Comparing current candidates to past winners
To start to narrow down our list, let’s look at which teams are at least in contention as of the All-Star break. We mentioned the cut-off is about 55 wins, but we can expand that by a couple of games because who knows if a team goes on a run after the break.
Following FiveThirtyEight’s NBA predictions model (which uses more variables than just winning percentage), the following teams are projected to win at least 53 games: the Bucks (62), Warriors (61), Raptors (60), Nuggets (54), Thunder (54), 76ers (54) and Celtics (53).
We can generally state that these teams are within the realm of contending for the championship.
That leaves us with Budenholzer, Kerr, Nurse, Malone, Donovan, Brown and Stevens as the remaining coaches.
Now, let’s see how the projected final record of the teams compares to the previous season for the coaches.
Every coach, except for Stevens, is projected by FiveThirtyEight to improve on the previous season’s record by at least one win. The Celtics are projected to win two fewer games in 2018-19 than they did in 2017-18.
Sorry, Brad, you’re out.
Now, let’s rank the remaining coaches by the projected improvement in wins this season.
In order of highest projected win improvement to lowest, we have Budenholzer (18), Malone (8), Donovan (6), Kerr (3), Brown (2) and Nurse (1).
Finally, let’s see how each team performs on each end of the court by examining their offensive and defensive rating, remembering that voters value balance on offense and defense.
Of the remaining candidates, only two have teams ranked in the top 10 in ORtg and DRtg at the time of the All-Star break. Budenholzer’s Bucks (4th and 1st) and Nurse’s Raptors (7th and 7th).
(Stevens’ Celtics are the only other NBA team in the top 10 at the moment, 9th and 5th. But we already eliminated him, so, too bad.)
So, we’re left with two coaches: Nurse and Budenholzer. The coaches of the two teams who have had either the best or second-best record in the league for a majority of the season.
Both coaches may meet the criteria, but Budenholzer checks all the boxes and then some. The Bucks are on pace to shatter their previous season’s win total by 18 games, own the best record in the NBA and are not only in the top 10 in ORtg and DRtg, but are the only team in the NBA in the top five in both.
Obviously, the past is not always the greatest predictor of the future, and there is still a lot of season left and anything can happen, but if we were to make odds right now, Budenholzer would have to be the prohibitive favorite.
Maybe the Pacers go on a run to end the season, even without their star Victor Oladipo. Coaching the Pacers to a top-two finish in the conference would certainly give McMillan a strong case for Coach of the Year.
Perhaps the Celtics finally come together as a team and play to the potential everyone thought they had at the beginning of the season and push to overtake the Bucks and Raptors atop the conference. The balancing act of players and egos by Stevens could gain him some favorability among voters.
Budenholzer, though, currently meets all the criteria of past Coach of the Year winners. In just his first year with the Bucks, Budenholzer has shown how effective his offensive and defensive strategy can be in the hands of a roster that was just a mediocre playoff team a season ago.
Bud’s Bucks are the most balanced team in the NBA, ranking among the elite in both offense and defense.
Nurse, and other coaches, such as Malone and maybe even Brown, are certainly not out of it, but they have some work to do over the finally 20 games or so to catch Budenholzer in my estimation.
With how well the Bucks are playing, Bud has to be the leader in the clubhouse when it comes to the Coach of the Year race.