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Miami HEAT 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

Few teams in the NBA have done more with less than the Miami HEAT. The question for the HEAT is, can they stay healthy enough to be anything more than a first-round playoff team? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Miami HEAT in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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After an underwhelming season that saw the team bounced from the first round of the postseason after posting a 44-38 regular season record, the Miami HEAT return in 2018 with largely the same group of guys they had last season.

However, in an Eastern Conference sans LeBron James, the HEAT are better off than they were last season. But how much better could the team fair in the 2018-19 season? Let’s take a look.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Miami HEAT had a rather inactive offseason. Miami did re-sign sharpshooter Wayne Ellington to a one-year $6,270,000 contract, which is a good deal the HEAT. However, the rest of the roster is largely the same as last season, meaning Miami projects to be a middle of the pack playoff contender in the Eastern Conference. Like the Los Angeles Clippers, the HEAT have talent at each position and solid depth, but they don’t have the high-end talent to keep pace with the NBA’s elite teams. There are some players who are returning from injury-plagued seasons who hopefully can make a bigger impact this season, such as Dion Waiters. And there are some promising young players who may show improvement this season, like Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo. But unless Miami manages to land a trade for some more talent, this season is likely to end in an early postseason exit.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The HEAT made most of their significant moves during the summer of 2017 – there wasn’t a whole lot of flexibility left this summer. As such, they’ll enter the 2018-19 campaign with virtually an identical roster to the one that won 44 games and a Southeast Division crown last year. Will it be enough to carry them further than a relatively non-competitive round one loss? Well…maybe? This team has solid depth and mostly capable NBA players, but really lacks the star power to compete with some of the East’s true powers. One wonders whether Pat Riley will consider a sizable shakeup, including dealing guys like Goran Dragic or Hassan Whiteside (if his contract can even be moved realistically), to move this team out of the league’s middle and either toward true contention or the basement where they can rebuild properly.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

What a difference a season makes. In 2017, many were thankful the streaking HEAT didn’t make the playoffs. In 2018, the HEAT were the biggest disappointment out of all the East’s playoff teams. Because of their salary situation, combined with their seemingly limited ceiling, Miami has been written off. It’s fair to mention that Dion Waiters, Hassan Whiteside, and Rodney McGruder all were out for an extended period with injuries. Their return, combined with both Justise Winslow’s and Bam Adebayo’s potential, could see the HEAT could finish anywhere. The X-Factor is Whiteside. If he gets his act together, Miami could exceed expectations.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Matt John

For an NBA offseason that was full of movement, the HEAT stood pat with little turnover on the roster. Last season, they were one of the best defensive teams in the league and gave Philadelphia a nice run for its money in the playoffs. Goran Dragic is still the leader of this group and is easily the primary offensive weapon for Erik Spoelstra. As Bam Adebayo develops further in his second season, it will be intriguing to see where Hassan Whiteside fits into the equation…if at all. Josh Richardson is blossoming into a top defender on the wing and Dion Waiters will be back in action after missing the majority of last year with an injury. It’s going to be a close call in the bottom portion of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

If there is one franchise in the East that’s going to likely do more with less, it’s going to be the Miami HEAT. This means they will be good enough to tease you into the playoffs, but not bad enough to yield a top draft pick. The HEAT continues to say they won’t blow this team up and that what they have internally is enough to compete, but the question is, will one of their young guys stay healthy enough to really pop? Looking in on Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow – one of them could be exactly that “move to the next tier” player the HEAT desperately need. Its unlikely the HEAT are much more than the 7-8 seed in the East, that seems good enough for management, but as history has shown, 7-8 is a no-man’s land that usually costs franchise leaders their jobs.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF LIST

Top Offensive Player: Goran Dragic

Once again, Goran Dragic projects to be the best offensive option in Miami next season.

Making his first All-Star appearance, Dragic averaged 17.3 points per game to lead the HEAT last season while shooting 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from three. He also posted 4.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.

Both his scoring and assist numbers dipped from the previous season, but Dragic, as the number one option on offense, should see benefits from a high usage percentage once again in 2018.

Top Defensive Player: Hassan Whiteside

Hassan Whiteside has gotten a bad rap at times, and for good reason. He often seems not focused or disinterested and, because of that, his play suffers.

However, when Whiteside is engaged he is Defensive Player of the Year material.

When he is putting in the effort, Whiteside has shown the dominant force he can be defensively and on the glass. Back in 2015, his second season with Miami, Whiteside averaged 11.8 rebounds and a ridiculous 3.7 blocks per game. While those numbers have dipped in the past two seasons, the ability is still there. If Spoelstra and Co. can capitalize on that ability, it could go a long way for both Whiteside and the HEAT.

Top Playmaker: Goran Dragic

His assist numbers were down last season, but Dragic still managed to lead the HEAT in the category for the third consecutive year. He is a good bet to do it again next season as well.

More importantly, Dragic is comfortable with the ball in his hands and can make a play when his team needs it; whether he drives to the basket for the layup or kicks the ball out for the open shot, Dragic has a good sense of awareness and can quickly figure out the best play for the team given the situation.

Top Clutch Player: James Johnson

James Johnson probably isn’t who you thought would be here. Dwyane Wade could have easily fit the profile but, while he is still undecided on playing next season, Johnson takes the spot.

The NBA defines clutch time as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. Across 23 games last season, Johnson took 47 shots in the clutch and excelled in the moment. Johnson sported a 53.2 percent field goal percentage in the clutch, hitting 25 of those 47 shots while making seven of 16 three-point attempts, good for a 43.8 percentage, as well.

Johnson also assisted on 17 clutch field goals, highest among HEAT players last season.

The Unheralded Player: Wayne Ellington

Wayne Ellington shot 39.2 percent from three-point range last season, good for 13th among players that took more than 400 attempts (Ellington had 579 attempts on the season).

As a three-point specialist that can post at least moderate scoring numbers – 11.2 points per game last season – Ellington’s skillset is as valuable as it has ever been in the NBA. Ellington, however, found slim pickings on the free agent market and ultimately returned to Miami on a one-year deal.

Despite the surprising lack of interest, Ellington will play a vital role for Miami, opening things up inside for Whiteside and second-year player Bam Adebayo while making things easier on Dragic and Josh Richardson as well.

Best New Addition: No One

While Miami retained some of their own free agents, the front office made no new additions this offseason. The team, for the second time in three seasons, made zero selections on draft night.

– Shane Rhodes

WHO WE LIKE

1. Goran Dragic

Dragic will enter his age-31 season as (probably) Miami’s best player. The guard is almost a lock to lead the team in scoring for the third straight season and he is currently the only All-Star on the roster.

While the HEAT failed to add anyone of note this offseason, projected improvement from the likes of Adebayo and others should provide a slight boost to his numbers as well.

2. Bam Adebayo

Adebayo seemed like a questionable pick by the HEAT in 2017, but after some impressive performances, he seems primed to take the next step in year two.

Adebayo averaged 6.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game last season. However, his athletic ability should allow him to, eventually, surpass those stats and be dominant in the open floor. Adebayo is already a capable defender and with his length (7-foot-1 wingspan), there is certainly room for improvement; he is already able to switch onto and keep smaller players in front of him.

At just 20-years-old, Adebayo has plenty of time to grow his game and Miami will give him all the time in the world to do so.

3. Josh Richardson

You could make the argument that Josh Richardson is Miami’s most complete player.

While he isn’t as good as Dragic on offense, Richardson is still plenty good on that end; he averaged 12.9 points per game last season while shooting 37.8 percent from three. While he isn’t a number one option he is certainly capable.

Defensively, Richardson is the HEAT’s best one-on-one defender and finished the season tied for 11th in total steals with 121. Richardson also posted 3.5 defensive win shares last season, which was tops in Miami and 23rd in the NBA.

4. Erik Spoelstra

Erik Spoelstra, as one of the best coaches in the NBA, is almost a must have on the list of HEAT highlights.

Spoelstra has proved season after season that he is a driving force behind Miami’s sustained success post-James. In two of the past three seasons he has managed a less than ideal roster to the postseason, and there isn’t much to suggest that he won’t do it again next season.

– Shane Rhodes

STRENGTHS

Every year the NBA moves closer and closer to truly “positionless” basketball, and it appears as if the HEAT have truly embraced the trend.

Miami has a number of players that can play at multiple spots on the flor – Richardson Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk just to name a few. This positional versatility is key in the modern NBA and it allows the HEAT to create and use certain matchups to their advantage.

The ability to play guys at multiple positions also deepens the roster and allows Spoelstra more flexibility when it comes to his game plan.

– Shane Rhodes

WEAKNESSES

As much depth as they have, the HEAT are lacking in terms of elite talent. Dragic, their best player, isn’t the best player on a championship-caliber team. Whiteside, while he can be dominant at times, doesn’t play with enough consistency to be a major factor for a playoff team.

Adebayo, Richardson and others should continue to improve while the return of Dion Waiters should boost the offense. However, it’s hard to see Miami improving to a point where they truly challenge the top teams of the Eastern Conference.

Miami, as constructed, is a playoff team. That is definitely a good thing, but this team isn’t necessarily a true contender.

– Shane Rhodes

THE BURNING QUESTION

How High Can the HEAT Climb in the East?

Assuming health, the HEAT are in prime position to take advantage of a top-heavy Eastern Conference.

Outside of the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and the Indiana Pacers, the Eastern Conference is an even playing field. While some teams may have slight advantages over one another, no team is truly greater than all the others by a significant margin. Down the stretch, as many as eight teams could be vying for those last four playoff spots.

Miami finished last season as the sixth seed and, as they returned most of the same roster, a similar finish seems likely this season. With the Cavaliers expected to regress following the departure of James for Los Angeles, they HEAT could even find themselves as the fifth seed if things break right for them.

– Shane Rhodes

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division

Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.

Chad Smith

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Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.

But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?

The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.

It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.

Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense

After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.

Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.

The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.

Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.

They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.

After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.

John Collins Suspension

The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.

But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.

Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.

As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.

If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.

At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start

Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?

On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.

With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.

And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.

Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.

Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.

Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.

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NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution

Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.

Jack Winter

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Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.

When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.

The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.

The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.

Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.

Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.

Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.

It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.

Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.

He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.

Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.

Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.

The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.

Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.

Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.

Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.

And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around. 

Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles

Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.

Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).

But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.

The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.

Knicks Offensive Woes

The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.

And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).

Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.

But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.

The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.

Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.

Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.

Now,  he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?

On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.

But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.

Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug

This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.

Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.

And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.

Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again –  to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.

We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.

But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.

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