Last week, after all teams hit the trimester mark, we profiled the candidates for the NBA player awards.
This week, we pay tribute to the Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year candidates, while also looking behind the scenes at the suits who are making the big decisions in every NBA front office and/or practice facility.
As the Hawks tank, GM Travis Schlenk is nonetheless happy with two rookies he has delivered to Atlanta since taking over head coach Mike Budenholzer’s GM duties in May (Budenholzer is still the Hawks head coach). Both power forwards John Collins, the 19th pick in the draft, and undrafted Tyler Cavanaugh have proven to be good enough already to start in the NBA. Now armed with its own first-round pick—not to mention probable firsts from Minnesota and Houston too—Atlanta’s search for a franchise player might indeed prove fruitful, sooner rather than later.
The relationship with Nerlens Noel, out with thumb surgery until January, and the Dallas suits is surprisingly good, with the organization showing both patience in Noel’s rehab process and head coach Rick Carlisle spending time developing his young center into a better rim protector. If GM Donn Nelson can find that salary sweet spot for Noel in the offseason, there remains a good chance he remains a Maverick.
28. Sacramento Kings
The Kings feature one of the most unusual 15-man units, complete with a roster featuring four rookies, five sophomore and six NBA veterans with experience ranging anywhere from three years (JaKarr Sampson) to 17 (Zach Randolph) to 20 (Vince Carter). So one can see the logjams that occur at times when GM Vlade Divac wants to call up a G-League King for a look-see, while Coach David Joerger has his hands full trying to field an on-court team with a pseudo college-aged roster.
27. Phoenix Suns
With the head coach (Earl Watson) and star player (Eric Bledsoe) shuttled off about a month ago, interim head coach Jay Triano has done the tough job of winning over his team—to the point now where his Suns are campaigning that Triano take over the head coaching job long-term. Most importantly, top player Devin Booker wants Triano, a X-and-O’s innovator, to be his coach. And remember, Booker becomes a free agent in search of a junior-max contract this summer. His input may sway GM Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver.
26. Chicago Bulls
Even though Chicago teammates Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis aren’t communicating since their practice altercation in October, the Bulls front office and coaching staff did patch together some type of peace treaty between the two, enough to get Mirotic back on court again. And the results lately have been downright surprising and inspiring, with Chicago winning six straight since Mirotic’s return. Whatever midseason moves GM Gar Forman had in mind are now on hold to see what team Hoiberg has on his hands today.
When the Veeps of Basketball Ops Chris Wallace, John Hollinger and Ed Stefanski replaced head coach David Fizdale with J.B. Bickerstaff three weeks ago, it marked the third time a Bickerstaff became an interim head coach(dad Bernie did it with the L.A. Lakers, replacing Phil Jackson; son J.B. had done it once before with the Houston Rockets, replacing Kevin McHale). Despite the interim experience, the Grizzlies continue to spiral out of control, going 2-9 following Fizdale’s firing. Things could get worse with injured Mike Conley not due back until January. With Conley, Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons taking up $79-plus million of the team’s $100-plus million payroll the next two years, it will be difficult to find Bickerstaff’s replacement, especially if this losing trend continues.
New Orlando Magic GM Jeff Weltman is willing to let the season ride out, rather than make a move on a team that is an unknown quantity to both he and head coach Frank Vogel. In the offseason, however, look for Weltman to become aggressive when he is forced to deal somebody’s eight-figure contract in an effort to improve this roster (Bismack Biyombo, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic and Terrance Ross all make between $10 million and $17 million annually).
23. Brooklyn Nets
When GM Sean Marks acquired prospect Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas from the Philadelphia 76ers for veteran Trevor Booker two weeks ago, it was the latest prospect acquisition Marks managed from another team dissatisfied with its high lottery picks. In total now, through four various trades, Marks has landed the No. 2 and 3 picks from the 2015 NBA Draft (D’Angelo Russell and Okafor), Toronto’s first-round pick in 2018, along with the bloated contracts of Timofey Mozgov, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll—three vets who have combined to play 25 percent of the team’s minutes. For a franchise that traded away its last three first-round draft picks (and its 2018 first too), Marks has made the most of salvaging prospects the next best way.
22. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ college-aged players experiment is going rather well, with president of basketball ops Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka seeing their team of eight 22-and-under prospects playing 10-18 ball. Whether pending free agents Paul George or LeBron James want to join this subpar team of not-ready-for-prime-time players remains to be seen. But as contract time approaches for prospect Julius Randle, Coach Luke Walton can rest accordingly that he helped coach Randle up to become a player who is now worthy of earning an eight-figure contract from someone. Whether the Lakers pay him or keep the salary-cap space for another remains to be seen.
The Clippers poured a lot of offseason money into injured players (Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley), who have nothing to show for their efforts. Believe it or not, this time head coach Doc Rivers is absolved of much of the blame. Rivers, who relinquished his GM post to Lawrence Frank last summer, is still under pressure as most 11-18 coaches are. But owner Steve Ballmer has let it be known through backchannels that Rivers’ head coaching job is safe for, at least, another year.
20. Charlotte Hornets
Two weeks ago, associate head coach Stephen Silas replaced head coach Steve Clifford temporarily while Clifford dealt with an undisclosed health issue. The team has not fared well in Clifford’s absence, going 2-6 since December 8, with Cody Zeller going down with a knee injury two weeks ago not long after Nicolas Batum returned following a missing month-and-a-half of action.
Throughout The Process, Sixers head coach Brett Brown has remained true, through and through, and now is basking in true candidacy for Coach of the Year honors. Not many jump from a .341 winning percentage to .500 like Brown has, but it is his staff’s development of longtime Sixers—from Robert Covington to Joel Embiid to Ben Simmons—that makes Brown a top COY choice. That’s why when failed prospect Jahlil Okafor blasted Brown’s staff for not spending time on player development, it fell on deaf ears. Brown has a track record of success stories and three of those tales may end with an All-Star Game berth this season for the aforementioned trio.
It became déjà vu all over again for Anthony Davis after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted this week that the Boston Celtics were trying to acquire Davis in a blockbuster deal. The rumors reminded A.D. of the time a year ago when he also heard the Celtics were trying to make a deal happen. Then, A.D. said he confronted GM Dell Demps, who denied such a deal was ever discussed. Davis admits he still has his doubts, despite Demps’ denial, and reiterated to all he has no desire to leave New Orleans.
Forward James Johnson will be gone until New Year’s, which presents head coach Erik Spoelstra with the reoccurring theme of replacing Heat injured players once again. As for now he’s shuffling a deck without starters Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic, with cards also missing in his backup deck—from Johnson missing a couple weeks to others missing extended periods of time (Rodney McGruder and Okaro White).
Paul George has sent his signal to the front office—via the media—that he plans on being here in OKC throughout the 2017-18 season, and will not ask GM Sam Presti for a trade as he did in Indiana in June. Should Presti seek to receive something via trade for George rather than risking losing him for nothing in the summer, his first phone call probably would be to the Lakers. There, he could ask for—and probably receive—Randle and other prospects (perhaps Ivica Zubac and young combo guard Jordan Clarkson?).
You would think a team that lost its All-Star guard to free agency (Gordon Hayward) and All-NBA center to injuries (Rudy Gobert) might pack it in following that adversity. No so with Utah, which remains in the playoff hunt, despite being led by a cast of overachieving foreign players (Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha) meshing with outstanding prospects (such as Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell). GM Dennis Lindsey’s draft skills could not have been on better display when he plucked Mitchell with the 13th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, and Coach Quin Snyder’s development history came into play ever since, with his staff coaching up the ROY candidate. Now Jazz fans realistically see that the 21-year-old Mitchell one day has a chance to be every bit as good as Hayward was in his heyday.
14. New York Knicks
Who would have thought Jarrett Jack, Tim Hardaway and Enes Kanter would be a significant enough of an upgrade over Brandon Jennings, Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony to help the Knicks reach a playoff pace this season, as opposed to last season’s 31-51 finish? Granted, current management’s decision to lift the triangle mandate from Coach Jeff Hornacek’s offense was instrumental in the offensive improvement, but what gives to the defensive improvement? Perhaps the greater attention paid by defenders in challenging shots and owning the rebounding edge are things that come with the territory when a coach has the respect of his troops. Also, I am sure the Kanter acquisition helps a bit on the board disparity.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
The only person keeping GM Tom Thibodeau from winning Executive of the Year is head coach Tom Thibodeau, who plays his starters a League-high 71 percent of the time, which naturally wears them down the stretch to the point where they now rank dead last in fourth-quarter net points per 100 possessions (-10.1).
GM Neil Olshey saved his owner a luxury-liner’s boatload of money when he evaded luxury-tax penalties galore by exporting Mason Plumlee and Allen Crabbe before their eight-figure salaries hit the books. That said, head coach Terry Stotts’ troops have somewhat stagnated with Portland merely staying afloat in the plus-minus ledger of basketball talent acquisitions. What the critics have not noticed, however, is that both Stotts and Olshey have the Trail Blazers on path to make the playoffs for the fifth straight year and are doing so without one 30-year-old on the roster. More importantly, while trimming salary roster fat away, they have created a Portland squad that now plays top 5 level defense. It is only a matter of time that we see young prospects Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan and Noah Vonleh grow into players and then take this franchise back to 50-win standards and beyond.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of head coach Scott Brooks’ abilities is how well he develops prospects into players. We saw his success in Oklahoma City. Perhaps his best example in two seasons at Washington is Otto Porter, who to his own credit has improved immensely all five of his NBA seasons, even before he and Brooks ever linked up. That said, in two seasons of development with Brooks as his Wizards coach, Porter has seen his Player Efficiency Rating rise from 14.5 to 18.6 at age 24 and Real Plus-Minus rise from +1.51 to +3.86. It is just good to see GM Ernie Grunfeld’s faith in Porter—he signed the Wizard to a junior-max contract this summer—be rewarded by the player so quickly and efficiently on the floor.
10. Denver Nuggets
On Sports Illustrated TV, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone talks about his Golden State Warriors assistant days when he coached Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green “before they were superstars.” He coached them when they made their first of what later would become five straight playoff runs, including two NBA championships. Malone says—with talent ranging from bigs Nikola Jokic and injured Paul Millsap to guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray—that he sees the same thing happening in Denver. Or as Murray says, pointing to Harris, “He’s Klay. I’m Steph.”
No organization better pilfers other teams’ underappreciated talent better than Coach/GM Stan Van Gundy’s super-scout team, who have surrounded Detroit’s lottery picks Andre Drummond (2012 NBA Draft) and Stanley Johnson (2015 NBA Draft) with a starting lineup of cast-offs (Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson, Boston’s Avery Bradley and Orlando’s Tobias Harris). With SVG looking for a forward upgrade for Johnson now, speculation is running rampant around the League that Detroit’s next deal could go down sometime the next few weeks.
Executive of the Year candidate Kevin Pritchard took criticism from everybody (ahem) when he unloaded All-Star Paul George to Oklahoma City for Thunder disappointments Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, two young players who have lifted the Pacers back up to playoff status once again with their surprising, yet most efficient levels of play. By getting two good players for one, Pritchard not only salvaged a trade demand that could have set the franchise back, he instead put Indiana back on path to East contention and served notice to all critics that he ain’t no sucker.
Bucks GM Jon Horst, who became an Executive of the Year candidate a month ago, has made it his life’s mission to make Milwaukee the lengthiest and most athletic team in the League. He struck gold in November when Horst was able to steal point guard Eric Bledsoe from the Suns for Greg Monroe’s expiring contract, along with protected first- and second-round picks. The Bucks have gone 12-7 since linking Bledsoe up with wingspan-blessed Bucks teammates (John Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Tony Snell). The Bucks are now in wide release, soon coming to an arena near you.
Both Dwane Casey and Masai Ujiri are up for Coach and Executive of the Year honors, but will only win the vote if Toronto overtakes the East and garners the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. Both Coach and GM believe their “culture reset” has the new-and-improved Raptors on that championship path. Instead of relying on Top 10 offense and defense via two-star stall-ball, the Raptors now employ a more faster pace (10th in the NBA this season instead of 22nd, like last season), transition-oriented, ball-movement offense. Meanwhile, the staff is getting more rest for Toronto’s stars so that they can become more efficient throughout the game and rely on the influx of talent, thanks to the 2017 acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and C.J. Miles; drafting of All-Rookie candidate O.G. Anunoby; promotions of Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Fred Van Vleet.
It will take years for GM Koby Altman to get his due for salvaging the Kyrie Irving trade demand, but things are already looking brighter with All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas’ pending return any week now. Throw in 20-year-old rookie center Ante Zizic, who is an outstanding prospect (has 13 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks in 39 NBA minutes), and Brooklyn’s first-round draft pick (likely a lottery selection), and you see how much better this Jae Crowder acquisition can become in the years to come. Altman won’t win the Executive of the Year award this season, but critics may come to realize the Cavs GM deserves this award in retrospect years from now.
4. San Antonio Spurs
There will be those who canonize Gregg Popovich for getting the Spurs to play 19-8 ball without Kawhi Leonard, but credit must also be doled out to GM R.C. Buford, who chose to go all-in on aging 30-year-olds LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay multi-year, eight-figure deals—extensions in the case of the two former—when most questioned the wisdom in doing so. As a result, the two starting bigs Aldridge and Gasol played All-Star level ball without Kawhi and kept San Antonio in the Western Conference top-seed hunt, while Gay made himself a valuable sixth man in the Spurs system. By offering vets multi-year deals with a last-year buyout option, the Spurs are able to take advantage of salary-cap rules that keep their vets happy without committing too much cap room to the future. Smart business moves, as always.
3. Boston Celtics
Who else, but Coach Brad Stevens, could survive a season-ending injury to his Butler-adopted son Gordon Hayward, and get prospects Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to play pro ball at such a young age, making the Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Al Horford triumvirate the No. 1 defense in the League? No one. That is why Stevens is the heir to Coach Popovich’s throne as the best Coach of the Year every year once Pop decides to retire. On top of that, Ainge deserves the 2017-18 Executive of the Year award for pulling the trigger on Irving, even if he needed to get rid of four assets to do it. Granted, in time, critics may say he gave up too much. But for the here and now, Ainge made the 2017-18 Celtics better and a true NBA championship contender. For that alone, he deserves the ExOY for this season at the very least.
By combining 27-foot shooters with ravenous rim attackers, elite defenders and peerless point guards, GM Daryl Morey and Coach Mike D’Antoni have changed the look of 21st Century basketball and have given the dynastic Golden State Warriors another challenger to their throne. By staggering the minutes of James Harden and Chris Paul, D’Antoni has shown the League that his dynamic duo is just as dangerous apart as it is together. But teaming newcomers Luc Mbah a Moute with P.J. Tucker on Trevor Ariza frontlines, Mike D also is showing that he can coach defense after all, with Houston ranking Top 5 in defensive efficiency all season long. And by converting Clint Capela into a DeAndre Jordan-like center, CP3 has shown the world that Houston’s next All-NBA talent did not have to be imported, but indeed could be home grown. Ladies and gents, meet the masters of the NBA universe, DM and MD.
1. Golden State Warriors
Annual Coach of the Year candidate Steve Kerr acknowledges the Warriors are playing their two true centers—Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee—even less than before because centers nowadays have to be quick enough to guard pick-and-roll ball-handlers and three-point shooters. Pachulia, who has seen his minutes per game drop from 18 last season to 14 this season, and McGee, from 10 to 8, reportedly understand the situation as more power forwards on the team log playing time at the Warriors’ center position—from Draymond Green to David West to Jordan Bell—than ever before.