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+
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”
NBA Daily: 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 3/20/18
With most of the major NBA draft prospects eliminated from March Madness, things in the mock draft world are starting to get interesting.
A Lot of Mock Movement
With the race to the bottom in full swing in the NBA and the field of 64 in college basketball whittled down to a very sweet sixteen, there has been considerable talk in NBA circles about the impending 2018 NBA Draft class. There seems to be a more consistent view of the top 15 to 20 prospects, but there still seems to be a lack of a firm pecking order. Arizona’s Deandre Ayton seems like to the prohibitive favorite to go number one overall, but its far from a lock.
It’s important to note that these weekly Mock Draft will start to take on more of a “team driven” shape as we get closer to the mid-May NBA Combine in Chicago and more importantly once the draft order gets set. Until then, we’ll continue to drop our views of the draft class each Tuesday, until we reach May when we’ll drop the weekly Consensus Mock drafts, giving you four different views of the draft all the way to the final decisions in late June.
Here is this week’s Mock Draft:
Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:
The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.
The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections and based on the standings today would convey to Philadelphia.
The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade. The pick is top four protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.
The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick is top-five protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.
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