As I mentioned in my first installment of this series on the Nate Bjorkgren Indiana Pacers, the opening months of an NBA coach's tenure are the most illuminating to watch for me. As they unroll their schemes and offensive principles piece by piece, we get to see what is most important to them and their philosophy - what they put in first.
For Steve Nash, a first-time head coach with zero assistant experience on the bench, its particularly illuminating. Guess work is done more on the origins of his playing days and less from staffs he's been a part of. Nash will ease into his duties, leaning on the sage experience of his mentor Mike D'Antoni, who sits next to him on the bench.
But Nash, a two-time MVP and legendary passer in D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" offense, has other mentors and experiences to his name. He played for Don Nelson in Dallas, the coach who originally embraced up-tempo movements before D'Antoni. He served as an adviser and player development consultant for the Golden State Warriors, perhaps influenced by their ball-movement emphasis and the relationship-based approach of Steve Kerr. Nash, Kerr and D'Antoni all were in Phoenix at the same time, so those teams were where all eyes went while trying to anticipate this offense.
Anticipate no more. A few postseason games are in the books and the Brooklyn Nets really impressed. Pace, spread-floor and switching defenses were on the docket for them. Their individual talent has shined, and nothing too complex has emerged from Nash. What we can take away, though, are a few key tidbits that could show how the D'Antoni Suns offense has evolved to an even smaller and faster NBA.
The decision by the Indiana Pacers to let go of Nate McMillan was met with its fair share of criticism. McMillan had revived the franchise sputtering at the end of Frank Vogel's tenure, bridged the gap to the post-Paul George era without missing the playoffs and was a reliable voice and presence in their locker room. In the midst of the social justice movement taking centerstage on a political level, replacing a successful black head coach would always be met with some skepticism.
Despite the track record of success for McMillan, his offenses were always ill-fitting. He ran everything through the elbows, jammed two big men on the floor at a time and designed an offense dead-last in 3-point attempts a season ago. That the Pacers still went 45-28, without Victor Oladipo for much of the year and despite their dearth of mid-range attempts, speaks positively of both McMillan's defensive focus and the overall talent on this club.
To replace McMillan, the Pacers turned to Nate Bjorkgren, a lauded tactician who spent time around the best offensive minds, such as Nick Nurse. His championship pedigree is impressive, though his mission from Day One was clear: modernize this offense and embrace the deep ball.
Bjorkgren hasn't coached a regular season game yet, but the paradigm shift is already underway. As an X's and O's scout, heavy attention needs to be paid to that aspect of game preparation early in a coach's tenure. While players are always what leads to wins and losses, the early-season games show the progressive unraveling of the playbook, and nearly every staff starts with the tenets that are most important. By diving into Bjorkgren's playbook now, we can glean the principles, teaching points and emphases he likely holds most dear.
I try not to be one who gets caught up in preseason rankings, expectations or betting odds for the over-under. Every season there is one team who surprises and one who disappoints. There's always a glut of teams in the Western Conference, and a mediocre race for 8th in the East.
This year is much of the same. In the West, there are legitimately 13 or 14 teams with legit postseason ability. In the East, improvements in Atlanta, Washington, Charlotte, Brooklyn and Chicago will raise the 7th-12th tier a great deal.
Still, it's hard to predict how every team will fare. We'll discuss four teams who give us the most trouble, both in terms of record and seeding possibilities.
In the words of punk rock band Fall Out Boy, "are we growing up, or just going down? It's just a matter of time until we're all found out."
The lyrics from the 2005 pop-punk song Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year? are refrains throughout their debut album's hidden gem of a track, and certainly apply to the fast-paced nature of life in the NBA. Year two is "make or break" time for a lot of players, where the rookie leash disappears and assimilation to the league is no longer excused by inexperience. It's time for some to grow up or just go down.
I'm not a betting man, so don't take this as simple as "here's who Coach Spins is putting his money on" - but it's as close to that. We'll be diving in player-by-player to some sophomoric previews (accompanied by sophomoric humor and terrible puns, like the Fall Out Boy opening above).
There's no better place for me to start than with Darius Garland, the guy I ranked #2 in the 2019 draft class just behind Zion Williamson. Yes, I had Garland above Ja Morant. What strides does he need to make, and what has he shown early in the preseason to give confidence that his year in Cleveland will be more comeback than slump?
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).