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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.

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?

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.

Would the Raptors, Bulls or Bobcats qualify for the Western Conference playoffs?

I don't think so.

Winning in the West makes Hornacek's job even more impressive.

It makes him Coach of the Year.

Twitter: @sluhm —

NBA 3-pointers

Bulls likely to amnesty Boozer • From all the talk, it's a foregone conclusion the Chicago Bulls will amnesty veteran Carlos Boozer this summer. He averages 14.2 points and 8.4 rebounds in only 29 minutes a game and often sits in the fourth quarter. Because of his age, dip in production and the development of young power forward Taj Gibson, Boozer probably doesn't fit into the Bulls' future plans. "I've been dealing with that all year, so the [amnesty] talk doesn't bother me," he told the Chicago Tribune this week. "I just block it out and try to hoop. … I just keep playing my role and try to support my teammates. I'm doing everything I can to help my team win."

Corbin praises Millsap • Speaking of Boozer, coach Tyrone Corbin mentioned him this week when discussing former Jazz forward Paul Millsap, who returned to Utah for the first time and helped the Hawks score a 112-110 win. Said Corbin: "His first years, we had Booz and other guys and he was a backup. But he didn't feel sorry for himself. He worked and learned and, when that opportunity came, he was ready." What has been the key to Millsap's ability to carve a niche in the NBA? "His inner drive," Corbin said. "His work ethic. His understanding, when he came out of college, how hard he had to work to become a player in this league."

Nowitzki still impressing • Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki is 35 and has played over 42,000 regular-season minutes. But he didn't act his age Wednesday night, when he scored 31 points on 12-for-14 shooting in a must-win game at Utah. The Mavs seem headed for the playoffs — thanks to a major assist from Nowitzki. "He's seven feet tall and plays like a 'two' so he's a matchup nightmare for anybody," said the Jazz's Gordon Hayward. "He posts up smaller defenders. He takes bigger guy to the perimeter. He's a problem, especially when he gets rolling. He's hard to deal with." Said teammate Derrick Favors: "… One of the great players."

Steve Luhm

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