latricia Trammell has ushered in a long-awaited transformation in Dallas.

No, the transformation is not yet complete. While the Wings have an identity as a high-scoring team that dominates the glass, they still have not played with the consistency needed to realize their ceiling. Additionally, one could criticize Trammell for overextending her stars, as Arike Ogunbowale leads the league in minutes per game and Satou Sabally and Natasha Howard both rank in the top 10. Nevertheless, that Dallas, finally, is meeting expectations—entering the playoffs as a promising No. 4 seed—is a credit to the cultural shift initiated by Trammell, who also has proven that she deserved a head coaching job long before 2023.

Her success comes not from imposing discipline and directives on a still-young team that had yet to approach their potential. Instead, as highlighted by Dorothy Gentry in a recent profile of Trammell for The Athletic, she is the ultimate players’ coach. On Trammell, Ogunbowale told Gentry, “She always talking to us, always positive. Always worried about us — not even just basketball, just like checking on us. You can just tell that she believes in every single one of us and it’s easy to play for a coach that has your back through anything.” (We’ll conveniently ignore Trammell’s and Ogunbowale’s icy press conferences after last Sunday’s loss to the Indiana Fever.)

The Wings’ 20 wins are the franchise’s most since 2008, when they were still in Detroit and known as the Shock. Although Dallas has a ways to go before topping the three WNBA titles won in Detroit, a discernible path to such glory now exists because of Trammell. — Cat Ariail

Curt Miller (Los Angeles Sparks)

Washington Mystics v Los Angeles Sparks
Curt Miller.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Many fans were shocked when Curt Miller announced he would be leaving his head coaching position with the Connecticut Sun after the 2022 WNBA season. He spent seven seasons with the Sun, winning WNBA Coach of the Year twice and leading the team to two WNBA Finals before coming up short both times.

It was time for a shake up and change of scenery for Miller. So he decided to return to the Los Angeles Sparks, where he was an assistant coach prior to taking the Sun job in 2016. The Sparks had spent several seasons in what we will call a “period of transition” after Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray left the team. Miller’s hiring was welcomed by Los Angeles fans, as they hoped the team would improve from the disappointment of the past few seasons.

The LA Sparks DID improve this season, but that’s not why Curt Miller should be in the Coach of the Year conversation. Although they currently sit in ninth place, the Sparks still have a chance to sneak in to the playoffs, despite a tumultuous season. They suffered an unreal amount of injuries, causing them to frequently dip into the pool of seven-day and hardship contracts.

Chiney Ogwumike has been out most of the season with a foot injury. Katie Lou Samuelson missed the entire season due to her pregnancy. Layshia Clarendon was in and out all season with injury. Lexie Brown fell ill during the season and will not return. Nia Clouden is currently out with a knee injury. Jasmine Thomas missed a chunk of the season as she recovered from her own knee injury. Nneka Ogwumike also occasionally was out of the lineup, which is normal, but—when your injury list is a foot long—the absence of your best player hurts.

Still, Miller pushed on. He used his rookies, such as Zia Cooke, to his advantage. He let Karlie Samuelson—finally!!!—flourish. He brought in seven-day contract players who immediately made an impact, such as Evina Westbrook. Jordin Canada rose to stardom, Dearica Hamby has been a welcome presence.

This season truly has been a full team effort from the Sparks—and Curt Miller has been the one keeping it all together. — Chelsea Leite