And-Ones: Courtside Camaraderie, Pitino, Shaw, Offseason

With no guarantee that fans will be allowed in arenas for the upcoming 2020/21 NBA season, Harvey Araton of the New York Times discussed the tenuous future of courtside seating. Regular Knicks courtside celebrity Spike Lee appeared uncertain of the fate of indoor NBA fan attendance.

“I’m not going to predict the future — taking it day by day,” Lee texted Araton. “I have to see where we are in the world when the next NBA season starts.”

There’s more from around the basketball world:

  • The remote meetings necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic are largely responsible for Iona’s eight-player recruiting class, according to the Gaels’ new head coach, Rick Pitino. “If it wasn’t for [COVID-19], we couldn’t have brought in the largest recruiting class in my history as a basketball coach,” Pitino said, per Adam Zagoria of Forbes. “I think six out of the eight did not know where Iona was, what county or what state it was in. So COVID helped us in recruiting.”
  • G League Ignite team head coach Brian Shaw spoke with The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears about the unique opportunities provided him with this newly formed club, which will help prepare top prospects like Jalen Green for the NBA. “High draft picks come in at 18, 19, 20 years old, and there’s an expectation level for them to play and to impact the team,” Shaw said. “And it felt like a lot of the guys [were] missing a lot. They’re talented and have a lot of potential, but have no understanding of what it takes to be a pro on and off the court.”
  • A panel of ESPN writers appraised the biggest trade and free agency questions facing the league heading into this offseason. Key topics include the impending decision of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo regarding a five-year, super-max extension, the question of whether or not the Warriors will trade the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, and the fate of Chris Paul.

Pacers Notes: Assistants, HC Finalists, Nurse, Bjorkgren

Though newly-hired Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren will have the opportunity to fill out his bench with assistants of his selection, the Pacers ownership and front office may provide some input, according to J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star (Twitter link). As Michael points out, Indiana became familiar with many coaches around the NBA during its expansive coaching search, so the team will have plenty of intel about possible candidates to share with Bjorkgren.

There’s more out of Indiana:

  • Sixers assistant Ime Udoka, Pelicans assistant Chris Finch, and Heat assistant Dan Craig were among the other finalists for the Pacers’ head coaching job, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
  • Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was ebullient in his praise for his former assistant coach Bjorkgren, releasing a statement via Toronto’s team Twitter. “Nate and I have known each other for 30 years,” Nurse said. “I’ll miss having him next to me on our bench, and I know the Raptors players and staff will miss working with him every day.”
  • Blake Murphy of The Athletic unpacks the career of Bjorkgren, praising the new Pacers head coach’s apparent flexibility with regard to making offensive and defensive schemes fit his personnel.

Rockets Notes: Morey, Miller, Roster, Fertitta

Although the 14-year tenure of Rockets GM Daryl Morey did not yield a Finals appearance, his place in basketball history as a daring risk-taker is secure, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle posits. Feigen suggests that the Rockets adjusted to modernity in innovative ways with Morey at the helm.

Morey pioneered significant changes in the team’s shot profile for years. The club went all-in on small ball with an undersized, versatile line-up this season following a deadline trade that sent traditional center Clint Capela to the Hawks.

There’s more out of Houston:

  • If the Rockets opt to hire Jeff Van Gundy to return to the team’s bench as head coach, he may bring former Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller aboard as well, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post. Van Gundy, who served as the head coach in Houston from 2003-07, worked with Miller during his time coaching Team USA during World Cup qualifiers.
  • Kelly Iko of The Athletic tracks some of Morey’s cost-cutting moves in recent years, and suggests that the team may have to finally dip into the luxury tax in building its roster under owner Tilman Fertitta if it hopes to compete for a title.
  • As we previously relayed, Fertitta indicated today that he’s looking to keep Houston competitive heading into the 2020/21 season, despite the departures of head coach Mike D’Antoni and Morey thus far this offseason. Led by veteran All-Stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Rockets finished as the No. 4 seed in the West, and fell 4-1 to the eventual-champion Lakers in the second round of the 2020 playoffs.

Heat Notes: J. Grant, J. Smith, Offseason

The Heat are expected to be among the teams with interest in free agent forward Jerami Grant this offseason, says Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald. If Miami operates as an over-the-cap team, landing Grant would be tricky, since he’s expected to receive offers worth more than the mid-level exception.

Grant could be a more viable option for the Heat if the team loses some of its top free agents and has the opportunity to open up cap space. Even if Miami remains over the cap, we saw a year ago with the acquisition of Jimmy Butler that the front office is willing to get creative with sign-and-trades when cap room is unavailable.

However, Grant will almost certainly require a long-term investment, so presumably he’d only become a realistic target for the Heat if the club decides it no longer needs to preserve max-salary space for 2021.

Here’s more on the Heat:

  • The Heat requested a Zoom interview with former Maryland forward Jalen Smith, Jackson reports in the same Miami Herald story.  Smith is currently the No. 20 prospect on ESPN’s big board, while the Heat hold the No. 20 overall pick in this year’s draft.
  • Several aspects of the Heat offseason will be out of the team’s control, according to Ira Winderman of The South Florida Sun Sentinel, who writes that the team will have to adjust to the new salary cap projection, wait to see if free agents like Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder get aggressive multiyear offers from rival suitors, and potentially modify their plans for both 2020 and 2021 if Giannis Antetokounmpo signs an extension with Milwaukee.
  • Miami assistants Dan Craig and Chris Quinn reportedly had strong interviews with Indiana, but the Pacers went in another direction, hiring Nate Bjorkgren as their new head coach. That’s good news for the Heat, who should retain Craig and Quinn for 2020/21.

Pistons, Bulls Among Potential Suitors For Derrick Jones

The Pistons and Bulls are among the teams expected to have interest in free agent Heat swingman Derrick Jones this offseason, a source tells Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald.

Jackson also identifies Atlanta as a potential suitor for Jones, which is something we’ve heard before. Shams Charania reported last week that Jones is expected to receive interest from the Hawks, Cavaliers, and Hornets, among other clubs.

Jones is coming off a season in which he averaged 8.5 PPG and 3.9 RPG in 59 games (23.3 MPG) for the eventual Eastern Conference champions. He’s also a strong perimeter defender, having held the opponents he guarded in 2019/20 to a field goal percentage of just 40.8%, according to Jackson.

Jones fell out of Miami’s rotation during the postseason, but Jackson explains that a number of factors played a part in that decision. Health was a big one, as Jones contracted COVID-19 in June, suffered a neck injury in a scary fall during the seeding games, then sprained his ankle in the first round of the playoffs. Erik Spoelstra‘s decision to ride veterans Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala as he shortened his rotation also helped push Jones out of the mix.

The Heat’s top priorities in free agency this fall figure to be re-signing Crowder and Goran Dragic to new deals, and it’s possible Jones’ role reduction in the playoffs will dampen his enthusiasm for a reunion with the club. If that’s the case, he should have plenty of options, as Charania’s and Jackson’s report suggest. His next contract seems unlikely to exceed the mid-level, so over-the-cap teams will be in play.

While I expect Jones to generate interest from some playoff teams, it’s probably not a coincidence that all of his reported suitors so far are younger clubs coming off lottery seasons. At age 23, the former UNLV standout projects to be one of the NBA’s youngest unrestricted free agents this offseason, and he’ll likely have a better chance of playing a regular role on a roster that’s not loaded with veterans.

Clippers Promote Tyronn Lue To Head Coach

OCT 20: The Clippers have officially announced the hiring of Lue in a team press release.

OCT 15: The Clippers and assistant Tyronn Lue have agreed to a deal that will promote him to fill the team’s head coaching vacancy and lock him up to a new five-year contract, reports ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski (via Twitter).

Lue was the Clippers’ lead assistant under head coach Doc Rivers during the 2019/20 season. When Rivers and the Clippers parted ways last month, Lue immediately emerged as the frontrunner to fill the newly-opened head coaching position.

A former head coach in Cleveland, Lue compiled a 128-83 (.607) regular season record during two full seasons and parts of two others with the Cavs. He led the team to three straight appearances in the NBA Finals, including a championship in his first season as head coach in 2016.

Lue’s championship résumé and his familiarity – and ability to communicate – with the Clippers’ players were major factors in the team’s decision to promote him to replace Rivers, according to Wojnarowski. Woj previously reported that Lue’s understanding of the pressures of the job was important for Los Angeles. Lue was also said to have the support of “prominent players” on the roster.

Mike Brown, Darvin Ham, Wes Unseld Jr., and Sam Cassell also interviewed for the Clippers’ head coaching vacancy.

Lue was nearly hired in 2019 by the Lakers but couldn’t reach an agreement with the club on the terms of a deal, prompting the franchise to turn to Frank Vogel. Now, after the Lakers won a championship and the Clippers flamed out two rounds earlier, Lue will be tasked with leading Los Angeles’ other team to title contention. He won’t have much room for error, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both eligible to reach free agency during the 2021 offseason.

The Clippers’ decision to promote Lue – and his willingness to accept the job – will have a ripple effect on other teams seeking new head coaches. A popular head coaching candidate this year, Lue was also said to be one of the top contenders for the open positions in Houston and New Orleans. A deal between Lue and the Clippers may be good news for the Van Gundy brothers — Jeff Van Gundy is one of the Rockets’ frontrunners, while Stan Van Gundy is said to be a finalist for the Pelicans’ job.

Meanwhile, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic (via Twitter), Chauncey Billups is expected to join Lue in Los Angeles, becoming the lead assistant on his new staff with the Clippers.

Billups was said to be interested in pursuing a head coaching position this fall and is reportedly a candidate in Indiana. Woj and J. Michael of The Indianapolis Star (Twitter link) caution that Billups remains involved in the Pacers‘ head coaching search, but the former Finals MVP sounds prepared to join Lue in Los Angeles if he doesn’t get Indiana’s top job.

Billups has no previous coaching experience, but people around the league have long believed he’d land a significant role with an NBA organization due to his leadership style and “basketball savvy,” according to a September report. A separate report in August indicated that Lue and Billups may be a “package deal” if Lue got a job as a head coach this year.

Another former Cavs head coach, Larry Drew, is also expected to join Lue’s Clippers staff, according to Charania (Twitter link). Drew was an assistant in Cleveland from 2014-18 and received a promotion following Lue’s dismissal.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Warriors Notes: Trade Exception, No. 2 Pick, Avdija

The Warriors‘ $17.2MM trade exception is the largest in the NBA and should be a valuable resource as the team looks to upgrade its roster this offseason. However, given the massive luxury tax implications and the NBA’s uncertain financial landscape, sources increasingly insist that Golden State may only use that exception for a “special opportunity,” according to Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

As Slater explains, there will likely be a number of teams around the NBA looking to shed salary this offseason, so the Warriors probably wouldn’t have trouble acquiring an “overpriced veteran” using the exception — Slater cites forward Rudy Gay as one example. But adding Gay’s $14MM salary to a team salary that’s already over the tax line would cost exponentially more than just $14MM, and Slater questions whether that would qualify as a “special opportunity.”

There are several ways the Warriors could use their trade exception. As we detailed earlier this month, acquiring a single player who earns close to $17MM is the simplest path for the team to take, but it might not be the most prudent one. Using the exception to land a quality player whose salary falls significantly below that $17MM mark may qualify as a special opportunity. There are also ways the club might be able to essentially roll over the exception by simultaneously sending out salary and taking it on, as we explained in our previous article.

As the Warriors continue to consider potential uses for that exception, let’s round up a few more notes on the club…

  • Jeremy Woo of explores several paths the Warriors could go with the second overall pick, proposing a series of hypothetical trades that would see the team trade down from No. 2 or out of the draft entirely. If the club doesn’t find a deal it likes, drafting and developing a player with that selection isn’t a bad fallback option, Woo notes.
  • Ex-Warriors forward Omri Casspi believes that his former Maccabi Tel Aviv teammate and fellow Israeli Deni Avdija would be a great fit for Golden State. “The system with the Warriors, the way they play, everyone reads the game, everyone can make plays, flow offense,” Casspi said on the Runnin’ Plays podcast (link via Grant Liffman of NBC Sports Bay Area). “He can really help. It especially fits his style of basketball, that’s his game. He can create plays.”
  • Taking into account the role that Shaun Livingston played for the Warriors’ title teams, Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area identifies five potential offseason point guard targets who might be able to play a similar role for next year’s team, including D.J. Augustin and Jeff Teague.

Fertitta: No Plans To “Blow Up” Rockets’ Roster

The Rockets are undergoing some major changes this offseason, having parted ways with head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey since being eliminated from the playoffs in September. However, appearing today on CNBC (video link via Mark Berman of FOX 26 Houston), team owner Tilman Fertitta indicated that he doesn’t expect those major offseason changes to extend to Houston’s roster.

“There’s no reason to blow up your roster. This is still our window, the next couple of years. James (Harden) and Russell (Westbrook) are in their early 30s. We’re not blowing up anything,” Fertitta said, per Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (Twitter link). “We plan on contending. … We’re going to do whatever we have to do to win.”

The Rockets’ roster and style of play in recent years has been significantly shaped by Morey and D’Antoni, who favored a fast-paced style of small-ball that featured plenty of three-point attempts. With both men leaving the organization this offseason, there has been some speculation that Houston will adjust its offensive philosophy and roster construction, which could pave the way for a trade involving a former MVP like Harden or Westbrook.

However, Houston’s new head of basketball operations Rafael Stone has been a Morey lieutenant for years, so it makes sense that his approach wouldn’t deviate too substantially from his longtime boss’. And Fertitta’s comments today suggest that the Rockets will enter the offseason looking to upgrade their roster around the edges in the hopes of making a deeper playoff run in 2021.

The Rockets’ situation is still worth keeping an eye on — if the team gets off to a disastrous start next season and reconsiders its stance on the state of its roster, it wouldn’t be just Harden and Westbrook who could become intriguing trade chips. P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington are valuable role players on team-friendly contracts who would draw leaguewide interest if they were made available.

Pacers Hire Nate Bjorkgren As Head Coach

12:42pm: The Pacers have made it official, announcing the hire of Bjorkgren in a press release.

“We are very pleased and excited to have Nate as our new coach,” Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard said in a statement. “This was an extensive and thorough search, and when we reached the conclusion, we felt strongly Nate is the right coach for us at the right time. He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous. We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward.”

11:15am: The Pacers are hiring Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as their new head coach, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic (Twitter link).

Bjorkgren got his start as a professional coach in the G League, where he served as an assistant on the Iowa Energy’s staff from 2007-11 under Nick Nurse. Bjorkgren subsequently held multiple head coaching jobs in the NBAGL before being hired by the Suns in 2015 as an assistant. In 2018, he rejoined Nurse as an assistant on Toronto’s staff.

Although Bjorkgren has won G League and NBA championships as an assistant and has been a head coach at the NBAGL level, this will be his first stint as the head coach of an NBA franchise. He’ll replace Nate McMillan, who was let go by the Pacers following the team’s fourth consecutive first-round exit this summer.

Following McMillan’s departure, Pacers management talked about wanting to hire a head coach who takes a “modern approach” to the game and has the ability to communicate with younger players.

According to J. Michael of The Indianapolis Star (Twitter link), Indiana took notice – particularly this summer in the bubble – of the way Nurse and his staff run the Raptors, including their ability to connect with players and give them more one-on-one attention. That’s something the team wanted in its new coach.

During the interview process, Bjorkgren sold the Pacers on his history of “innovation, adaptability and winning,” sources tell ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Before choosing Bjorkgren, Indiana put together a lengthy list of candidates for the head coaching vacancy, having reportedly held at least informal discussions with more than 20 contenders.

Chris Finch, Darvin Ham, Dan Craig, Chris Quinn, Mike D’Antoni, Dave Joerger, and Chauncey Billups were among the candidates said to have impressed the Pacers at some point during the process. Joerger has since agreed to join Doc Rivers‘ staff in Philadelphia, while Billups now appears set to join Tyronn Lue‘s staff with the Clippers.

As our head coaching search tracker shows, only three teams – the Rockets, Pelicans, and Thunder – are still seeking new head coaches now that the Pacers have found their man.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Lakers Submit Request To Remove Deng’s Salary From Cap

The Lakers have submitted a request to the NBA in an attempt to remove Luol Deng‘s remaining cap hits from their team salary for the next two seasons, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic (Twitter link).

Deng agreed to a buyout with the Lakers before the start of the 2018/19 season. The team stretched his remaining salary across multiple seasons at that point and is still on the hook for cap charges worth $5MM apiece in 2020/21 and ’21/22.

If a player suffers a career-ending injury or illness, the NBA will typically permit his team to remove his remaining salary from its cap after he has been waived, though the player still receives that salary. Chris Bosh, Nikola Pekovic, Mirza Teletovic, Omer Asik, and Timofey Mozgov are some of the players whose cap hits have been removed from teams’ books in recent years due to career-ending ailments.

It’s not at all certain that the Lakers will receive any cap relief for Deng, however. Following his buyout in 2018, the veteran forward signed with Minnesota and played 22 games for the Timberwolves during the ’18/19 season before retiring last fall. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Deng didn’t suffer an injury during his Lakers stint that eventually ended his career, but it will be difficult to prove that, notes ESPN’s Bobby Marks (via Twitter).

If the Lakers’ request is granted, it would give the franchise some added flexibility during the next two offseasons for roster moves. An extra $5MM of wiggle room could make it more viable for the team to retain players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo while still using its mid-level exception, as Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report points out (via Twitter).