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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

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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