- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — So who is the best coach in the NBA?

It could be Phil Jackson, who has led the Los Angeles Lakers to three championships in four seasons. If Jackson can resuscitate his team, which trails Detroit 2-1 in the NBA Finals heading into tonight’s Game4, it would break the tie of nine titles between him and his biggest critic, Boston’s legendary Red Auerbach.

What about Gregg Popovich, the man with the military background who has transformed the San Antonio Spurs into a machine with Tim Duncan at center that has won the two titles over the last five seasons that Jackson’s Lakers haven’t?

Either would prove an excellent choice.

However, when NBA.com polled league general managers on the subject at the start of the season, both finished well behind Larry Brown, the Pistons’ nomadic coach who has yet to win an NBA title with any of the seven league teams he has coached since 1976.

Brown, who has outcoached Jackson so far in the finals, received an overwhelming 42.9 percent of the vote when the GMs were asked to pick the top coach. Popovich came in a distant second with 19 percent of the vote, and Jackson received 14.3 percent. Brown, who led a broken-down Philadelphia team to the finals in 2001 before losing in five games to Jackson’s Lakers, was named the best in four of the five categories in which votes were cast, finishing second only to Jackson as “best motivator.”

However, coaches like Jackson and Popovich can look at their hand and admire the sparkling diamonds in their championship rings. Brown cannot.

It is an inescapable reality, one his players are using to motivate themselves as they seek to bring Detroit its first NBA title since 1990.

“We’ve talked about Coach Brown getting here before and coming up short,” center Ben Wallace said. “We would love to be the team that gets him that championship.”

It seems almost impossible that Brown, who has had winning records in 28 of 32 seasons as a pro or college coach, has never won am NBA championship. One of the reasons might be that Brown, who once took a UCLA team with four freshmen to the NCAA championship, might be a victim of his own excellence.

Jackson’s title teams were built around Michael Jordan in Chicago and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles; Brown has taken teams with horrible records and average talent, such as the Los Angles Clippers, Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets, to the playoffs.

“I think GMs have such a high opinion of Larry because he comes into situations and builds,” said former Washington Wizards coach Gar Heard, who spent five years as Brown’s assistant in Indiana and Philadelphia. “A lot of coaches would like to come into Phil’s situations, with the guys he’s had. [But] look at Philly. They hadn’t been to the playoffs in six years and [Brown] got them to the finals. He is good at helping teams take the next step.”

This fact wasn’t lost on Pistons general manager Joe Dumars. Named the league’s executive of the year in 2003, Dumars was not satisfied with the Pistons reaching the Eastern Conference finals last season only to be swept by New Jersey.

Dumars wanted the Pistons to replicate the success they had when he was a member of back-to-back NBA championship teams in 1989 and 1990. However, he wasn’t confident coach Rick Carlisle, who led the Pistons to back-to-back 50-win seasons and was named coach of the year his first season, could do that.

So Dumars, upon hearing Brown was stepping down last summer as coach of the 76ers, didn’t hesitate to phone Carlisle — who was vacationing in the Carolinas — to say he was being terminated with one year remaining on his contract.

“You hate making that decision when you have had that success,” Dumars said. “But there are only a couple of coaches you can make that decision for, Larry Brown being one of them. [But] even with Larry Brown available, it is still not an easy call to make.”

Carlisle wasn’t out of work long. The Indiana Pacers, whom the Pistons beat in six games to get where they are now, hired him almost immediately.

“We became a better team with Coach Brown,” Ben Wallace said. “He has gotten us where we are now. No disrespect to Coach Carlisle, because he did a great job, but we are in the finals right now. The Pistons haven’t done that in years.”

Meanwhile, Brown’s Pistons are emphasizing the importance of tonight’s game, in which a win would be huge. Another loss would put the Lakers, heavily favored at the start of the series, in a 3-1 hole — a deficit from which no team has rallied to win in the NBA Finals.

Still, Brown remains cautious.

“They are a special team; they have a special coach,” he said. “Phil has won nine championships. We’re going to have to play our best game to get the next one.”

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