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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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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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