Following up on the Rookie of the Year race is the battle for Coach of the Year. Having the right coach is imperative for a team’s success. The coach’s role on a winning team is often not discussed enough as players receive most of the media’s attention.
With that being said, let’s take a look at which coaches had the largest impact for their team this season and could have a shot at Coach of the Year honors.
Honorable mentions for this list include Doc Rivers, Taylor Jenkins, Nate McMillan
No. 5 | Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
While many believed Jimmy Butler signing with the Miami Heat would lead to the team getting back into the playoff picture, it was not expected for the Heat to be as high as the No. 4 seed in the East. The Heat’s improvement from being the No. 1 seed last year to fourth this year can be contributed to the well-known culture set by Spoelstra and Pat Riley.
Spoelstra has been able to get the most out of several of the Heat’s young players, such as Bam Adebayo, who is a candidate for being the league’s Most Improved Player. Alongside Adebayo, the Heat have heavily relied on second-year man Duncan Robinson and their rookies, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro. Spoelstra has gotten this group to work hard throughout the season, which is highlighted by their exceptional 27-5 home record.
Spoelstra has stressed the importance of being ready to compete against the other seven playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, as the Heat hold a 14-5 record against these teams.
No. 4 | Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers
No one is denying the fact that Vogel’s job is made easier by having two top-10 players in the league in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. However, heading into the season, drama surrounded the Lakers. This drama includes discussions on how people around the league believed Jason Kidd may replace Vogel as the head coach if the Lakers struggled to start the season. This noise surrounding Vogel’s job security since the day he was hired, along with the expectations that are set by having LeBron James and being a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, makes the work Vogel has done even more impressive.
In Vogel’s first season with the Lakers, he has been able to shift the team’s identity. This is because Vogel emphasized defense and toughness, which are the areas he was known for when he coached the Indiana Pacers back in the early 2010s. Last season, the Lakers had the 12th-best defensive rating in the league, but this year they are now all the way up to having the third-best rating. This is a huge jump to take in only a year, and Vogel deserves a lot of credit for getting his team to play hard defensively each game. Despite being the No. 10 seed last year, Vogel has helped the Lakers move up to the first slot in the Western Conference this season.
No. 3 | Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Budenholzer, the reigning Coach of the Year, has continued to do a terrific job leading the Milwaukee Bucks. After winning a league-high 60 games last season, the Bucks were once again on pace to finish with the league’s best record. This year, the Bucks were on pace to increase their wins total to 67 games. Even while losing a key contributor in Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers in the offseason, the Bucks seemed to have improved overall as a team.
For the second year in a row, the Bucks led the league in defensive rating. By combining the league’s best defensive rating and scoring the most points in the league per game, the Bucks were the only team to average a point differential of over 10 points per game. What makes the Bucks even more formidable is that they were able to outscore their opponents by 11.2 points per game with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing just under 31 minutes per match. This reveals the depth of the Bucks and how Budenholzer trusts everyone on the roster to help make this team as daunting as possible for their opponents.
Budenholzer has the Bucks clicking on all facets, and they seem primed to make a deep playoff run.
No. 2 | Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
After trading Russell Westbrook and Paul George in the offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder were not expected to make the playoffs this season. It seemed like they had instead shifted their focus towards starting to rebuild as they traded for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and accumulated a plethora of first-round picks to use over the next couple of seasons. Instead, the Thunder are the No. 5 seed in the West and ready for the playoffs.
The Thunder’s strength is their point guards with Chris Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder all capable of starting. Donovan has helped Gilgeous-Alexander expand his game in his second season in the NBA, as he has nearly doubled his scoring compared to his rookie season. Paul and Schröder seem revitalized this season as both of their scoring and shooting numbers have increased. It seems like Donovan has perfected the minutes, usage, and game plans for utilizing all three of his point gaurds. This has been the key component to the Thunder’s success and their ability to overachieve this season.
Both Donovan and the Thunder players deserve praise for the jobs they have done this season.
No. 1 | Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
Nick Nurse had as productive of a season as one could hope for in their first season being a head coach in the league as he won the NBA Finals with the Toronto Raptors. In his second season with the Raptors, Nurse is now trying to add more trophies to his collection as he is a favorite for being dubbed Coach of the Year.
Despite losing Kawhi Leonard, a top-five player in the league and the reigning Finals MVP, the Raptors were on pace to win 59 games, which is one more than they won last season. The Raptors are currently second in the league in defensive rating, which has been the key to their success. The Raptors have found this much success all while having six of their best seven players (Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka) missing 10-plus games throughout the season. To go through all of that and still be the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference reveals a true next-man-up mentality that Nurse has been able to instill into the DNA of the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors are as strong as ever, as Nurse has them in a position to make another long playoff run to try and defend their title of NBA champions.