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Coach Of The Year Watch

David Yapkowitz breaks down early Coach of the Year favorites.

David Yapkowitz

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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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NBA

Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton

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With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and front offices and scouts across the league.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Las Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

He’s just the latest example of things that Scott Perry has done right.

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts barely worth enough to buy LeBron James lunch on a consistent basis, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite. Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in summer league, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

So if you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and subsequently strategically managing his salary cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future, so the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season.

And what it also means for the Knicks is that the performance of Knox and Robinson at the Las Vegas Summer League isn’t the only thing the club should be celebrating.

It’s fair at this point to say that Perry has both improved the team’s future prospects and made a few moves that at least appear to have been the right decision.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign.

Perry has given Knicks fans quite a few. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

That concept has been where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up being effective will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job.

That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused. Irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York.

To do you one better, a more recent example of irony can be found in the fact that Isaiah Thomas was traded by the Boston Celtics after recording the highest single-season scoring average of all time among player shorter than six-foot tall.

Irony is fans of the Los Angeles Lakers having no choice but to embrace LeBron James after spending the entirety of his existence downplaying his career accomplishments in order to properly exalt Kobe Bryant.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s irony. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury.

In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding up to four new voices in 2018, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team other than in New York & LA; we are full in those markets.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful. E-mail that to openings2018@basketballinsiders.com

 

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NBA Daily: Yuta Watanabe Using Versatility, Defense To Push Forward

Undrafted forward Yuta Watanabe impressed all week at Summer League for the Brooklyn Nets — now he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get an NBA opportunity.

Ben Nadeau

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Heading into Las Vegas Summer League, it finally became difficult to look past the Brooklyn Nets. After three-straight seasons merely existing in the equivalency of basketball purgatory, the Nets brought an exciting, young roster out west — one that included Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and their two recent first-round selections, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. But when three of the four marquee names ended up watching from the sidelines, Brooklyn needed somebody to save the day — and as it turned out, his name was Yuta Watanabe.

Watanabe, 23, was an undrafted four-year senior out of George Washington this summer, but very quickly, the 6-foot-9 prospect has made a name for himself. Through his five games in Vegas, Watanabe averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 41 percent from the floor, while nearly leading the banged-up Nets in minutes along the way. And although they were the only winless team in Vegas, Watanabe was a major bright spot for Brooklyn and said that he felt himself improving early in the process.

“Yeah, I’m starting to get comfortable,” Watanabe said following a recent Summer League defeat. “Our teammates didn’t know each other and we didn’t play well today — but fourth quarter, I thought we played together. I could attack the rim more, so I think I’m getting comfortable right now.”

Of course, Watanabe’s eye-opening stretch is not an indictment on every other franchise for not taking a late flier on the Japanese-born shooter either. With front offices looking to lengthen and shape the careers of their draftees at every turn, seniors are often passed up in favor of younger potential. In 2018 alone, only 11 seniors were selected at all — Grayson Allen and Chandler Hutchison were the lone first-rounders — a number down two from the year prior.

In spite of his pre-draft workouts and favorable numbers at George Washington (16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game), Watanabe was always a long-shot to get drafted. But given the inroads to the NBA via the G-League or a two-way contract, Watanabe is far from finished in chasing his professional dreams.

“I was so excited — right after the draft, my agent called me and he told me: ‘You’re playing with the Nets.’” Watanabe told Basketball Insiders. “I was so excited, also he told me that there was going to be a lot of international players. As an international player, I was like so hyped.”

And it’s true, the Nets — led by general manager Sean Marks, a native New Zealander — have made a concerted effort to search out and acquire talent however possible. Watanabe was joined on the roster by the aforementioned Musa and Kurucs, of Bosnia and Latvia, respectively, Shawn Dawson of Israel, Ding Yanyuhang of China and Juan Pablo Vaulet, an Argentinian stash that’s one of the final holdovers from the last front office regime.

But while Watanabe may not hold a guaranteed contract, his noteworthy run with the Nets in Vegas could put him in pole position to earn one of those elusive two-way deals. Last season, the Nets ended the year with James Webb III and Milton Doyle, the latter of which the franchise tendered a qualifying offer to late last month, as their two-way assets. Still, things can change awfully fast in the NBA and Watanabe definitively fills two needs that Brooklyn has long sought-after since Marks took over in February of 2016: Multi-positional defense and reliable three-point shooting.

During his final season at George Washington, Watanabe hit on 36.4 percent of his long-range attempts and averaged 1.6 blocks per game as well — fully transforming into the flexible prospect he is today. In fact, the Nets have struggled to find consistent three-point shooting in the frontcourt since Brook Lopez was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, so Watanabe could be useful at that tricky stretch four position.

Although it’d be a new adventure for the defensive-minded grinder, Watanabe is up for it all the same.

“I mean, that’s one of my strengths, versatility is one of my strengths. If they want me to play four, I’m fine with that,” Watanabe said. “If I can hit shots — I’m 6-foot-9, long, athletic, so I have no problem playing the four.”

Of the nine Nets players to make one or more three-pointers per game last season, just two of them — Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham — regularly slotted in at power forward. And beyond that, only Joe Harris, Nik Stauskas, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Cunningham finished their 2017-18 campaigns with a higher three-point percentage than Watanabe. As a team, the Nets tossed up 35.7 three-pointers per game — second-most in the NBA — and converted on just 35.6 percent of them, a rate that left them in the league basement.

Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic 10 conference, George Washington made just 5.5 shots from downtown per game, with Watanabe accounting for 1.7 of them on his own. Certainly, nobody expects Watanabe to immediately continue that success at the NBA level — but there’s a precedence and fit here within a franchise that’s been laser-focused on player development as of late.

On top of all that, Watanabe is the reigning winner of the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award and he proved it out in Vegas. Following his final game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday, the former Colonial finished with a total of blocked eight shots and defended both guards and forwards throughout the tournament — a facet of his game that Watanabe takes pride in.

“Defense is also [one of] my strengths in college too,” Watanabe said. “I can’t remember how many blocks I got today, but I was able to show that I can play defense — even at the four.”

The recent acquisitions of Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur will make Watanabe’s path to a big-league opportunity that much harder — but the Nets have also benefitted from a strong G-League affiliate in recent seasons as well. So even if Watanabe doesn’t receive a two-way contract, he may have landed with a franchise well-suited to bring the very best out of him.

Should Watanabe ever reach the NBA, he’d be just the second-ever from Japan to do so — following in the footsteps of Yuta Tabuse, a 5-foot-9 point guard that played in four games for the Phoenix Suns back in 2004-05. But for now, Watanabe is all about helping out his new franchise in whatever way he can — whether that’s from behind the arc or below the rim.

“Make some open shots, play defense and just play as hard as possible — so I think that’s my job right now.”

Nobody knows what the future holds for Watanabe quite yet — but as of now, he’s doing exactly that.

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