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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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NBA Daily: Kobe’s 81 Is An Untouchable Feat

Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accomplishments and records, his 81-point game is the one that has no peer.

Douglas Farmer

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Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accolades, accomplishments and records, the most obvious of them may also be the most under-appreciated.

NBA fans can cite Kobe contemporaries that can match his five NBA championships. In addition to Tim Duncan and Steve Kerr, LeBron James is at No. 3 and still counting. And of course, James passed Kobe’s 33,643 career points just this weekend, moving into third all-time.

Kobe’s career-high 35.4 points per game in 2005-06 falls short of James Harden’s current stretch, averaging 36.07 this season and 36.13 last year. In fact, Harden’s career average of 24.97 points slots just behind Kobe’s 24.99, both behind LeBron’s 27.10 and Kevin Durant’s 27.02.

But no modern player has come close to Kobe’s legendary 81-point game during that 2006 season. Sure, Devin Booker tallied 70 three years ago and David Robinson got to 71 back in 1994, but neither were actually that close to Kobe’s iconic torching of the Toronto Raptors.

When Booker poured in 70 against the Boston Celtics, he needed 40 field goal attempts to do it. At his shooting rates that March night, he would have needed to take another seven shots to reach Kobe’s 81. If he didn’t attempt more free throws, then that number ticks up to 10 more attempts.

Sticking to that math, Robinson’s 71 would have needed six more hoists to beat Kobe to 81, a total of 47 hypothetical attempts.

By no means was Kobe the epitome of efficiency when he outscored everyone but Wilt Chamberlain by going 28-of-46 and 7-of-13 from deep – supplemented by an 18-of-20 performance at the free throw line. Nonetheless, he was hardly detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense.

In the last 40 years, only five players have come within 20 points of Kobe’s singular feat while shooting at rates such that they could have theoretically gotten to 81 points on fewer than his 46 field goal attempts. Two of those, naturally, came from Kobe himself.

Player Date Points FGA Total FGA needed to reach 81
Michael Jordan 3/28/1990 69 37 44
Kobe Bryant 12/20/2005 62 31 41
LeBron James 3/3/2014 61 33 44
Kobe Bryant 2/2/2009 61 31 42
Karl Malone 1/27/1990 61 26 35
Klay Thompson 12/5/2016 60 33 45

For someone long-criticized for his shot volume, Kobe was the definition of an efficient mass scorer more often than anyone else, to such a degree he has essentially been without a peer for 30 years.

Aside from Thompson, the obvious nominee of who might match Kobe is a healthy Stephen Curry, even though he has never scored more than 54 points in a game. When Curry reached that mark at Madison Square Garden in 2013, he would have needed to take another 14 shots to have a genuine chance at 81, for a total of 42 attempts. His 53-point effort in 2015 would have also needed to get to 42 attempts to be on pace to match Kobe.

There is, however, another volume scorer to watch, one who came within 20 points of Kobe’s best just last week. Damian Lillard’s week warrants Kobe-esque notice.

Last Monday: 61 points on 17-of-37 shooting against the Warriors; would have need 50 shots to catch Kobe.

Thursday: 47 points on 16-of-28 shooting against the Mavericks; would have needed 49 shots to catch Kobe.

Sunday: 50 points on 14-of-23 shooting against the Pacers, would have needed 38 shots to catch Kobe.

To wit, take last night as an example: Lillard scored 50 points in an impeccably efficient matter, but if he had somehow not missed a single shot, he would have scored only 74 points.

Fittingly, a monomaniacal guard with a penchant for game-winning shots is the one scoring in bunches in ways that can be compared to only Kobe – yet the Portland Trail Blazers’ guard remains far short of the 81-point standard.

But that just goes to show how amazing Kobe’s night on Jan. 22, 2006 really was.

The five-time champion, first-ballot Hall of Famer achieved many things and left an imprint beyond our grasp this tragic week, but his one night of heaviest binge scoring may be the least likely piece of his career to ever be repeated.

It has no modern peer and even those the closest to matching it have tended to fall a dozen shots and 20 points short.

But that day? In today’s modern NBA landscape, that’s a great chance we’ll never, ever see something quite like it again.

Kobe Bryant, a legend and icon in so, so many ways.

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NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto

After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.

Drew Maresca

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The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.

Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).

But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.

Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.

But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.

But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.

There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.

There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.

Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.

As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.

All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.

All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.

Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?

Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.

Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.

And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.

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NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres

It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.

Douglas Farmer

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Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.

And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.

“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”

Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.

“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”

Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.

He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.

“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”

That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.

Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.

Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.

“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”

If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”

It might not have been a joke.

Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.

“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”

That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.

If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.

The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.

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