In any given season, there are only eight plausible candidates for Coach of the Year. Realistically, that number is often far smaller. Why? Because every Coach of the Year winner since Scott Brooks in 2010 has led a top-four seed. This century, the only other coaches to win without finishing in the top four in their conference were Doc Rivers with the Magic in 2000 and Hubie Brown with the Grizzlies in 2004.
That doesn't mean that finishing fourth is usually going to cut it, though. Between Brooks (Thunder) in 2010 and Mike Brown (Kings) last season, eight of the 12 winners coached No. 1 seeds. Nick Nurse (Raptors) coached a No. 2 seed in 2020, George Karl (Nuggets, 2013) and Mike D'Antoni (Rockets, 2017) won as No. 3 seeds and Tom Thibodeau (Knicks, 2021) won in fourth. Exclude shortened seasons and the average Coach of the Year over the past two decades has won an average of roughly 58 games. The higher your seed, the better your odds of winning this award. Here are a few more notes before we dive into this season's odds:
- Winning without a top seed means defying expectations. Brown won only 48 games last season, but he led the Kings to their first playoff berth in almost two decades. Thibodeau took over a Knicks team that spent seven straight years in the lottery and got them a top-four seed. If you don't think a coach has a realistic chance at a top seed, the only reason to bet on him is the belief that he can overcome very low team expectations.
- No one has ever repeated as Coach of the Year (sorry Mike Brown) but plenty of coaches have won the award multiple times. Three have won the award three times, and eight more have won it twice. When in doubt, voters will often trust a track record.
- Take this for what it's worth, but the last two winners have come from the Western Conference, while the previous four came from the East. Does this necessarily mean anything? No. But the general consensus across most of this century has been that the West has been the superior conference. This has slowly shifted in recent years. While the West has won the last two championships, the East has had more stability atop the standings. In other words, there was more room for teams to grow and surprise in the East when coaches like Dwane Casey, Mike Budenholzer and Nick Nurse were winning their awards. Now, aside from the Nuggets, there is so much uncertainty in the West that some candidate will almost certainly emerge as a top-two seed. All of this is to say that if you feel one conference is significantly weaker than the other, you'll probably find a candidate or two to bet who can take advantage of that weaker conference.
So with all of this in mind, here are Sam Quinn and Ameer Tyree's top picks for Coach of the Year.
All odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook
Coaches listed here have odds no longer than +1000
Quinn: With only two coaches in this group from an odds perspective, our pickings are relatively slim. However, this award is notable for having denied its best candidate. Erik Spoelstra, widely regarded as the best coach in the NBA, has never won Coach of the Year. You're taking a sizable risk if you bet him at +750. Miami was a play-in team a season ago. Without a Damian Lillard trade, they'll likely fall somewhere in that range this season. But if you think Lillard eventually finds his way to Miami, or if you think this roster is better than it looks, bet Spoelstra. If it's close, there will be voters that feel he is owed a trophy.
Our other candidate in this range is Mark Daigneault, the favorite at +700. He'll have plenty of chances to win this award given his young, talented roster, but if you expect the Thunder to jump into 50-win territory, Daigneault is a solid choice even if his odds aren't especially valuable. He's an excellent in-game coach and he's adding a No. 2 overall pick in Chet Holmgren that fits his roster perfectly. If his young players grow as we assume they will, the Thunder could absolutely seed high enough for Daigneault to win the award.
Tyree: While I'm one of the people who believe Spoelstra is arguably the NBA's best coach because of his ability to get results regardless of injuries and star power on his roster, I can't see him competing for the award in 2023-24. Coach of the Year has been decided long before either of his latest deep playoff runs and adding a superstar like Lillard doesn't really improve his case. Daigneault, on the other hand, has an extremely young team that hasn't made the playoffs in three years. Their division features the reigning champions and they didn't add proven game-changers to their roster like other contenders this offseason. Daigneault is my clear-cut top pick among the options with the best odds. Only Mike Brown received more votes last season.
The middle of the pack
Coaches listed here have odds between +1001 and +2000
Quinn: Cleveland has significant vulnerabilities that will matter in a playoff setting, but the Cavaliers are ideally suited for the regular season. They had the NBA's No. 1 defense last season and might even be better as Evan Mobley gets closer to his prime. They ranked 24th in 3-point attempts last season, but added two high-end shooters in Max Strus and Georges Niang. Between Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, they will always have an All-Star-level shot-creator on the floor. These things lead to regular-season wins, so J.B. Bickerstaff (+1500) is a solid choice here.
A slightly riskier choice would be Frank Vogel (+1400). His team lacks depth and is built around two injury-prone superstars. But if even two of Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker are healthy in any given game, Phoenix is going to score a lot of points. Vogel, on the other hand, is among the best defensive coaches in basketball. He finished in the top three defensively in two of his three Lakers seasons and three of his five full Pacers seasons. If you assume Phoenix's talent gives it a top-five offense and its coaching generates an above-average defense, the Suns should be well-positioned to win Vogel this award.
Tyree: Joe Mazzulla (+1100) finished third in the voting despite the Boston Celtics spectacular all-round play en route to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference. The then first-year head coach stepped right into success. They went 11-5 against an Atlantic Division that appears to be getting weaker, so a first-place finish could be in the cards. Getting past the Milwaukee Bucks could be enough to put Mazzulla over the top.
I also see the appeal of Vogel. The former Lakers coach won a championship in the bubble before getting booted two seasons later and now has a chance to coach one of the league's most talented starting groups. Scoring will come easy and his defensive mind could take the Suns over the top. Phoenix looks amazing on paper, but weathering the storm through injuries and putting up an impressive record despite the team's limited depth could make Vogel's efforts seem impressive.
Coaches listed here have odds of at least +2001
Quinn: Everything that could have gone wrong for the Timberwolves last season wound up going wrong. Rudy Gobert was a tough fit with Karl-Anthony Towns at first, and then Towns went on to play just 29 games. D'Angelo Russell caused locker room problems. Gobert even punched teammate Kyle Anderson. Yet this team still won 42 games in a loaded Western Conference. Now Gobert has a point guard he's more familiar with in Mike Conley. Towns is presumably healthy. Anthony Edwards just had a star turn for Team USA. Minnesota is primed for a major improvement next season, and that makes Chris Finch (+2500) the best longshot on the board.
Willie Green (+2200) offers slightly more proof of concept, but comes with more risk. The New Orleans Pelicans were the No. 1 seed at one point last season. They just couldn't stay healthy enough to stay there. If you're looking to round out your portfolio with an "if they stay healthy" longshot, this is probably the one. If you don't think Zion Williamson can play 50 or 60 games? Then you can stay away.
Tyree: Injuries have consistently derailed Tyronn Lue's (+2200) COY chances with the Los Angeles Clippers, but maybe this will be the year they get healthy. They have all the talent on both sides of the ball to beat any team on any given night. Then there's Lue's creativity. Few teams are willing to deploy the innovative defensive schemes Lue does. Even fewer will bench their entire starting five to generate different looks. Lue's unique tactics and will to win by any means necessary could help him climb this year's list of contenders.
My favorite longshot by far is Jason Kidd (+3000), though. The Dallas Mavericks fell off in a major way last season by missing the playoffs, but I can't see how any team with Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving from Day One can fall short of the postseason. Dallas added one of the league's best snipers in Seth Curry for when teams load up on Doncic. It also improved its defensive IQ and versatility by bringing in Grant Williams. I think the Mavericks could turn a lot of heads by taking control of their division while Ja Morant serves a 25-game suspension.