The voters have the facts, and they've voted yes: Gregg Popovich is the best in the world at what he does.
The NBA announced Tuesday that the San Antonio Spurs' inimitable sideline stalker has been named the league's 2013-14 Coach of the Year, taking home the Red Auerbach Trophy after piloting his Spurs to a 62-20 record, the best mark in the NBA, and the top seed in one of the more competitive Western Conferences in recent memory.
It's the second time in the last three years that Popovich has taken home the honor, and the third time in his illustrious career. He won his first Coach of the Year after a 2002-03 season in which his Spurs went 60-22 and won the NBA championship behind league MVP Tim Duncan. He joins Don Nelson (1982-83 and 1984-85 with the Milwaukee Bucks, 1991-92 with the Golden State Warriors) and Pat Riley (1989-90 with the Los Angeles Lakers, 1992-93 with the New York Knicks, 1996-97 with the Miami Heat) as the only three-time winners in the history of the award, which dates back to the 1962-63 season.
Popovich, 65, received 59 of a possible 124 first-place votes from sportswriters and broadcasters, and earned 380 total points — you get five points for a first-place vote, three points for second place and one point for third place — to top the ballot in a year in which there were a slew of very deserving candidates.
You sure can make a strong case for Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek, who finished second. The former ace shooting guard and ex-Utah Jazz assistant received 37 first-place votes, a ballot-leading 44 second-place nods and 339 total points after leading a young and rebuilding Suns squad that many predicted to rank among the league's very worst teams to a remarkable 48-34 record. The Suns were in playoff contention until the second-to-last game of the season in his first year running the show in the desert.
Ditto for Tom Thibodeau, who won the award after the 2010-11 season and came in third this season. The eternally hoarse and hard-charging Thibodeau received 12 first-place votes and 159 total points for his work alongside newly minted Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah in leading the Chicago Bulls to a tie for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference despite losing former MVP and expected offensive centerpiece Derrick Rose just 10 games into the season. He also watched his front office ship out two-way linchpin Luol Deng in a midseason money-saving deal that did nothing to augment this year's club. Without two of his three best players, Thibs still coaxed the league's second-best defense out of this year's Bulls and made scrap-heap pickup D.J. Augustin into a legitimate game-changing scorer off the bench.
And then there's Steve Clifford, who finished fourth (eight first-place votes, 127 points) after building the sixth-stingiest defense in the NBA around noted sieve Al Jefferson. He turned the Charlotte Bobcats from a league-wide laughingstock into a team that doesn't beat itself, and they intend to make the Miami Heat work for every last bucket in their first-round playoff series. And Dwane Casey, who finished fifth (five first-place votes, 70 points) after engineering a 14-game turnaround in the standings to lead the Toronto Raptors to a franchise-record 48 wins, the second Atlantic Division title in team history, and top-10 finishes in points scored and allowed per possession.
Any of those top five finishers would've been very worthy selections, making Coach of the Year, as always, one of the more difficult annual award calls to make. For what it's worth, two Yahoo Sports NBA writers — Kelly Dwyer and I — had Pop as our top choice in our 2013-14 postseason/awards predictions. Yahoo Sports NBA columnists Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc J. Spears preferred Clifford and Hornacek, respectively, while BDL writer Eric Freeman went with Thibodeau.
Also receiving first-place votes: Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers, whose free-flowing offensive system unleashed All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard en route to 54 wins, the West's No. 5 seed and a sixth-place finish; and Doc Rivers, who came in seventh after not only leading the Los Angeles Clippers to a franchise-record 57 wins and a second straight Pacific Division title, but also freeing up Blake Griffin to become the unquestioned focal point of L.A.'s meat-grinder offense while Chris Paul recuperated from a midseason shoulder strain. Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Mark Jackson of the Golden State Warriors and Jason Kidd of the Brooklyn Nets each received a third-place vote to round out the top 10. (The full media voting results have been made available online, if you'd like to check them out. Transparency!)
But while there were many fine choices, there was only one right choice, and the voters made it.
The 2013-14 season saw Pop not only continue his franchise's unparalleled run of consistent excellence — 50-plus wins for the 15th straight season, and for the 16th time in 17 seasons (they only played 50 games in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, and the Spurs won 74 percent of them, equivalent to 61 wins over an 82-game campaign, en route to an NBA championship ), and 17 consecutive playoff berths, the fifth-longest postseason streak in NBA history — but he did so on the heels of the Spurs' losses to the Miami Heat in Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 NBA finals, one of the most crushing conclusions to a season imaginable. Pop recently said he was "really impressed" with how his players bounced back from that "devastating loss." We're really impressed with how their coach did, too.
There were plenty of times when the train could have run off the tracks, most notably during a six-week-long stretch where major contributors kept dropping like flies: big man Tiago Splitter hurting his shoulder, shooting guard Danny Green and swingman Kawhi Leonard suffering busted hands, sixth-man extraordinaire Manu Ginobili straining his left hamstring, and Tony Parker sustaining a "variety of maladies," etc. But without four huge pieces of the puzzle for several weeks, and with the Spurs fighting to stay at the top of a brutal Western Conference jam-packed with dangerous opponents, Pop just kept plugging in new parts to keep the system running smoothly.
Under Pop, Marco Belinelli — a talented shooter and playmaker who'd never shot or made plays that well in his previous stops — became lethal, putting up more than 16 points and three assists per 36 minutes of floor time on excellent shooting splits (48.5 percent from the field, 43 percent from 3-point range, 84.7 percent from the foul line) and proving a perfect complement to Ginobili in reserve groups that torched opposing second units. Under Pop, Patty Mills — formerly a little-used, towel-waving mascot — became a critical rotation piece capable of roasting defenses from long range and blazing his way to the rim when Parker sat down. Under Pop, Boris Diaw became a jack-of-all-trades type capable of holding together and augmenting myriad frontcourt units on both ends of the floor. Under Pop, unheralded players like Jeff Ayres, Aron Baynes, Cory Joseph and Austin Daye all stepped forth and made contributions that kept the Spurs on course for bigger things, keeping the big guns rested and ready.
No Spur averaged more than 30 minutes per game during the regular season, which is the first time any team has done that in NBA history and is a pretty big deal given all those minutes and miles on the legs of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. And amid all that juggling, Pop's Spurs won a franchise-record and NBA-leading 30 road games, won 11 straight games in November and 19 straight games from mid-February through early April. He also led his team to top-four finishes in offensive and defensive efficiency, and earned home-court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs.
Taken all together, this might be, as 48 Minutes of Hell's Trevor Zickgraf argues, "the most impressive coaching performance of Pop’s career." Considering all that career has seen — the ninth-most regular-season wins and third-most postseason wins in NBA history, five NBA finals trips and four NBA championships — that's saying an awful lot. And considering Pop won't ever take that bow himself, eternally reminding us that it's a player's league, we'll take a moment to take it for him. The best in the business works in San Antonio, and his work's not over yet.
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