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NBA AM: Is It Time To Fire The Coach?

It’s easy to blame coaches for team struggles, but do they really have the authority you think they do?… Are the Suns gearing up to keep Markieff Morris?

Steve Kyler

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Coaches Under Fire

One of the things we try to do in this space is clarify processes in the NBA. While there will always be misconceptions, sometimes the real process of how things get done is lost in incorrect beliefs about the process.

One of the biggest examples of this is how fans perceive the power of NBA general managers. While there are a small handful of NBA executives that have autonomy, the large majority answer to someone above them either in a team president role, a CEO role or directly to an owner. Very few are empowered to just make deals on their own and most are the leader of a collaborative process that involves a lot of voices, especially when those decisions involve money or significant roster changes.

This is important to note, because there are a few NBA head coaches that are under fire from their fan base under the misconception that they alone control the roster, which (like the general managers they answer to) is far from the case.

To be clear there are outliers – Gregg Popovich in San Antonio has roster autonomy, but that is because he is Gregg Popovich. The number of coaches that have autonomy is even smaller than the number of GMs that have it.

This becomes important when looking at the situations in Los Angeles with the Lakers and New York with the Knicks.

First, it’s important to state this – Byron Scott was not hired or retained to supervise a ground up rebuild. The hope for Scott was that he would be credible enough to would-be free agents that the Lakers could nab a named guy or two this past summer, pair them with Kobe Bryant and actually compete for something in Bryant’s final year.

That did not work out and even after the Lakers made the Roy Hibbert trade and inked guard Lou Williams and forward Brandon Bass to free agent deals, the hope was still to be in the hunt. Right or wrong, the Lakers have been a little bit in denial about where they truly stand in the grand scheme.

Today there is a better understanding of what’s next for the franchise, and while the Lakers still believe the future of their franchise lies in obtaining a proven star in free agency or trade, there is a sense that a longer rebuild is needed and that Scott may not be the right guy to skipper it. But there is nothing gained making a change this season, mainly because the roster is trapped between two agendas – veterans that can play and young guys that need development time.

This comes to the point. While Scott does have the franchise’s approval to play who he feels he should play, his decisions on playing the young guys from the bench was not made in a vacuum. There have been open discussions with management about how and when to play the rookies and there is a clearly defined plan for them. The young guys are not overly thrilled with the short leash they are on with Scott, but what’s surfaced inside the process is that the idea of just turning the young guys loose hasn’t helped them. The biggest gains and best games have come when the young guys, specifically rookie D’Angelo Russell, were coached more and given more structure.

This runs almost counter to the public perception that Scott is somehow holding the young guys back, when in fact their best games have come in situations where Scott has created structure – something he did not do much of early in the season.

In New York there is a similar theme, that head coach Derek Fisher is the source of the problem and that he is limiting the Knicks because of his rotations and in-game planning. That may well be true, but Fisher is not operating in a vacuum either.

Fisher was hired because Knicks president Phil Jackson viewed him as the best conduit for what Jackson wants to see happen with the Knicks. Fisher just happens to be the instrument of that. Fisher also has a staff of very hands on guys that have been in Jackson’s circle for decades.

It’s easy to blame Fisher for the Knicks’ struggles because he is the face-guy, he is the guy that has to talk to reporters after games, but what’s lost on the Fisher situation is that he is Jackson’s guy and is executing in many ways the plan that Jackson and the entire staff have agreed on.

The Knicks are going nowhere quickly and there is a sense from the fan base that maybe it’s time to focus on the future and let the young guys like guard Langston Galloway and rookie Jerian Grant play a bigger role. The problem is the Knicks, much like the Lakers, are not ready to concede the season. Again, right or wrong, the Knicks view themselves as a team that could turn the corner and get in the playoffs. As things stand today the Knicks are roughly five games out of the playoff picture; their view is that a small trade or someone meeting the challenge could swing them in the right direction.

The last part of both situations is the notion that firing either guy would change anything.

In LA, the Lakers are transitioning out of the Kobe Bryant era and changing the coach isn’t going to change the way Kobe is used in his swan song season. The Lakers from the top down wouldn’t sign off on it. So if nothing is really going to change on the court, why fire Scott who is doing basically what he was asked to do? It might make fans feel better to see Scott gone, but the truth is outside of a few guys wanting bigger roles, the roster is OK with Scott and the season is not going to change much.

Sources close to the process say that Scott’s job will be evaluated after the season and if it is deemed a change is needed it would happen then, and allow the Lakers to do a full and complete search for the right guy for the next part of the rebuild.

As for the Knicks, as much as fans are crying for Fisher’s head, he is simply the face guy of a process. The next guy on the bench isn’t going to change the process. There is a sense that maybe Knicks assistant Kurt Rambis could do a better job, however given how his run with the Timberwolves went, is he really a better guy for the team or simply a different guy?

The problem with the Knicks is they are underachieving on a lot of fronts and that may have more to do with the systemic things they are being asked to do or worse yet the construct of the roster.

None of those issues change if Fisher is replaced. That’s not to say that Jackson won’t be pressured into a change in the offseason – keep in mind Jackson himself signed a five-year deal in March of 2014, so this season would mark the third season of the experiment. Given Knicks owner James Dolan’s history with patience, Jackson’s run of total autonomy over the Knicks might not last if he sticks to his guns on Fisher as head coach if the Knicks fail to reach the postseason.

It is easy to buy into the idea of a coach having total roster authority, the truth is most of them do not – especially when it comes to significant franchise pieces.

The majority of general managers travel with their teams and are involved in the entire game process, including coaching meetings. Very few major roster decisions are reached without the GM being involved. That’s not to say GMs are micro-managing the process, but to believe that a coach is running is team without input from above is a little misplaced. It’s a far more collaborative process than gets reported.

Morris’ Future in Phoenix

The Phoenix Suns are reportedly prepared to bring Markieff Morris back into the fold after suspending him for two games due to the big man throwing a towel at head coach Jeff Hornacek. However, before doing that, it’s been reported by Yahoo’s Marc Spears that the franchise is expecting a verbal apology from Morris to not only the coaching staff but also to the team. Furthermore, the Suns are said to want Morris to recommit to the team in how he will handle himself in games, practice and in conditioning and treatment sessions.

Sources close to the process say that while trading Morris is still an option, the team understands how low his trade value is right now and that moving him would return very little value or – worse yet – contracts that would eat into the Suns expected $20 million in 2016 salary cap space in July.

As things stand today the Suns understand that in order to get anything for Morris he has to play better and resolve some of the issues surrounding him.

Morris’ name has been linked to a number of situations, but one team that as been named as having interest in Morris bluntly said that the teams and players out there are more like Phoenix’s wish list for Morris than anything that’s likely to happen.

Sources close to the Suns’ thinking said that the team is prepared to give Morris a chance to reclaim some minutes and help the team; however if there is another issue, the Suns have apparently made it clear they would have no issues suspending Morris for a longer period or sending him home if he continues to be a distraction to the team.

Based on how the Suns are approaching the Morris situation, it does not seem like a posture a team would take if they were ready to make a trade. The Suns seem like a team that is resigned to the fact that Morris may not be nearly as tradable today and they may be stuck with him for the foreseeable future.

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, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA, @iamdpick, @jblancartenba, @eric_saar and @CodyTaylorNBA .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA

NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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