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10 NBA Predictions for 2016

With the New Year upon us, Steve Kyler and Alex Kennedy make some NBA predictions for 2016.

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With the New Year upon us, we thought it might be fun to look into the crystal ball and make some predictions on the more commonly asked questions about the NBA’s New Year.

With that in mind, I dragged in Alex Kennedy to play along and offer an alternate opinion on free agency, trades, coaching moves, award winners and much more. Here is what we came up with:

Which Big-Name Player is Traded?

While there is no doubting Joakim Noah’s value to the Chicago Bulls as a locker room leader and heart and soul guy, history has shown the Bulls have been quick to pull the trade trigger on guys they feel they may get priced out of in free agency. With Noah posting some of the worst numbers of his career and the Bulls struggling to adapt to a new system under head coach Fred Hoiberg, Noah may not only be one of the biggest names traded at the February 18 trade deadline, he may return the most value. With Noah’s free agent price tag expected to go up in July and with his free agency being unrestricted, there is a real risk of losing Noah for nothing in return and that risk – along with his potential to return real value – means Noah could be the odd man out.

– Steve Kyler

Dwight Howard has a $23,282,457 player option for next season, meaning he can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. For that reason alone, the Houston Rockets should be doing their due diligence and seeing what Howard can return in a trade. If the organization doesn’t feel that Howard will stay long-term, they should move him before the February trade deadline. I could see a one-piece-away team like the Atlanta Hawks or Toronto Raptors swinging for the fences by acquiring Howard and trying to make a deep run this season.

– Alex Kennedy

Where Will Tom Thibodeau Coach Next?

The Houston Rockets. Thibodeau passed on re-building situations after he was fired from Chicago, telling people close to him that he couldn’t stomach 30-loss seasons, so he opted to sit out and wait for a winning situation. Knowing that Thibodeau seeks a “win-now” team, Houston might be the best job open this summer. The Rockets know Thibodeau from his time on Jeff Van Gundy’s staff and his defensive-minded approach lines up with the way the Rockets see the world. The only question is will Daryl Morey and team owner Les Alexander open the check book and meet what could be a $6-7 million a year salary? If they will, Thibodeau could land in Houston.

– Steve Kyler

I just can’t see Thibodeau going to the Rockets due to their dysfunction and defensive issues, especially with Dwight Howard potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent in July. I think the Washington Wizards make a lot of sense for Thibs. This year, Washington has failed to live up to expectations, so it’s possible that Randy Wittman is shown the door. If that happens, the roster seems perfect for Thibodeau. He would have a number of young guys who can play a ton of minutes, and Washington is a good defensive team (they were the fifth-best defense in the NBA last season). Not to mention, the East is more wide open than the West. Yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the East, but I’m not scared of the other teams in the conference, whereas the West has the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder among others. I’d love to watch a Thibodeau-coached Wizards team.

– Alex Kennedy

Which Team Lands the Top Overall Pick?

I’m going with the Brooklyn Nets. The NBA lottery has been a cruel bedfellow. Over the last 20 years, the team with the worst record has won the lottery just three times and just once in the last decade (last year to Minnesota). In that same 20-year span, the top pick has fallen all over the place, so why not Brooklyn? Here is why Brooklyn becomes interesting: they don’t own the pick. It was traded to the Boston Celtics as part of the deal that brought Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. It would be poetic that they no longer have either player and then lose the top pick as well. That’s simply too good of theater not to entertain. Wouldn’t it also be poetic that the Celtics’ future Hall Famers that were traded so unceremoniously ultimately ended up producing a future franchise cornerstone? The lottery has been a cruel bedfellow, so why change now?

– Steve Kyler

The Philadelphia 76ers have to win it at some point, right? Throughout their tanking rebuild, they have yet to win a top-two pick. The highest they have gotten is No. 3, which is where they picked Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid. I think this is the year that changes and Philly wins the Ben Simmons sweepstakes. The interesting thing to watch is where the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick falls. If it’s outside of the top three, it belongs to Philadelphia, meaning the 76ers could have two of the first four picks (in addition to later first-round picks from the Miami HEAT and Oklahoma City Thunder). This is an extremely important year for Philadelphia’s rebuild.

– Alex Kennedy

Where Will Kevin Durant Land in Free Agency?

Oklahoma City. As much as no one wants to hear this, I think Durant is staying right where he is. What is often dismissed is how much Durant genuinely likes living and playing in Oklahoma City. Wisely, the Thunder opted to part ways with long-time head coach Scott Brooks last summer and brought in a new coach in Billy Donovan, who has not only reached Durant on a personal level but also figured out a way for both Durant and Russell Westbrook to play at a MVP-level at the same time. The Thunder’s message this summer will be that OKC offers the best chance at winning a title and, barring some kind of epic collapse down the stretch, the Thunder should in a position to put results behind their pledge.  Durant has signed some mega endorsement deals over the last two years so he will genuinely enter the process with money not being a factor in his decision. Durant likely shops, as every free agent should, but ultimately I think he stays in OKC for the rest of his career.

– Steve Kyler

It’s very possible that Durant will stay with Oklahoma City since he’s comfortable there and has a strong supporting cast. Also, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who desperately wants to play in a big market – the fact that he already leads the NBA in endorsement dollars shows he doesn’t need be in New York or Los Angeles to build his brand. I think the only way he leaves Oklahoma City is to go home to the Washington Wizards. John Wall is good friends with Durant; in October, Wall told me: “When the opportunity is right to go ahead and throw a [free agency] pitch at him, I’m going to get the opportunity to do it.” I think Washington’s young core is appealing, the idea of going home is tempting and playing in the East is attractive as well. I’m starting to realize that this article is becoming a dream scenario for the Wizards, with Durant and Thibodeau coming to town. We’ll see what happens.

– Alex Kennedy

Can The 76ers Land a Significant Free Agent?

Yes. As much grief as the 76ers franchise has gotten for their blatant “tank and rebuild” program, they are well positioned for this summer. They will have a roster loaded with interesting rookie-scale players like Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel and what could be more than $65 million in cap space with new Chairman of Basketball Jerry Colangelo speed dialing Team USA players. The 76ers won’t be landing a Kevin Durant or a Mike Conley, but when you talk about the team that will set the price on more veteran type guys, look for the 76ers to be that team even if it costs them a few million more than someone is worth. They are ready for that kind of move.

– Steve Kyler

I’m going to say yes. I don’t think they’ll land a “major” free agent – as in one of the top players on the market – but I do think it’s safe to say that they’ll have a shot at a “significant” free agent. For quite some time, I’ve said that next year is the season I expect to see the 76ers winning more games. Their young guys will have some experience, they’ll add a couple more first-round talents to the team, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid may make their debuts and the front office should bring in some free agents. This team could look very different next season and I think Philly is definitely a team to watch in free agency, especially with Jerry Colangelo there.

– Alex Kennedy

Who Will Win the 2015-16 MVP?

Can you bet against Steph Curry as a back-to-back MVP? If you are willing to do that, which I am not sure I am, I would offer up another candidate: Kawhi Leonard. Now before we go nuts on this, Curry is the prohibited favorite and considering the media votes for this award, he may win his second MVP by a pretty tidy margin. But while Curry runs toward another award, Leonard has emerged as not only one of the NBA’s best lockdown defenders, he has evolved into a borderline elite level offensive player. Leonard rarely gets the credit or exposure he deserves, which may prevent him from getting serious MVP consideration. But if it’s not going to be Curry for a second time, why not Leonard?

– Steve Kyler

Look, I love Kawhi Leonard. He’s a great dude and an amazing defender, but you and I both know he’s not winning the MVP award. If Steph Curry doesn’t win it, the award would go to someone like Paul George, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant before it goes to Leonard. But that argument doesn’t matter because Curry is the MVP. Last year, Curry had four times as many votes as anyone else in the MVP race, and now he’s playing even better and simply not losing games. It also helps his case that the Warriors looked terrible last night when he wasn’t on the floor. Nobody is taking the award from Curry this year.

– Alex Kennedy

Who Is the Dark Horse Playoff Team?

The Miami HEAT. On paper Miami should be a lot better than their current record. On paper, the HEAT have a tremendous amount of fire power and depth. The problem with the HEAT is Goran Dragic has been a shell of himself, they have had some quirky injuries and while Dwyane Wade has been more than expected, the HEAT have yet to put together a long stretch of games where it all fits as it should. If Miami can figure that out come playoff time, they could be very scary. The problem with banking on Miami is all the “ifs” have to line up and there are a lot of “ifs” to consider.

– Steve Kyler

I think it has to be the Miami HEAT. This team can be extremely good when they’re at full strength, and they’re an experienced group that knows what it takes to make a deep playoff run. They may not be near the top of the Eastern Conference standings right now, but they’re going to be the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

– Alex Kennedy

Who Will be the 2015-16 Rookie of The Year?

Karl Anthony-Towns is the easy answer. He has been stellar in almost every phase of the game and his fit next to Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota is nearly perfect. That said, Rookie of the Year is a media voted award and while KAT is playing really well, Kristaps Porzingis might have captured the attention on a much bigger stage. If Porzingis has a strong finish to the season, he might make the race a lot tighter than maybe it should be. That’s what happens when a budding star shows up in a major market.

– Steve Kyler

The fact that Kristaps Porzingis plays in New York will help him, because his accomplishments have received a ton of attention and he’s been a feel-good story with the way he has exceeded expectations. Jahlil Okafor will receive consideration as well, especially if his numbers improve now that Philadelphia is playing some competent point guards like Ish Smith and Kendall Marshall. With that said, I think Karl-Anthony Towns is the frontrunner right now. I really didn’t expect him to be this good, this fast. However, he has been fantastic on both ends of the floor and I think it’s his award to lose at this point.

– Alex Kennedy

Will The Knicks Trade Carmelo Anthony?

As much as the Knicks may want to dream about life without Carmelo Anthony, the truth is they are stuck with him until he decides he wants a change and that may never happen during the course of his current contract. At the time Anthony opted for his current deal, there was talk around his situation that turning away the extra millions from the Knicks was too much guaranteed money to pass on and that he could always demand a trade later if it did not work. If that’s genuinely the case, then maybe there is room for that this summer if the Knicks again fail to make the postseason. There are some around the situation who point to legacy as the next important part of Anthony’s career and if it’s not going to happen in New York, would he genuinely consider a trade scenario this summer? The likely answer is no, but there are some who believe he might be open to it if things don’t look to be trending upward at season’s end.

– Steve Kyler

No. They’ll hold onto him and continue to pursue free agents this summer. The only way I can see a Carmelo trade happening is if he becomes disgruntled and demands it, or if the team is clearly going young and he just doesn’t fit their long-term plan anymore. However, I don’t think that would happen for quite some time so I don’t expect an Anthony trade in 2016 or the near future.

– Alex Kennedy

Will The Lakers Land a Major Free Agent?

The short answer is no. As much as Lakers fans would love to hear Kevin Durant is coming, the truth is that’s not very likely. What is likely is the Lakers have their pick of the next tier of guys that fit their rebuild better and give them the flexibility to be active in the trade market. There are a few small exceptions – the Lakers may be the team that sets the price on Miami’s Hassan Whiteside and they could also be the team that gets after proven veterans looking for bigger deals than their home teams would consider. That puts the Lakers in the mix for a guy like Joakim Noah. The Lakers are well positioned for a strong summer, they may just have to choose from the next tier of guys rather than the bigger names.

– Steve Kyler

The player I think is most interesting for Los Angeles is Hassan Whiteside, who will be an unrestricted free agent. I think the Lakers should only pursue young free agents, that way they will fit with their core of Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr., etc. Whiteside is only 26 years old and he would greatly improve the Lakers’ defense while also complementing Randle well. I think he’s the guy L.A. should pursue the hardest. Another interesting name for the Lakers to consider is Harrison Barnes. He’s only 23 years old and could be interested in taking on a bigger role in a huge market rather than being a role player behind Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The only problem is that he’s a restricted free agent, so the Lakers would likely have to throw a front-loaded max contract his way if they want to have any shot at landing him (and Golden State may still match). But imagine if the Lakers were to land Whiteside and Barnes this summer? It’s a long shot, but life after Kobe Bryant suddenly wouldn’t be so bad.

– Alex Kennedy

We hope this piece was as fun for you as it was for us. We hope you have a safe and happy New Year and we’ll see you in 2016!

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NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.

Shane Rhodes

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With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.

It’s been nearly two years since the Chicago Bulls kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.

That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.

So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?

What is Working

Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.

The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.

He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.

Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.

There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.

More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.

What Needs to Change

The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.

Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.

Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.

The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.

And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.

Focus Area: The Draft

As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.

Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.

Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.

Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.

Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.

Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.

Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.

The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough

Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

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NBA Daily: Who Deserves Coach of the Year?

As the season enters its final stages, Matt John takes a look at who are the prime candidates for Coach of the Year.

Matt John

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Last year, this writer started his tenure with Basketball Insiders writing about who had the best case for Coach of the Year. One year later, we’re revisiting the same discussion. This time, with an entirely new slate of candidates.

The Coach of the Year Award produces one of the most fascinating races in the NBA that doesn’t get as much attention. What makes it fascinating is that there are a variety of reasons for why a coach can win the award. Why it doesn’t get enough attention is because fans understandably care more about the players than the coaches, which is nobody’s fault.

This season, we have coaches with different reasons for why they are viable candidates for Coach of the Year. Some aren’t necessarily coaching the best team, or are making the most progress, but they’re making a good enough case that they should be in the discussion.

Please note that these are ranked in alphabetical order, not by who deserves it the most.

Mike Budenholzer

A few weeks ago, this writer detailed why the Bucks’ front office deserved credit for building the contender that they did, and he stands by it. However, while it’s on the front office to assemble a great team, it is on the coach to make the pieces work. That is what Coach Bud has done, and he’s done it marvelously.

Milwaukee sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 53-19 record, they have the best net rating in the NBA and Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the center in one of the most intense MVP races of all time. With the exception of the most recent untimely injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, this season could not have gone better for the Bucks.

Milwaukee always had the talent to be one of the league’s best teams. They just needed the right guy calling the shots. They have their man. Let’s be fair though. The Bucks needed Mike just as much as he needed them. So far, it’s worked for the best for both sides because now, Coach Bud has a very believable chance to join his mentor Gregg Popovich among the very few coaches who have won the award multiple times.

Dave Joerger

Anytime you make the NBA’s doormat look the most promising it’s been in over a decade, you automatically get your name among the NBA’s coaching elite.

Coming into the season, many thought the story surrounding the Kings was going to be about how good of a pick they were going to give Boston or Philadelphia in the lottery. That was proven wrong. Somehow, with 11 games left in the season, the Kings are still fighting for a playoff spot. Miraculously, they’ve become the NBA’s little engine that could.

Much credit should go to the improvement of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, along with the exciting play of Marvin Bagley III among others, but young talent can grow together without being cohesive. Joerger deserves credit for the youth’s improvement and cohesion getting Sacramento results. The one knock against Joerger is that the Kings probably aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re finally trending in the right direction.

For that, Joerger absolutely deserves to be in the conversation. Let’s just hope those rumors of tension with upper management turn out to be nothing more than gossip.

Michael Malone

It’s arrived later than they would have wanted, but hey, better late than never! The Nuggets’ new era has finally started, and it has started gloriously.

The Nuggets currently place second in the Western Conference and have clinched their first playoff berth since 2013. They have the third-highest offensive rating in the league, and one of the best all-around offensive bigs the league has ever seen in Nikola Jokic. The improvements of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, along with the surprising productivity coming from Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, have given the Nuggets a team swimming in depth.

This season has shown that just because you have depth on your squad does not mean that everything will fall into place – See Celtics, Boston – which is what makes Malone’s work in all the more impressive. It’s helped that he’s gotten more games out of Paul Millsap – who has the highest net rating on the team (plus-8.4) – but Malone has mixed and matched the roster about as well as Denver could have hoped.

There is a fair amount of skepticism as to whether the Nuggets will keep this up in the playoffs. Even if they don’t, Malone did his job extraordinarily.

Kenny Atkinson

Atkinson has been on the radar for a couple of years now since he’s had to clean up Brooklyn’s mess for the previous two seasons. This season, the Nets are starting to reap the benefits from the winning culture he has created.

Besides Joerger, Atkinson has the least impressive record of the coaches put on this list. Much like Joeger, in Atkinson’s case, it doesn’t matter because the jump his team has made from last season makes his case all the more legitimate. DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis have been dependable veterans, and the leaps that Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert have taken are too good to go unnoticed.

But most impressive of all, Atkinson seems to have unlocked D’Angelo Russell. After both the turmoil and the injuries that D-Lo has had to deal with since entering the league, he now has emerged as one of the league’s brighter young stars. It’s important that young talent be molded correctly otherwise it can stunt a player’s growth. We’ll never know if that would have happened in LA, but we now know that Russell’s move to Brooklyn was vital to his progress.

Brooklyn believed Atkinson was up to the task when he was first hired, and now, their faith is being rewarded.

Nate McMillan

Of all the coaches that were put on this list last year, only two resurfaced this season. You probably already know who one of them is, while McMillan is the other.

First off, hats off to McMillan for reviving his career as a head coach. Many were skeptical when Indiana replaced Frank Vogel with him. Since then, he’s only made them eat their words. His work last season was already impressive. He’s only continued to do so this season.

The Pacers are currently 44-29. If they just go 4-5 over their last nine games, they’ll match their record from last season. That’s remarkable considering they lost Victor Oladipo, i.e. their best player halfway through the season. They were on a 56-win pace before ‘Dipo’s injury, but his numbers actually declined this season, which shows that the team itself has grown.

Indiana currently is tied for the second-best defensive rating in the league (105.9) thanks to the likes of Myles Turner, which has mitigated Oladipo’s absence. They haven’t been great since Victor went down, but they’ve done well enough to stick with Boston and Philly in the playoff race. For that, Nate deserves recognition.

Nick Nurse

The new kid on the block had a tall order when the Raptors replaced Dwane Casey with him as head coach. So far, he’s run with it.

It’s likely Toronto won’t be able to match last season’s regular season win total. Their defense has stayed the same, but their offense has taken a step back this season, going from the second-highest in the league to the seventh. Nobody seems too concerned about that because the general feeling is that this is the best Raptors team ever assembled.

Kawhi Leonard has looked as good as ever. Pascal Siakam has exploded onto the scene as perhaps the team’s second-best all-around player. Serge Ibaka’s having his most efficient season in years. New additions Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin have fit in without much trouble. The list goes on.

Nurse had a lot to juggle when he was appointed head coach, and so far, he’s filling in well for the departed Casey. We’ll have to see if he gets Toronto past its playoff demons, but what a season he’s had.

Gregg Popovich

Just when you think the Spurs are down for the count, they find ways to stay relevant. They’ve done this so many times that you’d think the national media would learn not to count them out. Somehow we still do, and we’re always wrong.

To recap, Coach Pop lost his best player (Leonard) during the summer. He lost his most promising young player (Dejounte Murray) just before the season started. Two of the most iconic Spurs ever – Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – left the team. His two best players – LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan – are not reliable three-point shooters in a league that’s become increasingly reliant on floor spacing. It was supposed to be the start of the Spurs’ descent.

For a while, it looked that way, but as the season is winding down, it appears San Antonio isn’t going anywhere. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games, they have the sixth-highest offensive rating in the league, and most ironic of all, they have the best three-point shooting in the league at almost 40 percent.

It’s fair to say that this has been fantastic work by Popovich, but when was the last time he fell short of that description?

Doc Rivers

Rivers has plenty of evidence to support that he’s one of the league’s best coaches. He won Coach of the Year back in 2000 and led one of the most dominant basketball teams in the 21st century in 2008, but this season might just be his best work yet.

The Clippers looked like they were about to start rebuilding, but instead opted to build a winning culture. Doc’s coaching has put guys who know who they are in positions to thrive. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – all of them, no matter where they are at in their career, have played excellent in the role Doc gave them. Oh, and has it been brought up that the Clippers traded their best player and haven’t slipped at all?

By doing this, Doc went back to his roots during his days as the head coach of the Magic. There were no elite players on the team, but guys who knew what they were supposed to do. What makes this Clippers team more impressive team than that Magic team is the Western Conference in 2019 is much tougher than the Eastern Conference was in 2000.

This could do so much for the Clippers. After the Magic’s impressive run in 2000, they landed Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and almost Tim Duncan. If Doc continues to impress, a certain LA-native and Canadian resident might be donning a Clippers uniform.

There are some tough omissions, such as Quin Snyder, Brett Brown and Billy Donovan. The difference between them and the others mentioned is that they’ve reasonably met expectations. All of them are coaching playoff teams. It’s just that their respective teams or where we thought they’d be.

That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve consideration. It’s just that their case isn’t as strong as the others mentioned above.

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NBA Daily: Fixing the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with the rebuilding New York Knicks.

Drew Maresca

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It is nearly April and that means the NBA postseason has begun to take shape. But while a number of teams’ posture for higher seeding, the season is already all but over for others – four to be exact.

Basketball Insiders is bringing back its annual “Fixing” series to provide a blueprint for all four teams to right their respective ships. We will continue along in this series by examining the New York Knicks.

Unofficially the 2018-19 season has been mostly inconsequential for the Knicks since opening night. Expectations were low to begin with – a fact that was amplified by a mid-season trade of Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas. The Knicks are approaching another make-or-break offseason, which has added pressure considering their championship drought and the rumors of free agent interest.

As far as their current roster, the Knicks haven’t shown much progress this season. They are currently on a slide in which they’ve won only one of their last 11 games, six of which were lost by double figures. But there is still lots to look forward to. The Knicks have the second youngest roster in the league, and their rookies and younger players now have another year of experience under their belts. Additionally, their leadership group projects a thoughtfulness not seen in Madison Square Garden since Donnie Walsh-Mike D’Antoni, which was surprisingly short-lived.

What is Working

Coach David Fizdale is still in his first season as the Knicks’ head coach. While he appears to have struggled getting his system across to the team, Fizdale is still widely seen as an above-average NBA mind who is well-respected around the league. He received clemency this season considering the lack of talent on the team’s opening day roster. Hiring Fizdale was about building a culture. Like him or not, Fizdale will receive at least another season to prove his worth. Further, his connections across the league (and more specifically to the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT) have granted him a relatively high profile. But coaches don’t get terribly long leashes, especially in New York. Fizdale would be best served by a playoff-birth (at least) in 2020.

Dennis Smith Jr. is another bright spot for the Knicks. He came to New York courtesy of the Porzingis-to-Dallas trade at the deadline. Smith Jr. has been a difference maker in New York so far, looking far more like the second-team all-rookie player he was last season. He posted 14.6 points per game on 41.6 percent shooting along with averaged 6 assists per contest in his first 17 games as a Knick. He has sat out the last four games with back soreness, which seems to be precautionary – after all, the Knicks aren’t competing for a playoff spot.

Smith Jr.’s shooting must improve, especially from three (29%) and the free-throw line (58.6%), but he is clearly more comfortable in the lead-guard role – one which he’s returned to since joining New York. While he would obviously prefer to remain the starting point guard, a player of Smith Jr.’s caliber is an asset in the starting lineup or coming off the bench.

The two more unheralded of the Knicks’ rookies have also looked significantly better than they were expected to. Allonzo Trier already looks like an NBA veteran thanks to his polished offensive game, averaging 10.9 points per game on nearly 45% shooting and 39% from three. Trier has demonstrated the ability to create his own shot against elite defenders. He has his share of deficiencies, but he looks like an NBA player, and the Knicks have him under contract next season (with a team option) at only $3.5 million.

But Trier wasn’t the only talent the Knicks lucked into in last year’s draft. Mitchell Robinson – the  36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft – dropped into the second-round thanks to a combination of too limited a body of work (Robinson withdrew from Western Kentucky University prior to the start of the collegiate season in 2017) and poor advice from his former agent to skip the Draft Combine. But Robinson looks like a first-rounder now. His combination of athleticism and length have proven to be huge assets to him and the team; he recently tied a Patrick Ewing’s Knicks’ rookie record for consecutive games with a block (28). He also passed Kristaps Porzingis to set the Knicks’ franchise record for most blocks amongst rookies and he’s among the best in the league at blocking three-point field goal attempts (8 of his 35 blocks in February resulted from three-point attempts). Robinson has also improved his early-season foul woes. And while it’s still something to work on, Robinson made strong enough progress to affect the game on a regular basis in his first year in the league.

What Needs to Change

The Knicks expect lots of change this offseason.

The team’s youth and lack of continuity is apparent on the defensive end. They rank 26th in adjusted defensive rating and they average the third worst margin of victory per game (-8.86 points).

But it’s not just their defense that must improve; the Knicks also need help on the offensive end. Specifically, the Knicks need more efficient scorers – they are the third lowest scoring team despite generating the 16th most field goal attempts per game – and they especially need three-point shooters (26th in three-point percentage).

The Knicks also hope to see improvement from individual players, like Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina was still an above-average defender in his sophomore campaign – although receiving far less fanfare for it – but he exhibited no growth on the offensive end. In fact, his PER and win share per game both went down this season from his rookie year. Ntilikina entered the NBA as an 18-year-old rookie with a limited offensive repertoire. And while he’ll enter his third season at only 21 years old, the time for improvement is now. Ntilikina must demonstrate a more consistent jump shot – he shot only 30% from between 16 feet and three-point range – as well as a more deliberate offensive approach. While the latter stems from his philosophical approach to the game, he can realize improvements on the former by repetition and hard work (e.g., Kemba Walker, who shot 31% from deep in his first four seasons and 38% in his past four, including this season).

Kevin Knox also struggled with consistency this season; case in point, Knox took 17, 14 and 14 shot attempts, respectively, in the team’s last three games. However, he shot a combined 16 field goal attempts across the two games prior to those. And this has been the case for much of the season. Knox has shown the ability to be a versatile scorer (ala Jayson Tatum or Tobias Harris), but he must work on remaining aggressive and engaged. Fortunately, Knox was the third youngest player selected in the 2018 NBA Draft and has more than enough time to develop an edge.

Focus Area: The Draft

The Knicks will enter the 2019 NBA Draft with as good odds as any other team at securing the first overall pick. Zion Williamson looks to be a transcendent talent around whom any team would love to build. But with the reworked Draft Lottery rules, the last place team has the same odds as the next two in the standings. And regardless if they get the first overall pick or not, rumors have swirled about the possibility that the Knicks could swap their 2019 first-round pick along with other assets for a bona fide star, like Anthony Davis.

In the event that the Knicks keep their pick, they can fall no lower than the fifth overall pick if they finish with the worst record in the league (which becomes sixth if they finish with the second-worst record). Assuming they finish with the worst overall record, their odds of landing each pick are as follows: 14% for last place, 13.4% chance for second to last, 12.7% for third to last, 12.0% for fourth to last and 47.9% for fifth to last.

This year’s draft is widely viewed as offering three sure things (Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett) and everyone else. The Knicks have approximately a 40% chance at selecting in the top three. If they do not secure the first overall pick, they will likely choose between Morant and Barrett. Either would fit nicely. Morant would likely push Smith Jr. off the ball, which hurt his efficiency a bit. But Morant scores the ball and distributes to teammates. Meanwhile, Barrett was slightly underwhelming in Williamson’s recent absence. Still, he is clearly a top-tier talent and if the Knicks end up with the second or third pick, either of these two would represent a strong edition.

If they drop to four or five, their decision becomes significantly more difficult. Cameron Reddish, Bol Bol, Jarrett Culver, De’Andre Hunter, Keldon Johnson, Romeo Langford, Jontay Porter and Kevin Porter – among others – would all warrant consideration with no clear-cut favorite at this point in time.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While the Knicks are in the driver’s seat for the first overall pick, free agency will be the Knicks’ main driver for improvement. The Knicks have only seven players under contract for 2019-20: Damyean Dotson, John Jenkins, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr. and Allonzo Trier  – as well as Henry Ellenson’s $1.6 million team option and Lance Thomas’ partial guarantee ($1 million). The Knicks will probably hang onto Ellenson. Unfortunately, if the Knicks seek to maximize cap space they must waive Thomas instead of paying his full $7.5 million, although they have until January 2020 to do so.

The team’s roster was arranged for flexibility, though. They missed on their targeted free agents in 2010, but the narrative around free agency and free agent destinations has changed in the past nine years. The Knicks are now seen as a plausible free agent destination. With that being said, there are rumors about their interest in adding Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – or two max-level free agents – to the roster. There are also rumors that suggest said interest is reciprocated. If the Knicks obtain Irving and Durant – or any combination of two stars – they will likely look to turn their young talent into a third star. If they are unable to procure superstar free agents, they should remain the course instead of overpaying for lesser players. The most interesting scenario, though, is if the Knicks win the draft lottery and sign Irving and Durant. What they do with the first pick (presumably Williamson) will reveal a lot to their fans and other franchises around the league.

The Knicks still have ten games left this season. Their younger players must remain locked in and continue learning as much as possible from guys like Lance Thomas and DeAndre Jordan. Next season will be here soon enough and the roster will likely see a tremendous amount of turnover. Hopefully for the Knicks and their fans, this is among – if not THE – last time for a long time that the offseason is more exciting than the regular season.

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