The many faces of the NBA Coach of the Year
13 strong candidates, five real contenders.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
The Concert, Gerard van Honthorst, 1623
Per usual, there are too many good candidates for Coach of the Year in the NBA. We’re roughly at the halfway mark of the season. By my accounting, we have five clear top-tier options for the award, and then there’s a whole set of other worthy candidates below them. As such, what happens in the final 41 or so games matters a lot — these fortunes can rise and fall — and what narratives emerge via splashy profiles by high-profile writers or video producers will be important.
Let’s look at the candidates as of now.
Billy Donovan: No one had the Bulls at the top of the conference, but beating expectations goes a long way in picking the Coach of the Year. (See last year’s winner: Thibodeau, Tom.) How Donovan has managed DeMar DeRozan’s role vis a vis incumbent star Zach LaVine, and how he’s played with positionality, and how he’s managed some major absences — it’s all been good. It looked like Donovan’s Chicago tenure was going to be rough right after he arrived, but he and the front office have built a competitive team that’s easy to root for. DeRozan, LaVine and the bevy of quality role players deserve the most credit, but Donovan has managed this all beautifully.
J.B. Bickerstaff: Speaking of beating expectations, the Cavaliers are near the top of that list, having their first good non-LeBron season in 24 years. (Seriously, the last time Cleveland was above .500 without LeBron on their roster was 1997-98. Evan Mobley was born three years later.) Bickerstaff has made bold move after bold move, including the three-big line-up he uses (when healthy). Jarrett Allen is going to be an NBA All-Star under Bickerstaff’s watch. Hell yeah. The development of Darius Garland, figuring out how to survive without Collin Sexton and now Ricky Rubio, getting Kevin Love into the mix, getting the highest use out of Lauri Markkanen, trusting Mobley — all good, across the board. There’s also a feel-good narrative given that he finally has some stability after being a perennial interim head coach. If I had a vote and the season ended today, I’d go Bickerstaff No. 1.
Taylor Jenkins: Ja Morant is a basketball genius, and the depth of talent on Memphis is incredible. But depth is also hard to manage, and Taylor Jenkins has done that expertly over three seasons in which the Grizzlies have consistently beat expectations. Jenkins gets bonus points for managing Morant’s 12-game absence earlier this season, managing Dillon Brooks’ unavailability, helping along the development of revelation Desmond Bane and putting Jaren Jackson Jr. in the best spots to succeed. The fact that Memphis is closing in on the No. 3 seed in the West while getting rookie Ziaire Williams quality minutes on the third youngest team in the NBA — it’s almost unfair. Jenkins is doing a superlative job putting it all together. Again.
Monty Williams: I wrote last spring that voters couldn’t go wrong with either Monty or Tom Thibodeau for the 2020-21 award. One of these coaches is not in the race this year, to say the least. The Suns remain elite, and Monty — along with his veteran leaders on the roster, including Chris Paul — have managed a pair of crises smoothly: the Robert Sarver investigation and the Deandre Ayton contract stand-off. Phoenix does a ton of interesting tactical things, and CP3 can’t get all the credit for putting the random assortment of back-up centers in position to succeed as Ayton has missed time. Williams and his staff get some of that.
Steve Kerr: I don’t think Kerr is actually going to win Coach of the Year — not given the other candidates in play, and given the fact that Kerr already has a Coach of the Year trophy. But you have to list him as a top-tier candidate given how good the Warriors look compared to last year, and given the adjustments the coaching staff has made given roster realities. Jordan Poole’s development, putting players like Otto Porter and Nemanja Bjelica in positions to succeed, getting the most (and trusting!) Juan Toscano-Anderson and Gary Payton II … all good stuff. You have to have him on the short list.
So there’s five great candidates. And then you have these others worthy of mention.
Erik Spoelstra: Still the best active head coach without a Coach of the Year trophy. Managing the scope of Miami’s absences this season, getting Tyler Herro to thrive in a reserve role, putting the name Omar Yurtseven into our lexicon. Big ups to Spo.
Ty Lue: Lue is legitimately one of the best coaches in the NBA, and has been since his first Cleveland half-season. His work with a dilapidated Clippers roster — no Kawhi Leonard, Paul George has missed a third of the season — to get them to .500 at this point is miraculous.
Chris Finch: Minnesota has the No. 10 defense in the NBA. But you can’t give Coach of the Year to assistant coaches, so I’m putting Chris Finch here instead of Elston Turner. It’s really something (bad) that Elston Turner hasn’t gotten a shot as a head coach!
Wes Unseld Jr.: The Wizards are a bizarre little team that are currently above .500 and above the Knicks, Celtics and Hawks in the standings. I would prefer not to give Bradley Beal, Montrezl Harrell or Kyle Kuzma excess credit for this, so I’m passing it over to Unseld Jr.
James Borrego: Borrego is really solid. True contention for this award probably waits until an anticipated leap season for the Hornets, which might happen next season, depending on whether they can bring Miles Bridges back. No. 2 offense in the NBA!
Nick Nurse: Nick Nurse is a mad genius.
Quin Snyder: The Jazz are really good. This is a pressure-packed season and you can only sometimes tell. Snyder is clearly a very good coach.
Michael Malone: Malone has done well to manage heartbreaking Denver injuries, but I’m going to choose to give a bigger portion of credit to Nikola Jokic’s singular genius.
There you have it: 13 coaches worth some attention in the NBA Coach of the Year race to this point. The coaching ranks in the NBA are healthy, and everyone should feel good about themselves.
The first possession took a minute of game clock.
Cavaliers 111, Jazz 91 — This was telegraphed as a likely Cleveland win — Utah’s in it bad without Rudy Gobert — but I didn’t have “Joe Ingles going out of his way to elbow peaceable Jarrett Allen in the head” on my bingo card. Ingles got tossed later for too much complain’.
Nets 132, Bulls 112 — Signature, emphatic late-night win for Brooklyn. Big “we’re going to crush you in May” energy (I don’t know if the Nets are going to crush the Bulls should they meet in May). Both Kevin Durant and James Harden had stellar games. This is the mustard play of the game.
Russell Westbrook went on to shoot 2/14 from the floor in this game.
L.A. getting lit up by the No. 20 offense in the NBA. When is Anthony Davis back again? The other point guard, De’Aaron Fox, went for 29 on 52% eFG. Sacramento shot 64% on twos. Fox was 11/17 in the lane and got eight shots in the restricted area. Bad point of attack defense. Bad rim protection. Bad job, Lakers.
(Sacramento is one game out of the last play-in spot. Again.)
All times Eastern.
Warriors at Bucks, 7:30, TNT
Timberwolves at Grizzlies, 8 — Jarrett Culver revenge game
Clippers at Pelicans, 8
Thunder at Nets, 8:30
Blazers at Nuggets, 10, TNT
Damian Lillard is going to have surgery to assist recover of his abdominal injury. It’s not expected to cost him the rest of the season, but it sounds like he’ll be out until March. Portland is currently in the last play-in spot.
Interesting! The Wolves and Lynx hired an executive away from Klutch Sports to be in charge of player experience. (The Athletic, $)
And finally: Devin Booker is leaning into The Raptor ordeal.
Be excellent to each other.