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?
Seemingly wherever he goes, Doc Rivers coaches star-laden teams. He's been a head coach for 20 years, with only two losing seasons -- the mediocre and bottomed-out Boston Celtics from 2005-07. He coached Tracy McGrady and (what was supposed to be) Grant Hill with the Magic, posting four winning years and a near first-round upset of the Detroit Pistons as the 8-seed in 2003. After two dismal years in Boston, Rivers was gifted the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. In 2013, he left for greener pastures to join the upstart L.A. Clippers, coaching Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
That trio carried Rivers to his only NBA Championship and established his legacy as an elite head coach. It's a legacy that's been called into question of late. Poor tactics, the blowing of a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 NBA Playoffs and countless questionable substitutions made Doc expendable from a Clippers team with championship aspirations. The narrative had shifted on Rivers. Yes, a fantastic leader of men, but criticized for his in-game acumen.
Only a few months later, Rivers finds himself leading the Philadelphia 76ers, a team stuck on the cusp of playoff success. He's once again inherited an elite tandem of players with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Is Rivers the star whisperer? Can his credibility and revered nature around the league finally propel Philly's star combo to the next step in their careers?
The question is exactly what someone with Doc's pedigree was hired for. Philly has processed, they've rebuilt and (somehow) shed poor decision-making to field a group that is talented, balanced and ready to strike. Daryl Morey deserves endless credit for hitting "Undo All" on Elton Brand's 2019 offseason. He's drafted impactful guards and wings, he managed to dump Al Horford without giving up a bounty.
Perhaps the most important acquisition is another member of the Rivers family, though. Within the Rivers family Christmas Card is one of the premier sharpshooters across the NBA in Seth Curry. The younger Curry brother, Seth is statistically-speaking the more efficient of the two: he's second in NBA history with a career 3-point field goal percentage of 44.3% (only Steve Kerr is higher). This season, he shot 45.2% on five treys a night, a better percentage than Duncan Robinson or Davis Bertans.
Simmons and Embiid are well-known spacing challenges for whomever coaches them. Simmons doesn't shoot jumpers, and Embiid, a post-up maven who needs the ball on the block, loses spacing because of it. While Curry's fit in town is obvious next to those two, it's also integral to unlocking Rivers' playbook. As a tactician and X's and O's coach, he's at his very best when there's an elite shooter he can use to dart off screens.
Growing up in New Jersey as the son of a coach, Karl-Anthony Towns' favorite player was Len Bias. If the choice sounds odd, its because Towns was born nearly ten years after the hooper's tragic death.
A real student of the game, Towns has been miscast in the NBA as a carefree, stat-concerned talent. The lack of postseason success in Minnesota on his watch (one berth, a first-round exit in 2018) eats away at the narrative surrounding him. The centerpiece of the NBA team about to formally make the top pick in the 2020 Draft, Towns' time to lead is coming, and the excuses for lack of star power around him dissipating.
When Towns was ten years old, he was already 6'1". The Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs met in the NBA Finals where only one team scored 100 points in the seven-game series. Most telling, Brian Cook and Raef LaFrentz led the league in 3-point attempts for centers, with 2.8 a game. Only one other, Pedrag Drobnjak, was over one trey a night.
The game has changed a lot in the fifteen years since then. Spacing is sacrosanct. 3-point shooting is more of a first option than last resort. Most importantly for Towns, it has become an integral part of the offensive gameplan for big men.
A first-team All-NBA talent, Towns' stat line is certainly gaudy. He averaged 20 and 10 for the fourth consecutive season, connected on an absurd 41.2 percent of his treys, and took an even more impressive 7.9 a game. The change in shot selection has been dramatic since Ryan Saunders took over as coach. A year ago, Towns took a fair 27 percent of his field goal attempts from three.
That number ballooned up to 44.5 percent in 2020. Coincidentally, Towns' assist numbers also rose. He was the dimer on 22.8 percent of teammate baskets, tallied 4.4 dimes a night and had five nights with 8 or more assists.
There's no coincidence here. Towns' game is evolving not to keep up with the 3-point revolution for bigs, but to leap ahead of the curve. Saunders knows how unique a 40 percent 3-point shooter at the 5 can be and, just by designing an offense around that threat, the rest of the team can thrive. The student of the game, historian version of Towns knows just how revolutionary this role can be.
Only James Harden and Damian Lillard took more 3-point attempts per game in 2019-20 than Sacramento Kings sniper Buddy Hield. He shot a higher percentage from deep (39.4%) than Trae Young (36.1%), Bradley Beal (35.3%), Zach LaVine (38.0%) and Harden (35.5%). Only three players in NBA history have multiple seasons with over 270 3-point makes: Stephen Curry, Harden and Hield.
Hield, who will be 28-years-old in December, inked a 4-year extension with the Kings last October that will pay him until he's 31. The Kings front office certainly recognized the blistering pace Hield was setting as a shooter and the elite level of his play. But their coaching staff acts differently.
First-year head coach Luke Walton moved Hield to the bench on January 22nd, where he resided for the final 28 games of their season. It's hard to argue with the results: the Kings were 16-12 with their starting lineup, and Hield still hoisted 9.1 treys a game, making an absurd 45.1 percent of them. But Hield's minutes plummeted after January 22nd, down from 34.4 to 25.1.
The Bahamian sharpshooter has been openly disgruntled with this role in Sacramento and the demotion to the second unit. Issues with Walton aren't the first for Buddy; he clashed with prior coach Dave Joerger, reportedly about Hield's attention to detail on defense and his recall of important scouting points.
Herein lies the dilemma for the Kings. Hield is an elite shooter, a valuable commodity in the modern NBA and next to their franchise player, De'Aaron Fox. They've committed a near-max salary to him, but haven't committed a role in their starting (or finishing) groups on the floor. His skillset next to Fox is only valuable if they'll share the floor for meaningful minutes.
The cognitive dissonance is great here. The Kings are wishy-washy about when to play Hield and how to keep him satisfied, but Walton's offense seemed specifically catered to letting Buddy serve as the focal point in much of what they did.
Several NBA fans go into the NBA Draft season blind, learning about the players their favorite team drafts once they get on the roster. Those who tune in for the draft enjoy seeing not just the landing spots for future stars and busts, but the constant roster maneuvering that general managers undertake on draft day.
No draft goes by without a draft-day trade. Swapping of picks, cashing out for the future, sending veterans to other teams as a youth movement begins or even a superstar shakeup - all deals are possible.
With 2020's iteration of this annual circus featuring more restrictions and a unique format, those massive deals may not be as likely as years prior - or at least not as easy to predict. Franchises may value continuity more than ever. What does that do to the trade market and expectations for player and pick movement on draft day?
Keep reading below to see each team's trade likelihood, ranked from least to most likely.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).