Basketball Insiders takes a look at some of the most underrated head coaches in the NBA:
Mike Budenholzer – Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks just barely squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed, but their play in the playoffs against the top-seeded Indiana Pacers has many thinking they can become the sixth No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed since the league expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984. Behind that charge is head coach Mike Budenholzer and the ability he’s shown to lead his team after a miserable year of injuries. Perhaps no injury was bigger than Al Horford’s torn pectoral muscle that has kept him off of the court since the end of December.
With Horford out of the picture, Budenholzer has been praised for his ability to develop players. Jeff Teague is a player who has benefitted from Budenholzer’s system and has been one of the leaders for the Hawks against the Pacers, averaging 19.8 points per game. DeMarre Carroll is another player who has seen a considerable jump in production, averaging six points per game last season to averaging 11.1 points per game this season and 10 points per game in the playoffs. Mike Scott is also having a great series for the Hawks against the Pacers, and even showed off his dunking abilities in Game 6. It’s clear that with Budenholzer in charge, the Hawks can be a team that plays great basketball and once Horford returns, can be even better.
Dwane Casey – Toronto Raptors
Dwane Casey has inspired the Toronto Raptors to play with an underdog mindset, and it seems to be working. Casey led the Raptors to the third-seed in the Eastern Conference and an evened up series against the Brooklyn Nets in which Toronto will have Game 7 on their floor. The Raptors improved from 34-48 last season to 48-34 this season with just a few tweaks to the roster.
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri recognized that Rudy Gay wasn’t the best fit for the Raptors and loaded Casey up with Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes. While the team is led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Vasquez and Patterson are providing effective production off of the bench.
Casey has the Raptors playing especially well in the playoffs given the team’s lack of experience. Casey told reporters earlier this week that while the team lacks experience, they make up for it with the amount of effort they put into each game. While it remains to be seen just how far the Raptors can go, the team is gaining the necessary experience that will only help them in years to come.
Steve Clifford – Charlotte Bobcats
Steve Clifford led the Bobcats to a 43-39 season while earning the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and a match up against the Miami HEAT in the first-round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Bobcats’ turnaround season was put to a screeching halt after being swept in four games. While many expected a similar result, Clifford is viewed by many as the guy that can change the attitude in Charlotte. A successful rebuild first needs an attitude change before getting into the X’s and O’s of the game. Clifford came into the Bobcats’ head coaching position as a first-time NBA head coach, but by being in organizations like the New York Knicks with Jeff Van Gundy, the Orlando Magic with Stan Van Gundy and the Los Angeles Lakers, Clifford is someone players can respect and buy into the type of atmosphere he is creating in Charlotte.
While the Bobcats’ offense is still a work in progress, their defense climbed into the top 10 in just one season. Last season the Bobcats’ defense ranked dead-last in the league in efficiency, while this season they have improved to the sixth-best efficiency rating. The defense has also gone from allowing 102.7 points per game last season to 97.3 this season, good for fifth-best. For a team wanting to change its identify among those in the league, Clifford surely has the Bobcats on the right track.
Jeff Hornacek – Phoenix Suns
Heading into the season with 10 new players on the team, nobody really expected the Suns to be a legitimate contender in the talented Western Conference. Hornacek and the Suns were supposed to only win about 20 games, but they defied all odds this season and turned in a 48-win season and narrowly missed the playoffs by just one game.
Part of what has made Hornacek a good fit for the Suns is that he evaluated the players on the team and designed a system that will best fit their styles of play. Hornacek also had the benefit of having young players like Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Miles Plumlee and Markieff and Marcus Morris lead his team.
Hornacek told Basketball Insiders recently that he has relied heavily on advice he got from former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan. “From Jerry, it’s just going out there and trying to play every play like it’s your last,” Hornacek said. “We’re constantly talking about that and we’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly on how to do that night in and night out and then get to every play.”
Given the Suns’ three first-round draft picks this year, the team will be set for the future with Hornacek at the helm.
Terry Stotts – Portland Trail Blazers
Stotts and the Trail Blazers have made a complete 180 from last season, when they won just 33 games. This season, the Trail Blazers picked up their 33rd win in their 44th game and had the NBA’s best record at 24-5 two months into the season. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are certainly two of the reasons why the Trail Blazers have had success this season. The team has also an impressive supporting cast made up of Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Mo Williams among others.
Stotts often has his offense running through Aldridge, which also gets the rest of the team looks as well. Stotts’ offense gives Aldridge the freedom to decide where he wants to attack, rather than just leave him in the post. Stotts made that approach so familiar during his time working under Rick Carlisle in Dallas with Dirk Nowitzki. Given the team’s success this season, the fact that they can close out the Houston Rockets tonight at home shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Which coach is the most underrated in the league? Leave a comment below.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.