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NBA AM: Some Teams Still Trying To Find “The Guy”

There are going to be two NBA coaching job open for sure when the season ends, but could a few more be in the works too?… Changing the Post-Season?.. Could Kentucky really play in the NBA?

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In Search Of “The Guy”:  They say coaches are hired to ultimately be fired, and in the NBA that tends to be more true than not. It’s far easier to replace a coach than replace a roster and the right coach can often take a 30-win team to 45 or 50 wins in a single season.

There are currently two NBA teams with interim head coaches – the Orlando Magic and the Denver Nuggets. Both franchises fired their coaches mid-season and are expected to conduct a full and thorough search this offseason. With less than a month left in the regular season, where is each job headed and who else might be on the move?

Orlando Magic

The Magic under interim head coach James Borrego are not winning a lot of games, but they are playing better. There is a sense that Orlando is going to conduct a full and thorough search, and it seems they want to find a more proven and experienced coach. With that said, it’s not going to be as cut and dry as grabbing a named guy. The Magic have been trying to build a culture and finding the right guy to lead that culture on the floor is still the goal for management.

The wrinkle becomes ownership. The Magic have a pretty large group of voices that are involved in the high-level decision making and there is a sense that ownership wants a known commodity and that’s why you heard names like Mark Jackson and Scott Skiles when the team opted to fire Jacque Vaughn. It may have been ownership pushing for those individuals rather than management.

If current management is allowed to hire the next head coach, Borrego and new lead assistant coach Igor Kokoskov may get the chance to finish what they have started.

While there have been a number of names linked to Orlando’s coaching job, sources close to the process say there is not a short list yet, and that when the Magic begin talking to would-be replacements, they intend to be thorough. When the Magic hired Vaughn, they interviewed more than a dozen candidates and that process does not look to be changing this time around.

There is a sense that the Magic want to go with someone more established – the question is, will the more established guys take the Magic job if it seems everyone isn’t on the same page?

Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets are in a similar situation with interim head coach Melvin Hunt. The team is responding to Melvin and for the first time since George Karl, there appears to be confidence from the players in what they are getting from the bench.

Nuggets GM Tim Connelly has been clear that his team intends to conduct a full and thorough search and that Hunt would be in the mix. When Connelly was hired, he was sort of a left-field selection and a week later the team hired Shaw.

It’s easy to say the Nuggets rushed to make the hire, but the real answer is that Connelly didn’t necessarily know his team any more than he knew Shaw and these last two seasons were an exploration for everyone.

Connelly has a better feel for where he wants to take his team now, and has a better understanding of what his team needs in a head coach.

Hunt could very well land the job in a full-time way, but there is a sense that Connelly and team president Josh Kroenke want to bring in a named guy to get the Nuggets back into the playoff hunt. A name to watch is former Mark Jackson. There is a sense that Denver is going to make a run at him when the season ends, and Hunt and others could get real consideration if Jackson passes.

While the Orlando and Denver head coaching jobs are already open, there are a couple of situations to watch that could open up a few more chairs.

New Orleans Pelicans

The narrative for most of the season has been if the Pelicans don’t make the postseason that head coach Monty Williams and possibly general manager Dell Demps could be in trouble. Both are exceptionally good at what they do, the problem is ownership in New Orleans wants the postseason and has been lead to believe that they have the talent to be there. Both Demps and Williams have been on the job since 2010, so there doesn’t seem to be a lot more room for error.

This one really could be as simply as ‘win and you stay in’ or ‘lose and you go home.’

Chicago Bulls

This one is arguably the most public of the bunch. There has been a long running feud between head coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office. This one really isn’t as sinister and nasty as it’s made to seem in the press, but rather a case of “I’ll do my job and you do yours.” How this season ends might be how the story ends. If the Bulls get bounced in the first round, a messy divorce seems inevitable. If the Bulls go deep in the postseason and really compete, the narrative likely changes.

Thibodeau is under contract for next season (and one more after that), so in order for him to leave he’ll either need to be fired or “traded” like the Celtics did with Doc Rivers, where the Bulls extract compensation in exchange for letting Thibodeau out of his deal.

There is a sense that scenario is more likely than almost any, simply because Thibodeau does have value.

If Thibodeau becomes available, that could alter a lot of the landscape as he’d be the top coaching candidate in the marketplace.

Oklahoma City Thunder

This one is a long-shot at best, but there continues to be speculation that a coaching change in Oklahoma City may be required, especially if the team doesn’t make the postseason.

Sources close to the process say that any talk of Scott Brooks being replaced is not originating from the Thunder and that a coaching change is the least likely change the team makes.

With that said, it’s a situation to watch because the Thunder are on the clock and missing the postseason could start a domino effect that forces the Thunder to make a splashy move, especially with Kevin Durant’s upcoming free agency next July.

Thunder GM Sam Presti and Brooks have a good working relationship so it would take something of a locker room mutiny – or an edict from ownership – to force his hand.

Neither seems overly likely, but because expectations are as high as they are for the Thunder, failing to make the postseason will put Brooks name in the hopper, even if it’s unlikely to mean anything.

Minnesota Timberwolves

When team president Flip Saunders took over the head coaching job, it was clear that he would rather have hired someone else and he tried. The Wolves did the dance with Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger and ultimately opted not to pursue him and he reached a new deal with Memphis.

There is a sense that this summer Saunders may again look for a new head coach and step back and return to just being the team president, especially now that he has more of a feel for his team and its needs.

The frontrunner for the job, should Saunders step back, may be lead assistant Sam Mitchell, although that’s far from decided.

Saunders has tried to steer clear of his future being a storyline, but there is a sense among NBA insiders that if Saunders can hand off the coaching duties to the right person, he would. It will be interesting to see if he does that this summer.

The NBA regular season ends on April 15 and some answers on the coaching front won’t be too far behind.

Fixing The Playoffs?:  There has been a lot of talk recently about the idea of changing the NBA’s postseason format. Most of the changes do away with the current conference system, which awards postseason berths to the top eight teams in each conference in favor of fielding a playoff comprised of the 16 teams with the best record.

That sounds right doesn’t it? The 16 best teams should get in. Or does it?

First, let’s look at how we got here; a lot of the structures in the NBA exists because that’s how it’s been since the game started. Geography and travel played a big role in dividing up how teams play, and how frequently. They also helped define some rivalries.

In the modern era, travel isn’t nearly what it used to be as every team in the league travels by first-class charter and the ability to travel on game night is easier than ever before. Players are used to leaving the arena and climbing on a plane and arriving in a new city that night and even playing the very next day.

So geography and travel isn’t nearly the burden it once was. But the bigger issue in fielding the 16 best teams isn’t just the travel, it’s the possible outcomes.

If the playoffs started today, we’d see matchups that look like this:

WEST EAST
(1) Golden State (54-13)
(8) Oklahoma City (38-30)

(4) Portland (44-22)
(5) Los Angeles (44-25)

(3) Houston (45-22)
(6) Dallas (44-25)

(2) Memphis (47-21)
(7) San Antonio (42-25)

(1) Atlanta (53-15)
(8) Boston (30-37)

(4) Chicago (41-28)
(5) Washington (40-28)

(3) Toronto (41-27)
(6) Milwaukee (34-34)

(2) Cleveland (44-26)
(7) Miami (31-36)

However, if you seeded the playoffs with the top 16 teams, and used the same seeding format we typically use where the top team plays the lowest team, the outcome changes things pretty dramatically.

Bracket 1 Bracket 2
(1) Golden State (54-13)
(16) Milwaukee (34-34)

(8) Cleveland (44-26)
(9) San Antonio (42-25)

(5) Portland (44-22)
(12) Washington (40-28)

(7) Dallas (44-25)
(10) Toronto (41-27)

(2) Atlanta (53-15)
(15) Phoenix (35-33)

(3) Memphis (47-21)
(14) New Orleans (37-30)

(4) Houston (45-22)
(13) Oklahoma City (38-30)

(6) LA Clippers (44-25)
(11) Chicago (41-28)

Only six Eastern Conference teams make the dance and only two get home court, with Cleveland not having home court against seven other teams.

Equally, the East to West travel is fairly extreme for Golden State versus Milwaukee (1,832 miles), Atlanta versus Phoenix (1,845 miles) and Portland versus Washington (2,349 miles ). That’s not exactly a day trip even in first class accommodations.

The other outcome is that given how this seeds out, it’s more likely than not that you’d end up with two West Coast teams in the Finals. Is that what we really want? From a business point of view, is that the best course of action?

Sure, fielding the teams with the top 16 records sounds like a good idea, but the real question isn’t whether a sub .500 team gets into the dance. The question is has that somehow tainted the process along the way? Would letting Phoenix or New Orleans in at the expense Miami or Boston really change the balance of power in the postseason?

Would those opening games be more competitive or somehow more contested?

The unintended consequence of changing the system wouldn’t simply reward those teams that won more games, it would alter what we have come to understand the postseason to be about.

The Conference system isn’t broken; it has yielded great basketball for more than 60 years. It has created rivalries and matchups that have become part of basketball lore.

Changing the system might benefit a few teams, but it would do so at the expense of others. Do we really need the system changed or is it just fun to talk about because it would yield new combinations of matchups?

The latter sounds more likely.

Kentucky And The NBA:  Every year, this concept surfaces: Could the team that went undefeated in the college season compete in the NBA? Former NBA coach and current Southern Methodist head coach Larry Brown said he thought that the current team from Kentucky not only could play in the NBA, but would be good enough to make the postseason.

Really?

Every year, someone says something like this and it’s fun fodder because it will never happen. But the truth of the matter is you have to look no further than some of the NBA rosters sitting outside the playoffs in the NBA to not only dispel that notion, but you have to almost laugh at the insanity of the concept.

It’s safe to say that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are better players than anyone on the Kentucky squad right now. They are in the primes of their basketball careers and despite some injuries, they are arguably two of the top players in the world and their team is just inside the curve in the West.

You can put Phoenix, New Orleans and even Utah in that discussion. You have to get pretty far down the standings to get to teams where Kentucky wins the talent game.

In the East, it’s the same story. Boston has more NBA-level talent than Kentucky, as does Detroit, Charlotte and Indiana.

It’s easy to look at the darling squad in college and say they could compete in the NBA and maybe they could. The 76ers win games in the NBA and no one is going to accuse that team of being loaded with talent.

What’s overlooked and often insulting about the notion of instant-impact college guys is that it rarely happens. Look no further than the current draft class. It took top overall pick Andrew Wiggins almost two months of NBA basketball to find his way. Jabari Parker wasn’t a run-away hit either. Anthony Davis, who is arguably the brightest young player in the game, took almost a year and half to find his stride. No one on Kentucky’s roster compares to any of those three players.

It is fun to talk about how good a star-studded college team could be in the NBA because it’s one of those unprovable concepts.

The truth is the boys are not nearly good enough to play with the men – even the young men – and the 82-game schedule and the 24-second shot clock equalizes the hottest young guys.

We play a physically demanding brand of basketball at this level and while Kentucky is having a special season, they’d get killed in a series against even the worst NBA teams, mainly because the talent level on even the worst team is better than the fourth and fifth player on UK’s squad. That’s not a knock on Kentucky, that’s an affirmation of the fact that NBA teams have more proven players than Kentucky does.

Don’t fall into the trap of buying into this year’s hype. Kentucky is a very special team and could run the table to a National Championship. In the NBA, that would be good enough to be in the lottery. That’s how different the talent gap is from there to here.

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

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