HANG TIME, Texas — It’s summertime and that means that all NBA coaches are undefeated. They have sunny forecasts for their new lineups, hot plans for training camp and picture nothing but blue skies for the 2013-14 season openers that will tip off in less than three months.
But let’s face it. Some of these men won’t make it to the February trade deadline. A couple could get the ax before Christmas. Then again, we can count on the cream of the crop to get the most out of their teams.
So let’s go right to next April and figure these are the five most likely to be filling my Coach of the Year Award ballot:
Erik Spoelstra, Heat — There is not a more thankless job in the NBA than being coach of the best team with best player. Oh sure, you get the championship rings and a nice paycheck, but not all the respect that’s deserved and certainly very few of these awards. Even though Phil Jackson’s teams won a record 11 titles in Chicago and Los Angeles, the Zen Master was named Coach of the Year only once (1996). Now it’s Spoelstra who’s getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment, as if he’s only around to be shoved aside by LeBron James when things occasionally get uncomfortable. However, it’s more than just filling out the lineup card and rolling the balls onto the court when your team has won back-to-back championships, been to The Finals three years in a row and had a historic 27-game winning streak. When the Heat check in with the best regular-season record again in April and embark on their quest for a three-peat, Spoelstra should finally get his due.
Doc Rivers, Clippers — All the time, energy and talks that went into getting Rivers to make the coast-to-coast jump will be proven worth it when this loose bunch of talent learns what it means to play with a purpose every night. Suddenly Clippers brass will be wondering why they wasted time tap-dancing the past two seasons with Vinny Del Negro rather than bringing in an elite-level coach to transform the Staples Center sideshow from Lob City carny act into a real contender in the West. Despite the summer on-court improvements by the Rockets and Warriors, L.A.’s upgrade on the bench will make a bigger difference. Maybe not in terms of wins (56) from last year, but attitude, poise and, eventually, playoff performance.
Tom Thibodeau, Bulls — If you had to cast him as a great movie character from the past, Thibodeau would be the Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Playing the entire season without MVP Derrick Rose? ‘Tis but a scratch. Losing Luol Deng and getting Joakim Noah banged up in the playoffs? Just a flesh wound. The Bulls just keep grinding, because Thibs keeps grinding. He’s a no-excuses guy who believes in defense and competing and can get that message across to his players. The only question about him is why it took so long for somebody to recognize Thibodeau as more than just an excellent assistant coach. Now, hopefully, he’s got Rose back at full strength — left-footed dunks included — and that means Chicago is back to being more than just a streak-busting bane in the existence of the two-time defending champions. The Bulls are in the hunt because Thibodeau will never let them lose the scent.
Gregg Popovich, Spurs — You just can’t have a list of the top coaches in any NBA season without including Pop. He’s the dean of the fraternity — in fact, the longest-tenured coach in any major North American sport — and the truth is we could just give it to him every year and retire the trophy. So Tim Duncan pops back up with an All-NBA first team performance last season at age 37, Tony Parker continues to blossom and reach new heights at 31, the Spurs come within a 30-second mental breakdown of winning their fifth championship in June and the world acts like they’d found an elixir of youth. The truth is the Spurs simply keep drinking Popovich’s Kool-Aid and continue to defy anyone who annually predicts their demise. When the real Western Conference contenders line up for the start of the playoffs next April, he’ll have the Spurs there again.
Mike Brown, Cavaliers — The last two seasons that Brown walked the sidelines in Cleveland, his teams won 66 and 61 games — both the highest totals in the NBA — and yet it wasn’t good enough. Brown earned Coach of the Year honors in 2009, but because the Cavs with LeBron James couldn’t bring home the real hardware — the Larry O’Brien Trophy for a championship — he was shown the door. How interesting that now he’s back and could get considerable recognition and even win this award again just for getting a young Cavs team out of the lottery and into the playoffs. Brown was out of his element in that Lakers experience, but being back in Cleveland will put his thumbprint on the defense and produce enough of an upbeat season to maybe even get LeBron looking back home again as a free agent in the summer of 2014.
Send me your picks.