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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 AM: Paul Millsap’s Injury Derails Denver

With Paul Millsap injured, the Nuggets hopes to become a contender take a hit.

Lang Greene

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After missing the playoffs for the past four seasons, the Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. The team won 30 games in 2015, 33 in 2016, 40 in 2017 and are currently on pace to record 48 victories this season, which would be their most since 2013.

The squad features six players averaging more than 10 points per contest, not including two veterans in Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, both of whom are career double-digit scorers. The Nuggets also boast one of the youngest teams in the league with only three players over the age of 30 (Paul Millsap, Chandler and Richard Jefferson).

But the team was dealt a huge blow this week when it was learned that four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap will be out the next three to four months after suffering a torn ligament in his wrist.

Millsap was extremely durable during his first 11 seasons in the league, missing 10 games just once (2017). This injury marks the first time in Millsap’s career where he will miss significant time while roaming the sideline in designer suits.

Millsap signed a three-year, $90 million deal this past summer and his acquisition was viewed as the next step in bringing the team back into the realm of the playoffs.

After an early season adjustment period, Denver (10-7) has rattled off seven victories in their last 10 games. For the team, Millsap’s injury news couldn’t have come at a worst time.  The veteran was averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds through 16 contests. The points are his lowest since 2013 and the rebounding output is his lowest since 2010, but Millsap’s presence has helped stabilize the young Nuggets on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

The Nuggets do have a plethora of power forwards on the depth chart. Veteran Kenneth Faried has started 366 contests for the franchise since being drafted in 2011. Faried’s future with the franchise has come into question in recent years as his playing time and role in the rotation has consistently diminished. The signing of Millsap likely solidified that fate, however, by not dealing Faried, the Nuggets were able to keep an insurance policy in the fold.

Third-year forward and former lottery pick Trey Lyles is another candidate for an increased workload. Lyles is currently averaging 6.8 minutes in 12 appearances but is shooting a career high from the field (52 percent) and three-point range (42 percent) in his limited court time. Another like candidate for more playing time is second-year big man Juan Hernangomez, who has currently appeared in just six contests.

Offensively, the Nuggets will be able to absorb his loss. Guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray score the ball efficiently while swingman Will Barton provides pop off the bench. The team will also likely ride the back of their franchise player Nikola Jokic a bit more as well, with the big man averaging just 11.6 shot attempts per game—third on the team.

Perhaps the biggest area the Nuggets will have to adjust is on the defensive end.

According to ESPN’s real defensive plus-minus (DPM), Millsap ranks 31st overall in the league (1.62). He ranks seventh among power forwards with at least 10 games played this season. Last season, Millsap was fifth among power forward and 14th overall in DPM.

The veteran’s track of improving a team’s prowess on the defensive end is proven and it’s exactly the type of “silent” attribute the Nuggets needed on a loaded young team still learning how to play on that side of the ball.

                              Paul Millsap – Real Defensive Plus-Minus
Season DPM League Overall Rank Power Forward Rank
2013-14 2.06                 63                   12
2014-15 2.22                 43                    8
2015-16 3.26                 12                    2
2016-17 3.35                 14                   5
2017-18 1..62                 31                  9

 

The Nuggets will be tested immediately without Millsap in the fold. The team travels to Houston (November 22) and will play nine of their next 13 games are on the road. This includes a six-game road trip from December 4 to December 13.

The team is currently 7-2 at home and just 3-5 away from the Pepsi center.

They will, for sure, be tested without Millsap.

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.

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Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia

Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.

Dennis Chambers

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After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.

On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.

Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.

When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.

“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”

While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.

“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”

The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.

Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.

Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.

So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.

“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”

In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.

Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.

“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”

On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.

“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”

After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.

“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”

Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.

“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”

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