Was Mike Budenholzer the Right Choice for NBA Coach of the Year?
This week, coach Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks was named the NBA's Coach of the Year for the 2014-15 regular season. He received 67 of a possible 130 first-place votes, for a total of 513 points, barely edging out Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who had 56 first-place votes and 471 total points.
Either Budenholzer or Kerr would have been deserving of this award for their work this season. What it all comes down to is which you think is more impressive: taking a below-average team and making them very good -- like Bud and the Hawks -- or taking a very good team and making them historically great -- like Kerr and the Warriors.
Before we get into Budenholzer as the winner and why he deserves it, let's consider a bit of the historical context of Steve Kerr's "loss," so to speak.
Kerr's Warriors finished the 2014-15 season with a record of 67-15. There have only been 10 teams in the history of the NBA to amass 67 wins, and you might be surprised to learn how few of those teams had that season's Coach of the Year at the helm.
Only three of the 10 winningest teams in NBA history had their coach win the award for that particular year. Simply put, we're suckers for narrative and so are the voters.
Having the best team in the league in any given year is not a clear path to the Coach of the Year award. If that were the case, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich would've needed second homes to house all their trophies. Instead, the narrative of which coach and his team exceeded everyone's expectations in a big way often gets the votes. It helps even more if those expectations were low, because -- let's face it -- low expectations leave a lot more room for improvement than high ones.
Maybe no one expected the Warriors to be an all-time great team this year, but the expectation was that they'd still be very good. The distance from the near-top to the top doesn't seem as big as going from a borderline playoff team to a championship contender.
For better or worse, the latter is exactly where coach Budenholzer and this year's Atlanta Hawks fit.
Last year, the Hawks barely grabbed the 8 seed in the lowly Eastern Conference with a 38-44 record. They were a below-average offensive team (Offensive Rating of 105.9, 18th in the NBA) and an average defensive team (Defensive Rating of 106.4, 14th in the league). They gave the 1 seed Indiana Pacers a run for their money in a competitive seven-game first-round series, but no one ever even remotely considered them as championship contenders. In fact, our algorithms had them at a 0.4% chance of winning it all heading into last year's playoffs.
This year, the Hawks are a whole other story. They entered this year's playoffs as the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 60-22 record (the most wins in franchise history). The .269 improvement in winning percentage from .463 in 2013-14 to .732 this year was the second biggest leap of any NBA team this season (trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks and their coach Jason Kidd -- who came third in the voting -- at .317).
The Hawks were sixth in the league in Offensive Rating (108.9) and sixth in Defensive Rating (103.1). That made them one of only two teams in the top-six in both categories (with the Warriors being the other one, funny enough). The Hawks are currently 2-0 up on the Brooklyn Nets and our algorithms have them at a 93.25% chance to close out that series and an 11.93% chance of winning the title. For the record, that's the second-highest odds in the NBA, trailing only -- you guessed it -- the Warriors at 45.63%.
The team's leap this year can largely be linked to Al Horford's improved health, yes, but the way coach Bud balanced his team obviously played a large part. Paul Millsap had the lone 30-point performance by a Hawk this season back in November, and not a single player averaged more than Millsap's 16.7 points per game (although six different guys averaged in double-digits). Budenholzer got his veterans to play their roles within a team structure, and they thrived as a result. He also helped his younger players go from near-liabilities last season to strong parts of a deep rotation this year. Everyone -- young and old -- seemed to get better under Bud this year.
As a result of Budenholzer and the Hawks' success throughout the season, Horford, Millsap, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver made up a third of the Eastern Conference's All-Star squad in February. That's pretty amazing, when you consider that Joe Blow probably doesn't recognize a single one of them. After all, neither of them fits the mould of your typical, high-scoring "star." The fact that the Hawks have accomplished all that they have without one, especially in today's star-driven NBA, makes Bud's case even more compelling.
So, was Mike Budenholzer a more deserving candidate for Coach of the Year than Steve Kerr or even Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd? When you see just how good Kerr's Warriors have been and where they fit historically, it's hard to understand how he wouldn't be the recipient. When we consider how Kidd took the Bucks from being the worst team in the league to the playoffs with more or less the same roster, it seems unfortunate that he didn't win it as well.
That brings us to an important point in discussions of this nature about who exactly deserves what over whom: in the end, they were all deserving for different and mostly subjective reasons. When an award race is this close, we as fans and analysts often spend too much time trying to justify a different winner, that we end up discounting the accomplishments of the actual honoree. Kerr -- and even Kidd, albeit to a lesser extent -- would've deserved this award if they had won it, but it ultimately went to Mike Budenholzer.
You can justify why any other candidate "could have" won it, fine, but the words "should have" are effectively moot at this point.
The fact is this: Bud won it and Bud deserved it. End of discussion.