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NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Eastern Conference

Matt John takes a look at which coaches and general managers from the Eastern Conference are on the hot seat.

Matt John

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Speculation is what makes following the NBA fun. Theorizing what’s going to happen so easy and so fun that it’s harder not to do it. It’s why everyone is hooked on the draft, why they are hooked on free agency and why they are especially hooked on the trade deadline.

Do you notice a commonality there? All of that has to do with player movement. The players make this league what it is. No question. That’s why we always keep our eyes peeled when one could potentially be on the move. Especially if it’s a star. Then, there are the coaches and general managers. Even if speculation about them is not nearly as strong as it is for players, the hot seat is something we do keep our eye on.

We usually have a pretty good grasp on whose job is on the line. When we see a team not playing up to expectations, or not making the progress that they intended to make, or just flat-out sucking the life out of everyone, usually it’s the coach and/or the general manager whose job is in the most jeopardy.

However, we’ve seen in recent weeks that the hot seat can at times be unpredictable. We knew this was supposed to be a gap year for the Brooklyn Nets. Even if they had been one of the worst teams in the league, did anyone really believe for a second that Kenny Atkinson would get the ax? Things were on the up and up for the Nets his last week as the head coach. Next thing we knew, he was out of a job.

Imagine how that conversation went.

Thanks for helping our franchise look respectable again after we put our fans through the seventh circle of hell! OKAY BYE!

But, that’s their prerogative. The point is, you never know who’s on the hot seat. You wouldn’t think that guys like Mike Budenholzer, Masai Ujiri or Brad Stevens would be in any danger of losing their jobs, but a coach as well-respected as Atkinson losing his job signals that anything is possible should they find themselves in a situation with just the right amount of wrong in it.

Basketball Insiders is looking at coaches and general managers who could be in danger of losing their job. Today, we’re looking at the Eastern Conference. Going over who may be on the hot seat requires premising why their job would be on the line. With that all in mind, let’s take a look.

“If This Blows Up In Our Face, We Need A Scapegoat”

Brett Brown/Elton Brand — Philadelphia 76ers

The best way to approach this is by starting with those who are probably on the hottest seat of them all.

When a team that has both two young superstars in their prime and championship aspirations appear to be falling way short of expectations, heads will roll. Unless they magically turn things around in the playoffs — if we have the playoffs — the 76ers appear to be going down this route. The narrative that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, as good as they are, are not a good match together has picked up a lot of steam this season.

Even so, Embiid is 26 and Simmons is 23. They still have time to figure it out. At the very least, Philly will give it another year with those two pending any unforeseen trade requests. Don’t rule anything out. The operative thinking is likely to be that the Sixers will change their surroundings first before they consider getting one of them out of town. If anyone’s taking the fall, it’s most likely going to be Brett Brown.

Brown’s name has been popping up on the hot seat since the end of last season because of Philly’s failure to make serious progress despite having one of the league’s most talented rosters. He still has not been able to find the right formula for Embiid and Simmons, he hasn’t been able to cover the holes left by Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick and he hasn’t been able to fully integrate Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, or Al Horford.

Philly’s defense remains airtight — that side of the ball has never really been an issue — but its offense has fallen below league average primarily because the lack of spacing has made it look more like a clogged toilet than it ever has in the Embiid/Simmons era. As Simmons and Embiid progressed as players, offensive progression as a whole should have come along too. That hasn’t happened, and that’s on Brown.

But the blame can’t be placed entirely on him. It wasn’t his idea to spend money that could have been used to keep Redick to pay top dollar for Al Horford. Or to give a superstar-like extension to Tobias Harris, a good-not-great player. Nope, that’s on Elton Brand.

Brand shot for the stars last season when he acquired Butler and Harris mid-season, and many Philly fans argue that the Kawhi buzzer-beater prevented the team from a Finals berth. Perhaps, but since then, the moves the Sixers have made since have not worked. Horford has flopped. Richardson has only been okay. Harris still hasn’t rediscovered the groove he once had in LA.

Brown is on a hotter seat than Brand is because he’s been there longer. Since Brand’s been on the job for less than two years, it’s more likely than not that they give him another year to fix this. If hypothetically, Brand was able to find a taker for Horford and his enormous contract, maybe that would keep his job secure, but who would be that willing to take the rapidly aging Horford on a deal like that now?

Scariest of all, this is what The Process is at its completion. There are no more assets to rely on. Cap flexibility is now out of the question. They got the young starlets they wanted, but more and more skeptics are starting to believe that the duo of Embiid and Simmons has peaked. If nothing improves by season’s end, someone’s taking a fall here. The most likely one is going to Brown, but it wouldn’t be overly shocking if Brand goes down with him.

“It’s Time For A Fresh Start”

Jim Boylen — Chicago Bulls

Does anyone know what exactly John Paxson and Michael Reinsdorf see in Jim Boylen? It might be safe to say that they are looking at him through rose-colored glasses. Sure, Chicago played somewhat-promising basketball towards the end of last season, but in the wake of Boylen’s rather odd actions on the court this season — and since the Bulls are still a subpar team in the Eastern Conference — might it be time to pull the plug, guys?

Boylen’s coaching decisions have put off a fair amount of spectators. There’s an ongoing belief of a disconnect between him and his players. Was it mentioned that the Bulls stink?

They’re 22-43. Their defense is average — allowing 109.8 points per 100 possessions is good for 14th in the league — but their offense is ghastly, putting up just 106.7 points per 100 possessions which is good for 27th. The players don’t have a good relationship with him. Other Bulls personnel don’t have a good relationship with him. Lauri Markkanen, one of the Bulls’ most promising players, has somehow regressed in Year 3.

It’s a little awkward since Chicago extended Boylen last summer, but it’s better to admit it’s not working instead of forcing it in hopes of it one day working out. That wouldn’t be a bad strategy if it looked like Boylen and his players were on the same page.

The front office clearly sees it differently. They’d rather wait this out than act now while they can. Who knows? Maybe if and when this coronavirus situation passes, maybe that’ll give them the time they need to make the right move.

When it comes to discussing Jim Boylen, this isn’t as much of a take that says “He is on the hot seat,” but rather one that says, “He should be on the hot seat.”

“If You Can’t Improve Our Bleak Situation Now, We’re Getting Someone Else”

Tommy Sheppard — Washington Wizards

Unlike the previously mentioned name above, what’s happened to the Wizards does not have much, if at all, to do with Sheppard. Basically, he inherited the mess left by Ernie Grunfeld. Washington doesn’t really have a whole lot of options at the moment. The team can either miss out on the playoffs, or they can get thrashed by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. Either way, it won’t be pretty.

Their problems go much further than that. John Wall should be coming back, but he’s coming back from a slew of injuries, so who knows what kind of player we should expect to see on the court. Bradley Beal is getting increasingly fed up with the lack of success the team has mustered. You can’t really blame him since the team’s taken a nosedive from their near-conference finals run just three years ago.

What makes this even sadder is that Sheppard has done some of the little things correctly since taking over. He literally stole Davis Bertans away from San Antonio. He re-signed Thomas Bryant on good value. He did the same when he brought in Ish Smith. Drafting Rui Hachimura would also be included, but that’s not a little thing now, is it? It’s a huge thing, and it could pay dividends for Washington’s future knowing Rui’s potential. The catch-22 is that no one knows how long it will take for the future to arrive.

The situation with Wall and Beal puts a lot of pressure on Sheppard and everyone else in the front office to get the train rolling because it’s continuously sputtered since 2017. No one should blame Sheppard if he’s not able to salvage this, but that won’t stop the pressure from mounting.

Knowing how awful the New York Knicks have been, there’s a case for general manager Scott Perry to be up here too, but we all know the real problem with the Knicks lies within the very top with James Dolan. The Knicks have been through this rodeo plenty of times that it doesn’t matter who they have making the moves. If serious change is going to happen, it starts and ends with James Dolan.

That’s what the hot seat comes down to. If a coach or GM is in danger of getting fired from their job, it’s predicated from the belief that they’re not making a big enough difference to help their team move forward.

Those who have been mentioned here were put in a tough situation to begin with, but it is on them to change their team’s outlook for the better regardless. If they’re not able to do with this while on the hot seat, then there won’t be a hot seat to sit on for long.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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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 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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