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Grades at 20 Games: Atlantic Division

After 20 games, is it safe to say that the Atlantic Division is the worst in all of the NBA?

Moke Hamilton

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If there is one thing to be said about the NBA’s Atlantic Division it’s this: it has become the NBA’s modern version of a pillow fight. Easily the worst division in the league last year, the Atlantic, as a whole, hasn’t shown much in the way of improvement this season.

Entering play on December 11 the Atlantic Division is the only division in the entire league that has two teams with as many as 19 losses and just one of two that has four teams below the .500 mark.

There isn’t much to say about the league’s worst division other than the fact that there is one team that is clearly head and shoulders above the rest.

And yes, clearly, this is the type of report card you would hide from your parents.

1. Toronto Raptors (16-6)

To say that the Toronto Raptors have maximized their talent, at least to this point of the season, would be quite an understatement. With the re-signed Kyle Lowry capably leading the team with 20.1 points and 7.5 assists per game, he is almost certain to earn the All-Star nod this year as the NBA’s midseason classic heads to New York City.

The team has sputtered since losing DeMar DeRozan to an adductor longs tendon tear sustained against the Dallas Mavericks on November 28, though. To that point, the Raptors were 13-2 but have since gone just 3-3.

Still, with a seven-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets in the Atlantic Division, continuity, an identity and a head coach who has found a way to reach his team and tap into their collective talents, things are looking up for the Raptors, especially with the contribution that Lou Williams has provided.

Williams has long been regarded as one of the league’s top sixth men, and thus far this season, he hasn’t disappointed. He has provided the Raptors with 13.9 points per game off the bench; their success correlating with his productivity comes as no surprise to us.

With DeRozan expected out for the next few weeks, the Raptors will continue to toil in his stead and be the top team in the NBA’s worst division. Once he returns? They clearly hope to be much more.

Whether they can be remains to be seen, but thus far, you couldn’t have asked for anything more than what Dwane Casey’s team has delivered.

Grade: A

2. Brooklyn Nets (8-12)

With Lionel Hollins assuming the helm in Brooklyn, he is the fourth man to coach the team within the past two calendar years. The departure of Jason Kidd and installation of Hollins was supposed to give the team a tougher, grittier persona, but that certainly has not been the case.

Hollins has taken his team to task and has held his players accountable for their shortcomings, but it hasn’t made much of a difference on the court. The Nets are still underachieving to the point where the franchise has, reportedly, become open to the idea of trading Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez.

If there is a bright spot in Brooklyn, it is with the development of some of the team’s younger players. Mirza Teletovic and Bojan Bogdanovic have both, in spurts, shown that they have the capability to be prolific scorers in the NBA. Jerome Jordan, while still adjusting to the pace of playing with Williams, has performed admirably. Mason Plumlee continues to show the potential that everyone became enamored with over the course of last season.

The Nets are a bit of an enigma, though. They lose games they should win and win some they should lose. It is the hallmark of veteran-laden team, but one would have expected the addition of a few younger bodies and a new coach to have injected a little more life into this team. Williams, who leads the team with 17.1 points per game has looked as healthy as we have seen in quite some time and the same can be said of Kevin Garnett.

In the end, we are still trying to figure out the Nets and we think they are trying to figure themselves out, too. To this point, they have been mediocre, at best, which is a tad bit disappointing.

Grade: C-

3. Boston Celtics (7-13)

Perhaps we should be a tad bit surprised at the fact that Rajon Rondo’s 10.8 assists per game has him enter play on December 11 as the league leader, but we aren’t. We have long known that while offensively challenged in some regards, Rondo is among the best floor generals in the entire league.

Jeff Green has impressed quite a few with his play this season. With a $9.2 million player option for next season, his impressive play and career-best 19.8 points per game has helped the Celtics fare a tad better than most expected before the season began. The same can certainly be said of Jared Sullinger and the 15.4 points and 8.6 rebounds he chips in on a nightly basis.

To their credit, six of the team’s 12 losses this season have come in games decided by five points or less, meaning that the Celtics find themselves in games late, but often have trouble finishing. That comes as no surprise when a team is being coached by a second-year head coach and one who is still getting acclimated to the pro game. Still, we commend Brad Stevens for the job he has done thus far, all things considered.

The current crops of Celtics are not old enough to be considered “washed up” or to necessarily have Danny Ainge desperate to make a move, but they also aren’t spring chickens. We entered the season with all eyes on Rondo and Green and will continue to monitor their situations, especially as December 15 rolls and players who signed contracts last July become trade eligible.

Those are not easy circumstances for any player or coach to find themselves in, yet all we continue to hear coming from Boston is how focused and unified their group is. That, and the fact that they play hard is enough to warrant our respect, even if those traits don’t necessarily always add up to wins.

Grade: B

4. New York Knicks (4-20)

Along with the Detroit Pistons and the Charlotte Hornets, the New York Knicks are one of the most disappointing teams in the NBA. With Wednesday night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, they have earned the dubious distinction of being the league’s first team to 20 losses. The 4-20 start is also the worst start in franchise history.

It’s safe to say that Tyson Chandler wasn’t the problem.

With a platoon of new faces that includes Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin and Jason Smith, the Knicks were hoping for a return to the NBA Playoffs this year, but already, a trip to the draft lottery is looking much more likely.

Quietly, Iman Shumpert and Amar’e Stoudemire have both impressed, in spurts, over the first 20 games of the season, but the Knicks are still struggling to put it all together and have found themselves 2-18 since beginning the season 2-1. Newly installed rookie head coach Derek Fisher has maintained a calm, positive demeanor, but even he has to know that teams rarely dig themselves out of a 16 game hole, and that’s how many games below .500 the Knicks find themselves.

If there is a silver lining to all of this, it would be that the Knicks do own their 2015 first round pick, but Anthony thriving in the triangle and finding some synergy with Stoudemire was supposed to be the story for Knicks fans after 20 games, not the impressions that the likes of Jahlil Okafor and Emanuel Mudiay are making on the basketball world.

Although the team has some salary cap flexibility, the Knicks do not own their second round pick in the 2015 nor their first or second round picks in 2016. The crop the team currently has clearly isn’t setting the conference on fire, and Phil Jackson is grimly staring at the prospect of attempting to build his team through free agency. With New York’s bright lights and marketing opportunities, that may entice a nice player or two, but that won’t help these Knicks this year.

Thus far, this season, the Knicks have put forth an awful product and some awful efforts. Like the Nets, they are still attempting to figure a few things out, but after 20 games, it is fair to say that we both expected more and are losing faith that it will actually be delivered.

Grade: F

5. Philadelphia 76ers (2-19)

Realistically speaking, what did you expect from the Philadelphia 76ers this season? They were 19-63 last season and then drafted Joel Embiid and turned the 12th pick into Dario Saric. Some felt that was a good haul in last June’s draft, but the basketball world knew that neither Embiid nor Saric would be able to help the Sixers this season, even if they are both tantalizing prospects.

While we love both Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel, it is Tony Wroten and his team-leading 17.9 points per game that has most caught our attention. There is something to like about rookie K.J. McDaniels, as well. Fully embracing rebuilding with youngsters and through the draft, the franchise has seemed to make little attempt to field a competitive roster this season, instead focusing on the future.

Whether you think that’s intelligent or asinine probably depends on how often you are forced to watch the Sixers play.

The bright side of all of this is that the team has used its ability to absorb bad contracts into its salary cap space to acquire truckloads of draft picks over the next four years.

In terms of on the court, the Sixers appear to play hard but are often unable to overcome their talent deficit. That may be frustrating for Brett Brown and his players to witness and experience, but we see the plan here and it is being executed quite well.

The Sixers are at the bottom of the Atlantic, but we expect that the front office is exactly where they expected to be. We respect staying true to the vision.

Grade: C

As the season continues, the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knick may find themselves. The Boston Celtics may trade Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green and the Philadelphia 76ers may actually string together a few wins.

Still, there is no denying that the Toronto Raptors rule the league’s worst division, just like there is no denying that the Atlantic Division report card is one that would likely get your grounded if you brought it home to your parents.

Fortunately, for these five teams, there is still plenty of time left to turn things around.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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Sooner or Later, Everyone Will Realize LeBron Is Chasing Kareem

If LeBron continues at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before he surpasses Kobe, Karl and Kareem.

Moke Hamilton

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As he stood at half court, the shot clock ticked downward from 10.

His nimble center set a high screen for him, and he wisely utilized it.

With Al Horford guarding him, LeBron James sized up the big man before taking a step back three that had just too little muscle behind it.

With the Celtics trailing by three points, rookie Jayson Tatum grabbed the rebound and wisely handed the ball off to Kyrie Irving, who instinctively (and surprisingly) tossed it ahead to Jaylen Brown.

As Brown brought the ball up the floor, he noticed that he had the numbers—there were three Celtics and only one Cavalier.

LeBron, however, was the one Cavalier.

In a split second, Brown took inventory and wisely decided to take his chances with a pull-up, game-tying three pointer.

Brown’s three was a tad long and James, who was out of position, couldn’t stop Horford from tipping the ball out. As it caromed off the rim, it made a beeline toward the courtside seats. Poetically, magically, the ball ended up in Kyrie Irving’s hands.

Irving turned toward the basket to fire the shot his team needed, but, to nobody’s surprise, James was in his face.

Irving necessarily took one escape dribble to his right and forced an off-balance three-pointer that caught nothing but air.

In 41 minutes, James scored 29 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and had nine assists and two blocks. During the game’s final 20 seconds, he was everywhere he needed to be and everywhere necessary to thwart everything the Celtics tried to do.

And to think, he had the nerve to call himself out of shape.

* * * * * *

Sure, the 102-99 victory that the Cavs earned over the Celtics on opening night is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it serves as a stark reminder as to just how truly dominant James can be. As he enters his 15th season, its beginning was quite appropriate.

As written about in this space before, as James attempts to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive year, the arguments over his place among the game’s greats persist. Some say he’s one of history’s top five players, while some say he’s the greatest ever.

Others don’t think he’s better than Kobe Bryant.

Regardless where you stand on LeBron, something that was written in this space last season warrants revisiting: if he continues to be as durable, as skilled and as talented as he has been over the course of his career, we may eventually be calling James’ name not alongside Kobe or M.J., but Kareem.

Entering his 15th NBA season, James had accrued 28,787 total points—seventh in history.

He trails only Dirk Nowitzki (30,270), Wilt Chamberlain (31,419), Michael Jordan (32, 292), Kobe Bryant (33,643), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), who rank sixth to first, respectively.

What has been most startling about James’ climbing through the ranks of the game’s best scorers, though, has been that he’s seemingly done it naturally.

All six of the greats ranking ahead of him were deemed “scorers” more than anything else. Meanwhile, James has always ranked behind the likes of someone—Kobe, Carmelo, Durant, Curry or Harden—when the deserver of that title was argued.

Meanwhile, slowly but surely, James entered his 15th season on Tuesday night trailing Kareem by 9,571 points. Most would deem him too far away from to be able to challenge for that top spot, but if LeBron stays healthy, he will have a serious shot.

Through 14 NBA seasons, James has played in 1,061 of a possible 1,132 games—93.7 percent. As the only other contemporary player to crash the top five, it is Bryant who remains his measuring stick.

Through his first 14 NBA seasons, Bryant played in 1,021 of a possible 1,116 games—91.5 percent. During those 14 seasons, Bryant scored a total of 25,790 points. James scored 28,787.

What made Bryant special was that he was able to continue to be an elite scorer right up until he tore his Achilles tendon at the age of 34. The miles eventually got the best of him, and during his last three seasons, he managed to score just 18.9 points per game.

Consider this about the top three scorers in NBA history, though: Kobe and Kareem each played 20 seasons. Malone played 19.

James’ first 14 seasons have resulted in more total points than Bryant, and only about 150 less than Malone’s (28,946).

Unsurprisingly, through 14 years, Kareem was far away from James, having scored about 1,100 more for a total of 29,810, but over the final six years of Kareem’s career, he averaged just 18.2 points per game.

Kareem turned 34 years old right as his 12th season ended. From there, he showed his age and began to slow down considerably.

To this point, LeBron has done no such thing.

* * * * * *

The discussion as to where James truly belongs in the eyes of history will persist.

Those that see the glass as half-full will reason that the mere fact that he’s been able to sustain his greatness for so long—much less the fact that he has made it to the NBA Finals eight times—will resonate.

Others will point to his record in those Finals (3-5) as evidence of his inferiority to the likes of Jordan (6-0) or Kobe (5-2).

Those are arguments for a different day.

What is fact is that seemingly without even trying, LeBron is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA. And if he manages to play 19 years like Malone or 20 years like Kobe or Kareem, at the end of the day, he’ll be the greatest one of them all.

Whether he continues to score the 27.1 points per game he has over the course of his career, scores 25 per night from here on out or, for some reason, becomes merely a 20 point per game scorer, it’s only a matter of time.

And as we saw on opening night, particularly in the game’s final 20 seconds, LeBron still has plenty of it.

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How NBA League Pass is Changing

Ben Dowsett dives deep into some of the technical improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

Ben Dowsett

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As the NBA continues to grow in popularity, demands for available programing rise in lockstep. A new mammoth TV rights deal that began last season promised increased visibility and advertising dollars, and was the primary factor in a sudden jump in the league’s salary cap figure. Between that and an exploding digital marketplace, there are a lot of eyes on the NBA as an entertainment product.

For the NBA fan interested in watching the entire league and not just their home market (or even for cord-cutters who only want to watch their local team), NBA League Pass is a familiar tool. Available for both single-team and league-wide subscriptions, League Pass is a multi-device platform that allows for both live and on-demand viewing of NBA games.

For many users of NBA League Pass, this is a relatively issue-free experience. For many others, though, League Pass has long lagged behind competitors in the digital sports sphere, with a number of glitches and absent features still present as recently as last season across multiple devices. These issues are a regular source of annoyance for NBA fans everywhere, particularly the most invested ones.

Basketball Insiders spent the summer investigating the causes of some of these issues, both with the NBA and with various extended providers of League Pass. Here’s what we found regarding previous issues, their fixes, and other developments to the service moving forward. (Also be sure to check out our broader report from earlier this week on some of the general new features being offered by League Pass.)

League Pass on TV

For several years at minimum, customers of most cable and satellite providers have been able to enjoy NBA League Pass with virtually no major issues. Companies like DirecTV, Dish, Uverse and others have all had solid programs for years, with full-HD channel lineups and a simple, straightforward purchasing and viewing process.

For customers of Comcast, however, things haven’t been so rosy.

Through the completion of the 2016-17 NBA season, Comcast XFINITY customers were not offered such a robust slate. Just a single high definition channel was available on League Pass via XFINITY last season, and even that one channel wasn’t dedicated only to NBA action.

Unless a game was being broadcast on a national station like ESPN or NBATV, you simply had to cross your fingers and hope that the game you wanted was the one that was showing in HD. Otherwise, you got to watch it in standard definition or not at all.

Before we discuss how this is slated to change moving forward, a necessary aside: This is crazy. Even before the new massive TV rights deal, the NBA was unquestionably one of the most popular sports in North America; for the largest broadcasting and cable television company in the world by revenue to enter the year 2017 without basic HD channels for the league – channels present in hundreds of other areas and on every other major provider, no less – is nothing short of asinine, and speaks to the limited alternatives available and the simple power of a conglomerate like Comcast.

Back to greener pastures: Changes are in motion, even if they’re still moving a little slower and more timidly than most customers would prefer.

Per sources familiar with the service, HD channel options will be in place for all games under Comcast XFINIFY’s offering of NBA League Pass during the 2017-18 season. These will be available under Comcast’s Beta program, one that’s been offered for both MLB and NHL programming over the last several years. A sample MLB Beta page can be found here.

Beta pages are a bit nebulous and tough to access if you aren’t already paying for one of these services, but our research suggests they function reasonably well. There are multiple ways to access Beta channels, either via a voice or keypad search or through the guide – though doing it through the guide won’t be quite as simple as just clicking a single channel (you have to click a Beta channel, then choose the team you want to watch and wait for blackout and subscription verification).

Blackouts are still present for local markets and nationally televised games, but this is to be expected for all such services.

Now the bad news: There are some pretty serious limitations to this Beta program. Firstly, as you’ll note if you click the link above, it’s considered a trial offering. Features like recording, pausing or rewinding games will not be available. For the busy basketball fan who can’t be present to watch his or her team right from tipoff every night, this is an obvious problem.

Additionally, sources say that this Beta program will only be available by the end of November. As the astute NBA fan will note, the season began on October 17 – what about the time in between? The previous version of League Pass will still be available during this period, sources say, but XFINITY customers who want all their games in HD will be out of luck for about a month and a half. Combine that with some apparent clunkiness in accessing the games themselves, and this new development still leaves a lot to be desired.

Still, it’s progress where previously there had been very little. Sources say that work is being done to move each of the NBA, MLB and NHL offerings away from the Beta package and into full-time circulation, which would ostensibly get rid of most or all of those functionality issues. No firm dates were given for this, however, and NBA fans are probably safest assuming this will be the program for the full season once it kicks in during November. Make your purchasing decisions accordingly.

League Pass Broadband

Understanding how NBA League Pass fits into the broadband landscape requires a look back at the history of streaming sports technology. In particular, we have to look at a competitor: Major League Baseball.

For years, MLB’s streaming service has been considered something of a gold standard within the digital world, with numerous parties contacted for this story gushing about their quality. Basketball Insiders’ research revealed this to be a total falsehood – those compliments simply weren’t going far enough. The degree to which MLB has outpaced the field when it comes to streaming is almost shocking.

(For those only looking for the nitty-gritty details of what will change with NBA League Pass Broadband moving forward, skip to that section by clicking here.)

In the year 2000, while most of us were still worried about Y2K bugs and voting machines in Florida, Major League Baseball was getting to work pioneering online streaming sports. That was the year that the league’s owners centralized all digital rights into a new, independent tech startup called MLB Advanced Media, per sources. The “independent” part was important: MLB was purposefully building a distinct, separate entity that operated in a different facility than league HQ, hired tech-savvy folks and was, truly, its own company.

On August 26, 2002, MLB Advanced Media broadcasted their first live Major League game. Roughly 30,000 people (!!) tuned in to watch a Yankees-Rangers tilt on a date nearly three years earlier than famed video site YouTube would even launch on the web.

Over the next several years, MLBAM (pronounced em-el-BAM by insiders – it’s fun to say!) paved the way for streaming sports technology. They sold a nine-game pennant race package later that season, then a full-season package in March of 2003. By 2005, they had installed a private fiber network dedicated to streaming in all 30 MLB ballparks.

By 2008, two representatives from MLB were on stage and demonstrating the product as Steve Jobs introduced the Apple App Store for the very first time – MLB’s At Bat App was the first sports app in the history of the store, and one of the first 500 ever created of any kind. By 2010, they were pioneering connected devices like PlayStation and Xbox.

All the while, MLB made a concerted effort to keep all these efforts completely in-house. No outsourcing, no reliance on a third party.

Their success quickly started drawing attention. As other similar entities looked to enter the streaming space, they were faced with their own decision: To outsource, or to attempt to build a ground-up technology sector like MLB had.

Some went the outsource route, and their first call was to MLB. Few outside the industry knew it at the time, but MLB was behind the first-ever streaming of March Madness games on CBS Sports back in 2006, per sources. They’d later help ESPN in their switch from ESPN360 to ESPN3 in 2010, and assist with the advent of HBO Now in 2014.

Also in 2014, they helped create a groundbreaking new sector of the streaming world – a full OTT (over-the-top of subscription) network dedicated to WWE wrestling. This wasn’t just live matches, it was a full network complete with archives and on-demand programming. This kind of service is now called direct-to-consumer programming.

By this point, outsourcing demands had grown so much that MLB took some new steps. In 2016, MLBAM was spun off into a new entity called BAMTECH, which was in charge of all outsourced efforts (MLBAM remained on the baseball-only side). One third of BAMTECH was sold to Disney for $1 billion – a $3 billion valuation for what was at one time nothing but a tech startup. In August 2017, Disney acquired additional shares to reach a 75 percent controlling stake in the company at an even larger total valuation, per sources familiar with the finances.

Today, MLBAM continues to manage baseball-related streaming services while BAMTECH, now primarily owned by Disney, works with several other large entities. These include ESPN, the NHL and Riot Games, a big player in the rapidly rising eSports sphere. They also stream their own MLB client to over 400 different devices.

******

This is a high standard for any other sports or streaming entity to hold itself to, even one as successful as the NBA. Interestingly, though, MLB could end up serving as a perfect template for the path the NBA is now taking – just on a different timeline.

Just as the MLB decided years ago to prioritize their own in-house development of this technology, the NBA has recently done the same. About three years ago, Turner – which handles nearly all of the NBA’s entertainment assets – purchased a majority of a company called iStreamPlanet, a leader in the streaming technology sphere.

Founded in 2000, iStreamPlanet is perhaps best known in the industry for their recent work on the Olympic Games, which began in 2010 at the Vancouver Winter Games. Their coverage of Sochi in 2014 had over 9.1 million users in just 18 days of competition. They’ve also broadcast all the recent Super Bowls, starting in 2011.

Before the beginning of last season, the NBA and Turner migrated all of their League Pass technology over to iStreamPlanet, per sources familiar with the technology. This was in place of a previous internal solution that had managed League Pass streaming.

As one can imagine, the very first year under this new migration came with a few bumps in the road. The migration included a complete change of the infrastructure that processed video, from the way it’s taken to the way it’s encoded. New software was instituted, and then tech experts with Turner and iStreamPlanet meticulously went through each individual platform to diagnose issues and test functionality. Every platform has its own individual player and its own individual quirks, so this was no small project across a wide variety of platforms.

In essence, this was a test run for a product built from scratch. There’s really no other way to do this – for the NBA to truly build its own infrastructure here, they had to start from the ground up.

If last year’s inaugural season under the new technology was all about finding bugs and ensuring functionality across all platforms, the offseason has been all about fine-tuning the execution. The teams at Turner and iStreamPlanet analyzed every step of the video process, from when it left a given NBA arena to when it made its way to your device screen. They hardened the path of video from the venue to the fan, allowing it to arrive more quickly and in better quality.

A few specific changes, possible future changes, and notably similar areas to be aware of here:

  • Per sources, changes to video encoding and pathways have resulted in roughly a 50 percent reduction in lag time compared to a television broadcast across a majority of NBA League Pass platforms. No platform experienced worse than a 33 percent reduction in lag time, with most up around this 50 percent figure. Lag time versus standard TV broadcasts has long been a prominent issue among broadband users.
  • Down similar lines, extra steps have been taken to protect clients who want to watch games spoiler-free. A new “Hide Scores” button has been introduced at the top of users’ game menu – when clicked, it will remove the live scores from both completed and live games, allowing viewers to start watching a game late without having the score ruined for them in advance (though it appears users still have to manually rewind to the start of the game, so spoilers are still possible).
  • With Adobe preparing to soon begin phasing out the Flash player from their content offerings, sources say Turner and iStreamPlanet are working on an eventual transition of NBA League Pass from Flash technology over to HTML5. This transition is expected this season for both live and on-demand content.
  • While it won’t please some customers, blackout rules across all areas of League Pass appear to remain the same. These are issues of media rights, and unfortunately that’s just how things work.
  • Customers have access to numerous platforms, with up to five connected devices per customer.
  • Standard log time for games to enter the on-demand section of League Pass streaming is between 48 and 72 hours – once again, some of this is related to business rules with the NBA and regional television networks. For condensed games, the turnaround time is closer to an average of 24 hours.
  • The NBA is offering a free trial preview of League Pass services from now through October 24.

Once again, things won’t be perfect overnight. Lag issues still exist, and media rights considerations make certain bits of timing sub-optimal. Like any platform still in its earlier stages in a relative sense, there will be glitches here and there.

When you experience these issues, speak up. Turner has a full support team in place, with logging capabilities that allow them to identify issues that frequently come up among customers – this process is how some of their biggest changes have taken place over the last year.

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for any updates or changes to NBA League Pass in the future.

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NBA PM: Frank Kaminsky’s Massive Opportunity

The potential frontcourt pairing of Frank Kaminsky and Dwight Howard should make for an exciting season in Charlotte.

Benny Nadeau

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With both highs and lows to account for, it’s been an incredibly eventful offseason for the Charlotte Hornets. From trading for Dwight Howard and drafting Malik Monk to the news that defensive stalwart Nicolas Batum would be out for the foreseeable future, the Hornets will start the 2017-18 season off looking considerably different. Still, it’s difficult to see Charlotte stepping into the conference’s upper echelon alongside the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, among others, without some major internal growth.

Down those lines, there may be no better candidate for a breakout season than Frank Kaminsky, the team’s modernly-molded stretch big man. Heading into his third NBA season, Kaminsky struggles at times but has generally affirmed why the Hornets passed on the Celtics’ huge offer and selected the former collegiate stud with the No. 9 overall pick back in 2015. Combined with the more defensive-steady force of Cody Zeller, the Hornets quickly found themselves with a solid, if not spectacular 1-2 punch at the center position.

Unsurprisingly, Kaminsky’s best nights statistically last season came when he hit multiple three-pointers. There were games like his 5-for-9 barrage from deep en route to 23-point, 13-rebound effort against the Sacramento Kings in late February, but his inconsistencies often got in the way just as much. In 2016-17 alone, Kaminsky tallied 41 games in which he converted on one or less of his three-point attempts — and the Hornets’ record? 13-28. Perhaps a tad coincidental for a franchise that finished at 36-46, but the Hornets ranked 11th in three-pointers with an even 10 per contest, so when Marvin Williams (1.6) Marco Belinelli (1.4), Kaminsky (1.5) and Batum (1.8) weren’t hitting, it was often lights out for an ultimately disappointing Charlotte side.

With his 33.1 percent career rate from deep, there’s certainly room to improve for Kaminsky, but his 116 made three-pointers still put him in a special group last season. Of all players at 7-foot or taller, only Brook Lopez made more three-pointers (134) than Kaminsky did — even ranking four ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, one of the league’s most talented unicorns. Once that category is expanded to include those at 6-foot-10 or taller, the list gets far more crowded ahead of Kaminsky, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.

On that lengthier list of three-point shooting big men is Ryan Anderson, one of the strongest like-for-like comparisons that Kaminsky has today. Drafted in 2008, Anderson has been an elite three-point shooter for quite some time and his 204 makes last season ranked him ninth in the entire NBA. In fact, Anderson’s 2012-13 tally of 213 ranked only behind Stephen Curry; the year before that, his 166 total topped the rest of the field for a first-place finish. Coming out the University of California, Anderson was solid late first-round pickup by the New Jersey Nets and he knocked down one of his 2.9 attempts per game as a rookie.

Then, Anderson was traded to the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2009 and found out that true basketballing nirvana is playing on the same team as prime Dwight Howard. For three seasons, they were a near-perfect fit for each other as Howard averaged 13.9 rebounds and Anderson hit two three-pointers per game over that stretch. Howard deftly made up for Anderson’s defensive shortcomings while the latter stretched the floor effortlessly on the other end.

Although Howard is now considerably older, he’s never recorded a season with an average of 10 rebounds or less over his 13-year career. Howard’s impressive rebounding rate of 20.8 percent — the third-highest mark in NBA history behind Dennis Rodman (23.44) and Reggie Evans (21.87) — has made it easy for his partners to stay at the perimeter or bust out in transition. Other power forwards that have flourished next to Howard also include Rashard Lewis (2.8 three-pointers per game from 2007-09) and Chandler Parsons (1.8 in 2013-14), so there’s some precedent here as well.

Simply put, Howard still demands attention in the post, and Kaminsky is the Hornets’ best possible fit next to him. As Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams will likely slide up a position at times to help navigate Batum’s injury, throwing Kaminsky into the fire seems almost too logical.

An improved sophomore season for Kaminsky saw rises in every major statistical category outside of his percentages due to an increase in volume. However, that 32.8 percent mark from three-point range is considerably lower than the league average and it’ll need to improve for somebody that spends much of the offensive possession ready to fire away. Regardless, Kaminsky’s 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in 2016-17 are a bright sign moving forward, but with Howard, he’s about to be gifted his best opportunity yet.

Whether he’s operating in transition, out of pick-and-pops or catch-and-shoots, Kaminsky has the tools to join the elite stretch forwards in the near future and stay there permanently. Kaminsky’s growing chemistry with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker has made the pair difficult to defend out on the perimeter. From the aforementioned pick-and-pops to a slightly more complicated dribble hand-off, trying to guard the two three-point shooting threats is enough to make your head spin. When he’s not firing from behind the arc, Kaminsky has also exhibited a soft touch and an ability to score among the trees as well.

As he continues to grow and expand his skill set, Kaminsky just needs to find some much-needed consistency as a shooter. If Kaminsky can raise his three-point percentage up closer to the league average this season, he’ll be an invaluable asset for the Hornets as they push for a playoff berth. Over his two full NBA seasons thus far, the Hornets have never had somebody like Howard to pair with Kaminsky and past results for those shooters playing with the future Hall of Famer are promising. Of course, head coach Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded leader — Charlotte’s defensive rating ranked 14th in 2016-17 at 106.1 — so Kaminsky will need to improve there to take full advantage of the available minutes. Fortunately, Howard’s savvy rim protection should make it a palatable experience on both sides of the ball.

When the Hornets rebuffed the Celtics’ massive draft day offer in order to select Kaminsky two years ago, it would’ve been impossible to predict Howard falling right into their lap as well. Between his expanding game and the new frontcourt combination, there’s potential here for Kaminsky to take the next big step in 2017-18.

If and when they do indeed pair him with Howard, the Hornets will be both maximizing his talents as a perimeter threat and minimizing his weaknesses as a defender. While Clifford leaned on Zeller in the past, Howard’s decorated history surrounded by court-stretching shooters should make the decision even easier. Kaminsky’s got all the workings of a modern offensive big man, the faith of the front office and the perfect paint-clogging partner — now it’s up to him to put it all together and become one of Charlotte’s most indispensable players.

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