The NBA's Coach of the Year award is rarely actually about coaching. Like most of the league's awards, it tends to be relatively formulaic. Two traits tend to lead to winners here. The first is, obviously, winning. Every winner since 2011 has been a top-four seed, and seven of the 12 have been No. 1 seeds. Ideally, your best bet for winning Coach of the Year is to have the best record in your conference or come really close.
The second qualification is a bit more forgiving. You have to vastly outperform preseason expectations. Mike Brown won last year on a Kings team that made its first trip to the playoffs in almost two decades. His Kings went 48-34 with a Vegas win-total projection of 34.5 wins. That's the secret formula here. Monty Williams was coaching a reigning Finals team in 2022. It's hard to outperform such expectations. But Phoenix won 64 games against a 51.5-win line. Tom Thibodeau's 2021 Knicks had the lowest line in the NBA that season at 21.5 wins. They managed to win 41 games in the season. Nick Nurse's 2020 Raptors went only 6.5 games over their projection but did so in a season in which COVID-19 deprived them of 10 games. Mike Budenholzer's 2019 Bucks went 12 games over their projection. The list goes on and on.
Essentially, the goal here is to be the top seed that nobody expected to be a top seed. Can you win this award coaching a team everyone knew would be great? Sure, but the bar is significantly higher. Williams needed 64 wins in 2022. Steve Kerr (who missed half of the season, in a strange choice by the voters) led his defending champion Warriors to 73 wins in 2016. Teams reach these lofty goals every now and then, but it's rare. The Celtics (54.5), Bucks (53.5) and Nuggets (52.5) had the highest win-total lines coming into the season. Their coaches are theoretical candidates, but their teams would probably need to win at least 60 games to make them serious contenders. That's not especially likely.
So why are their coaches among the betting favorites in most books? At Caesars Sportsbook, for instance, Joe Mazzulla is the favorite at +500, Michael Malone is in third place at +800 and Adrian Griffin is tied for fifth at +1100. If any of their teams really did win 60 games, wouldn't their stacked rosters have clearer paths to soaking up credit?
For instance, doesn't a 60-win Nuggets team all but assure Nikola Jokic his third MVP? That would likely take Malone out of the running, because only one coach in the past decade (Kerr in 2016) has won Coach of the Year with the MVP on his roster. Jayson Tatum poses similar problems for Joe Mazzulla, whose high-end depth is among the strongest any team has had in recent memory. Adrian Griffin might win a ton of games on pure talent, but the entire basketball media that votes on this award is already questioning his tactics. He himself that his players needed to convince him to play Brook Lopez in drop-coverage, among the most obvious marriages of strategy and player in the NBA.
So if these teams are long shots to produce the Coach of the Year, where are our obvious candidates? There are obviously several teams outperforming expectations, but we're so early into the season that they aren't smart bets. Rick Carlisle is a former winner of this award and his Indiana Pacers are 6-3. But they've gotten there with the NBA's No. 26-ranked defense. The Pacers might be a playoff team, but earning a top seed without getting stops is almost impossible. Their offense is going to have bad stretches due to injury. Nothing is going to lift the defense. Mark Daigneault's Oklahoma City Thunder might be a bit more sustainable, but the value just isn't there. He's the favorite in some books and is second only to Mazzulla at Caesars at +600.
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Two candidates stand out two weeks into the season, and Vegas hasn't quite noticed them yet. Four teams are outscoring opponents by at least 10 points per 100 possessions. Two of them are the Nuggets and the Celtics. The other two are the 76ers and Timberwolves. As of this writing, Nurse is tied for the fifth-best odds at +1100 at Caesars, while Finch is tied for eighth at +1600. Philadelphia's line started at 48.5 and then fell to 46.5 at some books. Minnesota's was a relatively stable 45.5.
Between the two of them, they have the three most impressive wins of the season, as they are the only two teams to beat Boston and Minnesota is the only team to have beaten Denver. Both Finch and Nurse have potential MVP candidates, but neither are the clear-cut favorites Jokic is. Anthony Edwards would be the youngest MVP since Derrick Rose.
Joel Embiid won the award last season, and his numbers are statistically similar to where they fell a year ago. But there was quite a bit of voter's remorse after Jokic mowed through the playoff field. If it's close, he's going to have the edge, and he's traditionally been the more durable candidate. Embiid has never played 70 games in a year, and in the last two seasons, he played 68 and 66. The new minimum is 65, and there's no guarantee he gets there. But with the way Tyrese Maxey is currently playing, the 76ers can survive brief Embiid absences.
Narratives will be easy to construct around either candidate. Nurse guided the 76ers through the drama James Harden started before he was even hired. Finch found a way to construct viable lineups around a pair of max-salary big men in Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns when few believed a contending roster could be built with so much invested into big men. The Gobert trade has frequently been called among the worst in NBA history. Finch can flip that script.
Right now, these are the two obvious candidates based on the award's history. The evidence suggests that they are every bit as good as their records thus far, and they have to clear a far lower bar than some of the other coaches in their way. If you're looking for value in this market right now, it's clearly on Nurse and Finch.