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Bickerstaff on Interim Challenges, Houston Progress

J.B. Bickerstaff discusses the challenges of being an interim coach and Houston’s incremental improvement.

Ben Dowsett



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Understanding why sports franchises generally hire from within for their interim positions after parting ways with a coach midway through a season isn’t difficult on the surface. Particularly for teams with hopes of remaining contenders immediately following the switch, comfort within the organization is paramount – a relationship with players, a knowledge of the inner workings of the franchise and a level of stability are some of the most important considerations for a group looking to hit the ground running. How an interim man manages the changeover can often make or break his chances of retaining the job full time.

What’s often glossed over, though, isn’t anything to do with personnel or the interactive element of continuity. Rather, in situations where replacements are typically promoted from the ranks of assistant, a simple fact tends to be overlooked: The head coaching job is very different.

“As an assistant coach, your job is just to make a ton of suggestions,” said J.B. Bickerstaff, interim top man in Houston after the franchise parted ways with Kevin McHale.

Different assistants are responsible for different areas, operating as vessels for the head coach to accumulate and parse through. The approach completely changes once you ascend to the director’s chair.

“As a head coach, your job is to make decisions,” Bickerstaff told Basketball Insiders. “Figuring out the moves to make, figuring out the outside noise that you need to filter out, because you’re given so much information, there’s so much going on. So you just try to decipher what’s the most important, and then how to prioritize that information.”

This is of particular importance for Bickerstaff, who had no previous NBA head coaching experience as he was called upon to fill McHale’s shoes in mid-November. He spent time in Charlotte and Minnesota before winding up in Houston as part of McHale’s incoming administration – over a decade as an assistant in total.

Management didn’t want a full-scale overhaul of any sort midseason, and Bickerstaff’s comfort level in the current environment was a big part of their decision to look in his direction.

“I’m comfortable with the system and the style of play that the organization wants to play,” he said. “There are relationships that have already been formed with guys – an understanding of who guys are, what buttons to push, things like that… So I think it’s been helpful so far, and I think it’s made the adjustment a little bit easier because everything hasn’t had to be brand new.”

This was always going to be a challenge in Houston’s locker room, one that’s taken on a reputation as notoriously fickle over recent years. Stars James Harden and Dwight Howard are among the most polarizing big names in the game, and the Rockets’ Harden-centric style of play can be grating for support pieces when things aren’t going well on the scoreboard. Bickerstaff knows these guys, though, and knows motivating them is a tricky process.

“No matter what you do, this is a results business,” he said, knowing his group can be fragile at times – prone to swings based on external factors. “We need to see the results in the win column, and then I think that’ll give us a little boost in confidence.”

That’s often easier said than done, and there have been ups and downs in Bickerstaff’s two months at the helm. The Rockets have been extremely streaky since he took over – a five-game winning streak recently coming right on the heels of four straight losses. Houston has made up the three games below .500 at which they sat when J.B. was named interim head coach, but hasn’t been able to mount a charge to be back among the West’s elite where they feel they belong.

Bickerstaff knows a big part of his job right now is to weather the proverbial storm that comes with falling short of (gaudy) preseason expectations, though. No one expected him to step in and revolutionize McHale’s approach in a way that flipped some magical switch for his players. Incremental improvement to habits and cohesion are vital, even if motivating his guys that way isn’t always possible.

“We’ve tried to simplify what we’ve done,” Bickerstaff said, rather than making any big alterations on the fly. “Trying to get better in smaller areas, and then hopefully grow those into larger things.”

Guys are coming around. Rays of light like January’s five-game streak are present, even if they’re tough to focus on after losing three of the next four. The path to the end of the tunnel no longer feels impossibly long.

“I think we’re one run away from being the team that we think we can be,” Bickerstaff said.

Whether they ever make that charge could determine if Bickerstaff can shed the interim title next season. Whispers around the league peg summer 2016 as a potential hot bed of coaching movement, with titans of the industry poised to fill what could be numerous vacancies. General manager Daryl Morey has never been the most patient sort in Houston; Bickerstaff needs to prove his worth over a flashier name, and on-court results are the easiest way to do it.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Bickerstaff said. “Obviously we’ve had our ups and downs… when you’re transitioning, you’re still going to have those tough moments… I think our guys are positive, and we need to stay positive. We need to find the joy in it and have some fun, and see what happens.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.


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Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes



It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler



A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders



The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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