The NBA Realist: Tom Thibodeau
Jeff Van Gundy was right all along-Tom Thibodeau has been the best kept secret for years, and in 2011, did more than exceed expectations. While much of the credit for the Bulls’ 21 game improvement will be credited to Derrick Rose, Thibs was just as much, if not more of a catalyst, and extracted more out of his roster than anyone could have imagined by winning a league best 62 games. In addition to coaching a team that finished the regular season as the best defensive team in the NBA (first in Defensive Rating, first in Defensive FG%, and second in Points Allowed), Thibodeau got his superstar to completely buy into his program, overcame injuries to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, and did something that no other previous Bulls coach had been able to do – figure out how to make Luol Deng‘s 12 million dollar salary somewhat tradable.
Doug Collins in my mind, is a close second. He coached his team to a 14 game improvement and the 7th seed in the East, despite lacking a true superstar (no single player on the Sixers averaged more than 15 points). Collins, who has come a long way since those emotional meltdowns in Detroit, is your classic “turnaround” master who has a history of inheriting bad teams and making them better – he did so in 89 with the Bulls, 96 with the Pistons, and now 2011 with the Sixers.
Dishonorable mention goes to Gregg Popovich who mysteriously decided to sit all of his starters during the 81st game of the regular season against the Lakers with home court advantage still in the balance, and then inexplicably play them all during 82nd game of the season against Phoenix, resulting in a Manu Ginobili elbow injury that could adversely impact the Spur’s post-season hopes.
Honorable Mention: Doug Collins, Nate McMillan
Brown Mamba: Gregg Popovich
This was an incredibly tough one. On one hand, Thibodeau and the Bulls had an incredible year, finishing at least 2 spots ahead in the East from where most prognosticators had slotted them to be. Still, I kept looking at the Spurs lineup this year and just had to scratch my head and ask, “how in the world did this team finish anywhere close to the no. 1 seed in the West”? You had your MVP player see the biggest drop-off in his career finishing with 13ppg/9rbg in just 28 minutes per game. Your widely acknowledged most clutch go-to player Manu Ginobili shot 43% from the field – and your primary bench players consist of the likes of NBA rookies Dejaun Blair, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal, along with the one dimensional Matt Bonner. Popovich essentially reinvented this team from one that revolved around the skills of Duncan, to a balanced, well-coach mix of both young players and veterans. On the other hand, while Thibs did an outstanding job and had to deal with significant injuries to Noah and Boozer, you can easily make the case he had more talent than Pop. D-Rose is a clear All-star and Boozer is a former one. Luol Deng has historically been a solid NBA scoring option, and Noah is one of the best defensive players in the NBA. Add to that, key pieces like defensive stopper Ronnie Brewer, three point specialist Kyle Korver, and other solid pieces like Taj Gibson, and C.J. Watson — and the Bulls rise becomes less surprising. The last piece in my decision was the fact I believe that top to bottom, the Western Conference was a tougher conference (though the balance seems to be shifting).
One vote per person – unless you live in Chicago, Boston, Wisconsin, Rhode Island or Louisiana. This vote will be split four ways.
Gregg Popovich – When most NBA folks viewed San Antonio as the ghosts of NBA championships past, Popovich adapted and led his Spurs to the top of the Western Conference with a 62-21 record. Within that 62-21 mark, the Spurs constructed a 36-5 record at home. All of that is impressive, but more impressive is the time Popovich spent in the summer with Spurs forward Richard Jefferson. Coming off a disastrous 2009-10
season with the Spurs, it was expected that Jefferson would request a move out of the Lone Star State, but Pops took time from his usual summer sojourn and worked on tweaking Jefferson’s game. Jefferson has enjoyed success, and the Spurs are better for it.
Tom Thibodeau – Boston Celtics fans want to point to the trade of Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, as the downfall of the Celtics paralyzing defense, but maybe the finger should be pointed at the absence of Tom Thibodeau next to Doc Rivers on Boston’s bench. That’s probably incredibly unfair to current Celtics assistant coach Lawrence Frank, because his cast members are quite different than what Thibs had to work with in Boston, but let’s throw it out there.
Most amazingly, it appears that the former Salem State head coach and current Bulls coach had his superstar believing in his program from Day One. Unlike an unnamed superstar, who took his talents to South Beach where he questioned his early-season playing time and gave his coach a well-publicized high school hallway shoulder bump, Derrick Rose is an extension of his coach both on the floor and off the court.
With injuries to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, no one expected the Chicago Bulls, under a 53-year-old first-year coach to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference, but Thibodeau has corrected that false assumption.
George Karl – George Karl has battled cancer, he has contended with the superstar known as Carmelo Anthony, and he has led the Denver Nuggets to a 50-32 record highlighted by a 33-8 home record. In the lexicon of sports radio, we constantly hear hosts and callers refer to “distractions.” Did any other NBA team suffer from more “distractions” than George Karl’s Denver Nuggets?
In the post-Melo era of Denver Nuggets basketball, Karl took a hybrid Knicks/Nuggets construct and posted an 18-7 record. Throughout a long NBA season, the Nuggets were expected to implode, but a veteran NBA coach was able to guide his team to an unexpectedly successful season.
Nate McMillan – Nate McMillan used 16 starting lineups. Only Andre Miller and Martell Webster were healthy for all 82 games. Portland led the league in games missed with 225. Greg Oden was lost for the season. At various points, Brandon Roy’s knee allowed him the athleticism of a middle-aged YMCA hoops junkie. Rudy Fernandez was suffering from homesickness until he cemented a friendship with teammate Patty Mills. The Blazers have employed big men such as Fabricio Oberto, Sean Marks, Jarron Collins, Chris Johnson and Earl Barron. Joel Przybilla has managed to get on the floor for 31 games, and a lot of that was limited action.
Through all of that, Portland posted a 48-34 record and finished sixth in the Western Conference.
Marcas Grant – Tom Thibodeau
It’s very easy to look like a coaching genius when you have a guy like Derrick Rose doing the things he did in 2010. Everyone thought the Bulls would be competitive. But no one expected them to be THIS competitive. That’s where Thibodeau deserves a lot of credit. His defense-first mentality has made a world of difference. Or at least 20 games of difference. Plus the best record in the NBA. And he did it without having his team at full strength for much of the season. If both Boozer and Noah had been healthy all season, how many games could they have won?
Yes, I copped out on this one. Popovich had the award to himself for most of the season for his masterful work in guiding the Spurs to the best record in the league for most of the season while at the same time keeping Duncan’s minutes down and putting more of the focus on the supporting cast outside of their Big Three (Duncan, Parker & Ginobili). The Spurs’ offensive improvement masked their defensive shortcomings and confounded pundits (not to mention opponents) who considered them incapable of such a transformation. But Thibodeau’s body of work proved too impressive to ignore as well. He not only instilled a defensive system and mentality, but got everyone on the roster (starting with Derrick Rose) to buy in from the beginning, and helped keep the team together through the injuries to Boozer and Noah, which could have easily buried them in the standings. Most importantly, he had the Bulls playing their best basketball at season’s end, as they entered the playoffs as the hottest team in the entire league and finished with the league’s best record to boot. Both coaches did masterful jobs this season in markedly different ways, and in the end created a tie in my mind which I just couldn’t break, so I’m splitting my vote.