Loren Jorgensen: Utah Jazz: Jerry Sloan won't win (again), but someone will win the top coach, rookie and 6th man
Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — Jerry Sloan has earned millions of dollars, achieved unparalleled job stability and has even been elected to basketball's Hall of Fame for coaching the Utah Jazz for more than two straight decades.
But, as is pointed out at the close of every regular season, Sloan has never won the NBA's official Coach of the Year Award.
So will the 22nd time be the charm?
Well, to put it bluntly, no.
Sure, the Jazz have won 50 games again and are still in the thick of the hunt for a division title as well as the No. 2 playoff seed in the loaded Western Conference. Sloan's coaching and Utah's offensive efficiency get praised by virtually every opposing coach in the league when they come through EnergySolutions Arena. This year the Jazz have played well despite numerous injuries and a mid-year trade of the team's starting shooting guard for no immediate help.
But it won't matter when the votes are tabulated.
Sloan simply won't be recognized because the Jazz are seen as too well-oiled of a machine. Utah's consistency over the years makes it far too easy for voters to overlook what Sloan has done with what he's been given.
Instead, the award usually goes to the coach who leads a previously bad team to respectability.
That will happen again this season. Most NBA observers feel the Coach of the Year honor is a two-man race between a couple of guys named Scott who have led their clubs to the playoffs after a long absence — Scott Brooks of Oklahoma City, which last went to the postseason as the Seattle SuperSonics, and Scott Skiles of Milwaukee.
With just a handful of games remaining for each team, here is a look as the top candidates and a predicted winner for the Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year awards:
COACH OF THE YEAR
Perhaps nobody should actually want this one. Three of the past four — Byron Scott of New Orleans, Sam Mitchell of Toronto and Avery Johnson of Dallas — have already been axed. Last year's winner, Cleveland's Mike Brown, is having another successful season, but if LeBron James leaves as a free agent during the offseason as many expect, Brown's job won't be so cushy or safe a year from now.
A trio of living legends in the coaching ranks have had good seasons. Sloan may get some support as will Denver's George Karl, who is battling cancer and has been sorely missed by the Nuggets during games he hasn't been able to attend. And Charlotte's Larry Brown, the 2000-01 winner with the 76ers, has lead the Bobcats to their best-ever season and a playoff berth.
But Brooks and Skiles look like they will be the top vote-getters — and it's easy to see why. The Thunder and Bucks, after awful campaigns a year ago, are much improved.
Oklahoma City won just 23 games last season — which was fewer than even the Minnesota Timberwolves. Only Sacramento and the Clippers were worse in the Western Conference. Brooks took over as the interim head coach after P.J. Carlesimo was fired early in the 2008-09 season and did enough to warrant getting the "interim" taken off his title prior to this year.
The Thunder have been rewarded for their faith in Brooks, as Oklahoma City has doubled its win total — to 46 entering Saturday night's game at Dallas. While the development of Kevin Durant and other young players is a major reason for the Thunder's improvement, some of that praise should go to Brooks, who has gotten his players to work hard on the defensive end of the court while also being one of the most fun teams to watch on offense.
Skiles, meanwhile, had moderate success in previous stops coaching Phoenix and Chicago — but his hard-nosed style wore his players down. That apparently hasn't happened in Milwaukee yet.
The Bucks were just 34-48 in Skiles' first year, but this season they are 41-34 entering Saturday night's home game against Phoenix. Milwaukee has been without star shooting guard Michael Redd most of the year, but with Andrew Bogut and rookie Brandon Jennings leading the way, Skiles has his team battling for the No. 5 seed in the East.
Prediction: Brooks will win with Skiles second.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
No. 1 overall draft pick Blake Griffin had both the terrible luck of getting selected by the Clippers and then being knocked out for the season with an injury before it even got started.
That left the door open for some other rookie to step up and earn this prestigious award, and early in the season Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings looked like the favorite. The 6-1 point guard's 55-point game on Nov. 14 against the Golden State Warriors was the most by a rookie since Earl "The Pearl" Monroe went off for 56 in 1986.
Meanwhile, Sacramento's Tyreke Evans didn't have such an eye-popping coming-out party, but he's been much more consistent than Jennings. Evans is listed as a point guard for the Kings, but at 6-6 he can play both guard positions as well as small forward. He's averaging 20.2 points, 5.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game while shooting 45.9 percent from the field.
Jennings, meanwhile, cooled off after his torrid start, but is still playing amazingly well for a 20-year-old who never played college ball and mostly sat on the bench in his one professional season in Italy. He's averaging 15.5 points, 5.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game for a vastly improved team that is headed to the playoffs. One knock on Jennings, however, is his poor shooting percentage — just 37 percent from the field for the year.
Other rookies like Stephen Curry of Golden State, Darren Collins of New Orleans, James Harden of Oklahoma City and Utah's Wesley Matthews have been major contributors for their respective teams as well.
But this award will likely come down to the early leader (Jennings) against the more consistent, better all-around player (Evans).
Prediction: Evans will win, as he should.
6TH MAN OF THE YEAR
Jason Terry of the Mavericks won this award last season and is a legitimate candidate again this time around. Terry has started just 12 times this season, but he's second on the Mavs in scoring, averaging 16.9 points to go along with 3.8 assists.
Lamar Odom of the Lakers has started nearly half of the time this season and he's actually not having as good of an all-around season as he had a year ago, so he's probably out.
That leaves Atlanta's Jamal Crawford and San Antonio's Manu Ginobili as the two biggest contenders to unseat Terry.
Ginobili has started 15 games this season while coming off the bench 54 times, so he still qualifies as a "6th man." The veteran guard from Argentina is averaging 16.4 points and 4.9 assists per game.
Crawford, meanwhile, has been a true super sub, having not started a single game for the Hawks. The veteran guard, now with his fourth team, seems to have finally found a home in Atlanta. He's averaging 17.6 points and 2.9 assists in about 31 minutes per game off the bench for one of the Eastern Conference's best teams.
Prediction: Crawford will edge out Terry and Ginobili for the award.
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