NBA Coach of the Year is typically one of the more difficult annual awards to pick, as there are often a number of worthy candidates, and that’s certainly the case this season. With several legitimate contenders in each conference, and a number of upstart squads outperforming expectations, a case could be made for a bunch of coaches from across the league’s landscape. Here, we take a look at the five top candidates for the award for the 2021-22 season.
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1. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns
Monty Williams finished second to the New York Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau in Coach of the Year voting last season, but there were a lot of people who felt that Williams was the most deserving after leading the Suns to their first playoff appearance in over a decade. In fact, Williams actually received more first-place votes than Thibodeau, but fell slightly short in terms of total points.
This season, Williams is right at the top of the conversation again after leading Phoenix to its best regular-season record in franchise history and the best overall record in the league. Williams has the Suns clicking on both sides of the ball, as they boast the league’s third-best offense, second-best defense and best overall net rating (via NBA.com). Williams has clearly pushed all the right buttons this season, and as a result he has arguably the most compelling case to win the award.
2. Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies
Taylor Jenkins has done an incredible job with the Grizzlies this season. Despite tempered preseason expectations, the Grizzlies are going to finish second in the competitive Western Conference, and that’s despite the fact they were without All-Star guard Ja Morant for over a quarter of the campaign. Memphis has gone 20-3 without Morant this season, and its success has been due largely to Jenkins’ ability to maximize his depth.
The Grizzlies have a lot of players who can contribute, and Jenkins has shown a knack for knowing when and how to use each piece. Plus, his team has clearly bought into his game plan, as evidenced by the fact that they’re top five in both offensive and defensive rating. Heading into postseason play, the Grizzlies look like a legitimate contender, and Jenkins deserves a hefty share of credit for that.
3. Ime Udoka, Boston Celtics
Udoka’s first season in Boston didn’t start out so well, as the Celtics struggled out of the gate. However, their in-season turnaround has been extremely impressive and Udoka was obviously instrumental in that. After being outside of the playoff picture at the end of 2021, the Celtics have climbed all the way up to second in the East, thanks largely to their dominant defense, which is ranked No. 1 in the entire league. Their offense has climbed into the top 10, too, as Udoka has placed an added emphasis on ball movement.
There was the potential for things to go south for the Celtics early in the season, especially with Udoka being a first-time head coach. If that had occurred, Udoka would have taken his fair share of criticism. Instead, the opposite occurred, and Udoka deserves big-time credit for facilitating it.
4. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Despite being the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA — and widely regarded as one of the best tacticians in the league – Erik Spoelstra has never won the Coach of the Year award. This year, though, he has a real shot after leading the Miami Heat to the top overall seed in an especially competitive Eastern Conference, despite a plethora of injuries to key contributors over the course of the campaign. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry all missed nearly 20 games, and other guys were in and out of the lineup. Despite this, the Heat still have the fourth-best defense in the NBA, and a top 10 offense to go along with it. Spoelstra always seems to know which strings to pull, and that has helped the Heat remain so solid this season.
Spoelstra has introduced and maintained a specific culture in Miami for well over a decade now, and it’s no coincidence that the Heat have been one of the league’s most success teams during Spoelstra’s tenure. Hardware or no hardware, he is arguably the best coach in the league, year after year, and this one is no different.
5. Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets
Malone probably won’t win the award due to where the Nuggets will finish in the Western Conference standings — they’re likely to finish sixth — but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t do a heck of a job in Denver this season. In fact, the Nuggets finishing sixth, and not lower, is a testament, in part, to Malone, who has maximized his roster.
The Nuggets were without their second-best player, Jamal Murray, for the entirety of the season, and without their third-best player, Michael Porter Jr., for all but nine games. Despite these absences, the Nuggets (47-33) have a top-10 offense, are 14 games over .500 and are headed for the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic typically gets the majority of credit for Denver’s success this season, and rightfully so, but Malone deserves some, too.
Honorable mentions: J.B. Bickerstaff (Cleveland Cavaliers), Tyronn Lue (Los Angeles Clippers)