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If the NBA Season Is Over, Who Deserves Coach of the Year?

The award traditionally goes to the leader of the league’s best team or one that took a massive leap—but we’re fittingly breaking the mold this year for a coach who is constantly doing the same

Scott Laven/Getty Images

We don’t know yet whether the 2019-20 NBA season is over. But if this is it, I thought it might be nice to take a minute to acknowledge the best of what we watched. I don’t have a ballot for the NBA’s year-end awards. If I did, though—and if we had to vote based on the roughly 80 percent of the season that we actually got to see—here’s how I’d have filled it out. We’ll run through all of the awards, one post at a time, because we all must do our part right now, and the least I can do is give all of you the opportunity to roast me for my choices.

So, without further ado, let’s hand out some hypothetical hardware. We’ve covered Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, and Sixth Man of the Year. In our final installment: the guys in suits.

I always wish there were more slots on the Coach of the Year ballot. Nate McMillan deserves something better than a no-prize for leading a Pacers team that persevered, grew, and succeeded despite missing Victor Oladipo for 80 percent of the season. So does Billy Donovan, who took a deck that Thunder general manager Sam Presti shuffled over the summer—a roster I once described as “like nine guys who can’t drink yet and a handful of dudes nobody thinks will be here long”—and made a winning hand out of it, to the tune of a 50-plus-win pace and the West’s fifth seed.

Rick Carlisle could get the nod for not only sleight-of-handing his way to a quality offense and a killer bench (as he seems to every year) but creating an environment in which Luka Doncic could produce the best offense in NBA history. Monty Williams turned the Suns—the Phoenix Suns—into a legitimate professional basketball team. (The additions of Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes helped, as did continued growth from Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.) Hell, you could even make an argument for Kenny Atkinson, who had the Nets in playoff position despite Kevin Durant never seeing the court and Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert combining to miss 69 games. (You’d have to navigate the nettlesome matter of Atkinson’s firing, but you wouldn’t have to reach too far into the past for relevant precedent; back in 2018, Dwane Casey got fired two days after his peers named him Coach of the Year. A postseason ousting is different from a midseason exit, but at that point, maybe you’re just haggling over price.)

Doc Rivers, Brad Stevens, Erik Spoelstra—even understanding how little we really know about what a coach’s job is, they always seem to deserve more recognition than they actually get. Alas: The ballot has only three lines. Here’s how I’d fill them.

Coach of the Year

1. Nick Nurse, Raptors
2. Mike Budenholzer, Bucks
3. Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies

As I have written before, the surest path to the top of the coaching ballot is to preside over a team that wins more games than anybody else, or one that takes a massive jump in the standings. Budenholzer, who won the award last year after pulling off both feats, checks the former box for his work at the helm of a Bucks team that went a league-best 53-12 before the NBA suspended play, with an all-time-elite defense that completely shut off scoring at the rim and the fifth-highest average margin of victory in NBA history.

The top candidate to satisfy the latter condition probably should be Frank Vogel. The Lakers went from a sub.-500 squad last season to a 49-14 juggernaut in 2019-20, the biggest single-season improvement in the league. You can (and probably should) attribute most of that increase to the arrival of Anthony Davis and the health of LeBron James. But Vogel’s contributions—his steady hand at the controls, his commitment to crafting a top-tier defense, his ability to maximize a roster full of veterans—shouldn’t go unnoticed. Ultimately, though, I decided to give the “huge single-year spike” nod to Jenkins, the Grizzlies’ first-year head coach, whose pre-Memphis résumé includes giving our boy Tjarks buckets in high school and a stint as Bud’s get-back coach.

Nobody saw the Grizzlies flirting with .500 and angling for the playoffs this quickly. In fact, part of the argument for hiring a 35-year-old as a first-time NBA bench boss was that Memphis’s lengthy rebuilding process would afford him time to learn on the job. Instead, Jenkins got Rookie of the Year–lock Ja Morant and a slew of young talent to hit the ground running by finding the right groupings, both in the starting lineup (the five-man unit of Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jae Crowder, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Jonas Valanciunas outscored opponents by a healthy 6.3 points per 100 possessions before Crowder was dealt at the trade deadline) and off the bench (only five trios to log more than 300 minutes posted a better net rating than Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton, and Tyus Jones). How far the Grizzlies will go in the years to come depends on how well that young talent develops together. Jenkins—who cut his teeth as a developmental coach in the Spurs organization and under Budenholzer—showed some awfully encouraging signs in his first season that he’s the right man to help all of Memphis’s baby bears get better, and in a hurry.

In the end, though, everybody—from league leaders Bud and Vogel to overachievers like Jenkins—was shooting for second place, behind the defending champion with the glasses, the guitar, the gunk-the-game-up defenses, and the greatest reaction shots in the sideline game today.

I’m not sure you heard, but after winning the 2019 NBA championship, the Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard in free agency. (Danny Green too, although that seems to only ever get brought up in after-the-fact parentheticals like this one.) And then, over the course of the 2019-20 season, Toronto saw the top six returning members of its playoff rotation—Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell—all miss at least 10 games, and often in maddeningly staggered fashion.

That forced Nick Nurse to develop familiarity with a brand-new and little-known reserve corps—Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas—and to constantly scramble his lineups, rotations, substitution patterns, and schemes depending on who was available on a night-to-night basis. As it turns out, a coach who spent literal decades mixing and matching his way through basketball’s minor leagues was awfully comfortable with persistent uncertainty.

When Siakam was around, Nurse tossed him the keys, trusting the ascendant forward to continue his transformation into an All-NBA–caliber game-changer. When he wasn’t, Nurse leaned on Lowry, the elder statesman and consummate two-way playmaker, and trusted him to steer the ship and keep the young dudes afloat. He kept running the kids out there, and they—OG Anunoby and Davis, especially—rewarded him for the faith. No team in the league threw more defensive concepts and executions at opponents than Nurse’s Raptors, who ranked second in the league in defensive efficiency despite all those injuries and all those lineups, thanks in part to the constant pressure his schemes put on opposing offenses.

Add it all up, and the 2019-20 Raptors had a better winning percentage than last year’s model, which had Kawhi and won the whole stinkin’ thing. Nurse didn’t rest on the laurels he earned last season, and neither did his team: Toronto was relentless, seemingly never out of a game, and certainly never out of the fight. No team worked harder to get more out of its talent this season, and no team succeeded in that task to a greater degree. Attitude reflects leadership. So let’s give the leader a trophy.