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Head-to-Head: Third Best in the East

Basketball Insider’s Nate Duncan and Tommy Beer go head-to-head in a debate over who is the third best team in the Eastern Conference.

Basketball Insiders



Aside from the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers, no Eastern Conference teams have seen this season unfold according to plan.  As a result, those two teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, while the third best team in the East is currently a mere two games over .500.   Which of these teams will emerge as the third seed in the conference, and can any Eastern team even remotely challenge the HEAT or Pacers in the conference semifinals?  Basketball Insiders’ Tommy Beer and Nate Duncan debate.

Duncan: Shockingly for an Eastern Conference in which the Bulls, Nets and Knicks were deemed heavyweights before the season, the favorite for the third seed now appears to be the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors currently hold the third seed with a 22-20 record, but record-wise they are in a morass of teams including the Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards. However, the Raptors are playing much better ball than anyone else competing for the third seed. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson are all having career years for the Raptors. Since the Raptors traded away Rudy Gay on December 8, they are 16-9. Their underlying statistics back up that outstanding record as well; Toronto is outscoring opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions since the trade. In fact, that mark ranks fifth in the entire league over that time frame, shocking for a team that was deemed tankworthy earlier in the season. By contrast, the Nets and Hawks rank ninth and 14th since December 8, while the Bulls are 17th.  Although I hesitate to put all my eggs in the statistical basket, from that standpoint the Raptors look like the clear favorites.

Beer: Coming into the 2013-14 season, the expectations for the Brooklyn Nets were sky high. Brooklyn enjoyed arguably the most active and successful offseason of any team in the league – mortgaging their future to add Hall-of-Famers in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, while also fortifying the bench with top-tier role players such as Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson and Jason Terry. The total cost to owner Mikhail Prokhorov was astronomical. The Nets’ luxury tax bill alone is higher than the GDP of many industrialized nations. And the man tasked with coaching this juggernaut was the recently retired Jason Kidd.

In the build up to the regular season, the Nets were viewed by many as legit contenders for the Miami HEAT’s crown. However, the Nets looked like anything but championship contenders over the season’s first two months. On New Year’s Eve, the Nets were demolished by the Spurs in San Antonio (their sixth loss in seven games), dropping Brooklyn’s record to putrid 10-21, an embarrassing 11 games under .500. Kidd had already (unceremoniously) fired his lead assistant in Lawrence Frank, and the team’s best big man, center Brook Lopez, had his season end prematurely due to a broken foot. It appeared there would be no way to avoid a nightmare season.

Yet, somehow, the Nets seemed to flip the switch in the New Year. Brooklyn reeled off five straight wins to start 2014, and is now 8-1 in the New Year. Brooklyn has received improved play across the board. Joe Johnson is averaging 19 points per game in January. Deron Williams has returned from a debilitating ankle injury, but told Coach Kidd he’d prefer to come off the bench to not disrupt the chemistry of a successful starting lineup featuring Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, Anderson and Shaun Livingston.

Reserves Andray Blatche and Kirilenko have provided a major spark off the bench as well. In fact, the Nets are now 9-1 in the 10 games Kirilenko has played at least 13 minutes this season. Brooklyn is 9-21 in the games he’s missed or played fewer than 14 minutes.

After a nightmarish start to the season, things have been downright dreamy in Brooklyn since the calendar flipped to 2014.

Duncan: Tommy, you seem to know a lot about the Nets.  Did you somehow gain access to Lawrence Frank’s daily reports?  I agree with you that the Nets have looked great since the new year.  In that time frame, they are scoring 108 points/100 and allowing only 101.5/100.  In addition to better health, the key has been the return to form of Kevin Garnett.  He was supposed to be a panacea for their defense, but Nets were oddly terrible defensively with him on the floor early in the year.  He also was one of the worst offensive players in the game early on.  Since then, he has really come on, and since January 1 the Nets allow only 88.7 points/100 when Garnett is in the game.

Deron Williams recently made his latest return from his myriad ankle injuries as well.  If he can recapture the form he flashed at the end of last season and Garnett can keep it up (neither of which is guaranteed), the Nets could very easily play better than the Raptors the rest of the way.  And the Nets have more players with an established track record than the Raptors, so one could argue that the Nets are more likely to sustain their excellent recent play.

On the other hand, you could argue that the Nets have many older players with worse injury histories than the Raptors’ much younger starting five. The Raptors have also been an outstanding third in defense since the Gay trade, and I think we can expect a little regression to the mean because Toronto does not have any players with outstanding defensive track records on their roster.

That said, the Raptors’ point differential on the season is 5.5 points/100 better than the Nets.  All of those desultory blowouts early on really hurt the Nets in that metric.  But even if you want to make the (reasonable) argument that the Nets aren’t that team anymore, the Raptors are still 2.5 points/100 better than the Nets even since the Gay trade.  They have even been a point better since the Nets’ “switch-flipping” on January 1. Combine that with Toronto’s 2.5 game lead in the standings, and I think they are the clear favorites even if you buy that the Nets may perform a little better over the rest of the year.

Beer: The Nets had plenty of talent on their roster last season, and were able to win 49 games and capture the fourth seed in the East. However, they were knocked out of the playoffs by an under-manned Bulls team missing many of their top players. In that bitterly disappointing first-round defeat, an issue that had been a major problem for Brooklyn all season reared its head in a major way – lack of leadership, aggressiveness and intensity. The hope was that the the blockbuster trade that resulted in Brooklyn obtaining Garnett, Pierce and Terry would be truly transformational. As much as future Hall-of-Famers KG and Pierce would help the Nets on the floor, their biggest and most important impact was supposed to come in the locker room. There are very few individuals who can nearly single-handedly change the culture of a franchise immediately upon his arrival. It just so happens that KG is one of those players.

However, early on in the year, KG was not only terrible defensively early on (as you noted above), he was also remarkably inefficient and ineffective on the offensive end as well. But the Nets seemed to have flipped the switch since the start of the New Year. In addition, it seems that Coach Kidd has finally found his bearings and is comfortably settling into his new position.

So are we in agreement that these are the only two real possibilities for the three seed (barring massive injuries, of course) or is there anyone else you feel could be a legitimate contender for that spot?

Duncan: It sure doesn’t look like anyone else could contend.  The Raptors and Nets are really the only Eastern teams playing above .500 quality ball at this point.  The Hawks and Bulls have almost even point differentials on the year, but both of them are likely to play worse over the course of the year considering the Al Horford injury and the Luol Deng trade.  Moreover, those two teams have had two of the easiest schedules in the league and those toughen to about league-average over the rest of the year.  Meanwhile, the Raptors and Nets have had two of the harder schedules in the league, and they have the two easiest schedules the rest of the way.

So, it looks like the seedings would favor that it will be Pacers and HEAT versus Nets and Raptors in the second round in some permutation.  Do you see any way that the Nets and Raptors will actually challenge those two teams or could even win the series?

Beer: Honestly, I don’t see any way either the Raps or Nets put up much of a fight against the HEAT or Pacers. Miami and Indiana have been so clearly head-and-shoulders above the rest of the conference this year, I’d be shocked if either team was even take to a Game 6 before their seemingly inevitable showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Duncan: I could see either of these teams taking the Pacers to six games, if only because the Pacers’ offense could go cold and lead to a very low-scoring series.  But ultimately I don’t see the Pacers losing to either squad.

Although it’s unlikely, I do think it’s possible that either the Nets or Raptors could give the HEAT a series and maybe even win, if only because there is a chance that Miami may not be the team we remember from the last two postseasons by the time these playoffs roll around.  Zach Lowe did a great job detailing why he thinks Miami may be in a bit more trouble defensively this year than past editions.  To that, I would add that LeBron James does not quite look like the all-encompassing force of nature he has been in past years on defense.  Whether that is him starting to slow down a little bit at age 29 (players usually peak from a pure athleticism standpoint at 23-25) or simply taking it easier in the regular season remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade has now missed the last four games while defensive stalwarts Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem are also getting up there in age.  If Wade is not himself again in the playoffs, and the rest of the roster suffers incremental decline from being a year older, they could be vulnerable.

As I mentioned, Toronto has been much better than Miami statistically since the Gay trade. And Brooklyn matches up very well with the HEAT with their new smaller lineup and great size on the wings.  While it is still very difficult to see either team really challenging the HEAT, there are enough statistical indicators there that an upset would not be completely out of left field.


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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont



Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers

Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.

David Yapkowitz



There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.

Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.

Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.

And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.

But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.

He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.

For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.

“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”

“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”

To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.

And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.

Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.

In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.

“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”

“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”

Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.

He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.

“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”

With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.

“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”

For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.

Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.

“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”

And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.

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NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith



Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu GinĂłbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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