|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
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
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-
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.
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-
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-
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+
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
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.
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
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 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
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 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
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
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."