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 Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?
The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?
What’s The Hurry?
The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.
While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.
There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Kawhi Wants His Own Team
It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.
According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.
There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.
If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.
Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money
Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.
Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.
While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.
If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?
Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.
That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?
The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.
Are The Raptors The front Runners?
In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.
That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.
League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.
The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.
Training Camp Is The Real Deadline
While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.
The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.
There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.
While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.
The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.
It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.
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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes
Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.
Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.
Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.
We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.
It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.
“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”
You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.
In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.
So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?
“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”
Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.
“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”
Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.
Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.
“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.
“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”
As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.
But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.
NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year
After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.
The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.
But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.
This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.
“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”
Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.
His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.
“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.
“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”
It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.
He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.
“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”
While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.
For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.
“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”
And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.
“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”
He’s certainly off to a good start.