The Boston Celtics weren’t the team we thought they would be a season ago.
Alongside the Golden State Warriors, the Celtics were expected to pace the NBA. In fact, most pegged them the class of the Eastern Conference, with a chance to topple those same Warriors from the NBA mountain top.
That, clearly, wasn’t the case. With the amount of talent that some teams could only dream of, Boston just couldn’t put it together.
Jayson Tatum didn’t take the step many had hoped for (some might say he regressed, even), while Gordon Hayward looked like a husk and Jaylen Brown struggled as a reserve. There was a clear disconnect between the roster’s veterans and youth, and management did relatively little to remedy the situation.
Now, among others, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are gone and, because of that, the Celtics are a different team. The way they approach the season, and the way they handle their personnel, should see major change.
But, it would seem as if the same question is being asked of the team, if not with a different tone: how far can they go?
The sky was the limit a season ago, but now? It’s hard to say.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The 2019 offseason was not a kind one to the guys in green. Having lost Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris and surprisingly Al Horford, core pieces were lost to say the least. However, with this comes opportunity, and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are looking forward to taking the ball and running with it. The Celtics went out and brought in Kemba Walker to fill the All-Star point guard void, and Enes Kanter will likely assume starting duties in the middle. Considering how much those two love the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game, it could be a match made in heaven. Perhaps what’s forgotten in all this is Gordon Hayward is going to be a focal point for the first time in years, and the 29-year-old showed signs of his old self in spurts last season. The bench could be inexperienced with a couple of rookies mixed in there, but the leadership of Marcus Smart with that unit may be enough to guide them along. Brad Stevens loves a challenge. And unlike the managing of egos and disagreements behind closed door, *this* seems to be the kind of challenge he thrives on.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
The Celtics may have lost Kyrie Irving, but they did replace him with Kemba Walker so don’t expect too much of a drop off on that front. Who they’re really going to miss though is Al Horford. Horford was their best interior defender and a capable scorer. They don’t have anyone on the roster who can replicate his production. What they’re really counting on, to avoid taking a step backwards, is the development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. With a healthy Gordon Hayward, as well as Irving, there was only so many touches to go around. When the two were injured during the 2018 playoffs, both Tatum and Brown thrived with the offensive touches they got. They both took steps back last season overall, however. For the Celtics to try and offset the loss of Horford, they’ll need those two to regain their 2018 forms. They didn’t make much a splash on the free agent front, and they’re going to be expecting big roles from relatively unproven players like Robert Williams III and Semi Ojeleye. They’re still good enough to be a playoff team, but unless Tatum and Brown project upward, then they might find themselves without home court in the first round.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Celtics had a tough offseason. They swapped out Kyrie Irving and Al Horford for Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter – which is a net negative from a talent standpoint. But there is still ample talent on Boston’s roster. And there is still redundancy at the wing position, with Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart all posturing for many of the same minutes. But Celtics depth continues to be a good problem to figure out for Coach Brad Stevens. And with Walker now leading the Celtics, there is likely to be fewer disgruntled players in the Boston locker room. Rookies Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters and Grant Williams all show promise – but there obviously won’t be the requisite minutes for all of them to develop on the NBA team. Some – if not all – will spend a portion of the upcoming season with their G-League affiliate. The Celtics might have taken a step back from a talent standpoint, but they’ve added some much-needed stability. And with the league’s elite talent spreading across more teams (e.g., Kevin Durant leaving Golden State for Brooklyn), there is less of a need for a “big four.” So the Celtics picked a good year for this experiment, even if the plan was forced on them and not entirely theirs to pick.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Drew Maresca
Let’s be honest, you never want to lose talent in the NBA for nothing in return, let alone an All-Star talent like Kyrie Irving. However, if you do, Kemba Walker is not a bad consolation prize. In fact with the Celtics team chemistry being such a mess last season, Walker’s personality and style of leadership might actually make the Celtics a better fitting team this season which is a plus. The Celtics are going to miss Al Horford, not only was he a monster on the floor he was the big brother in the locker room that helped a lot of guys through the ups and downs of the season. That is a big void to fill. All in, the Celtics still look like a contender. They have fewer mouths to feed and that should help guys get in a rhythm a little easier. All said, the Celtics look like a more balanced team today and if any of the young guys take that next big step forward in their development, the Celtics should be in contention for home court.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
This was an interesting offseason for the Boston Celtics. Losing Al Horford is more significant than Kyrie Irving opting to join the Brooklyn Nets, in my opinion. Horford has been a huge difference-maker in the the lats few postseasons and is a good character guy to have around. Irving, on the other hand, never seemed to gel with the Celtics and was a disruptive presence during his time in Boston. Kemba Walker may not have as much raw talent as Irving, but he isn’t far off and should be a much better fit both on the court and in the locker room. Also, credit Boston for adding guys like Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards. Kanter is talented offensively and not as inept defensively as many may have you believe. To be clear, Boston lost a lot of talent this offseason, but made solid moves to fill out the roster. The hope is with more opportunity, young players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can take a step forward in their development and fill the void.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Celtics quickly pivoted when it became clear that Kyrie Irving didn’t intend to stay. By executing a dual sign and trade with the Charlotte Hornets that brought in Kemba Walker for Terry Rozier, Boston triggered a hard cap at $138.9 million. That shouldn’t be an issue given the team has used all of its cap space and room exception (on Enes Kanter) to reach $117.9 million in guaranteed salary.
Before November, the Celtics will need to pick up team options on Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams. Jaylen Brown is eligible for a contract extension until the start of the season. While Boston might have enough cap room next summer to sign a maximum-salaried player, players options (Gordon Hayward at $32.7 million and Enes Kanter at $5 million) and Brown’s cap hold as a restricted free agent ($19.6 million) suggests the team is unlikely to be a big spender in July.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker
In his two seasons in Boston (and with Brad Stevens), Irving posted some of the best numbers of his career. Now, in a similar role, Kemba Walker is set to do the same.
Already a potent offensive weapon, Walker averaged 25.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists and shot 43.4% from the field with the Charlotte Hornets last season. Irving, in arguably his career-best stretch, posted similar numbers (24.1, 4.4, 6.1, 48.9%), so it wouldn’t be ridiculous to think Stevens could push Walker to another level.
Even with the Celtics’ many departures, Walker is about the step into a primary role on a team more talented than any he was a part of in Charlotte. With those inferior rosters, Walker managed three All-Star appearances and an All-NBA appearance.
So, as Boston’s lead man? Expect Walker to take a leap.
Top Defensive Player: Marcus Smart
With Horford gone, there wasn’t much debate here. Boston has multiple versatile defensive weapons, but Marcus Smart is the best among them.
Defense has been the Celtics’ identity for years, and Marcus Smart has been at the heart of it, perhaps more so than ever last season. Smart finished eighth in the vote for Defensive Player of the Year and was a first-time member of the All-Defensive first team. Smart also finished third in the NBA in total steals (143) and sixth in steals per game (1.8).
He isn’t the biggest, nor the strongest, but Smart has shown the ability to excel, regardless of the defensive matchup. His defensive instincts are impeccable, as is his tenacity – ala Patrick Beverley, Smart is never one to give up on a play.
Smart also has a knack for making plays when the team is desperate for one. Whether a deflection, forced an errant pass or an outright block or steal, Smart can often be found in the thick of it late in games.
Top Playmaker: Kemaba Walker?
There isn’t an elite passer in this group, but there are a number of different players that could take on the mantle come season’s end.
Walker would be the obvious candidate, as his 5.9 assists per game last season would lead the Celtics’ current group. Smart, who thrived as a secondary playmaker last season, would also seem like an easy choice here.
Hayward’s career average of 3.4 assists per game doesn’t look like much, but the forward has solid passing skills and the team could look to employ him as a point-forward in certain situations.
The most likely scenario? Boston can (and probably should) look to Frankenstein their abilities together. They aren’t Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, but together the three of them should be able to make a serious impact.
Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker
Walker has long been regarded as clutch. And, as he has in almost every other facet, he should step in nicely for Irving as Boston’s go-to guy.
By virtue of his situation in Charlotte, Walker’s field goal percentage in the clutch, the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and the score within five, doesn’t impress (49.6%) — he had to take almost every shot, because there just wasn’t anyone else that could. Still, Walker finished the regular season with the third-most field goals in those situations (52), just five behind Irving (57) and ahead of Stephen Curry (31), Kevin Durant (31), James Harden (47), Damian Lillard (36) and others.
Plenty of his teammates — Brown, Hayward, Tatum, etc. — can and will get up shots late in games. But, when the Celtics need a bucket, they’ll have a guy in Walker that can get it done when- and wherever.
The Unheralded Player: Jaylen Brown
Brown regressed in 2019, but not nearly as much as some would make it out to be.
He struggled early on due to a hand injury and, by the time he got back Boston was in the midst of a meltdown. Stevens moved him to the bench and it took some time for him to adjust but, once he did, he took off.
In Brown’s last 37 games, he averaged 14 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.1 steals and shot 38.2% from three. Only Paul George, T.J. Warren, Curry and Irving posted those numbers while playing more than 40 games last season.
With a chunk of the offense production gone from last year, expect Brown to not only take on a greater role with the team, but another step forward, career-wise, in the last year of his deal.
Best New Addition: Grant Williams
Of course, Walker would fit the bill as the best new addition. But, to highlight someone else, let’s take a look at rookie Grant Williams.
There is a lot to like about the big-man out of Tennessee. At 6-foot-7, Williams has the size to play at either the power forward or center spot and should hold his own against most players, small or large, defensively. He can score efficiently, pass effectively and can even step out and make an impact on the perimeter.
Williams would seem to fit the mold of the do-it-all front court chess piece. Depending on where he is at, development-wise, he could seize a large role relatively early in his rookie season as the Celtics look to fill the Horford-sized hole left in the roster.
If not, Williams should develop into a solid player, and one the team can build with, as the Celtics look to turn their team around after last season.
– Shane Rhodes
WHO WE LIKE
1. Grant Williams
To reiterate, there is a lot to like about Williams and what he could do at the NBA level.
He was exceptional in nearly every phase of the game at Tennessee — he can shoot, pass and defend at a high level — and he has the motor that any team would want to see in a rookie. In his third year with the team, Williams averaged 18.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and shot 56.4% from the floor (32.6% from three).
Williams has also shown to be a team-first player, an attitude the Celtics sorely lacked last season, and should go a long way in bringing the locker room together.
He also impressed in Summer League and, given Boston’s options at power forward and center, Williams could step into a relatively large role out of the gate. If that’s the case and, should he hold his own, Williams could prove one of the biggest steals of the 2019 NBA Draft.
2. Carsen Edwards
Carsen Edwards can flat out score. And that’s exactly why the Celtics brought him in.
Boston struggled to score points off the bench last season, so they added the diminutive guard in the second round of the draft. Edwards scored easily and often during his time at Purdue, and even stepped up his game in the NCAA tournament and shined with the Celtics in the Summer League. He can score at every level — near the basket, mid-range and from three — and isn’t afraid of any matchup.
That confidence should bode well, both for Boston and Edwards. Even as a second-round rookie, expect some big nights out of him in his first season.
3. Gordon Hayward
Two seasons removed from his gruesome leg injury, this may be the year Hayward looks like himself again.
Many thought Hayward would take that step last season, but he struggled with his confidence and often looked lost on the court. Stevens tried to force-feed him the ball, but he only struggled further and the team worse for it (both on the court and in the locker room).
But now, with two years and an injury-free offseason between him and the original injury, Hayward may be able to take that massive step back toward the player he once was.
If Hayward can make that triumphant return to the court, it could completely change other teams view Boston and their place in the NBA hierarchy.
4. Romeo Langford
Should Boston not extend Brown, Romeo Langford’s rookie season could change from an afterthought to a primary focus quickly.
Langford isn’t the defensive presence Brown is, but the Indiana forward could become quite the offensive weapon. At Indiana, Langford made the game look easy as he averaged 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists. While he struggled in his efficiency — 44.8% from the field and 27.2% from three — much of that can be attributed to a thumb injury sustained early in his freshman season.
With a healthy hand and NBA spacing, the 6-foot-6 Langford, much like fellow rookie Edwards, should have no problem bringing some much-needed scoring off of Boston’s bench.
– Shane Rhodes
The future of the NBA is positionless basketball — teams want players that can play and defend a multitude of positions. And, when it comes to versatility, the Celtics have it in spades.
Brown, Hayward, Langford, Ojeleye, Smart, Tatum and (Grant) Williams can all play multiple positions. Meanwhile, Edwards and Walker can play either spot in the backcourt. Stevens has always been one to shift players around the court, and he should have a multitude of lineup options at his disposal for almost any in-game situation.
Should he (and the team) take advantage of that, it could give Boston a leg up on more than a few teams as they look to win games.
– Shane Rhodes
With Horford gone, the Celtics project to start Enes Kanter at the five. And, in case you didn’t know, Kanter isn’t exactly known for his defensive prowess.
With the number of players that can switch defensively, Boston should find few issues defending the perimeter. However, there is a distinct lack of defensive anchor on the Celtics roster. Second-year big Robert Williams flashed but played limited minutes — is he ready for a bigger role? Likewise, Daniel Theis has shown promise, but has played relatively little during his two seasons with the team.
It’s possible someone may step up, whether it be either Williams, Theis or even Kanter. But don’t expect Boston defense to look as stout as it has in recent seasons until they address their issues on the inside.
– Shane Rhodes
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can Walker Help the Young Celtics Run?
The Irving experiment clearly didn’t work, but Boston lucked out and hit the reset button with Walker. But where do they go from here?
It’s also fair to question whether the younger players — Brown, Smart, Tatum, etc. — can get better or if someone can push them to be better than they were a season ago.
Ultimately, that responsibility should fall to Stevens and, as the team’s best player, Walker. If the two of them can push everyone to be their best, Boston could find themselves where we thought they would be a season ago.
If not, expect another long summer as Danny Ainge and management look to re-evaluate.
– Shane Rhodes
NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26
Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.
This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.
When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.
That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.
Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.
The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.
Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.
Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.
Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.
This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.
The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.
Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.
Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.
Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.
Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.
While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.
Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner
So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.
Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.
Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.
Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.
Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward
It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.
However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.
Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.
With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!
What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4
What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.
But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.
The New Look Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.
But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?
You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.
Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.
Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.
Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT
In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.
But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.
Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.
If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.
The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes
Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is 8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.
That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.
Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.
No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.
It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.