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Why some NBA coaches love the new casual look — and some don’t

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When the Miami Heat promoted Erik Spoelstra out of the video room and into an assistant coaching position, there was one problem: Spoelstra owned no suits. The league’s dress code for coaches, codified in a memo sent before the season, mandates every coach wear a dress shirt (or “dress sweater”) and sport coat.

Pat Riley, Spoelstra’s boss and one of the all-time sports fashion plates, lent Spoelstra several of his Armani suits. Riley is taller than Spoelstra, with broader shoulders. “Pat’s suits were huge,” Spoelstra said. “It was almost like they had football pads in the shoulders. I looked like the dude from the Talking Heads video.”

Spoelstra has improved his style game over two decades on Miami’s bench, but he didn’t have to bring any suits to the NBA’s campus at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. The National Basketball Coaches Association polled its members and found heavy support for a more casual look in Orlando: polo shirts, slacks, and sneakers. The association took its findings to the league office, which approved the casual style for the NBA’s restart, said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, president of the NBCA.

Spoelstra is almost afraid to say it out loud, but he prefers the polo look. “Pat would be shocked,” Spoelstra said. “There is so much less to think about. I feel more mobile. The thing I hate most about suits is wearing dress shoes.” Several head coaches echoed Spoelstra’s remark about how the casual look simplifies sartorial decision-making — and packing, a constant headache during normal times.

Spoelstra’s turn marks an important win for Team Casual, which feels it is gaining momentum in the bubble for more lasting change. San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, the elder statesman among head coaches, has wondered aloud — including in his role as head coach of Team USA in international play, where the polo look rules — why coaches in sweaty gyms must wear suits. Some pro-suit coaches were wary of proclaiming their allegiance and standing against a beloved mentor to so many.

Frank Vogel, head coach of the Lakers, followed the same path out of the video room as Spoelstra. Before his first game as a graduate assistant under Rick Pitino at the University of Kentucky, Vogel was scribbling scouting tips on the white board when Pitino approached. “You’re not wearing that, are you?” Pitino asked him.

Vogel was wearing his only suit — a graduation gift from his parents. He told Pitino he was going to wear it for each game, and change out shirts and ties to avoid detection. Pitino would not have it. He invited Vogel to his house that night, and gave him 15 suits — Armanis and Brionis — plus the number for his tailor, Vogel recalled.

Vogel remains on Team Suit. “It’s the Pitino family tree,” he said. Vogel has joked that he wants to be “the Dan Reeves of the bubble,” a reference to the former head coach of the NFL’s Denver Broncos, New York Giants, and Atlanta Falcons — who often favored suits in a mostly non-suit sport..

The coaches’ association has taken periodic polls, mostly recently two seasons ago, and found “overwhelming support” for suits over polos, Carlisle said. Carlisle spent two years as an assistant with the New Jersey Nets under Chuck Daly, perhaps the most fashion-forward head coach in NBA history. Daly had a sponsorship deal with Hugo Boss. On one road trip, he invited Carlisle to a Hugo Boss outlet for a shopping spree. “It was the nicest stuff I had ever had to that point,” Carlisle said.

Carlisle has never even gone without a tie in an NBA (non-bubble version) game, he said: “If I ever did that, Chuck would roll over in his grave.” Carlisle is perhaps the most powerful voice on Team Suit. “The legacy of guys like Chuck Daly, Pat Riley, Lenny Wilkens — that is a big part of this,” he said

Daly directed Alvin Gentry, now the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, to his pet suit shop outside Detroit when Gentry became head coach of the Pistons in the late 1990s, Gentry said. “I thought I had really made it,” he said. But in the bubble, Gentry has shifted to Team Casual, he said.

The late Flip Saunders’ careful attention to sideline style rubbed off on his son, Ryan, now the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. “I like my suits,” Saunders said. “I learned that from my dad. You feel good if you feel like you look good.”

But watching Orlando from afar, Saunders has felt the stirrings of rebellion. “After being in quarantine and not even putting on jeans for six months, I’m leaning toward basketball casual,” he said. “My dad would have a fit.”

Other notable backers of the polo look: Boston’s Brad Stevens, Denver’s Michael Malone, Orlando’s Steve Clifford, Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Charlotte’s James Borrego, Sacramento’s Luke Walton, Golden State’s Steve Kerr, and Washington’s Scott Brooks. (Kerr was so passionate, he requested his name appear on this list in larger font — John Hancock-style.) “I was against [polos], but now that I’m down to my summer weight, I love them,” Brooks said. Most of the above coaches said they would support carrying over the look to the normal NBA environment.

“With the coaches all matching, I think we maintain the professional look,” Walton said.

Dwane Casey, head coach of the Pistons, likes both looks and would prefer coaches get to choose each game. Brett Brown, head coach of the Sixers, leans Team Casual but is open to a middle ground. The Sixers have ordered custom dress shirts for the playoffs in Orlando, he said. “I’m a Jeep-and-dog guy from Maine,” Brown said. “When I was young, I cared more. Now whatever suit is closest to my hands, I just throw in the suitcase. There is a real disdain for packing.” (Brown has also served as head coach of Australia’s national team, so he is comfortable in the polo look, he said.)

“I told my kids I’d be a better coach in polos,” Borrego said. “There are so many fewer decisions to make.” (Sam Hinkie, the former president of basketball operations of the Sixers, famously bought a huge supply of blue blazers to combat “decision fatigue.”)

J.B. Bickerstaff, whose father, Bernie, coached in the NBA for 40 years, is a traditionalist. “The history of the suit means something,” he said. Others on Team Suit include Toronto’s Nick Nurse; Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce; and Chicago’s Jim Boylan.

Quin Snyder, head coach of the Utah Jazz, pitched the notion of intra-staff suit uniformity, which is not uncommon in European leagues. When Snyder was an assistant at the powerhouse CSKA Moscow earlier this decade, Ettore Messina, then CSKA’s head coach, outfitted the entire coaching staff in the same suit and tie for each game. “And Ettore has great taste,” Snyder said. (Messina confirmed, via text, that he indeed has great taste.)

“What we did at CSKA provides an element of professionalism and also captures the pragmatic component of not having to overthink,” Snyder said.

That system would prevent each individual coach from showing off his or her style. (In a memo sent to teams in October, the league for the first time detailed a dress code for female coaches — though it is very brief. “Each female coach must wear business attire,” it reads. “Athletic shoes, sandals, flip-flops, and work boots are prohibited.”)

One of Saunders’ assistants — Saunders won’t name him — has already expressed concern about potentially losing stylistic independence, Saunders said. Mike Brown, Kerr’s lead assistant and the former head coach of the Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers, picks every element of his outfit for every game and tracks his choices so he doesn’t wear the same outfit twice against the same opponent, he said.

“I have a whole process,” Brown said. “I like guys being able to show their personalities with their suit games.”

But like Vogel and Spoelstra, Brown remembers being a young assistant short on cash. In the 1990s, he hunted deals at K&G Fashion Superstore, which sometimes offered specials that included a suit, shirt, and tie for $99, Brown said.

Starting in 2008, the coaches association struck a deal with Men’s Wearhouse to outfit head coaches in Joseph Abboud suits. The full deal did not apply to assistants, though they received a discount — plus shoes and belts as part of smaller deals, per previous reports. (The Men’s Wearhouse deal expired after last season, sources said.)

Uniformity across teams matters, too. Even several pro-polo coaches conceded it might look awkward for a suit staff to face a polo staff. “There is a visual extreme,” Carlisle said. “One staff looks like they are at a wedding, and the other looks like they are about to tee off.”

A few polo backers worried short-sleeved versions would leave them shivering in the league’s chillier arenas. They wondered about the possibility of long-sleeved polos.

There is almost unanimous agreement the polo look makes sense for the less formal environment in Orlando, which many compared to the NBA’s Summer League — another polo event. Some on Team Casual might get cold feet about transferring the look to normal games. Others aren’t passionate enough to repel an offensive from Team Suit.

But the Orlando bubble has emboldened Team Casual.

“Maybe this experience will give it some momentum,” Malone said.

MORE: Zach’s picks for MVP, ROY and the major NBA awards



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What’s real and not in the conference finals?

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All four teams are still afloat in the NBA’s conference finals — and things just keep getting spicier.

The Boston Celtics kept their season going by beating the Miami Heat in Friday’s Game 5 121-108. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, are hoping to make yet another improbable comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, this time against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers.

Ahead of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Saturday (9 p.m., TNT/ESPN Radio), our experts take a look at what to believe in these series. From Anthony Davis‘ starring role in the Lakers’ push to make the Finals for the first time in a decade to the Celtics and Heat perhaps giving us a glimpse of the future of the East, we’re sorting out what’s real or not.

MORE: Three ways the Lakers can prevent another 3-1 Nuggets comeback

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Anthony Davis puts up 34 points in the Lakers’ 114-108 win vs. the Nuggets in Game 4.

Real or Not: Anthony Davis is the very early favorite for Finals MVP

Not real, for two reasons: LeBron James and Bam Adebayo.

James has worked all season to set up his new star teammate as the team’s primary scorer, but he remains the captain of the ship. James led the Lakers in both offensive and defensive real plus minus (RPM) this season, and ranked second in the NBA in overall RPM. Add in that this would be the Finals — assuming Denver doesn’t recover from a 3-1 series deficit yet again — and James has been living for this moment since signing with the Lakers two summers ago.

The Finals are where James can best add to his historic résumé. He has the chance to become the first player to win Finals MVP with three different franchises, to secure his place among the legends who have led Los Angeles to the top, and to deliver an NBA record-tying 17th Lakers championship — in the same year that Kobe Bryant died.

In addition — again, if the Lakers advance and happen to face the Heat — Davis probably would be matched up with Adebayo, who has the length, strength and quickness to defend Davis at a level that he has not encountered this postseason. Adebayo was a huge factor in limiting league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Heat’s matchup with the Bucks, and ranks 11th in the NBA in DRPM.

Davis excels at driving to the rim, averaging 1.151 points per direct drive to rank fourth in the NBA among players with at least 150 direct drives, according to Second Spectrum. Meanwhile, Adebayo gives up only 0.828 points per direct drive, ranking seventh in the NBA among players who have defended at least 150 direct drives.

So Adebayo is elite at preventing Davis’ preferred scoring avenue. That would seemingly make him poised to limit the star big man in a potential Finals matchup.

— Andre Snellings

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Dwyane Wade breaks down why the Heat were perfectly assembled for a postseason run in the NBA bubble format.

Real or Not: The Heat are this season’s team of destiny

In a normal world, are the Heat as dominant as they’ve been through most of this postseason? Maybe not. But we aren’t in a normal world — and this particular Heat group is not a normal team. Friday’s result notwithstanding, Miami is still one win from the Finals with three rounds of momentum.

As Miami lifer Udonis Haslem said a few weeks back, the Heat are “built for the bubble.” The players trust one another on the floor and they are mentally tough enough as a group to handle seemingly any obstacle. There is balance throughout the roster and a belief that everyone will do their jobs.

The confidence within this group isn’t new, either. They’ve been talking as if they could win a championship all season. The Heat knew long before the rest of the basketball world just how special Tyler Herro could be and how dangerous Duncan Robinson is from deep. They recognized that Adebayo was developing into one of the best big men in the game. They trusted that veterans Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala could fit into their hard-nosed culture.

Most importantly, they figured their organizational structure — and the bubble environment — would bring out the best in Jimmy Butler. They showed confidence in acquiring him last summer after issues in his previous stops, and that faith has been rewarded in the postseason.

The doubters will surely reemerge after the Heat blew a 12-point lead Friday to keep the Eastern Conference finals going. But every time Butler and the Heat have been doubted this season — and especially in the bubble — they have gotten the last laugh.

Why should anybody believe it’s going to stop now?

— Nick Friedell

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Jamal Murray goes off in Game 4 for 32 points as the Nuggets fall to the Lakers.

Real or Not: Jamal Murray will be a 2021 All-Star

Jamal Murray has burst into the national consciousness by leading Denver to the Western Conference finals, and one could argue that he has evolved from a top starter to a franchise-level guard between when the season was postponed in mid-March and now.

But when looking at the 2021 All-Star selection process, we need to take a big-picture approach and not just look at what Murray has accomplished during the 2020 playoffs (26.9 points per game, 51% shooting from the field and 46.6% from 3).

There are two questions around why Murray could fall short of making his first All-Star appearance next year.

The first is, what version of Murray are we going to see in 2021? The player who averaged 18.5 points on 34.6% from 3 during the 2019-20 regular season or the fearless star from the 2020 playoffs? Can he play at an All-Star level on a consistent basis?

The more important question about Murray’s All-Star candidacy surrounds the heavy pool of excellent guards in the Western Conference.

Murray finished 23rd among backcourt players in 2020 All-Star West fan voting, earning just under 140,000 votes. The top two guards in the conference — Luka Doncic and James Harden — received more than 3.5 million votes (Doncic totaled 6.1 million). Even if Murray continues his torrid play next season, it’s unlikely that he will get voted in.

And if you thought getting voted in would be tough, take a look at the guards he probably will be competing with for one of the four reserve spots: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Ja Morant, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Devin Booker. If Curry returns to MVP form and Lillard is playing at an All-NBA level, there are only two spots left.

The Nuggets’ success during the 2021 season could play a role here, though. If Denver is in the top five of the Western Conference at the deadline to submit All-Star reserves, Murray could get the benefit of the doubt from the coaches even if his statistics are less stellar than players such as Booker and Gilgeous-Alexander.

— Bobby Marks


Real or Not: Celtics-Heat will be the Eastern Conference finals matchup again next season

I’m not bold enough to predict which of the Eastern Conference finalists won’t make it back to this stage next season. Boston and Miami certainly both have the foundations in place to make it a possibility, with the Celtics’ core of quality vets to complement arguably the league’s best under-23 tandem and the Heat’s crop of rapidly developing young stars who thrive under Butler’s brand of leadership.

But the odds are against a conference finals rematch, simply because there’s too much competition. I’d roll the dice on one of the East’s other three contenders — the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets — eliminating either the Celtics or Heat.

The Bucks might be the NBA’s most fascinating team over the next year, as they attempt to get over the hump and probably deal with the looming cloud of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2021 free agency. It’s on ownership and the front office to make the roster upgrades to maximize the chances of a title run that would guarantee he stays in Milwaukee. It’s on Antetokounmpo — still only 25 — to develop the diversity in his offensive game required to be the go-to guy on a championship team.

The Raptors proved this season that they weren’t a one-hit wonder doomed by Kawhi Leonard‘s departure. Pascal Siakam had a miserable second round against the Celtics, but I’d bet on him using that as fuel to bounce back strong, considering his track record of developing from a raw project to an All-NBA selection in four seasons.

It remains to be seen how close Kevin Durant will be to the pre-Achilles’ tear version of himself — when he had a strong case as the league’s best player — and whether Kyrie Irving can stay healthy. But you can’t count out a Brooklyn team that boasts two players who have hit title-claiming daggers.

Which one of these teams will prevent a Boston-Miami rematch? It’s premature to make that prediction.

But three is more than two.

— Tim MacMahon

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Bam Adebayo takes blame for Miami Heat’s Game 5 loss to Boston Celtics

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Miami Heat All-Star big man Bam Adebayo took the blame for his team’s 121-108 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals on Friday night.

“I played like s—,” Adebayo said after the game in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “Bottom line. I put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault, it’s not my coaches’ fault, it’s me … I missed too many shots I should have made. Put that one on me.”

Adebayo, playing with a sleeve over his left arm after apparently suffering an injury to it at the end of the Heat’s Game 4 victory, almost registered a triple double with 13 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in 38 minutes, but he did not play with the same activity that he usually does up and down the floor, particularly at the defensive end.

“I wasn’t being the defensive anchor that I should have been,” Adebayo said. “I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today.”

Adebayo wasn’t the only player who was a step behind in the second half of Friday’s game as the Heat watched a 58-51 halftime lead get erased by a third quarter in which the Celtics dominated 41-25 and never looked back on their way to cutting Miami’s series lead to 3-2. The loss marked the 18th time this season the Heat have blown a lead of 10 or more points, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. That’s tied for the most by a team over the past two seasons, including the playoffs.

The numbers also back up that Adebayo struggled more than usual on Friday night. Adebayo allowed 1.65 points per direct pick-and-roll as the screener defender, according to Second Spectrum data. That’s the fourth-worst efficiency allowed in a game in his career with a minimum of at least 10 picks in a game. Heat All-Star Jimmy Butler said he was frustrated with his team’s effort, but stood up for Adebayo when he was told the 23-year-old tried to take the blame for the loss.

“It’s not [on Adebayo],” Butler said. “It’s on everybody. He does so much for us that it could feel like that at times, but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play in order for us to win. Nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it, I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself — we got to be there with him.”

When asked what specific injury he was dealing with in his left arm, Adebayo said only, “I’m good.” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also brushed off the notion that Adebayo was favoring the arm at all.

“He wasn’t favoring it,” Spoelstra said. “We’re not making any excuses. Boston outplayed us in the second half. We probably outplayed them in the first half and their outplaying of us in the second half was two or three times what we did in the first half. Forty-eight minutes, that’s a long game and you have to play consistently a lot longer than we did tonight.”

Butler said he would speak to Adebayo prior to Sunday’s Game 6 and offer his younger teammate a little pep talk.

“I will,” Butler said. “But I think he knows you can’t get stuck on this game now. We learn from it, it’s something of the past. But we’re going to need him to be who he is on Sunday. We need everybody to be that way. We’re gonna watch film, we’re gonna learn from it, not saying we already don’t know what went wrong, but we’ll be ready to go. We will fix it.”

Spoelstra also brushed off the notion that the Heat were concerned about dropping a 3-1 series lead much the same way the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers each have done against the Denver Nuggets already in the postseason bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this,” Spoelstra said. “Our guys are well aware, we have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it. And we’ll just learn from this, go to work tomorrow and try to get ready for the next one.”

Adebayo is confident he will be better in Game 6 as well.

“I got to be better,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s it. There’s no excuses to this … this game is on me. I played terrible and that can’t happen.”

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NBA playoffs – How the Boston Celtics extended the Eastern Conference finals

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For the Boston Celtics, the first half of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was a tractor pull. They shot 25% percent from the field in the first quarter. Coming off a simple pick-and-pop with Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker sent a pass into the hands of assistant coach Scott Morrison on the bench. On offense, the ball didn’t move, drivers were stuck in neutral, and the Celtics were slow to loose balls. But it wasn’t just a lack of rhythm or execution; Boston looked like a team broken by frustration.

Over the next three quarters, the Celtics rebuilt their spirit piece by piece. They got a healthy serving of instant offense from reserve big man Enes Kanter. Jaylen Brown set an aggressive tone. Boston started protecting the basketball. After halftime, Boston ratcheted up the defensive pressure. Tatum started to attack the paint and drew fouls on demand. The offense exploited the middle of the Miami Heat’s zone defense.

When Game 5 was finally over, the Celtics had woken from their slumber, outlasting Miami 121-108 to narrow the Heat’s series lead to 3-2.

“We just knew in the first half that we were playing with a lot of energy, but it was kind of all over the place,” Brown said. “And we just had to dial it in. We had the right mindset from the beginning of the game, but it was a little bit all over the place. Once we settled in a little bit and kept that same intensity, it worked out for us.”

After the early hiccup, every member of the Celtics rotation performed their role to specification. Tatum and Brown led the way, opportunistic on the drive and quick on the release from distance. Marcus Smart showed off his first-team All-NBA Defensive bonafides at the top of the floor, and threaded the needle in the half court with crafty passes. Gordon Hayward wasn’t exceptionally sharp but glimmers of the playmaking point forward with the full toolbox revealed themselves in the second half. Kanter did his Moses Malone impression. And after being a liability early, center Daniel Theis helped bust the zone and lorded over the offensive glass.

Both Theis and Kanter were also crucial in helping unlock point guard Walker who, despite an unremarkable stat line (15 points on 4-for-11 shooting and seven assists) and foul trouble, played the brand of basketball he prefers. Walker is a pick-and-roll virtuoso who can carve up defenses when he’s operating with confidence out of the action. But in the bubble, Walker has never quite found his game. He came into the restart nursing knee soreness. In the conference semifinals, he was the target of the Toronto Raptors’ box-and-one zone. And he encountered similar trouble against the Heat’s 2-3 zone scheme, never finding a way to show off his dance steps.

On Friday night, he finally got his chance to burst off a high screen and hide behind his big man to find space to launch from beyond the arc. His third-quarter performance was second only to Tatum’s in vaulting the Celtics from potential elimination to survival.

“We were just aggressive, really feeding off each other’s energy,” Walker said. “That’s who we are. We were out there encouraging each other … just really enjoying the game.”

Like Walker, Tatum came into Game 5 with an eye toward redemption. His scoreless first half in Game 4 was a source of embarrassment, and after another forgettable first half Friday, he found offense all over the floor in the third quarter. He connected on a couple from long distance but did most of his damage off the dribble, drawing fouls at will against Miami. The Heat simply couldn’t contain Tatum in the half court without hacking him. He controlled the pace of the game, frustrating a Heat defense that had cordoned off the lane for much of the series and allowing the Celtics’ defense to set on ensuing possessions.

Brown exacted his usual damage in both the half court and in transition. As is often the case, Brown discovered his offense in the flow, taking opportunities where he found him. He was also the first Celtics starter to shake off the doldrums in the first half and challenge the Heat’s defense.

During a huddle in the second half, coach Brad Stevens told his team that, for the first time in several games, they were playing Celtics basketball. Though this was probably obvious to anyone who has watched this conference finals series, it was a powerful statement that spoke to both how much of a departure the Celtics’ recent efforts have been from their ideal selves, and to Boston’s potential to be a two-way monster when the players are confident and aggressive.

“He was absolutely right, we didn’t play the way we wanted the whole series,” Theis said. “We didn’t play our defense, we did adjustments and we just went back to our system the way we played all year. Everybody felt comfortable in our system. You could tell in the third quarter everybody was just enjoying being out there.”

If the Celtics can sustain what they found in Game 5 for two more games, that statement can be a prophecy.

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