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.
NBA PM: Losing Beverley Is A Devastating Blow For Clippers
The loss of Patrick Beverley is a major setback for the Clippers, which could be the catalyst for major changes to the team moving forward.
If you ask any average NBA fan to name the ten best point guards in the league, Patrick Beverley’s name probably won’t make the cut. However, based on the injury issues plaguing the Los Angeles Clippers and the early season impact Beverley had on his team, losing him for the season is the functional equivalent of losing a top-ten point guard for the season.
In the 11 games Beverley played in this season, he averaged 12.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals, while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and 40.3 percent from the field. Beverley’s control of the Clippers’ offense and his three-point shooting efficiency were nice surprises for the Clippers early on, but his fearless attitude and aggression on defense were the most important attributes he brought to the team. The Clippers have missed other players recently, including Danilo Gallinari, but the loss of Beverley has been a setback that Los Angeles has been unable to overcome.
“It’s a tough blow for the team, but it’s worse for Patrick,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Atlanta. “We thought it would probably be just meniscus, but it turns out to be a lot more.”
What seemed to be nagging knee soreness turned out to be a serious cartilage injury that required a microfracture procedure. Beverley will miss the rest of the season and his recovery will take roughly nine months. The Clippers had already lost 30-year-old rookie passing sensation Milos Teodosic in the second regular game of the season, whom is still out indefinitely. Los Angeles lost its starting backcourt 11 games into the season and it seems highly unlikely that they can effectively make up for those losses. Austin Rivers and Lou Williams are the veteran guards still available in the backcourt, with rookies Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans offering their support.
Losing Teodosic was a difficult loss, but Beverley had managed well enough without him. With Beverley in the lineup, the Clippers outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions this season. Without him, the Clippers have been outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats.
Now the Clippers face some difficult decisions. Without Beverley and Teodosic, and with Gallinari missing extended time, the Clippers have fallen to 6-11 and are ranked 13th in the Western Conference. Making the postseason was going to be a challenge even without major injuries and now it seems like a daunting task that will require better health and an extended winning streak or two. However, without Beverley, the Clippers need to consider the possibility of moving significant trade assets now to prepare for the future.
Center DeAndre Jordan is now 29 years old and is set to be an unrestricted free agent next season. Teams are reportedly calling the Clippers to gauge whether Jordan would be available via trade. But earlier this season Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank stated that he is working to ensure that Jordan remains a Clipper through his entire career. However, with the Clippers facing such daunting injury issues and having already slipped to the back of the Western Conference, the Clippers may be more willing to listen to offers on players like Jordan and Lou Williams. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who are dealing with their own issues, could benefit substantially from brining on a player like Jordan. While there are no concrete discussions regarding a deal for Jordan or any other Clipper, this is now a team to watch as we get closer and closer to the trade deadline.
Derrick Rose Reportedly Away From Cavaliers, Contemplating Future
Derrick Rose has struggled with injuries since tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. Now it seems as though the multi-year struggle to get and stay healthy is catching up to Rose, who is reportedly away from the Cleveland Cavaliers and is contemplating his future in basketball.
Adrian Wojnarowksi and Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported this story earlier today and stated that “Rose has been non-communicative to multiple people close to him inside and outside of the Cavaliers in recent days, league sources said.”
Rose, who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011, has also struggled to adapt his game to the league’s evolving style of play. Rose has failed to shoot better than 30 percent from the three-point line in the last four seasons and his ability to make plays for others consistently has dwindled as well. Rose has primarily been a scorer this season and has at times displayed his unique ability to attack the basket off the dribble effectively. However, his inability to stay healthy, knock down open three-pointers and be an effective playmaker for others have limited his impact in today’s NBA.
There is still a place in the NBA for Rose should he ever find a way to overcome his injury issues. But after years of fighting that battle, it seems as though Rose is unsure how much longer he wants to keep on fighting.
Dunn Thriving With New Opportunity In Chicago
After a disappointing rookie campaign in Minnesota, Kris Dunn is thriving with the Bulls, Spencer Davies writes.
Having met head-to-head in Tuesday night’s game for the first time in their careers, Kris Dunn and Lonzo Ball have some things in common.
Drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the former college star at Providence struggled to adjust to the professional level. He was finding difficulty putting the ball in the basket. He wasn’t nearly aggressive enough.
Part of this was due to an inconsistent role and a battle with Tyus Jones for the backup spot at point guard behind Ricky Rubio, but aside from that, there were significant shortcomings with his game that made people have their doubts about Dunn’s future in the NBA.
But fortunately for him, it was only one year, and — contrary to how most players are gauged these days — one year does not define who or what a player is or isn’t. Sometimes, it takes time or a change of scenery, and so far this season with the Chicago Bulls, the 23-year-old Dunn is showing flashes.
Despite missing the first four games with a dislocated finger, he hasn’t missed a beat. The discrepancies between now and his rookie season are already very apparent.
For one, Dunn scored in double digits a total of seven times in 78 games with Minnesota. Through just 12 games playing for the Bulls, he’s already registered nine of those performances, including recently eclipsing the 20-point mark for the first time with a career-high 22 against the Charlotte Hornets.
So what can you credit for the improvements? Assertiveness, probably. You score more when you shoot more. Dunn is averaging over triple the number of attempts per game this year with Chicago than with the Timberwolves. To no surprise, the numbers are prettier because of it.
It’s a decently small sample size, but Dunn’s effective field goal percentage (46.5) is more than five points higher than in 2016-17. He’s averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes, pulling down at least five rebounds per game and averaging close to four assists per game as well.
His development on offense has been something, but the sophomore guard’s impact on the defensive end is something to keep an eye on. Though the Bulls rank in the bottom 10 defensively, there is a bright spot when Dunn is on the floor. As a team with him playing, Chicago allows 103.1 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the bench, that number balloons to 110, which is the third-highest difference among his teammates.
Diving a little further into it, Dunn is seeing over nine attempts against him per game. Compared to other players that see between nine and 10 tries per game, he places sixth on the list, allowing just 41.1 percent of those to be successful. According to NBA.com, he is one of 35 players in the league who is allowing less than one point per possession on isolation plays. At the same time, this could be because he’s sending his opposition to the line a ton. Among guards, he averages the second-most fouls per game (3.3) behind only Dillon Brooks.
That’ll need to change eventually, but the potential is there. Dunn gambles on some reaches with his long arms and taller frame, which is why he’s getting two steals per game. He also ranks fifth among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus behind his teammate David Nwaba. Strictly as a hounding defender, we’re seeing what he can become down the line.
Since returning, Dunn has the second-best net rating on the team and Chicago is a net -18.5 points per 100 possessions without him. While that’s not particularly encouraging for the team itself, it proves his importance. Again, the small body of work should tell you to take this with a grain of salt, but at the same time, we didn’t ever really see this in year one.
Whether it’s due to a better opportunity and more touches or more self-confidence on his part, Dunn is playing more loose and free, and he’s thriving because of it.
Maybe, just maybe, one season wasn’t enough to judge.
NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized
Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.
With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?
Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.
“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”
Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.
“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”
Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.
“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”
Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.
For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.
By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.
How Dwight Howard ranks in scoring efficiency among players with at least 70 post up possessions this season: pic.twitter.com/lVYRfkIQhP
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) November 22, 2017
Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.
“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”
Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.
“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”
With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.