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Head to Head: NBA Coach of the Year Race

Ben Dowsett, Moke Hamilton and Alex Kennedy debate who is the Coach of the Year frontrunner.

Basketball Insiders

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Now that we are halfway through the 2015-16 NBA season, it seems like an appropriate time to evaluate which coaches have done the best job leading their respective team. In today’s Head to Head, Ben Dowsett, Moke Hamilton and Alex Kennedy discuss which sideline general they feel is the current frontrunner in the Coach of the Year race.

Ben Dowsett: Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks

Determining the Coach of the Year in the NBA is about more than just picking the most visible bench boss from the league’s few elite teams. Maximization of available talent is the key – how much is a given coach adding to his group, both visibly and behind the scenes, above and beyond his peers? Are his schemes optimizing his personnel? Are his developmental tactics bringing players along at a high rate? And how are these factors contributing to team success?

Through this lens, though it’s impossible to discount the incredible work being done by Luke Walton and Gregg Popovich as their respective teams chase NBA history, your Coach of the Year leader through nearly half the season should be Dallas’ Rick Carlisle. His counterparts in Golden State and San Antonio have perfectly good cases, but even with Carlisle’s Mavs well behind them in the standings, no coach has done more with less on the year.

Consider the turnover Dallas has undergone since last season – one after which many labeled their multi-decade run of contention finally over. Five of the Mavs’ nine highest minute loggers from the 2014-15 season are now elsewhere, including a pair in Monta Ellis and Tyson Chandler who played the two most minutes of any Maverick last year. Dallas’ new highest volume players? In order: Wesley Matthews (not a year removed from Achilles’ surgery), 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, Zaza Pachulia, Raymond Felton (played under 10 minutes a game last year for this same team) and Deron Williams (left for dead as a star player by, well, everyone).

No matter. Dallas is humming along at five games over .500, tossing egg white all over those who predicted they’d be in the lottery and perhaps even subtly tanking to keep a top-seven protected pick they owe to Boston in the upcoming draft. Carlisle has coaxed a top-10 offense and a roughly league average defense out of a group that looked like a strange mix of veterans and misfits heading into the season.

Their 23-18 record is perhaps slightly deceiving – their Pythagorean win percentage (based on point margin) suggests they’re more like a 21-20 team. But Carlisle is also maybe responsible for some of this; Dallas ranks fourth in the league for per-possession net rating during “clutch” play (under five minutes remaining in regulation or overtime, score within five in either direction), and boasts a 13-10 record in these games.

These figures can often be very noisy and reflective more of chance than any skill on the court or behind the bench, but with the Mavs now over 100 such minutes on the season (only the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets have played more), a trend is beginning to appear. It becomes even clearer with a look at previous seasons: six of Carlisle’s eight in Dallas have seen his Mavericks perform as one of the top 10 teams in the league during clutch minutes, including five that have been among the league’s five best for a given year. The poise and readiness he instills in his group clearly separates him from many of his peers, and this year it’s done them a couple favors in the win column.

Others have more successful teams and flashier results so far this year, but no one has added as much to his group both on the court and off than Rick Carlisle. He should remain a viable candidate alongside the Waltons and the Pops of the world if the Mavs continue this unexpected success.

Moke Hamilton: Gregg Popovich

The Golden State Warriors have made NBA history, already. At this point, though, it is safe to assume that it is not the only type of history they are chasing. Very quietly, though, the San Antonio Spurs have found themselves right where they have been every year for what seems to be the duration of Tim Duncan’s career.

The Spurs, despite losing some key members of their rotation from the past few years, are near the top of the Western Conference as they’re accustomed to being. Gone are Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli and Cory Joseph, yet still, somehow, the Spurs have reinvented themselves on the fly.

Now, firmly built around Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs are just two games behind the Warriors in the standings. The two teams are poised to square off on January 25 in a battle that has been widely anticipated and discussed for the majority of the first half of the season.

Despite the Warriors’ success, the fact that the Spurs have been so good while making big changes and getting new players acclimated shows why Gregg Popovich deserves serious consideration for Coach of the Year. Popovich is a three-time winner of the award, but one would be hard-pressed to argue against his deserving the honor for the fourth time in his career.

Entering play on January 19, the Spurs have the league’s best defense by a wide margin, allowing just 89.6 points per game; meanwhile the second best team, the Miami HEAT, is allowing 95.5 per game. The Spurs also rank sixth in the league in points per game as well as third in the league in assists per game.

From top to bottom and left to right, the Spurs can certainly produce evidence that suggests they are the top team in the NBA. That Popovich has done this while reinventing his team around Leonard and Aldridge could similarly be evidence of him doing his finest coaching job ever.

I can’t wait until January 25.

Alex Kennedy: Luke Walton, Golden State Warriors

While Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich have certainly done a terrific job this season and are widely regarded as two of the best coaches in the NBA, I think the current frontrunner for the Coach of the Year award has to be Golden State Warriors head coach Luke Walton.

The Warriors made history with their amazing start to the season and they currently hold the NBA’s best record at 38-4. But it’s how they’re winning games and the circumstances surrounding their season that separates Walton from his peers, in my opinion.

Walton had never been a head coach at any level prior to this season and found out he’d have to step in for Steve Kerr due to his back surgeries with very little time to prepare. Yet even though he’s inexperienced and learning on the fly, he has been extremely successful. While Kerr has helped from a distance, even he has said that Walton deserves credit for the team’s success and begged the league to count the wins on Walton’s record rather than his own. While the NBA declined (meaning Walton technically has zero wins on his record), they did give Walton a Coach of the Month award recently, proving he is eligible for such honors (like, say, Coach of the Year).

And not only are the Warriors winning a ton of games, they are incredibly well-rounded and capable of dominating on both ends of the court. They currently have the NBA’s first-ranked offense (by far), scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions. They also have the NBA’s third-ranked defense, allowing just 99 points per 100 possessions.

While some people have stated that just about anyone could win with this Warriors roster, that’s simply not true. Walton should get credit for unleashing the super-small lineup (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green) early in the season because it was absolutely destroying everyone before Barnes got hurt. He also deserves props for earning the players’ respect despite his inexperience, emerging as a strong leader and motivator, limiting his stars’ minutes (with an eye toward another Finals run), learning how to manage his rotation, managing the egos on the team, preventing the players from getting complacent after their championship, knowing when to rely on his talented assistant coaches and avoiding any kind of colossal errors.

That last one may seem easy, but think about how many first-time head coaches make big mistakes before becoming competent sideline generals. David Blatt had his share of blunders last year, Jason Kidd tried spilling soda to earn an extra timeout his first year and so on. The point is that Walton is making this look easy and avoiding major screw-ups, even though being a first-time head coach (particularly when you’ve never done it at any other level) is extremely hard.

And let’s not forget that Walton is doing this under ridiculous pressure. Leading the defending champs and chasing NBA history is a terrifying first head coaching job. The team has a target on its back and Walton would be the obvious scapegoat if anything were going wrong in Golden State. Fortunately for him, they’ve been excellent. But you know that if the team were struggling even a little bit, he’d be blamed and criticized.

Also, Golden State has faced quite a few obstacles this year. They have silenced anyone who said that they only won last year’s title because they were lucky and completely healthy during their Finals run, as they have proven to be extremely resilient in the face of adversity this season.

In addition to being without Coach Kerr all year (with no timetable for him to return), they’ve only had one player (Iguodala) appear in all 42 games this season. Barnes, who is incredibly important to the team, missed 17 games. Andrew Bogut has missed nine games. Curry has missed several games and played through injuries (shin contusion), as has Thompson (ankle sprain and back injury) and, most recently, Green (injuries to both legs).

Finally, I think it has to be said that voters love a good storyline. Popovich and Carlisle are great, but that’s expected at this point in their careers because they’ve won so many games and been successful for years. I can see voters going with Walton because of the fact that he came out of nowhere and is now making history. That’s just too good of a storyline for voters to ignore. You may think it’s stupid that the storyline factors in, but I can tell you that some voters love that stuff.

With all of that said, there are two scenarios that could derail Walton’s shot at the award.

The first one is the Warriors completely falling apart in the second half of the season. Keep in mind, they played more games than any other team last year due to their Finals run and had a shorter offseason than every West team. If fatigue sets in or even more injuries pile up, Walton may not cruise to the award. In fact, that’s when the criticism could star (fair or not). However, I find this scenario relatively unlikely given how well this team is playing and how they’ve managed to overcome obstacles thus far.

The other scenario has a much greater probability: Coach Kerr coming back relatively soon and taking his job back. For the record, I hope this happens because it would mean Kerr is finally pain free and no longer dealing with his health issues; get well soon, Coach. But if this does happen, Walton likely doesn’t win the award since – even though he was terrific – he would’ve only coached the team for half of the season.

There’s still plenty of basketball to be played and a lot can happen between now and the end of the campaign. However, from what we’ve seen so far, I think Walton has to be considered the frontrunner.

Do you agree with Ben, Moke or Alex? Do you have a different head coach in mind? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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