Last fall, once the lockout was settled and the shortened, 66-game schedule was set into motion, much analysis hinged on the nature of the schedule and its effects. Would young teams hold a distinct edge? How prevalent would injuries become? What damage would the dreaded back-to-back-to-back sets do?
While the slate was certainly grueling and claimed its fair share of casualties, it also brought out the best among the NBA’s coaching fraternity, rewarding those who best managed their roster through the trials and tribulations of 66 games in 120 days.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs and Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls reigned atop their respective Western and Eastern Conferences at season’s end and earned No. 1 seeds in the postseason. Popovich, who earned his second career Red Auerbach Trophy on Tuesday as the 2011-12 Coach of the Year, masterfully controlled Tim Duncan’s minutes and incorporated a slew of no-name role players, while Thibodeau, the previous Auerbach recipient, kept his Bulls committed even as Derrick Rose suffered through an injury-marred campaign.
Pops helped his aging star stay fresh and survive the grind by keeping Duncan to a career-low 28.2 minutes per game while resting him through eight contests (including being tagged with a “DNP-Old” in March). In his place, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and, most recently, Boris Diaw filled the void up front. While Popovich was managing Duncan’s minutes, he also eased the burden on Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli by successfully incorporating under-rated assets like Danny Green, Gary Neal, James Anderson and Kawhi Leonard. Through two postseason games vs. Utah, only Parker has averaged more than 30 minutes, while nine other Spurs have played 13.5 or more minutes per game.
In Chicago, Thibodeau has been facing the music after leaving Rose in the game in the final minutes of a Game 1 blowout over Philly, a decision which led to the reigning MVP’s season-ending ACL tear. However, the second-year coach also oversaw a 50-win Bulls team that led the league in both opposing points per game (88.17), as well as their own rebounds per game (46.67). That being said, the club’s first Rose-less playoff effort was underwhelming and ‘Thibs’ will be critical in helping Chicago bounce back as the series shifts to Philadelphia.
Beyond the Conference leaders, coaches have wielded – and will continue to wield – significant influence in the play of their club. The Spurs are up against the Jazz and head coach Tyrone Corbin, who has quickly transitioned past Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan on the strength of a front line that includes Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and building blocks Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, as well as the play of a re-energized Devin Harris. The Bulls, meanwhile, are deadlocked through two games at 1-1, with Doug Collins serving as the opposing Sixers’ emotional impetus. Since taking over from Eddie Jordan after Philly suffered through a 27-win campaign, Collins has led the club to consecutive playoff appearances.
Popovich and Thibodeau finished 1-2 in Coach of the Year voting, but it wasn’t for a lack of other worthy candidates. Frank Vogel engineered a balanced, cohesive (albeit star-less) group of Pacers to their best record since 2004-05. Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy navigated his team through the Dwight Howard saga (of which he was centrally involved) and has kept them believing in themselves without Howard in tow. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and OKC’s Scotty Brooks continued to massage the egos of their respective superstar talents and helped boost them by incorporating an improved group of supporting players. Even Rick Carlisle, who didn’t exactly get his Dallas Mavericks off to the type of title defense they had hoped for, helped establish a team-oriented defensive identity that (somewhat) made up for the loss of newly-named Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler.
In a season that challenged coaches to balance their rotations and navigate their key players through a demanding grind, it’s fitting that some of the league’s best withstood the challenges. If you’re looking to examine the best coaching minds in the NBA, you could do worse than starting with Popovich and Thibodeau.