We're at a crossroads this summer as we await the start of a new NBA season — we're looking at a handful of aging NBA powers looking to channel what little energy they have left, a couple of young budding superstars aiming to reach the next level, and a superteam down in South Beach with dreams of winning multiple titles. And everyone's hoping they've got a leader that can carry them, through all the ups and downs of 82 games, to the promised land. So who will rise above the rest when all is said and done? Who wins Coach of the Year?
In past years, we've seen a clear trend — the men usually honored at season's end as the league's best coaches are the ones who get the most out of their young talent. Take a raw but exceptionally gifted kid, turn him into a winner at a young age, and pick up your plaque in April. It never fails.
In 2007, it was Sam Mitchell. The Toronto Raptors exploded for 47 victories that year, a solid 20-win jump from the season before, thanks in large part to a breakout season from a 22-year-old Chris Bosh. The Raps made the playoffs for the first time in five years, and the unknown Mitchell reaped the benefits.
In '08, it was Byron Scott, likewise working with a 22-year-old superstar in Chris Paul. They say you can never win anything with an inexperienced point guard, but the New Orleans Hornets won big — big to the tune of 56 wins and a strong finish in the Western Conference, second only to the mighty Lakers.
Mike Brown won Coach of the Year in 2009. He was in Cleveland working with a budding super-duper-hyper-megastar named LeBron James.
In 2010, it was Scott Brooks, who helped Kevin Durant turn the Oklahoma City Thunder into a playoff team faster than anyone imagined.
In 2011, it could be anyone.
It could be the coach that squeezes one more title-contending season out of a team that's on its last legs. Rick Carlisle in Dallas, Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Alvin Gentry in Phoenix and of course Doc Rivers in Boston will all have that opportunity.
It could be the one who takes a young star to the next level — probably not Brooks for the second consecutive season, but think about Tom Thibodeau coaching Derrick Rose on the Bulls, or Paul Westphal working with Tyreke Evans and now DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento.
It could be the guy who just keeps dominating the Western Conference, year in and year out. Never count out Phil Jackson.
But gun to my head, I'm picking the one coach with the toughest job ahead of him this upcoming season. I'm going with the guy who's got to piece together three massive egos and build one unified team concept. I'll take a 39-year-old greenhorn of a coach working with three of the biggest superstars in the game.
That's right — give me Erik Spoelstra.
Spoelstra won 47 games and made the Eastern Conference playoffs last season with a team that consisted of Dwyane Wade and not much else. All things considered, it was a great success story for a Miami Heat team that was miserable two seasons prior — but the turnaround was far from over.
The Heat have stumbled into two more big stars now in LeBron and Bosh. They have the talent to win a championship right away, on paper, but they need Spoelstra's presence in the locker room to truly unite a group that's been slapped together overnight.
Who's the floor leader? Who's the go-to guy in crunch time? Who gets the last shot? These are all questions that Spoelstra will have to answer. If he answers them wrong, he's a goat. But when you have this much talent on your side, it's hard to be wrong. Spoelstra will find a way to win with this group.
A few years ago, Spoelstra was organizing videotapes for a living, slaving away behind the scenes on Pat Riley's Miami Heat. But now he's running the show, and if he runs it right, it could pay off big next spring. It's just an early pick, but it's one that makes a lot of sense — Spoelstra will emerge next season as the NBA's best coach.
NESN.com will analyze 25 key NBA questions this September.
Sept. 14: Will Kevin Durant win another scoring title?
Sept. 16: Who wins Rookie of the Year?
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