While Adam Silver seeks a viable return for the NBA, the gears still spin in league front offices. Although the NBA’s competitive landscape experienced a refreshing makeover, three NBA franchises still will undergo a drastic shift or two.
Between the superior rookies, feel-good stories from surprising teams and next-level improvements from rising stars, the league continues to raise the stakes. Either you succeed, or you don’t. We live in a results-driven society. Front offices, not granted the same patience as years past, have a smaller window of team-building. Therefore, coaches and players don’t always get the benefit of development due to a lack of patience.
The Philadelphia 76ers, although featuring two NBA All-Stars on their roster, will face some harsh decisions if the franchise fizzles out early in the postseason. Numerous NBA franchises fall under similar scrutiny.
The Eastern Conference, before LeBron James joined the Los Angeles Lakers, had an excuse to fail, as the four-time league MVP crushed dreams every postseason. Unfortunately, James’ move to the west coast serves as a double-edged sword for the wide-open Eastern Conference.
Ironically, the Western Conference is no stranger to falling victim to Goliath. The Golden State Warriors caused teams out west to think twice before assembling their personnel for a competitive run against one of the most successful NBA franchises of the 2010s.
Daryl Morey, however, is unafraid of competition. Most of the Western Conference’s fringe contenders licked their wounds while the Warriors conquered the NBA landscape. The Houston Rockets didn’t flinch while reaching for the proverbial rock to throw at the Warriors’ elite roster.
Despite valiant attempts at getting over the hump, franchise ownership trumps the endgame. Also, superstars with agendas act as general managers in training, with influence over coaching changes.
Elite players who spout heightened expectations, regardless of the team’s preexisting timeline, force front offices to try to win now, consequently stunting young players’ growth or regressing due to soiled chemistry if handled poorly.
These three NBA franchises, justly or not, face franchise-shifting decisions this offseason.
Three NBA franchises with drastic change imminent
Once the laughingstock of the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets experienced a narrative-changing facelift this past free agency. For years, the Nets served as the butt of the joke. Following the failed attempt of instant success, the franchise suffered from horrendous roster turnover.
Lacking first-round picks due to their infamous trade with the Boston Celtics, the Nets fell to lottery purgatory. Last season saw the Nets in a refreshing light. Then-head coach Kenny Atkinson instilled a healthy culture.
General Manager Sean Marks built a playoff team out of late first-round picks gained by taking on regretful contracts. The Nets made an all-star player out of D’Angelo Russell, the same person who the Lakers gladly traded.
Coincidentally, the Nets had plenty of cap space for free-agent action last summer. Two simultaneous moves shook the core of the NBA, as Kyrie Irving agreed to a deal with the Nets and Kevin Durant orchestrated a sign-and-trade move from Golden State.
The Nets shaved off the “cute story” narrative. They instantly were deemed a threat to contend in the Eastern Conference, at least when Durant recovers from his Achilles injury, of course. However, despite the presence of Irving, injuries and basketball politics foiled a feel-good season.
A shift in culture
The Nets fired Atkinson in March, ending an era in Brooklyn. Current and former Nets players saw Atkinson in a positive light. Allen Crabbe expressed his thoughts on Atkinson in March 2019.
“I think he’s a player’s coach. He really cares about his players. He puts his players in situations to succeed. Obviously, he’s letting guys do what they do and play to your best abilities, but not out of control. He’s the type of coach that you want to play for, a guy that his players come first and it’s about team first, and it’s about the culture he’s created here. Kenny is a great coach to play for.”
Atkinson won’t be unemployed long, as many NBA franchises need his style of coaching for their young and raw rosters.
It’s apparent that Atkinson successfully uplifted his teams. However, his lack of championship experience doesn’t bode well for superstar players. Irving and Durant both haven’t gone on the record with opinions of Atkinson’s coaching, but the firing doesn’t take much thought of who’s behind the decision.
New York Times reporter Marc Stein reported a list of candidates to replace Atkinson. Ironically, only one of the coaches has experienced championship success as a head coach: Tyronn Lue.
Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy don’t measure up to the championship prestige of the Nets’ superstars. Nonetheless, these are the candidates, and the road to the Finals won’t be easy for any of the potential head coaches.
The Rockets didn’t cower in fear as the Warriors displayed league dominance. Morey designed a roster to combat the Warriors, albeit playing second fiddle in the process.
Moreover, the offensive guru head coach, Mike D’Antoni, designated James Harden as the end-all-be-all player in his newfound slower-paced system. The Rockets stood as the Warriors’ only genuine threat.
Finally, after four years of shadowing the Western Conference, the Warriors downgraded from their bully status to one of the worst teams in the league as they experienced their first losing campaign since 2011-12.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, the landscape of the Western Conference enhanced following the downfall of the Warriors. Also, off-court business discussions dominated the airwaves in light of Morey’s infamous tweet about China. Morey, although reportedly not on the hot seat, comes off as a candidate for a change of scenery.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta doesn’t have a history of big spending in the league, which, in addition to the financial plight the pandemic has put on his restaurant empire, brings the question of whether the organization will re-sign D’Antoni this offseason.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
Although he was offered a one-year extension, it seems D’Antoni won’ t be head coach of the Rockets for long. Numerous reports of contract negotiations cited significant differences between Fertitta and D’Antoni.
According to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, D’Antoni was as good as gone if he didn’t muster up a deep playoff run. Diving deeper into the rumor mill, you’ll find Fertitta’s reluctance in getting a deal done a prominent in the news cycle.
The writing is on the wall: D’Antoni won’t coach the Rockets next season.
The Philadelphia 76ers, long removed from the “Trust the Process” era, forecast a deep playoff run with their current roster. Despite the two All-Stars and some other promising prospects on the roster, the sixth-seeded 76ers look out of sorts.
Between Al Horford’s odd fit and the injuries to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the 76ers find themselves at a crossroads. 76ers head coach Brett Brown recently saw his job security questioned in rumors.
The 76ers have a choice, pending an early postseason exit. Either keep the roster intact and search for a coach with a résumé fitting of handling an elite roster, or the front office could trade one of its star players, barring an official season cancellation, of course.
Simmons, despite the void of a perimeter shot, found success while Embiid missed games with a shoulder sprain and a torn ligament in his left hand. In addition to individual success, the 76ers didn’t fall off the proverbial horse led solely by Simmons, as the team went 9-7. The team’s offensive rating slightly improved to 112.1 with Embiid out of action.
Notwithstanding a few offensive improvements on offense, the 76ers’ defense suffered as Embiid sat on the bench due to injury. In fact, the off-on numbers weighed more on the defensive end, seeing a minus-6.7 difference in the opponents’ favor.
Fork in the road
Simmons’ well-documented hesitation to extend his shooting range puts a hold on the 76ers’ potential. On the bright side, his presence injects speed into the offense. Simmons is a versatile option on defense, capable of guarding positions 1-5, and he can also be used as a small-ball center.
However, the sheer toughness and dominant defensive play of Embiid give the 76ers a necessary edge in the playoffs. If Embiid manages to hit some of the open 3-point shots defenses give him, the 76ers’ offense adds to its arsenal.
In the modern era, plays starting in the post aren’t rendered as an efficient option. Embiid is the exception, but without proper spacing, he can’t successfully operate in the post.
Perhaps a new coach would make spacing possible without breaking up the two stars. Still, perception is only skin deep; maybe there’s more to it than player placement. Embiid’s career, riddled with injuries, raises red flags, as the star center is due $94 million over the next three seasons.
No matter how you spin it, the 76ers’ front office has a daunting task this offseason.
All stats appear courtesy of Basketball-Reference.