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Buy Or Sell: Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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The early portion of the NBA season is fun for lots of reasons – namely, it helps determine which teams are contenders and those that aren’t. Additionally, it allows teams to gauge and grade their rosters. And on December 15, when newly signed players can be traded, the NBA season shifts gears from fun to cut-throat.

So with that beings said, let’s forge ahead with Basketball Insiders examination of buyers and sellers. We have already covered the Northwest, Southwest and Central divisions. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the Atlantic.

Boston Celtics 17-7 — Buyers

The Celtics have surprised most NBA experts so far this season. But not only because they’re playing well; more so due to looking significantly better than last season despite losing a top-flight point guard (Kyrie Irving), a workhouse center (Al Horford) and then replacing them with less talented players.

The Celtics are 17-7 through 24 games — good for fourth place in the conference. Entering Friday night, they’re playing at essentially the same pace as last season (99.2 possessions per 48 minutes vs. 99.6 in 2018-19), but with an average margin of victory of 7.86 (up from. 4.44), which is the fourth-best margin of victory in the league.

But it’s unlikely that the Celtics are satisfied with their early-season successes. And if they hope to crash the Milwaukee Bucks’ party and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, they’ll need some to add some depth to their frontcourt.

Despite being nearly 30 percent of the way through the season, the Celtics still need to shore up the center position. They entered the season with a by-committee approach from the beginning and they’ve stuck to it so far by starting Daniel Theis a whopping 18 times, Kanter three times and Robert Williams twice. Theis averages 21.8 minutes per game, compared to Kanter’s 15.8 and Williams’ 14.2. While the three-headed monster approach can be successful, they lack a true difference-maker.

They’ll need a more skilled and versatile center to put pressure on opposing big men like Joel Embiid and Al Horford, while also keeping the floor appropriately spaced. While good centers are hard to come by, the Celtics could package some combination of their rookies and future picks to entice a trade partner.

And it would be in their best interest to do so. Just look at their record against the Philadelphia 76ers this season. While it’s a ridiculously small sample size, their 0-2 record against Philadelphia, who boasts probably the biggest and best frontcourt in the league, should scare them into adding a big man before the deadline – and maybe as soon as this Sunday.

Brooklyn Nets (13-11) — Neither

The Nets have surprised folks, too — but unlike the Celtics, they did so through early struggles. With the newly acquired Kyrie Irving in tow, the Nets started the season by winning only four of their first 11 games – during which time, Caris LeVert suffered an injury, followed by Irving. And just like that, the sky was falling.

But then something monumental happened, proceedings just stabilized all at once. The Nets have won nine of their last 13 games since Irving’s injury. Spencer Dinwiddie stepped up, averaging 25.1 points per game in Irving’s absence. But it’s not all Dinwiddie. Since Irving went out, the Nets are 13th-best in net rating – compared to 20th with him in the lineup – and their chemistry looks much improved.

And what’s more, the Nets can still look forward to adding Irving back into the rotation. While they’ve struggled with him thus far, it’s not entirely Irving. After all, Irving’s return represents a major talent who was averaging 28.5 points and 7.2 assists per game. Dzanan Musa and Theo Pinson, too, have largely failed to fill in as the backup point guard too.

Sure, it’s going to take time to figure out their identity with Irving suited up. And the team must also welcome back LeVert and Wilson Chandler, who is set to return from a 25-game PED suspension on Sunday. But those are great problems to have.

Fortunately, the Nets’ 2019-20 season was always a placeholder until Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury. The team shouldn’t worry too much about a playoff run and, instead, they should be squarely focused on building exceptional team chemistry. And adding or subtracting to a newly-formed roster is a terrible way to do so.

Thus, playoffs or not, the Nets should spend the next three or so months learning one another’s styles and identifying their best rotations without tinkering.

New York Knicks (5-20) – Sellers

The Knicks are very obviously a dumpster fire. They have failed to properly develop their young talent through 25 games this year and prioritized playing time for a slew of their recently signed veteran free agents. Additionally, they panicked after a couple of 30-point losses and decided to fire coach head coach David Fizdale.

There are probably more firings to come. Rumors have begun to circulate about the job security of team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. But regardless of who’s at the helm, the Knicks must move many of their recent signees to capitalize on their favorable contracts.

The vultures have already begun to circle. According to SNY’s Ian Begley, interested teams could be willing to part with a late first-round pick in exchange for Marcus Morris.

The team should also begin shopping Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock (who has been injured so far all season), Elfrid Payton and even Julius Randle. Cashing in on any of those players would be helpful to a team that is clearly still in the early stages of a rebuild.

And they should be looking to acquire young players who are still viewed as projects — like the Orlando Magic did with Markelle Fultz last season — and/or draft picks. Nothing else. Fit does not matter. Bring in as much talent as you can and see what sticks.

Philadelphia 76ers (19-7) – Buyers

The 76ers are another Atlantic Division buyer.

Despite losing Jimmy Butler to Miami and JJ Redick to New Orleans, the 76ers entered the season with extremely high expectations — and they’ve mostly lived up to them. They are 18-7 overall and 7-3 against teams who are .500 or better. Joel Embiid is better than ever and Al Horford appears to be hitting his stride in Philadelphia. Further, Josh Richardson has looked like an extremely promising fit when healthy and rookie Matisse Thybulle has performed better than anyone could have expected.

So what do the 76ers need to add? One thing: Shooting. The 76ers rank 26th in three-point attempts and the team is currently lacking a Redick-level three-point threat. We’ve all seen opposing defenses, as the Raptors did in the 2019 playoffs, go under screens and sag away from Ben Simmons. Expect more of that. And expect teams to willingly pack the paint to affect Embiid, Simmons and Horford until the team surrounds them with more shooters.

The 76ers should be targeting guys like Kevin Love, Robert Covington, Danilo Gallinari, Marcus Moris, Davis Bertans and even the aforementioned Reddick – any of whom would be an excellent addition if the 76ers could put together an acceptable offer. But that’s where things get challenging. Remember, the 76ers have approximately $126 million tied up in their core five (Embiid, Horford, Simmons, Richardson and Tobias Harris) for 2020-21.

Toronto Raptors (16-8) – Sellers

This may be an unpopular opinion, but this at its core, shouldn’t teams either compete for championships or set themselves up to do so? Obviously that’s easier said than done and there are a number of teams that don’t adhere to such strategy because of the primary driver of profitability.

That being said,  the Raptors are coming off a championship and just lost a player that many believe is one of the three best alive. In all likelihood, they’re not quite ready for primetime again, despite what their record suggests. Toronto’s primary focus now should be building around their young talent and adding even more to a team that is already ahead of schedule.

Their roster isn’t well-aligned from an age standpoint, anyway. Their 25-year-old centerpiece (Pascal Siakam) and relatively young core are on a different trajectory than aging stars Kyle Lowry, 33, Marc Gasol, 34, and Serge Ibaka, 30. What’s more, Gasol and Ibaka are on expiring contracts that’ll be chased by contenders looking to add versatile big men – like Boston.

Lowry is different given what he’s meant to the team and the entire city of Toronto. There is a clear benefit to keeping him on as a locker room leader and having him retire a Raptor. Even if they wanted to move Lowry, it would be challenging as he’s signed through next season.

But that doesn’t mean that moving him isn’t worth exploring. Plenty of contenders would benefit from Lowry’s services, even with another season at $30.5 million. Lowry can still lead a team and he’s a fearless competitor. Cooler, the former All-Star has played better this year than in the previous two seasons, scoring 19.1 points in 37 minutes of action per night across 13 games.

Considering how unlikely the Raptors are to win the Eastern Conference again, they should seriously consider moving at least one of their slightly-older stars. It could be one of their last opportunities to add additional building blocks. And as we saw last February and in previous seasons, contenders make silly deals as the trade deadline approaches.

December is an extremely exciting time for the basketball world. Christmas Day represents the sport’s first real prime time opportunity of the young season. But for many, the holiday comes nine days early as teams can begin trading players who were signed last offseason.

But it doesn’t stop there, intensifying in the lead up to the Feb. 6 trade deadline. So let’s all sit back and enjoy the best time of the year, all kicking off in just two days.

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NBA

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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

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.

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