Bulls' Thibodeau leads deep field for Coach of the Year
With the Warriors (coached by Mark Jackson), Knicks (Mike Woodson) and Bulls (Tom Thibodeau) coming back to earth, is there a new favorite for Coach of the Year?
-- Matthew C., Salt Lake City
Thibodeau should continue to be the favorite, based on all that the Bull have been able to accomplish without Derrick Rose, in addition to the departures of important role players Kyle Korver, Omer Asik, C.J. Watson and John Lucas, which is not to ignore the injuries to Richard Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich that have sidelined them for 31 games combined. The Bulls have stayed relevant in the East -- they entered Tuesday tied with Brooklyn for fourth in the conference at 34-26 -- because their core has remained unified and committed, and because Thibodeau has been able to find useful roles for Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler.
This is always a hard award to define, Matthew. Should Gregg Popovich win it every year? It would be hard to argue if he did. Coaching the Heat to their high standards isn't as easy as Erik Spoelstra makes it look; the same goes for Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City. Lionel Hollins has kept the Grizzlies focused after their recent trades, Vinny Del Negro has upheld the Clippers' high expectations, P.J. Carlesimo has restored the Nets' hopes and the list could go on and on ...
That said, I would recommend the following five coaches join Thibodeau as the main contenders over the closing weeks of the season:
• Mark Jackson, Warriors: They're 13-17 in the new year, but consider the bigger picture: If you'd known that the Warriors would be No. 6 in the West so late in the season, you would have instantly nominated Jackson for Coach of the Year.
• Frank Vogel, Pacers: They struggled early without Danny Granger's scoring, but Vogel responded by turning Paul George into an All-Star while amping up the Pacers' defense.
• Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers: They've had no business contending for the playoffs for most of the year. The Blazers have surprised because Stotts has squeezed unexpected production from Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and J.J. Hickson.
• Larry Drew, Hawks: They lost Joe Johnson in a trade and then lost his replacement, Lou Williams, to a season-ending knee injury. Josh Smith has been rumored to be on his way out all season. And yet, you'd never know any of this by way of the standings, where Drew's Hawks (33-26) are a half-game behind Chicago and Brooklyn despite a three-game losing streak.
• George Karl, Nuggets: One of the league's youngest teams, the star-free Nuggets have manufactured a strong identity of running, rebounding and attacking the basket.
Ian, good piece on the Denver Nuggets. However, I have said this for many years about the NBA: You can have a nice, surprising team like Denver, but you cannot make a deep run into the playoffs without any superstars.
-- Brian McCauley, Cincinnati
Thanks, Brian, and of course I agree with you. Only one team since 1980 -- the 2003-04 Pistons -- has won a championship without a Hall of Fame star. The trend will stand until it is broken by a hard-driving team like the Nuggets. But I don't like their chances of breaking the trend, based on the talent that exists around stars such as LeBron James in Miami, Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City and Chris Paul in Los Angeles with the Clippers.
I enjoyed your comparison of the old/new millennial teams. One thing that jumped out at me was how executives have seemingly improved at identifying elite talent. With the exception of Tony Parker, every player on the "new" team was a top-five pick. Only four players on the "old" team were top-five picks. Do you think this is coincidence or a bona fide trend?
-- Darrell Stogner, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
If your observation is part of a larger trend, Darrell, then it probably has something to do with the fact that the best players are a year older entering the draft than they used to be. NBA teams insist that their assessments would continue to grow more accurate if the players would agree to a minimum age of 20 years. The longer they are able to scout players, the fewer mistakes the scouts might make -- although mistakes will be made, for sure.
How can you not put Derrick Rose on your new millennium team? He is easily the No. 2 point guard in the league, behind Chris Paul. Hurt or not this year, you have to include him on the team for his body of work over the last couple of years.
-- James Brabson, Chicago
He hasn't played since last season and he may not be back until next year, James. I was focusing on players who are active. But you're right, he deserves to be there -- and he'll be back on all the upper-tier lists once he's on the floor again.
We saw some great performances last week, including Stephen Curry's 54 points against the Knicks and Joakim Noah's 23-point, 21-rebound, 11-block night against the Sixers. Would either of those crack your list of the top-five individual performances this season?
-- Sara E., Austin, Texas
There have been a lot of them, Sara, but it's hard to rate them because many were (1) ruined by losses or (2) performed at the expense of bad teams. So here is my own list of the top-five individual performances by players who helped their team beat an opponent with a winning record:
• James Harden in the Rockets' 122-119 win against Oklahoma City (Feb. 20): He bombed his former Thunder teammates with a career-best 46 points (on 14-of-19 shooting from the field) to go with eight rebounds and six assists as Houston rallied from a 14-point deficit in the final seven minutes.
• LeBron James in the Heat's 110-100 win at Oklahoma City (Feb. 14): The reigning MVP finished a season sweep of the Thunder with 39 points (on 14-of-24 shooting, which for him was below average during a remarkable February), 12 rebounds and seven assists.
• Kevin Durant in the Thunder's 100-92 win at Atlanta (Dec. 19): He scored 41 points (on 14-of-23 shooting), including 28 in the second half and 18 in the fourth quarter, and grabbed 13 rebounds to extend OKC's winning streak to 12 games.
• Al Horford in the Hawks' 102-91 win at Utah (Feb. 27): Atlanta's two-time All-Star center generated a career-high 34 points (on 14-of-22 shooting), 14 rebounds and five blocks against Utah's deep front line (albeit absent Paul Millsap).
• Carmelo Anthony in the Knicks' 100-97 win at Brooklyn (Dec. 11): The NBA's No. 2 scorer had a season-high 45 points (on 15-of-24 shooting) and helped the Knicks erase a 17-point deficit in their budding rivalry with the Nets.