With few exceptions, the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award has gone to the leader of the team with the best or second-best record that season for the last decade.
Monty Williams piloted the Suns to a league-high 64 wins last season and earned the honor, Mike Budenholzer won it in 2015 with the Hawks after a 60-win campaign, the second-best record that year, and again in 2019 with the Bucks when he matched that total to lead the league. Steve Kerr, of course, was dubbed Coach of the Year after the Warriors’ historic 73-win season.
The lone outliers over the last 10 years are George Karl, who led the Nuggets to 57 wins, the fourth-best record in 2013, and Tom Thibodeau, who coached the Knicks to 41 wins in the shortened 2021 season. Karl oversaw the equivalent of a 10-win improvement (the 2012 season was shortened) and Thibodeau, in his first year in New York, put an end to a seven-year playoff drought and the Knicks nearly doubled their win total from the year prior (both seasons were shortened).
There’s a slim favorite to win the award in 2023 and another candidate who’s just a notch behind him before a few distinct tiers form.
Given what we know about the recent Coach of the Year winners, which coach or coaches are worth a wager before the season begins?
Chris Finch +900
Taylor Jenkins +1000
Jason Kidd +1200
Tyronn Lue +1200
Monty Williams +1200
Erik Spoelstra +1200
Willie Green +1400
JB Bickerstaff +1400
Michael Malone +1400
Steve Kerr +1400
Mike Budenholzer +1600
Nick Nurse +1600
Darvin Ham +1600
Billy Donovan +1800
Steve Nash +2000
Steve Clifford +2200
Doc Rivers +2500
Nate McMillan +2500
Dwane Casey +2800
Gregg Popovich +3300
Chauncey Billups +3300
Wes Unseld Jr. +3300
Will Hardy +3300
Mike Brown +5000
Rick Carlisle +5000
Tom Thibodeau +5000
Mark Daigneault +6600
Jamahl Mosley +6600
Stephen Silas +6600
Chris Finch, Minnesota Timberwolves: +900
Chris Finch’s first full season in Minneapolis was a huge success. The Timberwolves finished with the West’s seventh-best record (46-36), which earned them a spot in the play-in tournament where they beat the Clippers and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. Minnesota led the league in points per game (116) and Karl-Anthony Towns made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams in a few years, while Anthony Edwards made a second-year leap.
The case for Finch winning after he received a handful of votes last year is a sizable regular-season record improvement, and the front office may have gotten him just the piece to do that when it paid top dollar for three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. With Gobert manning the middle, the T-Wolves could repeat as a top-10 offense and flirt with a top-10 defense. That’s a solid recipe for 50-plus wins, which has typically been the floor for past winners.
Finch has Minnesota on the upswing and that’s been the case since he took over midway through the 2020-21 season. The Timberwolves’ SI Sportsbook win total is set at 47.5; if they can get up into the low 50s and earn a top four seed in the West then Finch could be the first coach in franchise history to win the award and deliver on his preseason favorite status.
Willie Green, New Orleans Pelicans: +1400
Willie Green has a lot of goodwill built up from New Orleans’ playoff appearance in his first season with the clipboard. The Pelicans had gone three years without making the postseason, and though 36 wins isn’t some historical feat, it was done without the franchise’s best player and it earned the team a spot in the play-in where they won both games. And in the first round, Green’s team had Williams, the Coach of the Year, and the No. 1 seed Suns on the ropes.
After such a success, and with Zion Williamson fully healthy, expectations have risen for Green’s team. The SI Sportsbook win total for the Pelicans is 43.5, which the team has only topped twice in the past decade. New Orleans was a middle-of-the-road team on offense and defense last year but things will be different with a full season of C.J. McCollum, who was acquired midseason, and Williamson. In a very small sample size, the Pelicans had the best offensive rating of any team in the postseason against a tough Suns defense.
It’s unlikely New Orleans wins enough games in a difficult Western Conference to put Green in serious contention for this award, even if he does a great job. But there’s a path as long as there’s no runaway team at the top of the standings and the Pelicans rip off, say, 46-plus wins. A 10-win bump isn’t anything to sneeze at.
Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings: +5000
I said this was a long shot!
Mike Brown has won this award before, back in 2009 with the Cavaliers. He’s spent the last six years as a Warriors assistant coach, occasionally stepped in when Kerr was absent and contributed to three titles. The situation he’s taking over in Sacramento is decidedly worse than Golden State, but the only way to go is up.
The Kings have the longest active playoff drought in North American sports having last made the playoffs in the 2005-06 season, Brown’s first as a head coach. He will be the 12th coach, full-time or interim, to attempt to break the 16-year streak, and he actually has a decent enough roster to make it happen.
Sacramento acquired Domantas Sabonis midseason from the Pacers last season but still finished 30-52, the seventh-worst record in the NBA. De’Aaron Fox missed a large chunk of the season and the Kings’ reward for another year in the lottery was the fourth pick, which was used to select forward Keegan Murray.
Brown’s case would be similar to Thibodeau’s with the Knicks in 2021: Dragging this team back to the playoffs in Year 1 would be a noble feat. But with a win total set at 33.5, Sacramento has a steep uphill climb to even the play-in tournament.
BET: Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies: +1000
Taylor Jenkins has the most recent success and the highest floor among the coaches mentioned. He finished second in Coach of the Year voting in his third year at the helm—Memphis’ record has improved each season from 34-39 to 38-34 to 56-26, the NBA’s second-best record and tied for the best in franchise history.
The Grizzlies have a star in place with Ja Morant and a deep, talented roster of capable defenders and secondary scorers. Their surprise run to the 2-seed in the West last season came with Morant missing a few dozen games and Dillon Brooks out for much of the year. Memphis will begin the year without center Jaren Jackson Jr., but there’s depth down low to offset his loss.
Essentially, if the Grizzlies run back the season they just had—or even take a marginal step back—Jenkins could still win. Take Nick Nurse, who won in 2020, the year after his team won the title and again finished with the second-best record in the league, or Williams, who improved on his success last season after a surprise run to the 2-seed the season prior. Jenkins could follow that blueprint, win 50-plus games again (the team total is set at 48.5) and become the second coach in franchise history to win Coach of the Year.
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