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Fran Blinebury

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Coach Gregg Popovich (center) re-adjusted the focus of the Spurs' offense ... and it has paid off swimmingly.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

Popovich a perfect example of what Coach of Year should be


Posted Apr 7 2011 9:20AM

More than any of the other annual awards, Coach of the Year always seems to honor the surprises over the superlatives. It is the one category that tends to say more about the voters than the candidates themselves.

How else can you explain Phil Jackson with 11 championship rings and just one Coach of the Year trophy?Isn't winning the most games what it's all about? So shouldn't the achievement of excellence carry more weight than exceeding our expectations?

Then there are the instances when those two lines on the graph converge to deliver the best of both worlds. That's why the pick for 2011 is Gregg Popovich.

Last spring, when the Suns put the finishing touches on a 4-0 sweep of San Antonio in the West semifinals, virtually nobody could have envisioned the Spurs having the best record in the league the next season.

Nobody, that is, except Popovich. All he had to do was chuck the offense that had delivered four championships in a dozen seasons and take the core of his team in a completely new direction.

Gone was the pound-it-inside and grind-it-out offense that ran through Tim Duncan and had made the Spurs as reliable -- and predictable -- as a Swiss watch. Gone was a style of play that was showing cracks like the seams of a Boeing jet. In its place was an up-tempo game that insisted on a faster pace in transition and thrived on taking -- and making -- the first open 3-pointer.

First, Popovich spent a good portion of the offseason in the gym with Richard Jefferson. He tweaked Jefferson's game and re-ignited his confidence after a first season in San Antonio that was widely regarded as a bust. Then he arrived at training camp and let the Big Three of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker know that he was altering the script that they'd long since committed to memory.

And how did that work out?

"Fine," said Ginobili, who has started more games this season (77) than he has in any other season in his career. He -- and not Duncan -- is the primary option in the Spurs' offense for the first time, too.

"If you're asking any player if he wants to play more minutes, maybe get more shots, have the chance to do more things, I think they'll be OK with that."

"He's Pop," said Parker, who was turned loose to push the pace and score in transition more than ever before. "You don't ask questions. You just do it."

Popovich did it by casting an undrafted rookie (Gary Neal) and the unheralded forward (Matt Bonner) in roles as his long-range bombers. The change has resulted in the Spurs leading the league in 3-point shooting (39.9 percent). He allowed the unpredictable, irrepressible Ginobili to do whatever he could and, in the process, shrewdly kept the minutes down on the soon-to-be 35-year-old Duncan. Yet the former two-time MVP still produces at crunch time.

The Spurs did it by racing out to a 13-1 start and were practically leaving vapor trails in their wake when they were 29-4 on New Year's Day. If not for Duncan spraining an ankle and a spate of nagging injuries that briefly sent Parker and Ginobili to the bench with him, the Spurs would have avoided the late six-game, two-week long swoon and might have set a franchise record for wins. Still, a 3-0 finish to close the season and they'll at least tie the club record of 63 wins set in 2005-06.

The fact that all of this was a surprise to so many is just an extra for Pop. It's the excellence that should matter.

The Contenders

Phil Jackson, Lakers: It's always easy to look at the smirk, listen to the often condescending tone in his voice and nod at the rosters full of names like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and say that anybody could do it. But anybody hasn't. If this truly is Jackson's NBA swan song, it's a great final pass. He brought the Lakers from the doubts of Christmas and the black clouds of February to a 17-4 post-All-Star break record that has re-established the two-time defending champs as the team to beat.

George Karl, Nuggets: For his next trick, maybe Karl will saw a lady in half. It's been nothing short of magic the way Karl managed to keep Denver together through the 'Melo-drama that was the first half of the season. Before they shipped Carmelo Anthony to New York, Karl's team had the No. 1 offense in the league. Since the trade and since the All-Star break, the Nuggets have had the No. 1 defense and a 16-5 record.

Doug Collins, Sixers: Give Collins credit not just for where the Sixers are, but how they got there. It would have been easy for him to stubbornly stick to his philosophical guns when his sputtered to a 3-13 start. But he recognized the situation and tossed all that he had brought from previous stops in Detroit and Washington and reworked the Sixers from the ground up. They're not just fun to watch, but good.

Tom Thibodeau, Bulls: If ever a team needed an identity, it was the Bulls. Thibodeau has given it to them in spades with the defense that had made him one of the top assistants in the league for years. He juggled a lineup through early-season injuries and he inspired Derrick Rose to become a leader and then turned him loose on the basketball world. When Michael Jordan recently said there could be six more championships coming to Chicago, he wasn't kidding.

Nate McMillan, Blazers: You just mark it down on the calendar every year. The season is barely under way and the Trail Blazers are hit by a spate of injuries that should make them crumble. Except McMillan won't let them. He's got LaMarcus Aldridge playing like an All-Star, Brandon Roy accepting a secondary role, and the Blazers heading into the playoffs as a team most foes don't want to meet.

Rick Adelman, Rockets: Another year when Yao Ming breaks a bone in his foot. Another year when the Rockets have to cobble together a star-free lineup. Another year when Adelman conjures up a share-the-ball, push-the-pace offense and, more important, doesn't allow his team to quit. The fact that this bunch is in the West playoff race to the final week says enough. It should say to Rockets management to come to their senses and re-sign him.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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