Much attention has been paid to the six NBA coaches who have been fired before Christmas. That's 20 percent of the league's coaches whacked before Santa shows up. The coaches chasing the Coach of the Year hardware barely get mentioned. The pressure to win immediately led P.J. Carlesimo, Randy Wittman, Eddie Jordan, Sam Mitchell, Maurice Cheeks and, most recently, Reggie Theus to the unemployment line. It's the same pressure that makes these five coaches celebrated for leading their respective teams to the top of the league standings (records through Friday):
Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics (25-2)
Maybe his team's league-leading record doesn't have you convinced that Rivers is doing one of the best coaching jobs in recent memory. But the encore the world champions are giving says as much about the drive of The Big 3 --- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen --- and their supporting cast as it does about Rivers. The former Hawks point guard has done a fantastic job managing, motivating and massaging one of the trickiest coaching situations in league history. With his team riding a 17-game win streak into the weekend, Rivers remains in the background to most, having silenced his most vocal critics of a few years ago.
Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers (22-4)
Another coach who is overshadowed by his star player --- LeBron James --- Brown integrated yet another point guard into his system. With Mo Williams, the Cavaliers had a torrid streak of 11 straight wins that ended last weekend at Philips Arena against the Hawks. Brown, whose reputation as a defensive mastermind has long overshadowed his ability to adapt his system to fit his star's still maturing game, has weathered his toughest days in Cleveland. James is putting together an MVP season that could land Brown high on the list for Coach of the Year.
Phil Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers (21-4)
Jackson already has more hardware than any other active coach or player in the league, so winning Coach of the Year honors for him might seem a bit old hat. But no one can deny that Jackson continues to amaze with his ability to get everything out of not only his star players (Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol) but also his supporting cast (Trevor Ariza, Sasha Vujacic and the like). Jackson's Lakers will have a chance to match wits with Rivers' Celtics in a Christmas Day showdown and NBA Finals rematch.
Stan Van Gundy, Orlando Magic (20-6)
The third member of the All-Overlooked squad with Rivers and Brown, Van Gundy has always worked in the shadow of his younger brother Jeff, who isn't coaching right now. Give the elder Van Gundy credit for molding Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson into one of the league's best core groups. Howard continues to thrive under Van Gundy's watchful eye, and as he proved while coaching Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, Van Gundy won't back down from coaching a star player the way he think he needs to.
George Karl, Denver Nuggets (17-9)
The biggest beneficiary of the monster trade between the Nuggets and Pistons wasn't Allen Iverson or Chauncey Billups. It was Karl, whose team received a major boost from the arrival of hometown favorite Billups. With a traditional point guard capable of facilitating at the highest level and being a backcourt scoring threat in clutch time, Karl finally has the trigger man who can direct a game the way he sees fit. Whether the Nuggets keep up the pace in the Western Conference depends largely on Karl and how well he can continue to prod his team into playing the game the "Right (Carolina) Way."