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Damian Lillard’s Incredible Rise to Stardom

From Oakland to Ogden to Portland, a look back at Damian Lillard’s incredible journey from irrelevance to NBA stardom.

Alex Kennedy

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Damian Lillard is rarely rattled on the basketball court. That’s clear to anyone who has watched Lillard take over a game in clutch time and lead the Portland Trail Blazers to victory. The latest example of Lillard’s ice-water veins came on Sunday night, when the 23-year-old had 31 points, nine rebounds, five assists and several huge plays in the final minutes to lead the Blazers to an upset road victory over the Houston Rockets. It was Lillard’s first career playoff game, but you would never know it watching the confident point guard.

“It was a Damian Lillard performance,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “Damian rises to the occasion. For all those people who were wanting to know if he was ready for the playoffs, I think he answered that question, so we don’t have to answer that anymore. He made big plays. The three was big, getting to the rim was big, making free throws – it was a big time performance.”

However, there are still some situations in which Lillard isn’t nearly as calm and collected. On a number of occasions over the last two years, he has spotted a celebrity and wanted to introduce himself, only to realize that no introduction was necessary. Lil Wayne approached him and offered praise at an event in Florida last year. Allen Iverson walked across the room to congratulate Lillard on his success before a game in Atlanta. A starstruck Lillard tried his best to keep his cool in both situations, but it was tough considering he grew up idolizing Weezy and A.I.

Even though he’s the star point guard for the Trail Blazers, an NBA All-Star and the 2013 Rookie of the Year, Lillard still hasn’t gotten used to being famous. He doesn’t view himself as a celebrity and is still surprised every time he meets an adoring fan or autograph seeker. While many NBA stars are hyped up and thrust into the spotlight from a young age, Lillard wasn’t viewed as a basketball prodigy until very recently. The 23-year-old still thinks of himself as the kid from Oakland who was overlooked for much of his life, and his journey to the NBA explains why.

Before Lillard was one of the NBA’s best up-and-coming players, he was a two-star high school recruit who couldn’t get a scholarship from a high major college. Lillard wasn’t given any playing time at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School, so he transferred from the private school to Oakland High School, where he went on to become the team’s star and average 22.4 points and 5.2 assists in his senior season. However, college coaches weren’t expressing interest in the point guard. The only scholarship that Lillard received was from Weber State University, a mid-major school in Ogden, UT. The school’s head coach, Randy Rahe, saw Lillard play several times and couldn’t believe that other schools weren’t pursuing him. When he received the commitment from Lillard, he realized that he had found a diamond in the rough. Had another school approached Lillard, the point guard likely would’ve committed to them instead. After all, Weber State isn’t exactly a hotbed for NBA players while competing in the Big Sky Conference.

Once he started playing for Weber State, other programs realized that they had missed out. As a freshman, Lillard averaged 11.5 points in 29.4 minutes. After his breakout year, coaches around the country were now calling and asking Lillard to transfer. Suddenly, the schools that had doubted him just one year before were telling him that he could be great and that he was too good for Weber State. Lillard was amused by the sudden interest, but never seriously considered transferring. Loyalty is important to Lillard and he wasn’t going to turn his back on the school that was interested when nobody else cared about him. He wasn’t going to get national exposure at Weber State, but he was committed to putting the program on the map and making the best of his situation.

“I know that I’m going to have to prove myself more than someone who goes to school in one of the power conferences,” Lillard told me in October 2011, just before starting his final season at Weber State. “I know that I have more to prove because I don’t play against the competition they play against night in and night out. I think when the time comes for us to play against them, either in the NCAA Tournament or during the season, I think it’ll speak for itself. I played at adidas Nations the last two years and I did well [against the top competition there], so I think I’ve proven myself so far. I have a chip on my shoulder from knowing that people doubt me and whether or not I can make it to the next level. It’s everyone’s dream to play in the NBA. I’ve wanted that my whole life. That’s what I work for, to prove people wrong.”

During his final season, Lillard became one of the best players in college basketball and displayed his electrifying scoring ability and playmaking skills. His doubters were silenced, just as he’d predicted. He finished the season as the nation’s second-leading scorer with 24.5 points while also averaging five rebounds and four assists.

After flying under the NBA radar for years, Lillard was suddenly being talked about as a first-round pick. His meteoric rise continued during the pre-draft process, when he dominated individual workouts for teams and chose to participate in the draft combine, which isn’t something that most top prospects do. It soon became clear that Lillard was the top point guard in the 2012 draft class and one of the best players overall – it had just taken the NBA talent evaluators longer than usual to realize this. On draft night, the Blazers selected Lillard with the sixth overall pick. Despite being told he wasn’t good enough in high school and getting overlooked by top colleges, Lillard had finally made it.

“It’s been crazy,” Lillard told me just before being drafted. “In high school, I flew under the radar. In college, I flew under the radar. Then, this year, all of sudden there were a lot of people at my practices and a lot of people calling me. There were agents. I had never experienced all of that before, all of the attention. It was crazy and it got out of hand for a little while. It overwhelmed me a little bit, but once I realized that it was all good attention and that it came with the territory with how successful I was, I accepted it. It was crazy, but I was happy to know that I was going in the right direction.”

Lillard has continued to go in the right direction over the last two years, becoming just the fourth player in NBA history to win the Rookie of the Year award unanimously and making his first All-Star appearance this season. During All-Star Weekend, he became the first player to participate in every event, and he defended his NBA Skills Challenge title. As previously mentioned, he made his postseason debut on Sunday night, after leading Portland to a surprising 54-28 record and the fifth seed in the West, exceeding all preseason expectations for the team. Lillard is now viewed as one of the top up-and-coming point guards in the NBA. Looking back on his journey to relevance and success, Lillard shakes his head and smiles.

“Does it ever feel surreal?” I asked him last month.

“Always,” Lillard said with a laugh. “When I see my school playing on TV, I’ll think, ‘Wow, I was out there.’ That whole time, I hoped that I was going to the NBA, but I had no idea that all of this would happen. My coach that I worked out with there would tell me, ‘Don’t just go to the NBA, go be an All-Star.’ And in my head, I’d be like, ‘Well, I want to be an All-Star, but I don’t know how possible that really is.’ The fact that I’m here and I was able to become an All-Star so soon, it’s a blessing. It was a huge honor. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity at any point in their career and I was blessed enough to get it in my second season. All of the credit goes to the team though. I was able to do that because of how successful the team was. I understand that. It’s been a lot of fun. When you’re winning, these types of things happen because everyone loves winners. More individual things come when your team is successful; I’ve always understood that. It’s been a night and day from two years ago to now. Hopefully we can keep being successful as a team and there’s more to come.”

Lillard isn’t like most NBA superstars. He’s down to earth and often self deprecating. He puts his team before himself. He’s not entitled. Lillard believes he’s been able to remain humble and not let his success change him because he wasn’t anointed as a basketball prodigy at a young age. Some players are groomed to become star athletes as young as 13 years old, and they are soon surrounded by yes-men, handlers, agents and others who view the player as a lottery ticket. These players are rarely criticized or held accountable for their actions because nobody wants to jeopardize their relationship with the kid. Instead, these players are constantly praised from a young age, leading them to become cocky and entitled. Lillard obviously didn’t get that kind of attention. He wasn’t a “phenom,” he just wanted to get a single college basketball coach to notice him and offer a scholarship. It wasn’t until Lillard was mature and much older that he was thrust into the limelight.

“I have a degree, I was in school for four years, I lived away from home for a long time and I had the opportunity to grow as a man,” Lillard said. “Not to talk down about anyone else, but I’ve got experience over [most young players]. Some of them are 18 years old. I think my maturity has definitely helped me.

“I just take everything for what it is. I understand where I started and what had to be done for me to get here – working hard and having high character. I still appreciate those things. I appreciate just being here too. I don’t think, ‘Alright, I’m here so now I’m a big shot and nobody can tell me nothing.’ That’s not what made me who I am. I appreciate the things that made me who I am and I’ll never get away from those things. … I still have the same company, the same people around me. I’m sticking to what I’ve always done. I haven’t changed.”

While Lillard was more prepared for the NBA than most players when he entered the league, there’s no question that he has made huge strides over the last two years. He has continued to improve each season, working hard to maximize his potential.

“I’ve grown a lot since I entered the league, especially with the opportunity that I was given here,” Lillard said. “They put me out there right away and I was running an NBA team as a rookie, so that forced me to grow up. Then, coming into this season, we had a better team so expectations were high. I also had a lot of veterans around me and I had an increased role on the team, so that helped me grow up.”

Lillard’s All-Star teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge, has been impressed with the point guard’s development. Before the Blazers drafted Lillard, Aldridge was seriously considering leaving Portland. The team was rebuilding and struggling to win games, so Aldridge thought about demanding a trade or leaving as a free agent when his contract ended. However, Lillard’s emergence as a second star has allowed the Blazers to speed up their rebuilding process and return to the playoffs quicker than expected. Aldridge is thrilled to have Lillard in Portland and has been impressed with the development of his sidekick.

“He’s become a better point guard, knowing when to move the ball, knowing when to get guys involved, knowing when to be aggressive going to the basket or looking for his shot,” Aldridge said. “I think he’s grown a whole lot this year. We help each other. I help take pressure off him because guys can’t leave me and vice versa. When people leave me, I hit him, so people try to stay home on him too.”

Lillard has also grown off the court, where he has adjusted to the NBA lifestyle and everything that comes with being an All-Star. Last year, while visiting Times Square with his mother, he was swarmed by autograph seekers. That’s the moment he realized just how much his life had changed, and that he could no longer just blend in. He’s a household name now, with 1.1 million Facebook likes and 350,000 Twitter followers.

“That’s a part of it,” Lillard said of fame. “That’s something that you have to accept when you take on this profession, it’s something that you understand when you’re pursuing this career. People are going to be fans of you. You’re a public figure. With that, you need to make sure that you’re always doing the right things. You need to take on that challenge and do the right things because you’re influencing kids.”

It wasn’t long ago that Lillard was one of those kids, looking up to Oakland legends like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd and hoping to someday play in the NBA. Now, he has achieved his goal and is living his dream. After years of being overlooked, all eyes are finally on Lillard and he’s ready for the limelight.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: A New Beginning Or The Beginning Of The End?

The Toronto Raptors made some bold moves this off-season, but will those moves be the beginning of something new or the beginning of the end of Raptors run in the East?

Steve Kyler

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A New Beginning Or The Beginning Of The End?

The Toronto Raptors were clearly at a crossroads after being swept unceremoniously by the Cleveland Cavaliers in May. It was a microcosm of their situation – good enough to win the East in the regular season, but not good enough to win in big playoff games.

The Raptors went on to fire Dwane Casey as head coach, despite him ultimately being named Coach of The Year. The idea behind the firing wasn’t an emotional reaction to the swept; it was the acceptance of the reality that Casey wasn’t going to evolve as a coach, at least not the way management had hoped.

Casey’s ouster wasn’t the only change; the Raptors also traded away franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan in a “dare to be great” trade with San Antonio for forward Kawhi Leonard.

From a pure talent standpoint, Leonard is an upgrade in almost every way to DeRozan, a multi-time All-Star in his own right. The problem with Leonard isn’t what he is as a player, its what he’s become as a person. No one saw the divorce in San Antonio coming, nor the lengths his camp would go to force an exit and leave countless millions on the table for a new start.

The problem for Toronto is the new start Leonard was seeking never included them. So, much like the Oklahoma City Thunder did a year ago with Paul George, the Raptors are hopeful that a long and successful courtship of Leonard could win him over and into a new long-term deal. If that sounds like a pipe dream, it probably is.

Let’s be real about a few things.

Toronto is a beautiful and passionate basketball city, but is that enough to sway a kid from Southern California to stay? The Raptor faithful will point to DeRozan as an example of yes; he did exactly that when he signed his current deal. But is the situation ideal for Leonard, again the answer might be yes, especially if he is fully recovered from the quad injury that sidelined him for most of last season.

There is no doubting that the Raptors are built to win right now. They won 59 games with arguably the same roster and will enter an Eastern Conference that no longer has LeBron James in Cleveland.

Sure, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are formidable challengers for supremacy in the East and let’s not forget about the Indiana Pacers, who could be in that same pack of teams vying for the top spot. But are any of them far and away better than the Raptors in terms of proven in their prime players?

The script seems to be written for the Raptors to either explode and cement themselves at the top of the East or implode on their own decisions.

New Raptors coach Nick Nurse is as a good as they come from the assistant ranks. He is a bright basketball mind, and he knows his players and has relationships with most of them. The question is will he be as good as advertised? If he not, this dance could be over before it starts.

Leonard has so much to prove after orchestrating his exit from San Antonio. If he gets back to MVP form in Toronto how can the Raptors not be considered the front-runner for the East? Yes, Boston is going to be really good too, but if you were betting on two players – MVP version of Kyrie Irving or MVP version of Leonard, who are you taking?

The problem for the Raptors is what if Leonard isn’t that guy again? What if all the negativity becomes too much? What if not being coddled and sheltered by the Spurs is a problem? No, Leonard isn’t a baby that needs mothering, but if you have followed anything about Leonard, he’s not this rock of a person that can handle anything. It’s a real question only he can answer with his play on the floor.

Equally, what if the quad isn’t fully healed or he goes Isaiah Thomas and tries to come back on to make it worse and needs surgery?

These are not easy questions to answer.

If the Raptors come out on top of most of these decisions – Nurse and Leonard are what people hope them to be — then things could swing in a very interesting direction for the Raptor franchise.

That’s what makes the “dare to be great” move interesting.

Thunder GM Sam Presti made news when he was quoted in Paul George’s ESPN docu-series, saying one of his favorite Lyrics was from Tribe Called Quest – “Scared money don’t make none” — in rationalizing his all-in approach to George.

It seems like Raptor president Masai Ujiri may have stolen a play from the Thunder playbook, because the franchise is now all the way in on the make or break moves of this off-season.

This could be the beginning of a new chapter for the Raptors, or it could end being the moves that cratered something special.

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NBA Daily: Why Teams Should Think Twice Before Tanking

Making up for the loss of a superstar is not a cut and dry, writes Spencer Davies.

Spencer Davies

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Making up for the loss of a superstar is not a cut and dry affair.

If it happens, ownership and management have to choose between two options.

1) Attempt to stay competitive
2) Blow everything up and go for a high draft pick

The second choice seems to be the favorite path for executives to take as of late. After all, just look at the job the Philadelphia 76ers have done with perfecting the art of the aptly named process, “tanking.”

Former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie’s three ultra-quotable words have turned NBA fans on to see the bigger picture. Who cares if a team has to suffer through multiple seasons of losing? If it takes a couple of years, so be it. In the end, we’ll reset with younger talent to build around. Trust The Process.

Philadelphia lost a lot of games between the 2013 and 2017 seasons. It was flat out brutal to watch. With that said, it did give the organization the opportunity to draft the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and acquire a young international talent like Dario Saric.

They were extremely patient throughout this whole operation. Brett Brown remained the head coach through thick and thin. Players swore on buying into what was being preached.

Last season was a breakthrough for the Sixers. They won 52 games and made the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign. Two of the guys they drafted turned into recognizable names with their play and have sky-high potential to break through in this upcoming season.

But is this really what it takes to achieve relevancy and perpetual competition in the NBA now? Do you really have to wipe the slate clean entirely and put out an unacceptable product year-in and year-out for half a decade so that there’s a possibility of one day becoming a winning franchise?

It’s obvious that Philadelphia did its homework, but who’s to say that other front offices can function like that? The Sacramento Kings have been in the doldrums for 12 years. The Orlando Magic have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons and the New York Knicks haven’t made an appearance in five.

What it comes down to is hitting on draft picks, plain and simple. You don’t hear often about the missteps of the process. Nerlens Noel was supposed to be a key piece of the Sixers core, as was Jahlil Okafor. Both of those players were top six selections in their respective drafts.

In order to acquire Noel (along with New Orleans’ 2014 first-round pick), Philadelphia sent Jrue Holiday, Pierre Jackson and the 42nd overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft to the newly branded New Orleans Pelicans.

In hindsight, this was an awful move—no bones about it. Holiday had been coming off an All-Star season. He stood a head above the rest on a roster mixed with veterans and middle-of-their-career players. Most impressive of all, it was only his third year in the league.

The Sixers picked a gamble that did not return the results they were hoping for. Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year and Noel had his moments, but there’s no way it was worth losing a player the caliber of Holiday. But they had to abide by the process by any means necessary, right?

Philadelphia hasn’t won a championship, yet they’re heading in the right direction. They were able to overcome those bumps in the road. The three teams in Sacramento, Orlando and New York to this point have not.

Tanking may not be the wrong answer. It’s not always the right one, though. It all depends on timing. Take a different approach of re-tooling in lieu of rebuilding.

A prime example of this viewpoint is the Utah Jazz last season. After Gordon Hayward signed with the Boston Celtics, many pundits stuck a dead duck label on the Utah Jazz. Those people said that in spite of the fact that the organization was on the rise with a brilliant head coach and an up-and-coming center bordering on best defensive player in the league status.

General manager Dennis Lindsey made a few moves here or there, but did not even think about giving up on the overall progress the Jazz had attained. He kept Quin Snyder and Rudy Gobert, drafted Donovan Mitchell and began a new chapter in the same book instead of writing a different novel.

Utah opened a ton of eyes last season, not only making the playoffs—competing until the very end. And even that was fluky when injuries came into the picture.

They never had to go into the gutter. In the four straight years the Jazz missed the playoffs, it wasn’t because of a set strategy to take a nosedive. They had the wrong coach the first two and were learning how to play winning basketball under the right leader the next two.

It seems as if the Cleveland Cavaliers are taking that route instead of the usual cry to “blow it up.” This isn’t comparing the impact of losing Hayward to LeBron James. That would be irresponsible. But they’ve clearly formed a strategy for all of this and were much more prepared the second time around.

Their true plans were revealed on July 24 when Kevin Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension to stick around with the wine and gold. Confusion surfaced all around. Nearly everybody in the NBA world expected general manager Koby Altman to trade him and stock up on future assets. After all, the Cavaliers’ first-round draft pick next season only conveys if they finish as a bottom 10 team in the league. If they do not, the selection goes to the Atlanta Hawks.

While that’s a true statement, nothing is guaranteed. Anything that happens in a season can be unpredictable. Anything that goes on in a draft is unpredictable.

In one timeline, Cleveland could be as bad of a team as some are predicting with Love. In another, they could make the playoffs and shock their doubters.

We don’t know what Collin Sexton will be in this league yet. We do know that experience is irreplaceable. Why not surround the young man with talent for him to breed confidence in himself and others? It’s better than losing a ton of games because the front office is waiting for the next guy to pair him with, right?

The Cavaliers are keeping their head coach. They’re acquiring players aching for an opportunity. They’re altering their direction, but keeping the same focus.

With LeBron James, Cleveland made four straight NBA Finals. In doing so, they’ve set a standard for the organization. Even with The King going west, why would it make any sense to change that message?

Considering the talent this league already has and the “super teams” that are being built among them, there is a difference between a ball club that wins 20 games and one that wins 35. They both miss out on the postseason and have a lottery pick, however, Team A silently creates losing habits while Team B tries to instill a culture of winning.

There is no perfect method for filling a void left by losing a superstar player. Nobody is a psychic.

Maybe it’s naïve to criticize “The Process” for not wanting to be in NBA purgatory—usually somewhere stuck between a seven seed in the playoffs and the 10th team in the conference standings—but tanking is a tricky game. Precision is necessary to pull it off. If it isn’t there, you’ll be in a world of hurt.

At least when you’re in NBA purgatory, you can add to what you have or try a different coach. Championship or bust is a dangerous mentality in the current landscape of sports.

Of course, that’s always the goal, but very few understand what it takes to get to that point. It all starts with a winning attitude, a quality of most teams that have tanked do not possess.

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NBA Daily: The Summer’s Most Impactful Coaching Hires

There have been a lot of coaching swaps this offseason, but there are only a select few that should impact what happens next year.

Matt John

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Building a successful team is like cooking a meal. The players serve as the ingredients, while the coach serves as the cook who stirs the ingredients. A championship team requires the right ingredients just as much as it requires an adept cook.

Take the Warriors for example. Mark Jackson played an important role in putting Golden State back on the map in 2013. However, after it was clear that he wasn’t capable of pushing them much further the following year, they replaced him with Steve Kerr.

That made all the difference. The Dubs went from pseudo-contender to legitimate contender, thanks to their new coach revolutionizing the team’s offense. The team went from the league’s 12th-ranked offense in the league the previous season (107.5 points per 100 possessions) to its second (111.6). Stephen Curry’s evolution into a basketball supernova led the way of course, but it was Kerr’s revisions to the team that pushed them to another level.

It all started with how he handled his rotation. Making Draymond Green a full-time starter while also transitioning Andre Iguodala into the sixth man made the Dubs all the more lethal as a team. The final touch was forming the “Death Lineup”, which consisted of Curry, Green, Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes, that made Golden State nearly impossible to stop.

Golden State had a roster built for a title. All they needed was a coach who could get them the best results. Kerr was the man for the job.

That goes to show how vital a coach is to a franchise that has high aspirations.

Because of success stories like Golden State, we saw quite a few coaching changes this summer from teams hoping to have a Hollywood ending much like the Warriors.

Milwaukee Bucks – Mike Budenholzer

Poor Coach Bud. It’s not his fault that the Hawks team that he guided to 60 wins in 2015 slowly disintegrated over the last three years. Luckily he got out of there to avoid having to take on a rebuild. So now, he gets a fresh start in Wisconsin.

Budenholzer’s stock has gone down considerably since winning the Coach of the Year three years ago. That being said, he’s shown that when he has lemons, he can make lemonade. Now that he is running the show in Milwaukee, he is coaching one of the more unique situations in the league. Coach Bud now has a superstar at his arsenal in Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is something he never had in Atlanta.

It’s true that Milwaukee has been one of the league’s frequent underachievers since they kicked the tires of the Greek Freek era, but their talent cannot be understated. Remember that Coach Bud once made the likes of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver All-Stars, statuses that they’ve never come close to regaining since. If he can do that with guys like Teague and Korver, imagine what he can do with Giannis and Co.

Milwaukee has also done a solid job building a team that fits Budenholzer’s emphasis on floor stretching. Adding Brook Lopez and bringing back Ersan Ilyasova should give a team that ranked 21st in three-point percentage more spacing. That’s quite impressive since Milwaukee had the ninth-best offensive rating in the league (109.8).

Milwaukee’s been trying to find their big break for a while now. They may have found theirs in Coach Bud.

Detroit Pistons – Dwane Casey

Nobody had a harder spring than Casey. Usually, winning Coach of the Year would be a moment worth treasuring, but in Casey’s case, it was far from it. Leading up to getting the award, Casey and the Raptors were swept by the Cavs for the second consecutive time, then he got fired shortly afterward. Casey getting Coach of the Year this season was pretty much like Dirk Nowitzki getting the MVP in 2007 after getting upset by the Warriors in the first round.

Thankfully, Casey’s illustrious resume was good enough for him to land on his feet just about anywhere. That anywhere happens to be Motown, where he’s replacing Stan Van Gundy as head coach. Detroit also has not had the most success since they’ve turned to Andre Drummond. That could be attributed to the unfortunate injuries that they’ve had to deal with in the last two years.

Despite having the persistent monkey on his back come playoff time, Casey has improved his craft in response to his failures. The Raptors saw improvement every year when Casey ran the show, and now Casey has the chance to show he can do the same in Detroit.

It will be an interesting transition going from the Raptors to the Pistons. Though not as talented as Toronto’s, Detroit’s strength should primarily come from their frontcourt. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond should be one of the league’s best frontcourt pairings on paper. Casey has a reputation for making things work, so now that they will have a full season together, they may shine more than they did last season.

One particular question that should be answered is if Toronto’s problem was Casey or his roster. That may be answered by how Detroit does this season. Oh hey, speaking of Toronto…

Toronto Raptors – Nick Nurse

There seems to be a fair amount of optimism surrounding Nurse. Supposedly, he was the reason why the Raptors’ offense improved so much last season. Casey executed it to perfection, but Nurse was the one who designed it. Now, he’s at the forefront on a team that is desperate for success now more than ever.

This is Nurse’s first gig as a head coach, and the pressure is going to be on. It’s not just that Toronto’s been trying to get past its playoff demons. Now that they have Kawhi Leonard, they have to do everything in their power to keep him around — tall order given he seems hellbent on going to L.A.

Still, Leonard is an upgrade over DeMar DeRozan. Acquiring him, along with promoting Nurse, shows that the Raptors aren’t playing around. Being the head coach for one of the league’s powerhouses is a big break for Nurse. This may be his only to chance to prove he deserves a spot in this league.

James Borrego – Charlotte Hornets

Another Popovich protegee moving up through the ranks! Borrego has had some head coaching experience, though it was with the Orlando Magic, who were not going anywhere, three years ago. Now he’s going to Charlotte, a team that’s in a pretty tough situation right now.

Right now, Charlotte is hard-capped on a roster that does not have much room for improvement. The team has not made the playoffs in two years, and it’s hard to imagine how they improve from where they currently are. However, that might be why they hired Borrego.

Instead of going for a known name like Stan Van Gundy or Jeff Hornacek, they went with a guy who has learned under the NBA’s best coach for several years. Coach Bud became a great coach after learning from Pop, so perhaps Borrego may follow in his footsteps. This is a pivotal year for Charlotte since Kemba Walker’s bargain contract is expiring. If Borrego can help Charlotte return to the playoffs, then that could do wonders for them.

Note that David Fizdale, Lloyd Pierce, and Igor Kokoskov weren’t named. It isn’t fair to include them because the teams they are running are currently in the rebuilding phase with little expectation. They could be very impactful hires down the line. Just don’t expect a lot from them right away.

Same goes for J.B. Bickerstaff, but that’s because he already was the Grizzlies’ head coach. Now he’s full-time instead of interim. Call it cheating if you want to.

As for those who have been named, these hires should have a significant impact on what happens in the Eastern Conference playoff race this season. One of these hires could very well put their team in the finals, while another could put them in the NBA lottery.

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