Grading the West coaches
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

With less than one week remaining in the 2002-03 NBA season, it's time to evaluate the jobs turned in by each of the league's coaches. Remember, a team's record isn't the only indicator of how well -- or how poorly -- a coach performed.

On Thursday, I graded the Eastern Conference, how do the Western Confernce coaches stack up? Take a look.

Don Nelson, Dallas -- Grade: A
Given that only Michael Finley and Eduardo Najera can hold their own mano-a-mano, Nelson earned his gargantuan salary by installing a puzzling variety of zone defenses. This tactic enabled the Mavs to get the jump on the rest of the league, but, as the long season grinds to a conclusion, the NBA's superior teams have gotten used to facing Nellie's gimmicky defenses. Dallas is barely hanging on to the top spot in the West precisely because season-long familiarity breeds open shots.

On the downhill end of the court, Dallas still features the league's most potent offense, and Nelson's fat playbook contains enough options to take full advantage of all of the Mavericks' scorers. The trick, however, is being able to make adjustments in the playoffs.

Should Dallas fail their final exam, Nelson's Phi Beta Kappa grade will turn into a red flag.

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio -- Grade: A
This guy can flat out coach. He can work with veterans, and he can also develop rookies. All-Stars, scrubs and role players all respect and admire Popovich. His teams can run or grunt, finesse or bang -- whatever it takes to win.

If a non-playing coach can't really be the team's leader, what he can do is create an environment of respect and cooperation. That's why the Spurs' team chemistry is as precious and immutable as a gold ring.

(For further information about the Gregg Popovich Marching, Chowder and Admiration Society, e-mail yours truly c/o Page 2.)

Hubie Brown, Memphis -- Grade: A-
Watch the Grizzlies during a time out. Even the benchwarmers pay rapt attention to everything their venerable coach says. That's because Hubie Brown's undeniable expertise is manifest in a unique blend of croaking curses, insults and willfulness that neither invite nor tolerate any questioning. He's a sharp-tongued and ruthless, yet mostly benevolent, dictator. And whatever he may lack in tact, Brown makes up for in personal charisma.

Hubie knows, and can teach, what should be done in every conceivable situation. He can also supply statistical proof as to why his methodologies are infallible.

When Brown first took the Memphis job, the question asked around the league was this: "After being in the TV game for so many years, how will Hubie be able to relate to the newest generation of bone-headed, irresponsible NBA players?" The answer turned out to be that Hubie Brown's knowledge and antagonistic attitude simply demanded respect, and that the players had no other choice than to submit.

Rick Adelman
Keeping the distractions away is Rick's specialty.
Rick Adelman, Sacramento -- Grade: A-
Despite a spate of injuries (most significantly Mike Bibby's), off-court distractions (Chris Webber's self-incriminating grand jury testimony) and collective whinings, Adelman has managed to keep the Kings atop the Pacific Division. Where some coaches choose (and/or compel) their players to match their own pre-existing system, Adelman has perfectly contoured his quick-'n'-slick game plan to suit The Kings' roster.

Also noteworthy is that, except for Bibby, the Kings are a highly emotional team that's subject to mood swings during the course of games. That makes Adelman's demeanor just as important as his command of Xs and Os, and he's succeeded in keeping his players sufficiently calm and focused.

And by his sporting a full beard instead of his habitual Hitlerian moustache, Adelman even looks like a better coach this year.

Jerry Sloan, Utah -- Grade: A-
True, he's liable to speak his mind in a blunt and confrontational fashion. True, he can be extremely (sometimes too) emotional on the bench -- to the point where he occasionally loses contact with the game and focuses on the refs' incompetence. And he can also be frustratingly stubborn, e.g., using the same S/R-cross-down-and-backpicking-offense he's been running for, lo, these many years. But Jerry Sloan is a stand-up, no-nonsense coach.

While many pundits (including me) were ready to embalm the aging Jazz, Sloan coaxed them into a second (third?) childhood. Aside from his abiding integrity, Sloan's secret is to select only those players (like Matt Harpring) who can fit comfortably into his tried-and-true system.

Speaking as an ex-coach, I can only hope that Jerry Sloan gets to coach as long as he wants to.

Frank Johnson, Phoenix -- Grade: A-
Not to diminish the addition of Amare Stoudemire, but Johnson has single-handedly transformed the Suns from a team of grouchy underachievers to a competitive, and (mostly) hardworking ball club. How has he accomplished this? As a one-time NBA point guard, Johnson was able to get next to Stephon Marbury and convince him to sacrifice his own numbers and become an authentic play-making point guard.

The Suns remain young and erratic, but Johnson has pushed all the right buttons and managed to keep his team in playoff contention.

Eric Musselman, Golden State -- Grade: B+
Musselman resurrected a moribund team by installing a laissez-faire offense (101.8 ppg, second-best in the league) and hounding his charges to play defense. (The Warriors still yield 102.6 ppg, so imagine how much worse the NBA's worst defense would be without the coach's constant reminders.)

In his previous incarnations as an assistant with Orlando and Atlanta, Musselman's carping benchside manner sometimes irritated the players, and he still rankles several of the Warriors (especially those who believe they deserve more playing time). But in the brave new world of professional sports, it's much more important for a coach to make those who sign the payroll checks happy than to please the players. With the Warriors showing at least 15 more wins than last year, and still in playoff contention through April Fool's Day, why shouldn't Christopher Cohan be smiling?

Flip Saunders, Minnesota -- Grade: B
Although the Wolves will fall short of last season's total of 50 wins, the parts are falling together. What with Terrell Brandon's wheels falling off once more, the Flipster gambled that Troy Hudson (like Saunders, a CBA-refugee) could fill the bill at the point. And the gamble paid significant dividends.

Saunders is more of an analytical than an emotional coach. His playbook is the league's thickest, and notwithstanding his characteristic chin-twitch, he's usually a model of decorum on the bench.

Here's another coach who's taken his team to the outer limits of its capabilities.

Jeff Bzelik
The Nuggets never quit -- thanks more to their coach than their talent.
Jeff Bzdelik, Denver -- Grade: B
Yeah, yeah, the Nuggets are the worst team in the conference. Okay, their best two players are Juwan Howard and Marcus Camby, guys no other self-respecting team wants to pay or play. All right, if Denver was situated at sea-level, the Nuggets would probably be as unsuccessful there as the are on the road (4-34).

The big but, however, is that Bzkelik's players always play hard. No matter what the score, no matter how far they're buried in the standings, the Nuggets never cruise. How many other coaches who command much better talent can say the same?

Nate McMillan, Seattle -- Grade: B
In only his third-year on the job, McMillan has the potential to be an outstanding practitioner of the art and science of coaching. Already, he exhibits a wonderful combination of game-time expertise, forthrightness, toughness, dignity and a thorough understanding of the psychological and physical demands of the pro game.

Given that the original edition of this season's Sonics was dysfunctional (blame Wally Walker and Rick Sund), the subtraction of Kenny Anderson and Gary Payton coupled with the addition of Ray Allen has nearly harmonized all the parts. Scoring remains a major concern, but McMillan has certainly squeezed every available point out of a team that's still handicapped by the absence of a willing, savvy point guard, and an athletic, 'bound-hungry big man.

McMillan is still growing on the job, and it's management's responsibility to provide a team that can grow along with him.

Phil Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers -- Grade: B-
What has Jackson done right in this (so far) hugely disappointing season? He's maintained a sense of equilibrium, remained faithful to his system, and avoided criticizing Jerry Buss for not allowing the team to bring in high-priced replacement and/or auxiliary parts.

What has Jackson done wrong? Parroted Shaq's disparaging remarks about the Kings to the effect that he's not worried about Sacramento and is positive that the Lakers will properly mishandle them come the playoffs. Why, I must inquire, is this arrogance any less odious than the Kings' claims that they are the real NBA champs?

Also ... Jackson has previously preached the unlikelihood of a team's cruising through the regular season and then suddenly gearing up their game for the playoffs. He's always believed that the only sure way to play hard during the post-season is to play hard during the regular season. Is he just clutching at straws these days? Trying to mollify his players? Or has there been a change (or compromise) in his play-all-out-all-the-time philosophy?

What else? Whenever Jackson has taken Kobe Bryant's continued disregard for the unselfish requirements of the triangle offense to the media, the young man has routinely responded by barely shooting at all. So what's a coach to do? The same thing he did three seasons back -- put Kobe on a short string and yank him to the bench whenever his habitual ego-mania becomes detrimental to team goals.

Through it all, however, the Lakers seem to be peaking at the right time and are certainly positioned well enough to keep their dynasty intact.

Mo Cheeks, Portland -- Grade: C
Without any public complaints, Cheeks has dutifully taken the rap for Witless Bob Whitsitt. How could any unarmed coach ever deal with the assorted criminals and all-around loonies that Whitsitt has collected?

That said, Cheeks lacks the boldness and charisma to coach any but the most meek and law-abiding players.

Still, the Blazers remain 20 games over .500 and have sufficient talent and cohesion to regularly win on the road. Cheeks merits a C, if only for being able to avoid an addiction to tranquilizers.

Rudy Tomjanovich
Nice guys sometimes finish first, but not this year.
Rudy Tomjanovich, Houston -- Grade: D+
Rudy T's current bout with cancer is an unfortunate reminder that bad things happen to good people. Everybody's prayers and good wishes are with him.

However, when judged strictly by the Rockets' record as measured against the quality of their roster, Tomjanovic barely earns a passing grade.

Never known for his mastery of the coaches' meager alphabet of Xs and Os, Tomjanovich has always been more of an inspirational leader. Trouble is that too many of his players (most notably Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, Glen Rice and Moochie Norris) refuse to be inspired by any belief system that requires them to pass instead of shoot. Nor have Houston's offensive schemes been designed to fully utilize the unique talents of Yao Ming.

Yet, with a pair of championship rings to his credit, Rudy T is also proof that sometimes nice guys do finish first.

Alvin Gentry, Los Angeles Clippers -- Grade: F
How many chances has Gentry had to make his mark in the NBA? Seven years and three teams (Miami, Detroit and the Clips) with only one winning stint (29-21 with the Pistons in 1998-99). The guy certainly works hard enough, watching game videos until his eyes glow in the dark. And the Clippers proved in the waning stages of last season that they certainly had enough pure talent to be at least respectable.

What, then, was Gentry's problem?

The chaos resulting from Donald Sterling's tarnished efforts to avoid spending money has been well-documented. As has the overall youth and general immaturity of too many of the players. But the most damning aspect of Gentry's coaching personality is his attitude -- at once too cynical, too publicly political and, in relating to his players, oftentimes too obviously insincere.

Dennis Johnson, Los Angeles Clippers -- Grade: C
DJ's personal goal is to survive the season with his putting game intact. So far, so good.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



Charley Rosen Archive

Rosen: Grading the East coaches

Rosen: Ossie's world

Rosen: Beware the darkhorses

Rosen: Q & A with Ed T. Rush

Rosen: Who's afraid of the big, bad champs?

Rosen: Beasts of the East looking tame

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