If Phil Jackson steps down, the Lakers need to go with Brian Shaw

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shaw_coach.jpgFor the next week, Lakers fans are heading to their local churches and lighting candles with a prayer that Phil Jackson decides to stay on to coach the Lakers. Fans are nervous, they are doing anything they can — meditating on it, offering rum to Jobu, burning incense to please the gods. There are PETA members in LA that would sacrifice a goat or two if they thought it would help. They are that serious.

Jackson is everyone’s option number one — including the Lakers front office. They want him back. But what if he decides turning it up to 11 was enough?

Then the Lakers have to choose between Byron Scott and Brian Shaw.

Not exactly those two, although they would be the frontrunners. But Scott and Shaw represent the philosophical crossroads the Lakers would be at. Stay with the current system or blow it up.

On one hand is Scott, representing a dramatic break with the triangle offense. Jerry Buss much preferred the Showtime era style of play to the triangle. Hey, we all did. But there is no arguing with success, and the triangle works. And Buss is too smart to dump Jackson just because the offense isn’t aesthetically pleasing enough. Jackson would have to do something far worse, like sleep with the owner’s daughter… oh, wait, bad example.

Scott would bring some old-school Laker history, a direct tie to the Showtime era. His offenses have been point-guard led (Jason Kidd and Chris Paul). The Lakers would run again. The coach wouldn’t just sit there, he’d stalk the sidelines and yell at the refs giving a cathartic release to the fans that Jackson does not.

There would need to be other changes. Derek Fisher may be the worst point guard in running the break in the Association, the Lakers would need someone else in that role (or, just keep Jordan Farmar and turn him loose).  The role players would need to be less Luke Walton and more Shannon Brown.

And the Lakers fans could hope that inevitable mutiny of the players to Scott — it happened in New Jersey quite publicly and the wave was just about to break public in New Orleans when he was let go — came after this championship window was closed. Scott is not a long-term answer, but the Lakers may not care, because it would be Showtime again. The fun would be back.

But you know what is the most fun? Winning.

And the triangle wins. This Lakers roster wins. And it was built for the triangle.

That brings us to Brian Shaw. The Lakers lead assistant. He represents keeping things largely the same, not trying to make a big philosophical shift in the middle of a championship window. Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.

Shaw has no head coaching experience and Scott has led a team to two NBA Finals — where Scott’s team lost to the Lakers and the triangle. Shaw can get the players ear because they know him. Kobe trusts him, Kobe has been through the wars of the playoffs with him as a player and coach. Read Phil Jackson’s last book — before Game 5 of the 2004 NBA finals it was Shaw Kobe was calling as his confidant. Kobe trusts him, and if he does the team will.

The Lakers have won two consecutive NBA titles and can win a few more — why would you go with a philosophical change of style right now? Is Shaw more of a risk than changing how you do things, changing on the court systems? Continuity matters? Think it’s a coincidence that two teams that have not changed how they have done things for years — and built to that style of play — were the teams tipping off in Game 7 of the NBA finals?

Shaw is a gamble, but a smart gamble. The Lakers need to be what they are if Jackson leaves, and Shaw is that.

Unless the Lakers are looking for real drama, not just wins.

Heat retiring Dwyane Wade’s No. 3 in weekend-long celebration

Dwyane Wade
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MIAMI (AP) Dwyane Wade says that whenever he would hear the national anthem play before Miami home games, he would take a moment and look to the rafters.

“I always imagined my jersey being up there,” Wade said.

He will no longer have to imagine the sight. After this weekend, it’ll be there for good.

Wade will become the fifth Heat player to get his number retired by the team, joining Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Bosh. A three-day celebration of Wade’s time in Miami starts on Friday, a weekend highlighted by his No. 3 formally going to the rafters on Saturday night when the Heat play host to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Wade spent 16 seasons in the NBA, 14+ of those with the Heat. He was one of two players to be part of all three Heat championship teams – Udonis Haslem, whose No. 40 will almost certainly be retired by the team one day, is the other.

It was never a question of whether Wade’s jersey was going to be retired by the Heat, only a question of when. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in points, games, assists and steals and is probably going to keep most, if not all, of those records for a very long time. Consider: He scored 21,556 regular-season points with the Heat, and Alonzo Mourning is second with 9.459.

Earlier this season, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers – like Wade, a Chicago native who went on to play at Marquette – said he believes Wade doesn’t get enough credit for what he did as a player, especially in the NBA Finals.

“He’s been underrated his whole life,” Rivers said. “He didn’t get recruited very highly. Took Marquette to a Final Four. He still didn’t go as high as he should have in the draft and then he took the Miami Heat to NBA championships. That’s just who he is.”

Wade was the 2006 NBA Finals MVP, was selected to 13 All-Star Games in his 16 seasons, was an All-Star MVP in 2010 and won an Olympic gold medal.

“Every time I look up to the rafters and see your (hash)3 hanging there, I’ll think of the impact you had not only on this organization, this city and this league, but on my life,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wrote in an open letter to Wade that will be part of the team’s game-night giveaway program for fans on Saturday.

The weekend also includes a night of tribute speeches on Friday and a showing of a documentary about Wade on Sunday.

Report: NBA executives believe 76ers more likely to trade Joel Embiid than Ben Simmons

76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
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The 76ers have spent years building around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Supporting players come and go. Embiid and Simmons remain, even amid a sometimes-awkward fit.

But chatter has increased about Philadelphia trading one of its top two stars.

So, would Embiid or Simmons be the one to go?

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

There is no consensus, but league execs think that if the Sixers do explore a trade, Embiid is more likely to be moved — health being the determining factor in building around Simmons.

When a team is looking to trade one of two players, people frequently predict the less-valuable player will get dealt. It’s not logical. Other teams also know about Embiid’s health concerns. That’ll lower Philadelphia’s return.

I wonder whether these executives know something or are just conveying how they’d handle the situation.

The latter doesn’t mean much. The 76ers have their own view and, less than a year ago, owner Josh Harris called Embiid “our most important player. He’s clearly our future.”

Perhaps, Philadelphia’s stance has changed. Trying to line up trade trade proposals, the 76ers might have tipped their hand.

The mere possibility of that scenario makes this worth watching.

Former John Beilein-coached Michigan player in NBA: Cavaliers players don’t value winning

Former Cavaliers coach John Beilein
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The Cavaliers tuned out John Beilein then tuned their music to songs about thugs.

Beilein lasted less than a season as Cleveland’s coach.

But one of his former players at Michigan is sticking up for him.

Sam Amico of Sports Illustrated:

Even under the cloak of anonymity, that’s a harsh way for an NBA player to talk about fellow NBA players.

Who said it? There are nine suspects:

Whoever he is, that player lacks full context.

None of those players were on a clear NBA track when arriving in Ann Arbor. They all developed under Beilein’s tutelage. Beilein’s message lands differently when you’re already in the NBA – especially when you’re a proven player like Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson. As I said when Beilein was hired, there was going to be a race between Beilein convincing his players he could help them and them believing they could walk all over him. He lost the race. In Ann Arbor, in part because of his power over his less-heralded players, Beilein repeatedly earned buy-in first.

None of those players were on Beilein’s first Michigan team, which went 10-22. Beilein has typically come into a new job preaching fundamentals. That sets a foundation for future winning. But in the short term, the lack of focus on games can lead to plenty of losing. Beilein’s first season with the Wolverines was exhausting, and the end was a welcome respite. Everyone returned for year two better prepared, and Michigan took off. But the NBA season is far longer. The Cavs already endured 54 games under Beilein’s first-year approach. Another 28 was asking a lot.

Maybe Cavaliers players would have been better off in the long run if they accepted Beilein’s teaching. But it’s on Beilein to earn their trust, and he never did.

The case for Luka Doncic as Most Improved Player

Mavericks star Luka Doncic
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Luka Doncic checked his phone at halftime Sunday. Someone sent him a picture of 17-year-old Doncic and Russell Westbrook in an exhibition game between Real Madrid and the Thunder in 2016. Now, Doncic was playing with Westbrook in the NBA All-Star game.

“It was kind of amazing,” Doncic said.

Doncic has been playing professionally since he was 16. He came to the NBA as EuroLeague MVP. Now, he’s an NBA MVP candidate. It feels like he has been on this level a long time.

But Doncic’s Most Valuable Player campaign has obscured a bid for an award that fits him even better: Most Improved Player.

Voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, especially highly drafted ones like Doncic, who was the No. 3 pick in 2018. There’s a notion those players are “supposed to” improve.

But we don’t do this for any other award. Imagine not voting a No. 1 pick for Rookie of the Year because he’s supposed to be good. Nobody will refuse to vote Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP this season because, as reigning MVP, he’s supposed to be good. It’s a silly argument.

Besides, this far more than typical second-year improvement.

Doncic has increased his box plus-minus from +4.1 last season to +11.4 this season. That’s the biggest jump ever for a Rookie of the Year into his second season. Only LeBron James is even in the ballpark.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus by Rookie of the Year winners into their second season. Players are listed by their rookie year:

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

LeBron finished sixth in 2005 Most Improved Player voting. Bobby Simmons, who increased his box plus-minus by just 2.5 (-0.8 to +1.7) won the award.

Again, it’s hard for second-year players.

But again, this is not just some predestined natural improvement. This is one of the biggest leaps of all-time.

Here are the largest-ever increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (minimum: 500 minutes each season)

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

Again, LeBron is Doncic’s only peer on that leaderboard. They’re the only two to start with a positive box plus-minus.

But Doncic’s rookie-year plus-minus was even higher than LeBron’s.

It’s harder to go from good to great, and that’s what Doncic has done – unlike anyone else ever.

Doncic has taken total control of the Mavericks’ offense. He creates for himself, for others. And he even improved his efficiency while shouldering the extra burden.

Among players who had a prior high of at least +3.0, Doncic has increased his box plus-minus FAR more than anyone else (minimum: 500 minutes each season):

Box plus-minus probably tends to overrate players who contribute across the box score, like Doncic. That stat is just one of many considerations.

I’m not totally convinced Doncic should win Most Improved Player, though he was my midseason choice. Hornets point guard Devonte' Graham has gone from out of the rotation to quality starter. Brandon Ingram blossomed just in time to get paid. Trae Young, another highly drafted sophomore, is having a breakout year. There are plenty of other candidates, too.

But Doncic – regardless of his experience and draft position – absolutely belongs prominently in the discussion.