April 16, 2008
Over the 2007-08 NBA season we’ve been dropping a lot of lists here at ETB. We have a special treat for you in that department in the next day or so, but I couldn’t resist making my argument for Coach of the Year a few hours early. There have been some truly spectacular jobs done from the sidelines this season, but for my money none more impressive than what has taken place in Bean Town. There are some differences of opinion in the ETB offices on this one, but here are my picks for the best coaching performances in the NBA this season…
1. Glenn “Doc” Rivers, Boston Celtics
Heading into the final game of the season, Boston sports a dominant 65-16 record, easily the best in the NBA. They’ve also set an NBA record for improvement in one season after coming off a terrible 24-58 season in 2006-07. Boston has been the NBA’s frontrunner all year, and all year it hasn’t been very close. I don’t want to make the argument solely on the basis of wins though, because Doc Rivers was fortunate enough to gain the services of potential Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the offseason.
People forget that Rivers won Coach of the Year once already after his first season with the Orlando Magic in 2000, but this has been the finest performance of his coaching career. Rivers was dismissed from Orlando after starting the 2003-04 season 1-10. He took the year to work the sidelines for ABC before starting his tenure in Boston. He’s still never won a playoff series, but Doc stuck with a team of youngsters for years in Boston and has capitalized on his chance to coach a winner this season. He’ll still have to prove himself in the playoffs, but there has been no better coach in the regular season.
Many expected an adjustment period after so much roster turnover in the offseason for the Celts. Rivers has had this team ready to play, and play extremely well, since day one. They started the season with eight consecutive victories and stood 29-3 on January 5th. Boston incorporated the games of two new superstars seamlessly on the court, and in the locker room Rivers has managed the potential egos splendidly. His handling of the new pieces has been masterful, and not just the Big Three. Boston also added James Posey, Eddie House, Glen Davis and later Sam Cassell — through it all Rivers has put together solid rotations and kept everybody happy and productive.
He’s also put together a solid bench and set of role players, which is impressive thinking back to before the season when everybody thought the Celts didn’t have anybody after Garnett, Pierce and Allen. Rajon Rondo was asked to made huge strides and has been given the reigns, Glen Davis was asked to provide a sporadic spark off the bench, Kendrick Perkins to be an anchor in the middle next to KG, Eddie House and James Posey to provided scoring from outside, and Paul Piece to buckle down on defense. Kevin Garnett has exchanged stats and minutes for wins. Leon Powe has been an impressive interior force off the bench.Everybody has submitted their ego for the sake of defense and team. It’s worked. Different people have stepped up all season, and the team even went 7-2 when MVP candidate Garnett missed time.
A big assist to defensive whiz Tom Thibodeau on this, but the schemes on D have been well-planned and well-executed all season. A far cry from last year, Boston is now the best defensive team in the NBA. They give up just 90.3 points a game (fewest in the league), opponents shoot just 41.9% FGs and 31.5% 3PTs (both lowest in the NBA), opponents average 18.7 assists (the second-fewest) and Boston gives up the fewest fast-break points in the NBA.
The Celtics are also prepared to go into the playoffs with relatively rested stars. Garnett has played just 33:06 minutes a game, the fewest since his rookie season in 1995. Ray Allen has played 36:12 minutes a game, his fewest since 2002, and Paul Piece has played only 36:12 minutes a game. Not bad for a team that wasn’t supposed to have anything to work with after those Big Three.
Four more Coach of the Year candidates after the break…
2. Rick Adelman, Houston Rockets
Rick Adelman came into the season known as an offensive coach, but he’s done a splendid job of working with the roster he was given. He hasn’t forced the tempo or style of play, but actually modified his style to fit. He’s made no attempt to push this team in any direction that didn’t make sense all season despite what has transpired. Adelman was doing a decent job with Yao Ming, but what he’s done since the big man went down has been astounding. They managed to wrap 22 straight victories (second-most in NBA history) around the loss of their franchise player. That demands attention. During that stretch Adelman pieced together a ramshackle roster at first lacking Tracy McGrady, then Yao Ming, and somehow conjured up more from this team than anybody imagined possible.
And let’s be honest, here’s the crux of it: the Rockets enter their final game with a 54-27 record, and this is simply not a roster that should have a chance to win 55 games. They’ve dealt with injuries to both of their superstars, and have been missing the best center in the NBA for the last third of the season. Houston has been flirting with the top record in the West for two months despite being woefully undermanned. Adelman has put together a hodge podge of players with one superstar on the perimeter, a shaky point, a defensive whiz in Shane Battier and a cadre of hustle guys — and he’s made them one of the best teams in the NBA. That’s good coaching.
3. Byron Scott, New Orleans Hornets
I’ll be the first to admit there’s a strong case for Byron Scott as the Coach of the Year. What has taken place in New Orleans this season has been nothing short of spectacular, and Scott has been at the center of it. The Hornets have outperformed everybody’s expectations this year, playing great basketball on both ends of the floor and vying for the best record in the most competitive Western Conference ever.
It’s been a treat to see this team of role players and one superstar come together, but I put more of that team success on the shoulders of one Chris Paul. No, it’s not Scott’s fault that he has an MVP candidate running his team on both ends, but I just tend to give more credit for the turnaround in The Big Easy to CP3. Scott has also been blessed with a roster that finally stayed healthy from top to bottom. That said, I don’t begrudge anybody for considering Scott’s masterful performance the best in the league this season.
I do have one minor bone to pick though, and this is almost tangential. J.R. Smith was jettisoned from the Hornets largely for his inability to work with Byron Scott, and that’s slightly troublesome here. Smith is the exact type of player that the Hornets could use this season, and while it’s hard to hold much of a grudge for failing to put up with the petulant Smith, the shooting guard’s absence is going to hurt in the playoffs this year. New Orleans lacks an athletic slasher/scorer to pair with Chris Paul, a key ingredient for most title contenders. That’s just an aside though, and not the reason he’s third here.
4. Phil Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers
Jackson’s holistic, “zen” style of coaching has payed big dividends for Los Angeles. This offseason the state of the franchise and roster was enough to cause MVP Kobe Bryant to demand a trade. Sports Illustrated predicted they would miss the postseason. They’ve missed their starting center for half the season. Now they finish with the top seed in the Western Conference. LA got off to a 25-11 start, putting them atop the West. Then they lost potential All Star Andrew Bynum. Just 18 days later they were back on top with the acquisition of Pau Gasol — rarely is an incoming star incorporated so well into a rotation mid-season as Gasol was this year. Then when Pau missed 9 games the Lakers persevered. They clinched the Pacific and the West, an impressive feat given expectations, and have put themselves in position to win the toughest Western Conference playoffs in history.
Despite being one of the top five coaches in NBA history Jackson surprisingly has won Coach of the Year honors just once, even with 9 of the last 18 NBA titles. In another year, his cerebral and appropriately hands-off job would be worthy of another award. The knock on Jackson is that he always has the best player in the game, but let’s not forget just what he’s milked out of the rest of the roster. They’ve dealt with injuries to Trevor Ariza, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Chris Mihm. They’ve gotten great performances out of youngster Bynum, newcomer Gasol, the underrated Jordan Farmar, the hustle guy Ronny Turiaf, and shooters Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic. On top of that, Jackson has coaxed out perhaps the finest performance of Lamar Odom’s career. Odom is playing like the most versatile big man in the game, doing whatever it takes to win each night. It would be hard to imagine anybody in the league getting much more out of this roster.
5. Maurice Cheeks, Philadelphia 76ers
Most NBA fans headed into the season expecting a dismal season for the supposedly rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers. They were widely projected to finish last in the Atlantic Division, but Philly has played surprisingly well this year and now sits in playoff position for the first time since the 2004-05 season. They are planted in the 7th seed and have impressive wins on their resume against Detroit (twice), Boston, Denver, San Antonio, Portland, Houston (twice), Cleveland and Phoenix (on the road, their first victory in Arizona in seven years).
Looking rudderless since their NBA Finals campaign of 2000-01, the Sixers ended the Allen Iverson era early last season and shipped him to Denver for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and a couple of first-round picks. This was to be a forgotten season, but under the steady hand of Maurice Cheeks they’ve made an improbable run in the season’s second half.
Philly runs good plays on offense, scoring more of their baskets on dunks than any team in the league, and plays sound defense. Maurice Cheeks was known as a heady and defensive-minded point in his days as a player, culminating in an NBA title for the 76ers in 1983. As a player Cheeks was a tenacious defender with a nose for the ball who made four consecutive NBA all-defensive squads and has the third-most steals in NBA history. His hard-nosed, ball hawking style is rubbing off on the youngsters. They’ve gotten a great performance out of veteran point Andre Miller, they’ve developed the talent of emerging scorer Lou Williams, worked in rookie Thaddeus Young, gotten better defense out of Samuel Dalembert and developed Andre Iguodala into a leader. As a team they’ve had fast hands in the passing lanes, averaging 8.7 steals a game (fourth-most in the NBA). They take after their coach on the floor, and he has them way ahead of the curve in the standings.