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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 an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?

The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?

Steve Kyler

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What’s The Hurry?

The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.

While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.

There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Kawhi Wants His Own Team

It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.

According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.

There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.

If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.

Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money

Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.

Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.

While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.

If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?

Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.

That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?

The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.

Are The Raptors The front Runners?

In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.

That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.

League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.

The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.

Training Camp Is The Real Deadline

While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.

The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.

There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.

While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.

The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.

It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.

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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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