We don't need to play 33 more games to determine who the NBA's Coach of the Year is for this lockout-shortened season. It's the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich.
Records: Denver: 18-16 (9-7 at home) Streak: Lost 1 San Antonio: 23-10 (10-9 on the road) Streak: Lost 1
Injuries: Denver: Danilo Gallinari (left ankle sprain) is out. Nene Hilario (left calf strain) is questionable. Rudy Fernandez (lower back strain) is day to day. Arron Afflalo (sprained ankle) is day to day. Ty Lawson (sprained ankle) is questionable. San Antonio: T.J. Ford (left hamstring) is out. Manu Ginobili (left internal oblique strain) is out. Tiago Splitter (right calf strain) is out.
And yet here we are, 33 games into their season, and the Spurs are once again kicking the crap out of their competition on a nightly basis. And doing so despite missing Manu Ginobili for all but 9 games and resting Tim Duncan for 2 games, including Tuesday's 40-points loss at Portland. That Tuesday loss - coming on the heels of a very impressive 11-game winning streak - was one of Spurs' head coach Gregg Popovich's classic "rest games" during which neither Duncan, Ginobili nor Tony Parker played, the ticket-paying fans in Portland got screwed and the extra rest ensures that the Spurs come into Denver tonight for a likely win ... knowing that the Nuggets would have a dogfight on their hands against the Clippers in Los Angeles last night.
Pop has been doing this for years, and while I do believe he's the hands-on favorite to be named the NBA's Coach of the Year this season, his continued strategy of resting his star players during the regular season has actually bit him in the ass karma-wise lately. After all, the Spurs haven't competed for a Western Conference championship since 2007 despite routinely having terrific regular season performances.
But speaking of terrific regular season performances, could the 2011-12 campaign be one of Popovich's best ever? (Other than the 1996-97 season when he fired Bob Hill, wouldn't allow David Robinson to come back from injury, tanked games, made sure the Spurs won one less game than our Nuggets and then scored the first overall pick which became Duncan, ensuring that the Spurs would be awesome for 16-plus years. For certain one of the greatest tank jobs in NBA history.)
Consider what Pop is dealing with this season: the soon-to-be 36 year old Duncan is having his worst statistical year ever, Ginobili has only appeared in 9 injury-riddled games, Richard Jefferson's game continues to recede, Gary Neal can't shoot straight, DeJuan Blair's rebounding is down, Matt Bonner is still a redhead and until I wrote this preview I had no idea who Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Cory Joseph or James Anderson were. And yet the Spurs are 23-10, just won 11-straight games and have a 13-1 home record!
Among the Spurs' 23 wins was a 121-117 victory over a sans-Nene Nuggets squad in early January, back when Nuggets fans had delusions of a conference finals appearance and Nuggets' head coach George Karl wouldn't give rookie Kenneth Faried any playing time. In that game, Green came off the bench to torch the Nuggets for 24 points and 7 rebounds and the Nuggets' pissed away a great comeback (sound familiar?) with poor execution down the stretch (well documented by Nate Timmons in the game recap) to fold in San Antonio.
When the Nuggets face the Spurs tonight, they should be looking at a team to emulate rather than get flustered by. The Spurs - like the Nuggets - have had their fair share of injuries and have had to improvise with odd lineups featuring nobodies. And the Spurs are no front runners. During that 11-game winning streak, the most the Spurs won by in any single game was 14 ... and that was against the Nets ... while most of their victories came within 10 points. The Spurs win games by grinding them out, playing as a team and limiting their mistakes. This makes up for their injuries, fatigue and poor field goal percentage, something the Nuggets have not been able to do lately.
The Nuggets have had ample excuses for their sub-.500 play lately: injuries, fatigue, bad calls, tough breaks, etc. And yet the Spurs, who one could argue have less overall talent, youth and depth than Denver, make no excuses and just win games.
The Nuggets are in dire need of this weekend's All-Star break. But let's hope tonight's match up against the Spurs doesn't resemble the pre-All-Star break game they played in Denver two years when the Nuggets were completely checked out and the Spurs rolled to a 111-92 victory.
SCOUTING THE SPURS
-Tim Duncan: Duncan's numbers may be down, be he's entering the Bill Russell Era of his career where his leadership and experience are infectious and bring out the best in his less talented teammates.
-Tony Parker: It's hard to believe, but Parker doesn't turn 30 until May. With Duncan's minutes reduced and Ginobili being largely absent, Parker has turned in a great season to keep the Spurs atop the conference standings and was (rightly) rewarded with an All-Star spot.
-Gregg Popovich: Pop has the fifth-best winning percentage of all time among NBA coaches and other than the season he purposely tanked, has never won less than 50 games and missed the playoffs. Amazing.
-Richard Jefferson: As good as Parker is, he's no Jason Kidd who essentially made Jefferson's career. Since playing without Kidd, Jefferson's numbers and production have plummeted.
The Nuggets have some serious gut-checking to do with their time off. The coaching staff has been able to inspire the players to play hard despite the injuries and fatigue, and yet the Nuggets have been losing game after game due to poor execution in the final minutes. The Nuggets must find that balance between fighting to the end and delivering Ws.