NBA Q&A: JACKSON / VAN GUNDY

With the new NBA season starting on Tuesday, we get the thoughts of BT Sport commentators Jeff van Gundy and Mark Jackson.

Jeff, presuming the Rockets have a healthy season this year, what different challenges does managing minutes for a healthy team represent than managing minutes for a team dealing with injuries and what other issues do you see facing the Rockets this year?

JEFF VAN GUNDY:  Well, I think, first of all, the Rockets, I thought, had a terrific off-season.  When you get a point guard of Ty Lawson’s ability, you’ve helped yourself exponentially, and so I think they really are positioned to be a terrific team.  Now, when you are a terrific team, one of the components most times is high-quality depth.

It’s the coach’s job to establish role definition, to tell each person, to know what they can expect going into the season.  Then it’s the player’s job to have role acceptance.  And role acceptance is difficult on high-quality teams, because while they have the carrot of winning, and winning big most times, there comes with that great sacrifice, whether it’s minutes, stats, being a first option.

There’s a lot of things going into winning that are challenging, and the Rockets will be no different with that.  If they are healthy, Kevin McHale has a lot of choices to make, a lot of decisions to make, and then the players have to get on board and get behind him and know that sacrifice is a huge component to winning big in the NBA.

What do you think of the Celtics’ depth? Can they take that step forward?  Will they be battling for the “A” spot?  What are your impressions of them, their off-season acquisitions and the job that Brad Stevens is doing? 

MARK JACKSON:  Well, Brad Stevens, from day one, has done a very good job of creating the culture, Danny Ainge has done a very good job of adding to the mix, continuing to be aggressive, acquiring talent, and certainly did that in the off-season, didn’t sit on the League.  When you talk about the calibre and quality of the big men that they have, they certainly have tremendous depth, and I think last year was a great experience for them getting into the playoffs, tasting it, some of the young guys for the first time in quite a while, but tasting it only will make that team better.

You take a look at their preseason, not that preseason matters, but it’s important for a lot of teams to develop winning habits and to get the taste of winning ball games and to be upset when you are losing, and they certainly have done that for a successful preseason.

Now it’s up to those guys individually, collectively as an organization, as a coaching staff to build on it, and I expect them to be truly in the mix.  It will be interesting to see, do they make the jump or will they, again, be fighting for, you know, “A” seed playoff spot, but what Jeff talked about a minute ago is important.  Will guys now all of the sudden be willing to buy in, because with added depth there are going to be sacrifices.  There are going to be certain guys that are not going to have the opportunity to play as much as they played in the past, and it will be interesting to take a look at it.

Mark, what are your impressions of the impact that David Lee can have there? You coached him a few years ago.

JACKSON:  Well, he’s a proven guy.  Obviously he’s a guy that understands what it takes to win.  He’s a guy that’s passionate. He’s a guy that’s very skilled, which is most important.  He can be a playmaker from the power forward position, obviously on the block and on the perimeter, his ability to handle the ball, his ability to make plays.  He is a weapon that is different from the other bigs that they have.

VAN GUNDY:  For me, I really like what the Celtics have done, not just in the off-season.  I like what they did from mid-season on last year.  I love the acquisition of Isaiah Thomas.  I think coming off the bench he is as good of a player as you could want, with his dynamic ability to score and create offense.  I think Jae Crowder really, with more opportunity, showed that he’s a capable — a really capable NBA player.  I think Amir Johnson adds defence to their front court.

Now, you can’t play everybody, so there’s got to be some people that either aren’t going to play or aren’t going to play as much as they want, but I love their defensive toughness with Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder to start games.  I think that sets such a tone when it comes to playing winning basketball.

So I really like what they’ve done.  I think Brad Stevens is an outstanding, outstanding coach, and I think if all goes well, they will be 45 to 47 wins.

When you are looking at box scores, or just generally looking around the League statistically, is there one statistic that you above all consider more important than another?

JACKSON:  I think it’s a great question.  I think what you have to do is when you look at those numbers, look at which team you’re taking a look at, and I think with different teams, it’s different bullet points that tell the story:  How they’re defending, how they’re protecting the paint, how they’re scoring, what type of tempo do they play with?

I think the entire — the analytics play a tremendous role, but you have to take a look at them with wisdom and allow them to tell part of the story.  Then the advantage of also watching these games, I don’t look at any one thing, any one statistic or number to tell a story on a specific team, but I certainly think that it does.  The first thing, if you had to twist my arm, I would look at the defensive numbers of a particular team, and I think that tells the real story on how much of a legitimate threat, how much of a legitimate chance they have at winning it all or being a great team.

VAN GUNDY:  And I agree with, Mark.  I find it individually — you know, you have to consider all the numbers, but shooting percentage is a good place to start.  I think individually, the true shooting percentage, which incorporates the three-point shot, is a good place to start.  But I think team-wise, this goes all the way back to Dean Smith.  So some of the stuff that’s getting credit toward analytics now, Dean Smith was doing back in the 70s, which is points per possession.  That takes into account pace of play, whether you play fast, mid or slow, how many points and — and how many points are you scoring per possession.  Team-wise, I think those are the two most important ones, because they are the ones that directly tie into winning.

I think, you know, we’ve given it a term, “analytics” but to analyse statistics, I think all good coaches use statistics.  They may use them differently, but they use them to make points to their team, to try to correct things that are preventing them from winning, or to recreate to try to continue to win, and I think it’s been going on in every sport for a long, long time.

I’m not sure how much you’ve caught of the Wizards this preseason, but Randy Wittman has basically kind of done a 180 with the offense he’s installing– fast pace, spacing the floor, shooting more three’s. From a coach’s standpoint, what are the challenges with such an undertaking? Also, where do you guys think the Wizards stand on the Eastern Conference?

JACKSON:  Well, I think the Wizards obviously are a dangerous team, and they’ve proven that, and Randy Wittman has done an outstanding job coaching that team, leading that team, being strong in the face of tough times, holding on to the rope, which became contagious with the players where they bought in.

Now, in changing your message or changing your beliefs to a certain extent, going into this season, one thing you’ve got to do is make sure you deliver the message the proper way.  One thing you have to do is have clarity with explaining why I’m changing it, and why this is going to be better for us, and make sure that your leaders buy in, and you have guys that deliver the message, and also day-in-and-day-out execute the message.

I think it’s a different look for them because they certainly have post-up players that are skilled that they can take advantage of, at certain points of the game, but it really gives — adds versatility to that basketball team when you look at that dynamic backcourt in Wall and Neal, playing at a faster pace, creating an offense, stretching the floor is only going to make them tougher to defend, and I think ultimately a tough out in the Eastern Conference.

VAN GUNDY:  For me I think the real challenge is to remain an elite defensive team as you try to improve offensively, no matter how you do it, whether it’s playing faster or playing slower, but when you change to play faster, it can’t negatively impact your defence.  And I think that’s the biggest change as you go more up tempo.

I think the secondary thing that I’m interested in is how does Nene respond to either coming off the bench, and/or coming off the bench with a lot less minutes?  I think he’s a good player, he’s often injured, and I think his health is an important piece, and I think how their small forward position holds up this year, Otto Porter seemed to really grow last year and improve, it’s going to be important for him to be consistent going forward, and then who do they play behind him, and is it Dudley — how do they play behind Otto porter?  I think they’re a very good team.  I want to echo what Mark said about the job that Randy Wittman has done.

I think Ernie Grunfeld has made some very wise and sound decisions on personnel, and they have a very, very good team.

This is a question about Serge Ibaka and his unique skill set, being one of the elite shot blockers in history. Serge has also expanded his game out to the three-point line. Where would you think Ibaka ranks in terms of some of the unique talents you’ve seen in the NBA when it comes to shot blocking and three-point proficiency? 

JACKSON:  I’m trying to think of a power forward that impacted the game defensively with his shot-blocking ability like a centre and also his ability to switch on, you know, point guards and pick-and-roll coverage.  Forgive me for not being able to remember one, but it just shows you the greatness defensively and the impact that Serge Ibaka has on the floor.  I think he became a totally different weapon when he expanded his shooting ability to the three-point line.

When you put a three-point shooting big man on the floor with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and the problems that they create, it makes their offense almost unguardable, and give Ibaka credit.  He braced the challenge, he put the time in, and he’s a guy that — he’s not just shooting corner three’s.  He now has three-point shooting ability, and it really in my opinion makes that OKC team a legitimate championship contender.  They’ve been that way because of their work ethnic, and hitting it out of the park, as Jeff would say, hiring a guy like Billy Donovan.  The sky’s the limit for that team, and Serge Ibaka’s presence is all over it.

VAN GUNDY:  And we saw last year the importance of that position to winning a championship.  Draymond Green is different, but had a great impact defensively on the Warriors’ ability to be able to guard all these pick-and-rolls, and obviously Green is not the shot blocker that Ibaka is, but a great impact defensively and the ability to spread the floor.

The one thing I think Ibaka has to do, and this is for all guys who — bigs who shoot the three well, is continue to diversify.  Get some rolls to the rim and layup and free-throws, not just be a spot-up jump shooter.  Be harder to guard, be more of a challenge by putting pressure on the defence, because he’s got other abilities.  So as we saw last year with Kevin Love, you don’t want to become just a three-point shooter.  You want to be able to make sure that you can attack the defence in a multitude of ways.

Is what Serge Ibaka does, being proficient at the three and blocking shots, is that something that’s more natural or is that something that’s developed? You don’t see a lot of guys with that.

JACKSON:  Well, I think his defensive tenacity and his ability to defend, that’s natural.  You don’t learn that, he’s — he came into this League with great defensive versatility and ability.  And I think what you are looking at on the offensive end, he worked on that, so it’s a combination of his gift but also adding to his gift by putting the time in on the floor.

VAN GUNDY:  The only thing I will add to that is “amen!”

Mark, what do the Timberwolves need to do to make the next step and make the playoffs? Obviously with a young roster this year, still emerging talent, might not be very realistic.

JACKSON:  First of all, and I’m sure Jeff feels the same way, but before you talk anything about the T-Wolves, you certainly send thoughts and prayers to Flip, and praying that he gets better.  Outstanding basketball mind, but more importantly outstanding person, class and quality, so certainly wishing him nothing but the very best and thinking about him and praying for him and his family.

Talk about the T-Wolves in general, they’re a young team, they’re a talented team that added depth, also, by getting healthy, and also with additions in the off-season via the draft or free agency, so they’re a team that will have to continue to build.  Sam Mitchell is a former teammate of mine, a former coach of the year, who I’m sure will do a very good job.

Looking forward to seeing those guys.  They’re athletic, they’re talented, they’re deep.  It will be interesting to see what type of year they’re going to have.  I think it starts on the defensive end and with those guys, it’s going to start with the pace of the game.  They’re going to have to get easy baskets and really force the issue and use their athleticism, but it should be an interesting year for them.

What’s your opinion on Porzingis and also do the Knicks have a real chance or do you consider them pretty big long shots to become a playoff team this year?

VAN GUNDY:  I say this happily, I have not watched a lot of preseason, because I think it’s sometimes an abomination with no one ever playing, but that being said, the little I have seen Porzingis, I have liked him.  I liked his whole attitude after getting drafted.  I liked his assertiveness in the minutes I’ve seen him play, and I think if Anthony is healthy and really good, and Porzingis develops, I think they could be in the hunt in the last month for the 8th spot.

JACKSON:  I’ve watched them somewhat and Porzingis is a guy that can play.  You can tease with his talent, his size, his ability to shoot, his athleticism.  You can see what they liked coming into the draft, and I think he’s going to be a very good basketball player for a long time to come.  I would lean toward him starting because Carmelo Anthony’s presence on the floor will simply make him better because of his ability to score.  They’re going to double-team “Melo” and create opportunities for him.  This is a team that I don’t think is a long shot to make the playoffs.  I see them with the added talent and depth, when you look all throughout the roster, they have improved and they certainly are more than capable of getting into the playoffs and fighting for one of those spots toward the end of the season.

What are your thoughts on the 76ers. It looks like they are heading for another rebuilding year. What are your thoughts on Jahlil Okafor?

VAN GUNDY:  I love Brett Brown.  I think he’s an outstanding coach.  I think he’s gotten the most he could out of the teams assembled the last couple of years.  I think the strategy by Philadelphia to try to be really bad to get good, I have no problem with what they’re doing; they’re trying to do it by the rules.  I think the rules should be changed, because I don’t think it’s right for the game, but, again, I don’t think necessarily — I don’t think the ‘6ers are wrong; I think the rules are wrong.

I do like Okafor.  He’s got great hands.  I think he will be able to score right away.  I think defensively, like most young players, there is going to be a steep learning curve, but he’s in great hands with Brett Brown.

JACKSON:  I think Brett Brown has done a very good job coaching that team.  One thing you look at as a coach or as a fan is do they compete.  They certainly compete night in and night out, no matter who they’re facing, no matter where they are, and that goes directly to the head coach and his job to inspire and instil game plan and also discipline and their habits.

I think Okafor is a big-time talent who obviously is very skilled on the block and very skilled on the floor so added to that — my only concern is the losing.  At some point the losing gets into your locker room, into the fabric of your team, and to me the only way out of that is to make some changes, because if you are losing, then you become losers, and it becomes frustrating.

You’ve got to get some winning players, some guys that have tasted victory.  I understand the game plan, but at some point it’s got to turn toward getting some winning guys in there and beginning to show some results.

I was wondering, with Kobe, with you guys obviously knowing what he is and factoring in the recent injury history, what are your expectations for him this year?

JACKSON:  My expectation for him is certainly not to be the 94th best player in the world!  (Chuckles.)  Healthy, he’s the best player on that team, and one of the best players in the business.  The question is how healthy will he be?  Will he be able to sustain his health?  Also using wisdom as a former teammate of mine in Bryon Scott, and his responsibility as a coach, how many minutes to play him, how much demand to put on his body, how much practice time will he participate in?

With the Lakers, they are certainly an improved team when you are talking about the young talent, when you look at Jordan Clarkson and the way he’s playing.  He’s a tremendous pick-up for them at where they did select him.  D’Angelo Russell, young, talented basketball player.  Julius Randle healthy and whole, but clearly their best player is Kobe Bryant and how healthy he will be to give them an opportunity to win games that maybe their talent level collectively shouldn’t have them winning, but he’s that good.  So it will be interesting to see how healthy he is, and if we see the old Kobe Bryant, and I’m certainly looking forward to it, because I believe he still has plenty left in his tank.

VAN GUNDY:  I’m interested obviously in Kobe’s health, also interested in — because they’re not a good team, his level of patience and — these are obviously his last years and to do it with no chance of having an impact in the playoffs, I think, is unfortunate.  So what is his patience like?  How does he gracefully go through these — if this is his last year or the last couple years in helping the young players that Mark mentioned to grow and to gain winning habits.  How can he help that along?  Because, unfortunately, the Lakers in the Western Conference are just not as good as the other teams, and it’s going to be a struggle to win 30, 35 games.

So I think that’s unfortunate for Bryant, but I’m interested to see how he helps them grow to gain the habits to win probably after he’s gone, and I think it’s a great challenge for him.

 With this young group of players you guys mentioned, Russell and Randle and Clarkson, it’s early, but what are your early impressions of those guys in terms of what they can do?

JACKSON:  I like those guys.  They certainly don’t look out of place on the floor.  The two guys in the backcourt are skilled, they’re very confident, and they continue to improve from game to game.  I think the leap that Clarkson has made toward thing second half of the season and last year, and then even now, he’s shown he is a starting player in this League, and the future is awfully bright.

Russell, obviously his impact right away, has a great feel for the game, and Julius Randle, missing last season basically he seems comfortable, he seems like he’s improved his ability to shoot the basketball, and he’s a guy that’s very comfortable being a playmaker, whether it be off the rebound, pushing it in transition, or in the half court set, so those are three guys that can play a vital part to their success, not just this year but more importantly moving forward.

Mark, what impact do you see Alvin Gentry having on the Pelicans this year? Jeff, how you feel Dell Demps has done at putting together this roster for the Pelicans, trading away draft picks and building a team around Anthony Davis and the opportunity that a GM has with a player like that?

JACKSON:  To answer your first question, Alvin Gentry is a very good basketball mind, obviously, and a very good basketball coach.  I expect him to do an outstanding job with the Pelicans.  Obviously adding on the offensive end some of the schemes, some of his mentality as a coach is going to add to their versatility offensively.  With that being said, you gotta give credit to Monty Williams and the job that he did last year and since he’s been there.  That’s a very good basketball team, and they lost to the champs last year.

So I think they come in as a very good team.  They added depth.  I like adding even Nate Robinson, a guy that’s proven, who looks healthy and a guy that loves the game of basketball.

So I think that’s a dangerous team, and I expect to see some very good things from them, but I don’t want to sell short the job that Monty Williams did in the past.

VAN GUNDY:  I think unfortunately for Dell and the Pelicans is some of his moves have been marred by injury.  Jrue Holiday was on the path to becoming an outstanding NBA point guard and a two-way player, very good defender, good size and good skill level.  And, unfortunately, he’s run into this injury bug, and hopefully he’s going to be healthier going forward.  Then, you know, you’ve got Tyreke Evans who also now is down, Erik Gordon, so all three of their top perimeter players have experienced an inordinate amount of injuries, and that goes to the — to a lot of things, but even the best moves that you make as a general manager, there is some luck involved in that your players stay healthy, and unfortunately in those three players’ cases, they haven’t been.

I think the trade for Ryan Anderson was outstanding, you know, he had an injury, a severe injury, in Boston, which also slowed him down at times.  But you don’t get many chances to surround a generational player like Anthony Davis too often.

So when you have a great player, who also has great humility and great desire to improve, you need around those players people of high character, a great work capacity, incredible desire to win, shooting, passing, and complementary skills at the defensive end of the floor to give Davis and the Pelicans the best chance they have to succeed in a very tough Western Conference, so I think Dell has done a very, very good job, I just think, unfortunately, the luck in the injury department have held them back some.

What are the general expectations for the Heat?

JACKSON:  I expect the Heat to be in the mix in the Eastern Conference, and I don’t mean in the mix to be fighting for a playoff spot; I expect them to have a great year.  When you talk about the job that Pat Riley has done adding to that talent pool, adding depth, adding proven guys, Erik Spoelstra, proven championship coach, knows what he’s doing.  It’s about being healthy with Dwyane Wade, a guy that can make plays, create offense and make everyone around him better with tremendous passing ability and the passion for the game.  You get Dragic, I mean you get Deng healthy and whole, you get Chris Bosh back.  They have guys all throughout their line-up that are proven guys, and that’s how you win in this League.  So it will be very interesting to see how far they go in the Eastern Conference, but I certainly see them as not just a playoff team, but a team that can do a lot of damage come playoff time.

VAN GUNDY:  I think when you look at their starting line-up, and we always have to qualify with, if healthy, but Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh, Whiteside, that’s arguably as good as any starting line-up in the Eastern Conference.

I think it’s going to come down to how well Dragic and Wade play off of each other, who they can count on off the bench.  I absolutely love the Gerald Green pick up.  I thought before their backcourt got crowded last year, but in the previous year, I thought Green had a huge part in helping Phoenix completely overachieve when they won 48 games that year.  I thought Green was terrific, I thought he was totally undervalued on the free agent market.  I think it was a great pick-up by the Heat, so I like that component a lot, and I just like Erik Spoelstra’s — not only how he coaches, but I think he’s got a great demeanour with his team.

I think you see him coach whether he has an experienced team, like a really good team, like championship years, whether he has a rebuilding situation, Erik always brings out the very best in the guys that he has to coach, so I like what they have in coaching and starting line-up and I love the addition in Green.

Guys, I was just wondering, obviously this summer there is going to be an inordinate amount of money dumped on the free agent market. As coaches does that concern you in terms of players developing? How would you deal with that when you were active coaches?

JACKSON:  I’m sure Coach will say the same thing or similar, because he coached this way, and this was the mind-set, going back to Pat Riley coaching us, when you win, guys are going to get paid.

It’s as simple as looking at the last champion.  You look at the Golden State Warriors.  Those guys got taken care of because they were willing to sacrifice and do the job.  So the way you rely the message to guys, just by examples all throughout this League, guys that maybe didn’t put up huge numbers, the Tristan Thompsons of the world, just ready, locked and loaded to do the job compete at a high level, and you will get rewarded, and that’s the message that you send to these guys ultimately.  It’s not about putting up numbers, it’s about going out there on the floor and doing your job and you will get recognized.

VAN GUNDY:  I agree with that.  I think — listen, to get players to willingly sacrifice for the good of the team, it’s a coaching challenge, and it’s also a player’s challenge to fight off all of our natural urges to be selfish and to care only about how something impacts us.

So it’s not easy, and yet you’ve got to try to convince players that it’s in their interest and the team’s interest to do that.  I also think this:  When you play on a team that willingly sacrifices, I don’t care if it’s championship level, like you’re talking about with Tristan Thompson and the Warrior players that got taken care of, or if it’s for a run-of-the-mill team, when you sacrifice, you’re going to enjoy the season more if you play with an unselfish group.  There is absolutely nothing more miserable than an 82-game schedule and season, whether you’re playing it, coaching it or having to watch as a fan, where the team is selfish.  It brings a level of misery to the game that is impossible to overcome.

With the Cavs having to integrate injured players during the season, you know, you don’t exactly know when these guys are going to be back. How will that be different than what they did last year when they had to virtually remake the roster with the trades? What kind of coaching challenge is that?  Is it different? 

JACKSON:  It’s always a challenge but I think they’ve put themselves in a position to have guys — when you add a Mo Williams, when you add a Richard Jefferson, they’ve got guys that have been there, done that.  Mo Williams continues to be ready to play as a starter successfully, also as a third guard playing the point guard position, and the shooting guard position.  Richard Jefferson is a guy that when you think he’s out of gas, continues to put together solid seasons and play very effectively.  They take care of their bodies.  For me, David Blatt’s responsibility is easier when you add proven veteran guys, and that’s a team that — they have great depth and certainly they battle injuries, but they have great depth and they will be able to handle it without rushing guys back the long season, particularly in the Eastern Conference.

VAN GUNDY:  I think, again, it starts and ends with James, you know, and his health.  Obviously Kyrie Irving is next, you know, Love is fighting back through, Thompson coming in late, Varejão coming back off injury.  They have a lot of moving parts, and I think it may cost them a quick start, and I think, you know, Cleveland fans should understand that.  I think it does give the Chicago Bulls an opportunity if they’re able to get off to a quick start to maybe challenge Cleveland for the top seed in the East, but at the end of the day, it’s still going to be hard if Cleveland is healthy at the end of the year to beat them in a seven-game series because of their — because of James and the talents of Irving and Love, and then, you know, the rest of the group that Mark was talking about.  So they’ve got a really good shot at winning it all.

Does it help that the core guys know each other at least, so that that chemistry issue you might worry about is kind of over with?

JACKSON:  To me it helps that the core guys in James, Love, Irving, flat out can play the game of basketball.  So it helps to know each other, but those guys are some of the best in the business, including the best in the business.

VAN GUNDY:  I agree with that.  When you win, you know, the chemistry follows.  They had their struggles last year, but I think they know who they are as a team, and they know who is the most important parts and pieces to the team but, again, when you have depth there is sacrifice.  And everybody shows who they are not in front of the media and what they say, because everybody knows what to say.

But I’m always interested on deep teams, who is truly into winning and who just speaks about winning and tries to con the media.  So, again, your actions will say it all.  You don’t have to be quoted, you just — all we have to do is watch ’em play and watch the commitment level to winning.  That says everything.  If there is more of a commitment to the individual you will see that with selfish play.  If there is more of a commitment to the team and to winning, you will see that as well.

I want to get your perspective on the “new look” of the Clippers and what their chances are this season.

JACKSON:  They are an outstanding basketball team.  We saw them first-hand the other night in Blake Griffin, his ability to knock down that jump shot, his ability to score on the block, Chris Paul’s ability to be the ultimate maestro, play out of pick-and-roll and get guys involved.  It was crucial to me to make sure that you brought back DeAndré Jordan and what he does to that team, finishing at the rim, but even more importantly, defensively, protecting the rim, protecting the paint area, defending the pick-and-roll as a big man, doing both, was crucial.

They’re a team that, you know, could come out of the West, but my concern with them, they have improved their depth, they got guys on the bench that can come in and impact the game, but defensively, defending the perimeter.  Chris Paul is still their best perimeter defender, it puts pressure on him on both side of the ball.  They need to have guys, say that small forward position, that 2-guard position, buy in, and not just buy in but get it done on the defensive end.  That’s going to be important as far as how far they go in the Western Conference.

VAN GUNDY:  For me I think it’s — I’m really interested to see who they decide to start at the small forward.  Because I think that, then, will go — tie directly into how well the bench fits together.  I love Blake Griffin at the power forward position, the versatility of scoring and passing and defence, and he and DeAndré Jordan — listen, last year I thought their starting unit played as well as any starting unit in the game.  If they find the right piece at the small forward position, I don’t think that will be any different this year.  I think their starting unit will fit together tremendously well.  Then it’s going to be up to the bench to play better than their bench did last year, and there’s a lot of parts and a lot of different personalities, and it will be fun to watch to see how they develop.

We have been talking about health being a factor as a key in the equation of success of the teams as you both talked about. It seems like since Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been together on the team, either one of them has been injured in the playoffs in the postseason, and seems like that squashes their chances to come out of the playoffs, and make it to the finals. I just want to get your thoughts on that, and does it depend on both those players to be healthy in the playoffs for them to be successful? 

VAN GUNDY:  Listen, by the time you get to the playoffs, everybody is banged up, if you’ve played right in the regular season.

There is no avoiding that.  82 games, the challenge, the physical toll it takes is tremendous.  But, again, I don’t think they’ve fallen short due to the performance of Paul or Griffin, I think both — if you look at Blake Griffin’s numbers from last year’s playoffs, they were out of this world.  They were up 3-1 and they weren’t able to close it out against the Rockets.  And you give the Rockets a lot of credit, Josh Smith who is now on the Clippers, they had a miracle come back.  So the Clippers start over again, they’re in a loaded Western Conference, but you always have a chance when you put a starting line-up or a starting four like Paul, Redick, Griffin and DeAndré Jordan on the floor, because they fit so very well together.

JACKSON:  I totally agree with everything Coach said and just to echo is, they lost last year not because of not being healthy.  Paul and Griffin did their job.  I think collectively they lost because they didn’t finish the job.

I want to ask you guys both about the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’re going to be featured throughout the scene on BT Sport and they have two high-profile coaching changes. I was wondering if you guys could echo what you know about Billy Donovan — and Fred Hoiberg’s style and what are you looking for specifically as you cover them throughout the season? 

JACKSON:  Talking about OKC and Chicago, first and foremost, you gotta salute the job that Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks did with both of those organizations, putting them into position time and time again to have a legitimate chance to win it all.  Great coaches, great basketball minds and outstanding job done by both of them.

That being said, when you talk about Billy Donovan and Fred Hoiberg, two guys that — both of them former teammates of mine, both guys, and great situations.  Both guys tremendously successful, in one of them in Billy Donovan, future Hall of Fame coach, in my opinion, without question should be in there pretty soon with the job he did at Florida.  Both guys take over very good basketball teams that will have a chance to be in the mix to win it all.  It’s about being healthy, when you look at Kevin Durant, when you look at Derrick Rose, and they make the coaching life so much easier, but you can’t sell short the job that Scott Brooks and Tom Thibodeau did, putting these teams in position to take another step.

VAN GUNDY:  Yeah, I don’t know Fred well, but I’ve talked to him in the past.  He obviously has pro experience on the management side, unbelievable job at Iowa State.  I think he’s a great man and an outstanding coach.  Billy, I go way back with, all the way to Providence College when he was busting Mark’s ass and leading us to the Final Four!  (Laughter.)

So I hope he does so well, because like Fred, he’s just class, he’s a class person.  But I also want to say what Mark said, because sometimes our quotes get cut off and I never would want Scott Brooks, who I coached, or Tom, who I coached with for so many years, to think that I thought the changes were warranted.  The changes were made, but those guys who in Scott Brooks and Tom Thibodeau, they did incredible jobs, and they, you know, worked tirelessly for their teams and to improve their players.

Both took over — Scott took over when Oklahoma City was awful and brought them into championship calibre.  Tom took over when they were a 500 team, and before that one of the worst six-year runs in the history of pro sports before that, so he took over a team and he did a fantastic job, both guys did.

And now, because this is what happens in the NBA, coaches are blamed, and they’re the ones who get changed.  Billy and Fred will do tremendous jobs because they’re great people and also because they’re outstanding coaches.

ABC is adding the eight Saturday games January through early April. I don’t know if you guys have a quick thought on that just because I think it’s going to offer a chance to feature some of the best teams in the NBA in a prime time slot. What are your thoughts on that addition? 

VAN GUNDY:  Listen, I’m for anything that the fans are for!  We’re on — put games on because they’re hopefully the right match-ups at the right times for the fans and if the fans respond and watch, which I expect them to do, I think it’s going to be fantastic.  Like you said, we’ve got great match-ups and Saturday night has a big-time feel to it so hopefully it worked out really well.

JACKSON:  I concur.

I had a question to follow-up on the Chicago Bulls controversy. Are you guys buying into any of the Butler/Rose feud when they talked about guys buying into the new roles in the system? There is talk about Mirotic being a starter and Noah coming off the bench for Chicago. How do you think that’s going to play off as they try to take that run at the Eastern Conference?

JACKSON:  I don’t really buy into it.  Both of those guys financially secure, both of those guys very successful, Butler coming off his best season many his career, Derrick Rose obviously a former MVP and a proven basketball player.  It’s about being healthy.  There is plenty of spotlight for both of them, and in order for the Bulls to be successful, both of those guys will have to play integral parts of their success.

As far as Noah is concerned, passionate, committed, a winner, I’m sure — I hope so, as a fan of his that he’s willing to buy in, to not just be a rah-rah guy when you are starting and having an impact, but be that same type of guy if you’re asked to come off the bench.  He’s been that guy consistently from day one.  I think they’re a dangerous team and I think they will be just fine, but I certainly don’t buy into the issues that those two guys reportedly have.

VAN GUNDY:  Listen, there is so much noise and so many sources that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.  So I go by what I see when they play together, and I’ve never seen when they’ve played together, even though it’s been infrequently because of Rose’s injuries recently, I’ve never seen anything that would point to they can’t play well together.

The Noah thing is very interesting, on a number of levels.  Can Mirotic and Gasol anchor a good enough defence for the offensive improvement that they expect to see with that line-up.  Noah in a contract year, how does he respond, how does he accept a lot less minutes?  Remember, two years ago this guy was the defensive player of the year, and I think it was fourth in the MVP balloting, and Gasol is coming off a magnificent last year that he had, and he’s still at the top of his game, so this is a huge sacrifice if that’s what Fred decides for Noah to make, and it’s going to be interesting to see how he handles it.

And I think the other issue there is they may be easing Noah out, because I think if Bobby Portis had more opportunity, he would be a viable rookie of the year candidate.  I think it was an outstanding draft choice by the Bulls, I think he’s played well in preseason, and because of Chicago hating to pay luxury tax, you know, maybe they can’t afford everybody and, you know, maybe this is a step into Noah, being — his role being reduced even more and ultimately either traded or let go.  So I think there is a lot of interesting subplots to Noah coming off the bench.

Wanted to get your thoughts on Orlando and Minnesota. I think everybody would say Orlando is ahead of Minnesota right now, but where do you see those two teams in the next two or three years and which team would you rather be?

JACKSON:  Doesn’t matter.  The reason why I would take Orlando is because they’re in the Eastern Conference.  If you put Orlando in the West, I would rather be Minnesota.  Both teams excellent young talent, but when you look at the Western Conference and the amount of teams that you have to beat, the amount of very good teams that you have to beat to have a legitimate chance on winning it all, it’s a tough mountain to climb, so both teams with loads and loads of talent as far as young talent, versatility, and exciting to watch.

VAN GUNDY:  I think Scott Skiles will improve Orlando defensively right off the bat.  He’s an outstanding coach and with a discipline, tough, no-nonsense demeanour that I think a young team needs.  And then Minnesota, Wiggins and Towns are the building blocks for the future.  They, too, have been fighting a lot of injuries throughout the last few years to Rubio, Pekovic, so I like both teams, but I go with Mark, go with the team that’s in the Eastern Conference.

I wanted to ask you both about Gregg Popovich. After the news broke that he was named the head coach of the USA, after 2016, how do you think he will differ from Coach K as an international coach, and do you see this extending his coaching career like it did for Mike?

VAN GUNDY:  I was just thinking to me, him getting named, to me he was the obvious choice.  I think facetiously he had spoken before about walking out the door when Duncan walks out the door, being right behind him, but I think he enjoys his job far too much, and they have some terrific talent, even when Duncan and Ginobili eventually retire, they have Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, they have the ability to still stay competitive, so I think Gregg Popovich will coach for a number of years.  I think he was the right choice, and I think he will continue to do an outstanding job with the National Team, just like Coach Krzyzewski did, and I think we’re going to continue to show just how dominant we are on the world stage.

JACKSON:  I agree with Coach.  I think it was the right choice, it was a home run choice, and when you look at Coach K and Coach Pop, those guys are cut from the same cloth, and I think it was the right decision and excited that his career will continue because he’s one of the great coaches of all time, and I don’t mean just basketball, I mean coaches that we’ve ever seen.  When you look at his resume it is absolutely extremely compressive.

I wanted to ask you about Andrew Bogut and about what you think about other players around the League who followed the sort of trend this past year of stepping back his offensive game and sacrificing for the team, and whether you thought Matthew Dellavedova could have free agent value at the end of this season?

VAN GUNDY:  Well, I love Dellavedova, the toughness, the tenacity that he plays with, really, really happy for all of his success, what he was able to get done in the finals.  He’s just an incredibly competitive player, and in the preseason that I’ve watched, he seems like eats getting his shot off a little bit quicker, too, from the perimeter and his floater game in the paint, he’s gotten more sure of that.

As far as Bogut, number one pick, obviously hasn’t lived up to what you would expect for a number one pick, but last year second team all-defence, he blocked shots, and he’s an outstanding passer.  Now, they went away from him in the Finals and played really well, when he wasn’t on the floor.  You know, they took him out of the starting line-up to play smaller, so, you know, as a player that’s hard, but it was the right move.  It’s one of the reasons they won the championship.  But he’s had some good moments, and you know, he had a pretty good year last year for the Warriors, and seemingly remains somewhat healthy, so it’s unfortunate that he’s had another injury this year.

What do you think about Brazilian players, especially Marcelo Huertas from the Los Angeles Lakers?

VAN GUNDY:  I think he has played well.  I frankly had not watched him a lot, but when I’ve seen him in the preseason I think he’s played well, and depending on how the development of Russell and Clarkson goes, I don’t know how many minutes he’s going to get, but he’s a very capable player.

JACKSON:  I agree with that, watching him, obviously being in LA, he’s a guy that you can tell has played a lot of basketball, has a great feel for the game, and he makes things happen on the floor.  It will be interesting to see if he guess the opportunity early, when you have two point guards that are young and need to be on the floor, but the opportunity is going to come for him, and he’s a guy that you can tell is going to be ready and he can help a lot of teams in this League with his playmaking ability and his feel for the game.

Barbosa and Splitter are champions. Do you think one of those can be two-times champion?

JACKSON:  They could be.  They are both on good teams, and I really like the way Barbosa has looked in this preseason.  He’s come back building on the year that he had last year.  Here is a guy that had an injury where you thought maybe his career was winding down and he’s only gotten better, and he certainly has been an impactful player for that Warriors team, so both those guys have a chance at being a two-time champs.

VAN GUNDY:  I love Barbosa’s enthusiasm and Splitter’s intelligent play.  I think both of those guys are a credit to the game.  They’re true pros.

 

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