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Six Underrated NBA Coaches

David Yapkowitz looks at six underrated NBA coaches.

David Yapkowitz

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Every NBA coach might be underrated to some extent. A general opinion sometimes exists that great coaches are a product of great players. How many times have we heard that Phil Jackson was only successful because he had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and later Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant? The fact is, neither of those duos won anything until Phil came along. How many times have people dismissed Erik Spoelstra because he had a prime LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh? Only Wade had won anything before and that was with Pat Riley as coach.

While it’s true that you do need a talented roster to win in the NBA, you also need a good coach who can manage egos and get the most out of their roster. You need a coach who can properly utilize the talent they’re given. Here’s a look at some of the top underrated coaches in the league today.

Erik Spoelstra

The first is, without question, Erik Spoelstra. As mentioned before, Spoelstra has taken heat in the past because although he guided the Miami Heat to the Finals four years in a row, including back to back championships, he did so with James, Wade, and Bosh on the team. However, since Spoelstra took over as head coach prior to the 2008-09 season, the Heat have consistently had a winning record with the exception of the 2014-15 season.

Last year, the Heat were 29-24 before losing Chris Bosh of the remainder of the season including the playoffs. Spoelstra led the team to a 48-34 record, 19-10 without Bosh, and first place in the Southeast Division. They were one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals.

This season, after losing Wade to free agency and with Bosh still unable to play, the Heat have defied expectations and are in the playoff picture. Under Spoelstra, Dion Waiters was having perhaps the best season of his career before his recent injury. His 4.3 assists per game and 3.3 rebounds are career highs.

Journeymen like Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, and Willie Reed, have made up the bulk of Miami’s roster and they have flourished. Ellington is averaging a career high 10.6 points per game. Johnson’s 12.5 points per game, 3.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 34.3 percent from three are all career highs. Reed has given the Heat a reliable and steady backup to Hassan Whiteside.

Even if the Heat don’t end up making the playoffs, they’ve done enough to silence any remaining Spoelstra doubters.

Mike Malone

Malone has bounced around as an assistant coach since 2001 with the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets, and Golden State Warriors before getting his first shot at a head coaching job in Sacramento for the 2013-14 season.

In 2014-15, his second as head coach in Sacramento, Malone got the team off to a hot start. They were 9-6 and playing great basketball until DeMarcus Cousins went down with an illness and the Kings predictably struggled. For whatever reason, the Kings front office decided to fire Malone, the best coach Sacramento had seen in a long time. And by all accounts, Malone was a coach that Cousins truly respected.

This season, Malone’s second as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, the team has managed to surpass expectations. They also find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt. Malone has done a great job of blending the Nuggets youth and veteran talent and has gotten a lot out of his rookies.

Danilo Gallinari is having his best scoring season averaging 17.9 points per game. In his third year, Gary Harris has turned in his best season yet with 14.9 points per game, 3.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 50.5 percent shooting from the field, including 42.3 percent from beyond the arc. Will Barton has had his two best seasons under Malone, and this year’s 3.4 assists and 37.0 percent from three are career highs. Rookies Jamal Murray and Juan Hernangomez have been big contributors and key pieces in the rotation.

Perhaps the biggest development under Malone has been the improvement of Nikola Jokic. After a strong rookie season under Malone, Jokic has upped his averages across the board. His 16.6 points per game, 9.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 58.1 percent shooting from the field put him near the top of the Most Improved Player race. Although talented in his own right, Malone does deserve some of the credit for helping develop Jokic.

The Nuggets may not end up playoff bound, but they’ve already surpassed last season’s win total of 33 wins, with 38 so far. With Malone in charge, Denver is sure to continue to rise.

Brett Brown

It might be strange to see a name who hasn’t had a winning season as a head coach on an underrated list, but Brown’s tenure in Philadelphia has been anything but ordinary. He was entrusted to lead a team that wasn’t shy about its intentions to tank, and tank hard. Despite that, Brown has seemingly been able to keep up team morale, and he’s been able to get critical development from key players on the roster.

This season, the Sixers have as many wins(28) as the past two seasons combined. In his first season on the court since being drafted, Joel Embiid but up borderline All-Star numbers with 20.2 points per game, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.5 blocks. The team went 10-5 in January and were playing great basketball before Embiid went down again.

Brown has turned undrafted players such as T.J. McConnell, Robert Covington and second round picks like Richaun Holmes and Jerami Grant into key rotation players. Although Grant is no longer on the team, his development began in Philadelphia.

With Ben Simmons able to make his debut next season and another top lottery pick coming in, the future looks bright in the City of Brotherly Love, and Brown is a big part of that. The Sixers gave him a contract extension after only two years with the team, and it’s starting to become evident why.

Kenny Atkinson

The past few seasons for the Brooklyn Nets haven’t been as poor record-wise as the Sixers, but overall it may actually be worse. At least the Sixers have had lottery picks as a reward for their futility. The Nets have none, which has made it harder for management to find young talent for a rebuilding team. But first-year head coach Kenny Atkinson has done an admirable job with the roster he was given.

The Nets struggled out of the gates to no surprise, and have had losing streaks of 16, 11, and seven games. But they’ve been playing much better as of late. They went 7-10 in March and are 3-1 so far in April. Atkinson has gotten strong development from his veterans as well as the young players on the team.

Brook Lopez always has been an All-Star caliber player, but this season under Atkinson, he’s expanded his game to include range out to three point territory. He’s averaging 5.2 attempts per game and shooting a respectable 35.1 percent.

Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead are having very respectable rookie seasons. Joe Harris and Justin Hamilton were out of the league before Atkinson turned them into solid rotation pieces this season. Archie Goodwin was in the D-League before being called up to the Nets, and under Atkinson, he’s shooting a career-high 58.5 percent from the field and has played a big role in the Nets’ late season turnaround.

Once the Nets get around to adding some major talent, it will be interesting to see what Atkinson is able to.

Luke Walton

Luke Walton should be on this list simply for making Nick Young a productive player again. Young’s 48.1 percent shooting from two-point range is a career high, and his 40.4 percent from three is second best, just under his career best of 40.6 percent. But Walton’s ability to coach has been much deeper.

After leading the Golden State Warriors to a 39-4 record last season in Steve Kerr’s absence, the Los Angeles Lakers rewarded Walton with a team of his own. The team got off to a surprising 10-10 start and they were playing an exciting brand of basketball. While they came back down to earth, Walton has already solidified himself as the man to lead the Lakers young core back to prominence.

The four main guys that make up the Lakers core — Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell — have all had major development this year under Walton. After the All-Star break, he committed to playing the young guys instead of hindering their development by playing older veterans such as Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, despite the large contracts the Lakers gave those players.

It’s not just those guys who have had solid production under Walton. As a full-time starter before he was shut down for the season, rookie Ivica Zubac averaged 11.1 points per game on 55.9 percent shooting. Tyler Ennis is currently having his best stretch since coming over at the trade deadline. He scored a career-high 19 points in a win at San Antonio on Wednesday and he’s averaging 12.2 points in the past six games.

Should this group one day get the Lakers back to the upper echelon of the NBA, it will most likely be with Walton leading the way.

Earl Watson

The final name on this list is yet another first-year full-time head coach who is experiencing a trying season. The Phoenix Suns have battled the Lakers and Nets for worst team in the league. But there have been some encouraging signs in the Valley of the Sun with Watson at the helm.

As a player, Watson was a leader and mentor to his younger teammates, and that has seemingly translated as a head coach. A former point guard himself, Watson has overseen the development of veteran Eric Bledsoe and rookie Tyler Ulis. Bledsoe’s 21.1 points per game and 6.3 assists are career bests. Since taking over as the full-time backup point at the beginning of March, Ulis has put up 13.4 points and 7.7 assists.

The frontcourt has seen critical development as well, particularly from rookie Marquese Chriss and second-year man Alan Williams. Since the beginning of March, Chriss has put up 12.9 points and 6.4 rebounds. In that same stretch, Williams put up a near double-double with 10.1 points and 9.4 rebounds.

The Suns have the makings of a decent young core, and Watson just might be the man to get them back to respectability.

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NBA Daily: Credit Ujiri And Raptors For Taking The Risk

Perhaps emboldened by OKC’s ability to retain Paul George, the Raptors are taking a gamble of their own.

Lang Greene

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In any given NBA season, at the most, there are only five legitimate title contenders in play. The rest of the league could be considered as either on the rise, middle of the pack or in the hunt for a lottery pick.

There are far too many teams around the league that are content with solely making the playoffs while not seriously contending for a title. This is why the Toronto Raptors organization along with team president Masai Ujiri should be given credit for taking the ultimate gamble in acquiring a top-five player, even one who could amount to a one-year rental.

The Raptors shipped four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran wing Danny Green.

The move is the ultimate gamble for an organization that has turned itself into a perennial playoff presence with five consecutive postseason appearances and three straight 50-win campaigns. DeRozan, 28, was locked under contract the next three seasons and the organization could have theoretically decided to ride the DeRozan and fellow All-Star guard Kyle Lowry duo until the proverbial wheels fell off.

But instead, Ujiri unexpectedly shipped their star player, who wanted to be in Toronto long-term, to acquire Leonard who reportedly has his eyes dead set on joining one of the Los Angeles franchises once he hits free agency in 2019.

Think about this for a moment.

While Toronto has served as LeBron James’ playoff punching bag as of late, make no mistake, Raptors basketball is undoubtedly experiencing the peak of its golden era.

Sure, the team’s former stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh will likely go down in history considered better than DeRozan (and Lowry). But none of the aforementioned players led the franchise to a 50-win season while with the organization. None of those guys led the Raptors to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. DeRozan was a vital cog in breaking new ground while with the team, defiantly re-signing with the Raptors despite overtures from his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2016.

Perhaps emboldened by the success the Oklahoma City Thunder recently had in taking a similar risk last summer, the Raptors took the gamble. The Thunder traded for All-Star forward Paul George, who also reportedly also had Los Angeles dreams, last summer, and were able to convince the wing to re-sign earlier this month to a long-term deal.

Toronto has never been a free agency hot spot and the aforementioned stars all forced their way out of town early in their careers. What if Leonard doesn’t buy the soup Ujiri is cooking? There are already some reports stating the forward has no desire to play with the Raptors at all.

Even if this is the case, Ujiri and company still have options. Leonard can still be dealt before next February’s trade deadline. Ujiri could theoretically create a bidding war between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers for Leonard’s services with an attractive.

At the bare minimum, the Raptors are all-in this season for a championship run in an Eastern Conference no longer facing the talents of LeBron James. If things don’t work out, DeRozan’s $54 million owed after this season is off the books. Lowry will be owed $33 million in 2020 but could potentially be an attractive expiring contract. All of this to say, the Raptors are simultaneously preparing for a title run and bracing for a rebuild of their current roster.

Far too many teams become content with just making the playoffs and not rocking the boat. Ujiri took his shot to boost the Raptors up the league’s hierarchy. The ultimate risk. Much respect for taking it.

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NBA Daily: Quality Free Agents Still Available

Many quality free agents are still available nearly three weeks into free agency, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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With the NBA Summer League over and training camps a few months away, the NBA would normally be quiet this time of year. Apparently the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors didn’t get the memo as they agreed to a trade centered around Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Additionally, Carmelo Anthony has finally been traded to relieve the Oklahoma City Thunder from a tremendous tax burden.

As the dust settles from these trades, many free agents continue to wait in the wings. The list includes many talented players who will eventually make their way back onto an NBA team’s roster. Some will return to the team they played for last year, which is especially likely for restricted free agents (e.g., Marcus Smart). Some may, for a variety of reasons, not return to an NBA roster. Last year Rodney Stuckey sat the year out and used the time to improve his health in order to make a comeback this year. Former All-Star center Roy Hibbert just announced his retirement at age 31 after not being active last season.

The list of available restricted free agents has seriously dwindled now nearly three weeks into the free agency period. RFAs such as Marcus Smart (back to the Boston Celtics) and Jabari Parker (to the Chicago Bulls) have recently signed new contracts. These signings, among others, leaves Houston Rockets RFA center Clint Capela and Los Angeles Clippers RFA center Montrezl Harrell as two of the bigger names left on the board.

Available Restricted Free Agents:

Clint Capela

Clint Capela is coming off of his best and most efficient season averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes a game (all career highs) and he is only 24 years old. Capela also spearheaded a defense that, when combined with James Harden’s offensive mastery, pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Reports are that Capela has turned down an initial offer to re-sign for well below his max. While the clock ticks on the Rockets and Capela, Capela finds himself in what remains a punitive free agent market. The Sacramento Kings is the only other team capable of immediately signing Capela to a competitive contract to lure him away from the Rockets. To make matters worse, the Kings have been committed to stocking their roster with as many big men as possible making them a less-than-ideal suitor for Capela’s services.

Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell won’t generate as many headlines as the other RFAs that have been in the news lately but don’t sleep on him. In a season that never went according to plan for the Clippers, Harrell was one of the bright spots for the team. Harrell, acquired by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, showed tenacity on offense as he served as a strong offensive rebounder, floor runner and helped the Clippers weather a five-game stretch where center DeAndre Jordan was unavailable. Harrell played especially well in place of Jordan. However, working against Harrell is the Clipper’s roster crunch. The team has 18 players on the roster, not counting Harrell. If the Clippers do ultimately decide to bring back Harrell, the Clippers will have to make several moves to clear roster spots.

Rodney Hood

Cleveland Cavaliers RFA wing Rodney Hood also remains available. Utah Jazz fans can relate to the ups and downs of cheering for Hood who has flashes of brilliant play but remains inconsistent. Hood was acquired during last season to help bolster the Cavaliers’ championship run. However, Hood’s scoring, three-point shooting, overall statistics and minutes went down significantly due to his uneven play. While Hood is still a capable player, his time with the Cavaliers did not end well, which has impacted his stock around the league. It didn’t help Hood’s cause when he was benched in the postseason and he subsequently refused to enter the game when instructed to. The Kings, in need of help on the wing, could be a suitor for Hood’s services. However, Cleveland could match any such offer as the franchise continues to build a new team after the loss of LeBron James.

Available Unrestricted Free Agents:

Dwyane Wade

The group of remaining unrestricted free agents is a mixed bag. As mentioned above, there is at least a chance that one of these players may not even make a roster when the dust settles this offseason. Dwyane Wade has bounced around the league the last few years with stints with the Bulls, Cavaliers and a most recent return to the Miami HEAT under his belt. Wade remains capable of spurts of offense and is a fan favorite in Miami. The most obvious result here is a return to Miami. However, Wade himself commented regarding a potential return or possibly retirement.

“When I get back from China, I’ll focus on that [decision],” Wade said while in China. “The basketball will take care of itself. I’ll sit down and figure that out once I get back from this tour at some point.”

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley remains unsigned despite a strong outing last season for the New York Knicks. Beasley started 30 of 74 games played. His numbers don’t jump off the boxscore: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes. However, these are some of the best numbers he’s put up in years and the most consistent he has played since 2012-13. The Knicks may likely move on from Beasley but he remains a viable scorer who could come off the bench and start in a pinch for many teams if the price is right.

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young remain unsigned veterans who offer potential teams a scoring punch off the bench. Young has the benefit of showing that he contributed in spurts to the Warrior’s championship season while not becoming a distraction. Both are known for knocking down difficult outside shots but can be inefficient scorers and potential liabilities on defense.

Honorable Mentions

A few notable big men remain available as well. Phoenix Center Alex Len never became the elite big man the Suns had hoped for when they used the fifth pick in the 2013 draft to acquire him. However he remains a serviceable player. For his career, Len averages 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. He is somewhat mobile and could be a strong option for a team looking for a backup center. Centers Al Jefferson and Jahill Okafor can both score the basketball but have to directly combat the notion that they have become antiquated. The modern game calls for mobile centers that shoot reliably from the outside to stretch the floor, are efficient on offense, can guard the rim as well as being at least somewhat capale of covering ball handlers on switches. Okafar and Jefferson don’t fit that profile and will have to convince potential suitors that despite their meager contributions over the last few seasons that they can sufficiently adapt to the modern game and make a positive impact.

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NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense

In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.

Dennis Chambers

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The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.

Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).

While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.

After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.

On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.

At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.

Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.

On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.

DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.

From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.

Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.

Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.

All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.

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