With the amazing feats of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Kawhi Leonard’s emergence as perhaps the best two-way player in the league and LeBron James as the only other person that could challenge him for that title, the competition for the 2017 Most Valuable Player Award is a four-horse race.
Legitimate arguments can be made for each of the four, with Harden and Westbrook likely ending up first and second, in some order.
Traditionally, the Coach of the Year Award has been much more difficult to predict. But this season, with NBA teams having less than 15 games remaining, a few names probably deserve more mention than others.
THE HONORABLE MENTIONS
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
First, the most honorable of mentions should go to Gregg Popovich. Not ranking in the top five, he is mainly a victim of circumstance. Entering play on March 19, the Spurs are on pace to win 62 games and have been the second-best team in the league for pretty much the entire season. This is a monumental accomplishment for the franchise, especially in the wake of Tim Duncan’s departure. Although Duncan’s minutes and usage rates have been diminishing over the past few years, he was a leader for the franchise and the loss of his presence, in most situations, could have had far-sweeping ramifications on the psyche of Popovich’s personnel.
Typically, we thrash head coaches when their teams and personnel don’t live up to expectations, but rarely credit the head coach when one of his young players fulfills their potential. If you ask Kawhi Leonard himself, he will tell you that Popovich is a major reason for his blossoming into a true superstar. Like LeBron James, Popovich could legitimately win the award every season. Fortunately, he has already won the award three times and joins only Pat Riley and Don Nelson as three-time winners.
Despite the lack of consideration he’ll get this season, Popovich is something much more meaningful than the Coach of the Year—he’s the coach of the decade.
Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards
Often, head coaches aren’t given any credit for their success if the perception is that they have talented players at their disposal. People openly question whether Phil Jackson was some sort of coaching genius because, some say, he had Michael and Scottie and Kobe and Shaq.
The same was said for Brooks, who enjoyed success with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. At least for the time being, Brooks has silenced those critics. In D.C., he inherited a situation where his two star players were on record as not necessarily being on the same page. The team was a perennial underachiever that was perceived to have had young pieces that may not amount to much. Since beginning the season 2-8, Brooks has led the Wizards to a 40-19 record. He has adjusted the pace and space of his offense to simultaneously utilize John Wall’s strengths and allow Bradley Beal and Otto Porter to find their spots on offense. As a result, the team enters play on March 19 with a 42-27 record and is on pace to win 50 games for the first time since the 1978-79 season.
In his first season as the head coach of the Wizards, leading this young team toward the top was no easy task. The man deserves kudos.
Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets
After spending 10 years as an assistant coach, Mike Malone finally got an opportunity to serve as a head coach when he was hired by the Sacramento Kings in 2013. He lasted just 106 games and, after compiling a 39-67 record, was fired about a quarter of the way through his second season.
Immediately hired by the Nuggets after the franchise fired Brian Shaw, Malone put together a 33-49 season during 2015-16 and wasn’t necessarily regarded as an asset.
With the Nuggets entering play on March 19 at 33-36, however, the team has already matched last season’s win total and currently holds the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference. With the Portland Trail Blazers nipping at their heels (they trail the Nuggets by just 1.5 games), Malone and his squad will have to keep pace.
Earlier this season, Will Barton and Mike Miller spoke with Basketball Insiders about Malone’s approach, and each had positive things to say. Nikola Jokic has proven to be a special player while Danilo Gallinari has regained his past form. What has seemed to have made a major difference for the Nuggets, however, is Malone’s opting to take minutes away from Kenneth Faried and Emmanuel Mudiay. With each player being young and promising, diminishing their roles was a difficult and risky decision that has obviously paid dividends.
If the Nuggets qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the departure of George Karl, Malone would have done something incredibly improbable.
Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets
Although one could argue that with a superstar talent like James Harden, Mike D’Antoni deserves less credit for what the Rockets have accomplished than, say, a coach that has done more with less, consider this: a head coach gets paid to figure out how to make it all work.
In Portland, New York and Charlotte, there is a lot of talent. That these teams have each underachieved this season underscores the point. D’Antoni deserves credit for shifting James Harden to be the team’s primary ball handler and orchestrator, as well as making sure that he has found time for his plus-defenders to play. With Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverly and Clint Capela, the Rockets rank a respectable 17th in the league in defensive efficiency. While still being in the bottom half of the league, that placing may be good enough for the Rockets to make some noise in the playoffs, considering the fact that they rank first in offensive efficiency.
Obviously, the Rockets lost Dwight Howard and received no compensation in return, but they also saw other rotation players depart—Terrence Jones, Donatas Montiejunas, Josh Smith and Jason Terry among them.
In other words, D’Antoni had to reach James Harden, implement his system and incorporate new pieces. Had the Rockets won 45 games and made the playoffs, it would have probably been considered a successful season. Instead, they have improbably secured the third seed in the conference and will probably reach the second round of the playoffs, at least.
Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
This season, the Western Conference was supposed to be controlled by the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers. Every other team was thought to be a rung below.
Apparently, the Utah Jazz never got that memo.
In short, behind the brilliance of Quin Snyder, the Jazz have finally put all of their pieces together. Gordon Hayward has become an All-Star, Rudy Gobert is regarded as one of the league’s top defenders and Rodney Hood is one of the league’s most underrated shooting guards.
What’s most impressive about the job that Snyder has done this season, though, has been how he’s managed his rotations. Despite missing Hood, George Hill, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks for extended time this season, he has managed to apportion his rotation minutes adequately. He has held his young players to high standards and, despite only being a head coach for only three seasons, knows a thing or two about motivation.
That he has been able to develop his young team while integrating Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson has left little to be desired. What puts him over the top in terms of consideration is his team being on pace to win 50 games for the first time since Jerry Sloan was patrolling the sidelines. In a season where many predicted the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers to be the bosses of the Northwest Division, Synder clearly had other plans.
Erik Spoelstra, Miami HEAT
Despite leading the Miami HEAT to two championships and four NBA Finals appearances, Erik Spoelstra has never been one to receive the credit he’s deserved. Again, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together, the expectations for the ball club were through the roof. Anything less than 70 wins wouldn’t have garnered much attention for Spoelstra, and the haters would spend more time questioning how the HEAT lost the 2011 NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks despite leading the series 2-1.
Last season, though, with James having taken his talents back to Cleveland in 2014 and Bosh sidelined, the HEAT managed to win 48 games and came within one game of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.
With Wade unexpectedly departing for Chicago, entering the season, nobody in their right mind thought that the HEAT would have an opportunity to qualify for the playoffs. Yet, Spoelstra has seven players on his team averaging 10 or more points per game and has improbably found a way to make the triumvirate of Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters work.
A short while ago, the HEAT were 11-30. Since then, they had a 12-game winning streak and have gone 23-5. They enter play on March 19 at 34-35 and with control of the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
Spoelstra has long been a head coach who has made the most with the least. This season, though, it’s impossible to not notice.
In a season where nobody expected anything from the HEAT, Spoelstra expected everything, as usual. He has pulled every imaginable ounce of potential from his team and, in a season where tanking could have revealed a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the HEAT opted not to cheat their fans.
That absolutely counts for something.
* * * * * *
Similar to the Most Valuable Player Award, there is no clear criteria for what it takes to be named the Coach of the Year. What is true is that a coach’s chances of winning the award increases along with his team’s win total. Since the turn of the century, only one time has the recipient coached a team to less than 50 wins (Sam Mitchell won the award in 2007 after leading the Toronto Raptors to 47 wins). During that same timeframe, the winning coach led his team to at least 60 wins on eight occasions.
Odds are, this season, those familiar trends will be bucked.
NBA AM: Calderón’s Late NBA Start
Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.
There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.
“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”
Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.
“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”
That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.
“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”
As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.
“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.
“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”
He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.
“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”
The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.
“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”
That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.
“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”
Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.
“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”
He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.
Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.