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Coach Of The Year Watch

David Yapkowitz breaks down early Coach of the Year favorites.

David Yapkowitz



We’re coming up on about one month into the NBA season and there have been some interesting storylines so far regarding possible Coach of the Year candidates.

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics have withstood a season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward while incorporating several new players. Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic have gotten off to surprisingly good starts.

In the Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies have adapted to the loss of several key players while the Houston Rockets, playing without Chris Paul since the season opener, haven’t missed a beat. And don’t overlook the young Timberwolves who have also started the season strong.

Here’s a look a six of the early Coach of the Year candidates, in reverse order.

6) Mike D’Antoni

Last season, the Western Conference was thought to be a two-team race between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. For the most part, that was true, but the Rockets emerged as a team to be taken seriously. Mike D’Antoni moved James Harden to full-time point guard and the result was career-highs in points (29.1) and assists (11.2), the Rockets finishing third in the conference at 55-27, and D’Antoni taking home the Coach of the Year award.

This offseason, the Rockets added Chris Paul in hopes of closing the gap between them and the Warriors, but Paul has been sidelined since the season opener with a knee injury. Although the Rockets will need Paul if they want any chance at competing with the Warriors in the playoffs, they’ve managed to play through his injury so far.

The main staple of D’Antoni teams has always been high-powered offenses. The Rockets have used their strong offense to sit atop the Western Conference at 9-3. They are scoring 110.5 points per game, good enough for fourth in the league. There are four players averaging double figures in points, including a career-high 22.8 for Eric Gordon. Depending on how long Paul is out, and how much the injury affects him going forward, D’Antoni could find himself in the conversation once again for Coach of the Year.

5) Tom Thibodeau

Last season was the first time in Tom Thibodeau’s head coaching career that one of his teams finished with a losing record. He always got the most out of his Chicago Bulls teams and they became a playoff staple in the Eastern Conference. He had a young, inexperienced team last year and as President of Basketball Operations as well, he made sure he had a more balanced roster of young guys and veterans this year.

Jimmy Butler emerged as the last pick in the first round of the 2011 draft to a franchise caliber player under Thibodeau. Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks had career years under Thibodeau in Chicago. He added those guys plus Jamal Crawford to help balance the youth and experience on the Wolves roster. So far, it has paid off as the Wolves currently sit in the top four in the West. It was expected that they’d have a shot at the playoffs, but thanks to Thibodeau, home court advantage in the first round isn’t out of the question.

Thibodeau’s teams have always been recognized as strong defensive squads, and he’s often given much credit for the suffocating defense the Boston Celtics used in route to the 2008 championship. The Wolves, however, are giving up 111.2 points per game which is 27th in the league. If they can get the defense tightened up a bit, and hold on to the top four spot, Thibodeau might be looking at his second Coach of the Year award.

4) Frank Vogel

In Frank Vogel’s first four seasons as head coach of the Indiana Pacers, the team improved every year, made a few Conference Finals, and emerged as the only semi-legitimate threat to the Miami HEAT. The only year the Pacers missed the playoffs under Vogel was the 2014-15 season, and that was when Paul George missed pretty much the entire year with an injury.

This past summer, the Orlando Magic cleaned out their front office and brought in a new management team. They appear to have a clear direction, unlike last season, and they are thriving under Vogel. Aaron Gordon is playing his natural position at power forward and his having an All-Star caliber year. Evan Fournier is having a career year as well, and Vogel has taken advantage of Jonathon Simmons’ versatile skill set and has him closing games as the team’s point guard.

The Magic have not made the playoffs since Dwight Howard was traded back in 2012. Vogel’s teams have only missed the playoffs twice: once in Indiana when missing his star player, and last year when the Magic were out of sorts. Vogel has the Magic in the top ten in the league in scoring at 109.3 points per game. His Pacer teams were always tough and gritty defensively and this season he has the Magic in the top half of the league defensively. Their 105.6 points given up are right at 15th. It was unclear whether or not the Magic would be a legitimate playoff contender, but they’ve shown early on that playoffs are the goal. If they maintain their current pace, Vogel could be looking at his first Coach of the Year award.

3) Stan Van Gundy

Although he eventually resigned his position, under Stan Van Gundy, the HEAT improved each year he was there and looked well on their way to becoming the eventual championship team they became in 2006. His Orlando teams were a perennial playoff contender and in only his second year with the Magic, he took them to the Finals. He hasn’t seen that type of success in Detroit just yet, but it’s looking like they may have finally turned the corner.

The Pistons have come out of the gates with the second-best record in the East. They had an impressive West Coast road swing last month where, albeit losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, they beat the Warriors and Clippers. Stanley Johnson, who has seen uneven playing time in the past under Van Gundy, has been placed in the starting lineup and is responding accordingly. Although his numbers don’t jump off the page (8.5 points, 40.3 percent shooting), Van Gundy’s trust in him has seemingly done well for his confidence and he’s become an integral piece of the team. Tobias Harris is also having a career year, and Andre Drummond has seemingly returned to the All-Star form he displayed during the 2015-16 season.

Van Gundy has also been known as a good defensive coach, and the Pistons are currently giving up 100.8 points per game, good enough for 8th in the league. They’re scoring well too at 105.6 points per game. Prior to the beginning of the season, the Pistons were another team on the bubble. They could be a playoff team, but they could very easily not be as well. Unless the Cleveland Cavaliers get their act together, the East appears wide open. Van Gundy has had teams that have done very well in the regular season and if they can keep this up, he’ll be in the conversation for Coach of the Year.

2) Dave Fizdale

It’s not easy to bounce back when a team loses several key players like the Grizzlies did this summer after the departures of Tony Allen, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph. Even before this year, the Grizzlies have been overlooked and ignored yet like a lite version of the Spurs, they defy expectations and remain a force in the tough West. In his first ever season as a head coach, Fizdale kept Memphis competitive and they even put up a fight against the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

This season, despite their roster losses, Fizdale has taken a mostly young group and has them right in the thick of things in the West. They have impressive wins over the Warriors, the Rockets (twice), the Clippers, and the Trail Blazers. He’s taken James Ennis III and Jarell Martin, two guys who haven’t always had a defined role, and put them in the starting lineup where they’ve thrived. He’s moved rookie Dillon Brooks in the starting lineup as well.

Fizdale is also developing a reputation as one of the better defensive coaches in the league. Last year, the Grizzlies’ 100 points given up per night was good enough for third in the league. This season, they’re only giving up 98 points per game. Their offense is solid as well at 101.5 points per game. The Grizzlies look like they’re not content with just making the playoffs, they’re fighting for a top-four spot and home-court advantage in the first round. The West was supposed to be especially tough this season with several All-Star players shifting over from the East. Despite that, here are the Grizzlies right in the middle of it. Should this continue, Fizdale should be near the top when it comes to the Coach of the Year voting.

1) Brad Stevens

When Brad Stevens first became head coach of the Celtics in 2013, it was unclear whether not he could make the leap from college to the NBA. Since then, he’s established himself as one of the best coaches in the league. The Celtics have improved every year under Stevens, and while the team hasn’t always been one of the most talented in the league, Stevens has always gotten the most out of them.

The Celtics were dealt what could have been a crushing blow in their season opener. Their prized free agent signing, Gordon Hayward, went down with an injury that was later revealed to be a season-ending one. Not only were they down perhaps their second-best player, but the Celtics went through a roster turnover that left them with ten new players. Despite that, the Celtics not only have the best record in the East, they have the best record in the entire league. Stevens has transformed the Celtics into a legit threat to Cleveland’s dominance.

One of Stevens’ calling cards since arriving in the NBA is defense. Currently, Boston is the best defensive team in the league. They are only giving up 94.6 points per game, the best in the NBA. Kyrie Irving has taken his game to levels not previously seen. The Celtics are showing no signs of slowing down and, should Cleveland recover manage to get their act together, they could be in for a tough fight.

Should each of these teams mentioned continue their current pace, all of these coaches would be worthy of winning Coach of the Year. However, based on the circumstances surrounding Boston, from losing Hayward to having a high roster turnover, Stevens has to be the clear early favorite. It doesn’t matter much what these other teams do, the Coach of the Year award is looking like it’s Stevens’ to lose.


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Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”

Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.

Dennis Chambers



The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.

Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.

With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.

One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.

“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”

Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.

“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”

In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.

“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”

Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.

While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.

Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.

“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”

The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.

Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.

“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”

Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.

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NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.

Steve Kyler



The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.

Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.

Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.

There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.

Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.

In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.

Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.

Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.

This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?

There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.

Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.

Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.

The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.

There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.

The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.

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NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson

Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.

Ben Nadeau



Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?

Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.

“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”

Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.

While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.

Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.

“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”

Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.

“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.

Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.

Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.

But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.

“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”

When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.

And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.

“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”

One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.

“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”

And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.

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