San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich won the NBA's Coach of the Year award on Tuesday, in a well deserved honor. The only problem with this award, as has been the case for years, is that this well-deserved honor could, well, deservedly go to several other honorees per year. There really only might be one or two players that put together MVP or Rookie of the Year-level seasons; but each year you have at minimum a half-dozen candidates for an award that I routinely think should come down to a throw of a six-sided die. Preferably tossed by Vinny Del Negro.
This year was different, though. Though Pop put in a clear Coach of the Year-level season, I still have a hard time figuring out why Chicago's Tom Thibodeau didn't grab more votes (Popovich nearly tripled him up in first-place votes); especially in the wake of his team working without Derrick Rose for nearly half the season. Chicago's winning percentage actually improved this season in comparison to Thibodeau's Coach of the Year run from 2010-11, and while I'm convinced those of whom that know of my Bulls fandom will slough me off, I don't mind pointing out that the vote should have been at the very least a little closer.
You don't get the feeling that this was a coin flip vote, though, with participants falling in line behind Coach Pop after letting things fall where they may. There has been a big movement since San Antonio's strong end to the season, catching up and eclipsing the Oklahoma City Thunder for the West's top seed, for Popovich to take the award. Especially in a year that might see his team go without a player on the All-NBA team, should voters for that crew decide to place two shooting guards or another point guard ahead of Tony Parker.
That exclusion would make sense, in yet another goofball year filled with upheaval for what is generally considered to be the NBA's most stable franchise. The Spurs are far from that, what with Manu Ginobili missing 59 games and an aging Tim Duncan managing to play just 1,634 total minutes as Popovich rested the veteran's legs for a playoff run. A playoff run that is looking more and more like a Finals or even championship run by the day. Not only did the Spurs not have the team's typical Big Three to consistently rely upon, but the supporting cast was all over the place from the outset. Popovich, somehow, created a lights-out winner with it.
Tiago Splitter, while not fully ingratiated, came back with a fantastic bounce-back year in his second NBA campaign. Danny Green and Gary Neal ably held down the fort at the wing in Ginobili's absence, and the team rather successfully re-instituted that You Can Be an Ass Everywhere Else but San Antonio-ethos by seamlessly working in Boris Diaw and former Spur Stephen Jackson after they were given up on in Charlotte and Milwaukee. All the while Pop found ways to overcome DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner's defensive shortcomings, and turning this one-time defensive minded crew into the league's top offensive outfit.
All while Scottie Pippen is probably looking at rookie Kawhi Leonard sometimes and thinking, "daaaaamn."
Thibodeau came in second with the Coach of the Year votes, with Indiana's Frank Vogel placing third, and Lionel Hollins fourth. This is rare, with the league's top two records featuring coaches grabbing the top two spots in the voting. And, as was the case last season when Thibs won the hardware, a bit of a reaction to the usual style of CoY voting — which tends to award the leaders of overachieving teams that win a few more than half of their contests. Partly because of that history, a Coach of the Year hasn't won a championship in the same years as he won the award. Not since 2003, at least, when Popovich and his Spurs took home the title and Coach Pop took the award.
Fittingly, a downer question about that nine-year gap between concurrent award/title winners ended Pop's press conference, before he half-jokingly asked that the reporter behind the question be taken away by security. It actually wasn't quite the smirking, smart-aleck reply you usually get from Popovich; who is probably more aware than any of us that this is a now or never season for his aging Spurs. The team might have youth and dynamic talent all over its roster, but at its heart is the Big Three, and that core is five years removed from his last title.
The team's first title, back in 1999, also came in the midst of a lockout season. Because Phil Jackson's hiring and three straight Los Angeles Lakers titles immediately followed, the Spurs were needlessly given an undeserved asterisk during Los Angeles' reign; soon to be taken right back once San Antonio won three titles of their own between 2003 and 2007.
Some 13 years later, though, Coach Pop might see a way to grab the asterisk back. In the irony of ironies, he might ease his way into the final championship of Duncan's career while the Miami Heat figure things out, or while the Oklahoma City Thunder recover from potentially having to down the Dallas Mavericks and Lakers in two grueling first and second-round series.
It would be a fitting, smirk-worthy run. Until it ends, nicely done Coach Pop.