Coach of the Year is always one of my absolute favorite awards, in any sport. It is a testament not only to one’s knowledge but personality, practical skills and communication as well; all of that goes in to building a winning culture. The most interesting part, in my opinion, is the variety of ways in which coaches can make a case for the award.
Many awards in the NBA are a specific recognition of excellence within very specific circumstances, such as Sixth Man or Most Improved Player, both of which essentially require you to be some area below the highest echelon of skill in the league.
Coach of the Year isn’t quite like that. It can be won through stellar management of tough circumstances, or rapid adaptation to a changing basketball landscape, or even something as simple as delivering a team their winning-est season ever. With that in mind, here are a few coaches who, thus far into the season, are making a statement to put themselves in contention for this award.
Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets:
The Denver Nuggets have been the product of one of the most dramatic culture shifts this year, and are by far the most surprising team among expected contenders. Last season, the Nuggets were among the worst in the league in defending field goals and 3-point attempts, having one of the highest opponent completion percentage for both metrics. This year, they are in the 5 lowest opponent percentage for field goals and 3-pointers. Coach Malone made a huge statement about the team’s commitment to improving on defense during the off-season, and this drastic shift proves he was dead serious. In addition to Denver’s rapid improvement on defense, the Nuggets have maintained one of the best and most stable records in the league, despite injuries to notable depth players such as Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Isaiah Thomas, who still has yet to suit up for the Nuggets. Being able to take injuries in important role players who fulfill a variety of needs for the team, and still holding on to an elite record of 21-9, is the direct result of a team-centric culture within the roster and even better player management on behalf of Mike Malone. Taking the Nuggets from an inconsistent playoff snub, to being rock solid and potentially making a conference final appearance, is nothing short of noteworthy when discussing the best coaches this year.
David Joerger, Sacramento Kings:
The Sacramento Kings were widely expected to be the absolute worst team in the league this year. With the earlier caveat that the Nuggets were the most surprising contender, the Kings are far and away the most surprising team, period. The expectations being so low came from the talent vacuum, lack of a veteran presence, and there was really no reason for them to be in a rush to make the playoffs this year, so they should have had their sights set on developing young players anyways. They don’t have their first round pick this year if it ends up in the lottery, so they lack incentive to tank. The most important facet of the team catching people off guard is the rapid improvement of Sophomore De’Aaron Fox. The lineup lacks any tried and true stars, but in the absence of one, the Kings young back-court has been enabled to succeed. Credit where it’s due, there’s no way I’d look at that Kings roster and say, “Let’s go to the playoffs.” While an attitude adjustment from the tank to the hunt isn’t astounding, it also isn’t easy to balance making a push for a winning season with the development of young players (like 2nd overall pick Marvin Bagley III, who is injured for the moment but has made a notable impact off the bench during some of Sac-town’s surprising wins). Joerger has been controversial within his own franchise, as he’s gotten into problems with the front office structure, but I personally don’t blame Joerger for wanting delivering wins to the badly-mistreated Kings fan-base. For what it’s worth, he’s giving the current core solid run and is still doing what he needs to by Bagley, so I think the front office should back off and let the man work.
Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors:
To the best of my knowledge, no coach has won Coach of the Year in their first year as an NBA head coach (the only person would be Johnny Kerr, who won the award as the coach of an expansion team in their first year, the 33-win Chicago Bulls). Regardless, no Coach has done it in the modern era after taking the reigns on an already existing and constructed franchise. Nurse’s job would have been a lot easier without the off-season move of trading Demar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, as he would have only needed to continue doing what he did in the prior years as the team’s offensive brains. But adding a new star player, and one with extremely different skills than DeRozan, is a very difficult task. In addition to seamlessly integrating Kawhi, he’s unlocked the dormant potential in players like Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, both of whom are integral to the depth and defensive prowess of Toronto this year. Being able to find significant production in players already on your roster, and converting them into systemic role players can change the destiny of a team for a whole season. It hurts a lot less when Kyle Lowry isn’t shooting well if Siakam is shooting 60% from the field on nearly 10 attempts per game. 538 projects the Raptors to win 59 games this year, which is the second highest projected win total in the league, and would match their record last year-which earned his predecessor Dwane Casey the award. I would say having a top 3 record and matching your team’s best record in franchise history in your first year would be grounds for some Coach of the Year votes.
Honorable Mention | Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder: The Oklahoma City Thunder began this year as down in the dumps as a contender could be. The most pressing question after the team became a first-round exit last year was “What is the next step for Russell Westbrook?” For once, this question wasn’t posed with free agency in mind. At this point, the team was unlikely to keep Paul George, and still had the Melo virus to deal with. With Melo gone and George staying, Billy Donovan finally had the blueprint for a defensively strong team. While they were good on defense last year, Carmelo Anthony got hunted out. Hard. And with George staying, it became 100% clear that Westbrook would have to become a better player off-ball. While his own efficiency and production has taken a hit, relieving themselves of the stat-padding has enabled the other strong and consistent players like Paul George and Steven Adams to keep the offense moving and put more energy towards defense, as well. The Thunder, despite a losing-streak out of the gate, have a chance to win mid-50 games or so, and their play even without Westbrook has convinced me that it’s not a far cry for this team.
It’s still early yet, but Coach of the Year isn’t the kind of award you win with a long win-streak in March; it’s the kind of award you make a case for night-in and night-out through 82 games. So with that in mind, those are 4 coaches worth keeping an eye on this year.