Blog Entry

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

Posted on: March 31, 2011 6:36 pm
Edited on: April 1, 2011 12:58 am
Gregg Popovich and Tom Thibodeau have coached brilliantly this year. But who's the NBA Coach of the Year? 
Posted by Matt Moore

They're wrong, you know. Five things are actually certain, not two. Death, taxes, Gregg Popovich will verbally tear you in half should you make an egregious mistake on the floor for him, and Tom Thibodeau will do the same, but be even louder when he does it. The fifth thing? One of those two men will win the 2010-2011 NBA Coach of the Year Award. 

As is the case with any award, particularly this year, there's no shortage of worthy nominees for Coach of the Year. George Karl comes to mind first. After all, he held a fractured, pressured locker room together through the insanity of the Melo saga, then turned a team without a superstar into the fifth seed, one who no one wants to run into in a dark first-round alley. J.R. Smith may be his best scoring component, his point guard is in his third season and two of his best frontcourt defenders are best known for their insane map of tattoos. Karl has done a great job. 

Another head guy that pops up is Lionel Hollins. Hollins has the Grizzlies in the playoffs despite a roster with considerable shortcomings, almost entirely made up of youngsters, and now without its highest paid player with Rudy Gay on the shelf. Zach Randolph is a team leader. Tony Allen is the emotional spark. And the squad that was one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season is all of a sudden a ball-hawking terror on the defensive end. Hollins has been superb. 

Doug Collins is going to sneak under the radar. The Sixers had a disastrous start. It was truly horrible. Then, they got better. Much better. And all of a sudden, they're the team  who is rocketing towards clinching the playoffs with a tough schedule, an over-the-hill star in Elton Brand, and a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none best player in Andre Iguodala. Collins has come out of nowhere to do a bang-up job. 

But in reality, this comes down to those two guys. The two best teams in each conference. But to see the real reason the award comes down to these two, you have to go far beyond the record. And you have to go even beyond that to find who deserves it more between the two basketball geniuses. 

No one saw this coming from San Antonio. They were supposed to be a playoff team, sure. But there was no indication that this season would find the Spurs winning.. and winning... and winning. What Popovich has done is taken a team that was between identities last season and shifted it into a juggernaut. Most people found the re-signing of Richard Jefferson preposterous in light of his contributions last season. Instead, Popovich turned Jefferson into a corner shooter, having him fill the role that so many veteran wings have taken, that of the long, defensive wing who spots-up for kickouts upon drives from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and on kickouts from Tim Duncan. Popovich has created an offensive juggernaut, which was tops in offensive efficiency for most of the season (until the aforementioned George Karl's Nuggets started tearing up opponents). George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, even Matt Bonner? These are all parts of the offensive albatross Pop put together out of the ashes of a second-round flameout squad. Yes, the health of the Spurs has helped, and yes, the defensive prowess hasn't been as impressive as previous Spurs teams'. But the proof is in the pudding. Popovich not only pushed the Spurs to topple nearly every team they came across, but kept on them through the dregs of January and February. It's only been in March, against elite playoff teams and dealing with injuries as the team starts to coast towards the playoffs, that the Spurs have shown any vulnerabilities in terms of overall performance. 

Maybe most impressive about Pop's work this year, however, is his ability to get outside of his traditional framework. Instead of blasting his team into smithereens when it's winning about its poor defensive performances, instead Popovich pushed the offense more. He's still cranky about the defense; he's Pop. But he also understood as he always has that winning is what matters in this league; it's results that you're judged by in this league. As the Spurs take on the Celtics Thursday night, the contrast is clear. Both Popovich and Doc Rivers have had to deal with new elements built around the same core, and new identities wrapped around the same principles. But while Rivers' Celtics remained a top team for most of the season, but still struggled to understand who they were as a team, Popovich's Spurs have simply kept speeding forward, destroying whatever was in their way, until just recently. If the defense were a little bit better, or had they driven right through the injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, there'd be no doubt that this would not only be the best coaching work of Pop's career in a regular season, but one of the better performances by any coach, ever. 

If only. 

NBA Awards
But it's those same reasons that we look across to the other conference, and see the barking, hoarse-voiced rage of another genius, whose team is similarly unbalanced, and yet nearly as successful. Chicago is 54-20, three games behind San Antonio for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Tom Thibodeau has been everything many thought he'd be in his first year in Chicago, and more. He's combined the raw emotional challenge of Doc Rivers, with the cold, ruthless tactician work of Popovich in previous years. He commands the best defense in the league, on a roster that features Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng in a prominent role. Boozer, Deng, Korver, Rose, Bogans, the list goes on and on of average-to-subpar defenders who all of a sudden are part of the fiercest trap in the league, the stiffest challenge at the rim, the quickest swarm to a loose ball. They are ball-hawks and charge-takers, dunk-stoppers and steak-makers, and they are constantly, constantly, constantly working to help one another to close any holes in their defense.

Thibodeau has the Bulls believing in themselves, 100 percent convinced that there is no limit to how far they can go. Playoffs? Who cares about making the playoffs. Let's talk about winning the championship. Not in a year. Not in a few years. Now. They buy in, completely and totally, to the team concept, to the defensive principles, to the guidance of their coach and the leadership he's instilled in his star point guard. 

Ah, Rose.

To give Thibodeau credit is as short-sighted as giving Rose credit for the Bulls' defense. In reality, both have excelled by letting the other do their thing. Coaches are often attributed with the success of improving a player, ignoring the work done in the offseason and the fact that so often, these star players simply break off the play and go be their awesome selves. Thibodeau has been honest about his approach. The Bulls' offense isn't a juggernaut, even within the Eastern Conference and certainly not when stacked up against San Antonio's. But it gets the job done, because Thibodeau has taken a hands-off approach. He trusts his players to execute, and trusts his star point guard to make plays. How often do we see coaches doom their teams by demanding they play within the system? Thibs merely asks them to commit to his proven defensive principles, and in return, gives them the freedom to be the players they are. It's a strikingly simple approach that makes you slap yourself on the forehead and ask why no one thought of this before. 

While Popovich has enjoyed the luxury of having his team healthy and complete for most of the season, Thibodeau has led the Bulls to this point despite missing Carlos Boozer for months, and Joakim Noah for weeks. The Bulls have played few games with a full roster, yet here they are. It's a testament to the ability to not only work around roster holes, but to develop a system which makes no individual player essential to the success of the team. Watch the Bulls. It's not the personnel that makes them an awesome force on defense, it's the wholesale commitment to the act. There's no uncertainty when they trap the ball-handler on the wing off the pick and roll, no hesitation when the weak-side defender rotates to cut off perimeter penetration. There's confidence, assurance, belief in their teammates, in the system, in their success. 

Coach of the Year is a regular season award. To try and judge these two based on their playoff prospects is short-sighted and complicated. Instead, it comes down to which team has been more impressive with the hand they've been dealt. And considering the cards and how he's played them, there can be no doubt. Tom Thibodeau is the 2010-2011 NBA Coach of the Year.


Since: Aug 16, 2006
Posted on: April 1, 2011 12:06 pm

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

Since: Dec 8, 2006
Posted on: April 1, 2011 7:34 am

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

Doug Collins has done the best job of any coach. The sixers don't have a superstar and he has gotten the most you can out of the players he has. Trust me no team out there wants to play the Sixers in the playoffs. That doent mean they are going to win a series or anything but the are sure to make life miserable for some team. Thibodeau has a very good team with Superstars Derrrick Rose and Carlos Boozer so he should have a them as one of the best in the Eastern conference. Pop's is always does a good job but again he also has 2 superstars to work with. I'm not saying these other guys aren't worthy but Collins has done the best job of coaching in 2010-2011.

Since: Aug 8, 2007
Posted on: April 1, 2011 1:01 am

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

COLLINS all the way. C'Mon the team already has 12 more wins than last year with a team almost entirely the same as last year.The Bulls have Rose, the MVP,Boozer, Deng and some other very competent parts.

Since: Oct 15, 2008
Posted on: March 31, 2011 11:22 pm

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

Thibo COY hands down. In regards to the evolution of the Bulls D,however, Boozer and Deng will never be mistaken for Rodman or Pippen. Team defense in the NBA comes down to discipline and putting 100% effort on both ends. Playing tough D does not show up in the tangible stats that todaze players are so concerned about but it does win championships and it is without a doubt a reflection on their coach. The Bulls have definitely bought into Thibos selfless mindset. Playing tough D in the NBA is the harder path to take but judging by its history it is the path that leads to championships.

Since: May 24, 2010
Posted on: March 31, 2011 10:49 pm

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

Ensignzou I completely agree with you. This isn't the first time i've heard someone call Deng a weak defender, which is really confusing to me. Deng is constantly holding down players like LeBron and the other top forwards/2 guards to under 20 points. The problem is I think that all players get around 15-20 points against Deng. When it comes down to what matters though, Deng can guard anyone.

Since: Mar 31, 2011
Posted on: March 31, 2011 10:23 pm

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

“ He commands the best defense in the league, on a roster that features  and  in a prominent role.“
What the HELL does this mean? Boozer, fine, but on what planet was Luol Deng not already a plus defender?

Since: Feb 20, 2011
Posted on: March 31, 2011 10:04 pm

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

As a Bulls fan, I won't claim to be objective, just like I won't assume that a poster with the name 'Nuggets_SOS' is objective either. George Karl has done an awesome job in Denver post-Melo. I cheered him on and enjoyed his glee after Melo was traded and he experienced that first few days of freedom. It's been like a breath of fresh air to see Karl in his element again, after dealing with Melo's refusal to be coached (not to mention the much more serious cancer battle as well).

But I still think Thibs' results are more significant. Boozer and Noah have missed a lot of time, and the roster has more than 50% new faces from last season. The one gem here is the defensive scheme he's installed. It's one thing to get guys like Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to buy in and build a superb defensive unit. Those guys were desperate, and fully realized they were on their last shots, not to mention the Hall of Fame talents of all three. It's a SIGNIFICANTLY different accomplishment to build a league-leading defensive unit with guys like Boozer, Rose, Korver and Deng, guys who at one point of their careers were regarded as bad defenders.

Rose is an MVP candidate without question, and he has solid support in Deng, Noah and Boozer. But it's not like Karl is coaching stiffs - his roster is very deep, with J.R., Kenyon Martin, Nene, Chandler, Gallinari, Al Harrington, Afflalo, Andersen and TWO pure point guards in Lawson and Felton.

While the MVP for Rose is highly debatable, I think Thibs' case for COY is stronger.

Since: May 22, 2008
Posted on: March 31, 2011 7:59 pm

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

George Karl comes to mind first. After all, he held a fractured, pressured locker room together through the insanity of the Melo saga, then turned a team without a superstar into the fifth seed, one who no one wants to run into in a dark first-round alley. may be his best scoring component, his point guard is in his third season and two of his best frontcourt defenders are best known for their insane map of tattoos. Karl has done a great job.

Nice to see you give a bit of credit to the Real coach of the year.  Looking at what a coach has to do with these current players, succome to the ultra egos of superstars, which is no easy task for many.  Then show what a team of quality players can do with true coaching, coaching like you don't see very often in the NBA because of those superstars.  Coaching that you see in college play.  Today's NBA coaches have been more managers of egos, but it's nice to see that Karl still has some real coaching left in him.  He's got a team that used to be the laughing stock of the defensive stallworths, but now is one of the top. 

Thibs has the probably MVP and Pop has three players that are about as easy to coach as you can have.  Two worthy coaches, sure, but with how good this team is playing when it was supposed to drop like a rock in the rankings, I still say that Karl deserves the honor.  Most NBA awards don't give it to the worthy person, so won't be expecting much.

Since: Feb 14, 2009
Posted on: March 31, 2011 7:58 pm

COY: Down to Popovich vs. Thibodeau

Why isn't Phil Jackson an option? Can I write him in?

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