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First Quarter Grades: Atlantic Division

Dennis Chambers breaks down the Atlantic Division team-by-team through the first quarter of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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With the first leg of the 2017-18 NBA season coming to an end, teams throughout the league are beginning to legitimize their claims within the standing hierarchy.

As previously done with the Central Division, our Basketball Insiders team is delivering a team-by-team breakdown of the Association’s squads after the first quarter of this new season.

Next up on the list, the Atlantic Division.

Brooklyn Nets 9-14

Coming into this season, the Brooklyn Nets were pegged as one of the league’s worst teams. A roster depleted of talent, and with relatively minimal building blocks for the future, the Nets’ outlook for this season and those to come was regarded as unfortunately bleak.

Bright Spot: The Nets aren’t THAT bad.

Of course, they’re not going to be vying for postseason supremacy anytime soon, but Brooklyn has put together a relatively decent first stretch of the year. Through 23 games, the Nets rank fifth in the league in points per game. All things considered, Brooklyn has been getting good production from its players under Kenny Atkinson. The Nets have eight players who average double-figures in scoring, and their culture of pace-and-space is reflected by operating with the third fastest pace in the NBA.

Areas to Improve: Naturally, that’s combated immediately by allowing the second most points per game of any team. While some of this is a result of the lack of personnel being in-house, the Nets still need to enhance their effort moving forward. Playing fast and with space is the trend the league is moving in for the last few years now. If Brooklyn wants to make the shift as well, they need to on both sides of the ball.

When it’s all said and done, the Nets will wind up in league’s basement yet again this season. But through the first quarter of this NBA year, they’ve been a decent surprise to expectations.

First Quarter Grade: C

New York Knicks 11-12

After trading Carmelo Anthony for the likes of Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott, overhauling the front office and ridding themselves of all offenses and terminology directly related to particular shapes, the New York Knicks looked in store for a rough season.

However, even more so than their contemporary in the neighboring borough, the Knicks have exceeded expectations in the early goings of this season.

The absence of Anthony has allowed Kristaps Porzingis to begin his blossom into an elite franchise player. The Latvian Unicorn is currently averaging 25.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game, all while shooting 39.8 percent from downtown. He’s been nothing short of incredible.

Bright Spot: Tim Hardaway Jr., who signed a massive contract in the offseason, is beginning to live up to his paycheck and is looking the part of a decent second-fiddle behind Porzingis. Rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina has shown flashes that warranted his top-10 selection, and Jeff Hornacek is coaching with a bit more room to breathe now that he’s not being forced to shove a round peg into a triangle hole, if you will.

Areas to Improve: Boasting a record just below .500, and being in seven games decided by seven points or less, the Knicks need to do a better job at getting an opportunity at free points. While New York ranks near the top of the league in free throw percentage as a team, their attempts rank just 25th. In order to swing a few of those close games in their favor, the Knicks would benefit from attacking the basket in hopes of getting to the line.

Time will tell where the Knicks end up as the season goes along, but the early returns on this new era in New York basketball history have some promising signs of life to it.

First Quarter Grade: B

Philadelphia 76ers 13-10

When word finally broke that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were healthy and set to play on the court together at the same time, excitement, intrigue, skepticism, and expectations all flooded the collective well for the Philadelphia 76ers.

In short, the two young Sixers’ stars have been brilliant this season. Simmons is in the midst of a historic rookie season, while Embiid is building off of his 31-game double-redshirt rookie year.

Bright Spot: When Simmons and Embiid are clicking, even with minimal time spent together, the Sixers are already hard to beat. Holding wins over teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, and Washington Wizards, the Sixers are going right at teams this season that they would’ve been blown out by in years past.

Areas to Improve: Naturally, there are still bumps in the road, like dropping games to sub-.500 teams like the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. But of the other five teams with losing records, Philadelphia has played, they’ve come out victorious, showing early signs that they’re capable of keeping composure and beating the teams they’re supposed to beat. It’s an odd situation to be in, considering the Sixers haven’t been supposed to beat anybody for the better part of a half-decade now.

In a situation that is relatively the polar opposite of the Knicks’ problem at the foul line, the Sixers just can’t seem to hit their shots when they get there. Philadelphia ranks 28th in the league in free throw percentage. Along with their struggles at the line, the Sixers need to do a better job at taking care of the ball and committing fewer penalties, areas where the Sixers are ranked 27th and 29th, respectively.

The Sixers have shown flashes from their core that warrants the hype and excitement, but if they truly want to make the next leap, they need to clean up on the little things that separate the good teams, from the great teams.

After making it out of the first quarter, and the roughest stretch of their schedule, three games over .500, brighter days look to be ahead for this budding Sixers team.

First Quarter Grade: B+

Toronto Raptors 15-7

A pillar of consistency in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors are on track to make a fifth consecutive postseason appearance.

After the last four years of being unable to breakthrough in the East, thanks in large part to that roadblock in Cleveland, the Raptors regrouped and retooled for this season.

Bright Spot: In the first leg of the year, Toronto is sporting a top-five offense and a top-10 defense. DeMar DeRozan is playing MVP-caliber basketball, and his supporting cast is doing their best to keep up and fill in the holes. Kyle Lowry isn’t scoring at the volume that he or his fans may be accustomed to so far this season, and given the Raptors’ success despite that, once Lowry turns on the jets Toronto could be poised to take their game to a whole new level.

Areas to Improve: Despite sporting a new level of efficiency and effectiveness on both sides of the ball, there is still room for improvement in Toronto. In a basketball world where long jump shots are held at a premium, rebounding those shots becomes all the more important. Whether it be on the defensive end to kill an opponent’s possession, or the offensive end to extend a possession of their own, grabbing boards is basketball’s equivalent to battling it out in the trenches. For the Raptors, so far this season, they haven’t won too many of those battles. Ranking 26th in defensive rebounding and 27th in the offensive and overall categories, Toronto needs to see some serious improvement on the boards if they want to continuously win close games as the season moves on.

While there still is a roadblock in Cleveland, and what appears to be one in Toronto’s own division as well, the Raptors look like they’ve added a new twist to their constant success and good be more than just an afterthought this postseason.

First Quarter Grade: A

Boston Celtics 21-4

The Boston Celtics had one of the best offseasons in the NBA. They poached Kyrie Irving from their nemesis Cleveland Cavaliers, and signed Gordon Hayward to reunite him with his college head coach, Brad Stevens.

Moves were made to put Boston in position to finally knock off LeBron James and make their way back to the NBA Finals.

Then six minutes into the season, Gordon Hayward broke his leg; gone for the year.

No matter though, all Irving and Co. did was regroup to have the best start in the league. Twenty-one wins and a 16-game winning streak to boot later, and the Celtics are one of the league’s premier teams this season without their second best player.

Bright Spot: Irving is climbing his way up the MVP leaderboards and continuing unconscious play in crunch time. Stevens is navigating one of the NBA’s most stout defenses. Young studs Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are coming into their own, and then some, and the Celtics are clicking on all cylinders after many wrote them off the night Hayward went down.

Areas to Improve: The Celtics have been dominating on all facets of the basketball court, so pointing out anything they should improve on would more or less be nitpicking at this point. That being said, Boston does just rank 17th in the NBA when it comes to points per game, and their pace ranking is 23rd. Their style is to slow you don’t and drag you into a rock fight, and until now it’s been working just fine. But with potential high-powered offenses as their opponents down the line, the Celtics could benefit from trying to run their scores up as much as possible moving forward.

It’s impossible to say for sure, considering there are so many games left to be played, but this time around the Cleveland Cavaliers-Boston Celtics Eastern Conference Finals matchup will have more in store for NBA fans than a big bag of storylines.

The way the Celtics look right now, they may even be able to beat the Cavs.

First Quarter Grade: A+

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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