At this point it’s becoming clear that there will be one of two outcomes in the NBA this season, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak: Either the current season will be drastically truncated, or it will be cancelled entirely.
Either way, we’ve seen all or almost all of the regular season games, which means we can start crowning the individual award winners. So I’m handing out my awards this week. On Monday, I chose my MVP, and yesterday I handed out my Defensive Player of the Year award. Today is Coach of the Year, Thursday will be Rookie of the Year, and Friday will be Most Improved Player.
Spoiler: Not a lot of Golden State Warriors will be making appearances.
Now let’s get into it.
Coach of the Year is perhaps the silliest award that the NBA hands out. Wait, no, that’s definitely Sixth Man of the Year, which you’ll note is not on the docket for our awards (With all respect to Andre Iguodala, what exactly is the point of handing out an award to the best player who wasn’t good enough to be a starter? Or the starter whose coach decided to bench them?).
Coach of the Year is silly because it is largely a narrative award. The winner of Coach of the Year is quite often simply the coach whose team exceeds expectations the most.
But how are those expectations set? Usually one of two ways: By the coach not having a great year the season prior, or by the previous coach not being good.
Last year’s winner, the Milwaukee Bucks Mike Budenholzer, was on his first year on the job, and represented a drastic improvement over his predecessor, Jason Kidd, who umm ... was not a good coach.
In fact, of the last ten winners, four were in their first year with the team, and another two (including Steve Kerr) were in their second year (interestingly, two of the four who weren’t in their initial years with the team were fired after their Coach of the Year campaign. One of them — Dwane Casey — was even fired before being given the award).
All that is to say, Coach of the Year isn’t really an award designed to reward the best coach in the NBA. If it were, Gregg Popovich would have won it more than three times in his 24-year career.
But my (imaginary) ballot, my rules, so I’m picking based on who I thought did the best job coaching this year. What a concept.
Here goes (team stats are based on all 30 teams, and provided by Cleaning The Glass).
1. Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
Record: 3rd (46-18)
O rating: 14th (111.6)
D rating: 2nd (105.5)
Net rating: 5th (+6.0)
I would guess that Nurse will ultimately win this award, which would set up a funny situation in Toronto. Casey won the award with the Raptors after the 2017-18 season, and Nurse in 2019-20. In between, they won a championship, but (presumably) not in the years of earning the award. Mildly amusing.
That aside, Nurse is incredibly well deserving. Many people expected the Raptors to be a fringe playoff team (which is ridiculous, but that’s a separate issue), and instead, Toronto has solidified themselves as one of the league’s elite.
Toronto lost Kawhi Leonard — quite arguably the best basketball player in the world — and barely missed a step. Nurse certainly doesn’t deserve all that credit — much goes to Masai Ujiri, and, of course, the bulk goes to the players — but he deserves a lot of it.
Toronto lost a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and yet has the second-best defense in the NBA. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam have developed brilliantly, which Nurse deserves credit for. The chemistry and cohesion is top notch. The effort level is exceptional.
Give the man his award. And give him the best dressed award while you’re at it.
2. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 1st (53-12)
O rating: 4th (113.5)
D rating: 1st (102.3)
Net rating: 1st (+11.2)
Budenholzer won’t win Coach of the Year this season. Coaches just don’t win in back-to-back years, especially when those years bookmark a disappointing postseason performance.
But I’m not trying to decide who will win the award. I’m concerned with who should. And while the primary reason that the Bucks are destroying everyone in their path is reigning MVP (and presumptive 2019-20 MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo, coach Bud deserves a ton of credit. Milwaukee has the best defense in the league, in part because of the creative and adaptive schemes of Budenholzer.
Their offense is also stellar, and functions well regardless of what personnel is on the court.
He has some things to figure out in the postseason, but Budenholzer is an elite coach nonetheless.
3. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
Record: 5th (43-21)
O rating: 5th (113.3)
D rating: 4th (106.7)
Net rating: 3rd (+6.7)
Despite the pseudo-hipster hype, Stevens has never actually won a Coach of the Year award. It seems it’s only a matter of time.
Stevens lost Al Horford and Kyrie Irving (though he added Kemba Walker), and yet the Celtics are ahead of last year’s pace. Boston sports a top-five offense and a top-five defense, which is always the sign of a coach doing their job well.
Boston has a pair of All-Stars in Walker and Jayson Tatum (plus former All-Star Gordon Hayward), yet played a team-oriented brand of basketball that gave them signature wins over most of the league’s top teams.