Coaching Changes Can Change Everything
This week, I took my two oldest kids to their first basketball practice. They are a combined 12 years old, playing on a "micro" team. My 7-year-old is the tallest kid on the team, while my 5-year-old is the smallest. Practice consisted of a "learn-to-dribble" drill, followed by a chest-pass drill, followed by a lay-up line, followed by a defensive slide drill. The rim is lowered to give them a fighting chance, and my 5-year-old made two buckets while my 7-year-old made one. My 5-year-old hasn't stopped bragging all week, calling to tell all of the grandparents about the two layups. Good times were had by all.
But one of the most hilarious parts of practice was the coach. He's an old school guy that seemed to want to coach the team with discipline, fire, and brimstone. The fact that he's coaching kindergartners doesn't seem to have sunken in with him. He made two little boys sit on the bleachers for not listening, yelled at another kid for loafing when they were attempting to tie their shoes (which takes awhile for a 6-year-old), and fussed at the entire group because they were having trouble telling their right from their left. Thankfully, he was only coaching for the day and another coach is taking over. My kids have had me cracking up all week, talking about their mean coach and how they are so happy to have a different coach now. The new coach called an extra practice to start to teach her new philosophies, and the kids are in love with her already. It almost doesn't matter what she says or does, the fact that she's different has them re-excited to play basketball.
On a much larger scale, this makes me think about the importance of having a good coach that everyone trusts at the NBA level. For example, no matter what I watch or listen to, I can't seem to escape the Mike D'Antoni criticisms among Lakers supporters. I saw Magic Johnson on the Arsenio Hall show last week, and they were discussing D'Antoni. Lakers fans keep calling in to radio shows to talk about how terrible he is as a coach. Every media outlet that covers the Lakers has to address D'Antoni as a possible reason for the struggles on a regular basis. So, even if the struggles aren't entirely D'Antoni's fault (and I don't think they are, though he hasn't exactly helped), the perception that he is the problem eventually becomes so strong that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don't the players, who live in the world and hear the same criticisms that I do, have to start to wonder whether they should really be listening to D'Antoni? Doesn't this increase the chances of a mutiny, be it something as small as just not running the offense all of the time or starting to loaf in practice? Once a coach loses a team, right or wrong, it usually turns out that it isn't long before he's headed out the door.
Or how about Mike Woodson in New York? The Knicks have grossly under-achieved their expectations this year, and the person who most often gets the blame is Woodson. The Knicks have the added complication that their franchise player, Carmelo Anthony, can be a free agent this offseason, so they really needed a successful season and/or some definite upside to motivate him to stay in town. Whenever he's asked about the coaching situation, Anthony utters a non-committal answer that doesn't come down too hard in either direction. Meanwhile, as Brian Windhorst of ESPN wrote, "the firing of New York Knicks' coach Mike Woodson has become a "when", not an "if", conversation.
And I wasn't even thinking about Maurice Cheeks when I started this article, but literally, as I was typing this, it came down that Cheeks has been fired as coach of the Pistons after their 21-29 start.The Pistons brought in Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith to play with holdover Greg Monroe and blossoming superstar Andre Drummond, but Cheeks is being blamed for not getting the talent on the same page and getting the most out of them. Is that fair? Or is it that the Pistons have a mismatched lineup with lots of interior strength but not enough on the perimeter? Should Cheeks be blamed for that?
In the fantasy realm, a coaching change is almost like a trade in that it can completely change the value of the players on the team. The new coach might come with a new philosophy that changes the players' roles. For example, D'Antoni's system tends to favor production from point guards (see Kendall Marshall). If D'Antoni were to be replaced, that would surely change. Similarly, Drummond has thrived while Monroe has (relatively) struggled in Detroit this year. Might a new coach come in and change that dynamic? We'll have to see.
What's the moral to the story?
Whether you're an NBA superstar or a micro basketball player, your coach has a huge effect on the morale and focus level of the players on the team and is the lightening rod for criticism when things don't go as planned. And when things go so wrong and the coach moves on, that potentially changes the whole team. So, keep an eye on the situation in Detroit and any other squad that decides to pull the plug on their coach. In fantasy, volatility breeds opportunity.
Around the League
Paul's return: Chris Paul is expected to return from his shoulder injury as soon as Sunday afternoon. He is obviously on the short list of best producers in the game when healthy, so his quicker-than-expected return changes the landscape. There is often a brief period of uncertainty when a player comes back from injury, so perhaps there is still a slim window of opportunity while Paul's trade value is in flux. If you own him but are uncomfortable with his health, you could potentially trade him at full value with the idea that he's back. If you want him but his owner in your league had been unwilling to move him when healthy, this could be your last shot to go after him.
Love's ouchies: In daily leagues, Kevin Love has been laughing at me this week. He's got one of the highest price tags in the game, so investing in him is a significant decision. I bought him on Wednesday against Oklahoma city, only for him to be a late scratch due to a sore neck. I then didn't buy him on Friday to be safe, only to have him return with 26 points and 19 boards against the Pelicans. Excited, I bought him again on Saturday only to have him scratch again with a quad injury. While this last week with Love has shown the importance of getting last-minute updates for scratches in daily leagues, it doesn't seem like a big deal in the larger scheme of things. Love's injuries are pretty minor, and with the All-Star break coming up next week, he should be able to get up to full speed for the second half of the season.
Time to give Griffin his due: When Chris Paul is healthy, he is pretty universally considered "the man" on the Clippers. However, what Blake Griffin has done in Paul's absence really validates that he is a mega-star in his own right. Griffin has averaged 30.9 points on 56.2% shooting from the field, while also posting 8.9 boards, 3.4 assists, and 1.3 steals over the past two weeks with Paul out. There was some sentiment that Paul was "making" Griffin before, spoon-feeding him easy shots that allowed him to score at such high efficiency. This stretch shows that not only can Griffin get it on his own, but he can be the entire focal point for the offense as a creator for himself and for his teammates as well.
Duncan finds fountain of youth…now trade him: Tim Duncan has absolutely turned back the clock of late, averaging 20.4 points (57.3% FG) with 11.0 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, 2.1 assists, and 1.0 steal in just under 32 minutes per game for the last two weeks. He turned in a 31-point, 11-rebound, five-assist masterpiece this week and is arguably playing as well as any center in the NBA right now. His value will never be higher, so I would try to trade him as soon as possible, if I could. Duncan is out-performing every expectation, and the Spurs will continue to give him his sporadic rest days (like they did on Thursday against the Nets) as the season continues. If you can get anywhere near the value that he is playing at, now would be a good time to make try and trade Duncan.
Lawson's ribs: Ty Lawson fractured his rib late in the first half against the Pistons on Saturday night. While no official timetable has been released for him, I would be somewhat surprised to see him play again before this week's All-Star break. If I were running the Nuggets, I would consider this a great time to rest my best player and make sure he's healthy for the stretch run. Nevertheless, Lawson owners should stay tuned to see if there is a chance that he gets back on the court as soon as Monday since he is considered day-to-day.
Lillard's 5x5: Damian Lillard has a rare opportunity to be a busy man on All-Star weekend. He is seeking to become the first man to ever participate in all five All-Star events: the All Star Game, the Rising Stars Game, the slam dunk contest, the three-point shootout, and the skills challenge. Some have questioned whether he will wear himself out by being so busy, but I don't necessarily see it that way. This isn't like the Home Run Derby in baseball, where a slugger might change his swing mechanics to focus on the long ball and have that carry over in a negative way once the season resumes. Lillard is a reserve in the big game, meaning he won't get many minutes. The three-point contest and the skills competition are low-impact, things that he would do during shootaround or practice in a given day. The dunk contest is explosive, but we're only talking a handful of dunks at most. He might play a lot in the Rising Stars game, but that game is played more like open gym anyway with no defense and lots of freewheeling. Lillard is only 23 years old and should have energy for days. I applaud him for having the ability to do all five and would be surprised if it posed anymore of an injury threat than normally applies to an athletic endeavor.
Lakers guards returning: Over the last month, the Lakers' backcourt has been absolutely decimated by injury to the point that a relative unknown like Kendall Marshall was able to come in and be a star. Over the last week, though, their guards started to slowly return to the court. Steve Nash, Steve Blake, and Jordan Farmar have all seen their first action of the new year over the last week. Of the three, Blake seems to be the one to own, as he's already had a triple-double and another strong outing on his ledger. Farmar is already out again with hamstring injury, and Nash is just…old. Both have had good games of their own this week, but I don't really trust either of them for the long run. In fact, though I might take a flyer on Blake until Kobe Bryant returns (see below) I tend to value the Lakers' backcourt on a daily/weekly basis as opposed to a year-long basis.
Martin's fractured thumb: Kevin Martin suffered a non-displaced fracture of his thumb on Friday and is out indefinitely. This changes the dynamic of the Timberwolves' perimeter scoring options, as Martin was their main scoring threat. This could open things up for Corey Brewer to be a bit more aggressive as a scorer and may allow Alexey Shved and J.J. Barea to have larger roles as well. Chase Budinger started in Martin's place Saturday, but he's been so injury prone that it's hard to recommend Budinger being more than speculative flier.
Steve Blake (41% owned in Yahoo! Leagues): As mentioned above, Blake seems to be the Lakers' point guard to own at the moment. Despite a minor thigh injury, he continues to play and produce. He had a triple-double on Wednesday night against the Cavs, and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni is on record saying "we need (Blake) on the floor, no matter what."
Khris Middleton (26% owned): Middleton was a hot pickup earlier this season then lost his place in the Bucks' rotation and fell off the fantasy radar. In the last couple of weeks, he has returned to the Bucks' main unit and has responded by averaging 17.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 3.0 treys, and 1.2 steals in his last five games. He is worth owning in every format for as long as he is getting this kind of run.
Shaun Livingston (24% owned): Livingston has found a home in the Nets' starting lineup this season, and has become a guard version of a garbageman. He contributes slightly to every category except for treys, with averages of 11.9 points, 4.1 boards, 3.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.6 blocks, 52.5% shooting from the field, and 86.4% shooting from the line over the last two weeks.
Marvin Williams (14% owned): I've never been a fan of Williams' game in the NBA, but he seems to have found a role that really fits him in Utah this season. He's playing a more aggressive, big wing/stretch-four role for the Jazz that has been working. He is working on three straight 20-plus point scoring efforts, which came on the heels of back-to-back doubles. On the whole, he's averaging 18.4 points, 7.4 boards, 2.6 treys, 1.8 assists, 50.7% FG, and 78.6% FT over the last two weeks.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.