As the NBA's regular season winds down, it is time for the journalists who cover the league to do the right thing: vote the Los Angeles Lakers' Pat Riley as Coach of the Year. With each passing season, the resistance to Riley grows stronger, and it's a disgrace. Let's repair this injustice while the guy is still lacquering on the mousse and hauling the Italian suits out of the closet.
Yes, there are other good choices. Chuck Daly's blend of humor and discipline has kept the defending champion Detroit Pistons humming. Rick Adelman has brought harmony to the Portland Trail Blazers. Most observers thought the Philadelphia 76ers would struggle to make the playoffs, but at week's end Jimmy Lynam had them in first place in the Atlantic Division. There are good choices every year. This season Riley, who has never won the award, is the only choice.
The case against Riley, passionately held in many quarters, goes like this: His nine Laker teams have had exceptional talent, and they have had Magic Johnson, who is as much a coach on the floor as Riley is on the sidelines. Both of these statements fail to do Riley justice.
First, I'm not convinced that Los Angeles's talent this season is any better than Detroit's, Portland's, or maybe even the Chicago Bulls'. The center position, no longer manned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is divided between an aging Mychal Thompson and a 22-year-old rookie, Vlade Divac. Byron Scott and A.C. Green are having mediocre seasons. Michael Cooper's lackluster shooting continues. Yet at week's end, the Lakers' 54-17 record was the best in the league. Yes, Riley's teams have been loaded, but they no longer steamroller the NBA with personnel, as they did in seasons past.
Although Magic is the quintessential floor leader, he is not the Laker coach. Riley sets the tone. Riley establishes the game plan. Riley does the talking during timeouts. Great NBA teams no longer run on automatic pilot, and L.A.'s pilot is Riley, as surely as Daly is the Pistons'.
It's true that Riley has had the good fortune of having Johnson on his team. But it works the other way, too. One of the main requirements of being an NBA head coach is getting along with the team's superstar. K.C. Jones's comfortable relationship with Larry Bird in Boston accounted for much of the Celtics' success in the mid-1980s. Ditto Daly's relationship with Isiah Thomas in Detroit. Magic is a great guy—enthusiastic, cooperative, team-oriented—but in 1981-82, his third season with L.A., he ran Paul Westhead out of the Laker coaching job.
It's funny, but the Coach of the Year award is treated differently than the MVP, which is also selected by the writers and broadcasters. With the MVP, most voters consider the record of a candidate's team to be of paramount importance, which is why Magic beat the Bulls' Michael Jordan last season. However, different criteria seem to prevail in evaluating NBA coaches. The voters favor coaches who "turned around" teams, or who won "more than they were supposed to." No coach of a championship team has been Coach of the Year since Bill Sharman of the Lakers was selected in 1972.
Coaches who turn teams around are fine, and I agree that in most years they ought to receive favored consideration. But at some point a coach's ability to win championships must take precedence over any other factor. We're at—no, we're long past—that point with Riley.
Riley took over from Westhead 12 games into the 1981-82 season, and the Lakers won 50 games, as well as the league championship. Four times in the past five years the Lakers have won more than 60 games, and they'll probably do it again this season. Riley has won four titles, to stand behind only Red Auerbach, who won nine in 20 seasons in Boston, and John Kundla, who won five with Minneapolis during the '40s and '50s. Am I missing something, or is Riley getting the job done?
Even if Riley were merely a button-pusher, it would be time to honor him. But he's not. He works hard, and he knows basketball. Even so, many journalists who appreciate his insightful approach to the game assert that a cocker spaniel could win a championship with a lineup that includes Magic Johnson.
They're dead wrong. Consider for a moment: Riley's championships, especially the one in '88, when the Lakers became the first team in 19 years to win back-to-back titles; his guiding of the Laker ship through the Abdul-Jabbar farewell tour, which distracted the team for much of the 1988-89 season; and his ability to keep personal conflicts among his players in check. Even if you don't believe this guy is the best coach in the league right now, it's time to give him the Irving G. Thalberg lifetime achievement award. Do it before he's gone.