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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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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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