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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

Knicks Holdovers Proved Something to Carmelo Anthony and the NBA

Did Carmelo fail the Knicks, or vice versa? As his former teammates proved, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

Moke Hamilton

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As he walked up the tunnel in his dapper outfit and slick looking fedora, Carmelo Anthony had spent the past few nights thinking about this moment. For the first time as a member of the Thunder, Anthony returned to Madison Square Garden. The building still looked the same, but it understandably felt quite different.

Seeing friends and family he’s missed since relocating to Oklahoma City, Anthony knew that he would be headed for an emotional experience. After a triple-overtime game in Philadelphia the night prior, Anthony said he’d be ready to play at MSG, legs be damned. He made no secret about wanting to score a win on his former playground, and never did he imagine that his former teammates wanted to beat him more than he wanted to beat them.

Even without Kristaps Porzingis, that’s exactly what the Knicks went out and did.

To Anthony’s former teammates, the game meant something, but probably not for the reasons one would most immediately suspect.

* * * * * *

When LeBron James spurned the Knicks and announced his intentions to take his talents to South Beach, word began to trickle out of Denver that another big fish had his eyes on New York.

It was there, in the aftermath of heartbreak that the Knicks and their fan’s infatuation with Anthony began.

Anthony would eventually find his way to the team in February 2011, after successfully leveraging the Knicks into going against the wishes of then-executive Donnie Walsh in executing a trade with the Nuggets. The prevailing sentiment was that wise teams don’t give up assets for players they could get via free agency, and with Anthony just five months from potential hitting the open market, the wise money said to wait.

Melo had other ideas.

While what was said behind closed doors still remains somewhat of a mystery, the fact is that Anthony never understood the consequences that the Knicks would face by executing a trade with the Nuggets. Out of a fear of his accepting a trade to the Nets, owner James Dolan flinched and gave the Nuggets the Knicks’ farm.

Anthony will forever wear the fact that he wouldn’t put the franchise’s longterm best interests above his personal financial security, and while it’s easy to understand the quandary, plenty of Knicks fans felt that his conduct was selfish and indicative of a player who put winning second to his finances. That’s Anthony’s Scarlett letter.

In the years that followed, even with the talented superstar, the Knicks would spend the majority of his career in New York lacking the talent required to compete for supremacy atop the Eastern Conference.

As the years progressed and the Knicks continued to flounder, fans in New York inevitably split. Some blamed Anthony for the franchise’s failure to achieve higher. By forcing the trade, they’d argued, Anthony stripped the team of its assets, many of which could have been used to help acquire reinforcements for him.

Those that defend Anthony would sooner point to the organization’s lack of continuity—both on the bench and in the front office—as the primary reason the team continually fell short.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.

And so have the scores of teammates that were cycled in and out of New York in a real-life basketball version of musical chairs.

* * * * * *

Player movement in the NBA has become its own phenomenon. Now, more than ever, superstar players understand their power and that their teams will often cast them aside when their usefulness has expired. Loyalty is fleeting.

As a result, we often spend time trying to figure out who’ll switch teams next. DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving won’t be the last.

In our Tons of time is spent talking about things from the superstars’ perspective, and not much from the perspective of the role players. So when a player like Anthony is  deemed to need to relocate in order to have an opportunity to win at the highest levels, players like Lance Thomas, Courtney Lee and even Kristaps Porzingis begin to be thought of as players who aren’t good enough to succeed in a serious way in the league. It usually takes many years of futility for the superstar to be the one considered damaged goods.

So when Anthony and the Thunder came into Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, the 10-time All-Star wasn’t the only one that had something to prove. Subliminally, the role players left behind—the team that many expected to find itself in the lottery once the season was over—was just as eager to prove that the team’s failure to win around Anthony wasn’t completely due to their shortcomings as professionals.

As the Knicks soundly defeated the Thunder by a final score of 111-96, there’s no doubt that the Thunder’s triple-overtime game in Philadelphia the night before had an impact, but there’s also no doubt that there just so happened to be a little extra pep in the step of each Knick player. That the Knicks managed to outlast the Thunder without top gun Porzingis was especially impressive.

And when it was all said and done, the Knicks fans that curiously booed Anthony proved a central point: there is a large section of them that believe that Anthony somehow held the team back. Certainly, the Knicks could have and should have achieved higher during his years there, but to boo an athlete that chose New York—a franchise that has been marked by poor management and poorer decisions—seemed a bit out of touch.

Sure, Anthony may have failed the Knicks, but they absolutely failed him, too. And in the face of it, all Anthony ever did was show up, play hard and answer every question ever posed to him authentically and honestly. He proudly wore New York across his chest and showed up every day. In a world where LeBron leaves for Miami and Durant leaves for Oakland, Anthony’s commitment to New York should have meant something to Knicks fans. Flaws and all, Anthony chose New York and it wasn’t until he was told in certain terms that the organization wanted to move on that he honored their wish.

And in the end, Anthony decided to waive his no-trade clause to head to Oklahoma City. In return, the Knicks got Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and the rights to the Chicago Bulls’ second round pick in 2018 NBA Draft.

Still, heading into the season, the Knicks were projected to be a lottery team. Without a player the caliber of Anthony, they were thought to be a long shot for the playoffs. Holdovers from last year’s team knew what people were saying about them, and although head coach Jeff Hornacek refused to admit it, there is genuine surprise around the team that, at 16-13, has matched its 29-game start to last year.

Perhaps those that booed Anthony on Saturday night did so because of some warped sense of reality. Perhaps they believed that it was Anthony that quit on the team and not vice versa. Maybe they thought that, without Anthony, they wouldn’t have a shot at doing anything impactful this season.

Through 29 games, it would appear that they were wrong.

And in Anthony’s return to Madison Square Garden, the Knicks proved that, and a lot more.

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NBA

Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA

David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.

David Yapkowitz

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Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.

But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.

“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”

Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.

He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.

VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.

Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.

“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”

VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.

Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.

“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”

The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.

Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.

“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”

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G-League

NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard

On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.

Dennis Chambers

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Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.

In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.

Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.

Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.

Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.

Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.

For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.

“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”

Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.

Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.

“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”

After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.

Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.

For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.

“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”

New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.

On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.

After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.

Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.

“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game,  more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.

“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”

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