2021-22 NBA Coach of the Year Odds: Chauncey Billups & Ime Udoka Have Great Value
Getty Images. Pictured: Chauncey Billups and Ime Udoka.
Who will win NBA Coach of the Year? This feels like one of the most wide-open and unpredictable awards each year — but what if it isn’t?
What if we can actually look at past results and narrow our field from 30 to around 10? That would imply serious value if only 33% of the potential winners are likely candidates, and it suddenly makes this race a lot more interesting to bet on, even if it remains somewhat unpredictable.
Sometimes the most valuable thing you can do as a bettor is rule potential candidates out, and unlike all the other award races, this is a super narrow field. Hundreds of players could technically win MVP or Most Improved or Sixth Man of the Year. Only 30 men can win COY.
So what sort of candidate actually wins Coach of the Year?
A Winning Coach of the Year Profile
I find that the most predictive way to bet on awards is by studying what voters have told us in the past. And I don’t mean with their words.
Voters tell us things with their voting. Just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to happen again, but it’s much more predictive than just blindly building a case, so it’s a nice place to start from.
For my Coach of the Year research, I focused on 2011 to present. It’s roughly a decade of results, and that’s what I consider the start of the modern superteam era when some of the voting patterns changed.
So what patterns can we discern from the 11 recent Coach of the Year winners since 2011?
1. They win a lot of games — like 55-plus.
We don’t give Coach of the Year to guys whose teams were supposed to be bad but actually ended up surprisingly decent — sorry Taylor Jenkins and pre-tank Mark Daigneault. This is not Overachiever of the Year. You have to be good, like really good. Playoffs-and-a-decent-seed good.
We know how good the Knicks were last year when Tom Thibodeau won the award, but Thibs was actually an outlier. New York went 41-31, a 47-win pace. That’s the lowest win percentage by a Coach of the Year winner since 2007 and the worst by a COY winner this entire century.
All other 10 winners since 2011 won at least 55 games (or played at a 55-win pace). Even with Thibs, Coach of the Year winners since 2011 average a 59.6-win pace. Sixty wins is a lot! Five actually won 60 games, another missed by one, and two others were on 60-win paces in shortened seasons.
So we need a candidate who will win a lot. Perfect!
2. Their teams need to be better than last season — by a lot.
All 11 winning COYs improved their win rate from the previous season. Not exactly an earth-shattering discovery. But you might be surprised to find out just how much these teams have improved.
The Knicks improved from a 26-win pace to a 47-win pace. The 2019 Bucks improved from 44 to 60 wins under Mike Budenholzer. Bud’s Hawks improved from 38 to 60 wins in ’15. The Thibs Bulls skyrocketed from 41 to 62 in ’11.
Every single one of our COYs improved from the previous season, and not just by a little. These teams improved by an average of 11.2 wins over the previous season. With the notable exception of Gregg Popovich, these Coach of the Year winners aren’t just improving some. They’re improving a LOT.
That spells trouble for guys like Quin Synder, Monty Williams and Steve Nash, whose teams already played an elite 55-to-60 win pace last year.
We need teams who win a lot who also didn’t already win that much last year.
So Lakers then! And Warriors! Fix the injury luck, improve that record back to elite, and we have our winner, right?
3. They need to outperform expectations by a lot too.
Coach of the Year winners need to win a lot. They need to improve from last season. But they need to do one more thing.
They need to SURPRISE us.
This is the narrative portion of the award, and for this particular award, we can put numbers to it. Bookmakers tell us what to “expect” from every NBA team with a win total over/under.
The Nets are expected to be the best in the NBA. The Bucks and Lakers are next. We all know this, and there are numbers for it.
Our winning COYs all have one more really important thing in common — all 11 hit their team’s over that season, and they didn’t just eke out a win. Our Coaches of the Year crushed their over/under expectations.
The Knicks over/under was 21.5. New York won 41. The 2019 Bucks went 12 wins over their 48 O/U. The 2018 Raptors were at 48.5 and won 59. The 2017 Rockets won 55 versus a 44 O/U. The 73-9 Warriors obliterated their over/under of 59.5.
All 11 COYs beat their over/under, and they beat it by an average of 12.1 wins. Each of them won at least 6.5 more games than their over/under, and all but two won at least 10 more.
That is an absolutely key part of our research, because we’re really whittling our field down now. We need a team that can win enough to contend for a top seed — but that wasn’t already great last year and isn’t necessarily expected to be yet this year.
Typically, that means we’re looking for a team that just won 40 to 50 games because it puts them in a realistic range to jump to 55 or 60. Since we’re coming off a 72-game season, we have to adjust the win total from last season a little lower. That probably means the 35-to-45 range.
A few other trends worth keeping in mind:
- We’ve never had a coach win back-to-back COYs. Sorry, Thibs.
- Three of the last five COY winners were in their first year leading the team. That’s definitely interesting since only nine coaches fit that criterion.
- Seven of the last eight COY winners finished top-6 in Defensive Ranking. Elite defense travels and gives teams a high floor in a grueling 82-game season.
- The Hawks have won this more than any other team, six times. The Bulls (four) are the only other franchise with more than three wins. The Nets, Clippers and Wolves have never had a COY winner. Not predictive in any way, of course.
Okay, so that’s what our research found. We now know the profile of a typical Coach of the Year winner:
We’re looking for the coach of a team that just won 35-to-45 games expected to stay around that range with the potential to leap to 55 or 60 wins this season and contend for a top seed.
So which teams and coaches fit the bill?
Narrowing the Coach of the Year Field
At this point, you should have ruled quite a few candidates out already.
We’re not going to see a Coach of the Year from the Rockets, Thunder, Cavs, Magic, or Pistons. It probably won’t be from the Nets, Bucks, Lakers, or Jazz either — already too high of expectations, so we’d probably need 70 wins to start the conversation and this doesn’t feel like the year for a 70-win team.
The Suns and Sixers were also already too good last season, with too high of expectations. The Timberwolves, Hornets, Wizards, Kings and Spurs can certainly improve but don’t have any realistic shot even approaching 55 wins.
We’ve already eliminated over half of the league! And no repeat winners either, so Thibs is out. Let’s rule out three more names and then consider the 10 most realistic Coach of the Year winners.
3 More Candidates Who Don’t Really Fit the Rubric
Jason Kidd, Mavericks
On the one hand, Kidd is a first-year coach on a team that could absolutely make the jump from 42-30 a year ago to atop the West. On the other hand, Luka Doncic will get 100% of the credit.
Michael Malone, Nuggets | Ty Lue, Clippers
Both of these coaches have the same problem: Their teams were already very good last year, and now they’re missing a key star. Denver and LA both won at a 53.5-win pace last year, so it’ll be hard to improve much from there, especially with Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard out. Maybe those injuries set up a narrative that doesn’t fit our rubric, but that’s a risk we’ll have to take.
Tier IV — Not Quite Good Enough Yet
Remember, we probably need 55 or more wins and contention for a top seed, and I just can’t get there with these three teams. Play-in berth? Absolutely. A surprise 5- or 6-seed that puts them above the play-in fray? Sure, I can get there. But that’s about the ceiling.
The Pelicans still have a weird roster around an already-injured Zion Williamson and don’t play defense. The Grizzlies have a high floor and look like an intriguing division bet, but the lack of high-end star talent at the top of the roster limits the ceiling.
If everything goes right for the Raptors, I could see them earning home-court in the first round. It wouldn’t flabbergast me to see Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby rise above the East fray. Still, the Raps are already buried in injuries and might pull the plug again. These are not 55-win teams, probably not even close.
Tier III — Juuuust a Little Too Good Already
7. Nate McMillan, Hawks
McMillan is a popular pick for this award, but the problem is the expectations. This team just made the Eastern Conference Finals. Everyone already expects them to take another step forward.
The Hawks over/under is at 46.5, and they’re built around offense, not defense, a formula that isn’t as reliable from night to night. Atlanta needs to win 57+ games to fit our typical profile, and even then, that’s probably a Trae Young MVP campaign more than a COY one. I don’t see it.
6. Erik Spoelstra, Heat
When I started this research, Spoelstra was my favorite. The addition of Kyle Lowry to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo should give the Heat an outstanding defense and a high floor. But there’s also serious injury risk on this team with Lowry and Butler, and the offense looks mostly average.
There’s also a perception problem. Miami is already expected to be very good. This core made the Finals just 12 months ago, and the over/under is 48.5. Even if the Heat are really good, we expected them to be. We’ll credit Pat Riley and Heat Culture — and Spo too, a little. But the Heat probably need to approach 60 wins to really check our boxes, and I’m not willing to bet on that ceiling. Spoelstra is one of the betting favorites, but I don’t see much value there.
We’re down to five now, and they’re all worth serious consideration…
Tier II — Not a Best Bet, But Definitely in Play
5. Billy Donovan, Bulls
Look, I am extremely out on this Bulls team. They’re my favorite under on the board. I think Chicago ends up average or worse on both offense and defense, and I think there’s a better chance of them missing the play-in games altogether than earning home-court advantage.
But I must acknowledge that Donovan is a really good candidate for this award if you do believe in the Bulls. Chicago went 31-41 last year, so there’s plenty of room for improvement. The Bulls’ over/under is 42.5 so if they get to maybe 55 wins, as a huge market team that’s finally good again, they’ll certainly get a lot of buzz.
Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan are not MVP candidates — come on now — and LaVine made his Most Improved leap last year. If the Bulls really do win 55 and we want to reward them for a great season, Donovan is the best way to do it. If you’re in on the Bulls, like really in, then he’s the right way to bet them.
4. Steve Kerr, Warriors
The Warriors were only 39-33 last year, a 44.4-win pace. That sets a low enough bar to clear. The defense was top-5 and should be very good again as long as Draymond Green is around.
Golden State’s over/under is at 48.5, though. We already expect the Warriors to be very good. In order to be so good this team blows expectations away enough for Kerr to win COY, we’re probably looking for close to 60 wins again.
Here’s the thing — I can’t completely rule it out. Once Klay Thompson comes back, we need to remember that we’ve really never seen an iteration of Curry-Thompson-Draymond that didn’t contend for 60 wins. The supporting cast is better this year, and I’m intrigued by Golden State bombing away from deep this preseason.
Could the Warriors win 60 again? Maybe.
But even if they do, we both know who wins an award. It’s Steph Curry, a stone-cold MVP lock at that point.
Could Kerr win Coach of the Year too? Maybe, but Curry will always get credit first, so that makes this a tough sell.
3. Rick Carlisle, Pacers
I’ve long adored Rick Carlisle. The man might be an actual wizard. He’s one of the truly great NBA coaches and does an awesome job maximizing his roster, recognizing what he has and putting players into position to succeed.
I can’t wait to see how Carlisle uses Myles Turner, a terrific defender who never has an offensive role. I want to see Carlisle turn Caris LeVert from an inefficient chucker into a useful part of a good offense. How will Carlisle unleash Domantas Sabonis’s unique passing ability as a big man? How will he utilize the shooting on this team from Malcolm Brogdon and Chris Duarte?
The problem is this darn roster can never seem to get healthy. Give me a healthy starting Indiana five and I’m in on this team to finish with a top-5 seed and maybe end up as a top-10 offense and defense. The talent is there. But all five starters always seem to have health issues, and LeVert and T.J. Warren are already injury question marks entering the season.
There’s certainly some value at +2800 at BetRivers, but even a warlock can’t fix the injury woes, and there are two names I like even better.
Tier I — The Best Bets on the Board
2. Chauncey Billups, Trail Blazers
I wrote about the Blazers as my favorite West sleeper. We already know Damian Lillard is awesome. CJ McCollum took a leap last year but missed half the season. Jusuf Nurkic is an absolute linchpin to this team on both ends but was 10th on the team in minutes last year. Add in more McCollum and Nurkic minutes, plus a vastly improved depth chart now featuring Norman Powell, Larry Nance and Cody Zeller, and this might be the best version of these Dame-CJ Blazers.
Portland has ranked in the top three in Offensive Efficiency three straight seasons. I was surprised too. Lillard is already that good, and the offense should be even better with more McCollum, Nurkic and Powell. The defense was near the bottom of the league the last two years but closer to league average with Nurkic healthy before that, and average is good enough when the offense is this elite.
If Nurkic stays healthy, the Blazers can be much better than anyone expects. Portland’s over/under is at 44.5, but this team won 53 and 49 the last two times it was healthy. Portland can win 55. If they do, Lillard would be a prime MVP candidate, but Billups would get a lot of love too. The media loves him, and remember, three of the last five COYs were first-year guys.
Billups is mostly an afterthought right now at +4000 at BetRivers, but he could be in the mix. He’s worth a bet at that price, but he’s not my favorite.
1. Ime Udoka, Celtics
Udoka checks every single box.
The Celtics are my favorite East sleeper, and I honestly don’t know why they’re being so overlooked. I think Boston quickly establishes itself as one of the top teams in the East, closer to the Nets and Bucks than the rest of the fray.
I already made the case for Boston, so let’s summarize. The team had a year from hell with injuries and COVID issues but still went .500. They replaced awful Tristan Thompson minutes with more Robert Williams and a still useful Al Horford. Kemba Walker was bad and was replaced in the lineup by Marcus Smart. This team ranked top-7 defensively three years in a row before falling off last season, but with Tristan and Kemba replaced by Horford, Timelord and Smart minutes, the D will be back. That’s huge.
Jayson Tatum struggled through COVID issues a year ago. Jaylen Brown sputtered to the finish line after a great start. Those two should be great again, and the rest of the roster around them makes a lot more sense now. Josh Richardson is the exact sort of wing that thrives on this roster, and Dennis Schroder and Enes Kanter were savvy signings who will boost the bench offense without their defense getting in the way in key minutes.
I love the Celtics, and I love Udoka.
Boston will be way better than the 36-36 record they had a year ago. I think their 45.5 over/under is far too low too. This team played at 55, 49, 55, and 53-win pace the four seasons before last. This might be a 55-win roster. Tatum and Brown should continue to improve, and other young guys like Aaron Nesmith, Grant Williams, Romeo Langford and Payton Pritchard could take another step forward.
The Celtics will be much better than a year ago, and they look set to perform oddly low expectations. The defense looks great and should set a high floor and make for a great regular season win profile. Udoka is a first-year coach who can get a lot of credit for getting this team back to its winning ways after the weird Brad Stevens fallout.
Remember, seven of the last eight COY winners had a top-six defense, and three of the last five were first-year guys.
Udoka checks every box. At +1800 to win Coach of the Year at BetMGM, he’s the best bet on the board.