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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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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau.

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