We’re more than halfway through the 2019-20 NBA campaign, and a small group of coaches have emerged as the strongest candidates for Coach of the Year honors.
With so many players switching teams this offseason, some of the league’s top skippers have faced new and significant challenges.
While Coach of the Year winners often have the best or second-best win-loss record in their conference, that’s not always the case. In the past couple of decades, coaches with 50 or fewer wins have won the Red Auerbach Trophy six different times. So even if a coach has a middling record, they can claim the hardware if their tactics and leadership are impressive enough.
With that in mind, a few fringe contenders and one candidate on the shortlist are on middle-tier teams. Here are the coaches that deserve the most consideration along with the current COY frontrunner?
Honorable Mentions: Taylor Jenkins, Nick Nurse, Mike Malone, Nate McMillan
5. Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 26-19, 7th in the West
Offensive Rating: 110.5, 12th in NBA
Defensive Rating: 108.7, 14th in NBA
Donovan’s tenure with OKC has had some turbulent stretches, so it’s nice to see him guiding this group into the playoff discussion. After losing Russell Westbrook and Paul George within a week last offseason, the Thunder coach faced both a sizable challenge and fresh opportunity.
Donovan quickly organized the new-look Thunder, and after an 11-4 December, he was named Western Conference Coach of the Month.
Westbrook was not always the easiest player to coach due to his hyper-aggressive playing style and erratic shot selection. Thus, Russ’ departure allowed Donovan to open up the playbook and generate a greater variety of buckets. The Thunder aren’t world-beaters on offense, but 110.5 points per 100 possessions is great considering how much the roster was reshuffled.
One of Donovan’s shrewdest moves this season is frequently using the three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. The trio has the best net rating (30.4) of any substantial OKC three-man lineup. They’ve appeared in 44 different games together for 299 minutes, so it’s not a fluke rating.
Even though there might have been a little bit of addition by subtraction last summer, it’s still not easy to replace the production of two megastars in their prime. If the Thunder make the playoffs, Donovan should get a bunch of COY votes.
4. QUIN SNYDER, UTAH JAZZ
Record: 31-13, 2nd in the West
Offensive Rating: 112.2, 7th in NBA
Defensive Rating: 106.8, 8th in NBA
Snyder has been one of basketball’s elite coaches for a while without getting much national media love. He’s trained his squad to play a creative, yet disciplined style of offense, and he continues to run a formidable defense around Rudy Gobert.
Now in his sixth year at the helm in Utah, Snyder has built a culture that’s predicated on finding the best shot. His offense balances besieging the rim via Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert with an array of creative three-point opportunities.
As I mentioned in a recent article detailing Utah’s long-range prowess, Snyder’s greatest effect on the Jazz isn’t necessarily the well-designed sets he often runs. Rather, it’s how he’s instilled unselfishness in his team. Check out how they turned a sideline pick-and-roll into a passing pinball machine that found a wide-open trey for Mitchell:
Snyder should also get credit for expanding Royce O’Neale’s role and extracting great efficiency from the third-year wing. O’Neale isn’t putting up huge counting stats, but he boosted his three-point percentage and has become a much more effective passer. He looks increasingly comfortable in Snyder’s system and is a valuable part of Utah’s nightly game plan as a two-way asset.
3. MIKE BUDENHOLZER, MIlwaukee bucks
Record: 39-6, 1st in the East
Offensive Rating: 113.5, 3rd in NBA
Defensive Rating: 101.5, 1st in NBA
Milwaukee had a disappointing playoff exit last year after a dominant regular season. They’ve regrouped to become arguably even more potent this time around, and Coach Bud is a huge reason.
He’s in the mix to defend his Coach of the Year title, though history is not on his side, as no coach has ever earned back-to-back COY honors.
No team surrenders fewer field goal attempts or a lower field-goal percentage within three feet of the hoop than the Bucks. Their rotations are sharp, and they are as committed on that end as any club in recent memory. Milwaukee’s positional discipline and physicality will likely pay dividends in the postseason.
On offense, the Bucks’ success goes far beyond Giannis Antetokounmpo, even if he’s their engine and primary creator.
Their whole rotation has superb chemistry and outstanding floor spacing. Budenholzer runs a crisp, five-out motion offense the majority of the time. He gives his veteran group a great mix of freedom and guidance. Watch their B-Team carve up the Chicago Bulls on Sunday with a potent mix of set offense and sensible freelancing:
There might be some voter fatigue that prevents Budenholzer from winning back-to-back COY’s. And it’s understandable that Western Conference success is more impressive than an Eastern Conference equivalent given the talent disparity.
But if the Bucks flirt with or eclipse 70 wins, Budenholzer should get the trophy again.
2. erik spoelstra, miami heat
Record: 31-13, 2nd in the East
Offensive Rating: 112.0, 8th in NBA
Defensive Rating: 108.3, 13th in NBA
The Heat have outperformed preseason expectations, which is not shocking considering Erik Spoelstra’s track record. He tends to maximize his personnel, including unheralded players of all varieties.
This season, he’s turned Pat Riley’s hidden gems into better contributors than anyone expected. Duncan Robinson is a great example; It didn’t take long for Spo to realize what he had in Robinson and to prioritize him in the game plan. Miami does a nice job utilizing Robinson on quick-hitters early in the offense and on floppy sets. The kid can shoot, and the Heat have deployed him perfectly.
The same goes for Spoelstra’s usage of Bam Adebayo. The Heat have helped turn the third-year pro into more of a creative asset: Spoelstra runs a good chunk of the offense through Bam at the high post and elbows, and the extra workload has produced more wins
Sometimes Spo plays so much zone defense that even loyal supporters question him. But Spoelstra’s willingness to tinker with schemes like that and make unorthodox lineup moves (like pulling all five starters midway through the third quarter Wednesday) is what’s made him such a dynamic coach for 11-plus seasons.
1. frank vogel, los angeles lakers
Record: 36-9, 1st in the West
Offensive Rating: 113.0, 4th in NBA
Defensive Rating: 105.4, 3rd in NBA
Sure, it helps to have a rejuvenated LeBron James and Anthony Davis in his prime. But who predicted that the Lakers would be a top-five team on offense and defense this soon?
Vogel should get a bunch of credit for L.A.’s dominance.
He has one of the best defensive track records of any head coach, and he’s worked his magic on a franchise that has floundered defensively for years. This group has done a great job being positionally sound on the perimeter and limiting three-point attempts while not sacrificing much at all in the paint.
Vogel has likely prioritized activity on the perimeter because he knows he has the length to clean up drives and rebounds. The Lakers are giving up just 10.9 triples per 100 possessions and 33.7 percent shooting from deep.
Meanwhile, he’s given James and Davis plenty of room to be the creative offensive megastars they are.
When they’re not busy generating buckets, Vogel has smartly used them as decoys on ATO sets to weaponize the rest of the team. Role players such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Avery Bradley are feasting off dribble hand-off plays like this one, as key defenders stay attached to James and the Brow (h/t Half Court Hoops):
Most of LeBron’s head coaches have struggled to varying degrees during their first year leading him.
Vogel seems to be handling the new task pretty smoothly. The way he deals with the L.A. spotlight, the Lakers’ superstars, and the instant pressure of the situation is impressive. If the season ended today, he’s my pick for Coach of the Year.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball