Breaking down Coach of the Year race
We interrupt our regularly scheduled scrutiny of the Los Angeles Lakers staggering into April with the following crucial reminder:
That's right, it's the time of year each NBA fan and/or observer usually devotes to making subjective cases aimed at settling disputes surrounding various individual achievements. For example, observer A could pledge allegiance to the camp that champions LeBron James as this season's Most Valuable Player and observer B -- only pretending to be sober -- could offer support for someone else.
But as entertaining as it is to attempt separating individual performance by several players in distinct categories, it would be a shame to ignore those who make the maneuvers that leave these players in position to succeed. And I'm not referring to their agents.
The big thinkers we have in mind are the head coaches. Specifically, we're looking at which sideline sharpies deserve the harshest consideration for the league's Coach of the Year distinction. Before digging into this, please note that our list of five finalists will not include the Lakers' Phil Jackson; even if his players listened and performed exactly as Phil directed and established a new standard for frequency of triumph, I'm fairly certain we'd be forbidden from even considering him.
Anyway, whittling this season's list to five names was no cinch. A lot of really strong candidates have been left out, but I won't list those particular names because it might ease the sting of leaving them out and we'd like to avoid cheapening this sting.
So ... away we go.
SCOTT BROOKS, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
If you look closely -- especially around the eyes -- this one-time journeyman NBA guard sort of resembles the host from "The Amazing Race" on CBS But his team won't be the last to show up in this year's Western Conference playoff standings.
At post time, Brooks' guys were a whopping 18 games above .500. True, their leader is young superstar Kevin Durant, so Scott isn't exactly working with a team of stiffs. But he does have a second-year point guard (Russell Westbrook) who is developing into another elite player and a rookie backing him up. The power forward (Jeff Green) arrived in the league as more of a three, but Brooks was smarter than predecessor P.J. Carlesimo, who tried making the 6-foot-9 Durant a shooting guard. He was more of a shooting-and-watching-his-guy-score-at-will guard.
Brooks immediately moved KD to small forward and Green became an undersized four with the feet to defend on the perimeter and near the hoop.
However, that was last year. What really makes Scott a COY candidate this season is his team's ahead-of-schedule hop into the (for now) sixth seed.
And the Thunder has been shaking up the league with defense. Yeah, pretty much unheard of for a ridiculously young team. At present, OKC checks in as sixth in terms of defensive efficiency.
Just wait and see how good this team becomes when the young guys start making wiser decisions when they have the ball.
Of course, winning big will be expected by then and Brooks somehow won't seem as smart.
LARRY BROWN, CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
LB's now working for Michael Jordan and has managed to avoid going crazy. That has to be worth a few votes.
OK, so we knew Brown likes to sink his molars into a challenge and turn previous doormat teams into crusty units willing to play defense harder than the team you're rooting for. Mission accomplished ... again. The Bobcats are registered as second in defensive efficiency and have a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Gerald Wallace.
Well, Wallace would be a legit contender if he stood 6-11 and blocked even more shots than he manages to swat at about 6-6 and change. Voters seem to think defense is limited to blocked shots and steals. Wallace does both and still manages to crowd the space of the player he's assigned to guard.
But in addition to shifting Wallace from being nowhere near what prep-scouting geniuses predicted to lunch-pail hero, LB has steered the Bobcats into a playoff seed (at the moment) with two characters named Stephen Jackson and Tyrus Thomas.
Well, of course these guys have talent, but when a coach known for chirping about playing basketball "the right way" convinces guys like Jackson and Thomas to sell out most nights for the sake of the team, you're barging right into the heart of COY territory.
ALVIN GENTRY, PHOENIX SUNS
Admit it. Even though Alvin began the season with Steve Nash as his point guard and Amar'e Stoudemire at power forward, you didn't expect the Suns to do much more than slide into the back seat of the Western Conference playoff jalopy, did you?
Heck, no. He had Channing Frye working at center, Grant Hill working on a senior discount and Jason Richardson expected to gun his way into a trading-deadline departure. Please note that Leandro Barbosa missed a great deal of time with injury and the crazy-hot start Frye enjoyed as a three-point dead-eye cooled considerably.
But Gentry, still committed to pushing the pace more than traditional hoop followers are comfy with, has Phoenix actually contending to walk out of the regular season with the conference's second seed.
How has this been accomplished?
Well, by taking minutes from Amar'e when his defensive effort was even worse than usual, Gentry -- and Stoudemire's improving physical condition -- contributed to an eruption by the ultra-talented guy who also figured to be moved at the deadline.
Assisting Amar'e down low is Robin Lopez, the other Lopez twin and a player who has no problem dishing out punishment near the basket. Lopez, out for the next week or so, made a huge difference when Gentry moved him into the starting lineup.
His rough-stuff attitude dovetailed quite well with the approach of subs Lou Amundson and Jared Dudley, giving the Suns an actual defensive presence (at times) during close games when a stop is more valuable than another fast-break lay-up authored by Steve Nash.
NATE MCMILLAN, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
There's no way this passes muster in a movie script. I mean, seriously. The head coach ruptures his right Achilles tendon while participating in a workout because the Blazers -- due to injury -- didn't have enough healthy bodies to go over an opponent's sets in a five-on-five format?
After the tires were rotated on the team gurney, we were left with the following roll call:
Center Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla out for the year. Marcus Camby, who was acquired from the L.A. Clippers before the deadline, tweaked his right ankle just to fit in. Before Camby was added, Nate was attempting to get by with Juwan Howard working down low next to LaMarcus Aldridge. Jeff Pendergraph has been getting minutes, too.
Team superstar Brandon Roy has missed 15 games. Super-sub Rudy Fernandez has been down for 20.
Through it all, the Blazers still sit in a playoff spot. At post time, they were the seventh seed, but -- based on the Lakers' recent performances -- may slip to eighth on purpose.
SCOTT SKILES, MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Well, he may alienate much of the roster as early as next season, but Scott Skiles still has the attention of his young squad right now.
The message is completely embraced by the Bucks because no team can rank fourth in defensive efficiency without buying in.
A recent run of 17-5 -- not coincidentally linked to the trading-deadline deal for small forward John Salmons -- has left the Bucks ready to print playoff tickets. But before we salute general manager John Hammond for bringing in another scorer, please remember that Skiles was working with kid point guard Brandon Jennings, without injured sniper Michael Redd and getting along very well without departed Richard Jefferson.
Under Scott's watch, center Andrew Bogut has even turned into a monster. How? By playing defense.