Who Is Coach Of The Year? The East Coast Debate
After seeing Rick Adelman win his 800th career game and the Philadelphia 76ers go on a 19-0 run to defeat the Boston Celtics last night - in Boston, no less - I had to stop and ask myself, who is the Coach of the Year this season? It's a tough question to answer, and despite the job that Maurice Cheeks has done with a young and unheralded roster, and what Adelman has done without Yao Ming - and Tracy McGrady for a short stretch - there is no clear cut favorite, because you can make an argument that at least seven or eight coaches are deserving of the award.
I've decided to split up the argument by East and West. Here's the East:
EDDIE JORDAN, Washington Wizards: For as much heat as Eddie Jordan has received on the comments of the blog over the past few seasons, I don't think any can deny the job that he has done with an undermanned and injured roster for the entire season. Still, the Wizards are 36-33. Know what there record was after 69 games last season: 37-32. It was good that Ivan mentioned what Jordan has done in his story today, because there is no way anyone would've believed that this team would be three games over .500 - and three games from having homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs if they had known before the season started that three-time all-star Gilbert Arenas would miss 61 games, two-time all-star Caron Butler would miss 20 and center Etan Thomas would be out the entire season.
You can try to discredit it by saying that Washington is in the Eastern Conference, but you play who you play. The Wizards aren't in the West, so that isn't their concern. But for this team to beat Boston twice, New Orleans twice, Dallas twice, Detroit and Orlando while missing one or two all-stars is impressive, no matter how you look at it.
Jordan helped popularize the Princeton offense in both New Jersey and Washington, but he has received criticism for this skills on the defensive end with the Wizards. You don't hear that as much after he hired assistant Randy Ayers in the offseason. The Wizards have improved defensively, holding opponents to just 98.1 points per game, which ranks - get this - 11th in the NBA (Since Jordan became coach, the team had never finished higher than 21st in opponents points per game. Last season, the Wizards were 28th at 104.9 points per game. Talk about a considerable improvement). They are also in the top half in field goal percentage defense.
Jordan should definitely get some consideration for the award, but these other guys have been pretty good, too.
MAURICE CHEEKS, Philadelphia 76ers: Nobody expected this, not so soon after trading Allen Iverson. Not after former General Manager Billy King got fired. Not after a 5-13 start. And certainly not after dropping to 18-30. But look out - the Sixers are in the playoff picture and taking it to teams with a mix of youthful exuberance and poise - which clearly comes from their calm, cool coach, Mo Cheeks.
The Sixers' win in Boston last night should not have come as a surprise to people who have seen them defeat in the past month, Dallas, Orlando, Phoenix, San Antonio, Detroit and Denver. I was at Allen Iverson's return to Philadelphia last week and I told someone, "I've seen this team in person three times the past month, I still don't know how they are doing it?" The guy said, "They run."
I knew that, but they also defend, and get contributions from all over. Still, that doesn't explain this: In their first 48 games, the Sixers won 18. In their past 23, the Sixers have won 18. Their success is quite perplexing, given the youth of their core group. Andre Iguodala gets the most attention as the leading the scorer, but there really is no star on the team. Andre Miller is a really good point guard and floor general, but Cheeks has his players giving effort on every play. There is no let up, even if they fall behind. They are winning on the road, at home. And they are above .500 for the first time all season - 66-64 since trading Iverson to Denver. How about that.
"When you work as hard as we've been working, and you start getting some rewards for it, you start feeling good about yourself," Cheeks said recently. "That's what I'm most proud of. That our players continued to play when we were down. We've had some success and we're playing even harder now."
DOC RIVERS, Boston Celtics: The coach from the team with the best record hardly ever wins this award, but Doc has to get some love for what's happened in Boston. Yes, he has Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, but it really is no small task to lead a newly assembled trio of veteran, all-star players who have their own way of doing things. He was fortunate to get all three at a time when they were hungry to win, but being hungry doesn't always guarantee that you will enjoy a buffet meal.
I spoke with Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars on Sunday and he told me that if the Celtics didn't work, everybody would've blamed the coach, but since it is working, the coach has to get the credit. I won't disagree with Joe on that one.
Somehow Rivers has gotten Garnett and Allen to buy into his system, when the new players could've easily come in with some doubts after the team won 24 games last season (Crazy thing is, the Celtics would have to go 3-9 the rest of the season to lose 24 games this season). He also has them committed on the defensive end of the floor, where the Celtics lead the league in field goal percentage defense (41.9) and points allowed (90.4).
The Celtics have answered the bell all season. They've gone 23-5 against the vaunted Western Conference, won the season series against their closest challenger in the East, the Detroit Pistons, and recently became the first team in more than six years to sweep the Texas Triangle.
Even better, the Celtics went 7-2 without Garnett this season. Rivers never let that be an excuse. He also kept his team focused on getting better each day, not complacent with their success. It says a lot about him that Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown both wanted to come aboard late in the season.
STAN VAN GUNDY, Orlando Magic: I originally left off Van Gundy, but after thinking about it, I don't see how I can. The Magic won 40 games last season. They already have 46 wins and the Southeast Division title all but wrapped up.
The Magic isn't an extremely talented team. Van Gundy has made it work with what he has, and has helped the Magic become a more explosive offensive team, even with their smallish front court.
Orlando ranks sixth in the league in points per game (104.7) - an almost 10 point improvement from last season. The only major player addition has been Rashard Lewis, who has made the Magic a dangerous team, inside (with Dwight Howard) and out (with Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu).
Van Gundy has brought out facets of Turkoglu's game that few knew he possessed. The Turkish Jordan is averaging career highs in scoring, rebounds and assists, and he, not Howard, leads the Magic in fourth-quarter scoring. He's also one of five players to have at least two triple doubles this season. Jason Kidd, LeBron James, Caron Butler and Baron Davis are the others. "Turk has always had it in him," Magic General Manager Otis Smith said. "I think Stan has brought it out of him."
He also was the first coach to publicly challenge Howard to think about dominating on both ends of the floor, not just punishing the rim with ferocious dunks. Howard is averaging a career-high with 21.1 points, leading the league in rebounds (14.4) and ranks fifth in blocks (2.3).
Van Gundy is getting it done, and the best part is, he was Orlando's second choice. If Billy Donovan hadn't returned to Florida, the Magic might not be having this kind of success.
The West is coming. . .
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