NBA

Cheap Seats: Coaches Who Deserve Credit

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss some coaches who deserve credit this season. The Coach of the Year race will likely come down to Indiana’s Frank Vogel, Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Portland’s Terry Stotts, and those coaches have received a lot of ink this year. Today, we wanted to recognize some coaches who haven’t gotten as much love:

Tom Thibodeau

The Chicago Bulls came into the season with high hopes; the long awaited return of Derrick Rose, the emergence of Jimmy Butler, consistent strong play from Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah bringing his usual unchecked passion and energy every night had fans excited. The team seemed poised to return to the form that netted them 62 wins and a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11. Coach Tom Thibodeau would be equipped with his full arsenal of weapons, an opportunity that he surely had been longing for ever since the unfortunate injury to his former MVP point guard Rose.

Those expectations changed dramatically just 11 games into the season in a late November game against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was in that game when Rose would suffer another season-ending injury to his knee. A crippling blow to the Bulls’ chances of competing in the playoffs against the two elite teams in the East, the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers. With the East being so weak, the injury to Rose certainly didn’t remove the team from playoff contention, but even the most optimistic fan knew that it would be a monumental challenge to topple either of the conferences juggernauts without their star.

After the injury to Rose, the team was left in a very precarious position, a no man’s land of sorts. They were no longer talented enough to compete for the title, but still a playoff team in the poor Eastern Conference. The front office, not believing the current roster could compete for a title without Rose, would eventually trade their former All-Star forward Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers, depleting the roster even further.

Without Rose and Deng, it was expected the Bulls would fade back in the standings and maybe even fall out of the playoff race. If you are familiar with Coach Thibodeau, you knew that wouldn’t be the case. When you play for Thibodeau, you are going to compete every second of every game. His team has done exactly that. As it stands today, the Bulls are 38-31, which is good for fourth in the East and if the playoffs started today would give them home court advantage. It’s remarkable when you consider the roster Thibodeau has been left to work with. The point guard duties in Rose’s absence are being split by veteran Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin. Butler and Mike Dunleavy have been handling the majority of the minutes at the wing position with rookie Tony Snell spelling them at times. The strength of the roster is now in the frontcourt, led by All-Star Joakim Noah along with Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. Noah has been brilliant, having possibly the best season of his career, Butler and Gibson are both very solid players and Boozer can score, but at times has been a liability on defense. The rest of the roster falls into the average to below average category.

Thibodeau somehow has been able to work wonders with who he has. The Bulls are second in the league in points allowed, only giving up 92.3 points a game. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as Thibodeau has proven to be a defensive mastermind, but is still impressive all things considered. Along with great defense, the Bulls have done a good job on the glass, ranking in the top 10 in rebounding as well. The team’s toughness is what really shows night in and night out. Thibodeau, along with Noah, ooze competitive spirit and that desire to win has been contagious among the rest of the team. The offense, however, has had its struggles, sitting near the bottom of the league in scoring. Thibodeau has done a great job utilizing Noah to try a spark the sometimes stagnant offensive attack. He often begins possessions in the high post, which allows him to survey the defense and find cutters or guys coming off screens, allowing Noah to take full advantage of his passing ability. Thibodeau has guided the Bulls to a 24-13 record since Deng’s departure, which is surprisingly a drastic improvement after going only 14-18 with Deng on the roster to start the season. The team has really come together over the last couple months and no one deserves more credit for that than Thibodeau. He has his guys playing great team ball and it is leading to wins.

This Bulls team will be a playoff team, most likely not a championship team but that certainly shouldn’t be considered a failure. Thibodeau has made the most of a roster lacking much depth and scoring punch, relying on his guys to fight every possession. His team has bought in wholeheartedly. The season could have easily been lost and no one would have criticized Thibodeau, knowing the adversity his team has faced. It’s hard to argue that any coach has done more with less. Approaching 40 wins in mid March with this roster is a phenomenal achievement. Win or lose, this Bulls team will be a nightmare opponent for whoever they meet in the playoffs. While they may be out-manned if the run into the Pacers or HEAT, there is no doubt Thibodeau will have his guys prepared to scrap and claw each game.

– John Zitzler

 Jason Kidd

Since the calendar turned to 2014, the Brooklyn Nets have been one of the hottest teams in the league. In 36 games played in 2014, the Nets have gone 26-10 versus 10-21 in the 21 games played in 2013. The team’s excellent turnaround has them in prime position going into the final stretch of games in the regular season. The Nets would be the fifth seed if the playoffs started today, with a first-round matchup against the Chicago Bulls. With remaining games against the New Orleans Pelicans, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and a couple against the Orlando Magic, the Nets could find themselves as high as the third seed at the end of the season with home-court advantage in the first-round.

The Nets owe their resurgence to the man in charge, Jason Kidd. It was easy for analysts and experts to bash Kidd in the early part of the season, but Kidd has brushed that off and has led the Nets in the right path and he deserves more praise. Nets general manager Billy King has said just as much.

“Jason has been amazing,” King said on Friday. “Nobody is really saying how great a job he’s done. It is easy to attack people negatively, but when people have success you should give them the credit. A lot of our success that we are having is directed [by Kidd].”

When things go sideways in the NBA, the heat is usually directed at the coach first. It was especially easy to blame Kidd in his first year as a coach, transitioning from a player. So when the team started 10-21 with an expensive roster that features Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, many were calling for his job. One scout graded Kidd by giving him an incomplete, because “he doesn’t do anything,” according to Bleacher Report.

The Nets have been able to continue winning without the services of leading scorer Brook Lopez and veteran big man Garnett. Lopez suffered a season-ending foot injury back in December, and Garnett has been battling back spasms and has missed the last 11 games. Garnett’s timetable to return to the floor is unknown, but the Nets seem to be faring well without him as the team has won eight of those 11 games.

This season with the Nets, Garnett is averaging a career-low 6.7 points per game and the second-lowest rebounding total of his career with 6.7 per game. Even with the lowest production of his career, the Nets are still in need of his services if they hope to make noise in the playoffs.

Kidd is on record as crediting the Nets’ turnaround to the fact that the team is starting to trust each other more. It also seems like the team has more confidence in hearing what the players are saying.

Pierce has said that the team isn’t worried about where they’ll play in the postseason. Pierce said last week that the team is capable of playing anywhere in the league, citing their wins in Oklahoma City and Miami as examples. The Nets may want to find themselves playing at home come the first round of the playoffs as the team has won 11 straight games at the Barclays Center.

Deron Williams said this week that Kidd has done a great job with the team.

“He’s had a lot to deal with just with rotations,” Williams told Newsday. “It’s made it tough, but I think he’s handled it well, this being his first year. I think he prepares us well every game. I think he gets us ready to play, and then in the game, he puts us in good situations. So it’s a learning experience for him, and I think he’s grown game by game and you can kind of see that.”

– Cody Taylor

Brett Brown

Before everyone pulls out their pitch forks and torches, hear me out. I acknowledge that no one is going to give a Coach of the Year vote to the leader of the second-worst team in the league. The NBA, like all sports leagues, awards winning and admonishes losers. That will be reflected this year by a coach like Gregg Popovich, Jeff Hornacek or Doc Rivers winning the Coach of the Year award. However, I want to give some recognition to a coach that arguably has accomplished every goal he, and his team’s front office, set out to achieve this year.

The 76ers are not a winning team, but in terms of setting themselves up for a bright future, no one has performed as well as they have. Brett Brown is the captain of this ship (maybe a tank is a more appropriate metaphor) and has guided his young team through a historically bad season. In spite of the losing, this season has been a success.

On August 14, 2013, Brown signed on as the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

“We went through an exhaustive search to find the right head coach for our organization—one who had a passion for developing talent, a strong work-ethic to help create the kind of culture we hope for, and a desire to continually improve,” Sam Hinkie, general manger of the 76ers, said in a statement. “Brett has all of that. He also has a wealth of experience as a head coach and a championship pedigree, to boot.”

After coaching in Australia, Brown joined the San Antonio Spurs in 1999, became the director of player development in 2002, and joined Popovich’s bench as an assistant coach in 2007 and was with the Spurs during each of their four championship seasons, which includes 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007. Credit Hinkie for finding a coach that has worked in player development, worked on a championship coaching staff, and was capable of building a team and creating a winning culture.

The season started off with a bang, as the 76ers unexpectedly knocked off the Miami HEAT, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls in its first three games. The 76ers had veterans Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young on the team. These players are young, but probably not young enough to be part of a major rebuild. In fact, they are the sort of players that can fetch valuable draft picks from contending teams that are looking for that final piece to put them over the top.

As the season continued, Turner, Hawes and Young each continued to play big minutes and be significant contributors to the team, each playing well over 30 minutes a game. Brown was trying his best to win games, and managed to knock off teams like the Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets, Portland Trail Blazers, Charlotte Bobcats and New York Knicks. In doing so, Brown allowed his veterans to showcase their talent for other teams, while also playing standout rookie Michael Carter-Williams the second most minutes on the team. Brown tiptoed the line between showcasing his veterans’ talent, and featuring his young star and role players prominently.

At the trade deadline, the 76ers moved Hawes to Cleveland for two second-round picks and Earl Clark. They also moved Turner and Lavoy Lavoy Allen to Indiana for Danny Granger and a second-round draft pick. Granger and Clark were bought out, and the 76ers went into full tank mode.

Brown knew this would likely happen, but said he is up for the challenge, telling NBC Sports, “I just felt like I was at a stage where I wanted the challenge. And it would be a blemish on a coaching record, but I feel like, at this stage for me, that’s not my motivation. I hope to be a part of something special and build something special here.”

With Turner and Hawes gone, Brown now gets to play his young talent and develop players who may be with the team moving forward. Players like James Anderson, Tony Wroten and Henry Sims have been able to make a case for why they should have a place with the organization moving forward. Though the losses continue, Brown has his team competing. Just ask the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, all of whom the 76ers almost upset in its last three games, losing by single digits in each game. The 76ers’ losing streak currently stands at 23, and they are only three games back from the all-time record set by the Cavaliers in 2011.

While that number is certainly an eyesore, it is the result of a deliberate plan. Look at teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, who are also struggling this season. Mike D’Antoni runs a wide open offense and gives his players the green-light to shoot from the perimeter. On defense, the Lakers surrender points easily, and simply try to outscore their opponents each night. The players, many of which are on expiring deals, are putting up inconsistent performances as each takes their turn to get his stats and make a name for themselves before going into free agency. There is no rhyme and reason to the rotations, and players like Wesley Johnson are being asked to play out of position, which takes away from any value the team may have in evaluating individual players.

As for the Bucks, they acquired players like Caron Butler and O.J. Mayo this year to compete for a playoff run. Instead, Larry Sanders had a terrible year, missing time from an injury sustained in a bar fight, and the team has been a mess in general. While the Bucks have acquired under the radar talent in Brandon Knight and rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, there is little to be optimistic about moving forward in Milwaukee. Bucks head coach Larry Drew has not orchestrated the same focused approach that Brown has in Philadelphia, and it shows through the frustration of players like Ersan Ilyasova, who is rumored to want out of Milwaukee.

This is why Brown deserves recognition. He has kept his eye on the big picture this season. He allowed Hinkie to make shrewd moves to execute a long-term plan toward rebuilding, featured his veteran players leading to trades for future draft picks, given Carter-Williams the room and guidance to grow as a player, and continues to get his players to compete every night in spite of the lack of overall talent on the team. Brown has been able to do this through a unified and concerted effort toward improving the team. He runs offensive and defensive schemes that will be effective in the future, executed by Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and whoever the 76ers’ pick with their valuable lottery pick this offseason. If all of this wasn’t enough, Brown even went so far as to call season ticket holders personally to explain the team’s plan for the future, and convince them that they should renew their tickets for next year.

This year was about laying the foundation for a brighter future in Philadelphia. As newly appointed commissioner Adam Silver put it, it’s not “tanking,” it’s “rebuilding.” This year, no one has done a better job of “rebuilding,” than the 76ers, and Brown has done a masterful job of laying that foundation.

– Jesse Blancarte

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About Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy is a Senior NBA Editor of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last seven seasons.