Luhm: Coach of the year? Popovich, without a doubt
Even in a place where winning is expected, he was phenomenal.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If San Antonio's Gregg Popovich does not win this season's Red Auerbach Trophy as the NBA Coach of the Year, blame Jerry Sloan.

During his 23 1/2 seasons with the Jazz, everybody expected Sloan to win.

And he did.

That's why Sloan was never named coach of the year.

He was a victim of his success: His teams almost always lived up to expectations.

Call it the Sloan Syndrome — a malady infecting coach of the year voters for decades.

It explains why Sloan never won the award, despite a career deemed worthy by the Hall of Fame.

It explains why Phil Jackson has won it once, despite his boatload of championship rings.

It explains why Popovich has won it only once, pending the outcome of this season's voting.

Popovich was the 2003 Coach of the Year, when he edged Golden State's Eric Musselman and Sloan for the award.

This year, he should carry all 50 states and the District of Columbia in an Obama-like landslide, despite the presence of other worthy candidates.

Chicago's Tom Thibodeau, Philadelphia's Doug Collins, Denver's George Karl, Portland's Nate McMillan, Memphis' Lionel Hollins and Houston's Rick Adelman have done notable jobs.

None of them, however, has accomplished more than Popovich.

The Spurs have run away from their Western Conference rivals when many in the preseason projected them to finish third — or worse — in the Southwest Division.

Actually, it's the perfect recipe for a coach of the year candidate.

Unlike Sloan's best teams, Popovich and the Spurs won 60 games without the usual preseason hype bestowed on a team expected to do so.

Why the reduced expectations?

One year ago, the Spurs won a relatively modest 50 games — three fewer than the Jazz.

San Antonio finished as the No. 7 seed in the West and was wiped out by Phoenix in the second round of the playoffs.

In addition, cornerstones Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were a year older, and Popovich's bench would be manned by players such as Matt Bonner, Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter.

The Spurs were also going to adjust on the fly to a new style.

Sure, they still wanted to hang their headbands on defense, which had carried them to four championships since 1999.

During a 10-year stretch, for example, San Antonio held the Jazz to fewer than 100 points in 38 straight games.

After being beaten in the playoffs by Phoenix, however, Popovich decided it was time to gun the engine more and grind it out less.

"We're not the Phoenix Suns and we're not the New York Knicks, by any stretch," he said early this season. "But we do play a little faster than we used to."

Said Duncan: "We've definitely changed our pace. We're moving the ball a lot more. We score a lot more points."

It worked immediately.

The Spurs started 29-4, including wins in 13 of their first 14 games.

It should have made Popovich the coach of the year front-runner from the beginning of the season.

In reality, however, it might have given those voting on the award the excuse they often use to overlook coaches such as Sloan, Jackson and Popovich.

Hey, it's San Antonio.

The Spurs always win.

What's the big deal?

In reality, it's a big enough deal so Popovich is the coach of the year. No contest.

luhm@sltrib.com