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NBA PM: Who Will Be Pacers’ Next Coach?

The Indiana Pacers need a new head coach, so we examine six possibilities for the job.

Joel Brigham

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Who Will Be Indiana’s Next Coach?

This afternoon, Indiana Pacers team president Larry Bird announced that the team would not be renewing head coach Frank Vogel’s contract, and while that means great things for the coaching searches in Houston and New York, it also means that the Pacers are now back to square one in finding a new coach.

Vogel had been the fourth-longest tenured head coach in the NBA before his release, but Bird made it clear that he wants his team to play smaller and faster in hopes of keeping up with some of the league’s other elite teams that are having so much success doing the same. Vogel wasn’t that guy, but perhaps somebody else could be.

Bird wants a “new voice,” and there are a number of strong candidates who could provide that. Here’s a look at six of the most likely candidates for that newly-opened position:

Mark Jackson

The minute it became clear that Vogel wouldn’t be back in Indiana, the first place a lot of Pacers fans’ minds wandered was toward former Indiana point guard Mark Jackson, and it’s a step in logic that actually makes quite a bit of sense. For starters, Jackson has obvious ties to the organization and to Bird, as he ran the point in Indiana under Bird when he coached the team from 1997-2000, a three-season stretch that saw the Pacers make the NBA Finals once and the Eastern Conference Finals all three years. Despite Joe Lacob’s having said that Jackson clashed with Golden State ownership, Jackson easily could have a better working relationship with Bird and the Pacers, which is a great start considering how Vogel resisted Bird’s dream for small ball and more three-pointers.

Beyond that, though, Jackson really didn’t have too bad a stint as the head coach of the Warriors. He not only was instrumental in laying the groundwork for Stephen Curry’s already-legendary career, he also got the Warriors to the postseason in the final two of his three seasons there. He’d almost certainly improve the Indy offense, and for the better part of two years he’s been a name that comes up as one of the best free agent coaches available. There’s no reason the Pacers shouldn’t at least have a conversation with him about the new opening.

Nate McMillan

There was a time a little over a decade ago when McMillan, who worked as one of Vogel’s assistant coaches this past season, was seen as one of the brightest coaching prospects in the league – doing good work as a coach in Seattle early on and even winning a Northwest Division title with the Sonics in 2005. He never got out of the first round as the main man in Portland, however, and he hasn’t had any head coaching opportunities since.

Still, Marc Stein of ESPN is reporting that McMillan could get a look for the Pacers’ head coaching job, which makes at least some sense considering his familiarity with the team and the organization:

Unfortunately, McMillan doesn’t represent much of a change in style or tempo for the Pacers, as Sean Deveney of The Sporting News points out:

It’s logical to interview the most qualified assistant when a head coach is fired, but he doesn’t look like the most obvious guy to get the job mostly because he wouldn’t be that big a shift from Vogel.

Brian Shaw

Of course, Stein also is hearing that former Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw could get a look for the job, too. McMillan actually took Shaw’s job as lead assistant in Indiana back in 2014, a time during which Shaw was viewed as the next talented assistant coach to make the leap into the head coaching ranks.

He did, of course, but his results were not great. What should be of particular concern to the Pacers and Larry Bird is the way Shaw came about those results, totally revamping a 57-win Nuggets team that won by playing small without a traditional center into an “inside-out” team that slowed things down considerably and paid favor to hard-nosed veterans over talented young athletes.

Even the hard-nosed vets had issues sometimes, though, proven by Shaw’s feud with Andre Miller. It also was kind of amazing how quickly Ty Lawson fell apart once Shaw took over, and it’s no mystery how often Kenneth Faried went underutilized.

With the right roster, Shaw still could be a good coach, but like McMillan, his favored style doesn’t seem as though it will mesh with Bird’s vision for small ball. The guy definitely deserves a second chance, it just doesn’t look as though this is the place where he should get it.

Jeff Hornacek

It was just about two years ago that Hornacek finished second in voting for Coach of the Year, which means he’s not all that far removed from a being a fairly respected NBA head coach, despite his relative lack of experience and firing in Phoenix earlier this season.

That firing, though, came following a huge talent/salary purge that didn’t leave him much to work with, so considering how well he used his good young talent when he had it, nobody should be all that surprised that his name keeps popping up for head coaching jobs, including Indiana’s:

In terms of style, Hornacek is a whole lot closer to what Bird is seeking than McMillan or Shaw, as his Suns team back in 2013-2014 scored 105.2 points per game (seventh in the NBA) and finished eighth that season in offensive rating. He’s a coach who wants to play fast, and that run-and-gun style should suit Bird’s dream of smaller lineups much more closely.

He is a very logical potential candidate, so add Indiana to the list of teams looking to get an audience with Hornacek.

Jim Boylen

Not to be confused with former Chicago Bulls assistant coach Jim Boylan, current Bulls assistant coach Jim Boylen is a member of the famed Greg Popovich coaching tree that continues to see so much success across the NBA. Boylen was bumped up to the head assistant in San Antonio once Mike Budenholzer bolted for Atlanta in 2014, but when famed European coach Ettore Messina became available the following summer, Boylen took a step backward. Now he’s the associate head coach of the Chicago Bulls and reportedly on the list of candidates for the Pacers job:

Boylen is a defensive guy, the yin to Fred Hoiberg’s offensive yang, but while the results of that relationship didn’t reach anything approaching widespread success this past season, Boylen’s got plenty of experience (and success) working with head coaches that push the tempo and play small. Teams can’t get enough of that Popovich essence, and Boylen always was a guy who looked primed to get a shot at a head coaching gig at some point. Perhaps this is his time.

Ettore Messina

Or perhaps it’s Messina’s time. It would be cruel irony for Boylen to have the guy who inadvertently forced his demotion in San Antonio steal away a head coaching position he may have gotten, but so far there have been no reports that Messina is even on Indiana’s radar.

He’s listed here, though, because he should be. Messina actually was interviewed for the Lakers job but lost out on it because Luke Walton was their guy all along. Indiana, however, could give him a much more authentic look in the coming weeks.

Messina has four Euroleague titles to his name and has been named the Euroleague Coach of the Year two separate times. He also has the benefit of being Popovich’s lead assistant, which always is a check mark in the “pro” column when NBA teams are examining resumes for potential coaching candidates.

Stylistically he’s not a “small ball” guy by reputation, but his philosophy revolves entirely around spacing, which works well for Bird’s desire to shoot more threes. He does tend to work inside-out (and how could he not with that personnel in San Antonio), but that’s because he’s had so much success getting shooters open by being efficient inside. He preaches ball movement because that’s the style that works best in Europe, but there’s no reason he couldn’t improve the Pacers’ offense. He also happens to be one of the most experienced candidates out there.

More names are sure to be thrown around in the coming days as potential Vogel replacements, but for now these seem like the guys with the best shot at getting Bird’s ear. Firing Vogel has brought out either disappointment or relief in people so far, and their coaching selection should only serve to deepen those emotions.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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