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NBA PM: This is Isaiah Thomas’ Time to Shine

Isaiah Thomas is arguably the Celtics’ best player and is finally in the spotlight after being underrated for years.

Alex Kennedy

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The 2014-15 NBA season featured quite a few trades prior to the February deadline. Oftentimes, there are plenty of rumors, but only a few notable deals that actually occur. But last year, there were transactions involving Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Green, Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith and Michael Carter-Williams among others.

Perhaps that’s why the Boston Celtics’ move to acquire Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Marcus Thornton and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-round pick flew under the radar a bit. After all, it wasn’t even the biggest trade that Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made that afternoon since he also dealt Dragic and acquired Knight in two other deals.

However, it was a huge trade for the Celtics. Since putting on that green and white jersey, Thomas has been remarkably productive and emerged as Boston’s best player. That may seem like a strange statement considering Thomas hasn’t started a single game for Boston, but he was fantastic after the change of scenery and the fact that he produced at such a high level as a reserve makes his stats even more impressive.

IsaiahThomas_CelticsInside3Coming off of the bench in his 21 regular season games with Boston, Thomas averaged 19 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 26 minutes a night. He played a huge role in Boston’s late-season playoff push and helped them land the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with 40 wins – all while he was still getting acclimated to his new teammates, city, coaching staff and more.

Thomas even made history last season, becoming the first NBA player ever to average at least 16 points and four assists despite playing fewer than 26 minutes per game.

Once the playoffs started, Thomas continued to play well in the Celtics’ series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even though it was his first time competing in the postseason, Thomas averaged 17.5 points, seven assists and three rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game. He had a 22-point, 10-assist, five-rebound performance in Game 1 as well as a 21-point, nine-assist, five-rebound outing in Game 4. The Celtics were swept by Cleveland, but it was a good learning experience for their young squad.

“The playoffs were huge for us, even though we got swept by a great Cavaliers team,” Thomas said. “It was a confidence builder for us because nobody expected us to be there and nobody expected us to compete against them the way that we did. As a young team, that helps our confidence a lot. It also lets us see where we are as a team [compared to one of the NBA’s top contenders].”

After a strong offseason in which the Celtics added David Lee, Amir Johnson, Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter among others, Thomas is confident Boston can be even better.

“This year, our goal is to make the playoffs at least and then build from there,” Thomas said. “We want to go even further than we did last year, winning a couple of games and hopefully winning at least one playoff series. We just want to continue getting better and we’re trying to build on last year.

“We added a few nice pieces and I definitely think that’s going to help us, especially playing in the Eastern Conference. David Lee is a former All-Star and an NBA champion who can help us as a veteran since he’s been one of the best power forwards in the game when given the opportunity. With Amir Johnson, every time someone brings up his name I only hear great things about him. He’s someone who brings a lot to the table and can help any team he’s on. We need that type of leadership and those kind of experienced veterans, so I liked the additions. And the young guys, the rookies we drafted, are very talented too. If given the opportunity, I definitely think they can help us out.”

Thomas ended up finishing the 2014-15 campaign as Boston’s leading scorer in the regular season and in the playoffs – topping all of the team’s starters. He has become a fan favorite and he admits that he has trouble walking around the city without being stopped a lot, which is new to him since he usually just blended in earlier in his career thanks to his 5’9 height. He appreciates that he’s being acknowledged as one of the Celtics’ best players; however, he says he won’t be satisfied until he’s acknowledged as one of the NBA’s best players.

“It’s nice – it’s pretty cool – but I want it to get to the point where everyone respects me that way and everyone looks at me as that guy,” Thomas said of being widely regarded as Boston’s best player. “I want to be that guy. I’m going to do whatever it takes to [be a star] and work tremendously hard until I’m that guy. I like having that kind of pressure on me and having everything on my shoulders. That’s what I work for: to be one of the best players in the NBA, one of the best players in the world. I want to be a guy who can carry a team. That’s what everyone wants growing up – you want to be that guy. I’ll do whatever it takes to be that. If that’s my role and what the [coaches] want me to do and what this organization sees out of me, then so be it and I’ll take full advantage of that.

“I still feel underrated, no doubt about it. I’ve always felt that way, but I’m going to earn my respect no matter what. I work extremely hard and I don’t want to be given anything. I want to earn it and get that respect from people. When you work hard on your craft – when you work as hard as the stars do – that’s how you earn people’s respect. Winning obviously takes care of everything too, and I think I did gain more respect from being on a playoff team. I just want to build on that and show the world that I’m one of the best players in the NBA.”

Thomas certainly emerged as one of Boston’s most important players last year after the trade, which becomes evident when taking a deeper look at some of his advanced statistics.

When Thomas was on the court, Boston had a remarkable 109.2 offensive rating. When he was off the court? Their offensive rating dropped to 98.8. A player’s offensive rating is the number of points their team scores per 100 possessions when they’re on the floor. Thomas’ on-court offensive rating was by far the highest of any Celtic player. Putting those numbers into perspective, a 109.2 offensive rating would’ve ranked third in the NBA last season (behind only the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors). Meanwhile, a 98.8 offensive rating would’ve ranked 27th in the NBA (ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets).

IsaiahThomas_InsideCeltics1Offensive box plus/minus is another stat that shows Thomas’ effectiveness, as it tracks how a player fared offensively per 100 possessions relative to league average. With Boston, Thomas’ OBPM was 6.4. Only four players finished with a higher OBPM last season (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden). Now Thomas’ Boston sample size is obviously smaller than those players, but his full-season OBPM of 4.6 still ranked eighth in the league.

Not to mention, Thomas was incredibly efficient last year. His player efficiency rating for the entire 2014-15 season was 20.6, ranking 32nd in the NBA and first among all reserves. He finished with a higher PER than some All-Stars, such as John Wall, Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant among others. Looking solely at his time in Boston, his PER was an even better 22.3. That would’ve ranked 15th in the NBA and fourth among all points guards (behind only Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul).

Boston relied heavily on Thomas – and understandably so – as evidenced by his 32.1 usage percentage. Only four players were involved more than Thomas: Westbrook (38.4), Dwyane Wade (34.7), DeMarcus Cousins (34.1) and LeBron James (just barely at 32.3).

Put simply, Thomas was a tremendous deadline addition for the Celtics. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thomas’ success was that he didn’t have any chemistry with his teammates or know head coach Brad Stevens’ system, so he was oftentimes just free-styling. Now that he’s comfortable with his teammates, coaches and plays, he expects to be even more productive in this upcoming season.

“Last season, after I got traded, everything I was doing [with the Celtics] was on the fly,” Thomas said. “It was basically like we were playing open gym. We had a lot of plays that Coach Stevens couldn’t put in because everything was happening so fast. They helped me figure some things out and let me just go out there and play. Having a full offseason to learn everything really helps me, and I think I should be even better because I’m more comfortable. I’ve learned the plays, I know the system and I have more familiarity with my teammates and the coaching staff. I’m looking forward to this season and hopefully it’s a good one.”

Thomas and Stevens have developed a solid bond and were in contact with one another quite a bit over the offseason.

“We have a good relationship,” Thomas said. “We’ve texted back and forth throughout the summer; sometimes he’ll just reach out to check in on me. We actually just went to dinner together last week – I went to his house for dinner with my family and it was really nice. We’re building our relationship, and we want to get as close as we possibly can and always be on the same page because the point guard is an extension of the head coach.”

Speaking of being a coach on the floor, one of Thomas’ goals for this season is to be a better leader for Boston. It’s difficult to join a team midseason and take on a significant leadership role, but now that he’s entering his first full season with the Celtics, he is hoping he can be a strong veteran presence.

“I’ve always been a leader ever since I was a little boy, so that comes second nature to me and I want to be a leader for this team,” Thomas said. “I’d love to be a team captain and one of those guys who everyone on the team can turn to when times are hard. I want to be looked at as a leader and someone who people can turn to at all times. Hopefully the coaching staff and organization chooses me to be one of those guys because I’d embrace being in that position.”

Throughout Thomas’ four-year career, he has been one of the most underrated players in the NBA. When given minutes, he has thrived and he has career averages of 15.6 points, 4.7 assists, 2.4 rebounds and a steal in 28.3 minutes per game. For a guy who was the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, with no guarantee he’d even make the Kings’ roster, he has exceeded all expectations and then some.

And it’s not like Thomas can only succeed as a sixth man. While he does do well as a spark plug off of the bench, he has also shown that he can be a very effective starter. In the 2013-14 season – his final campaign with the Kings and the last year he was used as a starter – he averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor in the 54 games he started. That year, his 20.5 PER was fourth among point guards (trailing only Paul, Westbrook and Curry) and his 21.2 PPG was also fourth among point guards (trailing only Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard).

Whether he starts this season for Boston remains to be seen. The numbers show that good things happen when Thomas is on the floor, so starting him seems like the best option. However, the team hasn’t said whether Thomas will surpass Marcus Smart on the depth chart. Danny Ainge did recently acknowledge that he and head coach Brad Stevens have discussed the possibility of putting Thomas in the starting five, but no decision has been made. For his part, Thomas has said all of the right things, saying that he’s fine with any role given to him and that he just wants to do what’s best for the team.

Thomas has constantly been doubted due to his 5’9, 185-pound frame; that’s the main reason he slipped so far on draft night. There have also been some concerns about his shoot-first mentality, but that’s extremely common among point guards in today’s NBA. Even though he has had so much success, he continues to use the fact that he’s often overlooked and doubted as motivation. Quite frankly, it’s odd that a player so productive has bounced around so much. The Kings could’ve kept Thomas last summer since he was a restricted free agent, but they chose to let him walk. Then, the Suns quickly traded him in a move that blindsided Thomas, as he had just gotten situated in Phoenix when he was uprooted. Now, since he has thrived with the Celtics and Ainge is a big fan of his game, it seems he may have found a home. Still, Thomas has learned never to assume he’s completely safe from being moved.

“It’s nice, but I always tell myself that you can never get too comfortable; in this business, in this league, you never know what’s going to happen,” Thomas said. “You can be here [with your team] today and then gone tomorrow. I’ve been through that. Last year, I definitely thought I was staying in Phoenix and then they traded me. You can never get too comfortable. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities given to you in your current situation. That’s what I’m doing here, and I’m hoping I can be here for a really long time.”

In addition to his production, another reason for Boston to keep Thomas long-term is that his contract is a bargain. His salary decreases each year, so he’ll make $6,912,869 this season, $6,587,132 in 2016-17, and $6,261,395 in 2017-18 (which will be excellent value over the final two years since the cap is about to skyrocket). Getting star-level production for that price is every executive’s wish.

And Thomas may not be done developing. He has only been in the league for four years, and he spent this summer working extremely hard in hopes of expanding his game and reaching his full potential. This offseason, he worked on his three-point shooting as well as his ability to finish at the basket.

“Mainly, I’ve been working on extending my range – being able to pull-up from anywhere – so that I’m a more consistent long-range shooter,” Thomas said. “I’ve also been working on a lot of one-foot shots, a la Steve Nash. I liked some of those shots he used to do. Those were my main [priorities] this summer, extending my range and working on different types of finishing moves around the basket. I’ve also been working on my mid-range game, and I have a one-foot three-pointer that I’m going to show off this season. I’m just trying to add different things to my game and become an even more complete player.”

For years, Thomas has been trying to prove himself and solidify himself as a quality NBA player. Now, he’s being viewed as a star and it’s his time to show what he can do with the spotlight pointed directly at him.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.

Shane Rhodes

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With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.

It’s been nearly two years since the Chicago Bulls kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.

That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.

So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?

What is Working

Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.

The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.

He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.

Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.

There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.

More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.

What Needs to Change

The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.

Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.

Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.

The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.

And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.

Focus Area: The Draft

As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.

Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.

Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.

Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.

Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.

Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.

Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.

The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough

Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

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NBA Daily: Who Deserves Coach of the Year?

As the season enters its final stages, Matt John takes a look at who are the prime candidates for Coach of the Year.

Matt John

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Last year, this writer started his tenure with Basketball Insiders writing about who had the best case for Coach of the Year. One year later, we’re revisiting the same discussion. This time, with an entirely new slate of candidates.

The Coach of the Year Award produces one of the most fascinating races in the NBA that doesn’t get as much attention. What makes it fascinating is that there are a variety of reasons for why a coach can win the award. Why it doesn’t get enough attention is because fans understandably care more about the players than the coaches, which is nobody’s fault.

This season, we have coaches with different reasons for why they are viable candidates for Coach of the Year. Some aren’t necessarily coaching the best team, or are making the most progress, but they’re making a good enough case that they should be in the discussion.

Please note that these are ranked in alphabetical order, not by who deserves it the most.

Mike Budenholzer

A few weeks ago, this writer detailed why the Bucks’ front office deserved credit for building the contender that they did, and he stands by it. However, while it’s on the front office to assemble a great team, it is on the coach to make the pieces work. That is what Coach Bud has done, and he’s done it marvelously.

Milwaukee sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 53-19 record, they have the best net rating in the NBA and Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the center in one of the most intense MVP races of all time. With the exception of the most recent untimely injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, this season could not have gone better for the Bucks.

Milwaukee always had the talent to be one of the league’s best teams. They just needed the right guy calling the shots. They have their man. Let’s be fair though. The Bucks needed Mike just as much as he needed them. So far, it’s worked for the best for both sides because now, Coach Bud has a very believable chance to join his mentor Gregg Popovich among the very few coaches who have won the award multiple times.

Dave Joerger

Anytime you make the NBA’s doormat look the most promising it’s been in over a decade, you automatically get your name among the NBA’s coaching elite.

Coming into the season, many thought the story surrounding the Kings was going to be about how good of a pick they were going to give Boston or Philadelphia in the lottery. That was proven wrong. Somehow, with 11 games left in the season, the Kings are still fighting for a playoff spot. Miraculously, they’ve become the NBA’s little engine that could.

Much credit should go to the improvement of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, along with the exciting play of Marvin Bagley III among others, but young talent can grow together without being cohesive. Joerger deserves credit for the youth’s improvement and cohesion getting Sacramento results. The one knock against Joerger is that the Kings probably aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re finally trending in the right direction.

For that, Joerger absolutely deserves to be in the conversation. Let’s just hope those rumors of tension with upper management turn out to be nothing more than gossip.

Michael Malone

It’s arrived later than they would have wanted, but hey, better late than never! The Nuggets’ new era has finally started, and it has started gloriously.

The Nuggets currently place second in the Western Conference and have clinched their first playoff berth since 2013. They have the third-highest offensive rating in the league, and one of the best all-around offensive bigs the league has ever seen in Nikola Jokic. The improvements of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, along with the surprising productivity coming from Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, have given the Nuggets a team swimming in depth.

This season has shown that just because you have depth on your squad does not mean that everything will fall into place – See Celtics, Boston – which is what makes Malone’s work in all the more impressive. It’s helped that he’s gotten more games out of Paul Millsap – who has the highest net rating on the team (plus-8.4) – but Malone has mixed and matched the roster about as well as Denver could have hoped.

There is a fair amount of skepticism as to whether the Nuggets will keep this up in the playoffs. Even if they don’t, Malone did his job extraordinarily.

Kenny Atkinson

Atkinson has been on the radar for a couple of years now since he’s had to clean up Brooklyn’s mess for the previous two seasons. This season, the Nets are starting to reap the benefits from the winning culture he has created.

Besides Joerger, Atkinson has the least impressive record of the coaches put on this list. Much like Joeger, in Atkinson’s case, it doesn’t matter because the jump his team has made from last season makes his case all the more legitimate. DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis have been dependable veterans, and the leaps that Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert have taken are too good to go unnoticed.

But most impressive of all, Atkinson seems to have unlocked D’Angelo Russell. After both the turmoil and the injuries that D-Lo has had to deal with since entering the league, he now has emerged as one of the league’s brighter young stars. It’s important that young talent be molded correctly otherwise it can stunt a player’s growth. We’ll never know if that would have happened in LA, but we now know that Russell’s move to Brooklyn was vital to his progress.

Brooklyn believed Atkinson was up to the task when he was first hired, and now, their faith is being rewarded.

Nate McMillan

Of all the coaches that were put on this list last year, only two resurfaced this season. You probably already know who one of them is, while McMillan is the other.

First off, hats off to McMillan for reviving his career as a head coach. Many were skeptical when Indiana replaced Frank Vogel with him. Since then, he’s only made them eat their words. His work last season was already impressive. He’s only continued to do so this season.

The Pacers are currently 44-29. If they just go 4-5 over their last nine games, they’ll match their record from last season. That’s remarkable considering they lost Victor Oladipo, i.e. their best player halfway through the season. They were on a 56-win pace before ‘Dipo’s injury, but his numbers actually declined this season, which shows that the team itself has grown.

Indiana currently is tied for the second-best defensive rating in the league (105.9) thanks to the likes of Myles Turner, which has mitigated Oladipo’s absence. They haven’t been great since Victor went down, but they’ve done well enough to stick with Boston and Philly in the playoff race. For that, Nate deserves recognition.

Nick Nurse

The new kid on the block had a tall order when the Raptors replaced Dwane Casey with him as head coach. So far, he’s run with it.

It’s likely Toronto won’t be able to match last season’s regular season win total. Their defense has stayed the same, but their offense has taken a step back this season, going from the second-highest in the league to the seventh. Nobody seems too concerned about that because the general feeling is that this is the best Raptors team ever assembled.

Kawhi Leonard has looked as good as ever. Pascal Siakam has exploded onto the scene as perhaps the team’s second-best all-around player. Serge Ibaka’s having his most efficient season in years. New additions Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin have fit in without much trouble. The list goes on.

Nurse had a lot to juggle when he was appointed head coach, and so far, he’s filling in well for the departed Casey. We’ll have to see if he gets Toronto past its playoff demons, but what a season he’s had.

Gregg Popovich

Just when you think the Spurs are down for the count, they find ways to stay relevant. They’ve done this so many times that you’d think the national media would learn not to count them out. Somehow we still do, and we’re always wrong.

To recap, Coach Pop lost his best player (Leonard) during the summer. He lost his most promising young player (Dejounte Murray) just before the season started. Two of the most iconic Spurs ever – Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – left the team. His two best players – LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan – are not reliable three-point shooters in a league that’s become increasingly reliant on floor spacing. It was supposed to be the start of the Spurs’ descent.

For a while, it looked that way, but as the season is winding down, it appears San Antonio isn’t going anywhere. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games, they have the sixth-highest offensive rating in the league, and most ironic of all, they have the best three-point shooting in the league at almost 40 percent.

It’s fair to say that this has been fantastic work by Popovich, but when was the last time he fell short of that description?

Doc Rivers

Rivers has plenty of evidence to support that he’s one of the league’s best coaches. He won Coach of the Year back in 2000 and led one of the most dominant basketball teams in the 21st century in 2008, but this season might just be his best work yet.

The Clippers looked like they were about to start rebuilding, but instead opted to build a winning culture. Doc’s coaching has put guys who know who they are in positions to thrive. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – all of them, no matter where they are at in their career, have played excellent in the role Doc gave them. Oh, and has it been brought up that the Clippers traded their best player and haven’t slipped at all?

By doing this, Doc went back to his roots during his days as the head coach of the Magic. There were no elite players on the team, but guys who knew what they were supposed to do. What makes this Clippers team more impressive team than that Magic team is the Western Conference in 2019 is much tougher than the Eastern Conference was in 2000.

This could do so much for the Clippers. After the Magic’s impressive run in 2000, they landed Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and almost Tim Duncan. If Doc continues to impress, a certain LA-native and Canadian resident might be donning a Clippers uniform.

There are some tough omissions, such as Quin Snyder, Brett Brown and Billy Donovan. The difference between them and the others mentioned is that they’ve reasonably met expectations. All of them are coaching playoff teams. It’s just that their respective teams or where we thought they’d be.

That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve consideration. It’s just that their case isn’t as strong as the others mentioned above.

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NBA Daily: Fixing the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with the rebuilding New York Knicks.

Drew Maresca

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It is nearly April and that means the NBA postseason has begun to take shape. But while a number of teams’ posture for higher seeding, the season is already all but over for others – four to be exact.

Basketball Insiders is bringing back its annual “Fixing” series to provide a blueprint for all four teams to right their respective ships. We will continue along in this series by examining the New York Knicks.

Unofficially the 2018-19 season has been mostly inconsequential for the Knicks since opening night. Expectations were low to begin with – a fact that was amplified by a mid-season trade of Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas. The Knicks are approaching another make-or-break offseason, which has added pressure considering their championship drought and the rumors of free agent interest.

As far as their current roster, the Knicks haven’t shown much progress this season. They are currently on a slide in which they’ve won only one of their last 11 games, six of which were lost by double figures. But there is still lots to look forward to. The Knicks have the second youngest roster in the league, and their rookies and younger players now have another year of experience under their belts. Additionally, their leadership group projects a thoughtfulness not seen in Madison Square Garden since Donnie Walsh-Mike D’Antoni, which was surprisingly short-lived.

What is Working

Coach David Fizdale is still in his first season as the Knicks’ head coach. While he appears to have struggled getting his system across to the team, Fizdale is still widely seen as an above-average NBA mind who is well-respected around the league. He received clemency this season considering the lack of talent on the team’s opening day roster. Hiring Fizdale was about building a culture. Like him or not, Fizdale will receive at least another season to prove his worth. Further, his connections across the league (and more specifically to the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT) have granted him a relatively high profile. But coaches don’t get terribly long leashes, especially in New York. Fizdale would be best served by a playoff-birth (at least) in 2020.

Dennis Smith Jr. is another bright spot for the Knicks. He came to New York courtesy of the Porzingis-to-Dallas trade at the deadline. Smith Jr. has been a difference maker in New York so far, looking far more like the second-team all-rookie player he was last season. He posted 14.6 points per game on 41.6 percent shooting along with averaged 6 assists per contest in his first 17 games as a Knick. He has sat out the last four games with back soreness, which seems to be precautionary – after all, the Knicks aren’t competing for a playoff spot.

Smith Jr.’s shooting must improve, especially from three (29%) and the free-throw line (58.6%), but he is clearly more comfortable in the lead-guard role – one which he’s returned to since joining New York. While he would obviously prefer to remain the starting point guard, a player of Smith Jr.’s caliber is an asset in the starting lineup or coming off the bench.

The two more unheralded of the Knicks’ rookies have also looked significantly better than they were expected to. Allonzo Trier already looks like an NBA veteran thanks to his polished offensive game, averaging 10.9 points per game on nearly 45% shooting and 39% from three. Trier has demonstrated the ability to create his own shot against elite defenders. He has his share of deficiencies, but he looks like an NBA player, and the Knicks have him under contract next season (with a team option) at only $3.5 million.

But Trier wasn’t the only talent the Knicks lucked into in last year’s draft. Mitchell Robinson – the  36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft – dropped into the second-round thanks to a combination of too limited a body of work (Robinson withdrew from Western Kentucky University prior to the start of the collegiate season in 2017) and poor advice from his former agent to skip the Draft Combine. But Robinson looks like a first-rounder now. His combination of athleticism and length have proven to be huge assets to him and the team; he recently tied a Patrick Ewing’s Knicks’ rookie record for consecutive games with a block (28). He also passed Kristaps Porzingis to set the Knicks’ franchise record for most blocks amongst rookies and he’s among the best in the league at blocking three-point field goal attempts (8 of his 35 blocks in February resulted from three-point attempts). Robinson has also improved his early-season foul woes. And while it’s still something to work on, Robinson made strong enough progress to affect the game on a regular basis in his first year in the league.

What Needs to Change

The Knicks expect lots of change this offseason.

The team’s youth and lack of continuity is apparent on the defensive end. They rank 26th in adjusted defensive rating and they average the third worst margin of victory per game (-8.86 points).

But it’s not just their defense that must improve; the Knicks also need help on the offensive end. Specifically, the Knicks need more efficient scorers – they are the third lowest scoring team despite generating the 16th most field goal attempts per game – and they especially need three-point shooters (26th in three-point percentage).

The Knicks also hope to see improvement from individual players, like Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina was still an above-average defender in his sophomore campaign – although receiving far less fanfare for it – but he exhibited no growth on the offensive end. In fact, his PER and win share per game both went down this season from his rookie year. Ntilikina entered the NBA as an 18-year-old rookie with a limited offensive repertoire. And while he’ll enter his third season at only 21 years old, the time for improvement is now. Ntilikina must demonstrate a more consistent jump shot – he shot only 30% from between 16 feet and three-point range – as well as a more deliberate offensive approach. While the latter stems from his philosophical approach to the game, he can realize improvements on the former by repetition and hard work (e.g., Kemba Walker, who shot 31% from deep in his first four seasons and 38% in his past four, including this season).

Kevin Knox also struggled with consistency this season; case in point, Knox took 17, 14 and 14 shot attempts, respectively, in the team’s last three games. However, he shot a combined 16 field goal attempts across the two games prior to those. And this has been the case for much of the season. Knox has shown the ability to be a versatile scorer (ala Jayson Tatum or Tobias Harris), but he must work on remaining aggressive and engaged. Fortunately, Knox was the third youngest player selected in the 2018 NBA Draft and has more than enough time to develop an edge.

Focus Area: The Draft

The Knicks will enter the 2019 NBA Draft with as good odds as any other team at securing the first overall pick. Zion Williamson looks to be a transcendent talent around whom any team would love to build. But with the reworked Draft Lottery rules, the last place team has the same odds as the next two in the standings. And regardless if they get the first overall pick or not, rumors have swirled about the possibility that the Knicks could swap their 2019 first-round pick along with other assets for a bona fide star, like Anthony Davis.

In the event that the Knicks keep their pick, they can fall no lower than the fifth overall pick if they finish with the worst record in the league (which becomes sixth if they finish with the second-worst record). Assuming they finish with the worst overall record, their odds of landing each pick are as follows: 14% for last place, 13.4% chance for second to last, 12.7% for third to last, 12.0% for fourth to last and 47.9% for fifth to last.

This year’s draft is widely viewed as offering three sure things (Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett) and everyone else. The Knicks have approximately a 40% chance at selecting in the top three. If they do not secure the first overall pick, they will likely choose between Morant and Barrett. Either would fit nicely. Morant would likely push Smith Jr. off the ball, which hurt his efficiency a bit. But Morant scores the ball and distributes to teammates. Meanwhile, Barrett was slightly underwhelming in Williamson’s recent absence. Still, he is clearly a top-tier talent and if the Knicks end up with the second or third pick, either of these two would represent a strong edition.

If they drop to four or five, their decision becomes significantly more difficult. Cameron Reddish, Bol Bol, Jarrett Culver, De’Andre Hunter, Keldon Johnson, Romeo Langford, Jontay Porter and Kevin Porter – among others – would all warrant consideration with no clear-cut favorite at this point in time.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While the Knicks are in the driver’s seat for the first overall pick, free agency will be the Knicks’ main driver for improvement. The Knicks have only seven players under contract for 2019-20: Damyean Dotson, John Jenkins, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr. and Allonzo Trier  – as well as Henry Ellenson’s $1.6 million team option and Lance Thomas’ partial guarantee ($1 million). The Knicks will probably hang onto Ellenson. Unfortunately, if the Knicks seek to maximize cap space they must waive Thomas instead of paying his full $7.5 million, although they have until January 2020 to do so.

The team’s roster was arranged for flexibility, though. They missed on their targeted free agents in 2010, but the narrative around free agency and free agent destinations has changed in the past nine years. The Knicks are now seen as a plausible free agent destination. With that being said, there are rumors about their interest in adding Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – or two max-level free agents – to the roster. There are also rumors that suggest said interest is reciprocated. If the Knicks obtain Irving and Durant – or any combination of two stars – they will likely look to turn their young talent into a third star. If they are unable to procure superstar free agents, they should remain the course instead of overpaying for lesser players. The most interesting scenario, though, is if the Knicks win the draft lottery and sign Irving and Durant. What they do with the first pick (presumably Williamson) will reveal a lot to their fans and other franchises around the league.

The Knicks still have ten games left this season. Their younger players must remain locked in and continue learning as much as possible from guys like Lance Thomas and DeAndre Jordan. Next season will be here soon enough and the roster will likely see a tremendous amount of turnover. Hopefully for the Knicks and their fans, this is among – if not THE – last time for a long time that the offseason is more exciting than the regular season.

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