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NBA AM: Is It Time To Fire The Coach?

It’s easy to blame coaches for team struggles, but do they really have the authority you think they do?… Are the Suns gearing up to keep Markieff Morris?

Steve Kyler

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Coaches Under Fire

One of the things we try to do in this space is clarify processes in the NBA. While there will always be misconceptions, sometimes the real process of how things get done is lost in incorrect beliefs about the process.

One of the biggest examples of this is how fans perceive the power of NBA general managers. While there are a small handful of NBA executives that have autonomy, the large majority answer to someone above them either in a team president role, a CEO role or directly to an owner. Very few are empowered to just make deals on their own and most are the leader of a collaborative process that involves a lot of voices, especially when those decisions involve money or significant roster changes.

This is important to note, because there are a few NBA head coaches that are under fire from their fan base under the misconception that they alone control the roster, which (like the general managers they answer to) is far from the case.

To be clear there are outliers – Gregg Popovich in San Antonio has roster autonomy, but that is because he is Gregg Popovich. The number of coaches that have autonomy is even smaller than the number of GMs that have it.

This becomes important when looking at the situations in Los Angeles with the Lakers and New York with the Knicks.

First, it’s important to state this – Byron Scott was not hired or retained to supervise a ground up rebuild. The hope for Scott was that he would be credible enough to would-be free agents that the Lakers could nab a named guy or two this past summer, pair them with Kobe Bryant and actually compete for something in Bryant’s final year.

That did not work out and even after the Lakers made the Roy Hibbert trade and inked guard Lou Williams and forward Brandon Bass to free agent deals, the hope was still to be in the hunt. Right or wrong, the Lakers have been a little bit in denial about where they truly stand in the grand scheme.

Today there is a better understanding of what’s next for the franchise, and while the Lakers still believe the future of their franchise lies in obtaining a proven star in free agency or trade, there is a sense that a longer rebuild is needed and that Scott may not be the right guy to skipper it. But there is nothing gained making a change this season, mainly because the roster is trapped between two agendas – veterans that can play and young guys that need development time.

This comes to the point. While Scott does have the franchise’s approval to play who he feels he should play, his decisions on playing the young guys from the bench was not made in a vacuum. There have been open discussions with management about how and when to play the rookies and there is a clearly defined plan for them. The young guys are not overly thrilled with the short leash they are on with Scott, but what’s surfaced inside the process is that the idea of just turning the young guys loose hasn’t helped them. The biggest gains and best games have come when the young guys, specifically rookie D’Angelo Russell, were coached more and given more structure.

This runs almost counter to the public perception that Scott is somehow holding the young guys back, when in fact their best games have come in situations where Scott has created structure – something he did not do much of early in the season.

In New York there is a similar theme, that head coach Derek Fisher is the source of the problem and that he is limiting the Knicks because of his rotations and in-game planning. That may well be true, but Fisher is not operating in a vacuum either.

Fisher was hired because Knicks president Phil Jackson viewed him as the best conduit for what Jackson wants to see happen with the Knicks. Fisher just happens to be the instrument of that. Fisher also has a staff of very hands on guys that have been in Jackson’s circle for decades.

It’s easy to blame Fisher for the Knicks’ struggles because he is the face-guy, he is the guy that has to talk to reporters after games, but what’s lost on the Fisher situation is that he is Jackson’s guy and is executing in many ways the plan that Jackson and the entire staff have agreed on.

The Knicks are going nowhere quickly and there is a sense from the fan base that maybe it’s time to focus on the future and let the young guys like guard Langston Galloway and rookie Jerian Grant play a bigger role. The problem is the Knicks, much like the Lakers, are not ready to concede the season. Again, right or wrong, the Knicks view themselves as a team that could turn the corner and get in the playoffs. As things stand today the Knicks are roughly five games out of the playoff picture; their view is that a small trade or someone meeting the challenge could swing them in the right direction.

The last part of both situations is the notion that firing either guy would change anything.

In LA, the Lakers are transitioning out of the Kobe Bryant era and changing the coach isn’t going to change the way Kobe is used in his swan song season. The Lakers from the top down wouldn’t sign off on it. So if nothing is really going to change on the court, why fire Scott who is doing basically what he was asked to do? It might make fans feel better to see Scott gone, but the truth is outside of a few guys wanting bigger roles, the roster is OK with Scott and the season is not going to change much.

Sources close to the process say that Scott’s job will be evaluated after the season and if it is deemed a change is needed it would happen then, and allow the Lakers to do a full and complete search for the right guy for the next part of the rebuild.

As for the Knicks, as much as fans are crying for Fisher’s head, he is simply the face guy of a process. The next guy on the bench isn’t going to change the process. There is a sense that maybe Knicks assistant Kurt Rambis could do a better job, however given how his run with the Timberwolves went, is he really a better guy for the team or simply a different guy?

The problem with the Knicks is they are underachieving on a lot of fronts and that may have more to do with the systemic things they are being asked to do or worse yet the construct of the roster.

None of those issues change if Fisher is replaced. That’s not to say that Jackson won’t be pressured into a change in the offseason – keep in mind Jackson himself signed a five-year deal in March of 2014, so this season would mark the third season of the experiment. Given Knicks owner James Dolan’s history with patience, Jackson’s run of total autonomy over the Knicks might not last if he sticks to his guns on Fisher as head coach if the Knicks fail to reach the postseason.

It is easy to buy into the idea of a coach having total roster authority, the truth is most of them do not – especially when it comes to significant franchise pieces.

The majority of general managers travel with their teams and are involved in the entire game process, including coaching meetings. Very few major roster decisions are reached without the GM being involved. That’s not to say GMs are micro-managing the process, but to believe that a coach is running is team without input from above is a little misplaced. It’s a far more collaborative process than gets reported.

Morris’ Future in Phoenix

The Phoenix Suns are reportedly prepared to bring Markieff Morris back into the fold after suspending him for two games due to the big man throwing a towel at head coach Jeff Hornacek. However, before doing that, it’s been reported by Yahoo’s Marc Spears that the franchise is expecting a verbal apology from Morris to not only the coaching staff but also to the team. Furthermore, the Suns are said to want Morris to recommit to the team in how he will handle himself in games, practice and in conditioning and treatment sessions.

Sources close to the process say that while trading Morris is still an option, the team understands how low his trade value is right now and that moving him would return very little value or – worse yet – contracts that would eat into the Suns expected $20 million in 2016 salary cap space in July.

As things stand today the Suns understand that in order to get anything for Morris he has to play better and resolve some of the issues surrounding him.

Morris’ name has been linked to a number of situations, but one team that as been named as having interest in Morris bluntly said that the teams and players out there are more like Phoenix’s wish list for Morris than anything that’s likely to happen.

Sources close to the Suns’ thinking said that the team is prepared to give Morris a chance to reclaim some minutes and help the team; however if there is another issue, the Suns have apparently made it clear they would have no issues suspending Morris for a longer period or sending him home if he continues to be a distraction to the team.

Based on how the Suns are approaching the Morris situation, it does not seem like a posture a team would take if they were ready to make a trade. The Suns seem like a team that is resigned to the fact that Morris may not be nearly as tradable today and they may be stuck with him for the foreseeable future.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA, @iamdpick, @jblancartenba, @eric_saar and @CodyTaylorNBA .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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