As an amateur basketball writer extraordinaire, I of course have a lot of close friends and sources inside the NBA. So from time to time, I get flooded with emails from some elite names in the industry who want to get the inside scoop on all the current hot topics in the league. Welcome to Jeff’s NBA Mailbag.
Since we’re all on a bit of a hiatus until the beginning of the NBA Finals, I thought in this week’s mailbag I’d field questions about some of the recent coaching hirings and firings. As well as touching on the upcoming draft later this month.
Q: What were the Magic thinking by hiring Scott Skiles as head coach?
JB: The name Scott Skiles doesn’t really evoke a lot of excitement out of the basketball community. The idea of coaching retreads rarely evoke any excitement for that matter. But on the surface this Orlando team has a ton of young talent. Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, No. 5 pick (to be named later) and Tobias Harris (pending RFA) are nice pieces, and this core has plenty of room for growth with potential for a bright future. So why in the world would the Magic front office hire a coach who has had a mediocre career as a lead man?
The short and uncomplicated answer if you ask me is that the Magic were searching for someone who can just get this franchise back into the playoffs and get the team to start competing at the level of basketball they’re capable of playing. It also seems like they weren’t interested in waiting out the Bulls’ front office to make their inevitable firing of Tom Thibodeau. If the Magic were truly interested in Thibs, they might have held out a bit longer. Because Thibs brings exactly what Skiles brings, except a much more accomplished and impressive resume and coaching record.
Skiles is known to be a defensive-minded head coach, and he’ll now try to whip into shape a team that really doesn’t care for playing two ways. Well congratulations to Rob Hennigan and Orlando fans, mediocrity is on the way. I hope the Magic going 39-43 and falling ass backwards into the seventh or eighth playoff spot before being trounced by Cleveland is satisfying enough for you.
Giving Skiles the job is bascially a cop-out and lacks any creativity by the front office. The Magic hiring Skiles is kind of like FIFA re-electing Sepp Blatter, except without the mass corruption and bribery. FIFA knows Sepp is a terrible human being and isn’t the best choice for the job, but he’s been there before, and finding a good replacement is really hard work so they just don’t.
Hyperbolic Sepp Blatter/Scott Skiles analogies aside, going out and finding the next Brad Stevens isn’t in Orlando’s DNA, and that’s okay. But there are many other NBA assistants and/or college coaching candidates who are innovative and deserve a shot at a head coaching position or at least an interview. A hire like that would also invigorate this young Magic squad, and you’d have a coach and young roster combo that can grow together.
Expectations in Orlando are mighty high for Skiles and this young team, because how much longer can this team continue to rebuild and add quality pieces without competing in the playoffs, or even coming close? If Skiles isn’t able to bring this team to the promised land quickly, he and the rest of the Magic front office will be on the chopping block looking for new jobs.
Q: So now that Tom Thibodeau is a free agent, should some teams seriously consider firing their current coaches to hire Thibs?
JB: Do I believe any teams will actually do this? No. Do I think that some teams should investigate this, and would greatly benefit from it? Yes. Do I like asking myself questions and then answering them? Absolutely.
Tom Thibodeau has coached 394 games in his career and has won 255 of them, which leaves him with a winning percentage of .647. Of all the head coaches in the history of the NBA who have coached at least as many games as Thibs, only FIVE coaches have a higher winning percentage than him (Phil Jackson, Billy Cunningham, Gregg Popovich, K.C. Jones, Red Auerbach). Is this not impressive enough for you NBA GMs and owners?
Now obviously there are certain downfalls to Thibs’s style of coaching, which ultimately led to his downfall with the Bulls. But there’s also a lot left up to imagination as to how great his reign in Chicago could have been sans the concurrent injuries to Derrick Rose. Also, because the Heat had acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh in their primes in addition to Dwyane Wade, it was likely improbable Thibs could have overcome this team even with a healthy Rose.
If you’re Jeannie Buss, is Byron Scott leading your franchise into the future inspiring at all? The Lakers are one of the premier and most highlighted teams in the entire league, and I think we can all agree that Thibs is a better coach than Scott, and the Lakers would be better off paying Byron to go away and replacing him with Thibs.
But it’s not just the Lakers that should be considering a move like this. Denver still has a coaching vacancy, and this season the team was completely undisciplined under Brian Shaw, so they might benefit from hiring a coach like Thibs who rules the room and could change the culture. What about the Raptors after getting swept in the first round of the playoffs? Dwane Casey is on the hottest seat on the planet. How about the Wizards replacing the ineptitude of Randy Wittman with Thibs? A trip to the Eastern Conference Semifinals hopefully hasn’t blinded management to how terrible Wittman was leading up to the playoffs.
You could honestly make a case for several teams to cut ties with their current coaches. If owners are willing to foot the bill and pay two salaries, then there’s no reason not to do this for some of the more troubled franchises.
Q: Billy Donovan and Fred Hoiberg are catapulting from the college ranks to the NBA and joining the likes of Brad Stevens, who recently made this jump. Is this the beginning of a coaching renaissance in the NBA? Will more teams look to the NCAA for prospective hires?
JB: I don’t think this trend has as much to do with teams looking to the college ranks as it has to do with teams recognizing good basketball minds and pursuing them regardless of prior coaching experiences. Having said that, if Donovan and Hoiberg are successful immediately, this will probably spark the trend even further and more coaches may be inevitably plucked from their college gigs.
Brad Stevens’s coaching genius has obviously been taken into account by several franchises, and some teams are unafraid to seek out college coaches to lead them into the future. For several years this trend was dormant after successful college coaches like Rick Pitino and John Calipari had arguably failed in the NBA. This led to a period of time where teams would stay away from hiring college coaches, but now we see teams are finally dipping their toes back in the pool.
Billy Donovan and Fred Hoiberg are widely recognized as coaching talents, and the haunted vale of the NCAA isn’t persuading the Thunder or the Bulls to seek elsewhere. Who knows, maybe a few years down the road we could see an NBA coaching landscape that features Shaka Smart, Sean Miller or Tony Bennett? These prospective NBA hires are all young, innovative and are proven winners; they also may not be 100 percent committed to the NCAA game, such as lifers like Coach K, Roy Williams or Tom Izzo.
Q: There seems to be a strong consensus between scouts and draft “experts” surrounding the first four selections come June 25 (Towns, Okafor, Russell, Mudiay); however this rarely comes to fruition, at what point in the draft could things go haywire?
(Phil, New York)
JB: I believe there are two linchpins in the top of the draft that’ll determine how the top 10 picks play out. Those cruxes are the Lakers at No. 2 and the Sixers at No. 3. I’m going to give a couple possible scenarios to fully demonstrate how these picks could shake up the draft.
***For the sake of this exercise we’re going to assume the Minnesota Timberwolves select Karl-Anthony Towns at No. 1, and we’re going to ignore the worrisome rumors that notoriously incompetent GM/head coach Flip Saunders prefers Jahlil Okafor to Karl-Anthony Towns. This obviously could happen, but I don’t believe it will. (Sorry I just jinxed you, Wolves fans.)
Scenario 1: Lakers pass on Jahlil Okafor and select D’Angelo Russell
In this scenario, the Lakers forego the potential of a frontcourt featuring Julius Randle and Jahlil Okafor that would surely be dominant offensively, but inversely be dominated by opponents’ frontcourts on a nightly basis. Okafor needs improvement as a rim protector and Randle is challenged on the defensive side of the ball as well, being that he’s an undersized power forward.
Passing on Okafor may not be the smartest decision, but there’s a case to made for it. Especially if the Lakers fall in love with D’Angelo Russell during pre-draft workouts and interviews. Jordan Clarkson is a nice player, but by no means someone who’s a cornerstone and would make management overlook Russell. Kobe Bryant‘s impending retirement also creates another hole in the Lakers’ future backcourt.
This creates an interesting situation at No. 3 with Philadelphia, because they already feature two cornerstone big men in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. Okafor also doesn’t fit the profile of a Sam Hinkie player.
However, I don’t think this would inhibit the Sixers from drafting Okafor and then holding him for a ransom and waiting for teams, most notably the Knicks, to cough up some assets for him. Either way, one of these three Philadelphia centers could be on the move, as I don’t see the Sixers drafting Okafor and then calling it a night without any wheeling and dealing. This means teams will be moving up and down the draft board early and players will be switching area codes, which always creates a huge buzz
Scenario 2: The Sixers don’t take a point guard at No. 3
In this scenario, both big men go off the board as prophesized, which leaves the Sixers with their choice of point guards. But what if Hinkie and the Sixers are dead set on not selecting a point guard, the deepest position in the league? It’s possible the Sixers don’t view Russell as a transcendent talent and have a hard time drafting a mediocre athlete who has had trouble in college going against elite competition. Also, why would they trade MCW, a point guard who can’t shoot, and then draft another point guard who can’t shoot in Emmanuel Mudiay? Seems like that would be a lateral move, no?
The most likely players to be selected at No. 3 if indeed they pass on a point guard are Justise Winslow or Mario Hezonja. Winslow is an athletic swingman who excels on defense and whose offensive game is still blossoming. Winslow already has an NBA body and could contribute defensively from Day 1.
Hezonja is a lights-out shooter who has great size for a shooting guard at 6’8. Hezonja also finishes well at the rim to go along with good court vision and average ball skills for his position. He’s a bit of an unknown because of playing overseas, but his tape screams upside potential, and Sam Hinkie is surely intent on getting the most bang for his buck in this draft.
It doesn’t hurt that the Sixers are dying for talent on the wings and each player would fit a need if Hinkie decides that he can find his point guard at another juncture in this draft or via free agency. The fallout from a Winslow/Hezonja pick at No. 3 would likely mean that Russell or Mudiay would go at No. 4 to the Knicks, but whoever isn’t taken would slip, and it’s unclear where they’d fall because Orlando won’t draft a point guard and Sacramento may have its heart set on taking Willie Cauley-Stein.
The draft still might play out Towns, Okafor, Russell, Mudiay, in that order, but I believe these are two legitimate and sensible scenarios that we could see come draft night.
I don’t just take emails from NBA stars, I’m also a man of the people. If you’re not an integral part of the association, but you want my inside information on the league or any hot takes shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org