This is the fourth installment of our 2011 NBA Awards coverage. You can also read about the MVP, the Rookie of the Year and the Most Improved Player awards. Our thoughts on Defensive Player of the Year will be posted Tuesday.
The NBA’s Coach of the Year award is one of real prestige and league-wide significance, but it’s also one of tremendous subjectivity and opinion. For instance: Is it more impressive to make a horrible team pretty good or a good team great? Is it more challenging to win with young and stubborn talent or old and aging talent? Moreover, the most challenging aspect of picking this award is that a coach's impact can only be deciphered in a very linear way, specifically by statistics along with wins and losses. But with a player, we can watch him develop and directly affect each individual game.
1). Tom Thibodeau (Chicago) – Doug Collins has been great for Philly, and Greg Popovich has reaffirmed his legend in San Antonio, but Thibodeau, as a defensive genius, has helped transform Chicago into the No.1 team in the east and a title threat.
While Derrick Rose has played like an MVP and Joakim Noah has emerged as a quality offensive big man, Thibs’ biggest imprint on the Bulls has been on the defensive end. Despite a push-tempo point guard in Rose, the Bulls are second in the NBA in points allowed, using a suffocating barrage of length, quickness and efficient defensive rotations to force opponents into contested and poor shots. This is most impressive given that teams are generally susceptible to giving up more points with a point guard who pushes tempo as much as Rose.
The fact that several of the key Bulls players -- including key cogs Boozer and Rose -- credit Thibs as their unquestioned leader and main reason for success says all you need to know. It’s rare for NBA stars to defer credit to somebody else, albeit a first-year coach and longtime assistant. And he’s done it with Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer Kyle Korver as his main shooting guard options. While many coaches might harp on the offensive deficiencies of Bogans and Brewer, Thibs has made them intricate components as key defenders on the perimeter. He has found ways to hide them on offense just as he has with Korver on defense. And while the Bulls are certainly not an offensive juggernaut, Thibs has put the trust in Rose and given him a strong basis of offensive sets to work with well releasing the grip just enough to let Rose … be Rose.
After two consecutive .500 seasons with first round playoff exits, Chicago, with Carlos Boozer as its one addition to the core nucleus, has reached the 60-win barrier for the first time since in 13 years. As great as Boozer has been offensively, he is still a marginal defender at best and has missed 23 games. The Bulls however, have managed to go an impressive 15-8 in those games, including wins over Denver, Dallas (twice) and Atlanta. Noah meanwhile, who has become an elite defensive and rebounding center, has missed 31 games himself. All in all, the Bulls are holding opponents to around 43 percent shooting from the floor, one of the best numbers in the league, and one made even more impressive considering the injury factor. As is always the case, credit Thibs.
2). Doug Collins (Philadelphia) – When Doug Collins inherited the 76ers from Eddie Jordan this season, he was staring at a 27-55 team that wasn’t abundantly talented and worse off, didn’t play hard. And after a miserable 3-13 start to the year, it appeared that Collins’ return to the coaching box from TV may have been a colossal mistake.
Over four months later though, Philly is 41-40 and on the brink of its first winning season since 2005. Better yet, its once disgruntled star, Andre Iguodala, is playing some of the finest basketball of his career. While his scoring is down, Iguodala has bought in to team basketball. The seventh year pro is averaging the most assists of his career while shooting less frequently and defending more frequently.
Elton Brand has also enjoyed a career resurgence. The 32-year-old was a once forgotten and benched big man under Jordan, but is playing his best ball since his Clipper days back on ’07.
With 20-year-old Jrue Holiday at the helm, the 76ers are doing all of this with the youngest starting point guard in the league. With the confidence instilled by Collins though, Holiday himself has improved drastically; his scoring is up from 8.0 to 13.9, and at 2.15, has one of the best assists-to-turnover ratios in the league.
With essentially the same roster in place save for disappointing rookie Evan Turner, Collins has taken a once moribund franchise to the playoffs by earning its trust and maximizing the talents of his young team. Louis Williams and Thaddeus Young, two talented kids whom Jordan had no handle on, have been instrumental.
Young, the versatile but raw forward, has accepted his role as sixth man and thrived, averaging close to 13 points and over 5 rebounds – virtually the same as last year -- despite playing six less minutes per game. Williams, who went straight from high school to the NBA, has shown a wonderful sense of maturity under Collins, and up until his season-ending hamstring injury, was like Young, averaging almost the same numbers with much less playing time.
With a youthful and inexperienced team, Collins has his team competing every night, playing defense (97.5 points allowed down from 101.6), rebounding the basketball, and scoring with proficiency while playing unselfish basketball (6th in assists as a team). Whether the 76ers make a run in the playoffs remains to be seen, but the fact that this team is in the postseason discussion is an incredible accomplishment, and a direct reflection of its coach.
3). Greg Popovich (San Antonio) – Gregg Popovich has become an institution in San Antonio. His four championships are Hall of Fame worthy, but this year perhaps, may have been Pop’s best coaching job.
With an aging superstar and 33-year old-shooting guard to boot, along with a bundle of young and unproven castoffs, Popovich has led the Spurs to the best record in the NBA. Most impressive is how he’s managed the role of Tim Duncan, arguably the greatest power forward of all time. Duncan’s 28 minutes a night are by far the lowest of his career and a number many aging stars simply wouldn’t permit. But Duncan clearly trusts Popovich, and the system that he has so successfully built.
And, while the uber-quick Tony Parker has rediscovered the magic that made him a top tier point guard three years ago, under the tutelage of Popovich he has learned how to maximize his minutes better when on the floor. With the exception of a treacherous 2009-10 campaign, Parker is taking his fewest number of shots in seven years, a direct correlation to the Spurs’ concentration on balance and desire to incorporate the entire team.
What can’t be forgotten either is Popovich’s remarkable ability to develop talent, and do so while molding them to the Spurs style. Richard Jefferson for example, now in his second season as a Spur, has transformed from a bonafide chucker to an efficient and reliable shooter, as only Pop could make him. Jefferson is enjoying a banner year, especially from three-point range, where he’s shooting a career-best 44.3 percent compared to just 31.6 last season. Pop has also had a dramatic impact on young George Hill, who has emerged as a terrific sixth man and spot starter in a matter of three years. Let’s not forget the ancillary parts either. This is a Spurs team winning with second round picks Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair, along with undrafted Gary Neal and supposedly washed-up Antonio McDyess all playing formidable roles in only the way Popovich could have foreseen.
Simply put, there may not be another coach in the NBA who could replicate the success of the Spurs this season other than Popovich.