Game 6 of the NBA Finals was a lot of things, including epic and unbelievable and an instant classic. But it was also something else: a vivid reminder that players matter more than coaches.
From TV to Twitter San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, roundly recognized as the best coach in the NBA, took much criticism for the Spurs letting go of a 5-point lead with 28.2 seconds remaining as their fifth NBA title vanished – at least for a night.
How, everyone wanted to know, could this happen to the most disciplined team with the most revered coach?
Alvin Gentry, from left, Lionel Hollins and George Karl all find themselves without jobs. Hollins led the Grizzlies to the best season in franchise history while Karl was named coach of the year. Gentry is a candidate for the Memphis job.
(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, AP Photo/Ben Margot, Lance Murphey)
For those who wanted to apply Monday-morning quarterbacking to the Wednesday morning after a basketball game, the answers fell in Popovich’s lap: He took out Tim Duncan and Tony Parker during crucial late-game situations, thereby preventing Duncan from grabbing a potential title-clinching rebound and Parker from making one last drive to the lane for a floater, or foul call and free throws, that surely would have dispatched the Miami Heat once and for all. Unquestionably, Pop played Manu Ginobili too much on a night when Ginobili made eight turnovers and was, at times, the Heat’s best player.
But Popovich did not cost his team this game and the NBA title.
“Helluva game,” he said in the press conference afterward, his way of saying it was all mostly out of his control – which it was.
During the midst of Game 6, ABC analyst and former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy made the valid point that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra always gets too much blame when Miami loses and not enough credit when Miami wins. But in the larger picture, the NBA’s coaches are like quarterbacks everywhere, usually getting both too much credit for the wins and too much blame for the losses.
Or to put it in Memphis terms: Every Grizzlies win was not about the way Lionel Hollins developed Mike Conley as a point guard and every loss was not about his refusal to play Tony Allen big minutes in the fourth quarter. Hey, just needed to be said.
Anyway, in the aftermath of Game 6 it was impossible not to think about the record 12 NBA coaching changes since the regular season ended. Or about the Grizzlies letting Hollins walk after a 56-win season and first-ever trip to the Western Conference Finals. Or about the crazy trade talks between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers that would send Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and, presumably, a box of Red Auerbach cigars to the Clippers and give the Celtics most of the Clippers roster and veteran comedian Billy Crystal.
Really, now, step back and ask yourself how much is a coach worth when he does not shoot, pass or defend?
Look at Game 6 again. Ultimately the Heat won because LeBron James gave them a gigantic fourth quarter/overtime as part of a triple-double (32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds), Chris Bosh made huge plays late and had a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds), and because when time was all but gone the most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history, Ray Allen, hit a contested three to force overtime.
As Duncan said of James, “He found a way to put his team over the top.”
Would anyone ever phrase it quite that way when talking about the coach? No. The great player – or a cast of players making great plays when they matter most – will always have more value than the guy in suit and tie on the bench.
This year’s NBA Coach of the Year, George Karl, who was let go by the Denver Nuggets, reportedly was in Memphis last week to talk to the Grizzlies about their coaching job. Like Popovich, Karl’s status as a great coach is sealed. But he is not, nor should be, beyond criticism. In Denver, his teams made it past the first round of the playoffs only once in nine tries. And, like Hollins here, he was considered less than cooperative.
Karl might be a fine choice as Grizzlies coach. Same for other candidates, including Alvin Gentry, fired by the Phoenix Suns, and who reportedly was coming in for a second interview, or Grizz assistant Dave Joerger – long believed the most likely choice. But who coaches the Grizzlies is never going to be as important as who plays for the Grizzlies.
Game 6 of the NBA Finals reminded us of that, too. For the best moments of Game 6 were all about the players. And for those moments Popovich and Spoelstra were a lot like us, albeit better-paid: mere spectators, waiting to see what would happen next.