HoopsHype.com Columns

Give Phil the award
by Dennis Hans / April 1, 2004

There’s only one way to pick the NBA Coach of the Year: a process of elimination, just like the Miss America contest.

We don’t quite have 50 hopefuls, even if we include all those coaches who started but didn’t finish the season. We won’t include them, but Doc Rivers, Byron Scott, Jim O’Brien, Frank Johnson, Don Chaney, Bill Cartwright and Randy Ayers retain their eligibility for the Swimsuit, Evening Wear, and Mister Congeniality awards.

Two coaches who didn’t make the list of 11 finalists nevertheless merit honorable mention:

- Paul Silas, for getting the Big Z to play up to his potential at both ends of the floor and for giving LeBron just the right mix of freedom and guidance to help him develop into a well-rounded star.

- Flip Saunders, who got his Big Three on the same page, but is struggling down the stretch with a roster puzzle that doesn’t quite fit.

Of our 11 finalists, these six just missed out on making the final five:

- Terry Porter: Let’s hope that Porter’s success starts a hiring trend. He proved that one can simultaneously be a “players' coach” promoting instinctive, free-flowing play while at the same time fielding a team that’s well-organized and disciplined enough to know good shots from bad ones. He had the Bucks firing on all cylinders until TJ Ford’s untimely injury, which likely will mean an early playoff exit.

- Jeff Van Gundy: Revived Kelvin Cato and helped Maurice Taylor develop into an elite sixth man, but has imposed a style and pace of play that has little chance of producing a champion. The control-freak approach is the NBA equivalent of the Marty Schottenheimer style in the NFL: a conservative, predictable offense that’s obsessed with avoiding turnovers. That might produce regular-season improvement, but it doesn’t prepare a team for playoff competition against good teams, where offensive improvisation is required to overcome well-schooled defenses that, in a long series, will neutralize set plays.

- Stan Van Gundy: Unlocked the doors of Pat Riley’s prison, setting free the players and allowing them to reconnect with their creativity and instincts – that is, with two key qualities that made them NBA-worthy in the first place. With an assist from Dwyane Wade, Van Gundy has turned the second most boring team in league history – number one is the Fratello-era Cleveland Cavaliers – into a 2004 NBA rarity: a team that is consistently fun to watch.

- Lawrence “Don’t Call Me Larry” Frank: Great story, but Nets management should impose on him a minimum six hours of sleep per night. Long-term health for the young man with the weary eyes is more important than this silly sport that entrances us so. In an otherwise flawless run, Frank has made two fatal mistakes at the Nets helm. I fear he won’t be able to overcome the bad karma he brought upon his team in a recent loss to the Pistons, where first he tried to rally by employing a hack-a-Ben strategy. Then, in the waning seconds with victory out of reach, he ordered an intentional foul to give the Nets a final shot at breaking the Pistons streak of holding opponents under 70 points. Both tactics – while within the rules – make a mockery of the game. That couldn’t have pleased the hoop gods, who have long memories.

- Jerry Sloan: Another great job by the man who competes as intensely from courtside as he once did in games. He comes up a tad short of the ultimate coaching honor, however, because of one weakness: He and his
staff are insufficiently pro-active in developing young talents who have a dash of offensive flash. They repeatedly pooh-poohed DeShawn Stevenson’s physical gifts rather than seeing how those might be honed and polished to make life easier for him and the Jazz’s spot-up shooters. Not everyone has the ability to breakdown a defender, and rather than belittle that quality as appropriate only on the playground, a wiser course would have been to hire a Kevin Johnson or James Silas to tutor Stevenson rather than force him into a catch-and-shoot role.

- Rick Adelman: One of the best regular-season coaches, but still looking for his first title and still not established as a top-flight bench coach in the playoffs – the latter is all that stands between him and a Coach of the Year crown. If Vlade Divac keeps his flopping to a minimum I’ll be rooting for a Kings championship, as it would be good for the game if more teams mimicked the Adelman style than the control freaks’ “slow it down and slug it out” approach.

THE RUNNER-UPS

- Fourth runner-up Larry Brown: Has done another solid job, but his most important contribution may well have come off the court, with his constant badgering of Joe Dumars to pursue Rasheed Wallace. He could be the final piece, but I predict that Ben Wallace’s offensive deficiencies will be a key factor in ending the season short of a championship. Brown and assistant Mike Woodson deserve credit for working individually with Ben and integrating him more into the offense so the Pistons aren’t playing four against five, but the progress has been modest.

- Third runner-up Gregg Popovich: Proved his worth in a variety of ways. Most importantly, when Tim Duncan was sidelined several weeks ago Pop installed an effective, fun-to-watch motion offense, which continues to pay dividends now that Duncan is back. Without it, the Spurs chances of repeating were slight. Now they’re right there with the Lakers.

- Second runner-up Rick Carlisle: Premiere control-freak coach in the game today who – fortunately for Pacer fans – is gradually loosening the straitjacket on his team. Excellent organizer, motivator and delegator. Deserves credit for keeping Ron Artest focused on the task at hand and the continued development of dynamic Fred Jones. Lucked out when early-season injuries forced him to bring Jamaal Tinsley out of mothballs, as the Pacers have little chance of winning a title with Kenny Anderson and Anthony Johnson splitting 48 minutes at the point.

- First runner-up Hubie Brown: Too many good qualities to mention. Two personnel decisions stand out: He had the good sense to abandon his boneheaded idea of removing backup point guard Earl Watson from the rotation, and he gives important minutes to hustle maestro Bo Outlaw, who is Andrei Kirilenko minus the jumpshot and mohawk. No one appreciates shot blockers more than Hubie, and his frontcourt is stocked with swatters who erase mistakes and spark fastbreaks. But Hubie is 70, and he’s forged a team that is too exciting for his own well being. The solution for coming seasons: Hubie coaches at practice, and his son handles game duties while Hubie takes a nap in the locker room.

COACH OF THE YEAR

- Phil Jackson: Unflappable. Serene. The calm amid the storm in this stormiest of Laker seasons. Always aware of the big picture and the ultimate goal. It’s no accident that the two best coaches of all time – Jackson and Red Auerbach – are well-rounded, sensitive gents who understand people and have diverse interests outside the game.

Take note, all you nut-case coaches who eat, sleep, live and breath basketball. Do like Phil: stop and smell the incense. Get away and clear your head, then take a fresh look at your team and your coaching.

As for those other coaching awards. . .

Mister Congeniality: Maurice Cheeks, for getting along with everyone in Portland – even Rasheed Wallace and Ruben Patterson – and reaching the homestretch not only in the playoff hunt, but with his sanity and personality intact.

Evening Wear: Larry Brown, stylin’ and profilin’ in his throwback 1970s formal bib overalls and platform shoes.

Swimsuit: Don Nelson.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball — including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting — have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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