The season is young. As of Thursday morning, there have been 324 games played, with 2136 remaining. Still, a lot can be learned from the first month of the season.
Basketball Insiders kicked off its new series, “Areas of Concern”, earlier this week to highlight issues we should keep an eye on as the season progresses. This installment focuses on the Atlantic Division. Like most divisions, the Atlantic Division has experienced its share of surprises. But things could be more chaotic (e.g., the Southeast or the Northwest). There have been blips in Boston and Philadelphia out of the gate; but beyond those teams, everything is mostly as expected. Let’s examine some specific concerns:
76ers Guards Must Learn to Play Together
The 76ers have a few problems, but their most glaring issue is with their backcourt. Specifically, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons and their ability to remain on the court with one another.
Fultz is shooting 30.8 percent on three-pointers so far this season while launching only 1.1 threes per game. And Simmons has totally disengaged with the long ball, choosing to shoot zero three-pointers in 341 minutes. And that makes it challenging to have them on the court at the same time. Defenses play off of them on the perimeter and go under ball screens, which clogs up the paint and makes life more difficult for their lead scorer – Joel Embiid. Even Head Coach Brett Brown conceded that the two must improve their “shooting and spacing” earlier this week to news.com.au.
But more troubling than their shooting is how they affect one another. The 76ers are a minus 6.3 when they share the floor thus far this season. And while Fultz is still seen as a project by most, Ben Simmons is viewed as a star. And Fultz’s presence isn’t exactly helping Simmons.
Looking back to last season, Simmons averaged 22.1 points and 11.6 assists per game per 100 possessions without Fultz in the lineup, and only 15.2 points and 8.9 assists per 100 possessions with him. While both players still have ample time to develop into well-rounded stars, the 76ers organization needs to figure out how the two can coexist more effectively sooner than later. The success of the season might be at stake.
Kawhi Leonard Already Missing Games
The Toronto Raptors haven’t had too much to worry about thus far. Through 12 games, the Raptors have 11 wins. They are the seventh highest scoring team in the league (117.1 points per game). They have the third-best offensive rating, ninth best defensive rating and the fourth best average margin of victory.
But there is one potentially troublesome item: Kawhi Leonard has missed four of the Raptors’ 12 games.
It could be strictly precautionary. But having just returned from a quad injury that cost him most of the 2017-18 season, one might wonder about his overall health. Leonard did recently jam his ankle, but that is unrelated to the injury that led to him missing time last season. And Coach Nick Nurse continues to state that Leonard’s quadriceps are healthy and that he is taking it “game by game.”
While it is likely an overreaction to worry about Leonard’s durability at this point, it is something worth keeping an eye on. Especially considering Leonard is the centerpiece of the Raptors’ offense and the key to them competing for a championship.
Knicks Need to Move Courtney Lee
The New York Knicks are in development mode. And while they seem committed to giving their young core time to develop, there is one noticeable outlier– Courtney Lee.
Courtney Lee has yet to appear in a game this season for the New York Knicks due to a mysterious neck injury. That isn’t terribly unusual – and it even allows them to grant more playing time to the rookies. But Lee and the Knicks are clearly heading in opposite directions. While the Knicks hope to develop the league’s third-youngest roster, Lee is an accomplished 33-year-old veteran hoping to compete in the playoffs.
The Knicks would probably prefer to accommodate Lee and move on from the $12.76 million they owe him next season, but Lee must first prove he can still be a valuable contributor. Both parties would be best served by Lee returning sooner than later and exhibiting his three-and-D skill set.
Celtics’ Production Hurt by Return of Stars
The Celtics started the season a mildly disappointing 6-4. They have played a difficult schedule so far, with losses against the Nuggets, Pacers and Raptors. But regardless of outcomes, the team clearly needs to get its house in order.
The source of their struggles is well-documented – the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They are players that most any team would love to incorporate, but their respective returns have had residual effects.
Irving is mostly back to his old self. While he is scoring only 19.2 points per game – his lowest average since his rookie campaign– he has come on of late. Additionally, much of his drop off in scoring can be attributed to the abundance of weapons on the Celtics’ roster. But his play isn’t the issue.
Terry Rozier filled in beautifully in Irving’s absence, averaging 16.5 points in the playoffs last season in 36.6 minutes per game. But with Irving back in the lineup, Rozier’s opportunities have diminished dramatically. Rozier will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and it was never clear if he was interested in remaining in Boston behind Irving. But with Irving back in the lineup, Rozier is averaging only 7.5 points in 22.7 minutes per game – thus, hurting his trade value in the short-term and hurting the possibility that he re-signs in the long-term. And teams around the league have taken notice of his dissatisfaction, which will only hurt his trade value to the club.
Hayward’s conundrum is more complicated. Yes, his production is down. He is playing 25 minutes a game and tallying 10.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Comparatively, he averaged 20.3 points per game in 35.5 minutes over his last three seasons in Utah. But he is only 10 games into his return from a horrific injury. This is mildly alarming, but not worth mentioning on its own.
But there’s a butterfly effect of sorts going on in Boston. Allocating 25 minutes per game to Hayward takes playing time away from others. Jayson Tatum’s recent slump is probably a separate issue given that he is seeing more playing time than he received last season, but Jaylen Brown is a whole other story.
Brown, averaged 14.5 points per game last season with a PER of 13.6. And remember, Hayward was injured early on in the first quarter on the first game of the 2017-18 season, so last season was virtually a year without Hayward. This season, Brown is down to 11.4 points and a PER of 8.7 – a significant drop off for a rising star.
And the effect on Marcus Smart is noteworthy, too. Smart’s scoring is down to five points per game (down from 10.2 last season), and his three-point shooting is down to an anemic 18.5 percent (down from 30.1 percent).
The Celtics will likely figure things out because good players led by good coaches typically get good results. But their slow start is definitely cause for concern.
The Nets Are Playing Too Good for their Own Good
Hot take – the Nets aren’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. At 5-6, the Nets are in the midst of their best start to a season since the 2012-13 campaign.
The team has a good amount young talent headlined by: Caris LeVert (20.5 points per game), Jarret Allen (11.3 points 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) and Spencer Dinwiddie (14.1 points per game on 43.1 percent from three-point range).
There is also added depth in the form of Joe Harris (55.4 percent from three-point range), D’Angelo Russel ( 15.4 points and 5.1 assists per game) and others.
What’s more, the team plays a great style of basketball for the modern NBA, placing sixth in pace in the league. But it’s still probably not enough to qualify for the playoffs. And even if it is, what’s the goal? To be a middle-tier team that gets eliminated from the playoffs each year?
The Nets have a bright future, but how much better could they be by adding a free agent or two this offseason, as well as a high draft pick? And remember, all the talent the Nets have amassed was facilitated through other teams’ picks that they traded for; the Nets haven’t owned their own pick outright since 2013. So just imagine what their front office could do with a lottery pick.
Many of the concerns listed above will work themselves out. And they will be replaced by new issues – that’s the nature of the beast. But some might linger and throw off a team’s season.
NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong
Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.
The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.
Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.
Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).
In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.
In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.
Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.
Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.
“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”
Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.
“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.
When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.
“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”
Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.
Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.
Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”
Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.
After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.
“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”
As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.
Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.
Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.
“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”
The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.
NBA Daily: Potential 10-Day Contract Players
Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few players who could be prime candidates for 10-day contracts.
January 5 was an important deadline in the NBA in that it marked the first day teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts.
Usually reserved for younger, unproven talent looking to get their first shot in the NBA, recently NBA veterans have started going the 10-day route to refresh their careers and get back in the league. For example, Corey Brewer just recently signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.
These contracts are very beneficial for teams in that there’s essentially no risk, and the potential for a high reward. It’s a relatively cheap tryout for teams to get a quick look at players who can potentially be helpful. Best case scenario, they end up finding a solid contributor. If not, then the player is no longer with them after 10 days.
Here’s a look at a few players who could be candidates for a 10-day contract.
1. Willie Reed
The veteran big man has had his taste of the NBA. He began last season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ primary backup to DeAndre Jordan. With the emergence of other players, however, his playing time decreased and he was ultimately traded to Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade.
The Pistons then shipped him off to the Chicago Bulls for Jameer Nelson, and the Bulls proceeded to cut him. He ended up being the first overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.
This season with the Stars, he’s been one of the best big men in the G League. Reed has put up 20.1 points per game on 66.5 percent shooting from the field, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He’s still a quality rotation player and could help a playoff team in need of some size off the bench.
2. John Jenkins
Another NBA veteran, Jenkins developed a reputation as a sharpshooter during his early years in the league, but didn’t do much else. His last appearance in the NBA was last season when he was brought to training camp by the Atlanta Hawks.
He ended up being one of the Hawks’ final cuts before the end of camp, and he subsequently chose to play overseas. He returned stateside this season, where he joined the Westchester Knicks, the New York Knicks’ G League affiliate.
Jenkins has had a very strong season thus far, putting up 24.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, 42.8 percent from the three-point line, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Perhaps the biggest changes in his game have been his playmaking ability and his development into a more versatile scorer. Any team in need of some bench scoring should give him a look.
3. Anthony Bennett
Keeping with the trend of NBA veterans using 10-day contracts to get back to the league, the former No.1 overall pick in the 2013 draft has begun to put people on notice this season.
Bennett last saw NBA minutes two season ago with the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t that bad during his stint in Brooklyn, but the Nets cut him almost halfway through the 2016-17 season. Aside from a brief stop overseas, Bennett has been playing in the G League.
This season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Bennett has looked like he’s ready for another shot in the NBA. He’s been averaging a modest 13.0 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. One of the biggest additions to his game though has been his expanded shooting range. He’s knocking down 43.6 percent of this 5.1 three-point attempts. He’s worth another look for a team in need of a stretch big man.
4. Bruno Caboclo
Another player with NBA experience, it’s probably not fair to call Caboclo a veteran seeing that he rarely saw playing time in the league. When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, his selection caused quite a bit of confusion, leading to Fran Fraschilla’s now famous quote of him being, “two years away from being two years away.”
Caboclo toiled on the Raptors’ bench for about four years before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. He finally was able to see some minutes with the Kings, but still didn’t show much. The Houston Rockets invited him to training camp but ultimately cut him.
Caboclo joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets G League affiliate, and has since been showing that he may very well be worth a 10-day contract. He’s averaging 16 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. When he was drafted, the expectation was he’d develop into a 3&D wing but that didn’t happen. He’s looking much closer to that now. For a team in need of a wing defender who can shoot from distance, he’s worth a look.
Again, 10-day contracts have become a very valuable and inexpensive way for NBA teams to try out potential contributors. If the player pans out, then you have a relatively cheap guy in the rotation. If they don’t, you cut your losses after 10 days. It should be interesting to see if these vets are able to parlay their G League success into a path back to the NBA.
NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston
Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.
James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.
The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.
But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.
Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.
Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.
At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.
According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.
With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.
Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.
Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.
Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.
If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.
Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.
We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.
This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?
Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.
Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.
There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.
Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.
Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.
Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.
Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.
With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.
This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.
Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.
The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?