Just about every NBA award race in 2018-19 will come down to the wire, but Coach of the Year may be the most hotly contested of all.
There are no shortage of deserving candidates from which to choose, as a number of coaches led their team to far more success than expected. Some successfully navigated injuries, trades and/or off-court drama that threatened to derail their teams, while others seamlessly integrated new players or new systems without missing a beat.
When attempting to suss out this year’s race, historical precedent should come into play.
The last Coach of the Year from a sub-50-win squad was Sam Mitchell with the Toronto Raptors back in 2006-07, so a 50-win season is all but a requisite. That likely eliminates Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson or the Sacramento Kings’ Dave Joerger from the running, even though both have done a masterful job of dragging their once-moribund squads back into relevance.
A 50-win floor isn’t the only criterion voters tend to consider, however. The last Coach of the Year whose team didn’t finish as a top-three seed in its respective conference was then-Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks in 2009-10. His 52-30 Thunder squad was eighth in the West, but that represented a whopping 27-win jump from the prior season.
Subjectivity comes into play, too. Using preseason over/under lines, it’s easy to determine which teams overachieved and underachieved relative to expectations. Steve Kerr may guide the Golden State Warriors to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, but his squad will fall far short of its 63.5-win over/under, which likely eliminates him from serious Coach of the Year consideration.
Honorable mentions: Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn Nets; Dave Joerger, Sacramento Kings; Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors; Dwane Casey, Detroit Pistons
5. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich is already tied with Don Nelson and Larry Brown for most Coach of the Year awards in NBA history (three), but this year may be one of his best efforts yet.
Trading Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, CJ Miles and a 2022 second-round pick should have been a death knell to the San Antonio Spurs’ playoff hopes. When starting point guard Dejounte Murray suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, it appeared as though the franchise’s 21-year playoff streak was all but certain to end.
Instead, Popovich bucked modern trends and leaned into DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge’s uncanny ability to bury mid-range jumpers.
The Spurs are attempting a league-high 24.9 mid-range shots per game, while the next-closest team—the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors—sit at 19.6. Meanwhile, San Antonio is last in 3-point attempts (25.2) and tied for 23rd in 3-point makes (10.0) despite leading the NBA in 3-point shooting efficiency (39.6 percent).
Any roster with Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli among its top five scorers has no business being in the playoffs, much less in the cutthroat Western Conference, where the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t even survive. Instead, Popovich has wrangled together this motley crew to clinch the Spurs’ 22nd straight playoff berth.
Never. Doubt. Gregg. Popovich.
4. Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers
When Victor Oladipo went down with a season-ending quadriceps tendon tear in late January, the Indiana Pacers seemed to be dead in the water. While Oladipo wasn’t quite as effective this season as his breakout campaign in 2017-18, he remains the Pacers’ lone All-Star-caliber player.
The Pacers dropped four straight games immediately after Oladipo went down, but they rallied back to win six of their last seven heading into the All-Star break. Two straight wins coming out of the layoff put them at 40-20 on the year, all but ensuring they’d be making their fourth straight trip to the playoffs.
A brutal closing stretch of the season—Indiana is only 4-8 in March—takes some of the shine of McMillan’s Coach of the Year case. Aside from their recent 124-88 rout of the Denver Nuggets, almost all of the Pacers’ wins sans Oladipo came against lottery-bound squads, while these past few weeks have served as a harsh wake-up call.
Oladipo’s injury robbed the Pacers of the offensive firepower they’d need to make a deep playoff run, but they’re still fifth leaguewide in defensive efficiency since he went down. That’s a testament to McMillan creating a strong team-wide culture that can withstand adversity.
3. Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets
When you’re handed the best-passing 7-footer in NBA history, you have one of two options: You can either pigeonhole him into a traditional center role or make him the fulcrum of your offense.
Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone chose the latter, and he’s reaping the rewards.
Not only did Malone eschew a traditional point guard in favor of building his offense around All-Star Nikola Jokic, but he kept the Nuggets afloat through an onslaught of injuries this season. Swingman Will Barton missed 39 games, Gary Harris 25, Paul Millsap 11 and Jamal Murray missed six. Yet, Denver kept chugging toward a top-two seed in the fiercely competitive Western Conference.
Malone also defused a potentially thorny situation with aplomb.
Backup point guard Monte Morris emerged as one of the most pleasant surprises across the league this year, but veteran Isaiah Thomas’ mid-February return from a lingering hip injury threatened to slice into his minutes. Instead, Malone effectively cut the Thomas experiment short after only nine games, as Morris undeniably solidified himself as the better of the two.
NBA coaches not only need outfox their counterparts in X’s and O’s, but they also must successfully juggle the egos in their locker room. Malone’s ability to do so this season while guiding the Nuggets to their first 50-win season in six years cements him on the short list for Coach of the Year.
2. Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers have no business being in the playoffs this season.
Heading into the year, Vegas oddsmakers set their over/under at 36.5 wins, per OddsShark, putting them below nine other Western Conference teams. With Tobias Harris, Patrick Beverley and Marcin Gortat each entering contract years, the Clippers appeared to be headed for a season of purgatory before a huge free-agent push this coming summer.
Instead, head coach Doc Rivers pulled all the right strings and turned these Clippers into one of the NBA’s friskiest teams.
Harris established himself as an All-Star-caliber player and a max contract candidate before the Clippers sent him to the Philadelphia 76ers at the trade deadline. Danilo Gallinari bounced back from an injury-plagued 2017-18 campaign to have the most productive season of his career. Lou Williams appears to be careening toward his third Sixth Man of the Year award—which would place him into a tie with Jamal Crawford for the most of all time—while teammate Montrezl Harrell is one of his biggest threats for the honor.
Rivers has also resisted the temptation to lean more heavily on veterans than young players.
No. 12 overall pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has started 66 of his 75 games and looks like one of the biggest draft-day steals from his class. Landry Shamet, who came over from Philadelphia at the trade deadline in the package for Harris, has started 16 of his 18 games in L.A. while shooting the lights out from deep (45.5 percent on 6.1 attempts per game). Fellow trade-deadline acquisition Ivica Zubac has started all 19 of his games with the Clips.
It all adds up to one of Rivers’ finest coaching jobs yet. Unfortunately, one coach particularly appears to be ahead of him in the race.
1. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Mike Budenholzer’s Coach of the Year candidacy starts with “He Isn’t Jason Kidd,” but it goes far beyond that, too.
Yes, whoever replaced Kidd likely would have made the Milwaukee Bucks better (other than Joe Prunty, that is). But the degree to which the Bucks have improved under Budenholzer’s watch makes him the rightful winner.
Last season, the Bucks finished 10th in offensive rating and 18th in defensive rating. Heading into Friday, they’re the only team with top-five marks in both categories. (They’re third in offensive rating and lead the league in defensive rating.)
Budenholzer deserves some credit for both.
Under the Kidd-Prunty tandem, Milwaukee ranked 25th in 3-point attempts (24.7) and 27th in made 3s (8.8) per game last season. This year, they’re second in both 3-point attempts (38.0) and makes (13.5). Sure, the additions of Brook Lopez, Niola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova and George Hill have helped, but Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Malcolm Brogdon have all boosted their volume of 3-point attempts compared to last year as well.
Budenholzer also overhauled the Bucks’ defensive scheme, prioritizing rim protection over preventing 3-pointers. Milwaukee went from allowing the third-most field-goal attempts from within six feet of the basket in 2017-18 (30.9) to the fewest this season (24.7). The Bucks are conceding more 3-point attempts than any team (35.4), but as Bryan Mears of The Action Network noted, they’re strategically allowing big men to fire away without hesitation.
Having a potential MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in Antetokounmpo doesn’t hurt, but Budenholzer’s schematic changes helped the Bucks race out to the league’s best record. Let’s not overthink this one.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.