Coaches: Who needs them?
By Marcus Thompson II
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
Whom would you rather have drawing up the final play with the game on the line?
What's more valuable, pregame preparation or in-game adjustments? What's tougher, winning a title with a lot of talent or making the playoffs with hardly any?
The parity in the NBA is obvious as the 2005-06 season tips off Tuesday. The Pacific Division is up for grabs, as is the Atlantic. The Central Division could send five teams to the playoffs.
With several teams possessing quality talent, what happens on the sidelines could be the deciding factor in which teams are successful. The teams with the best coaches figure to be the last ones standing. That said, who are the top coaches in the NBA?
The Times opens up this NBA season by deciphering just that, including who stands alone at the top.
Best motivator: Jerry Sloan
Believe it or not, one of a coach's hardest jobs is motivating his players. Getting the most out multimillionaire players, who are often too young to understand or too old to really care, is quite the task.
Some don't think it's possible.
"If you're having to pull, extrapolate the effort out of people and if you have underachievers that you're trying to make overachievers," Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles said, "that is very, very difficult and for the most part, I don't think it works."
But somehow, some coaches have it down pat. Somehow, some coaches get their players to overcome talent deficiencies and get their players to compete at their maximum potential. There were several examples of great motivating last year. George Karl took the same Denver Nuggets team that started 24-29 and went 25-4 down the stretch. Rick Carlisle led the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs despite a roster depleted by injury and suspensions.
No one in the game today has mastered this art better than Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. For 17 seasons, the Jazz has been known for its scratch-and-claw style of play. Even in down years.
Sure, he had two Hall of Famers in forward Karl Malone and guard John Stockton. But he's also had Greg Ostertag, Scott Padgett, Olden Polynice, Adam Keefe, Howard Eisley, Mark Eaton, Shandon Anderson -- players who have done nothing away from Sloan. Even in down years, Sloan made sure his team was a tough win.
"I've always had a great deal of respect for Jerry Sloan, his team and the way they played," Portland coach Nate McMillan said. "I played against him for 12 years and I just know how tough it was to beat the Utah Jazz. Every game you played against those guys it was a war, whether it was at home or on the road. To have his team come out and compete the way they did, every game, every year -- I had a great deal of respect for him. I know he had two Hall of Famers on his team, but that team always came out and made it a war."
Best with less: Larry Brown
Larry Brown doesn't need much talent. Never has.
Give him some scrubs, he'll make them serviceable. Give him some young players, he'll teach them how to play. Give him some veterans, and he'll squeeze the juice out of them.
Brown thrives in the most undesirable situations. He does his best work when the odds are against him. He flourishes where others have failed.
He guided the New Jersey Nets to 44- and 47-win seasons from 1981-83. The Nets hadn't won more than 37 games in the previous six seasons. San Antonio's best finish in its division was fourth, out of six teams, between the 1983-84 and the 1987-88 seasons. Brown came and led the Spurs to three 30-plus-win seasons and into the Western Conference semifinals twice.
Brown took over the Los Angeles Clippers midway through the 1991-92 season. The next season, he led the franchise to its first ever playoff appearance. His first two years with the Indiana Pacers resulted in consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals -- the Pacers' first trips out of the first round in franchise history.
In Philadelphia, he took Allen Iverson and a roster full of backups to the 2001 NBA Finals. In Detroit, he had an inconsistent point guard, a one-dimensional shooting guard, a second-year small forward, a troubled power forward and an offensively challenged, undersized center -- with a weak bench. But he molded that unit into the most complete lineup in the NBA, upsetting an exponentially more talented team in the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.
With Brown at the helm, the New York Knicks are expected to end their six-year playoff drought despite a roster full of question marks.
"Coach Brown doesn't surprise you, me or anyone else with that stuff. He loves that stuff," San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about Brown's taking over the struggling Knicks. "He enjoys rebuilding -- going to practice and (working from the ground) up more than championships and games. That's what he's all about as a teacher, so it's no surprise to me at all."
Best strategist: Phil Jackson
The NBA is full of basketball wizards. You don't make it to the NBA level without some plays up your sleeve.
Detroit Pistons coach Flip Saunders has a Ph.D. in offense. He's known for his scores of offensive sets and massive playbook. Brown is considered by many to be the best in late-game adjustments. Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni's offense took the run-and-gun style to another level last year.
"It's often said that the strategy and the X and O aspect of the NBA is overrated because it's all about talent and those sort of things," Carlisle said. "But you had better have your ducks in a row in terms of the things that you're doing at both ends of the court."
Who is better than Lakers coach Phil Jackson and his triangle offense? Ever notice how wide open Steve Kerr and John Paxson were with the game on the line, and how no one was ever in Michael Jordan's way? Jackson's understanding and teaching of Tex Winter's triple-post offense is such that, in a copycat era of sports, no other team can duplicate it.
There is a reason he just sits on the bench calm and composed, even when the other team is on a run. His teams are so well-prepared, his structure so effective, that there's nothing more to say.
Sure, he's had four of the 50 greatest players all the time (including Kobe Bryant, though he wasn't in the official 50 greatest) during his stints with the Chicago Bulls and Lakers. But there is a reason they never won without him. Their talent plus his structure is what took them all to new heights.
"What Phil has done in two different spots, he has been able to adapt to the players he has had, different situations," Saunders said. "Sometimes it's just as tough to coach an extremely talented team as it is to coach a team that is not as talented, and I think he's done a great job with that."
But for all the talk about his offense, Jackson is also a mastermind of defense. What separated his teams from the rest of the league wasn't a juggernaut offense. The Bulls and Lakers were efficient on offense but never led the league in scoring. It was his teams' defenses that made the difference.
Even with slow-footed centers, soft forwards, unathletic shooting guards and undersized point guards, Jackson's squads knew how to defend. That's why in five of his championship seasons, his teams finished tops in the league in point differential (points scored minus points allowed). Only once in his nine title seasons did they finish lower than third.
"He's proven that his system, and what he does, works," Sacramento Kings coach Rick Adelman said.
Best coach: Gregg Popovich
More than any coach in the league right now, Popovich most embodies all of the aforementioned characteristics.
"It's a package of things," said Donn Nelson, Dallas Mavericks general manager and president of basketball operations. "The great coaches in our games are the ones with the most complete packages.
"And Pop is one of the most respected coaches in the league. It's not just the fact that he's won championships. His teams are always very well prepared. There's very little in the way of surprises. He's got a terrific demeanor. He's respected. Players feel like they have a relationship with him."
Popovich may not be the best in any of the aforementioned areas, though he's darn close, but that he excels at all of them makes him the best. He's the Kevin Garnett of coaching.
Like Sloan, his teams are always tough to beat. They're tough, they're gritty and they compete every game. You can never question their effort, and they always play as a team.
Like Brown, he doesn't have to have the most talent to win. He takes young and good-but-limited players such as Manu Ginobili, Rasho Nesterovic, Malik Rose and Bruce Bowen and maximizes their abilities.
Like Jackson, he's sharp with the X's and O's and thrives at creating and exploiting mismatches. His teams are efficient offensively and thrive on execution. They are stellar on defense, always among the NBA's best in field goal percentage defense and points allowed.
That's why he's the best.
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former. -- Albert Einstein - US (German-born) physicist (1879 - 1955)
Last edited by Dave McNulla; 10-31-05 at 01:47 PM.
Pop is really the best
"We would have two less championships here if it wasn't for Manu Ginobili," Popovich said. "In my book, Manu Ginobili is the stud of the world.
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