The NBA Coach of the Year Award isn’t gifted to a head coach for a decent season. It’s not gifted to a coach who transformed a bottom-five team into a .500 team or led a middling franchise to 45 wins and a playoff appearance. The NBA Coach of the Year Award is reserved for coaches of the best teams in the league. Teams that win 55 games, earn one of the top playoff seeds, and contend for a championship.
Since the award was introduced in 1962-63, only one coach has won with a sub-.500 record (Johnny Kerr, 1966-67) and only two others have won with a .500 record (Hubie Brown in 1977-78 and Doc Rivers in 1999-2000). And only 13 of the 58 winners coached teams who won less than 60 percent of their games. If that trend continues, the candidate pool for 2021 NBA Coach of the Year is small and includes only coaches in the top half of NBA Championship odds in online sports betting.
One month into the 72-game season, two coaches are attempting to buck history, New York Knicks’ first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau and Phoenix Suns’ second-year head coach Monty Williams.
If their respective teams continue their respective paces (and play a full 72-game season), Thibodeau will finish with a 34-38 record (.472) while Williams will finish with a 41-31 record (.571). Thibodeau’s winning percentage would be the second-worst for a Coach of the Year ever, while Williams’ clip would rank eighth-worst (and the worst since Rivers in 1999-2000). Nonetheless, both are one month into a high-profile rebuild and have received loads of national attention for exceeded preseason expectations.
Thibodeau and Williams will spend all season looking up at, among others, Doc Rivers and the Philadelphia 76ers, Frank Vogel and the Los Angeles Lakers, and Tyronn Lue and the Los Angeles Clippers, all of whom carry the team profile for a true Coach of the Year favorite.
If Rivers wins the Eastern Conference and leads a productive playoff run, he’ll win Coach of the Year barring a miraculous run from a down-ballot team or dominant second half from a fellow championship contender. And don’t let superstar talent fool you into believing Vogel or Lue can’t win because too much credit is given to their LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, et al. While that isn’t typically the roster profile of winners, it has happened before, including Steve Kerr just five years ago.
J.B. Bickerstaff is doing what Tom Thibodeau is doing … except in Cleveland, the country’s 19th-largest media market, not New York City, the country’s largest market. Bickerstaff should be a favorite but, unfortunately, isn’t.
Widely projected to finish as one of the two or three worst teams in the NBA, the Cavaliers are 8-7 with wins over the Brooklyn Nets (twice) and Philadelphia 76ers. They’re no longer defensively incompetent and are thriving in Bickerstaff’s unconventional schemes.
"Our identity, and [our team's] understanding of who we want to be is clear," said Bickerstaff last week. "I think that has been established. What's going to get us there is the experience of doing it night after night after night."
If the Utah Jazz flirt with 45-50 wins, Quin Snyder should be in the mix.
Steve Nash was the preseason favorite. One month into his first-ever coaching job, Nash is floating in limbo. If the Brooklyn Nets don’t vault into the East’s top two or three seeds, he has no chance. But with James Harden’s arrival, Kyrie Irving’s return, and Kevin Durant not expected to miss significant time with a minor leg injury, the Nets can vault into the East’s top two or three seeds if they become a more well-rounded team.
“I think we're last in the league in 50-50 balls, contested shots, hustle plays," Nash said last week. "We're just got to find a way to play harder, dig deeper. We're not a defensive roster. We have to take more pride in it, and we have to win more 50-50's, contest more shots, fight, scrap, claw — that's what I think is missing as much as anything schematic that we're breaking down.
It’s too early for Nash, as it is for five other coaches: Mike Budenholzer, Nate Bjorkgren, Lloyd Pierce, and Taylor Jenkins.
Michael Malone has the ideal Coach of the Year profile: An established coach who previously flirted with Coach of the Year contention (2018-19) and leads a talented roster highlighted with enough star power to generate national buzz but not too much star power to deduct coaching credit. None of that, however, matters if you’re an underachieving .500 team buried beneath championship contenders in the Western Conference.
Brad Stevens has a similar profile, as do Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle, Steve Kerr, and, arguably, Terry Stotts. And three others–Billy Donovan, James Borrego, and Gregg Popovich–remain long shots.
One year after winning (pre-bubble) Coach of the Year, Nick Nurse won’t become the first-ever repeat winner, nor will his predecessor, Dwane Casey, win for a second time in four years.
Three hot seat coaches–Scott Brooks, Ryan Saunders, and Luke Walton–have no chance for obvious reasons, nor do three first-year coaches: Stephen Silas, Mark Daigneault, and Stan Van Gundy. The 30th and final coach, Steve Clifford, is doing an admirable job in the early stages of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s tear-down rebuild, but he won’t find nearly enough wins to earn consideration.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @DoughtyBetMGM