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Steve Aschburner

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Gregg Popovich has maneuvered a compact season by resting his stars regularly and trusting role players.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Success with old tricks puts Popovich in position for COY


Posted Apr 26 2012 11:30AM

In this mixed-up, meatball, post-lockout season, maybe it's fitting that the NBA's Coach of the Year award winner would claim that title mostly for whom he hasn't played.

The rationale we're hearing in favor of San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, after all, typically goes like this: "He has kept Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker fresh for the playoffs." By restricting their minutes, by leaving them behind on road trips, by sending his three star players home around noon from Phoenix on Wednesday after a rigorous morning practice -- hours before tipoff -- Popovich has kept Duncan, Ginobili and Parker in virtual bubble-wrap for the more important games that begin this weekend.

It has been a season of performance art for the NBA's longest tenured head coach. A minimalist's less-is-more delight. Parlor tricks, as in, "I can win this game with one ... no, two ... wait, make that three starters tied behind my back." If Popovich could have ensured that the Spurs would win their division, nail down the West's No. 1 seed and make it to late April with a healthy team while playing only the fourth-through-14th guys on the San Antonio roster, he might have done it.

Some ticket-buying fans and media folks got irritated when Popovich thumbed his nose at the idea of NBA basketball as entertainment -- and maybe at a sense of sportsmanship, too -- by having Duncan or Ginobili show up in a suit or not at all. But Popovich didn't apologize for serving what he felt was the greater good of another championship pursuit. And the league didn't seem to care.

"I cringe but then I un-cringe," commissioner David Stern said Wednesday about healthy stars withheld from games. "We knew in some ways it might be intensified by the compactness of the season. That's something we have tried to do in recent years, is not try to coach for the coach."

The fact is, in a crazy season that inspired several masterful performances, the NBA didn't need anyone coaching for its head coaches. Popovich did just fine, punctuating his season of rationing by resting even himself from the Spurs' final two games; assistant Mike Budenholzer took over against the Suns and will handle the sideline for game No. 66 at Golden State.

Indiana's Frank Vogel, Oklahoma's Scott Brooks and Memphis' Lionel Hollins got their teams to meet, maybe even exceed, the lofty expectations fans and experts had for them. Phoenix's Alvin Gentry turned around a miserable season, on the fly, before falling short of the playoffs. Philadelphia's Doug Collins did terrific work early with that NBA rarity, a starless ensemble cast. New York's Mike Woodson turned inside-out the hysteria of the tabloids' back pages.

Atlanta's Larry Drew was solid start to finish, same as Utah's Ty Corbin. A couple of guys in L.A., Mike Brown and Vinny Del Negro, stayed dry in a season that had to feel like log-rolling. Boston's Doc Rivers fended off Father Time in his locker room and a general manager with an itchy trigger finger in the front office. Houston's Kevin McHale maxed out his roster's potential through a broken backcourt and Dallas' Rick Carlisle paddled strong against the Mavs' shifting, aging tide.

All of the above could get votes for this award. In the end, though, NBA.com's pick for top coach came down to co-favorites Popovich and Chicago's Tom Thibodeau.

In a way, choosing between them is almost a throwback dilemma to the days of Magic Johnson-Larry Bird. Without the charisma or the games, sure, but still not bad for a couple of guys sprung from Division III schools who never played a lick in the league.

It's a question of taste, a matter of geography. One's East, one's West. Neither seems to be having much fun while at work, although their demeanor while doing those in-game interviews with trepidatious sideline reporters is great theater for the folks at home.

Each managed to fend off a team considered maybe more glamorous: Miami in the East, Oklahoma City (and the Lakers) in the West. They're a couple of guys whose squads rank among the deepest in the NBA. The Spurs of 2011-12 -- of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, James Anderson, Gary Neal and so on -- have gotten there as much through Popovich's development and trust as through GM R.C. Buford's procurement.

The Bulls' biggest personnel move this season was signing retread Mike James -- three times. The Spurs, meanwhile, brought back incorrigible-everywhere-else Stephen Jackson and salvaged presumably washed-up Boris Diaw off the league's worst team.

Thibodeau has started C.J. Watson (24 times) and John Lucas III (twice) in place of Derrick Rose, and managed a 17-9 record in those games. His is the only team of five in NBA history that lost a reigning MVP for 20 games or more the following season and didn't sag below .500 during the star's absence.

Popovich has started Patty Mills twice, Diaw six times, Neal seven, Leonard 24 and Green 36. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker have averaged a combined 83.6 minutes -- the first time in their 10 seasons together that they have been below 90.0. That means Popovich's Spurs have played without their Big Three for nearly two-thirds the 240 player-minutes in every game (not to mention again the games in which they didn't participate at all).

Thibodeau's squad has stayed not just afloat but formidable because of its depth and its defense, winning a second division title in just his second season as a head coach. Popovich has made the transition from defense to offense, adapted to the bodies on hand and -- at his job longer now (16 years) than any coach or manager in the four major North American pro sports -- nailed down his ninth division title.

Both of them have symbiotic relationships, total trust in and from their best players, which sets the tone on the court and polices much of what goes on off of it. In Thiboudeau's two seasons with Rose, Chicago has won more games, 111, than any other coach-player combo in the league. Popovich and Duncan have won 792, the most by any such pair in NBA history.

There's sentiment working on both men's behalf in the Coach of the Year balloting. Some voters will take as a challenge -- and they should -- the quirk that no one ever has been named the NBA's top coach in consecutive seasons; there is no compelling reason not to vote for Thibodeau, and that odd bit of history would rank as the worst possible one.

Then again, considering Popovich having won four NBA championships but only one COY award, that's about as silly as Phil Jackson only winning the coaching trophy once. The hair gets split here because Thibodeau has a team specifically built to chase rings last season, this season and for several seasons going forward. Popovich is positioned nicely to go after No. 5 while milking a corp of stars who could have faded or broken down by now.

That task required a little something extra, it says here.

If Popovich were to win a second COY award -- official results won't be annuonced until sometime during the playoffs -- you get the feeling that he might be tempted to swap them out on the mantel from time to time, always resting one. Or maybe he'll stick both trophies in the closet and just go with a stray bookend and a doorstop.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. 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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