While certainly not the sexiest of NBA end-of-season awards — Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, I’m looking at you — voting on the Coach of the Year presents as many questions about its construct as any of the rest. What “most valuable player” means to one is not the same as it means to another, and that award includes an adjective.
As it is, though, we all have certain ideas of what our coach of the year should possess: an ability to extract the most out of their squad from a talent standpoint over 82 games; an astute management of egos; and then, perhaps (oddly) the most overlooked in situations like this, a keen eye for what plays to run, and when, in order to beat any given opponent.
Keeping all of this in mind as the regular season winds down, let us take some time to examine the leading candidates for Coach of the Year. A logical place to begin may be with the coach of the team with the best record in the NBA (as of March 21, 2019).
In his first season at the helm after five years as the top man with the Atlanta Hawks, with whom he previously won Coach of the Year in 2014-15, Budenholzer inherited a team replete with talent but whose whole hadn’t yet been figured out by either Jason Kidd or direct predecessor Joe Prunty. Though the Bucks pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round of last year’s playoffs, there always seemed to be something a little more brimming beneath the surface of their marvelous forest-and-cream color scheme.
Budenholzer, having extracted 61 wins and the top Eastern Conference seed before, was bound to siphon for magic with this group. Giannis Antetekounmpo was tagged as a force of change from approximately his sophomore season on, and Milwaukee has done its best to cater to his affable whims. Despite their universe revolving around a non-shooting, non-center anomaly without an analogy in today’s NBA, Bud figured out a system in which to best deploy the players around him.
Taking a team that won 44 games and nabbed a seventh seed to the heights of 53 wins (and counting!) may have been somewhere in the realm of logical development for this team, and credit can be extremely tough to define with regard to marginal improvement, but like this? Khris Middleton is an All-Star! Bud, you shouldn’t have, but we are all so glad you did.
Then, there are the coaches whose powers need to be defined, whose Play-Doh molds can be melted spherical objects, but they need to be told that this is all they have. These are the coaches who love telling players to “Deal with it,” but need someone else to tell them that in order to keep the order. This is Doc Rivers.
After some success in Orlando and fluctuation in Boston, Rivers eventually established a championship pedigree: not that it was entirely up to him, but he did win a championship in 2008, watching a few Hall of Famers and also turning Glen Davis, a secondary piece from the Ray Allen trade, into something of a commodity (one which, as has been the case with Doc, would later come to haunt him when turning up with another Doc-coached team).
All of which is to say, Doc Rivers had to be stopped, and the Los Angeles Clippers were finally the ones to do it. Having perfected Lob City and helped it reach its highest highs, which did not include a championship, Rivers was finally relieved of his basketball ops duties last summer, freeing him to do his stated job, which, this season, he has executed with aplomb.
Like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expected the Clippers to be this good: Los Angeles began 15-6, and despite some trade activity in the interim, the Clippers have, unlike their Staples Center suitemates, remained in the playoff picture. This, after trading Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic as well as having the gall to waive Milos Teodosic (the nerve!).
After what, before this season, most would consider a successful coaching stint with the Sacramento Kings, only undone by an untimely injury to DeMarcus Cousins, Mike Malone found himself in the good stead of the Denver Nuggets, a team of recent glories but long-lingering failures looking to maintain some portion of the cream near the NBA’s top.
After three consecutive years missing the playoffs, including a final game-loss in overtime to the Minnesota Timberwolves last season that acted as a play-in game, the Nuggets have rounded into their latest and greatest form. Behind a clever scheme from Malone, Denver is poised to be everyone’s favorite dark horse heading into the playoffs.
By capitalizing on Nikola Jokic as a point-center, and following a closer-than-expected win over the Washington Wizards on Thursday night, Denver has worked its way into what is currently a tie with no less than the Golden State Warriors for supremacy in the NBA’s varsity conference. Like the Bucks and Clippers before them, the Nuggets have already met or exceeded last season’s win total, inadvertently raising future expectations.
But for now, the present is unbearably sweet for Mike Malone and the Denver Nuggets, a team that has not been to the playoffs since 2013. With Malone having taken advantage of perhaps the greatest passing center in league history mining the elbows, Denver may just show us what gold really looks like.
Then again, there is a gold standard in modern day NBA coaching, and Gregg Popovich is it. Surely, you, the savvy NBA fan, saw the stat circulating on Twitter: the San Antonio Spurs have spent 65 total days with a losing record since the 1997-’98 season, which was Pop’s first full year in charge (after going 17-47 in relief of Bob Hill the season prior, but I digress). The next-closest team? The Houston Rockets, at 1,007.
When Peyton Manning had neck surgery in 2011, it became apparent how valuable he had been to the Indianapolis Colts for the preceding decade. This was a team that had won at least ten games in nine consecutive seasons, throwing in a Super Bowl for good measure, before going 2-14 in his absence. Even the mighty New England Patriots went 11-5 without Tom Brady (but, of course, with Bill Belichick).
At some point, we will all properly admire Gregg Popovich’s coaching acumen, and it will drive him insane. After a weird and prolonged dialogue with the camp of Kawhi Leonard, a player on the list for players to be voted “least likely to have a camp” before last summer, Popovich found himself at the helm of a team of midrange kings and, after Dejounte Murray’s injury in the preseason, without a princely point guard.
On cue, Popovich devised and revised fits for everyone involved, maximizing DeMar DeRozan and emphasizing LaMarcus Aldridge while making space for Rudy Gay, Bryn Forbes and the re-emergence of Marco Belinelli in our lives. Already, the Spurs have clinched a 22nd consecutive winning season, and this, in 2019, maybe Pop’s true masterpiece.
They continue to figure themselves out. The San Antonio Spurs are always continuing to figure themselves out, and it’s because of Gregg Popovich. Not that he needs or wants to be told, but he is the Coach of the Year, every year. Every actual award winner is just chasing second, wondering how they could pop like Pop.