Popovich Deserves NBA Coach of the Year

April 26, 2012

The 2011-2012 NBA regular season was brutal. For a long time it seemed uncertain whether Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant would be suiting up for another season, or whether the league's players would be forced to turn to professional gaming like Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward.

But when David Stern and company finally announced a 66-game season that would begin on Christmas day, both players and fans rejoiced.

Kobe was back in the gym (as if he had ever left it), LeBron dusted off his villainous jersey, and Gordon Hayward ditched the computer games for the ones on the hardwood floor. Oh, and that guy at the office who refused to shave his unkempt beard until the NBA resumed play was good on his word. Thankfully.

What ensued over the past 66 games has been a blur.

Teams would play three consecutive nights (on the road, no less, if you were the Miami Heat), while others played a series of 9 games in 12 days (as did the Dallas Mavericks out of the All-Star break). 

Players were exhausted and coaches were scrambling to compensate for injuries. In short, this season was an anomaly, but one that nevertheless produced some great and some not-so-great storylines (here’s to you, Jeremy Lin and Lamar Odom).

One of the most difficult jobs in the NBA belongs to the coach. In a lockout-shortened season, time is one of the most important and rarest of all things, and with so little of it to be found anywhere off the court this season, it was up to the coaches to produce.

New players, no practice time, injuries galore, and off-the-court drama plagued the season, but several coaches deserve mention for not only rising to the occasion, but also helping their respective teams thrive after the lockout.

Coaches who deserve recognition include Frank Vogel, who has led his Indiana Pacers to a rather unexpected third seed in the East after barely posting eighth last season; and Doc Rivers, whose Celtics overcame a rough start, a plethora of injuries, persistent trade rumors, and the inevitable aging of the Big Three.

Finally, it’s fair to also mention Stan Van Gundy. Not the most obvious choice, but any man who had to wake up every morning and be bombarded with the Dwight Howard will-he or won’t-he-be-traded obnoxiousness, and still have his team perform fairly well in the season, deserves kudos. Not to mention the fact that Howard apparently asked management to fire Van Gundy.

But with the end of the regular season upon us, it is time to hand out The DSH's NBA Coach of the Year Award, and this year, two particular candidates stood above all the rest.

1. Gregg Popovich

It is absolutely incredible how well the San Antonio Spurs have been playing, and all thanks should be directed to their coach, Gregg Popovich. Popovich has been a brilliant tactician who has guided his Spurs to the number one seed in the Western Conference while finding ample rest time for his three main players.

With his team, it’s all about discipline and execution. The Spurs’ offense is one of the most fluid in the league, with the team comfortably in the top 5 for assists per game (23.1) and fewest turnovers per game (13.6).

Most of the offense is smartly run through Tony Parker, the team’s pick-and-roll point guard who is one of the most nimble in the NBA.

Parker can easily evade defenders by navigating around screens set up by his teammates, or by sprinting past lead-footed opponents stuck in the paint. And of course there is Tim Duncan, Popovich’s mainstay, who is consistently productive on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

That the younger and less experienced players are also effective is a testament to the coach. Rookie Kawhi Leonard from San Diego State has been a quietly reliable small forward for team. He is averaging about 8 points per game on 49% shooting in roughly 24 minutes a game.

Leonard and the rest of the Spurs’ young players have been given equal opportunity with the team’s more seasoned veterans because Popovich trusts his players and genuinely wants them to get better. And in all games, whether close or not, the team never concedes defeat because the coach is always hounding them when it comes to effort.

The San Antonio Spurs will be a dangerous team to face in the postseason, and the chances of them exiting in the first round like last year are slim at best. With Popovich at the helm, the Spurs have a strong chance of making it to the NBA finals.

2. Tom Thibodeau

Last year’s Coach of the Year winner has simply not let up. The Chicago Bulls, for the second year in a row, are the top seed in the Eastern Conference. This achievement is all the more remarkable considering he has dealt with injuries  to three of his best players.

Derrick Rose, the team’s undeniable MVP and offensive powerhouse, missed over 25 games with a myriad of injuries to his back and ankle. Richard Hamilton was also out for an extended period of time, and Luol Deng has suffered from a wrist injury throughout the season.

What is coach Thibodeau’s secret? A no-nonsense team mentality that is focused on tough defense.

The Bulls lead the league in opponent points at just 88.4 a game, and are second in opponent field goal percentage at 42.3%. Similar to Popovich, Thibodeau demands a full effort from each and every player night in and night out while refusing to allow injuries to take away from the task at hand.

Thibodeau has also developed Joakim Noah into an outstanding interior defender who fights for every rebound on either side of the court. To top everything off, this year Thibodeau became the fastest coach ever to reach 100 wins in the NBA.

The Verdict

Ultimately, Greg Popovich barely ekes out the win over Tom Thibodeau for Coach of the Year honors.

In such a compact season where health is arguably just as important as wins, Popovich found both. Duncan, Parker and Ginobli have received a relatively significant amount of rest during the latter part of the season and are set for a deep postseason run. But most importantly, the Spurs have been playing better ball than the Bulls.

Meanwhile, the Bulls have played inconsistently over the past couple weeks, losing 5 of their last 11 games. The Spurs are on an eight-game winning streak. Overall, Popovich gets the edge for being able to balance his players’ minutes while continuing to win games.

It’s no coincidence that the top two choices for NBA Coach of the Year have led their teams to the top seed in their respective conferences.

Both coaches deserve an enormous amount of accolades for succeeding in such a bizarre season. And what a treat it would be to see the Spurs and Bulls match up in the NBA finals—great offense against stubborn defense; two chess masters at the top of their game trying to out-duel each other; wily young star against proven veteran.

By Jake Vitanza
Contributing Writer for The Daily Sports Herald

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