It’s hard to believe that the new NBA season is nearly a quarter of the way finished already — yet the calendar has just slipped into December. With some wild storylines and exciting narratives to follow, it’s been difficult to get a handle on many franchises through the first two months of the campaign. This week, Basketball Insiders started assessing each division and handing out first quarter grades for each team — so if you’re itching to head back to school, they’re all available below.
On Monday, Spencer Davies doled out grades for the Central Division — but don’t look, Cavaliers fans. Then Jesse Blancarte nailed down the Pacific, David Yapkowitz handled the Northwest, Drew Maresca tackled the tricky Atlantic and Shane Rhodes broke down the Southwest yesterday. Which, again, leaves the Southeast Division to wrap things up in this series. How should the Hawks, HEAT, Hornets, Magic and Wizards feel after a little more than 20 games played?
Atlanta Hawks — A
The Hawks, in no uncertain terms, were destined to lose this year. Fated, almost. With an incredibly young roster and a great opportunity to add another highly-touted prospect, they never had a reason to effectively compete in 2018-19. And, through 20-plus games: so far, so good. The Hawks’ 5-18 record trails just Cleveland and Phoenix for the league’s worst record and, honestly, they’re right where they want to be.
Over the last week, the Hawks moved Kevin Huerter into the starting lineup along with Trae Young, John Collins, Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon. Once you toss in DeAndre Bembry and Omari Spellman off the bench, Atlanta has collected a promising core to build their next era around. However, drafting one of the Duke Blue Devils’ cavalcade of rim-rattling, bucket-getting prospects — Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett or Cam Reddish — would be a game-changer for Atlanta.
Grading teams like the Hawks can be difficult as their letter could easily be in the D or F range if the narrative was just simply re-written. The Hawks rank in dead last in both turnovers and offensive rating, while their shooting percentages remain well-below par for competitive franchises. They’re barely playing veterans like Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter, but also look unlikely to move Kent Bazemore’s contract that will cost the Hawks $19.2 million in 2019-20.
And yet, none of that really matters. The Hawks get to develop their promising talent while also preparing for greener pastures next year and beyond — that alone is worth an A in the modern win-or-tank landscape.
Charlotte Hornets — B
Thanks to the ever-smoldering Kemba Walker, the Hornets have exceeded expectations early on. Still, they’re just 11-11 and deeply entwined within the Eastern Conference’s messy second-tier — a couple wins and they could have homecourt advantage, while a small losing streak might bump them outside the playoff race altogether. Despite some frustrating, uneven performances, there are plenty of reasons to stay excited about this new incarnation of a mostly similar roster.
Firstly, head coach James Borrego has done well to create an instantly-cohesive unit, bring the once-troubled Malik Monk along and carve out his own succinct rotation. While that’s left players like Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo out in the cold, others have begun to bloom. The addition of veteran Tony Parker has proven shrewd and Jeremy Lamb continues his breakout from 2017-18. Miles Bridges is good for a highlight or two (or three) almost every night and longtime members like Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams continue to contribute efficiently.
As of now, the Hornets rank sixth in offensive rating (112.0) and 10th in three-point percentage (35.9), while their defensive rating has been as high as 10th in recent days. Altogether, those numbers point toward an overall fearsome unit in this current NBA landscape, that should go without saying. Should any rumors about Bradley Beal come to fruition, then the Hornets would be really cooking with hot grease. If the Hornets can iron out their inconsistencies — three of their losses have come against the Bulls, Hawks and Cavaliers — then we’ll really see just how good this team can be.
Orlando Magic — C+
At 11-11 and the current holders of the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, it’s been an optimistically strong start for the Orlando Magic. Coming into the season, the Magic boasted talented prospects, but little cohesiveness — so far, they’ve done well to survive the early slog. Nikola Vucevic, a man reborn, is averaging a career-high in points (20.8), assists (3.9) and field goal percentage (55.5), shepherding the way for a mostly inexperienced Magic roster. Aaron Gordon has slightly trended downward statistically, but he’s making good on his new mega-deal worth about $76 million thus far, while Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba are still looking to find consistent footing.
Despite their lack of an absolute, undeniable star, Orlando has played unselfishly to the tune of 26.4 assists per game, a tally that’s sixth-best across the league. Even better, their turnovers also rank low at 13.7, as veterans D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier have taken care of the ball quite well. If the Magic want to make the most of the 2018-19 campaign, they’ll likely need to trade for another point guard — but would that price of such an acquisition be worth it? Even if Orlando sneaks into the postseason, they don’t stand much of a chance against the conference elite up north. Moving forward, it’ll be key to find opportunities for Isaac and Bamba as they’re franchise cornerstones and their development, no matter what ultimately happens in the standings, is the top priority.
Still, the early returns on the Steve Clifford-led Magic are sunny, so achieving anything else this season would be the cherry on top.
Miami HEAT — C-
At a cursory glance, the Miami HEAT roster looks like one of the Southeast’s most competitive bunches. Instead, the on-court performances and overwhelming injuries have left the HEAT reeling in the lurch, and, most importantly, in conference limbo. The HEAT are better than their 8-13 record, most definitely, but they need to get healthy in a hurry. This roster full of strong second and third-best options was screaming out for a gritty Jimmy Butler addition last month, but the front office stayed put — now where do they go from here?
The ever-reliable Goran Dragic has missed Miami’s last six games, over which they’ve limped to a 2-4 record. Earlier in the season, Dragic missed three more contests and the HEAT promptly went 1-2. Yes, Dragic (16.3 points, 4.7 assists) is truly that important, both in his scoring abilities and offensive facilitation. And yet, the struggles go beyond that. Tyler Johnson hasn’t played since Nov. 20 and the enigmatic Dion Waiters isn’t close to making his season debut either. Dwyane Wade, in the midst of his well-deserved retirement tour, took off for seven games to be with his family following the birth of his daughter.
Josh Richardson has performed admirably in his newfound role of the go-to, well, everything, but the HEAT fall short in some major categories. Miami turns the ball over at an alarming rate, and although their defensive rating holds firm (106.9, tenth-best), the offense ranks among the NBA’s worst so far. It’s far too early to panic about HEAT, especially in the Eastern Conference but this team’s strength is clearly its depth. Even Rodney McGruder has gone from undrafted to essential in the span of three years — 12.2 points, five rebounds, 3.4 assists per game — and James Johnson continues to be a hulking pest defensively.
But if they’re not going to pull the trigger on a star-worthy acquisition, Miami needs to look inward, get healthy and rediscover some of their grittiness that made them such a pleasant surprise last season.
Washington Wizards — F
This should come as no surprise, unfortunately.
The Wizards, by all accounts, should be good. With a backcourt featuring John Wall and Bradley Beal, they should have ascended to the conference’s upper echelon by now. After adding offseason talents like Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers, the Wizards just had to keep it all together for eight months. Instead, the front office brass was reportedly considering a full and total breakup before Thanksgiving dinner could be served. Wall and Beal are apparently available for trade, although the former will be tough to deal given his supermax contract starts next season.
Beal has already had to deny trade demands on national television, Otto Porter Jr. continues to labor on his max deal and, as if things weren’t already bad, Dwight Howard will likely miss two-to-three months following surgery on his lower back. The talent on this roster is undeniable, but this has been the disappointing story in Washington season after season.
Today, the Wizards rank 20th in offensive rating, 17th in assist-to-turnover ratio, 27th in rebounding and a staggeringly poor 29th in defensive rating. While Howard is no longer quite the defensive anchor he once was, his absence won’t make things any easier for his teammates. Thomas Bryant has struggled since becoming the de facto center, but the Wizards’ other options — Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith — don’t offer any upside at all.
At some point — perhaps sooner rather than later — the Wizards will finally accept that this formula isn’t working and attempt to start from scratch. However, since it’s still the Eastern Conference, the Wizards are 8-14 and remain just two games behind the final playoff spot. Of course, there’s time to salvage this cross-country trainwreck, but does anybody actually believe they’re headed down the road to recovery?
It’s now officially December, which means these five franchises must take serious stock of their conference-wide standing. While the Hawks are sitting pretty, developing their studs and coming closer to a higher draft pick every day, the other squads have room to improve. Between the HEAT, Hornets, Magic and Wizards, the Southeast Division figures to be plenty busy between now and the trade deadline. Blow it up or push all in, these early season grades could look completely different down the road — but, for now, these feel like a fair representation of each team’s respective status at this point in the season.
NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong
Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.
The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.
Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.
Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).
In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.
In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.
Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.
Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.
“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”
Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.
“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.
When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.
“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”
Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.
Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.
Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”
Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.
After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.
“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”
As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.
Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.
Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.
“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”
The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.
NBA Daily: Potential 10-Day Contract Players
Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few players who could be prime candidates for 10-day contracts.
January 5 was an important deadline in the NBA in that it marked the first day teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts.
Usually reserved for younger, unproven talent looking to get their first shot in the NBA, recently NBA veterans have started going the 10-day route to refresh their careers and get back in the league. For example, Corey Brewer just recently signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.
These contracts are very beneficial for teams in that there’s essentially no risk, and the potential for a high reward. It’s a relatively cheap tryout for teams to get a quick look at players who can potentially be helpful. Best case scenario, they end up finding a solid contributor. If not, then the player is no longer with them after 10 days.
Here’s a look at a few players who could be candidates for a 10-day contract.
1. Willie Reed
The veteran big man has had his taste of the NBA. He began last season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ primary backup to DeAndre Jordan. With the emergence of other players, however, his playing time decreased and he was ultimately traded to Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade.
The Pistons then shipped him off to the Chicago Bulls for Jameer Nelson, and the Bulls proceeded to cut him. He ended up being the first overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.
This season with the Stars, he’s been one of the best big men in the G League. Reed has put up 20.1 points per game on 66.5 percent shooting from the field, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He’s still a quality rotation player and could help a playoff team in need of some size off the bench.
2. John Jenkins
Another NBA veteran, Jenkins developed a reputation as a sharpshooter during his early years in the league, but didn’t do much else. His last appearance in the NBA was last season when he was brought to training camp by the Atlanta Hawks.
He ended up being one of the Hawks’ final cuts before the end of camp, and he subsequently chose to play overseas. He returned stateside this season, where he joined the Westchester Knicks, the New York Knicks’ G League affiliate.
Jenkins has had a very strong season thus far, putting up 24.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, 42.8 percent from the three-point line, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Perhaps the biggest changes in his game have been his playmaking ability and his development into a more versatile scorer. Any team in need of some bench scoring should give him a look.
3. Anthony Bennett
Keeping with the trend of NBA veterans using 10-day contracts to get back to the league, the former No.1 overall pick in the 2013 draft has begun to put people on notice this season.
Bennett last saw NBA minutes two season ago with the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t that bad during his stint in Brooklyn, but the Nets cut him almost halfway through the 2016-17 season. Aside from a brief stop overseas, Bennett has been playing in the G League.
This season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Bennett has looked like he’s ready for another shot in the NBA. He’s been averaging a modest 13.0 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. One of the biggest additions to his game though has been his expanded shooting range. He’s knocking down 43.6 percent of this 5.1 three-point attempts. He’s worth another look for a team in need of a stretch big man.
4. Bruno Caboclo
Another player with NBA experience, it’s probably not fair to call Caboclo a veteran seeing that he rarely saw playing time in the league. When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, his selection caused quite a bit of confusion, leading to Fran Fraschilla’s now famous quote of him being, “two years away from being two years away.”
Caboclo toiled on the Raptors’ bench for about four years before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. He finally was able to see some minutes with the Kings, but still didn’t show much. The Houston Rockets invited him to training camp but ultimately cut him.
Caboclo joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets G League affiliate, and has since been showing that he may very well be worth a 10-day contract. He’s averaging 16 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. When he was drafted, the expectation was he’d develop into a 3&D wing but that didn’t happen. He’s looking much closer to that now. For a team in need of a wing defender who can shoot from distance, he’s worth a look.
Again, 10-day contracts have become a very valuable and inexpensive way for NBA teams to try out potential contributors. If the player pans out, then you have a relatively cheap guy in the rotation. If they don’t, you cut your losses after 10 days. It should be interesting to see if these vets are able to parlay their G League success into a path back to the NBA.
NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston
Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.
James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.
The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.
But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.
Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.
Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.
At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.
According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.
With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.
Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.
Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.
Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.
If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.
Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.
We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.
This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?
Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.
Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.
There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.
Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.
Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.
Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.
Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.
With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.
This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.
Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.
The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?