The general consensus among NBA observers regarding the Celtics-Cavaliers blockbuster trade is that Boston got the best player in the deal in Kyrie Irving but Cleveland got an impressive return. There’s some temptation to say the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 pick is a consolation because — at worst — it sets up the Cavaliers to jump start a rebuild if LeBron James departs next summer. However, it seems unlikely that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is thinking about a rebuild. The more likely scenario is that Gilbert and Cleveland GM Koby Altman will use every tool at their disposal — including the Brooklyn pick — to improve the team’s chances of competing for a championship this season and convincing James to stay.
In NBA lore, the team that gets the most talented player in a trade almost always ends up the winner in retrospect, once enough years have passed to evaluate the impact. In this case, the Cavaliers could be vindicated by history due to both the quantity and quality of assets returned from Boston. Basketball Insiders’ Jesse Blancarte has already penned a must-read missive on the undersold impact of Jae Crowder. While Irving and former Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas are similar — both are among the game’s best isolation scorers and both are a liability on defense — Crowder’s two-way game will lighten LeBron’s defensive burden while opening driving lanes with nearly 40 percent three-point shooting.
The Golden State Warriors prevailed in the NBA Finals largely on the strength of superior wing depth. The season before, Kevin Love played the best basketball of his life, even guarding Stephen Curry at the three-point line on one decisive possession. But in the 2017 Finals, Golden State clearly had a game plan to neutralize the effectiveness of Love and Tristan Thompson. Love was unable to punch above his weight as a defender as he did in 2016 and Thompson proved too one-dimensional to change the outcome. From a net rating perspective, Love and Thompson were Cleveland’s least impactful players in the Finals. Thompson is an elite rebounder, but that’s less of an advantage against a team like Golden State that rarely misses.
Thus, losing the star power of Irving is a blow to Cleveland, but Crowder’s arrival could transform the Cavaliers into a team better equipped to challenge the Warriors. And chances are that transformation didn’t end with Thomas, Crowder and Ante Zizic arriving in Cleveland. The Brooklyn pick is a massive trade asset that could return another front line starter and further equip the Cavaliers to match the Warriors — and show James that Cleveland offers the best long-term opportunity to win.
With Thomas expected to miss part of the regular season, Cleveland will be able to evaluate Derrick Rose’s fit. If Gilbert and Altman aren’t convinced that Rose can keep the team at a high level — or that Thomas can become a difference-maker on a contending team post-injury — the Cavaliers could dangle the Brooklyn pick for a starting point guard.
The most obvious target would be Phoenix point guard Eric Bledsoe, a fellow Klutch Sports client with James. If Rose is not seen as the answer and too many questions surround Thomas, Bledsoe could be the solution. He’ll have one season remaining on his contract after this season, which could at least entice James to stay on for another two-year contract with a second-year player option.
However, Bledsoe has had his own injury issues throughout his career and would not represent value equal to the Brooklyn pick. It makes sense for Phoenix to trade for the pick since Bledsoe is a veteran and the Suns are building around younger players like Devin Booker. What is not clear is what additional assets and cap relief Phoenix might add to make the deal less lopsided from Cleveland’s perspective.
On the other hand, if Rose impresses in training camp and point guard is not the position of greatest need, it opens Cleveland up to any number of trade possibilities. And, as Blancarte mentioned, Love could also be in play ahead of the trade deadline. Moving Love during the offseason after his disappointing Finals showing was always going to be problematic. But once the season starts, Love could be in line for an expanded offensive role with Irving out of the picture. With his value rehabilitated, Love could be moved in a separate trade or packaged for a max-level player with the Brooklyn pick as the sweetener to get a deal done.
Theoretically, the Brooklyn pick acts as a form of insurance in the event James departs Cleveland next summer. In the worst-case scenario, the Cavs could have a shot at another generational talent in next summer’s draft. But if you’re Dan Gilbert, could you look your fan base in the eye if you didn’t do everything in your power to convince James to stay? To make that case, the Cavaliers will need to marshal every asset at its disposal.
The Cavaliers organization — through no fault of its own — endured one of the most unpredictable offseasons on record. It emerged with an impressive haul of assets but a slew of unanswered questions. As long as those remain unaddressed — and until the Brooklyn pick is either packaged in a trade or used to select a player next summer — look for Cleveland to remain in the eye of a whirlwind of trade rumors. Given the choice between a short-term gamble that might convince James to extend his stay and resigning itself to a long-term rebuild, the odds favor another blockbuster deal for the Cavaliers.
The Harsh Reality of Being Traded
Cody Taylor looks at Isaiah Thomas and the harsh realities of trades in the NBA.
Isaiah Thomas was driving home in Seattle when he returned a missed phone call from Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge.
It was on that phone call that Thomas had learned he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. After hearing the news that he had been traded, Thomas had one question: “To where?”
And just like that, Thomas was traded from a team that he had given everything for in a course of two and a half seasons. He had battled through a serious hip injury, appeared in a playoff game just one day after the passing of his sister and made countless clutch shots during his time in the Green and White.
If ever there was a time that sports fans had an opportunity to hear an athlete uncut, raw and honest, that time came on Wednesday. In a posting on The Players’ Tribune, Thomas offered a glimpse into what it’s really like to be traded as a professional athlete.
It happens in moments when an athlete least expects it. Thomas had just come from celebrating his one-year wedding anniversary with his wife in Miami. It was in that moment that Thomas immediately began thinking about the repercussions a trade like this would have on his family.
“I thought about my two sons, James and Jaiden, and having to tell them that it was time to move,” Thomas said in the posting on The Players’ Tribune. “I knew it was going to come as a shock to them — first, with it being right before the start of the school year. And second, knowing how much Boston had started to feel like a home to them. To all of us.”
As Thomas reflects on the trade, he admits that it still hurts to leave Boston. Thomas solidified his place among the best point guards in the league with the Celtics. He led them to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season and became a fan favorite during the process.
“And I hope people can understand that when I say it hurt, it isn’t directed at anyone,” Thomas said. “I’m not saying I was hurt by anyone, or wronged by anyone, or betrayed. I’m just saying, man, I’m only human. I may act like a tough guy on the court. And I may seem like I have ice in my veins when I’m competing. But at the same time — it ain’t ice, really. I got blood and I got a heart like everyone else.”
Of course, professional athletes are subject to being cut, traded or demoted at virtually any moment. In Thomas’ case, even some of the game’s most elite players are even tradeable. Athletes know it’s a business at the end of the day and anything can happen.
While some players have requested trades in recent memory (including the player Thomas was traded for: Kyrie Irving), Thomas made no such request. He was a player that wanted to continue to build the Celtics into a contender, but he understands it’s a business.
“It’s not that I don’t understand it. Of course I get it: This is a business,” Thomas said. “Danny [Ainge] is a businessman, and he made a business move. I don’t agree with it, just personally, and I don’t think the Boston Celtics got better by making this trade. But that’s not my job. That’s Danny’s. And it’s a tough job, and he’s been really good at it.”
While the initial reaction for Thomas being traded from the Celtics was negative, the reaction joining the Cavaliers has been quite the opposite. As Thomas learned about the trade, he wanted to first tell his children. While his youngest son was sad to leave Boston, his oldest was quite excited.
“LEBRON! LEBRON JAMES! Dad — Dad. You get to play with LeBron James!” Thomas said.
“One, as my oldest said it: ‘LeBron James.’ Or put another way — I get to come over and join the best team in the East, and try to win a championship alongside the best basketball player in the world.”
As Thomas recounted his experience being traded for The Players’ Tribune, he’ll now be faced with the harsh reality of answering the tough questions: his health. While Thomas didn’t address his hip injury once in his piece, he’ll surely be pressed with those questions Thursday morning when he’s introduced to the media by Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman and head coach Tyronn Lue.
It is unclear at this time just how long Thomas will be out with a hip injury, but many have speculated it could be an extended amount of time given that the Cavaliers requested an additional draft pick from the Celtics to complete the trade.
Given all of the uncertainty with Thomas and his injured hip, he did leave Cavaliers fans with some words of encouragement.
“I’mma just say this here, point-blank, to get it over with — and then you can go ahead and post it on whatever bulletin boards you want to: You are not going to want to mess with the Cavs this year,” Thomas said. “This is going to be a great year to be a Cavs fan, a great year. And I’m excited.”
Brooklyn Nets 2017-18 Season Preview
Basketball Insiders begins our 30 team previews with a look at the Brooklyn Nets.
Starting today, Basketball Insiders will preview all 30 NBA teams ahead of training camp later this month. First up, the 20-62 Brooklyn Nets – are brighter things finally on the horizon?
After two straight seasons in the NBA’s basement, there’s a sense that the Nets have reached the proverbial end of the tunnel. Brooklyn owes just one more unprotected first-round draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018, but the Nets have cultivated an interesting roster of raw prospects, once-overpaid veterans and forgotten castaways.
The offseason trade that swapped franchise center Brook Lopez for D’Angelo Russell was an emotional one for fans, but the return was undeniably excellent. Russell, along with the additional captures of Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov, should make for an exciting – if not loss-filled – 2017-18 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
For the first time in the last few seasons, the Brooklyn Nets actually have some identifiable talent on their roster. After making some offseason transactions — and finally moving on from Brook Lopez — the Nets now have some guys on board that can help them pivot towards their future with a slight beacon of hope.
The main piece of that transition will be 2015 second overall pick, D’Angelo Russell. Brooklyn acquired the enigmatic guard from the Los Angeles Lakers in the Lopez deal, and despite a few underwhelming seasons in Hollywood, Russell still possesses a wealth of talent. Perhaps a change a scenery and a bright, young coach like Kenny Atkinson can help Russell live up to the hype he garnered coming out of college.
Along with Russell, other newcomers such as Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, and 2017 first round pick Jarrett Allen, add some competitive pieces to a team that finished with the NBA’s worst record just a season ago. With next year’s pick still owed instead of owned — now to the Cleveland Cavaliers — Nets’ fans will need to look towards the development of their young pieces next season for any type of solace.
5th place – Atlantic Division
– Dennis Chambers
After so many seasons of ineptitude, it’s easy to write off the Brooklyn Nets because most likely stopped paying attention some time ago. While the Nets have earned all the disrespect they get, most people may have missed how much work the Nets front office did over the last two years to build a respectable young core, to go along with a great young coach.
While the Nets are not going blow away the top tier of the East, they are as good as almost enough sitting outside the playoff picture looking in. If the young guys can blossom and the Nets avoid the injuries that have plagued them, they could be a sneaky play for the eighth seed in the East in a best-case, and should be in the hunt for a 30 plus win season. Given where the Nets were 20 months ago, that would tremendous progress.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
Compared to where they were a year or even 18 months ago from a team-building perspective, what Sean Marks and his Nets front office staff have done is remarkable. They’ve taken the worst cap/picks situation in the league and slowly but surely shaped it into something that at least resembles a solid future, with youngsters like D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert along with a decent foundation. Some, though, are getting a bit ahead of themselves – while the Nets have done a great job making something out of less than nothing, and while it’s true that they don’t benefit from tanking this season since they don’t own their 2018 pick, they’re still in for a lot of losses. Brook Lopez may not have fit the Nets’ current timeline, but he was easily their best player, and guys like Timo Mozgov and DeMarre Carroll don’t fill his shoes. This team will show flashes of potential, particularly from the young guards, but will still lose a ton of games and finish last in the Atlantic division.
5th place – Atlantic Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Brooklyn Nets continued their ongoing overhaul this offseason by trading Brook Lopez and the rights to Kyle Kuzma (27th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft) to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov. The Nets also acquired DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe, along with some young talent like Jarrett Allen. Nets GM Sean Marks continues to opportunistically acquire young talent in aggressive deals, which has been necessary as a result of the last regime’s irresponsible and ineffective series of trades that left the Nets with few assets. Russell is the most interesting acquisition. The second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft is very talented, but comes with some baggage after a bumpy tenure with the Lakers. However, if he is focused on excelling on the court and minimized the off-court distractions, he could end up being a major steal for the Nets. Brooklyn still doesn’t have the top end talent to make any serious noise this upcoming season, but their front office is doing a nice job of building a future for a franchise that was stuck in the mud not so long ago.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It’s only been three years since the Nets last made the playoffs, but it feels like they have been floundering amid the floodwaters of the league basement for something like a decade. The rebuild really hasn’t been an all-out for disaster for as long as some may think, and to be completely frank it’s all moving along much more quickly than some thought would be possible without any high draft picks. This is a team that should have Markelle Fultz and Jaylen Brown on the roster, but coming out of these last few years with D’Angelo Russell is, at the very least, more of a consolation prize that even they probably expected. The Nets still are bad, but they can at least be better than the New York Knicks, and with a cleaner cap with which to improve down the road.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell
Russell enters the franchise fold at the perfect time and will immediately become the focal point in the Nets’ up-tempo offense. Although he was shipped off this summer to make room for Lonzo Ball, Russell showed plenty of promise while with the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per contest in 2016-17 and his fresh start with Brooklyn is a compelling storyline. At his best, Russell is a sharpshooting playmaker that can carve a defense to pieces either off the dribble or from behind the arc. Yes, there will be some growing pains, but the third-year budding star should easily secure his best NBA season yet under the inventive Kenny Atkinson.
Top Defensive Player: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Since he joined the Nets in 2015, Hollis-Jefferson has long stood out as one of the franchise’s most athletic defenders on the floor. Although Hollis-Jefferson’s jump shot hasn’t quite acclimated to the league average yet, he began to find his niche as a small-ball power forward last winter. The forward’s versatility and length have allowed him to defend three different positions, both on the perimeter or on the block. Hollis-Jefferson still has plenty of inconsistencies in his game, but it goes to show how much faith the Nets’ coaching staff has put in the rugged defender, now the franchise’s longest-tenured player.
Top Playmaker: Jeremy Lin
As the Nets bottomed out without Lin for 46 games last season, it quickly became clear just how important he was to Atkinson’s first-year offense. Lin is not an All-Star, but he was undeniably the glue that held together the Nets’ inexperienced roster. Of course, look no further than the Nets’ record with Lin (13-23) versus without (7-39) and the picture becomes much clearer. For those that are still discounting the Nets, they may not have considered the implications of a completely healthy Lin in 2017-18. Lin is an incisive playmaker and, when he played, was a fantastic facilitator and leader for Brooklyn. Whether he’s working off the pick-and-roll with Mozgov or kicking it out to their surplus of three-point shooters, Lin’s dynamic ball-handling skills will be key for the Nets this season.
Russell may come for this crown soon enough but Lin’s proven ability to make those around him better gives him the edge for now.
Top Clutch Player: D’Angelo Russell
If you had to pick somebody for this category, it’s likely newcomer D’Angelo Russell once again. However, given how little the league knows about the Nets’ franchise post-Lopez, that could be a total guess.
While plenty of guards have come and gone since the Nets moved from New Jersey, Lopez had been the one constant in the fourth quarter. With Lopez now in Los Angeles, Atkinson will have his pick of the multi-talented litter. In two NBA seasons, Russell has already shown his penchant for the big moment and his role as an offensive focal point will lend itself to those final shot opportunities.
After Russell, it’s safe to assume that Lin, Crabbe and Caris LeVert will also get plenty of chances to shine in late-game roles. Given Atkinson’s penchant for a free-flowing, quick-paced offense, the jury is out here until one player proves that they’re ready to carry that massive responsibility. The smart money, however, is on Russell.
The Unheralded Player: DeMarre Carroll
Although he arrived in Brooklyn via a classic salary dump deal in July, Carroll is being overlooked as a perfect fit for this scrappy roster. As a stretch power forward, Carroll is a far better three-point shooting option at the position than the aforementioned Hollis-Jefferson or the energetic Trevor Booker. Carroll is a career 36 percent shooter from three-point range, a skill he honed while working with Atkinson, then an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks, from 2013-15. Now, it’s unlikely that a full renaissance for Carroll is ahead, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to become one of the Nets’ most important contributors – both on and off the court – in 2017-18.
Best New Addition: Allen Crabbe
The Nets signed Allen Crabbe to an offer sheet worth four years and nearly $75 million in the summer of 2016 and have now finally earned the right to pay him for the foreseeable future. More or less, this is to say that the Nets absolutely adore Crabbe and he’ll be a key contributor on offense from day one. It’s been well-documented by this point, but the Nets took and missed a whole bunch of three-pointers in 2016-17. In fact, they ranked fourth in attempts (31.6) but finished with a poor 33.8 percent rate from beyond the arc, the fifth-worst average in the entire league. Enter Crabbe, a three-point shooting specialist that knocked down 44.4 percent of his attempts last season. Crabbe will have to adjust to life without Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum opening up the floor for him, but the fit here was excellent.
– Benny Nadeau
WHO WE LIKE
1. Sean Marks
Deservedly so, praise has flowed for the Nets’ general manager all summer and his rebuild-on-the-fly is looking better than ever. Without sacrificing any draft picks outside the No. 27 overall selection in June’s draft (Kyle Kuzma), Marks has built a competitive, potential-laden squad without mortgaging any future assets. While Russell, Crabbe, Carroll and Mozgov will all have large roles in 2017-18, Marks also acquired the Raptors’ 2018 first- and second-rounders for taking on the final two years of Carroll’s deal.
With only a few true untouchables on the roster, it’ll be interesting to see what other assets Marks can acquire should the front office decide to part with any of their expiring veterans near the next trade deadline.
2. Kenny Atkinson
As Basketball Insiders reported back in July, the Nets have been building beyond the box score and Atkinson has been at the forefront of that cultural movement. Once again, Atkinson coached the summer league team for the second straight year, and he’s unanimously well-liked throughout the organization. Most new head coaches can struggle to fully implement their offense in year one, so with a healthy Lin and better three-point shooters on the roster – watch out, world, Kenny is coming.
3. Trevor Booker
In amongst the numerous arrivals and departures stands Booker, the hard-nosed veteran that single-handedly kept the Nets in plenty of basketball games last season. He’ll find himself in a leading role off the bench this time around, but his massive importance remains the same. If you took note of every rim-rattling, pump-up-the-crowd moment from the Nets’ 2016-17 season, Booker would probably account for a solid 50 percent of them all by himself. Booker averaged 10 points and eight rebounds in his first year with the Nets, both of which were career highs.
He may not feature as much this season, but Booker will still grab plenty of rebounds, play hard and become an anchor for a bench unit that needs a strong veteran presence.
4. Caris LeVert
After waiting until December for the talented LeVert to arrive, the Nets gave him plenty of opportunities to succeed. By year’s end, the training wheels were off and LeVert was regularly playing close to 25 minutes a night. If LeVert can improve his rookie season mark of 32 percent from downtown, there’s no reason why he can’t cement his place in the Nets’ young core for years to come. While the new trio may eat into LeVert’s ceiling this season, the sophomore’s positional flexibility will make it awfully hard to keep the smooth scorer off the floor for too long.
5. Isaiah Whitehead
Following the long-term injuries to both Lin and Greivis Vasquez just a week into the season, the second-round rookie was thrown to the wolves almost immediately in 2016-17. All of a sudden, Isaiah Whitehead was going toe-to-toe with Chris Paul, John Wall and many of the NBA’s elite-scoring point guards on a nightly basis. And in all honesty, Whitehead fared pretty well, using his immense athleticism to make up for his lack of professional experience. He’ll battle it out with Spence Dinwiddie for the lion’s share of backup minutes at point guard this season, but after a full offseason of training, it’s fair to expect a big jump from the former Seton Hall star.
– Benny Nadeau
SALARY CAP 101
The Nets used most of their cap room this summer to bring in Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll via trade. The team currently has 16 players under contract, with Spencer Dinwiddie, Milton Doyle and Jeremy Senglin each hoping to earn one of the two available spots with a strong pre-season. Brooklyn could get to $6.6 million in cap space under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, if they let all three go. Additionally, the Nets still have their $4.3 million Room Exception available to spend.
Next summer, Brooklyn could have as much as $28.5 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap. The big decision will be on Jeremy Lin, who has a player option at $12.5 million for the 2018-19 season. If he chooses to finish out his contract, he would cut the Nets’ potential cap room in half. The franchise also needs to decide, before the start of this coming season, on the team options of D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for the following year.
– Eric Pincus
Even though the Nets look as if they’re finally on the rise, they’re still bound to lose more games than they win in 2017-18 – but sometimes it’s about the journey, not that final destination. If the Nets manage to stay healthy, they’ll punch far above their weight class in most games this season. Brooklyn lives and dies by the three-point shot, but their newest additions should lend a huge hand in getting that dismal 33.8 percent rate up into the middle of the pack or near the league average.
After years of slow isolation basketball, Atkinson gave the Nets a far more modernized offense in 2016-17. In fact, the Nets’ 103.5 pace last season was the league’s highest mark and that was even with the generally plodding Lopez in tow. With better positional fits across the roster, the run-and-gun Nets should improve on what they started last year.
– Benny Nadeau
How in the world will the Nets replace Brook Lopez? Despite the constant shuffle through head coach after head coach, Lopez rolled with the punches for years as he expanded his range and became an adequate rim protector in the paint. Russell, Crabbe and Carroll will certainly benefit the Nets’ very real need for improved three-point shooting, but there’s also little chance Mozgov and rookie Jarrett Allen can completely replace Lopez’s per game contributions. Beyond that franchise center-sized problem, the Nets still lack too many defensively inconsistent rotation players for comfort.
In 2016-17, the Nets averaged 105.8 points per game, a total that nearly cracked the top ten in the entire league. Unfortunately, Brooklyn then gave up 112.5 points on the other end, a defensively-gross mark second to only the Phoenix Suns last season. As long as Hollis-Jefferson is spearheading the defensive efforts on his own, the Nets will struggle to see games out in the final few minutes once again.
– Benny Nadeau
THE BURNING QUESTION
The Nets can’t actually make the playoffs… right?
Sean Marks’ shrewd offseason moves may have started this conversation, but when the Celtics dealt the final first-round pick the Nets owed them to acquire Kyrie Irving, the question spread like wildfire: What if the Nets suddenly weren’t all that bad again? This summer, players like Lin and LeVert even took it a step further and stated the Nets’ intentions to make the playoffs in this weakened Eastern Conference.
Of course, plenty of teams around the Nets have bottomed out with a Marvin Bagley-sized reason to tank should the season go south by the All-Star break. At the end of the day, a postseason appearance feels more like wishful thinking and an appropriate goal for the young Nets rather than a potential reality. Still, after finishing with a combined 79-167 record over the past three seasons, Brooklyn is finally approaching that light at the end of the long, pick-less tunnel. After all this Nets franchise has been through since that 2013 blockbuster trade, that’ll be more than enough to be proud of in 2017-18.
– Benny Nadeau
Next up is the 2017-18 Phoenix Suns Season Preview, set to drop tomorrow.
NBA AM: Opening On The Hot Seat
As training camps set to open, there are a few coaches that need to deliver this season… Or else…
Opening On The Hot Seat Never Fun
They say NBA coaches are hired to be fired. In fact, some joke that deciding on the exit terms of a contract might be harder than reaching the actual deal for hire. This past summer saw unprecedented stability in NBA coaching circles, mainly because so many coaches were hired in the last two years. In fact, 12 of the NBA’s 30 head coaches were hired or promoted in 2016. Three more were hired in 2015, making it half the league having been hired within the last two calendar years.
With the NBA set to open training camps at the end of the month, there are a few coaches that will open the season likely coaching for their jobs, here are a few of them:
Dwane Casey – Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors are absolutely on the clock on several fronts, more so after spending so aggressively this summer to keep the core of the team together. Casey has always been an awkward fit for the Raptors, but he has had success, and that’s kept him in place.
Casey was a hold over after current Raptors president Masai Ujiri took over the leadership of the team in 2013. At the time, many around the NBA felt Casey would be replaced with someone from Ujiri’s circle. Unexpectedly, the Raptors won and became one of the up and comers in the East, keeping Casey on the bench. However, after two seasons of missed opportunities, the Raptors have locked themselves into their current roster, and now it’s on Casey to make it all work.
Casey has done a remarkable job, especially when you consider how many drafted players have not panned out in Toronto, as well as some of the questionable free agent moves the club has made. But as they say, coaches are hired to be fired, and that’s the likely outcome if the Raptors do not meet the expectations of competing for the Eastern Conference.
Casey has the fourth longest tenure in the NBA behind San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle. All three have won a championship with their current teams.
It’s highly unlikely the Raptors make a coaching change in-season, but with how much the Raptors have locked themselves into this current roster, Casey is the only thing they could really change if they can’t get the job done this season.
Mike Budenholzer – Atlanta Hawks
Let start by pointing out the obvious—Mike Budenholzer is a heck of a basketball coach. However, with the Hawks moving in a very different direction, it’s hard to imagine that Budenholzer is going to be the guy to skipper the rebuilding of the team.
The Hawks made a number of changes to their leadership structure this summer, with the biggest being removing Budenholzer as team president and naming Travis Schlenk as general manager. Schlenk was also given complete roster autonomy.
Budenholzer is a coaching lifer, so it’s unlikely that he’ll push back too hard on changes that Schlenk wants to make, but it’s pretty clear the Hawks are not aiming for the win column, and that usually ends up bad for the incumbent coach.
While terms of Budenholzer’s contract were never leaked to the media, League sources said his original deal was a three-year deal that paid roughly $2 million per season. When Budenholzer was named team president in 2013 after the Danny Ferry scandal in Atlanta, sources said his salary was increased. However, the terms of his revised deal were not revealed. Coaching sources said Budenholzer was entering the dreaded lame duck time in a coaches’ contract, making him more likely to be replaced than retained. This is more likely to be true if the Hawks are headed in a new direction.
For the Hawks, rebuilding around a great coach like Budenholzer wouldn’t be a bad decision, the problem for the Hawks is it seems they want to go in a new direction, which is hard to do with the same guy that set the last direction.
Like Casey, it seems unlikely that an in-season change is coming to the Hawks. What’s more likely is for the Hawks to see how things go with Budenholzer and the rebuild and make decisions from there.
Steve Clifford – Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets hired Steve Clifford in 2013, making him the seventh-longest tenured coach in the NBA. The Hornets extended Clifford’s deal in 2015, locking him into guaranteed money through the 2018-19 season.
Clifford is as good as they come and is well regarded by the leadership in Charlotte, including majority owner Michael Jordan. The problem for Clifford is that he’s made the playoffs twice in his four seasons as head coach.
Admittedly, a lot of Charlotte’s problems have been with roster issues and injuries, but coaches ultimately pay the price for those issues, not the players and almost never the general manager—at least not before a coaching change.
To say there are expectations on the upcoming season in Charlotte is an understatement, especially for a team sporting a $118.9 million payroll and a looming luxury tax bill.
It’s highly unlikely that a coaching change is made in Charlotte mid-season unless the floor falls out from under them, but there is no question that this is a big season for the Hornets and Coach Clifford.
Doc Rivers – Los Angeles Clippers
Much like the Hawks, the Clipper underwent a massive front office change with former team president Doc Rivers being removed as head of basketball and being asked to focus solely on coaching the team.
With a completely revamped roster and a lot of new faces in the process, this is a big season for Rivers, who has two more seasons left on his deal.
Rivers is entering his 19th season as a head coach and his fifth as the coach of the Clippers. In that span, Rivers has a 328-217 record but a dismal 18-22 record in the post-season.
There is a growing sense in NBA circles that Rivers will coach out his contract and call it a coaching career. The question becomes whether or not the Clippers shove him out the door before that.
The Clippers have been mired in injuries under Rivers’ watch, so the roster shakeup that took place after moving off star guard Chris Paul should provide more depth and options. The Clippers have won 51 or more games a season under Rivers, which is nothing to sneeze at. The question becomes can the Clippers be anything in the postseason? That’s ultimately going to make the decision on Doc’s future.
Brett Brown – Philadelphia 76ers
It is incredibly hard not to like 76ers head coach Brett Brown. His enthusiasm was contagious even when things got really bad during the “tanking years.” His players like him. Free agents seem to respond to him (at least JJ Redick did). So, why would he make this list?
League sources continue to say as much as everyone likes Brett Brown, the Sixers do not seem to be sold that he can be the guy that turns the development years into winning years. They hope he can, but new leadership in Philadelphia is increasingly interested in winning and winning now, and Brown must deliver on some of that.
Brown has endured more injuries and struggles than almost anyone in the NBA, so the question is will the Sixers stick with him long enough to find out what he really is as an NBA coach?
There are expectations in Philadelphia this season, and they are not tied to lottery picks. The Sixers expect to compete for something this year, and they want to see the progression towards the playoffs. Expecting a 28-win team to jump to 42-43 wins might be too high of a bar, but when you consider the Sixers will put two top overall picks on the floor this season, combined with two rookie of the year candidates, there is an expectation of being significantly better.
If Brown can deliver on the roster’s promise, he may buy himself some time. If the team doesn’t improve, looking at a coaching change is not only likely, it’s almost inevitable. That’s not because Brown is a bad or inadequate coach, it’s that it’s hard to change the culture of a losing team with the same voices that were there and that’s just a reality of going the tanking route to improving.
Unless the Sixers just revolt and crater, which seems unlikely, Brown likely finishes out the season. However, if the Sixers are not in the 35-40 win discussion with a healthy roster, it’s going to be a tough offseason for the franchise, mainly because Brown is so well-liked.
While it’s never fun to talk about someone being let go from a job, coaches themselves will tell you that it’s a result-oriented business and for many on this list, they have had several years to find their way. If years go by and no progress is made, it’s going to be hard to justify staying the course.
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