Who's Your Coach of the Year?

By Akshay Manwani

Popovich
Gregg Popovich, always a calming influence on the bench, has helped to meld a team of veterans and budding young stars.
NBAE/Getty Images
While I had been thinking of doing this piece for some time, today’s poll question on NBA.com forced me to finally put down my thoughts on Coach of the Year. For the record, the poll question listed just four options – Doug Collins, George Karl, Gregg Popovich and Nate McMillan – for the readers to vote in their choice for Coach of the year. But I will expand my list to include one more name besides the four aforementioned gentlemen...and that man is Tom Thibodeau, head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

Let’s take a quick glance at what each man has meant for his roster:

Doug Collins [Philadelphia 76ers]: Collins joined the Philadelphia 76ers before this year, coming on the heels of a 2009-10 season in which the 76ers posted a disastrous 27-55 record. That nightmarish season promised to continue unabated as the 76ers went 3-13 in their first 16 games of the 2010-2011 season. However, Collins infused a rare team ethic in the roster that has since seen the 76ers post a remarkable turnaround where they currently hold a 38-36 record. That performance has seen them holding on to the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs’ race. This, without having a single player named to the all-star game in February 2011. Really, if there has been one rags to riches story in the league this year it has been of Doug Collins and his 76ers.

George Karl [Denver Nuggets]: We all know what has happened to the Cleveland Cavaliers after LeBron James’ exit from the franchise. No matter what newly appointed head coach Byron Scott tried, the Cavaliers have struggled right through this season. You would have imagined a similar fate to befall George Karl and the Denver Nuggets, after he lost two of his star players in Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups at the mid-season trade deadline. However, since that trade, the Nuggets have posted an impressive 12-4 run that has put them on course to get to the 50-win mark this regular season [currently 44-29]. What has been more admirable about Karl is that he came into the 2010-11 season having successfully fought off a bout of neck and throat cancer that was diagnosed immediately after the 2009-10 all-star game. Truly, Karl has been the comeback king on all counts this NBA regular season.

Gregg Popovich [San Antonio Spurs]: After a 0-4 drubbing at the hands of the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semi-finals last year, everyone believed that San Antonio’s glory days were behind them. Heading into the 2010-11 season, their best players, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were heading into their mid-30s, while Tony Parker at 29 was no spring chicken. Yet, Popovich managed to defy all those odds and took San Antonio to their best regular season in franchise history [currently 57-17]. They may be on a four-game losing streak right now [Duncan’s out with a knee injury], but playing an up-tempo style of basketball, the Spurs have burned their opponents with their three-point shooting ability this season. They are currently the number one team in the league in three-point shooting percentage [.399]. All credit to Popovich then, who realized the age issues with Duncan and instead of relying solely on his low-post presence, focused on San Antonio playing a high-speed ball game. The results have been for everyone to see.

Nate McMillan [Portland Trail Blazers]: Last year when Portland had players miss a combined 311 games, Nate McMillan still had the team finish 50-32. Injuries once again dogged Portland right through this season as center Greg Oden remained unavailable before he played a game while Brandon Roy missed a near two-and-a-half month period between December 15, 2010 and February 24, 2011. But with a 21-20 record at the half-way mark in the current regular season, it seemed McMillan’s ability to inspire the Trail Blazers to do better had waned. Yet, having taken them on a 22-11 run since, it is clear that McMillan has been able to deliver for the second successive year in running. Like Collins, McMillan, too, had no all-star name on his roster but the Trail Blazers hold a one game lead over the New Orleans Hornets for the sixth spot in the Western Conference. Certainly, a worthy contender for the Coach of the year award.

Tom Thibodeau [Chicago Bulls]: Just last week I had praised Thibodeau’s role at Chicago. Here was a man who in his rookie season as head coach had inspired Chicago to the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference [currently 53-20]. The team had been hampered by injuries to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, but the Bulls hardly slipped during their absence. Thibodeau’s credentials as a stickler for defense have also shone through his stay at Chicago, as the Bulls rank first in keeping opponents down to a mere 42.8 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from behind the 3-point line. They come in second at points allowed to opponents – just 91.18 PPG. Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports summed up the critics viewpoint on Thibodeau’s effect on the Bulls perfectly, “I don’t know of too many rookie coaches who have been able to come in and do what Thibodeau has been able to do in his first season.”

The list of contenders is as impressive as it can get. In Doug Collins, George Karl and Gregg Popovich you have veteran personalities who have been able to channelize their experience in the league to inspire their teams. Nate McMillan and Tom Thibodeau, on the other hand, in a relative sense, represent the other end of the experience divide.

Yet, if I had to stick my head out and pick one of these names for coach of the year award, it would be McMillan’s. Popovich and Thibodeau have some quality all-star players on their roster and it would have been interesting to see how these coaches would have fared without their presence. Geroge Karl’s recent winning run is too short a duration for him to be judged over the course of the entire regular season. Finally, between the 76ers and the Trail Blazers, both of who are currently placed at sixth spot in their respective conferences, the latter are more likely to beat the third placed team in the opening round of their respective playoff matchups. The scribes at Sekou Smith’s Hang Time Blog also back this opinion.

On that count alone, I think the time is nigh for coach McMillan to be appreciated for his efforts.