2011 NBA All-Star Game Practices

Was Doc Rivers one game from replacing Gregg Popovich as Spurs head coach?

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Imagine an NBA general manager who, mid-season, fires the coach with the best winning percentage in franchise history.

Then, despite having no head-coaching experience outside something called Pomona-Pitzer, the general manager names himself head coach.

He goes 17-47 the rest of that season. Yet, he lucks into the No. 1 pick in the draft and selects the arguably the most NBA-ready rookie of all-time, a future Hall of Famer to pair with the one his team already has. Then, with two future Hall of Famers, he wins just one playoff series. In year three, he starts 6-8.

Think that coach belongs on the hot seat?

Well, Gregg Popovich was in 1999.

By March 2 of the lockout-shortened 1999 season, the Spurs coach faced intense scrutiny from within and outside the organization.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

A popular former Spur named Doc Rivers also happened to be a member of San Antonio’s broadcast team in those days. The fans’ clamor for Rivers, who was already being billed as a coaching natural, to replace the what-has-he-ever-done Popovich got louder with every loss suffered during that slow start.

But by the time the Spurs were headed to Houston for the 15th game of a truncated schedule that left no time for early slumps, pressure on Pop wasn’t coming solely from the public or the media. The belief among many of Pop’s players was that the coach was on the brink of being fired. Or being forced, at the very least, to return to a GM-only role.

“It was different from the regular pregame,” former Spurs forward Malik Rose said, rewinding back to the game in question against a Rockets team headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen.

“David [Robinson] usually didn’t say much beyond a prayer in the huddle when we brought it all in, but [before this game] David was saying, ‘We’ve got to get it together, we’ve got to do this, this is a big game.’

“If we lost that game, they were going to fire Pop and bring in Doc … that was the rumor. I would have to say it was real because of the gravity in the locker room. I’ll never forget it.”

Said then-Spurs guard Steve Kerr: “I can’t say I felt like he was close to getting fired, but there was a lot of discomfort with the way things had started [that season]. Pop wasn’t Pop yet. He didn’t have a name. The fans still didn’t really know who he was.”

[Avery] Johnson, Pop’s point guard and the most vocal of leaders on that Spurs team, says today that he has no doubt that Houston game was the ultimate must-win for the third-year head coach.

“Absolutely,” Johnson says. “Things had been communicated to us. It was really real.

“There was a lot of noise about Pop being potentially replaced by Doc, so David [Robinson] and I went to Pop’s house before we got on the flight to go to Houston. Pop talked to us and … what I will say is we came out of there feeling so strongly about Pop that we knew we had to go win that game.”

“I don’t know that I’d say the end was near,” said longtime Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer, now coach of the Atlanta Hawks. “But there was a real concern that we weren’t meeting expectations. It was real. It was genuine. We knew we needed to start playing better and start playing better soon. So I would say it was real.”

Said Johnson: “At the end of the day my allegiances were to Pop because he had put such great faith in me. I felt if he would have gotten fired [after replacing Hill], I’d have been one of the reasons he got fired, because I wasn’t viewed as a starting point guard that could lead a team to the championship. So I really took that personal. [And] it was the most passionate pregame speech David ever gave. He was foaming at the mouth.”

The Spurs beat the Rockets by 17, sparking a 31-5 finish to the regular season and a run through the playoffs that ended with a championship. Popovich obviously stuck around, and Rivers eventually broke into coaching with the Magic.

Yet, this story – one of many told by Stein in an excellent feature on Popovich and Duncan – leaves so many fun and unknowable questions unanswered. The two that stand out to me:

  • How would Rivers had done with the Spurs?
  • Was Popovich already a great coach in March 1999, or did this one win give him time to grow into the job?

This – what if the Spurs had lost to Houston that Tuesday night? – is definitely one of the great what-ifs in NBA history.

Will Jaylen Brown’s intelligence, non-conformity keep some teams from drafting him

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 11:  Jaylen Brown #0 of the California Golden Bears brings the ball up the court against the Utah Utes during a semifinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 11, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Utah won 82-78 in overtime.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Professional sports organizations are not a fertile ground for people who are both smart and not looking to fit into a traditional mold. Old-school coaches want conformity. It is a bigger deal in the more militarized operations of football teams (college and NFL), but plenty of NBA teams are not looking for guys who ask “why?” instead of “how high?” when told to jump.

Enter Cal’s Jaylen Brown, a likely top six pick in this NBA draft.

He’s already broken with tradition and not hired an agent to represent him on his first contract (the players’ union will do that for him) and that is just a piece of his personality. Marc Spears talks about it and with Brown in a fantastic piece at The Undefeated.

This is the kind of 19-year-old NBA draft prospect who, for instance, chooses to enter the draft without an agent, a young man who one NBA executive said could be deemed “too smart for the league….”

The NBA assistant general manager also said that Brown’s high level of intelligence and inquisitive nature could intimidate some general managers and coaches. He added that he is a good kid who “doesn’t fit the mold of a so-called basketball player.”

“He is an extremely intelligent kid,” the NBA assistant general manager said. “He took a graduate school class at Cal in his freshman year. He is a person who is inquisitive about everything. Because he is so smart, it might be intimidating to some teams. He wants to know why you are doing something instead of just doing it. I don’t think it’s bad, but it’s a form of questioning authority. It’s not malicious. He just wants to know what is going on. Old-school coaches don’t want guys that question stuff.”

I think this is the kind of teams should want in an organization, the kind they should seek out. I’m not a fan of blind allegiance. Honestly, if a coach can’t explain why he wants you do do a specific drill or run a certain action on the court, that’s on him. Everything should have a purpose.

Go read the entire piece. His style may turn some organizations off, but not the good, modern ones. And whatever team does draft him they get quite a player. Here is what PBT’s NBA Draft expert — and Rotoworld writer — Ed Isaacson said about Brown.

Solidly built, Brown loves to use his body to attack the basket, often leading to an above-average amount of free throw attempts. He relies on his physical ability more than skill right now, but once he has some momentum on the way to the rim, he is hard to stop. His shooting, both mid- and long-range, isn’t particularly strong right now, but it’s not like his shooting form and motion are broken. With his body, Brown is also able to move to the low post in the right match-ups, using his strength to bully his way to the rim. Brown has improved as a defender this year, and is capable of guarding multiple positions, though he still needs some work on the basics.

Andrew Bynum update: He’s blond now. If you care.

Andrew Bynum
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Andrew Bynum is 28 years old. He should be in the prime of his career, but he hasn’t set foot on an NBA court since March 15, 2014.

So what is he up to in retirement? Becoming a blond.

I got nothing. Have at it in the comments.

Report: Knicks would like to trade for pick in 2016 draft

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Associated Press
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The rebuilding New York Knicks are without one of the key pieces needed to rebuild in today’s NBA — a draft pick. The Knicks have zero in this year’s draft. None. Nada. Zip. You get the idea. This sis not the fault of current team president Phil Jackson, he inherited a situation where this year’s picks were in the wind (the first rounder gone as part of the Andrea Bargnani trade).

Jackson would like to find a way back into this draft, reports Ian Begley at ESPN.

The Knicks plan to acquire a pick in June’s draft. The best-case scenario would probably be a late first-round pick but second-round is more likely. The club has shown interest in several players in recent weeks, including Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell, who has a workout scheduled with the club next month. New York also interviewed Kansas guard Wayne Selden at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago and has expressed interest in him as the draft approaches, according to league sources. Selden, a 6-6 guard, would fit the mold of the big guards Phil Jackson used in his Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Laker teams.

Of course he would like to trade into the draft. He’s also like to lure Kevin Durant to the Knicks. Snagging a draft pick is far, far more likely, but the question remains who does he have on the roster to trade that teams would be willing to give up a pick for? Jose Calderon? Getting into the draft requires assets and — as has been the challenge for Jackson since he agreed to the job — the previous regime stripped this team of assets.

Still, expect Jackson to come up with something. But it’s not going to be a game changer; he’s going to have to win in free agency to get that.

Report: Sixers to explore trades for Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Jahlil Okafor #8 and Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers play in the game against the Utah Jazz on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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The Sixers are on schedule to have 7-foot Joel Embiid suited up for them next season at center. They may have 6’10” Dario Saric in from overseas (if not next season, the one after). They are about to draft 6’10 forward Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick.

Where does that leave the two guys who were the core of the Sixers’ front line last season, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel?

Possibly on the trade block, according to Chad Ford and Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Philadelphia 76ers will explore trading Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel in the buildup to the NBA draft on June 23, according to league sources.

Sources told ESPN that the Sixers are determined to gauge the trade market for both Okafor and Noel and are increasingly likely to move at least one of them in conjunction with the draft, in which Philadelphia holds the No. 1 overall selection for the first time since selecting Allen Iverson in 1996.

Ford said more on a 97.3 ESPN Philadephia radio interview, via the 700 Club at CSNPhilly.com.

“I think that they’ll gauge the interest of both players. I think that there might be a slight preference for Noel, to keep him around with the Sixers, and I think you might be right, there might be a slight, better value for Okafor out on the market, but I think everyone agrees that that combination of those two players doesn’t necessarily work. The Sixers needs to pick up assets, especially if they’re gonna go ahead and do a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram with the first pick in the draft. Then they’re gonna need those assets to start to fill out their backcourt, because the 24th pick and [the 26th pick], you’re not finding starters.”

I doubt they would move either for another pick. Remember that “the process” is dead in Philly — the Sixers want to start winning more now under the Colangelos. How far they are willing to go down that road — and what pieces they may be willing to sacrifice — remains to be seen, but here is what GM Bryant Colangelo told NBC Sports after finding out his team got the No. 1 pick.

“I’ve been quoted as saying you can only have so many developing players in your fold,” Colangelo said. “There’s a lot to consider to finding a balance… I think there needs to be a blend of young talent and veterans on your roster, there needs to be a balance.”

Okafor is what he is — he can score in the paint, he can rebound, he will get you some buckets, but he’s not much of a defender and he’s not an explosive athlete. He has a real place, a real value in the NBA, particularly while still on his rookie contract. The question is will the Sixers get good enough offers to make a swap.