Who Will Get “Brown’ed” Next?

Under normal circumstances, a “coaches on the hot seat” blog would seem rather premature in week three of the NBA season. Of course, a campaign in which a coach in the league’s biggest markets gets fired five games in hardly qualifies as ‘normal circumstances’.

After Mike D’Antoni made his debut on the Lakers bench earlier this week, it seems like a good time to explore some coaching candidates who may get Mike Brown’ed in the not-too-distant future. But before that, let’s take a quick look at some coaches who may have seen their team get off to slow starts, but remain firmly entrenched in their position.

Dwane Casey has seen his Raptors stumble out to a disappointing 3-9 start, but it’ll take more than 12 games to take the shine off his star in Toronto, particularly after an off-season in which the team was built to correspond to his style of play (Kyle Lowry, Landry Fields, John Lucas III, Dominic McGuire and even rookie Terrence Ross are all aggressive defenders).

Monty Williams’ Hornets have won just three of their first 10 games, but have contended with key injuries (Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis) and still hold a great deal of respect for their coach.

Finally, Kevin McHale can hardly be blamed for his team’s 5-7 start, given the upheaval that came out of the James Harden trade and his continued efforts to get familiar with the system in Houston.

Now, for the real hot seat candidates:

Randy Wittman
The Washington Wizards are 0-10 and the core of their franchise does not seem impressed. Blaming the coach is probably the over-simplified, patchwork solution, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Is it unfair to scapegoat Wittman, who still hasn’t been on the Wizards’ bench for a full season after taking over for Flip Saunders last January? Yes, but at the same time, something has to be done to shake up a team in desperate need for a change of pace.

Keith Smart
Another hire from this past January, Smart is a popular, likable player’s coach on a Kings’ team that likely needs more of a butt-kicker. Even though all seems well in Sactown for now after their upset victory over the Lakers on Wednesday, certain problematic issues persist. The 3-8 squad still lacks any semblance of flow, with ball stoppers like Tyreke Evans, John Salmons and Marcus Thornton all firmly entrenched in a ‘shoot-first’ mindset. Up front, DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t appear any closer to grasping that whole maturity thing (and may never be), as evidenced by an early season run-in with Spurs’ broadcaster Sean Elliott that netted Cousins a two-game suspension.

Lawrence Frank
The Pistons probably weren’t going to be a play-off team this season regardless, but it’s tough to accept what has been a step back in a year of supposed growth around franchise cornerstones Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. Moreover, Frank’s recent moves have come under scrutiny, including some telling comments from his own players. Will Bynum and Tayshaun Prince are just two of the players who have indirectly called out their coach, bringing into question rotations, substitution patterns and timeout usage during the club’s 2-10 start.

Frank Vogel
Yes, my list includes a man who has led his team to two consecutive years of significant improvement and finished third in voting for the Red Auerbach “Coach of the Year” trophy last year. However, Vogel could well wind up a victim of his own success. His Pacers are 6-7 in the midst of a season that began with them expecting to contend for the Eastern Conference Finals. They aren’t exactly dead in the water, but problems do exist, such as Paul George’s inability to take charge as a consistent, go-to scorer in the absence of Danny Granger and the failure of George Hill and/or DJ Augustin to assert their play-making presence on the offense. And yes, that is Brian Shaw sitting on the bench ready to step into a head coaching role.

Eastern Conference Preview

Up until this past summer, few things were as certain in the NBA as the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Any observer worth their salt knew that Orlando would probably secure themselves home court advantage in round one with a No. 3 or 4 seed and that Atlanta would find their way into that good-but-not-elite middle ground, likely winding up on either side of the 4/5 match-up.

Then came a turbulent off-season that saw Dwight Howard ditch Disney World for Disney Land and Joe Johnson get sent packing, alongside his mammoth contract, to Brooklyn in exchange for a pile of warm bodies. The fallout from the pair of Southeast division mega-moves will likely see the Magic fade to also-ran status, with the potential of the Josh Smith-led Hawks still very much to be determined.

So who steps in to fill the void?

Indiana Pacers

The deep roster that propelled them back towards relevance remains mostly in tact, save for a slight downgrade at the point with Darren Collison (traded to Dallas for Ian Mahinmi) out and free agent signee D.J. Augustin in. Still, another year’s maturation for Paul George and Roy “Gangnam Style” Hibbert will help a club that still managed 42 wins last year in a 66-game season against what was a more top-heavy East.

Philadelphia 76ers
I can’t figure out why there isn’t more talk about this young Philly team that made the Conference’s biggest addition by trading for Andrew Bynum. It cost them long-time face of the franchise AI, but the two-way veteran is a small price to pay for the league’s second best center. Beyond Bynum lies the rest of a potential-laden core (Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young) supported by complementary incoming veterans (Jason Richardson, Nick Young).

Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ presence on this list, which would have been perceived as an unimaginable slight at this time last year, speaks volumes of the value of Derrick Rose. With a healthy Rose, Chicago would be a lock for a top three seed. Without him, the team faces plenty of questions as to whether it can simply tread water while awaiting the return of their point guard (likely around February). Can Kirk Hinrich balance the offense? Can Luol Deng or Carlos Boozer take charge as leading scorers?

Atlanta Hawks
A salary dump usually coincides with a drop down the standings. However, credit Hawks GM Danny Ferry with not only keeping the rest of a productive core (Smith, Al Horford), but bolstering it with some savvy additions to offset the loss of Johnson. The signing of Lou Williams helps address the scoring void in the back court, while acquiring Devin Harris from Utah for Marvin Williams creates depth at the point alongside Jeff Teague. The club also quickly accounted for the loss in outside shooting from the Johnson trade, bringing in veteran shooters Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow and will find minutes for rookie marksman John Jenkins. One more thought: are we sure that Johnson is actually that good?

New York Knicks
All the stories gleefully talking about the Knicks and their historically old roster are missing the point. Truth is, all of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Pablo Prigoni could wind up showing their age and flopping in NYC – and this team could STILL be a top four seed. This team will go as far as Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler (and, strange as it sounds, Ray Felton) take them – no more, no less.

Brooklyn Nets
The addition of Joe Johnson could easily be costly in the long term, but that’s not the concern of Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets for now. Heading into their first season in Brooklyn, the club boasts a defensively porous high-priced star-laden back court, but could struggle when it comes to getting stops and securing critical rebounds. Still, those in attendance at the Barclays Center likely have playoff dates to look forward to.

Quick omission explanation: Miami and Boston are too good, whereas I don’t see any of Toronto, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte, Washington or Orlando being in the mix.

Lucas Finds An Unlikely Fit

John Lucas III doesn’t look the part of a third-stringer.

The diminutive point guard carries himself with pride and purpose, and talks excitedly about what he and the rest of the Toronto Raptors feel that they can accomplish this season.

“I came here because I see this as a place where I can contribute by helping some of the young guys and doing my part to keep things going in the right direction,” says Lucas. “We know that we can be a playoff team.”

Lucas’ current standing as a third-on-the-depth-chart floor general on the Raptors says less about his own abilities and more about the newfound depth that the club’s off-season additions have afforded them at the position. Kyle Lowry came over from the Rockets via trade in what was the team’s biggest move of the summer. With Jose Calderon already in tow, Lucas knew where he stood when he signed with Toronto in late July.

However, the soon-to-be-30-year-old doesn’t sound like a guy disappointed with his lot in life.

“I love it here,” Lucas says emphatically. ”I’ve been telling all my friends back home that Toronto is a mix of San Francisco and New York combined. […] It’s very liberal, very free-spirited – like San Fran, but then there’s the hustle and the go-go-go lifestyle, like New York. […] Plus, I’ve already gotten to know the team a bit and it’s a great group of guys here.”

For Raptors fans, it’s refreshing to hear from a player who is not only proud to play in Toronto, but carries high expectations and believes in the organization’s prospects.

In some ways, it shouldn’t be surprising considering the parallels between the player and his new team. For one thing, they are both underdogs – Lucas is a scrappy 5’11 ball handler (if Lowry is the bulldog among Toronto point guards, Lucas is more the chihuahua) who went undrafted despite leading Oklahoma State to the Final Four and has toiled in the CBA and NBDL. The Raptors, meanwhile, have been outside the playoff picture for five years and are never mentioned as players for marquee free agents.

For another thing, they both enter this season having made some strides in the previous campaign. In 2011-12, Lucas struggled to simply find a spot on the Chicago Bulls’ roster, getting cut and re-signed on two separate occasions during the season. He ultimately found a permanent role in the aftermath of Derrick Rose’s groin injury and thrived, pouring in 25 points off the bench against Miami and helping the Bulls to an 8-4 record in the absence of their star (he didn’t fare quite so well in a disappointing playoff run).

For the Raptors, the gains were more modest. Under new head coach Dwane Casey, the club’s increased commitment to defence helped them to a one-win improvement in spite of playing 16 fewer games.

In spite of his current third-string status, Lucas can still be expected to carry a significant role within Casey’s system. He brings energy, character and intangibles, all of which fit within the club’s new culture. On top of that, he brings the type of reliable jumper (50% shooting and 13.7 points per game through three pre-season games) that the team so desperately needs in light of last year’s bottom third league finish in scoring average and field goal and three-point percentage.

For a second straight season, Lucas’ big opportunity may come from unfortunate circumstances surrounding a teammate. While an injury is always possible, a likely scenario also exists in a move involving Calderon. Long-standing trade talk concerning the Spanish veteran got even louder this summer, to the point where GM Bryan Colangelo publicly acknowledged it, admitting that ”you have to look at Jose’s [expiring] contract as something that would be a vehicle to accomplish [a deal]”.

Regardless of how things play out, Lucas with be ready to seize any opportunity as it presents itself.

Good Vibes in Raptor Land (No, Really)

Kyle Lowry called it a “new chapter.”

To Landry Fields, its “starting fresh.”

Even for head coach Dwane Casey, its a “chance to set new goals and aim towards new achievements.”

Call it what you will, but Toronto Raptors’ media day was rife with excitement, anticipation and, above all else, ambition for the season that lies ahead. Even the “P”-word, a term seldom heard within team circles in recent years, was being thrown around confidently, almost defiantly.

“This year, we really believe that we can make the playoffs,” says third-year power forward Ed Davis, who had grown accustomed to winning in high school and in college at UNC before enduring two postseason-less NBA seasons in Toronto. “[Last year,] we said it but I don’t think everyone bought into it, but this year they’re like ‘that’s what we want to do’. There’s no BS – everyone thinks we can make it.”

At the risk of getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a step back. At the beginning of training camp, hope springs eternal and just about every club likes their postseason prospects. Newcomers breathe life into each roster, rookies are being favorably compared to past legends, vets are being lauded for their off-season developmental strides and every team is on even-footing, record-wise.

As Casey puts it, “29 other teams also think they’re improved heading into the season.”

And yet, in Toronto, there is a level of evidence behind the self-belief that is hard to ignore. The foundation was set last year as Casey led a talent-thin club to an increased win total in 16 fewer games and instilled a defensive mindset that bumped the Raptors’ ‘D’ all the way up to 12th after finishing the prior season ranked dead last. This season is about infusing that blue print with the right group of players (even if ‘Plan A’ target Steve Nash didn’t come on board).

Lowry (‘Plan B’ to Nash’s ‘Plan A’) is unmistakeably a Casey guy – a defence-orientated physical force who will out-muscle most opposing point guards.  Fields, meanwhile, represented the expensive (three years, $20 million) fallout to the failed bid for Nash, but he could now serve as part of the solution at the small forward position and was identified by GM Bryan Colangelo as a potential glue guy for the Raptors.

“They both go a long way towards furthering what we’re trying to do here,” says Colangelo of the two new likely starters. “Kyle has shown a knack for setting a physical tone and has grown into a solid play maker, while Landry brings that character element we’re looking for and will really help bring some competition for minutes at the wing spots. [...] It’s great to have both these guys on board.”

Rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are new additions in their own right, making their NBA debuts after being selected by the Raptors in consecutive drafts (2011 and 2012, respectively). Ross is part of what Colangelo identified as the team’s improved long range shooting, as well as a source of competition for entrenched starter DeMar DeRozan at the two-guard position. As for Valanciunas…

“On the court, I’m [always] hungry. I expect to win,” says the Lithuanian rookie, who was a bundle of nerves upon facing a big North American media scrum for the first time. “I’m a high energy guy. I like running down the court, I like rebounding, blocking shots. I like to play hard.”

As the Raptors head east to kick off training camp in Halifax, its clear that the players have already “bought in”. It will take some on-court proof before the team’s long-suffering fanbase to follow suit, but the prevalent sight on media day was a squad that firmly believes in the direction in which they’re headed.

NBA Finals Changed People’s Perceptions

Unlike a few recent NBA Finals match-ups, legacies weren’t going to be cemented depending upon the result of the Heat-Thunder series. Miami’s Big Three will all return next year to defend their title while still in their prime, while young OKC will, ideally, come back tougher, hungrier, more experienced and still just approaching their prime years.

Still, every year, the championship series plays a role in shaping the NBA landscape, either through the crowning of new champions or the re-enforcing of great teams continuing to reign. For the players involved, the Finals write another chapter and continue to develop their over-arching career arc.

Here is what this year’s NBA season meant for some of the key participants in the Finals.

The Main Players

LeBron James
One title doesn’t quite make you a pantheon-level all-time great, regardless of how much you came through for your team. But consider the possible alternative: another Finals loss – to a budding superstar four years his junior, no less – would have been more damaging (and embarassing) than last year’s defeat at the hands of the Mavericks. Now, he not only has his first ring, but has it on his terms as the unquestioned alpha of the Miami Heat. The critics won’t be completely silenced on account of his multi-title promise at the start of his Heat tenure, but that should only serve to keep “the King” motivated.

Dwyane Wade
Wade summarized the meaning of this title nicely to Stuart Scott on the podium last night, pointing out that his ’06 crown came without him learning any real adversity in the league. Now at 30 and having experienced the bitter taste of defeat last season, he probably has a greater appreciation for the accomplishment this time around.

Chris Bosh
Outside of maybe James, no one enjoyed more validation during the playoffs than Bosh. Yes, he won a title as a glorified role player, but he knew that would be the case as soon as he signed on with the Heat. However, his value to the team, which had been questioned at times during his two-year tenure, was made clear through his absence. He somehow became the biggest story of the Eastern Finals with his return from injury up in the air, and then proceeded to help turn his team’s season around from being on the brink against Boston (Miami won six of seven games with Bosh back playing regular minutes).

Kevin Durant
Arriving in a Finals puts everything under a microscope, so we were bound to learn a few things about the unassuming 23-year-old as he made his debut on the league’s biggest stage. Much was positive – he remained a clutch shooter, a savvy play-maker and a surprisingly effective slasher while matching much of LeBron’s contributions (offensively, anyway). We also learned, however, that he isn’t quite there yet. He still needs to get stronger to prevent defenders from locking him up 20 feet from the basket and isn’t quite as defensively sound as his length should dictate. Still, the dude’s 23!

Russell Westbrook
To paraphrase Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons, Westbrook somehow managed to become the most polarizing player in a series that featured the most polarizing player (okay, so Simmons said second-most to Wilt Chamberlain) in NBA history. Yes, it was Westbrook’s explosive play and multi-faceted skill set that helped get the Thunder past the last 13 Western Conference champions and to the show, but can any team afford to have their starting point guard shooting 4-20 in a Finals game? At the same time, one looks at his 43-point Game 4 reveals his value and GM Sam Presti won’t be willing to do anything drastic to alter what is a championship-calibre foundation. His maturation over the coming years will be fascinating to watch.

The Supporting Players

Shane Battier
It can’t be easy gaining almost universal popularity when you’ve won NCAA and NBA titles with, arguably, the most hated team at each level (2001 Duke and 2012 Heat). Credit Battier not only for that, but also for using a stellar playoff performance to ensure that he didn’t win an NBA title on account of simply being along for the ride (sorry, Juwan Howard). Like Bruce Bowen before him, it will be interesting to see how NBA history remembers an all-time great defender and glue guy who was never “the Man” on his team.

Pat Riley
Two years and another title later, Riley still looks like the cat that ate the canary regarding his role in the formation of the Big Three during the summer of 2010. I still can’t shake the feeling that there is an awful lot of knowledge within that well-coiffed head of his.

James Harden / Serge Ibaka / Scott Brooks
While neither Harden nor Ibaka exactly had a playoff performance for the ages, their value to the club was made plainly clear throughout the season. The Thunder will soon have to put a price tag on that value, with both young talents slated for free agency after next season. With both Durant and Westbrook signed to big deals and Harden and Ibaka set to hit paydirt, Presti will have to do some serious roster massaging for any shot at keeping his entire core together while not being cap-strung for years to come. Even more pressing, though, is the status of Brooks, whose contract expires at the end of the month.