San Antonio Spurs head coach Greg Popovich has been named the NBA’s Coach of the Year, putting him in the company of just two other men, Don Nelson and Pat Riley, who have been chosen for the Red Auerbach trophy three times. Popovich led San Antonio to a franchise-best 62 wins and the league’s best record at 62-20.
With a Spurs’ nucleus whose average age is close to 35, this may have been Popovich’s best work, overcoming injury and father time to take the top seed in the West. Popovich narrowly beat out first year head coach Jeff Hornacek, who led the Phoenix Suns to a 48-34 record, in spite of their consensus preseason billing as league doormat. Chicago Bulls head man Tom Thibodeau came in third place in the voting after guiding the Bulls to the fourth seed in the East, without top players Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, and rounding out the top five vote-getters were Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Bobcats and the Toronto Raptors’ Dwayne Casey.
Popovich has become a model of consistency, rebounding from a devastating loss to the Miami Heat in last year’s championship series to being right back in the fray this season, winning at least 50 games for the 15th consecutive season. He has also had to deal with the loss of longtime assistants Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown, as well as injuries to key players Manu Ginobli, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker. The Spurs’ starters missed a combined 75 games, with Tim Duncan the only player among the starting five to play in at least 70 games. Popovich filled the void by resorting to smallish small forwards and two-week contracts, while squeezing the most out of his role players. The addition of 6-5 shooting guard Marco Belinelli, who averaged 11.4 ppg this season, has also paid dividends. All this with absolutely no drop-off.
Popovich now has his Spurs on a collision course for a finals rematch with the Miami Heat. They are a combined 0-8 against the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City City Thunder—two teams they will more than likely face in the second and third rounds of the playoffs—but they were hobbled in five of those losses. And this is a better team than the one who lost four straight to Durant and the Thunder two years ago. And this is a better team than the one that pulled the master of all choke jobs in game six last season.
At full strength, the Spurs were significantly better than the rest of the league this year. They finished with the NBA’s best record by three games, finished six games better than East top seed Indiana, eight games better than Miami, and they finished with a 30-11 road record, five games better than anyone else in the league. Popovich took some heat, no pun intended, for his decision to replace 6-11 Tim Duncan with 6-8 Boris Diaw with 19.4 seconds left in game six last season. It was a decision that cost the Spurs the series. Popovich said he has thought about it every day and he is anxious for the opportunity to present itself again. By all appearances, it will.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat