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De’Aaron Fox should be running away with Most Improved Player

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CHARLOTTE – When De'Aaron Fox was about 6 years old, he watched “Freddy vs. Jason.” The horror movie stuck with him for years.

“All through elementary school, I wouldn’t leave doors open if it was nighttime,” Fox said. “I would make sure I closed every door.”

Now, Fox is only opening doors – for himself and the Kings.

The second-year point guard is the NBA’s breakout player on the league’s breakout team. His speed and energy have invigorated Sacramento, which could end a 12-season playoff drought.

But to truly appreciate Fox, you must understand his rookie season.

“It wasn’t good,” Fox said.

He received no Rookie of the Year votes. He didn’t make an All-Rookie team. He made the Rising Stars game only as an injury replacement.

The Kings went 27-55 and played even worse with Fox on the court. He played below replacement level. His poor shooting and distributing in such a big role proved destructive toward winning.

Now, Fox is arguably the best player in his draft class, in the running with Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell.* Fox received deserved All-Star consideration this year. Sacramento is 30-27 and at its best with Fox on the floor.

*Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons, was drafted the prior year.

Fox is lightning quick with the ball and a pest defensively. With his shot now falling, he looks to be in complete control.

He leads the Kings’ up-tempo attack while keeping them organized. With Fox on the court, Sacramento plays like the NBA’s fastest, best-fastbreak team all while maintaining the equivalent of a bottom-five turnover rate.

Fox’s improvement is one of the biggest – not just in this season, but in NBA history.

His box-plus-minus leap from -4.4 to +0.9 is telling.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus (center) from a previous career high (left) to the listed season (right) since the NBA began tracking turnovers in 1973-74 (minimum: 1,000 minutes each season):

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Why isn’t Fox the overwhelming favorite for Most Improved Player? I suspect because there’s a belief second-year players are expected to improve.

I’m just not sure why that matters to voters.

Nobody punishes James Harden in the MVP race because he was an established star expected to be good. Nobody punishes Luka Doncic in the Rookie of the Year race because he was a polished young player expected to be good. Nobody punishes Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year race because he was an all-time great coach expected to be good.

“Even if it’s expected, if you improve, it doesn’t matter what the expectation is,” Fox said. “You expect Steph Curry to win MVP, right?

“I don’t think it should matter.”

Fox shouldn’t clinch Most Improved Player just yet. If he stumbles down the stretch, others could catch up.

It can also be tricky to compare Fox to players who didn’t play as much in previous seasons. Fox demonstrated his dismal production over a large, reliable sample last season. How does that compare to players like Wizards center Thomas Bryant, Nuggets guard Malik Beasley and Bulls guard Ryan Arcidiacono? Their lack of prior playing time indicates less prior ability, but perhaps they were erroneously looked over and haven’t improved as much.

Fox is a safe choice for Most Improved Player. We know he was bad last season. We know he’s good this season.

But the Kings didn’t know Fox would develop like this. They took a chance entrusting him with such a large role as a rookie, letting him work through his mistakes.

The payoff has come unusually quick. This level of responsibility is still a lot for a second-year point guard – especially one on a good team.

Fox (24.6 usage percentage, 32.6 assist percentage) is one of just 14 current players who, in his second year, started most of his team’s games at point guard while posting usage and assist percentages above 23. Here are all 14, sorted by team’s winning percentage that season (players who changed teams in-season are listed by their teams’ combined record while they were on each roster):

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Players marked in purple also met the 23%-23% usage-assist thresholds while starting as rookies. All three heavily burdened second-season point guards to lead their teams to winning records – Damian Lillard (2014 Trail Blazers), Russell Westbrook (2010 Thunder) and Fox – had big roles as rookies. It clearly prepared them.

Obviously, that prerequisite doesn’t guarantee second-year success.

But it’s a good bet with someone as talented and driven as Fox.

“People might be surprised by the jump I’ve made, but I’m playing the way I think I should play,” Fox said. “And I think I should be playing even better.”

Draymond Green says idea that Warriors don’t need Kevin Durant is ‘bulls—t’

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The Golden State Warriors are headed to the NBA Finals for the fifth season in a row. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson beat Damian Lillard in the Portland Trail Blazers in a series sweep on Monday night, ending a fairytale run to the Western Conference playoffs for the Blazers.

But there’s some real concern about the Warriors moving forward, particularly because they still don’t have Kevin Durant. The superstar wing did not play against Portland thanks to a calf injury, and the team is hoping he will be back in time for the start of the 2019 NBA Finals.

To that end, Green said that it’s ridiculous that anybody could think the Warriors are a better team without Durant. Speaking to ESPN, Green said that he thinks Durant makes what’s already an incredible team absolutely unbeatable.

Via ESPN:

“There’s been so much talk about how, ‘Oh, they’re the Warriors. Before Kevin got there they were great.’ Bulls—,” Green told ESPN. “We was damn good. I think we were a very good team who was tough to beat. I think when Kevin came here, he made us unbeatable. When DeMarcus [Cousins] came here, it made people scratch their head even more. And so we need those guys. The next series is going to be tough, and I hope and pray that we can get him back.”

I’m not sure if Green actually thinks this or not. There seems to be some debate around the NBA about whether Golden State is better off without Durant. At its core, this argument is more about whether people even want to watch the Warriors with Durant on their roster. The team is obviously better with Durant on it, but it’s more fun to watch Golden State without him. Their offense flows better. Plus, it’s hard to root against a team that drafted all its superstars. Durant joining the best team in the NBA was, at its core, completely wack.

This is, at the very least, some kind of posturing by Green to try and assuage Durant’s oft-injured ego. Durant has the ability to leave in free agency this summer, and rumors have him headed elsewhere.

Green was absolutely incredible in the Western Conference finals against the Blazers, and he and Durant have had their spats over the course of the season. But he is probably right in that Durant makes the Warriors completely unbeatable, even for whoever comes out of the East.

I don’t know if Golden State needs Durant, but they sure would like to have him — in June and beyond.

Frank Vogel not worried Jason Kidd will undermine him as coach

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What else was he going to say?

In a “welcome to the Lakers” press conference that was hijacked by the sideshow of Magic Johnson torching the organization — is there better prep for what a Laker coach deals with than that? — Frank Vogel was relentlessly optimistic. He had nothing but praise for the organization, the people, the players, heck he probably would have said he loved the Game of Thrones ending.

And when asked about having Jason Kidd pushed on him as an assistant coach — one of the reasons Tyronn Lue walked away from the table, he didn’t want a guy who could replace him and had lobbied for the Lakers job before in the seat next to him — Vogel said he was not worried about that, either. Via Ohm Youngmisuk and Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I have been around this business a long time. I really don’t give that a second thought. You can say that about every coach in the league about their assistant coaches. It happens from time to time. I believe if you treat people with the right respect and do the job at the highest level, build an environment of positivity and collaboration, you can’t worry about that stuff.

“You can’t worry about looking over your shoulder. You got to worry about getting good damn coaches, and that is how I feel about this hire.”

Vogel also said he sat down with Kidd and they are on the same page in terms of coaching philosophy.

“I had a great, lengthy interview process with Jason where we talked about every topic you can imagine, and came away thinking he’s going to be an incredible asset to our program.”

Again, what else was he going to say?

Kidd has a history of angling for the Lakers job, even when it was filled, and Vogel knows it. But Vogel accepted the terms of a three-year contract (lining up with LeBron James‘ deal) and Kidd as his assistant, things that a coach with options would not have taken. Lue didn’t. Vogel has to make the best of the situation, and whatever he may think privately, he has to be optimistic and positive in public. Especially on his first day.

Vogel may have been the Lakers third or fourth option as a coach, but they backed into a good one — if they give him the talent to win and don’t undercut him. Vogel has coached the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals, where he always lost to LeBron (there are a lot of coaches in the East who had that problem). He’s a strong defensive coach. Vogel has a lot of fans in the coaching ranks, and a lot of those people think the Lakers have set Vogel up to fail. We’ll see, that’s more about the Lakers’ offseason.

But at the start, Vogel is saying all the right things. Even if that was the only thing to say.

John Beilein ready to undertake “renaissance” with Cavaliers

Associated Press
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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — John Beilein has coached at every level in college but says the Cleveland Cavaliers are his dream job.

The 66-year-old Beilein, who turned Michigan into a perennial power during a 12-year run, was introduced Tuesday by the Cavaliers. Even before taking the podium, Beilein got to work with one of his new players, peeling off his suit jacket to rebound shots for forward Larry Nance Jr.

Beilein doesn’t view Cleveland’s situation as a rebuild but rather a renaissance. At one point during his remarks, Beilein pointed to the 2016 NBA championship banner and others hanging along one wall at the Cavs’ facility and said, “it’s been done before, it can be done again.”

Beilein drew a large laugh when he was reminded he has never been fired by saying, “That’s right.”

Beilein knows he has work to do with the Cavaliers, who went 19-63 last season.

 

Coach Terry Stotts signs multi-year extension to stay with Portland

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The buzz around the league had been that Terry Stotts was unhappy he had not gotten a contract extension last summer for GM Neil Olshey and the Portland Trail Blazers. Stotts still had two seasons on his contract at that time, but after this season — with a run to the conference finals that just ended — he was about to head into a lame duck year. Chris Haynes reported at Yahoo Sports that if Stotts didn’t get an extension this summer he might not be back.

The extension is done, Olshey announced on Tuesday.

This is well deserved.

The Trail Blazers won 53 games this season and for the second year in a row were the No. 3 seed in the West. This season they advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen were leading the team back in 2000. This year’s Blazers found a third option in Jusuf Nurkic (who was injured for the playoffs and the team made the run without him).

Stotts tied all that together with smart play designs that fit the personnel.

“It’s a disappointing loss, but for me it was an outstanding season,” Stotts said after his team was eliminated Monday. “The guys in the locker room are special. It’s been a special season. Always tough to lose the last game of the year, but I couldn’t be more proud of the group that we’ve had.”

It’s a season they can build upon, locking up the coach was part of that.