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VOL. 129 | NO. 110 | Friday, June 6, 2014


Finals Presents Intriguing Question About Coaching

By Don Wade

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So if the Miami Heat win a third straight NBA championship, it’s all about LeBron James and a cast of future Hall-of-Famers that includes Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and, in a lot of people’s view, Chris Bosh.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra probably gets mentioned in the same breath as Phil Jackson and though this should be a compliment to both of them, most people won’t mean it that way.

And if by chance the Spurs win, the narrative won’t flip to what LBJ failed to do so much as it will serve to hold up the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich as a genius strategist and tactician while Spoelstra will get roasted for failing to win with the greatest player on the planet.

How much impact can a basketball coach really have? That question has been asked about former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, current (but almost former) Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger and even Memphis Tigers coach Josh Pastner. And that question will be on many hoops fans’ minds as the NBA Finals gets underway.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey and Andrew J. Breig)

So, how much impact can an NBA coach really have?

It’s a fascinating question at the top of the basketball world, but also at virtually every point below in the wake of the coaching craziness that has gripped the Grizzlies. Not only did Lionel Hollins get shown the door after a record 56 wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals, he sat out all of this last season when no other NBA team hired him.

His name has come up with the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers openings. And more than a year after he coached them, Grizzlies players Mike Conley and Mike Miller vouch for Hollins.

“He can bring an identity to a team that might need that toughness, that drive,” Conley said. “He’s that kind of guy. He should be a coach in this league somewhere.”

Said Miller: “Some team is going to be lucky to have him.”

The Grizzlies also came close to parting with Hollins’ replacement, Dave Joerger, who steered the team to 50 wins and the postseason amid many injuries. Joerger’s back in the fold after turning down Minnesota’s coaching offer and Conley says that gives the Grizzlies “stability” moving forward.

But in hindsight, what are we to make of what Hollins and Joerger did here? At some level, did they each prove that the players are far more important than either of them? Put it this way: Want to go 23 games without your head coach or without center Marc Gasol?

It’s a valid point yet 11 NBA titles are 11 NBA titles and that’s how many Phil Jackson has as a coach. But Michael Jordan was present for six and Kobe Bryant for five. To some people, that’s all that needs to be said. If Jackson can’t resurrect the New York Knicks in his role as team president, some detractors will pounce on that (which is crazy, by the way).

Meantime, Popovich is poised to ascend to a higher historic level and Hollins confessed to a rooting interest in these NBA Finals.

“I’m pulling for the Spurs,” he said at TPC Southwind, where he played in the Danny Thomas Pro-Am. “I think the Heat have proven to be a worthy champion. The Spurs overcame a lot emotionally to get back a second straight year. The reality is one rebound, one foul or whatever, they win the sixth game (last year). This is the swan song for the Spurs’ mini-dynasty, or whatever you want to call it.”

It’s an interesting choice of words. If the Spurs, with four NBA titles under Popovich, including three in five years from the 2002-2003 season through the 2006-2007 season, win another with an older and lesser Tim Duncan, Pop perhaps goes down as the best NBA coach in the last quarter-century.

But if the Heat win, what are they if not a full-on dynasty? Weren’t the Chicago Bulls recognized as a dynasty during each three-year championship run? Weren’t Jackson’s three straight NBA-title winning Lakers teams from the 1999-2000 season through the 2001-2002 season a dynasty?

And has anyone noticed that in the previous 18 NBA seasons, or since the start of Chicago’s second three-year run, 14 NBA championships have been won by coaches named Jackson, Popovich or Spoelstra?

Which isn’t to say Spoelstra has reached the level of the other two, but if he wins a third straight, that’s a small club in which to have membership, isn’t it? And remember, too, he’s a Pat Riley guy and Riley himself has five NBA titles as a coach (four with the Lakers in the 1980s and in the 2005-2006 season with the Heat).

Yet even Miller, who played for Spoelstra and won titles the last two years in Miami, naturally falls into the greater narrative. Asked how these NBA Finals will turn out, he said: “I like Miami. But Pop does an unbelievable job of coaching against that team. (But) LeBron, right now, is playing at another level.”

It’s LeBron’s championship if the Heat win. It’s Pop’s if the Spurs win. So history is no different than a parent. Inevitably, it will play favorites.

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