The biggest winners of the NBA coaching carousel

Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images /

This year’s NBA coaching spree centered largely around superstar players. Here’s who will benefit most from all the turnover.

Eight NBA teams had coaching openings this offseason, many of them among the best in the league. Despite looming questions about the 2020-21 season, many franchises proceeded with coaching changes and many spent big to nab top targets. In this post-Warriors dynasty era of the NBA, teams are once again going all-in for a title without a clear favorite. Coaching can sometimes be the easiest thing to change, and this was a year of heavy turnover.

Many star players stand to benefit from all the coaching turnover.

Zion Williamson

Many No. 1 picks emerge as rookies vastly different players than they were in college. Newly crowned champ Anthony Davis is a perfect example. After winning through defense and play-making at Kentucky, Davis came into the NBA with scoring as his most immediately translatable skill. The same thing seemed to happen to Zion Williamson, who was no longer the switchable turnover hawk on defense he was at Duke once he joined the Pelicans. As Stan Van Gundy gets set to take over in New Orleans, it will be a top priority to get Williamson on track as a defender.

Fortunately, Van Gundy’s teams have always defended really well. He gets the most credit for being years ahead of the 4- and 5-out spread offenses we see across the NBA today, but Van Gundy has consistently outperformed his personnel as a defensive tactician, too. With Williamson alongside Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and even first-round pick Jaxson Hayes, the team should be able to improve from 19th on that end under Van Gundy.

More pressing is Williamson’s role. It’s hard to look at his athletic limitations coming off a torn meniscus in 2019-20 and not worry about him. Williamson was able to explode off the bounce for face-up dunks and transition finishes, but defense takes a different sort of reactivity that Williamson did not show. The freakish leaping ability that allowed Williamson to block 3-pointers and rotate like the Flash in college rarely showed up with the Pelicans.

Where Van Gundy comes in is limiting Williamson’s responsibilities. I wouldn’t expect this Pelicans team to switch a ton, but the makings of an aggressive team defense with Williamson on the backline as a rim protector and rebounder are already in place. At the very least, Van Gundy is likely to work harder with Williamson in this regard than Alvin Gentry was.

Ben Simmons

After finishing as an MVP finalist in 2015, Blake Griffin followed up with 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game in the postseason. In those days, Griffin had developed a pretty chemistry with Chris Paul that gave Griffin the comfort to handle the ball in transition while taking on a secondary role in the half-court. With those two options and an expanding range and free-throw shooting ability, Griffin was a nightmare to guard.

That all happened under new Sixers coach Doc Rivers, who now gets the chance to coach Ben Simmons, an even more athletic and defensively imposing player than prime Griffin. While Joel Embiid was injured last season, we saw glimpses of what Simmons might look like in an up-tempo system geared around length at every position and enough shooting to score in the half-court. Rivers’ job will be to mesh Simmons’ insane versatility and energy with Embiid’s scoring and rim protection.

“It clearly works when they play together,” Rivers said recently. “If you’ve watched my teams, I rarely say that a guy is a 1, a 2 — I don’t get lost in the minutiae. I don’t get lost in what position guys play.”

Rather than stuffing Simmons in the dunker’s spot along the baseline every time down the floor, expect to see some more high0low action between the two and more offense run through Simmons. At this point, expecting Simmons to shoot 3s may be foolish, but Rivers is likely to get more out of his wide array of skill than Brett Brown did.

Paul George

It’s hard to know what to make of Paul George in 2021. At some point, the consistent injuries he’s dealt with during his career have to be factored into how we project his career forward, but at the same time, there may not be five guys better than George when he’s at his best. When healthy, the six-time All-Star is impossible to screen defending ball-handlers and a turnover-creating machine as a team defender. He’s also developed himself into an elite shooter and improved passer. All the jokes were fun in the Bubble, but that is absolutely still a player you’d want if you’re gunning for a championship in 2021 and a fascinating running mate for Kawhi Leonard.

Yet it’s hard to know if George is healthy or comfortable. New Clippers coach Ty Lue can only control the comfort aspect of that equation and empower George to be himself, but Lue’s track record indicates he could be more successful than his predecessor Rivers doing that.

Lue referenced continuity when asked about roster chemistry during his introductory press conference. The new head coach said George and Leonard would have to adjust to his system but added, “I also have to be able to adjust to their comfort zone and what makes them better,” and said his changes will start with defense. There are a lot of reasonable explanations for why George was off in Orlando, but he was clearly uncomfortable. Lue could be the right man to him get back on track.

The entire Chicago Bulls core

It can be hard to square the Jim Boylen era in Chicago. Some of the young players seemed to truly admire him, perhaps because his unorthodox (maybe regressive?) coaching style just worked for them. For instance, Coby White has praised Boylen repeatedly for giving him confidence as a rookie and for instilling in White the value of defense. Yet others like Zach LaVine openly questioned Boylen at every turn. It was clear the Bulls needed to move on, and they found a strong replacement in Billy Donovan.

Few coaches in the league have demonstrated an ability to develop young players while also making winning adjustments in the playoffs. He should bring a high level of respect into the locker room and make the team better right away.

Still, the disjointed messaging of Boylen’s tenure leaves the roster in flux. Lauri Markkanen is still a huge question mark after three seasons after struggling with injuries and being disempowered by Boylen. Wendell Carter Jr. could be the next Al Horford, but he too did not get the investment he deserved under Boylen, seemingly being forced to earn playing time against players who had no part in Chicago’s future.

Much of what Donovan will be tasked with in his first season is stability. He will need to create a program that sets forth clear expectations for everyone on the roster and a system that maximizes their talents. He will need to modernize the offense and force his star guards to play efficiently. And he will need to balance youth and experience in the rotation in a way that keeps everyone happy and looks toward a more competitive future. If he does all that, the Bulls have the talent to get better in a hurry.

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