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NBA Daily: Unpredictability Wins, We Have No Frontrunners

The teams that we thought were going to dominate the postseason have struggled thus far, so there doesn’t really appear to be a favorite to win the NBA title, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When Golden State’s once-in-a-generation Death Lineup disbanded for good last year, the first word that came to everyone’s mind was parity. For the first time since 2015, it felt like the season would start without a foregone conclusion. Sure, there were going to be teams that were going to stand out above the rest, but if you were asked who would win it all, you probably had to take a second to think about it.

Then the season happened. Mostly. When the NBA pressed pause on Mar. 11, 2020, no team approached the level that Golden State occupied themselves in for the past three years, but there were three teams that had predictably stood out as the favorite – the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks.

When the season resumed, nothing changed. Though a few noteworthy dark horses were brought up, the most often predicted finals matchup was Milwaukee and whoever came out victorious between the expected battle of the LA rivals. We’re 10 games into the bubble and, truly, nothing appears to be a guarantee.

All three of them currently find themselves tied 1-1 in their series despite entering as the heavy favorites. The most obvious explanation for this would be the bubble’s environment is much different than what we’re used to – and it’s true. Still, that shouldn’t phase the top teams in the entire league like it has thus far, but it has. The mystery to all of this is how.

Since David Yapkowitz already tackled the Clippers and Lakers’ issues, we’ll start with the Bucks’ struggles.

There is no reason why Milwaukee should not be dominating this series against Orlando. The Magic may have their best player at their arsenal, but they are missing their most promising player – who could have been a foil against Giannis – as well as one of their best two or three guys. Even then, the disparity between these teams is unquestionable as a No. 1 seed should always have the upper hand against a No. 8. Yet, Orlando manhandled them in Game 1 and made things a little interesting there towards the end of Game 2.

The Law of Averages tell us that Milwaukee will probably finish them off over the next three games. The big caveat is that it shouldn’t be as difficult as it has been for the Bucks. One of the biggest issues has been covering Nikola Vucevic – the same Vucevic who got his butt kicked by Marc Gasol in last year’s playoff series against Toronto. And he’s having his way no matter who the Bucks throw at him. Still, Milwaukee has two frontcourt players – Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez – that are expected to make NBA All-Defense. That’s not a good look for the team that had the best defensive rating in the entire league.

And what has happened to Khris Middleton? This is the guy who Twitter endlessly fought over his current rank in the NBA current pantheon. He doesn’t have a rock-solid playoff rep and he isn’t doing a whole lot to validate his supporters – he’s even coming off a 2 point, 1-for-8 performance against the Magic. As Giannis’ sidekick, you can get away with that against a No. 8 seed. But you’re cooked if you believe that’ll fly against a second or third seed.

Again, there’s no reason to think we’ve got an upset on our hands here, but this series has been troubling for the boys who have told the league to Fear the Deer. Milwaukee will need these next few games to show that they still the best the Eastern Conference has to offer, because the other top four seeds in the East are not ones to be toyed with.

Speaking of teams that you shouldn’t take lightly, how about the Dallas Mavericks? Of all the teams in the playoffs, the Mavericks may have been the one without a single iota of pressure on them. They still manage to exceed expectations anyway, but as you probably know, this isn’t going to be about them – rather the opponent that they arguably should be leading two games to none on.

The Clippers’ struggles should fit under the On Paper, This Should Be Surprising – But Is It? because they have fewer flaws than the Lakers and Bucks. They even have a much more reputable second-in-command than Milwaukee does, and the talent disparity between their two best players and the rest of their roster is much shorter than the Lakers. These advantages haven’t served them well thus far.

Dallas has not only been able to take the hits that LA has thrown at them – but they also threw more than they’ve taken. The Mavericks’ advantage hasn’t been from necessarily getting better. It’s that they’ve stayed the same. What we’re seeing in this series is one team that has managed to keep its identity through the hiatus and the other that hasn’t consistently had one and is struggling to find one now. Having played no games leading up the playoffs, Montrezl Harell looks straight up lost. Patrick Beverley’s absence deprives them of a secondary playmaker to put next Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Detractors have been harder on Paul George than he deserves, but he was not good in Game 2.

There is time to remedy this, but the time they have has been greatly shortened. They have to figure this out fast because teams coached by Rick Carlisle do not rollover. We’ve seen teams boast of so much talent and yet they never quite put it together. The Clippers don’t have the same internal issues as those teams, but those rosters at least had time to gel. The Clippers do not and they’re facing a tough team. Beverley’s absence really comes into play when facing a smartly-coached squad filled with playmakers and shooters because that could definitely make this a seven-game series.

Then there are the Lakers. The Lakers were the one team that we anticipated would have their hands full with Portland. The Trail Blazers are playing their best basketball of the season at the best time – and when they are at their best, they’d make life hell for any opponent.

Game 1 gave the people what they wanted, but after the late-night thrashing the Lakeshow then handed the Trail Blazers, the Los Angeles looks like the one team among the three that should be fine because, as mind-blowing as this sounds, they looked like themselves.

But has Father Time finally caught up with the King? It may look like it so far, but LeBron James has proven this notion wrong so many times that it’s harder to believe that it’s happening than it is to believe that it’s not. His lackluster production is still a concern though. Maybe James is just conserving his energy for a better opponent and letting Davis dominate because he believes Anthony Davis and co. are enough to bring down Portland. If Game 2 is a sign of things to come, then he might just be right about that.

Because of what has transpired, we don’t really have a frontrunner right now for the title. Other teams have definitely stood out since the playoffs began – Houston, Miami, Boston – but those aren’t the teams we were expecting to stand out. It’s early as you all know, and the Lakers already look like they’re getting their groove back. There’s no reason not to think the Bucks and the Clippers won’t do the same.

The Warriors’ separation put the NBA title up for grabs this year and The Bubble has now leveled the playing field – but perhaps more than we could have ever imagined.

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NBA Daily: With Harden in Tow, it’s Championship or Bust for Brooklyn

Adding another former MVP to an already talented Nets team means higher expectations in Kings County. Drew Maresca identifies the major challenges remaining for the Brooklyn Nets.

Drew Maresca

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Unless you’re living under a rock, you already know that the Brooklyn Nets pulled off what will go down as the blockbuster deal of 2020-21. Just last week, the Nets added James Harden for Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and future draft swaps and picks. While the deal was more complicated than even that sounds, the fact of the matter is that the Nets added another superstar– and you know what they say, the team that gives up the star rarely wins the trade.

With Harden in tow, the Nets are now equipped to compete with anyone in the NBA thanks to its newly-minted big three. But there is a downside to the Harden deal, too. The Nets entered the season with incredible depth. But after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a knee injury and trading away LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and Allen, they’ve thinned out, probably too much, for their own comfort.

The Nets’ depth is an issue that will be challenging to solve. What’s more, how will they arrange Kyrie Irving and Harden to get the most production out of them? And how does rookie head coach Steve Nash respond to the first-time challenges of overseeing a championship-caliber team?

Regardless, our first look at the Nets was pretty darn impressive. Brooklyn beat the Orlando Magic on Saturday, getting 42 points from Kevin Durant and a 30-point triple-double from Harden that also included 14 assists. The Nets will boast one of the league’s most talented starting lineups once Irving returns– which could happen as soon as today – but don’t be fooled, there are still challenges on the horizon, and they’re all internal.

How do Irving and Harden fit together?

Harden might look like a shooting guard and Irving is obviously a point guard, but that doesn’t mean that they fit together. Harden is at his best initiating the offense, and since joining Houston in 2012-13, he hasn’t posted a usage rate lower than 27.8 but has gotten as high as 40.5 (2018-19). Further, he’s averaged 9.5 assists or more in each of the last five seasons, tallying at least 10 assists per game in three of the last five. While his style is clearly isolation-heavy, it looks like he’s finally willing to take a bit of a backseat now that he’s playing alongside his buddy and former-MVP in Durant.

Irving is another player high-usage player, with a usage rate of 30 or more in four of the past five seasons. While he looks more like a traditional point guard than Harden, his career totals don’t necessarily back that up. Unlike Harden, Irving has never averaged 10 assists per game. He averages only 5.7 assists per game for his career with a high of 6.9 in Boston during 2018-19.

Maybe the solution is letting Irving play off the ball. But there’s a problem with that initiative, will Irving accept it? Irving hasn’t been heard from since leaving the team for personal reasons following the Jan. 6 event in Washington D.C. Has his absence been a social commentary? Was it a power play forcing Brooklyn’s hand to trade for Harden? Or maybe it’s all enigmatic of a bigger personal problem with which Irving is dealing? Only time will tell, but Brooklyn can’t be too comfortable – unless they already know the answer.

Lack of depth is a problem

Obviously, the Nets are more than Durant, Harden and Irving. But do they have enough to get over the hump? After all, fair or not, it’s championship or bust. Yes, the Nets also have Joe Harris, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And, sure, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been a great surprise, while lots will be expected of Landry Shamet. But that’s it.

There’s also Nic Claxton, but there are two main problems with expecting significant contributions from him – Nash said he isn’t expected back soon and he’s extremely untested. Sure, Claxton is talented, having drawn comparisons to Chris Bosh, but he only appeared in 15 games during his rookie season, averaging just 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds over 12.5 minutes of action.

But the idea that the Nets are undermanned is about more than a missing piece. Firstly, the Nets don’t have a reliable scorer in the second unit. If Dinwiddie were healthy, they’d be in significantly better shape with him anchoring the second team. Granted, if managed correctly and everyone stays healthy, one of Irving, Durant and Harden will be on the floor at all times. But it’s impossible to ensure that health will prevail and Irving hasn’t even rejoined the team yet, so there is deeper uncertainty around their rotation and the fit for now.

Focusing on health for a moment, we’re still dead smack in the middle of a pandemic. And in 2020-21, teams can’t operate under traditional norms. Losing a player to COVID would do the Nets a huge disservice, losing two or three nearly renders them unable to play. But more importantly, losing any one of their big three hurts badly and changes the entire makeup of the team. The Nets are incredibly top-heavy and once they establish chemistry amongst their three stars, proceeding without one would of them will be a major hindrance. Losing two of them would be a death blow.

Nash’s first rodeo

On top of all of the team’s issues, Nash is in his first season as a head coach – or even being a part of any coaching staff whatsoever.

Throughout his 18-year career, Nash developed a reputation as an extremely high-IQ player – but how will that convert to leading a team from the sideline with such high expectations? Granted, he knew exactly what was expected of the Nets when he accepted the position – but the Harden trade comes even more pressure.

As of the deal, the Nets became easily the most polarizing team in the association. Even before adding another former MVP, the Nets did their best to better position Nash by adding two-tie Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni to their bench, which already featured an experienced assistant in Jacque Vaughn. But while the team may have a disproportionately accomplished coaching staff, all of the questions will be directed squarely at Nash come the playoffs and beyond.

For what it is worth, rookie coaches have fared pretty well of late. While it might not affect the Nets directly, three of the nine rookie coaches to go on to win a championship in their first season did so in the past six seasons –  Steve Kerr, Ty Lue and Nick Nurse. While no two coaches are the same, the fact that rookie coaches have been so successful of late speaks to the idea that teams are doing a better job of identifying raw coaching talent – and Nash is as raw as it comes.

It’s hard to find fault in Brooklyn’s desire to add Harden and the fact that they just added another top-five player to an already insanely-talented roster is flat-out unfair. But now the bar has forever changed: anything less than an NBA Finals’ appearance will be judged as a failure, even that could be deemed an underperformance. While greater expectations mean you’re closer to success in the NBA, the team also ponied up its future through 2026.

Good luck, Brooklyn, no pressure.

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NBA Daily: First Time All-Star Watch

From Christian Wood to Jaylen Brown, these are the breakout players reaching for their first-ever All-Star appearances.

Dylan Thayer

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In this feature for Basketball Insiders, we will take a look at players who have started hot out of the gate, and have vastly improved. The article will touch upon new faces in new roles, as well as players who have expanded their previous roles with their teams. The league has a pretty good amount of guys who have earned All-Star appearances previously in their careers, but the players in this article are ready to add their name to the list 𑁋 so without further ado 𑁋 let’s take a look at five players who are cementing their names around the league. 

Christian Wood

To the casual fan, Christian Wood is having a huge surprise season. But for the people who had him on their radar, and knew he could succeed with more minutes and a larger role, you were right. The 25-year-old began his journeyman career with the Philadelphia 76ers as an undrafted free agent out of UNLV. He then played for the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and now the Houston Rockets. In his first 10 games this year, he is putting up 23.2 points per game to go along with 10.9 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game, per NBA.com. This is a major improvement for a guy who only averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year as a rotational player for the Pistons. Wood’s remarkable season thus far has put the league on notice and shown he is the clear frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award.

Julius Randle

In his seventh season, Julius Randle has finally become a star in the Big Apple for the New York Knicks. Randle spent the first five seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, before signing with the Knicks before the 2019-20 season. This year, Randle has taken the lead role on the team becoming an above-average facilitator, while also raising his shooting percentages and totals.

According to Basketball-Reference, Randle is having a career-best season so far averaging 23.2 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game, and 6.7 assists per game along with shooting 50.2 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from three and 78.2 percent from the free-throw line 𑁋 all career highs. Randle’s play helped the Knicks get off to a 5-3 start before a recent five-game losing skid. Randle’s ascension as a player, as well as providing Knicks fans with a glimmer of hope, make him a good bet to represent the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game this season if there is such an event.

CJ McCollum

Yes, CJ is the well-known sidekick to Damian Lillard for the Portland Trail Blazers, but this season has seen him steal some of the spotlights. Through the first 12 games of the season, McCollum has three 30-point games –including a 44-point and 8-assist performance against the Rockets – plus another 37-point outing to boot. His per-game numbers increased in points, assists, steals and three-point percentage, thus resulting in a very impressive 27.6 PPG, 5.3 APG, 1.4 SPG and 43.4 percent from deep. 

McCollum has done enough as a player to this point to establish himself as an above-average player in the NBA – but with the way he’s playing this year, he could be in line for his first All-Star selection. The lethal backcourt of Lillard and McCollum has led to a hot start this year – but the injury bug continues to haunt the team again this year. Already, they’ve lost Jusuf Nurkic for eight weeks and potentially now McCollum with a left foot sprain too, per Chris Haynes.

Jerami Grant

The Detroit Pistons made a really good decision to bring in free agent Jerami Grant on a three-year deal. The 6-foot-8 small forward has been putting up career-best numbers and his play for the Denver Nuggets during their Western Conference Finals run at the bubble helped get him this deservedly big contract. In the team’s first 12 games this season, Grant is averaging 24.8 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game, while also improving his free throw percentage and shot-creating opportunities. Unfortunately, it’s likely that he’ll miss out on any real All-Star chatter, given his place on one of the worst teams in the league – but the all-around improvement is there. 

Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown, the former third overall pick out of California, has molded himself into a star this season for the Boston Celtics. Brown’s improvement has been no secret around the league, especially after an Eastern Conference Finals run this past season – but this year he looks like he belongs up there with the best. Brown has been relentless in taking the ball to the rim and using his body to create contact when going up. He has also boosted his points per game from 20.3 to 25.8, while also adding more assists to his game with 3.9 per game. Brown should be a first-time All-Star this season with the Celtics currently sitting atop the conference. 

These players are all having breakout seasons and have well-earned consideration for their first All-Star appearances this year. Of course, the game is not happening this year with the pandemic, but the players will still be recognized and added to the history books for their achievements, so the honor remains large all the same. Whether they make it or not is yet to be determined – but with the sample size of games played to date, they’re right in the conversation.  

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NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?

Do the Philadelphia 76ers have the roster necessary to compete for a title? Basketball Insiders’ Quinn Davis goes in-depth on one of the league’s most polarizing teams.

Quinn Davis

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Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.

The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?

Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.

Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.

Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.

A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.

But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.

All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.

That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.

The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.

Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.

Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.

It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.

Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.

If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.

While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.

The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.

In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.

If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.

Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.

Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.

The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.

And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.

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