Being a head coach in the NBA is a tough job. It’s not easy managing the personalities on a professional sports team, and when a team is performing poorly, most of the blame often falls on the coach.
That said, lots of NBA coaches have thrived this season in their situations. They are maximizing their team’s abilities and getting very positive results. Let’s rank the top five head coaches in the league this season and list a few honorable mentions, as well.
Top Coach of the Year Candidates for 2019-20
1. Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
Nurse should be the obvious winner of the award. Other coaches have had impressive years, but the fact that the Raptors are behind only the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks in both winning percentage and net rating is just insane. In fact, the team’s numbers in both of those categories are actually better than last year, when they had superstar Kawhi Leonard and won the NBA championship.
Not only did Leonard leave in free agency, but almost their entire playing rotation has missed significant time due to injury this season. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw have all been absent for at least 12 of the Raptors’ games.
Nurse has built the NBA’s No. 2 defense with excellent rotations full of versatile lineups. He has also gotten some nice contributions from former undrafted youngsters like Chris Boucher, Terence Davis and Matt Thomas. There is no question that the Raptors have majorly exceeded expectations this year and Nurse should get most of the credit for that.
2. Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
Following a tumultuous offseason that included lots of player turnover, the Thunder’s over/under win total from the primary US sports betting websites before the season was 32.5. Currently, they are on pace for 51 wins over an 82-game season. That difference of 18.5 wins is easily the biggest in the NBA.
There was always a chance OKC would be good if the team stayed healthy and was unaffected by major trades. Thankfully for the Thunder, they have been quite healthy (outside of Andre Roberson, who hasn’t played a game this season) and the roster is thriving without making a single trade.
Donovan has done a great job getting a cobbled-together core to play together. Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have all thrived sharing the ball-handling load. Danilo Gallinari has been an ace frontcourt scorer and Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel have both been excellent interior big men. The rest of the roster is full of unheralded, low-maintenance guys who have embraced their roles as low-usage role players. You have to respect Donovan’s ability to get all the pieces to work well together.
3. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Budenholzer would have been my No. 2 candidate before the Bucks struggled a bit heading into the suspension of the season. Milwaukee was 52-8 (a 71-win pace over 82 games) on March 2, but the team lost four out of five games to fall to its current record of 53-12 (just below a 67-win pace). MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo missed two of those losses, but it’s still a notable negative trend.
However, this is still an incredible performance from Coach Bud this season. Milwaukee has a historically great point differential (plus-11.2) despite having just one legitimate superstar (Antetokounmpo), another All-Star (Khris Middleton) and a supporting cast containing some other good role players, but no stars. You wouldn’t expect a roster of Milwaukee’s caliber to be quite this dominant.
Ultimately, voter fatigue (Budenholzer won the award last season), the Bucks’ recent slide and the great seasons from Nick Nurse and Billy Donovan will prevent Bud from taking home the Coach of the Year award again this season.
4. Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies
Arguably the NBA’s least-known coach has also been one of the league’s most effective men on the sideline this season. Jenkins has turned a very young Memphis Grizzlies squad into a formidable outfit that is surprisingly in the Western Conference’s No. 8 position with a 32-33 record.
Rookies Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke are playing key roles on the team and sophomores Jaren Jackson Jr. and De’Anthony Melton are also coming up big for the squad. The rest of the roster is full of either late-round draft picks or players who were unwanted by their previous teams. Jenkins has done a masterful job squeezing all the impact he can out of those players.
The reason Jenkins isn’t a bit higher is because exceeding very low expectations by being a mediocre team isn’t as hard as being a surprisingly good or great team. The Grizzlies are still taking advantage by catching opponents off guard for underestimating them rather than being a legitimately good squad that opponents take seriously.
Whether or not the regular season is ever finished, Memphis also has the hardest remaining schedule in the NBA. Only one of the team’s final 17 games is against an opponent in the league’s bottom 10 of win percentage. That’s a problem, because Memphis is 18-5 against those bottom-10 teams and just 14-28 against the other 20 teams in the league.
5. Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers
Vogel’s best argument for Coach of the Year is that his Lakers team genuinely enjoys playing together. Any team that has the personalities of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris in the locker room should be thankful for even decent chemistry. Vogel has helped guide the squad to excellent chemistry.
On top of that, the Lakers are thriving in the standings. The Lakers are 49-14, which puts them on nearly a 64-win pace over an 82-game season. I think most people expected the Lakers to contend for a title, but that the regular season might have some bumps along the way. Aside from a four-game losing streak against very good opposition leading up to Christmas, there haven’t been many hurdles that this team has had to clear.
Ultimately, the Lakers are still an extremely talented team. So, while Vogel has done a wonderful job this year, he still has arguably the NBA’s best player (LeBron James), another guy who’s definitely in the top five to 10 players (Anthony Davis) and plenty of battle-tested supporting cast members. Voters will respect the job Vogel’s done this season, but they definitely won’t see it as deserving of a Coach of the Year award.
- Honorable mentions: Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics), Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks), Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat), Mike Malone (Denver Nuggets), Nate McMillan (Indiana Pacers).