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NBA Coach of the Year Watch

There are plenty of deserving candidates in the discussion for the Red Auerbach Trophy. Spencer Davies names his top choices.

Spencer Davies

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With a league full of talented superstars and athletes doing all of the work on the court, we often forget that there is a method to the madness. Whether it’s determining rotations, drawing up plays or dealing with whatever obstacles get thrown in the way, coaches are essential to the success of a team.

In a season full of ups and downs, there are plenty of deserving candidates in the discussion for the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award.

With the playoffs less than a month away, here are the names that should be considered to win the prestigious accolade.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Tom Thibodeau – Minnesota Timberwolves

Before recently losing four straight, the Minnesota Timberwolves were in the conversation for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but the inexperience has caught up to them recently on the defensive end.

Aside from what’s happening now, this season has been an incredibly productive one for Thibodeau and his young Minnesota team. They’ve been solid in first halves, but have trouble keeping leads together. It will come with time, and with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as the foundation, the future looks very bright.

Mike Malone – Denver Nuggets

The emergence of Nikola Jokic as one of the most talented up-and-coming centers has helped, but as a whole, the Denver Nuggets are a top five offense in this league.

There have been injuries from time to time and Emmanuel Mudiay’s sophomore slump has disappointed, but the contributions across the board from Jokic, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Will Barton and the upstart Gary Harris have put the Nuggets in a position to potentially make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

THEY’VE GOT A SHOT

Gregg Popovich – San Antonio Spurs

What hasn’t been said about the wizard of NBA basketball? It’s not even necessary to break down Popovich’s track record of 19 straight – soon to be 20 straight – playoff appearances as the leader of the San Antonio Spurs. He’s got a system, and that system works year-in and year-out.

Kawhi Leonard is an absolute thrill to watch. Popovich has deemed him as the best two-way player in the league and he’s probably right. With an improved jump shot coming into this year, Leonard has been the focal point of an extremely efficient offense and an aggressive defense.

You can add whatever role players you want to this roster, and whoever it is, chances are Popovich will make it work. This year, it’s been David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon who have taken the responsibility in the rotation backing up LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, who was signed in the offseason.

He never fails this organization, and similar to the argument with LeBron James and the MVP, Popovich could win the Coach of the Year award every single season.

Scott Brooks – Washington Wizards

The beginning of Brooks’ tenure as head coach of the underachieving Washington Wizards didn’t get off to the best start. They lost five of their first six games. The group was playing as individuals. After scoring 52 points in a loss on December 6 to the Magic, John Wall called out his teammates for effort.

Since that day, the Wizards have responded by going 36-15, much in part to Wall and Bradley Beal’s contributions. But Brooks has gotten great efforts out of his role players like Markieff Morris and upcoming restricted free agent, Otto Porter Jr.

The success has come when Washington gets out in transition after forcing turnovers. Scoring 17.9 points per game off of miscues and 15.7 points per game on the fast break, they rank fifth in the league in both categories.

It’s been a couple of years since the Wizards have had swagger like this, and with the recent additions of Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings to increase depth, they could be a tough customer come playoff time.

WELL-DESERVING, IF CHOSEN

Quin Snyder – Utah Jazz

Over the course of three years, Snyder has established a true identity for the Utah Jazz. It’s a style that isn’t very popular these days in basketball anymore, but by sticking to the script, he’s rebuilt a franchise that was floundering when he took the reigns.

What’s that identity? Suffocating, in your face defense. Holding their opponents to a league-low 96.5 points per game, Utah forces teams to take bad shots because of their monster in the paint, Rudy Gobert, who is having a career season at just 24 years old.

On the offensive end, it’s been a methodical type of game for the Jazz, who are last in the NBA in pace and field goals attempted. They score the third-fewest points in the league with 100.4 per game, but they’re efficient in getting their points with a team true shooting percentage of 56.1.

Gordon Hayward’s been the go-to guy on this end and he’s having a career season on both sides, but the play of George Hill and even the improvement of a player like Joe Ingles has really helped Utah’s case as a potential second-round upset in the making over the top-seeded Warriors or Spurs.

Mike D’Antoni – Houston Rockets

When the master of the run-and-gun accepted the job as head coach for the Houston Rockets last summer, it was a match made in heaven. The plan for general manager Daryl Morey and D’Antoni was to surround James Harden with as many shooters as possible so he could transition him into a point guard role. Let’s just say the plan has worked to near perfection.

Regardless of what actually happens with the illustrious award, it’s been an MVP-worthy season for Harden. The pace of D’Antoni’s system with his style of play just connects naturally. The Beard is averaging 29.4 points, but he leads the league with 11.4 assists per game and ranks third among guards in rebounding. He’s getting to the line 11 times per game as well, which is also highest in the league.

What D’Antoni has done is force the opponents to choose: Defend Harden at the point of attack or secure a perimeter occupied by Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and, most recently, Lou Williams. There’s also option C, also known as throwing the lob for Clint Capela or Montrezl Harrell off the pick and roll if they can take away those first two plays.

Up to this point, it’s been a full-proof method that has worked almost flawlessly. A team that was in shambles at the end of last year with an undeserved playoff berth has now turned into an offensive juggernaut thanks to D’Antoni and a productive offseason. The Rockets are a real contender going into the playoffs, and it should be interesting to see how things shake out in the Western Conference.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Erik Spoelstra – Miami HEAT

Only three times has the Red Auerbach Trophy been bestowed upon a head coach who’s led a team to .500-record season or worse. The last time it happened was when Doc Rivers, in his first ever year as a coach 17 years ago, took over for Chuck Daly in Orlando.

Coming off of a 33-17 year, it was a team that had a complete roster makeover. Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson were both traded for new pieces and future first-round draft picks. Veteran big man Horace Grant was shipped off to Seattle for four players. It was a new beginning, so many had this franchise pegged for a down year during a rebuild. Rivers had different ideas, and in his inaugural season as a head coach, he led them to a 41-41 record and won Coach of the Year.

Although they’re two completely different scenarios as far as coaching experience is concerned, you can draw some similarities between that Magic team and this year’s group with the Miami HEAT.

Last summer, Pat Riley was unable to come to terms Dwyane Wade, who for the first time in his career jumped over to his hometown Chicago Bulls. The Miami legend wasn’t the only player they lost, either.

Over the past few seasons, Chris Bosh has been forced to stay off the court because of blood clots. His season was cut short last year on February 9, which is the last time he has appeared in a game. Things worsened before this season started, as he failed a physical and hasn’t been cleared to play since.

That’s two of the HEAT’s once-dominant “Big Three” that were gone in a matter of months for Spoelstra. It was the end of an era of amazing basketball in South Beach.

This year was assumed to be a rebuilding year for Miami. To compliment the team’s current core, Riley brought in an intriguing class of free agents: Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, Derrick Williams, Willie Reed and James Johnson. Undrafted rookie Rodney McGruder signed a multi-year deal and Luke Babbitt was acquired from the Pelicans in addition.

It’s been a trying season for Spoelstra, whose HEAT have struggled tirelessly to just stay healthy. Waiters tore his groin right before December started and missed over a month of action. As soon as he returned, second-year forward Justise Winslow tore the labrum in his right shoulder and was pronounced out for the season. Josh Richardson missed 19 games during that span as well.

That’s not even close to the level of adversity Miami’s faced. With multiple losing streaks in the opening months of the NBA season, the team hit a low point on January 13. After a 116-108 loss in Milwaukee, the HEAT dropped to 11-30. The record at the time was second-worst in the entire league behind only the Nets, and the franchise looked lottery-bound for the first time since LeBron James went back home to Cleveland.

But amidst all of the negativity, Spoelstra and his group didn’t quit. In a miraculous bounce-back stretch, Miami went on to win 13 straight games. They began to bring it on both ends of the floor, outscoring their opponents 109 to 99 while knocking down 49 percent of their shots and 42 percent from three. Over the course of 24 days, the HEAT had shot up from the basement of the East to putting themselves in the conversation for a playoff spot.

That alone made him a candidate for this award, but what Spoelstra has done for this team as a whole is really something. Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic have been nothing but spectacular, but their talent is more natural. What should really garner attention is the development of the HEAT’s youth.

Guys like McGruder, Reed and Okaro White, who were either undrafted or still finding their way in the D-League, have made significant contributions. He’s let Dion be Dion, and until his ankle injury sidelined him, Waiters was as confident and productive as he’s been in four years in the league. Tyler Johnson has been flourishing in a sixth man role. He’s gotten the best out of James Johnson, who has been essential as a scorer and top defender. He’s trusted Richardson by giving him a ton of minutes.

All of these things should be considered when discussing who truly deserves Coach of the Year, because not many other coaches in the league have faced a task as daunting as the one Spoelstra has taken head on.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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