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Why Billy Donovan Was Robbed of Coach of the Year

On Saturday, August 22nd, the NBA announced the winner of the Coach of the Year Award. The winner of the award was Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse. Coming in second place was the Head Coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, Mike Budenholzer. In third place was the Head Coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder Billy Donovan.

Despite the great season the Raptors had, Nurse was not the most deserving recipient of this award. The guy that was a whole lot more deserving who should have won the Coach of the Year was Billy Donovan for the job he did this year with the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

Going into the season most people thought that the Thunder had no chance at making it back to the playoffs after enduring an offseason filled with massive roster turnover. On July 10th of 2019, the Thunder traded superstar Paul George to the Clippers for Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and five first-round picks. 

Less than a week later the Thunder decided to trade their superstar point guard Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul and two first-round picks. Paul was coming off arguably the worst season of his career, as he only averaged 15.6 points per game (lowest of his career), along with his field goal percentage which dipped from 46% in 2017-18 to 41.9% in 2018-19. 

Going into the season many people thought that the Thunder would try and trade Paul to a contending team either before the season or during the season because no one expected them to contend. Along with all of the roster turnover, the Thunder knew that making it back to the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference was no easy task. But that didn’t stop Donovan from getting the best out of his players and helping the Thunder embark on a season where they would put the rest of the league on notice. 

The Thunder got off to a rocky start in the first month of the season after going 1-4 in the month of October. In the month of November, the Thunder started to steady the ship, as they went 6-7, where they got some great games from Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, and Dennis Schroder.

The problem that the Thunder had was despite the fact that they were 5-2 at home, they were only 1-5 on the road. Donovan knew that if he wanted to get the Thunder back to the playoffs, they would have to start winning more games on the road. 

The month of December was where the Thunder started to become a playoff contender and managed to make some noise in the NBA. They finished the month 10-4 and continued to get big contributions from their starters, who had to carry the team due to the massive lack of depth on the bench, which is something that is not easy for a coach to overcome. The Thunder’s depth was so bad that only five times did one of their bench players besides Schroder lead the team in scoring for a game. 

The Thunder continued their consistent play for the rest of the regular season, as Paul made it back to the All-Star Team for the first time in three years, while the Thunder were 33-22 by that time in the season, a record few thought they would’ve had by that point. Post-All-Star break the Thunder went 12-6 and clinched the 5th seed in the Western Conference with a record of 44-28. 

Despite having a massive over-achieving season, Donovan only came in third place for Coach of the Year. I am mentioning this again because of the people that received more first-place votes than Donovan. Nick Nurse, who is the head coach of the Raptors, was given the award after the Raptors finished second in the Eastern Conference despite losing Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers in free agency.

Is this a great accomplishment? Yes, but what people may be forgetting is the Raptors still had two All-Star level players on their team in Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam. Along with some great role players like Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol. The Raptors also play in the Eastern Conference, which for years, has been very top-heavy. 

The head coach that came in second place was Mike Budenholzer of the Milwaukee Bucks, who led the Bucks to have the best record in the NBA at 56-17 and the first seed in the Eastern Conference. Under Budenholzer the Bucks have seen players like Giannis Antetokounmpo become an MVP, along with Khris Middleton who has become an All-Star.

With that being said, the job that Budenholzer has is not one that is extremely difficult when you have the reigning MVP, an All-Star in Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Brook Lopez in your starting 5, along with a very versatile bench. 

Donovan on the other hand had to deal with massive roster turnover, a very tough Western Conference, and an incredibly weak bench. The reason the bench has been talked about so much is that it’s very hard to have success in the NBA when you lack depth because say if one of their starters gets injured, that could have potentially derailed their season.

An additional aspect to consider in the case of Donovan is to think about the level of difficulty he had in his job success compared to Nurse and Budenholzer, as it’s not even close based on all of the factors that were previously mentioned. 

It’s disappointing that Donovan did not get to receive the honor that he deserved after such a great season, where the Thunder were such a fun team to watch, as they mixed some good veterans, with some great young talent.

Sometimes I feel like the voters too often vote for the wrong people for Coach of the Year, when they tend to vote for people who have the best record when that’s not what it’s all about. What it should be about is the coach who does the best job of getting the best out of the players that he has at his disposal. 

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