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Randy Hollis: Others more deserving than 'Pop' as top coach

Published: Saturday, May 5 2012 9:02 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Gregg Popovich is obviously a tremendous basketball coach, one who's able to get the utmost out of his players — which is truly the measuring stick of any great coach.

After all, Coach "Pop" has guided the San Antonio Spurs to four NBA championships since 1999, and a fifth league title could certainly be within the Spurs' grasp this year.

That said, I can't help but wonder why in the world the guy won this year's NBA Coach of the Year award. Sure, the Spurs' 50-16 record in a condensed 66-game regular season was as good as any team in the league, matched only by that of the Chicago Bulls this year.

But keep in mind that, a year ago, the Spurs also compiled the league's best overall record, 61-21, and that they still had at least two-thirds of their future Hall of Fame trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in tact most of the way — Ginobili missed almost half of the season due to a variety of injuries.

This is certainly not to say that Popovich isn't a terrific coach; he most certainly is, as I emphatically stated in the opening sentence of this column and will gladly reiterate again and again for any incensed Spurs fans who have managed to make it this far.

But Coach of the Year? Come on, now, really? Just what did Popovich do this year that he hasn't done many times before in his stellar coaching career, and with essentially the same star power he's had in the past? What's more, it wasn't even close, either, as he garnered 77 of the available 119 first-place votes. Voters were apparently impressed with the wise way Popovich managed the playing time of his aging stars and massaged their minutes and egos along with the Spurs' collection of role players and up-and-comers into such a stellar season.

I'm not sure I'm buying it.

This is not supposed to be a Lifetime Achievement Award. If it was, longtime Utah Jazz bench boss Jerry Sloan would've won the award at least once along the way.

However, it seemed that Coach Sloan, with his own superstar point guard-power forward combo of John Stockton and Karl Malone — the Parker-Duncan duo of the 1990s — was overlooked or perhaps even penalized for having those two dynamic players to lead the charge for so many seasons. Sloan actually finished second in the voting twice, in 2004 and '07, and that was long after Stockton and Malone had left the building.

But this column is not designed to bemoan Sloan's lack of a Coach of the Year award on his resume. The venerable Jazz coach always spoke as if he couldn't care less about the award, and Popovich seems to feel much the same way.

There are some other candidates out there, though, who probably did more with less this season than "Pop" did this year.

Tom Thibodeau guided the Bulls to the same 50-16 record that Popovich and the Spurs put together, but Chicago did so despite its best player, Derrick Rose, missing much of the season due to injuries. Thibodeau, who wound up second in this year's voting, probably was as deserving as anyone, but he couldn't win the award in 2012 because he actually won it last year — and the league has never had back-to-back Coach of the Year honorees.

Indiana's Frank Vogel, who finished third in the voting, would've been a nice choice, too, but the small-market Pacers aren't going to get that kinda love from the national media. Memphis coach Lionel Hollins earned some consideration, finishing fourth in this year's voting after guiding the Grizzlies to the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. Boston's Doc Rivers, with his own collection of aging superstars, placed fifth.

And Utah's Tyrone Corbin tied for sixth place with Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks. Corbin received one second-place vote and six third-place votes in the balloting.

The Jazz coach is still learning his way, and he did a great job of juggling his superstar-free lineup of solid-but-not-spectacular veterans and young, talented-but-inexperienced players and getting them a playoff berth.

If Corbin and the Jazz continue to improve in the years to come, a Coach of the Year award could very well be in his future.

But I have to think the honor should generally be reserved for a coach whose team surprises the so-called experts and over-achieves, or manages to overcome some difficult adversity and still keeps winning.

And it shouldn't go to a guy like Popovich, whose teams win 50 to 60-plus games every year and have had a couple of future Hall of Famers on their roster every year since the late 1990s.

Go ahead and give that guy the Lifetime Achievement Award — he definitely deserves it — and save the Coach of the Year honor for somebody who actually won big or had a successful season when he really wasn't supposed to.

email: rhollis@desnews.com

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