A look at the nine new NBA coaches trying to navigate uncharted waters

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Pelicans first-year coach Stan Van Gundy was hired less than two months before the Pelicans first preseason game earlier this week.

Never mind that he’s taking over a roster that is loaded with young players and has been entirely overhauled since New Orleans hired David Griffin as executive vice president of basketball operations in 2019.

So when Van Gundy was asked whether he expected to have a clear vision for individual players’ roles and minutes during the preseason, he didn’t hesitate to say he did not even expect to know that when New Orleans’ regular season slate opens on Dec. 23.

“I’m not sure I’ll be there on Jan. 15 either. It’s going to take some time,” Van Gundy continued. “I want these guys in a mindset of competing and having to produce for minutes.”

While coaches with overhauled rosters face similar challenges trying to navigate a compressed timeline that is loaded with uncertainty, it’s even more difficult for Van Gundy and the eight other NBA teams with new coaches this season.

Because of the pandemic-truncated offseason, during which NBA facilities were largely off-limits to players before the start of training camp, they are all in a race to figure out how their coaching styles and philosophies mesh with the players on their roster, and to determine optimal player rotations.

“We’re trying not to skip steps, be that relationally with players, be that understanding who these players are and what their strengths are,” said newly hired Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault. “You can’t press fast-forward on some of this stuff. We’re just going to be diligent and do the best we can and follow our process and not allow anything external or outside of our control impact how we approach this.”

A look at the nine NBA coaches starting fresh with new teams during this unusual season:

Steve Nash, Brooklyn Nets

— NBA coaching experience: None. Spent five seasons as a player development consultant for the Golden State Warriors.

— Staff experience: Two assistants are former NBA head coaches: Mike D’Antoni, two-time NBA coach of the year with Phoenix and Houston; Jacque Vaughn, Orlando Magic coach (2012-15) and Nets interim head coach end of last season.

— The team: Unlike most first-time coaches, Nash starts his career with a team ready to win now. Superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are back from injuries and the Nets have enough quality depth around them that they made the playoffs last season even with Irving playing only 20 games. If they stay heathy, they will be one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference.

Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks

— NBA coaching experience: Eight seasons with Chicago and Minnesota. NBA coach of the year in 2011. Assistant coach on 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics.

— Staff experience: Assistant Mike Woodson, head coach Atlanta Hawks (2004-10) and New York Knicks (2012-14).

— The team: The Knicks are a young team that struggles to score, so Thibodeau will hope they grasp his defensive schemes quickly. He was an assistant with the Knicks from 1996-03, the last time they had any sustained success, but returns to New York now to inherit a team that has missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons since Woodson led them to a division title in 2013.

Stan Van Gundy, New Orleans Pelicans

— NBA coaching experience: 12 seasons with Miami, Orlando and Detroit. Led Orlando to the 2009 NBA Finals.

— Staff experience: No former NBA head coaches on staff.

— The team: The Pelicans have a young and promising core led by 2019 top overall draft choice Zion Williamson at power forward and 2020 All-Star Brandon Ingram on the wing. Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe comprise the backcourt and newly acquired 7-footer Steven Adams gives New Orleans veteran savvy and a physical presence at center. The Pelicans’ vacancy opened up when Alvin Gentry was fired following New Orleans fourth non-playoff season in five years.

Billy Donovan, Chicago Bulls

— NBA coaching experience: Five seasons with Oklahoma City.

— Staff Experience: Assistant Maurice Cheeks was the head coach in Portland, Philadelphia and Detroit, compiling a 305-315 record in nine seasons.

— The team: The Bulls underwent a makeover after finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference at 22-43. They hired Arturas Karnisovas to lead their basketball operation and Marc Eversley as general manager. Chicago then fired former coach Jim Boylen and replaced him with Donovan, who led Oklahoma City to the playoffs in each of his five seasons.

Nate Bjorkgren, Indiana Pacers

— NBA coaching experience: Phoenix Suns assistant, 2015-17; Toronto Raptors assistant 2018-20; part of Toronto’s title-winning team.

— Staff Experience: Assistant Kaleb Canales served as interim head coach with Portland in 2011-12 and went 8-15.

— The team: Bjorkgren inherits a team that overcame major injuries each of the past two season to reach the playoffs – and then make quick first-round exits. He can build around two All-Stars, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis; one of the league’s top rim protectors, Myles Turner; a rising star in Malcolm Brogdon; and high-scoring forward T.J. Warren. Winning games hasn’t been the issue, winning in the postseason has. And the Pacers are betting big that a new attitude, new style and new approach will put them back in the championship hunt.

Tyronn Lue, Los Angeles Clippers

— NBA coaching experience: Parts of three seasons with Cleveland, winning an NBA championship with the Cavaliers in 2016.

— Staff experience: Two assistants are former NBA head coaches: Larry Drew, former head coach with Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland; Kenny Atkinson, former Brooklyn head coach.

— The team: Led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers are favorites to win their first NBA championship after bowing out in the second round last season under coach Doc Rivers. Leonard and George were hampered by injuries in their first year together. Lue has experience managing a big name, having guided LeBron James and the Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA title, and he knows how to shuffle a supporting cast around star players.

Stephen Silas, Houston Rockets

— NBA coaching experience: It’s his first season as a head coach after spending 20 years as an assistant with various teams. Silas began his career working as an assistant for New Orleans in 2000 under his father and longtime NBA coach Paul Silas. Stephen Silas has worked for the Mavericks for the last two seasons.

— Staff experience: Assistant John Lucas, head coach San Antonio Spurs (1992-94), Philadelphia 76ers (1994-96) and Cleveland Cavaliers (2001-03).

— The team: Silas inherited a veteran team when he took over for Mike D’Antoni, who chose not to return after his contract ran out following Houston’s loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals. But the 47-year-old faces a tough task as he tries to settle into his first head coaching job while dealing with the distraction from persistent rumors that superstar James Harden wants to be traded. Harden reported late to camp but is with the team now and Silas has said they’ve had good talks about basketball but that they haven’t discussed his future. If the Rockets keep Harden, he’ll be expected to lead a team that has new additions John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins that will try to contend for its first title since winning two in a row in 1994-95.

Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City Thunder

— NBA coaching experience: First head coaching job, one year as Thunder assistant, five years as coach of Thunder G-League affiliate.

— Staff experience: Assistant Mike Miller was interim head coach of the New York Knicks for part of last season and had a 17-27 record.

— The team: The Thunder reached the playoffs last season, but most of the players who got them there are gone. Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams have moved on. The team has some young talent, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who averaged 19 points per game last season. Guard Lu Dort and forward Darius Bazley got some starting experience for Oklahoma City last season as rookies. The Thunder added veterans Al Horford, George Hill and Trevor Ariza in the offseason.

Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers

— NBA coaching experience: 22nd season. Coached Orlando, led Boston to the 2008 NBA title, spent last seven season with Los Angeles Clippers

— Staff experience: Assistant Dave Joerger, former NBA head coach with Memphis, Sacramento.

— The team: Rivers takes over a franchise that underachieved under former coach Brett Brown. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are both All-Stars and expected to carry to the franchise for years to come. It’s up to Rivers to unlock their potential. If he can, the Sixers should be perennial contenders to win the Eastern Conference.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.

Three things to know: Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

This game felt like a 2019 playoff time capsule, with Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray trading blows in a dramatic game.

Lillard landed more of them, he finished with 40 points — and his final three were vintage Dame Time.

But Murray had the final word.

The final minutes of this game were insane.

It was a needed win for a Denver team that some nights look like they can compete with the best in the league, then turn around 48 hours later and mail in a loss to a tanking team. Nikola Jokic scored 33 against Portland (with 10 boards and nine assists) — he is again putting up numbers that will have him in the MVP conversation (even if it’s a longshot he wins it). However, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense makes them inconsistent night to night.

Portland revamped their roster to get younger and more athletic around Lillard this past offseason, but one of the results of that is the inconsistency of youth. The Blazers don’t bring the same level of execution every night. If they don’t learn that lesson, they may be different in makeup but the results will be the same as many Portland teams of the last decade — an early playoff exit.

2) Brittney Griner is home on U.S.soil

After spending 10 months in Russian jails — including being convicted and sent to a penal colony — on trumped-up drug charges that made her a political pawn in a massive geo-political battle, Brittney Griner is finally home on U.S. soil, her plane landed in Texas overnight.

The Biden administration worked out a prisoner exchange with Russia that brings Griner home to be with her wife, family and friends — that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, there was some pushback online/in the media from people who care only about trying to score political points for their selfish ends. Fortunately, we had the family of Paul Whelan — a Michigan corporate security executive who has been behind bars in Russia since December 2018 on trumped-up espionage charges — who praised the president for bringing Griner home and making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

An American citizen is home. She happens to be a WNBA star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but those things are not what matters most, and are secondary to her family who are just happy to hug her and tell her they love her again. We all hope that day comes soon for American political prisoners held around the globe (including Whelan), but we should celebrate the big victory of Griner being back on U.S. soil.

3) Spurs snap 11-game losing streak behind 32 from Johnson

Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs’ 11-game losing streak.

“This has been the first game in a while where we were clicking defensively,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the game. “You can tell when we get stops, get out and run and be able to get out front. If we can keep that mindset of defense first, get stops and we let the offense take care of itself, we’ll be in great shape.”

All of that is interesting, but the real debate of the night: Was this an offensive foul by Alperen Sengun, or a block by Zach Collins?

Sengun was in the air when Collins came over, but he also used his off hand to create space for the dunk. This is a bang-bang call and the challenge of the block/charge call — I think that’s a block by Collins, but that’s not how the referee or many others have seen it. How would you have called it?