Coach of the Year is a funny award. It usually goes to the man who leads a bad team to a mediocre record. Rarely does the Red Auerbach Trophy go to the coach who guides a talented team to a great season. Voters don't seem interested in that. It's as if a gifted team is just supposed to win, and as a result its coach is overlooked. Phil Jackson has won nine championships, and how many Coach of the Year trophies does he have? One.
The man most likely to be overlooked this season? Rick Adelman. Most observers picked his Sacramento Kings to be one of the top few teams in the NBA. Sacramento has lived up to its billing with an NBA-low 12 losses heading into Tuesday's game against Seattle. But what nobody could have predicted is that Adelman would have his team flourishing without Chris Webber, who has been out the entire season with a knee injury. Webber's recovery from surgery has taken much longer than expected. He was once expected to return in December. Even without their star, the Kings have found a way to win big, and with a healthy Webber they just may be the team to beat in the playoffs.
Why are the Kings winning? Sure, they have talent. Peja Stojakovic is having an amazing season, and Vlade Divac remains the best-passing big man in the league, despite being a little long in the tooth. Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson are a potent one-two combination in the backcourt, and Doug Christie is the defensive stopper. And Brad Miller has exceeded expectations with a wonderful gift for passing the ball, as well as solid shooting and rebounding.
But give Adelman credit for making it all go. He has been criticized over the years for being too lenient with his players. His Blazer teams were sometimes ridiculed as "dumb" because of their wide-open style, and Adelman's image suffered as a result. Critics said he just rolled the ball out and watched his teams play.
In reality, he coaches a beautiful style of ball, gives his players freedom and puts them in position to make the most of their skills. And best of all, they do that while playing hard and playing together. That's what coaching is all about.
Stan Van Gundy recently raved about Adelman's coaching job this season. "It's much easier to coach structure than freedom," Van Gundy said. He's right.
Any coach can design a bunch of plays and get his players to run them over and over again. To coach a team that has to read and react to defenses and to each other and to get them to play well and together – that's pretty difficult. But Adelman has done it for years, and he's doing it better than ever this season.
The Kings are a very unorthodox team. Their two big men, Divac and Miller, rarely post up. They usually are positioned at the high post. The offense runs through them with a series of cuts and picks that often lead to backdoor layups. The lane frequently is wide open because the big men are so far from the hoop, leaving the lane unclogged.
Usually all five Kings on the floor are good perimeter shooters, meaning defenses have to extend out to cover them. That's when the lane really opens up and Miller and Vlade start picking teams apart with their passing.
Ironically, Adelman's biggest task may be fitting Webber back into the lineup. The current group is playing beautifully together, and Webber may cloud the picture a bit. But he immediately will make them better defensively with his presence in the lane. A year ago the Kings ranked No. 1 in the league in field-goal percentage defense; this season they're 25th. He'll give them a low-post presence, which becomes more important during the playoffs when the game slows down some. And he'll draw double teams, creating shots for some of those great shooters.
Adelman plans to plug Webber right back into the starting lineup upon his return, which could come in the next week or two. Miller would then come off the bench and sub for both Webber and Vlade, providing an imposing three-man rotation in the frontcourt. And when Adelman can combine those three with the Kings' talented group of perimeter players, it's not hard to imagine him holding up a championship trophy in June.
Even if he's not holding up a Coach of the Year trophy.