Tom Thibodeau was a surprising Coach of the Year winner for a multitude of reasons in 2021. Yes, he led the Knicks out of obscurity and helped Julius Randle grow into an All-Star, but such feats pale in comparison to his greatest trick: winning Coach of the Year as a No. 4 seed. The previous 10 winners before Thibodeau had all been top-three seeds. Seven of them were No. 1 seeds, and an eighth, Nick Nurse, finished second. Monty Williams reverted that trend a year ago by winning with the NBA’s best record.
This doesn’t necessarily disprove the widespread notion that surprising teams produce Coach of the Year winners. There is almost always an element of improvement involved in the selection process, too. The Suns were a great team in 2021, but they became a 64-win juggernaut last season. Mike Budenholzer (twice), Mike D’Antoni and Thibodeau (in Chicago) all presided over teams that improved by 14 or more wins. George Karl’s 2013 Nuggets jumped by 19 wins, though in fairness, the previous season was shortened by a lockout.
This creates a fairly exclusive Coach of the Year formula. If you can identify who the four best regular-season teams are going to be, you’ve essentially identified the four possible winners. If one of those teams happens to be surprising, then that team’s coach should become a strong favorite. Still, when betting, you should almost always lean on winners before surprises. Taylor Jenkins winning 56 games (and practically never losing when Ja Morant was hurt) was probably more surprising than Williams winning 64 with a reigning finalist. Williams still won.
So to settle on best bets here, we’re going to try to figure out which coaches are best positioned to make a run at a top seed. From there, we’ll know who our candidates are.
All odds via Caesars Sportsbook
Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka is the betting favorite right now at +700, and he’s a deserving favorite on several levels. His candidacy shares several similarities with Williams’ a season ago.
Like Williams, Udoka is coming off a Finals loss.Like Williams, Udoka is still relatively new to his team (Williams won in his third year with the Suns; Udoka is about to start his second with the Celtics).Phoenix only took a minor regular-season jump, but it looked bigger circumstantially. Technically, the Suns jumped from 51 wins to 64, but because of the shortened 2020-21 season, Phoenix actually had a 58-win pace in the shortened season. That made their improvement relatively modest, but look bigger. Boston was the best regular-season team in the NBA by April last season, but started the year 23-24. That deflated its record. The Celtics could jump by several wins this season without actually improving.
On top of all of this, there’s reason to believe Boston could be better this season despite some inevitable defensive regression. Al Horford is the only member of last season’s playoff rotation in his 30s. Malcolm Brogdon provides sorely needed ball-handling and injury insurance, and while Derrick White was around last season, he didn’t join the party until February. Add all of this up and you have a Boston team well positioned for a No. 1 seed. That makes Udoka a worthy favorite and smart bet.
The middle of the pack
There are seven candidates between 10-to-1 and 15-to-1, so let’s speed-round them:
Ty Lue (+1100) has such a deep roster that even load-management shouldn’t prevent his Clippers from winning a boatload of games. They just won 42 getting 31 games out of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. If that number is closer to 131, they’ll win 55 and Lue will be a candidate with narrative support.Taylor Jenkins (+1100) is too risky for my taste. If Memphis wins fewer than last season’s 56 games he’ll be at a narrative disadvantage. Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton are gone. Jaren Jackson Jr. is injured. There’s no way the Grizzlies are winning 80 percent of the games Ja Morant misses again without the defensive infrastructure those players helped create.Amazingly, Erik Spoelstra (+1200) has never won the award. One of these years that will help his case. Without PJ Tucker to anchor his defense alongside Bam Adebayo, I’m skeptical that this will be that year. Miami doesn’t profile as a stellar regular-season team right now, last season’s No. 1 seed be damned. Jimmy Butler misses too many games. Kyle Lowry is 36.Chris Finch (+1200) is a great bet to finish in second for this award. He is to this year’s race what Taylor Jenkins was to last year’s: an extremely impressive coach guiding a young team to significant improvement that does not yield a No. 1 seed. Mike Malone (+1300) is my favorite bet on the board. This is relatively simple. If he can win 48 games without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., 60 is in play with them. Nikola Jokic never misses games. The Nuggets looked unstoppable in the brief stretch Murray and Aaron Gordon played together in 2021. Monty Williams (+1400) is wasted money. No coach has ever won this award in back-to-back seasons. Not Red Auerbach. Not Phil Jackson. Not Pat Riley. Not Gregg Popovich. No one. Williams would have to improve upon a 64-win season to garner consideration. That isn’t happening.Jason Kidd (+1400) raised the bar so high during his playoff run a season ago that I doubt he can meet expectations. He isn’t doing himself any favors by starting Spencer Dinwiddie and JaVale McGee either. If Dallas gets off to a slow start, that will be a talking point.
In this group, I will be betting on Lue and Malone.
The long shots
There are three candidates beyond 15-to-1 that I view as reasonably compelling:
Willie Green (+1600) intrigues me, though for now, I’m holding off on making a bet. The Pelicans won just 36 games a season ago, but have so much built-in room for improvement with Zion Williamson returning and CJ McCollum in place for the whole season. I just don’t think they can defend well enough for a top seed.Steve Nash (+2500) has the potential for an incredible narratively-driven campaign. Kevin Durant tried to get him fired in the offseason. If the Nets can just stay healthy (an admittedly enormous if here), they’re likely to improve significantly upon last season’s No. 7 seed. This is the sort of bet you make as a hedge against an under bet on Brooklyn. The Nets are either going to be great or a train wreck. There’s no middle ground. I’ll gladly take 25-to-1 on that coin flip. Doc Rivers (+3000) is behind the times when it comes to playoff strategy, but he remains a strong regular-season coach who regularly outperforms expectations. Montrezl Harrell is the perfect regular-season backup for Joel Embiid in many of the same ways Andre Drummond was a season ago. Both are capable of scaling up or down depending on need. Tucker and Melton will be important culture-setters defensively, and James Harden, for all of the playoff criticism he’s earned, is still a wonderful regular-season table-setter. The Sixers aren’t a great championship or Finals bet, but they should thrive in the regular season.