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Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, left, and players celebrate a basket against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 99-96. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
NBA Coach of the Year? Jeff Hornacek remains No. 1
First Published Mar 15 2014 10:35 am • Last Updated Mar 15 2014 08:21 pm

As the final month of the NBA season approaches, the best race beyond the battle for Western Conference playoff position is the one for Coach of the Year.

Despite a slow fade by Phoenix, I’m still taking Jeff Hornacek.

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Frankly, the job he has done with the Suns is one of the best I’ve ever seen, even if they do miss the playoffs.

Like everyone else, I pictured Phoenix as the worst team in the West — maybe the worst team in the league — when the regular season began.

In October, the Suns’ over/under for number of wins ranged between 15 to 20.

I thought 15 was more likely, given the trade of center Marcin Gortat (and others) to Washington for a first-round draft pick and the expiring contract of Emeka Okafor.

Heading into the weekend, however, the Suns already had 36 wins and were only two games out of eighth place in the brutally competitive West.

And remember — Phoenix has put together this surprising season without point guard Eric Bledsoe, who injured his knee Dec. 30 and has just returned. The Suns started 16-8 with Bledsoe and, to the credit of Hornacek and his assistants, they went 18-16 without him.

Of course, the legitimacy of one’s candidacy for an individual award always depends on who else is in the running.

Exhibit A?

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When you talk about the MVP race, players like Paul George, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, James Harden, Stephen Curry and Tony Parker should be in the conversation — except for the presence of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

By comparison, the Coach of the Year voting won’t be nearly as top-heavy. A reasonable case could be made for eight or nine others, beyond Hornacek.

Portland’s Terry Stotts has been neck-and-neck with Hornacek throughout the season and deserves every vote he receives.

On the other hand, Stotts has the 1-2 punch of All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard that Hornacek does not.

The Trail Blazers opened the season as a better team than Phoenix — a much better team.

So, in my opinion, Hornacek is No. 1.

Stotts is No. 1-A.

Other than those two, the list of credible COY candidates is longer than a Durant 3-pointer.

Anyone who votes for San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks, the L.A. Clippers’ Doc Rivers or Houston’s Kevin McHale can do so without explanation.

From the Eastern Conference, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Indiana’s Frank Vogel coach the best teams, and that’s not always as easy at it seems.

Toronto’s Dwain Casey, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau and Charlotte’s Steve Clifford also deserve consideration, although I believe the West is so superior to the East that it must be factored into this year’s award voting.

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