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NBA Daily: Ranking The Executives

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ ranking series by taking a look at the best executives in the league.

Matt John

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If you’ve been keeping up with us for the past week or so, Basketball Insiders is ranking every position possible in the NBA. Last week, we took a look at players who were the best from their respective positions. This week, we’re taking a look at the other personnel’s effect on how the season turns out.

Today, we’re looking at the executives. The people that run the operation. The people who put the product out there. The people whose job NBA Twitter loves to pose as more than anything.

The guidelines for what makes a good executive depends on what the team’s goals actually are. If the team’s goals are geared towards winning a championship now, the executive is tasked with finding the right players and coaches to form a championship team. If the team’s goals are to winning a championship several years down the line, the executive is tasked with drafting and developing the right players. In some rare cases, the executive gets to do both.

It’s true that the executives are the ones responsible for the task of bringing in players in hopes of winning a championship. There does come a point where a question arises: If players are more involved in bringing other players in than the executive is, how much credit does the executive really deserve for the success that comes afterward?

Take Rob Pelinka, for example. LeBron James pretty much just fell right into his lap, and by extension, so did Anthony Davis. They wanted to play together. If they had wanted to do the same for New York, would we have really credited the Knicks’ management after years of incompetence? Nobody here is trying to say Pelinka is a bad executive; we have to keep it honest and say that he isn’t really responsible for the Lakers’ success as much as “GM LeBron” is.

For that reason, we have to hold Pat Riley, Sean Marks and Lawrence Frank to the same standard, no matter how good of a job they’ve done with their teams in previous years.

Does Riley deserve the credit for the HEAT’s success when it was Dwyane Wade who pushed Jimmy Butler to sign with them? Does Marks deserve props for Kyrie Irving wanting to play for his hometown team and having his best friend come to join him? Frank deserves some leeway because he established a winning culture in LA after Lob City collapsed, but the reason why the Clippers are competing at the top is that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George wanted to play together for the city they grew up in.

If you want to give those guys more credit, all the power to you. Everyone has different criteria when it comes to rankings. The following executives named below formed the excellent teams they have now because of their savvy as executives and didn’t benefit from superstars wanting to join forces. At least, not entirely.

1. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors

Hardly any reigning champion has ever lost its best player after winning the title. The ones that have usually did because said best player opted for retirement — Michael Jordan and Bill Russell come to mind. Such was not the case when Kawhi Leonard left Toronto for Los Angeles. Because of that, there’s no apt comparison to what the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors have done. If having to regroup after your best player — who’s still in his prime — leaves following a championship season becomes a thing, Toronto is setting the standard of how to do it right.

And they did this by…staying exactly the way they are — for the most part, at least. Besides bringing in a sneaky good infusion of youth — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis — the core, minus Leonard, has remained intact. Pascal Siakam’s taken yet another step into stardom, though he has simmered down a bit. Kyle Lowry’s back to his old ways. Fred VanVleet’s playing like he wants that Brinks truck. We could keep going on about the individuals who have contributed to Toronto’s unprecedented Cinderella run.

Nick Nurse’s genius schemes have helped Toronto stay on the course, but it was Ujiri who brought in all of the correct personnel for Nurse to put it all together, as well as Nurse himself. His moves since 2013 have all amounted to a team aiming to go as far as they did last year when no one thought that was possible back in October. That makes him an expert in team-building.

Maybe there’s a little recency bias considering the Raptors are the defending champions, but for two straight years, they have not only persevered when fate dealt them a cruel hand, but have seemingly come out on top. For that, Ujiri deserves the title as the best general manager in the league.

2. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder

He’s had his major hiccups in the past, but Sam Presti has proven time and time again that he is a brilliant executive. When he’s backed into a corner, he somehow manages to get himself out of it. He also somehow makes himself look smarter when he comes out on the other side. This time, Presti has made himself look about as brilliant as he’s ever been.

He already did everything that a smart executive would do in his position this past summer. He blew up the squad and squeezed every asset he could out of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. He has his point guard of the future. He has plenty of draft assets at his disposal to cement a new era. The only catch was eating Chris Paul’s contract. Who knew that wouldn’t be much of a catch?

Even through all of that, he managed to assemble possibly the most entertaining Thunder team since the Kevin Durant days. With the core they’ve formed behind Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, they’re basically the team that no one in the West wants to face in the playoffs. Not many teams get to have their cake eat it. The Thunder did because of Presti.

Look, the writing’s on the wall in OKC. We all know that this team will eventually be broken apart. That’s good for them. Even with the motherload of draft assets by his side, Presti is in prime position to get more. He’s got sign-and-trade scenarios with Gallinari coming up. He may enter the same situation with Adams. Schroder has some trade value, and, after the season Paul’s had, is it too crazy to say the veteran’s contract could be tradeable this summer?

To put the cherry on top, this is the perfect time to rebuild. Pretty much everyone in the West is going to vie for the playoffs next year. When there’s no competition at the bottom, that’s the perfect time to tank. OKC missed its opportunity for a championship during the Durant-Westbrook era, but Presti has put them in prime position to create a potentially more fruitful one for years to come.

3. Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks

When you know that you have a young super-duper-star on your team, it is absolutely imperative that you build around him the right way. If you don’t, you can wind up in a situation as disastrous as the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers. Since Milwaukee drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo and deemed him their new superstar, they’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, with the man who made all the difference being Jon Horst.

Before Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you don’t build around a young superstar
After Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you precisely build around a young superstar

Horst may not have been responsible for drafting Giannis, but he is responsible for putting the right team around the Greek Freak to excel. He got the right coach. He brought in the right personnel. He shipped the wrong personnel out of town. He took the necessary risks to make Milwaukee better. He’s made his mistakes — waiving Christian Wood to make room for Pau Gasol — but the Bucks were a nuclear weapon ready to explode. Horst was the one who lit the fuse.

Since then, the Bucks have topped the league in net rating for the last two seasons and have possessed the league’s best record. Even if they’re technically league-average from three — 35.6 percent, good for 16th in the league — their reliance on the perimeter has unlocked Giannis’ game. They couldn’t have done that without both head coach Mike Budenholzer and the spacing they added because of Horst’s efforts.

There’s a difference between having the potential to be something special and being something special. The Milwaukee Bucks were the former term for five years and have been the latter term for the last two. Had it not been for Toronto acquiring Kawhi Leonard, they might be the reigning champions right now. If the season resumes, there may not be a “might be” between Milwaukee and reigning champions when it’s all said and done.

4. Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks may not be contenders yet, but man, over the last two years, they’ve hit two straight-up bullseyes, and it’s already paying off more than anyone could have imagined. They got the Slovenian Boy Wonder and they have his Latvian partner-in-crime — for who knows how long, too? They may be deprived of assets, but those assets were well-spent.

And what did it cost to get them to what should be a glorious future? Cam Reddish’s draft rights, a few first-rounders that are sure to be late picks and eating what’s left of Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts. Lee’s contract will be up in a matter of months, and Hardaway’s bloated deal comes to an end. That’s pretty much a slap on the wrist considering Dallas hasn’t asked really anything from Lee — because they’ve never had to — and Hardaway has been reasonably productive in the role they’ve given him.

What most mystifying of all is that this wasn’t Dallas’ forte. They slyly built up an incredibly strong foundation of youth spearheaded by two of the league’s most exciting young stars in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Did anybody think Donnie Nelson had this in him two years ago? That’s not to say the Mavericks have been run incompetently under his time. It’s just the way that they’ve masterfully built their next era of basketball so shortly after Dirk Nowitzki’s prime didn’t seem in-character to them and, quite frankly, it’s unbelievable.

There are obviously more gaps to fill. Even while being one of the league’s historic offenses presently, the Mavericks have some guys to add on the defensive side of the ball. There’s no rush. Right now, they have the privilege of enjoying the ride. Because, for the first time in forever, time is on their side.

5. Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics

Just for the record, this list is not based on reputation. If it was, Ainge would be higher due to how many franchises he’s ruined to help the Celtics over the past decade-and-a-half. Moreover, if this list came out last year, he wouldn’t be mentioned because he did a horrible job running the team. This year, he got his spot back because his efforts as the executive are paying off big time again.

The assets he acquired from Brooklyn from back in 2013 are blossoming into the players he had in mind when he drafted them in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Kemba Walker has pretty much lived up to expectations as “Diet Kyrie.” Gordon Hayward looks a lot more like himself than last year, even if he’s not playing at the same level he did in Utah. Even Daniel Theis has evolved into one of the league’s better bargain contracts.

What’s most impressive is that in the wake of losing their best player, Kyrie Irving, and their most indispensable player, Al Horford, the Celtics managed to get better on both sides of the ball. They did more with less. Brad Stevens’ coaching has a lot to do with that, but Ainge was the one who brought these guys in so that they could compensate for their losses.

In essence, this has been a redemption year for Ainge following Boston’s season from hell last season. Ainge’s reputation for being one of the best executives in the league has stemmed from his cut-throat mindset. This time, he gets the nod because he executed the “less is more” approach to perfection.

6. Tim Connelly, Denver Nuggets

Why is Denver always off of everyone’s radar? This is the second consecutive season in which they have finished with a top-three record in the conference that has been deemed the tougher one to compete. It makes sense to talk more about the Los Angeles teams because, until proven otherwise, they are a level above everyone else. After that, people want to talk about Houston’s funky experiment, Utah’s struggles, Dallas’ surge, and Oklahoma City’s resilience among others….but the Nuggets have been better than all of them.

They still have one of the best all-around centers in the game. They’re a well-coached squad with guys who know their roles. Best of all, they somehow still have more potential to fulfill. This year, they found yet another reason to be excited about their future. They went with a low-risk, high-reward project in Michael Porter Jr, and let him redshirt his rookie season. Now, with Porter Jr. healthy and playing ball again, it looks like Denver may have yet another superstar waiting in the wings. If he avoids the injury bug, Denver’s ceiling gets taken up to yet another level.

It hasn’t all been perfect. Jamal Murray still hasn’t become the consistent electric scorer that he shows himself to be from time to time. Paul Millsap’s not getting any younger and…what happened to Gary Harris? Have we ever seen a young player’s production drop as badly as Harris’ when the guy’s only in his mid-20s? That’s what makes Denver even more impressive. In spite of some of their guys not being as productive as they like, they’ve managed to outplay everyone in the conference that doesn’t reside in LA.

It’s time the Nuggets got their due. They wouldn’t get one if it weren’t for Connelly’s excellent work running the operation. He would be even higher if he had just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights, but Nuggets fans have already heard enough about that, haven’t they?

7. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets

Daryl Morey has a reputation for making brilliant trades either because he hoarded the appropriate assets in order to make them, thought outside the box or thought he’d fit in with Houston’s gameplan like a glove — or all three. That brings us to Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook didn’t seem like the type of player that Morey would covet. He’s not a three-point shooter. He prefers having the ball in his hands. He’s not the most efficient scorer. An incredible future Hall-of-Fame talent, indeed — just not the sort of player that Morey would want on his team. We all know the situation both he and Rockets were facing with the fall out between James Harden and Chris Paul. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

So why is Morey on this list? Because, like all good executives do, he retooled the team into the perfect one for Westbrook and Harden. Instead of forcing Westbrook into Houston’s system the whole season, he changed up the system to make life easier for Westbrook to play to the best of his abilities. Going with all wings and no bigs is definitely not a foolproof plan. It is, warts and all, the only way he can properly justify trading Paul — who’s a shoo-in for an All-NBA team this year — for Westbrook, who wasn’t really fitting in with the team.

That’s what the best executives do. They make the accommodations so that the pieces fit even if it’s not a picture-perfect situation. Morey’s lower on this list than he usually would because there’s a very solid chance that this may not work, but he’s still here because he knew it’s what he had to do.

8. Kevin Pritchard, Indiana Pacers

It’s virtually impossible to not include a man who everyone regarded as incompetent almost three years ago only to be laughing in all of their faces since then on a list like this. Pritchard has been running a victory lap around everyone since he traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. This season, he had even more reason to.

Oladipo took the reins by becoming a star his first year in Indy, and now Sabonis has followed in his footsteps two years later. Even though the former’s status as a star is going to be in question until he proves he’s still got it, Indiana has still managed to be one of the tougher teams in the Eastern Conference. Pritchard deserves credit for helping them stay afloat after their best player has been through hell and back.

Sabonis’ evolution into one of the league’s best offensive bigs in the league has helped a fair amount, yes. Bringing in Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. McConnell to stabilize things has also helped. All of those players were brought in because of Pritchard; they were arguably upgrades over who they had before.

The Pacers have a good thing going on for them. If things continue to progress for them as well as they already have, things could turn out better than they were with Paul George. There is an elephant room that Pritchard will have to confront sooner or later — trading Myles Turner when it’s clear that Sabonis is their big man of the future — but knowing how he’s done since 2017, there should be plenty of confidence that he’ll make the right move.

This list was based off how the executives performed this past season. Had Zion Williamson not gotten hurt, David Griffin probably would have made this list. If New Orleans has a healthier season, and their young guys continue to grow, there’d be little reason not to include Griffin at a time like this. The same goes for Zach Kleiman and company, who have done a masterful job with Memphis this season.

If this had been based on moves made before the season, it’s very likely that Dennis Lindsey and Elton Brand would have been on here. Since the moves they’ve made haven’t worked out nearly as well as they had hoped, they can’t be included.

Lastly, these days, it’s tough to rank executives because management around the NBA period has gotten smarter for the most part. We have teams that still have poor ownership, but executives have mostly gotten smarter. Even recently, the Chicago Bulls, who have been largely criticized for the moves they’ve made (and not made), hired a smart front office guy — Arturas Karnisovas– to clean up their mess.

Maybe the New York Knicks will do the same. At least, that’s what their fans have wanted since the start of the 21st century.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

Matt John

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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NBA Daily: With Thibodeau In Town, What’s Next for Knicks?

The New York Knicks reached an agreement to make Tom Thibodeau their new head coach. Drew Maresca examines what’s next for the Knicks and coach Thibodeau.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks have hit the reset button a number of times since 2010, when then-general manager Donnie Walsh and former head coach Mike D’Antoni attempted to lure LeBron James to Broadway. Since then, they’ve had numerous leadership changes and, more pressingly, six head coaches (Mike Woodson, Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek, David Fizdale and Mike Miller). Well, let’s make that seven. The Knicks announced this week that they’ve arrived at a five-year agreement with the 2011 Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau is a polarizing figure, with supporters believing he’s a savior and cynics feeling he suboptimal at talent development and guilty of running players ragged. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and that’s not a bad thing at all for the Knicks.

Thibodeau is a career basketball guy that is familiar with the bright lights of New York. He was brought in as a Knicks assistant coach under Jeff Van Gundy, where he remained on hand for most of Don Chaney’s tenure, too. But that’s not all. Thibodeau started out as an assistant coach under Bill Musselman in Minnesota. He was also an assistant for John Lucas in San Antonio and Philadelphia, and he joined Doc Rivers in Boston as an associate head coach for three seasons.

He ascended to the head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 2010-11, where he remained for five seasons. In addition to winning a Coach of the Year in his first season as head coach (2010-11), he also coached a league MVP (Derrick Rose, 2010-11) and a Defensive Player of the Year (Joakim Noah, 2013-14). He also won 64.7 percent of regular-season games and his team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11; like the Jeff Van Gundy-led Knicks teams he was a part of earlier in his career, Thibodeau’s Bulls teams probably would have won at least one championship if it weren’t for their overlapping with LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.

Thibodeau left Chicago before the 2016-17 season to take over as president of basketball operations and head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. But as coaches often do, Thibodeau struggled to strike a balance between maintaining flexibility for the future and adding talent for the present. But most of his failures in Minnesota were front office-related, and he is still revered by many of his former players including Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. Van Gundy also remains a big Thibodeau fan.

“This idea that Tom (Thibodeau) doesn’t know how to pace his team is one of the great slanders that has been perpetuated by the media on a coach,” Van Gundy said on a recent ESPN NBA restart conference call.

But what does Thibodeau do for New York? Most importantly, he legitimizes New York basketball. Thibodeau is widely viewed as a basketball savant. But lots of great coaches and executives have come in New York with promises of resetting the culture and turning the team around. Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Mike Woodson and David Fizdale all tried and failed, as did Phil Jackson (as team president). Can Thibodeau succeed where so many other greats have failed? Maybe. Eventually, someone has to get it right – why not Thibodeau? To do so, Thibodeau must prepare to succeed in the following five areas.

Selecting The Staff

Rumors have swirled about who might join Thibodeau on New York’s bench. Generally speaking, assistant coaches don’t move the needle with regards to national news — but this is New York, the proverbial lightning rod of the NBA.

There is a legitimate reason to get excited about the Knicks’ new coach, though. Team president Leon Rose and Thibodeau allegedly agree on the front office’s involvement in fleshing out the coaching staff, and there is major internal support for a return of former head (and assistant) coach Mike Woodson. There are also rumors about Mike Miller, interim coach, being retained. Woodson is viewed, like Thibodeau, as a defensive specialist, and Miller won serious brownie points as a result of his record relative to his predecessor and his ability to connect with the roster.

Other candidates could include former Thibodeau assistants like Andy Greer, Ed Pinckney and Jerry Sichting.

Getting Familiar With The Roster

First of all, it’s not as though Thibodeau isn’t already extremely versed in the Knicks’ strengths and weaknesses. He was rumored to be pouring over film last weekend before receiving word that an agreement had been reached. And that’s nothing new to Thibodeau, who allegedly stayed up as late as 4 A.M. watching film with coach Mike Krzyzewski in Rio during the 2016 Olympics.

But reviewing film and understanding players’ limitations are worlds apart. The idea of his overseeing the team in a second bubble for the eight teams who failed to qualify for the NBA’s 2019-20 restart would be alluring. But despite the early success of NBA’s Orlando bubble, it’s unlikely they risk the potential negative PR that would coincide with positive tests for eight worst teams in the league.

But a full-on bubble might not be the only way for Thibodeau to begin coaching before the offseason. According to the Charlotte Observer, the NBA and NBPA are expected to come to an agreement that would enable the eight teams who are excluded from the season’s return to begin workouts soon. In fact, individual workouts with coaches could begin as soon as early August, meaning that all that stands between Thibodeau and his soon-to-be players is a formal announcement.

Develop The Young Core

Thibodeau’s effect on the younger guys has been a polarizing topic of late. Many believe he’ll demand too much of them, hurting their confidence and diminishing future returns by leaning too heavily on them. Ironically, former coach David Fizdale was criticized for playing the team’s young core for too few minutes. But that sentiment is not echoed amongst coaches around the league. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns head coach and former New York Knicks first-round pick, feels that he’ll have a positive effect.

“I kind of laugh at all these people that say he can’t develop younger players and that he just wears his teams out,” Williams, who worked with Thibodeau on Team USA for a number of years, said on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “Look at the success with his programs and his teams and the results bear witness. You talk to guys who played for Thibs, they love him.”

While Thibodeau’s effect will probably vary player-to-player, he will almost certainly favor two very important young guys – Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina.

Robinson, who averaged only 20.6 minutes per game as a rookie and only 23.1 in 2019-20, will certainly see more playing time under Thibodeau, who is notorious for playing his best heavy minutes; Noah averaged at least 30.4 minutes per game while playing for  Thibodeau in Chicago and he topped out at just over 36 MPG.

But Robinson’s abilities are impossible to ignore, so fans and analysts alike have been mystified by his lack of playing time – although some of that can be chalked up to his propensity to foul and play defense with his hands once out of position. However, Robison set the single-season record for field goal percentage in 2019-20 (74.2 percent) and he averaged 3.6 blocks per-36 minutes over his two-year career. He closes out on three-point shooters better than just about anyone in the game today, and he’s a nightmare to defend in the screen-and-roll. He will almost certainly become one of Thibodeau’s favorite players — and that doesn’t even take into consideration his improved ball-handling that’s been on display via his Instagram account.

Ntilikina has a less impressive resume but has almost as much potential as Robinson. Thibodeau hasn’t had many guards like Ntilikina; in fact, there aren’t many guards like the Frenchman around, period. The 6-foot-4 point guard is a pass-first guard whose defensive presence is incredibly impressive. He boasts a 7-foot-1 wingspan and is absolutely fearless on the defensive end of the floor. He needs to play more confidently and consistently on offense, but he’s demonstrated serious improvements there, too; Ntilikina shot a career-high 32.1 percent on three-point attempts this season, while also posting career highs in field goal percentage (44.4 percent) and points (6.0).

Like Robinson, Ntilikina suffered from inconsistent playing time, receiving only 20.8 minutes per game in 2019-20. But that too could change, especially considering his humble attitude and approach.

But Ntilikina is almost too gifted and smart to fail. His closest comparison — granted it’s a favorable one — is probably Marcus Smart. Smart showed serious improvements this season, but Thibodeau was already enamored with his skillset in 2018, when he gushed over him in a pre-game press conference.

“He’s tough, he guards people, he’ll get to a loose ball and hit the floor,’ Thibodeau said. “He’ll get to an offensive rebound, he allows them to do a lot of switching, he’ll guard big guys, small guys, doesn’t matter.”

Hopefully, Thibodeau is equally impressed with Ntilikina – in which case, the Ntilikina-hive can look forward to serious improvements.

The 2020 NBA Draft

This one’s the easiest since it’s more reactive for Thibodeau than anything else. The Knicks are in desperate need of talent at a number of positions. Fortunately, the Knicks finished with the sixth-worst record in the NBA. Assuming they don’t move in the lottery, they’ll pick behind the likes of the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. Thankfully, most teams above them have a point guard. In fact, the only team slotted ahead of them who hasn’t drafted one (or more) point guards in recent drafts or doesn’t already possess a franchise point guard is the Detroit Pistons.

Sadly, the 2020 NBA Draft appears to lack a generational talent like Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson. And with NBA franchises inevitably facing fiscal pressure from COVID-19, most teams will be open to the idea of moving back to a lower-profile draft slot. But the Knicks don’t have the same monetary struggles as most teams. This could be their best shot at moving up to secure LeMelo Ball, who is reportedly number one on their draft board.

Does Ball mesh with Thibodeau? Who knows. But generally, Thibodeau is not overly welcoming of rookies – namely, he doesn’t play them much. In his career as a head coach, he’s played his rookies: 12.1 minutes per game (Omer Asik), 8.5 MPG (Jimmy Butler), 8.2 (Marquis Teague), 16 (Tony Snell), 20.2 (Nikola Mirotic), 17.1 (Kris Dunn), 4.0 (Justin Patton) and 16.8 (Keita Bates-Diop).

But while his track record pertaining to playing rookies isn’t great, he’s had solid alternatives in both Chicago and Minnesota. There won’t be as many in New York. So while he might not love the idea of leaning on rookies, he might not have a choice, either.

Luring Productive Veterans

Lastly, Thibodeau will be a major part of recruiting pitches to star free agents. Now, attracting a star player shouldn’t dictate who is selected as a team’s head coach – and the Knicks finally got this right. They could have gone with Jason Kidd in hopes of attracting his former player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. But they instead went with the more established and respected candidate in Thibodeau.

While Thibodeau has much to prove as Knicks head coach, he, too, has in-roads with numerous star players. Remember, Thibodeau was close to a number of stars as an assistant coach for the 2016 Olympic team. The team’s main roster featured very few soon-to-be free agents – but fear not Knicks fans, the broader talent pool included Victor Oladipo, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal.

That’s not to say that any of them are likely to join the Knicks – but all of them have recently been connected to New York in some way, shape or form. Thibodeau would obviously love to add any of those stars to a roster in need of star power, but beyond trading for Paul – which might not be an option depending on how Oklahoma City performs in the 2020 NBA Playoffs – these are all unlikely to happen in 2020. Davis looks like a sure thing to re-sign with the Lakers, Beal is signed through 2023 and would have to request a trade as he is signed through at least 2024 (with a player option for 2024-25).

But Oladipo is possible as he’ll enter unrestricted free agency next offseason. The Pacers could try to move him rather than losing him for nothing if he’s deemed to be a flight risk. Would the Knicks be able to build a package strong enough to garner consideration? Would the Maryland native verbalize a desire to come to New York? There are too many unknowns to posit a guess, but odds that the Knicks secure a star free agent are better now than they were before adding Thibodeau as head coach.

Knicks fans are a notoriously an impatient bunch. Unfortunately for them, it will be a long climb back into contention. But there are positives: The roster isn’t inundated with bloated salaries and stars who are past their prime, instead featuring a good deal of youth and flexibility.

That’s a good start – but from here, it’s on Thibodeau, Leon Rose and company. Hopefully, they picked the right guy.

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NBA

NBA Daily: LeBron James; Anthony Davis Resume Mantle as NBA’s Best Duo

David Yapkowitz revisits a thrilling first night back in the NBA, all thanks to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

David Yapkowitz

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It’s been about four months since the Los Angeles Lakers last took the court. The team was sitting in first place in the Western Conference and ready to use the second half of the season to prep for what they hoped would be a championship run when the NBA halted all operations due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

After not knowing if the league would resume play at all this season, the Lakers returned to the court in the NBA’s restart against their crosstown rivals the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.

All season long, the Lakers’ star duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis looked like the best one-two punch in the league and, against the Clippers, they certainly picked up right where they left off.

With Avery Bradley deciding to opt-out of the restart and Rajon Rondo out six to eight weeks with a thumb injury, James took over as the starting point guard to do what he does best. He helped control the tempo of the game and allowed himself to act as a facilitator, getting his teammates easy scoring opportunities.

As the game progressed, James became more assertive offensively and had what would ultimately end up being the game-winner as he rebounded his own missed shot and tipped the ball in around Clipper defenders.

“I love having the ball in my hands late game when it’s a tie game, being up. For me, it’s just trying to be aggressive. I felt like I got some contact at the elbow from Marcus Morris, but they didn’t call it,” James said after the game. “Like you were told when you were a kid playing basketball if there’s no whistle you keep playing on. I was able to follow my own shot and put us up for good.”

James didn’t shoot particularly well, only 31.6 percent from the floor, but he did finish with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists. He also clamped up defensively on a couple of possessions against both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

The long-time megastar has been one of the frontrunners for the Most Valuable Player Award this year and, in his 17th NBA season, he’s showed no signs of slowing down. He’s putting up 25.7 points on 49.8 percent shooting from the field, 7.9 rebounds and a career-high 10.6 assists. Already down two capable ball-handlers and playmakers in Bradley and Rondo, James is going to be shouldering a lot more of the on-ball duties.

Thankfully for him then, he’s got a good running mate in Davis.

Davis got the Lakers going and n command early with his energy around the rim and his size and quickness going against the Clippers’ bigs. He also spearheaded a comeback in the third quarter when the Clippers took a double-digit lead.
He finished the game with 34 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists and his aggressiveness was rewarded with 17 free-throw attempts. On the season, he’s putting up 26.7 points per game on 51.1 percent shooting from the field, 9.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

But aside from his offensive output, one of the ways he’s been most valuable to the Lakers is defensive versatility. Davis is naturally a shot blocker and deterrent in the paint. But he also has the footspeed and discipline to match up with wings on the perimeter.

Against the Clippers, Davis started out guarding Leonard on the perimeter. He’s quite possibly the frontrunner for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. While he did pick up some early fouls, if he’s able to match up at times with either Leonard or George, that could bode incredibly well for the Lakers chances in a potential playoff series.

“We wanted to make sure we came out and executed on the offensive end,” Davis told reporters. “It felt like a real game to me, two teams battling. Obviously, it’s always a good game between us two teams. We knew they were going to make a run. They made their run and got up eleven, we just kept playing, picked it up defensively, and then we started making shots on the offensive end.”

Despite the win, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel still feels like this team has an extra gear they have not yet reached, a level of play that they displayed early in the season.

“To me, it feels like we have a long way to go to reach the habits we were playing with when we entered the hiatus,” Vogel mentioned Thursday. “Obviously we did enough to get the win, but we have a lot of work to do.”

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