Coaching in the NBA is simultaneously one of the most over AND underappreciated aspects of the game of basketball. Oftentimes, team-wide success and/or failure is placed solely on the shoulders of a coaching staff. The truth is, is that talent is going to be the equalizing factor for as long as the NBA exists. Good coaching can enhance a solid squad, and bend them into a great team. All the while, an ineffective coach can withhold a team from maximizing their potential.
Precisely grading the job of each coach is a difficult task, with all the nuance involved. The NBA season is a marathon of a race, with thousands of variables in play. No one way of assessing value is perfect, but offering praise to coaches who’ve shined brightest this season is a reasonable enough demand.
When the Philadelphia 76ers concluded the 2015-2016 season at 10-72, who in the right mind would have them pegged for a playoff spot in 2017-2018, just 2 seasons later? With just under a month remaining in the regular season, a goal that many once perceived as a pipe dream is set to become reality.
Having not one, but TWO generational talents in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons certainly helps Brett Brown’s cause, but few coaches have enabled a blossoming star in the way that he has with Simmons. In a profit driven, win at all costs league, handing a franchise over to a 21-year old rookie is unheard of. Even more rare, is said rookie taking the responsibility in stride, and running with it.
In 34.5 minutes per game, Simmons is averaging 16.2 PTS/7.8 REB/7.9 AST/1.7 STL/0.9 BLK on a 55.0 true shooting percentage. Only 4 other players have ever matched or exceeded Simmons’ production in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game [Magic Johnson (4x), Russell Westbrook (3x), Fat Lever (2x), Michael Jordan (1x)].
Aside from Simmons and Embiid, Philly has received contributions from J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric, forming one of the league’s most murderous lineups. The core has posted a net rating of +19.4 in 556 minutes, sucking the air out of teams early on in the evening. There’s still work to be done in regards to the team maintaining leads (There net rating drops to +1.0 in the 2nd quarter, 16th in the NBA), and they have struggled in non-Embiid minutes (-4.3 in 1547 minutes), but Brett Brown is brewing a young core that will be a force for years to come down in Philadelphia.
Wow, it has been quite a season out in “The Six”. On pace for a franchise record 60-wins, and homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference Playoffs, Toronto has shown exactly what a culture recalibration can do for a team looking up at their perceived peak.
Last season, the Raptors passed the ball 273.4 times per game (27th); this season, that number has jumped to 299.7 (17th). More ball movement has decreased the number of inefficient isolations. Over past 2 seasons, the Raptors have seen a decrease in isolations (8.5% in 2016-2017 to 5.8% in 2017-2018), and a massive jump in 3-point attempt frequency (Efficient shots!), going from 30.5% (22nd) to 39.4% (4th) this season. Improving their shot chart has allowed an already elite offense (109.8 OFF RTG/6th in 2016-2017) to reach heights (111.6 OFF RTG/3rd in 2017-2018) previously believed to be statistical improbabilities.
Toronto has taken the losses of Patrick Patterson and Corey Joseph in stride, bouncing back with an even more effective bench. Losing a plus-minus monster like Patterson and a reserve guard as steady as Joseph foreshadowed Toronto becoming more reliant on their all-star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Instead of dialing up their backcourt’s usage, they’ve kicked the breaks a bit, giving the duo more rest in game, and leaning on the supporting cast more often.
2016-2017: 35.4 Minutes Per Game/34.3% Usage Rate
2017-2018: 34.1 Minutes Per Game/29.9% Usage Rate
2016-2017: 37.4 Minutes Per Game/24.9% Usage Rate
2017-2018: 32.1 Minutes Per Game/21.9% Usage Rate
Few teams have the luxury of playing better basketball with their starters off the floor. The lineup of Lowry/DeRozan/OG Anunoby/Serge Ibaka/Jonas Valanciunas posts a very, very, incredible net rating of +11.7. When the starters rest up, and Casey unleashes his bench mob (Fred VanVleet/Delon Wright/C.J. Miles/Pascal Siakam/Jakob Poltl) the Toronto Raptors post a net rating of +23.3.
Those two lineups are Toronto’s first (681 minutes) and second (272 minutes) most popular lineups.
There’s some debate on the value the back-end of a bench brings during the playoffs, but being able to trust 10+ guys to contribute under the right circumstance is never a cause for concern.
Come mid-April, the Raptors will need to prove that their habitual growth as unit will stick under the duress of playoff basketball. As long as LeBron James resides out East, the conference will run through him. Wanna represent the conference in the NBA Finals? Cool, you’ll need to get through the best player in the world.
All of that is still remains true.
But the Toronto Raptors are set to present King James a worthy challenge to his throne.
That is the Houston Rockets record is when Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela all play.
Giving Mike D’Antoni two hall of fame guards to screen roll teams to death with is just unfair. Per Synergy Sports Technology, offense derived out of James Harden pick & rolls produces 1.004 points per possession (77th percentile), and offense derived out of Chris Paul pick & rolls is producing 1.062 PPP (88th percentile). In isolation, those numbers jump to 1.219 PPP (94th percentile) and 1.16 PPP (91st percentile), respectively.
Along with their offensive brilliance (113.6 OFF RTG/1st), the Rockets have also put together a defense with enough switchability to hang with anyone. Their defensive rating of 104.6 currently ranks as the 10th best defense in the NBA. With Luc Mbah a Moute on the floor, that number drops to 100.4, which would pace the NBA.
Being able to throw out several wings (Trevor Ariza, Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green, Joe Johnson) with Clint Capela and two of James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon arms the Rockets with nearly limitless options in taking down the Golden State Warriors (Or even, dare I say, the Cleveland Cavaliers/Toronto Raptors).
Winning the award last season likely strips D’Antoni of the chance to win it this season, as the only coach to win it in consecutive seasons was Larry Brown in 1974-1975 and 1975-1976 (ABA), but whether he claims some hardware or not shouldn’t diminish the job he’s done this season.
It’s been one of his finest.
Few things are as agonizing for both a team and a player as a season-ending injury is. On January 26th, star player (And upcoming free agent) DeMarcus Cousins fell to the floor in the closing seconds of a 115-113 win over the Rockets. Later on that evening, Cousins was diagnosed with a torn left achilles.
At the time of his injury, the Pelicans were 27-21, and 6th place in the Western Conference standings. With the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Clippers all within 3-games, the Pelicans were suddenly at risk for a mid-season collapse.
Since the DeMarcus Cousins’ injury, the Pelicans have gone 15-9, actually moving themselves up into 5th place in the conference standings.
Over that same span of time, both Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday have been literal weapons of war.
Anthony Davis (23 G): 36.7 MPG/31.1 PPG/12.5 REB/2.0 AST/2.0 STL/3.0 BLK/51.7 FG%/34.7 3P%/85.3 FT%
Jrue Holiday: (23 G): 35.4 MPG/19.7 PTS/4.5 REB/7.2 AST/1.3 STL/1.1 BLK/46.9 FG%/36.0 3P%/75.6 FT%
Basketball Reference gives the Pelicans a 93.7% chance of advancing to the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight gives them an 89% chance of making the playoffs. With 10 games to play, New Orleans is approaching near-lock status. Without the franchise’s most important components peaking at the right time, the Pelicans would likely be looking at the postseason picture from the outside in.
Has a single player flipped the script on public perception in the same way Victor Oladipo has in the past six months?
Has an executive made as many people re-examine their preliminary thoughts like Kevin Pritchard has over the last eightish months?
Then, in the middle of it all, there’s Nate McMillan.
Prior to the season, the Pacers weren’t expected to field one of the worst records in the NBA, but they certainly weren’t a popular playoff team pick. They existed somewhere in the middle, figured to compete for 30-35 wins; the NBA’s hated mediocrity. Here we are, five months into the season, and the Indiana Pacers rank 12th in offensive rating (107.1), 12th in defensive rating 105.5, and 11th in net rating (+1.7).
With 10 games left to play, they possess an outsiders shot at being both a top-10 offense and top-10 defense. Only the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder can say the same thing.
They’ve played so well; in fact, that they are currently on pace to win more games (46-36) than they did last season (42-40). Doing so, in the first season without Paul George would not only be an incredible feat on the basketball court, it would also do wonders in uplifting a franchise in serious need of some juice.
For as long as Pop has been around, you’d think by this time we’d run out of things to say about him. We’re in, what, year 400 of Popovich’s tenure with the Spurs, and they’re still chugging on as one of sports’ model franchises; both on and off, the floor.
What’s taken place this season is far different than what’s taken place in years past. MVP candidate and face of the franchise Kawhi Leonard has hobled his way through 9 games and 210 minutes this season. Issues with the handling of Leonard’s health and his future shoe deal have put the Spurs into the limelight for all the wrong reasons. For quite possibly (Not really, looking at you, Tony Parker) the first time ever, the Spurs have been living amongst drama.
No matter the noise, the San Antonio Spurs still produce. This roster has roughly a zero percent chance of winning a title this season (FiveThiryEight gives them a 2% chance), and they may even get beat out in the first round, but that hasn’t stopped them from taking care of business when they are expected to, and controlling the controllables.
As teams like the Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons pile on bad loss after bad loss, the Spurs maintain a competitive balance, playing outstanding defense on a nightly basis (2nd best defensive rating at 101.7), and continually understand the value of a possession (13.8 turnover %/8th).
When you go 25-6 against teams under .500, you’ll pad your record enough to overcome any shortages in talent against greater teams. It looks as if the “Spurs’ System” fallacy will live on another year.
Perseverance, will, and grit are probably the three most appropriate adjectives for the Clippers’ 2017-2018 season. Whether it was surviving a million injuries before the new year (Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic all missed notable time) or staying afloat post-Blake Griffin trade, the Clippers have proved themselves to be a difficult out every time they enter the batter’s box.
Rivers has done an exceptional job of making due of the hand he’s dealt. His cards haven’t been great, and yet, he won’t let the house beat him. Take a look at the lineup he was forced to deploy in a December 2nd matchup in Dallas:
DeAndre Jordan (31 Minutes)
Montrezl Harrell (25 Minutes)
Wesley Johnson (28 Minutes)
Austin Rivers (29 Minutes)
Lou Williams (33 Minutes)
C.J. Williams (22 Minutes)
Jawun Evans (18 Minutes)
Sindarius Thornwell (16 Minutes)
Jamil Wilson (14 Minutes)
Sam Dekker (13 Minutes)
Willie Reed (6 Minutes)
Brice Johnson (5 Minutes)
4 of the 5 opening night starters (Teodosic/Beverley/Gallinari/Griffin, or everyone besides DeAndre Jordan) were absent from the game with injury. It was a 82-108 loss, but the complications caused by injury were about as bad as it’ll get for a team with playoff aspirations.
The biggest selling point on Doc Rivers this season has to be how the team performed in absence of Blake Griffin.
Record with Griffin Injured: 8-8
Record Post-Griffin Trade: 13-9
Record without Griffin: 21-17
As the Clippers simmer in 10th place, making the postseason is becoming more unlikely by the day. 11 games remain, and the Clippers trail the Minnesota Timberwolves by 2-games in the loss column. It’s unfortunate, as Rivers has done well with a lot less than he’s accustomed to this season. Even if the record doesn’t show it, this may be one of the best seasons of Doc Rivers’ career.
Keeping it real simple. On January 22nd, the Utah Jazz were 19-28 and in 10th place in the Western Conference. In the two months since, they have gone 21-3 (They are still just the 8th-seed), and finally worked out the kinks in the Ricky Rubio/Derrick Favors/Rudy Gobert non-shooting trio (+17.0 NET RTG in 274 MIN).
They even have themselves their own version of a Death Lineup, with Rubio/Donovan Mitchell (Rookie of the Year candidate!)/Joe Ingles/Jae Crowder/Gobert. In 133 minutes, the lineup has produced an offensive rating of 113.6, a defensive rating of 80.1, and a net rating of +33.5.
If that 5-man lineup can continue rolling into postseason play, it’ll give the Jazz a unique mix of lanky ball handlers to unleash on teams out West. In recent memory, few teams have completely turned around their season like the Jazz have; moving from tanking-territory into place where they may be able to win a first round series with a favorable draw.
Losing (Arguably) your best player on opening night is literally the worst way you can possibly open a season. Imagine backing out of your driveway, and catching a flat before you get out of your cul-de-sack. That’s the Celtics’ season opener in a nutshell.
Getting all of 5 minutes out of a player you recently inked to a 4-year/$127,829,970 contract is one of the worst return of investments of the current league year, and a playoff contender being forced to play young wings like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum (13.6 PPG on 54.0 eFG%/58.9 TS%) is chilling. With assistance from savvy veterans Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes (Can’t forget youngsters like Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis), the Celtics have become one of the league’s most overachieving teams.
With the #1 defensive rating in the NBA (101.2), the Leprechauns have clawed their way to 48-wins and a lock for a top-2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Although they’ve slipped a bit recently (14-13 over past 27), and Kyrie Irving has remained out since March 11th with left knee soreness, the Celtics are set to finish the year off way ahead of schedule.
In a season where the roster takes blow after blow, Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics just kept counter-punching. The Hayward injury sucks, but it didn’t defeat the Celtics. Young players grew into roles they previously weren’t expected to have, while veterans completmented the roster nicely.
The Rockets may have ended the Portland Trail Blazers’ 13-game win streak on Tuesday night, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t currently one of the hottest teams in the world. Behind a 28-11 stretch, the Blazers have pushed themselves into the 3-spot out West, and have ranked favorably on both offense (109.7 OFF RTG/8th) and defense (106.0 DEF RTG/12th) for the better part of three months.
Long known as one of the better offensive minds around, Stotts’ team has taken a necessary leap on the defensive end of the court. Lillard rightfully gets the glory, but rotation cogs like Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Zach Collins (He’s getting minutes!) have been instrumental in Portland’s ascension to potentially hosting a playoff series.
Sure, they have been the beneficiary of several Western Conference contending teams being nibbled on by the injury bug, but the Trail Blazers find themselves in as good of position as anyone entering the postseason. With a capable defense, and dynamic backcourt, advancing past the first round should be the expectation, not a goal, for RIP City.
All statistics updated as of 03/22/2018.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference, FiveThirtyEight, NBA.com, and Synergy Sports Technology.
Contracts courtesy of Spotrac.