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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.

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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 AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6

With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.

Tristan Tucker

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With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)

Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.

On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.

Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.

In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)

Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.

Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.

Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players. 

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)

The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.

While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.

In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.

4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)

Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.

The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.

5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)

While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.

Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Tate averaged 12.9 points and upped his offensive production to 3.9 assists per game.

Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.

6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)

Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.

While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.

Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.

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NBA Daily: Torrey Craig Relishing Role in Phoenix

The NBA trade deadline was busy as a number of high-profile players were moved. One name that went under the radar was Torrey Craig, who is making a major impact in his new home as the Phoenix Suns battle for the best record in the league.

Chad Smith

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The last time the Phoenix Suns played in a playoff game, Deandre Ayton was 11 years old. Not only is Phoenix back in the postseason, but they will also be one of the top seeds in the loaded Western Conference.

The emergence of the Suns as a championship contender may have started in the Orlando bubble last season. Chris Paul saw something he liked and has mentioned that numerous times as to why he wanted to play in Phoenix. His arrival solidified their aspirations, but this team is much more than just the future Hall-of-Fame point guard.

The pieces in Phoenix fit like a puzzle. Devin Booker is still the key player that opposing teams have at the top of their scouting report. Ayton has continued his development, which has been aided by Paul’s tutelage. Mikal Bridges has exploded onto the scene as one of the best young, two-way players in the league. Like every championship-contending team, there are valuable role players that fill out the roster.

Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky have been excellent additions throughout the season. Cameron Johnson continues to play a solid role and reclamation projects like Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter have given this team a much-needed boost of energy off the bench. They have made it difficult for Monty Williams to even find minutes for solid veterans such as E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway.

Jae Crowder has been one of the best offseason acquisitions in the league. He has missed the last eight games with a sprained right ankle, which has opened the door of opportunity for others. Torrey Craig has taken this opportunity and flourished.

Crowder has always played for winning teams over the course of his career, and Craig appears to be following suit. After going undrafted out of USC Upstate, he signed a two-way contract with the Denver Nuggets in the summer of 2017. That turned into a multi-year contract before he joined the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent this past offseason. On March 18, the Bucks traded Craig to the Suns in exchange for cash and a trade exception.

Denver’s defense suffered when Craig left and for whatever reason, he did not see the floor much in Milwaukee. Given ample opportunity, he seemed like he would be a perfect fit in their system. Even after battling through a groin injury and a broken nose, it just didn’t work out in Milwaukee.

Since joining the Suns, Craig is getting plenty of minutes and making the most of them. In April, he averaged more than 18 minutes per game and shot the ball with high efficiency. Not known as a great shooter, he hit 39 percent of his three-pointers and shot 51 percent overall from the floor. Against the Brooklyn Nets, he scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. On Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Craig poured in 18 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in a starting role where he went 8-10 from the floor.

Craig’s greatest strength is his defense, and he is well aware of that. One thing Phoenix has been lacking is the wing player that can defend the premier players in the league. It takes a special skill set to defend the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, etc. He has the size, athleticism and the little things that can’t be taught. With Crowder out and Bridges still needing to add more muscle, Craig’s role is crystal clear.

It often takes players time to get acclimated to new situations. They have new teammates and learning the ins and outs of the system can be a tough task. Meeting the demands of leaders like Paul can be tantalizing as well. To his credit, Craig has fit like a glove, doing everything asked of him and doing it well. This seemingly small transaction at the trade deadline could pay major dividends for the Suns.

Six regular-season games remain for Phoenix, who will have one of the top two seeds in the Western Conference. Playoff basketball is much different than the regular season, as the defensive temperature goes up a few notches. Game planning and defensive schemes play a large role in the outcome of playoff games, which makes Craig even more valuable.

While the Suns are capable of scoring with anyone, it is their defense that makes them elite. They currently have the second-best net rating in the league, the sixth-best defensive rating and are seventh in opponents scoring. Their team defense is incredible but individually, they have sensational defenders at every position. Phoenix currently has four players in the top 30 of Defensive RPM with Ayton and Paul both inside the top ten.

Another thing this Suns team lacks is playoff experience. Aside from Paul and Crowder, none of the players on this roster have many postseason games under their belt. Craig has played in 33 postseason games in his career and brings valuable experience to this young team. With his improved shooting, he is another weapon that Monty Williams can use in these high-pressure games.

Craig wasn’t drafted when he finished his college career. He played overseas for three years, waiting on his next opportunity. He joined the G-League and finally got called up to help the Nuggets. In his first career game, Denver put him on Jrue Holiday in the closing seconds of the game. Craig blocked his potential game-winning shot and Denver won the game in overtime.

Sometimes it takes people more time to notice the blessings they have been given. Phoenix is fully cognizant of the player they have in Craig. Monty knows, Paul and Booker know and, soon, the rest of the league will realize just how good he is.

It’s been a long journey for Craig, but he could reach the top of the mountain very soon. The Suns have some big plans, and he is a key part of them.

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