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NBA PM: Boston At The Crossroads

Boston’s not-so-recent struggles may leave them with some tough decisions to make, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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There’s no need really to ask “what’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?” because it seems pretty clear as day what’s wrong with them. Jayson Tatum hasn’t returned to his dominant form since coming back from COVID. Kemba Walker’s slow recovery has led to maddening inconsistency. Marcus Smart’s calf injury put things out of whack. They don’t have the support from their rotation players that they once did. And, as it turns out, losing Gordon Hayward can sting a little.

A team that seemingly hadn’t skipped a beat since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals has now become losers of 14 of their last 23 games. Their last three losses were particularly demoralizing.

  • They had a 24-point lead over New Orleans, only to lose by five in overtime.
  • They lost on a buzzer-beater by Luka Doncic in a tight game against Dallas.
  • They got crushed by Atlanta in a double-digit loss that looked much worse than the box score showed.

Now here they are, standing at 17-17 and the blame game very much up and about. Pretty much everyone on the Celtics’ end unanimously agrees that the team is underperforming. That’s not a good look seeing they were the only franchise to have two All-Stars and a losing record at the same time.

The one excuse they have at their disposal is that they’ve never had their team at full strength. Sadly for them, it’s hard to know if full health will ever be an option with the current roster. That starts and ends with Kemba Walker. Working Walker back slowly is definitely the right move with his gimpy knee, but when he’s taken the court, his return to form has come in baby steps. He’s having more good nights than bad in recent weeks – scoring 32 points on 53/40/100 splits to go with 6 assists in a victory against Indiana cements his best performance of the season – but that’s not ideal for a player on a max contract.

He has yet to prove that he can play like the All-NBA player that Boston brought him to be – or even that he can play on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are two tough hurdles alone. Beyond that, who knows how long it’ll be before he gets it all back? If he gets it all back.

There’s plenty of season left and, from the looks of things, this team desperately needs the All-Star break to regroup. At 17-17 and the losses piling on in recent weeks, it seems that Boston has reached an impasse. Do they stick it out and ride this bad stretch hoping that the rotation gets it together or is this team due for a massive mid-season overhaul?

To answer that, first, consider how straight-up bizarre this anomaly of a season has been. Even in a 30-game span, teams have managed to flip the switch on their seasonal outlook.

It wasn’t too long ago that Toronto’s subpar play was building up a lot of ‘blow it up’ chatter. Now they’re right back in the playoff race with no signs of falling back. It only took a month for them to pull a 180. Further, it wasn’t that long ago that Washington was playing so poorly and Bradley Beal completely dead inside when he took the court.

Now, the Wizards have won seven of their last 10. Suddenly, they’re not too far behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their start made them look worse than they actually were – now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.

And remember when Brooklyn had the league’s worst defense after selling the farm for James Harden? About that…

And they’ve done just that without MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The point is, this season was going to come with a lot of growing pains for just about everyone involved. There were expected twists and turns following the little time off between the Finals and opening night –it just wasn’t clear from whom.

For Boston, their season has flipped but in the exact opposite direction. Given the overall talent, Boston could be capable of flipping right back by virtue of patience and nothing else. The prospect of a healthier Walker and Smart would definitely seem like enough to get the season right back on track.

Even if time is all they need, that doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t help them. The Celtics have the largest trade exception in NBA history to use – now more of a necessity than the perceived luxury it was a few months ago. After everything, general manager Danny Ainge has a spectacular ace in the hole.

An exception that can acquire someone as expensive as $28 million – so, potentially, a star-caliber player – would make teams salivate, but return ask is always much larger than imagined. Worse, only picks can be dangled – who might give up a legit piece without a young package in return? The answer is not many.

So although Bradley Beal and Nikola Vucevic would definitely turn the tides back in Boston’s favor, their teams would want more than just a treasure chest of first-rounders for them – and they might not even be available in the first place.

At this moment, the sellers market is beginning to settle, but that’s only in the Western Conference. Minnesota is firmly (and unsurprisingly) out of the race. Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City are not too far above them. If their seasons continue to freefall, that gives the Celtics options, albeit not the best ones.

Victor Oladipo aside, options like Harrison Barnes and George Hill aren’t often thought of as game-changers that can pivot the course of a season. Still, they’re better than what Boston has to support Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Walker and Smart.

So they can hold steady and pray for the best or trade for some help with draft assets. Then there’s the nuclear option: make some wholesale changes – an option that likely starts with Walker.

Walker never getting back to normal is a frightening – and real – possibility. As pessimistic and quick to judge as it sounds, maybe what we see is what we get. Someone who can put together a string of excellent performances, just not enough to maintain consistency. If this is who he is, given Boston’s lofty internal expectations, then they may not have a choice but to trade him.

At this point, trading him for something of value is probably out of the question. Just getting him off the roster would require including assets on top of him. Executives would usually rather swallow those contracts wholly or stretch them before giving up assets to part with a bad deal. Boston’s only hope would be to trade him for an equally bad contract that would better support the Celtics than Walker currently is.

That is a tall order, but still doable. Without naming names, we’ve seen players with previously declared ‘untradeable’ get moved, so nothing is impossible.

But odds are high that Walker will get all the time he needs before such a drastic decision is made. As bad as it’s looked for Boston in recent weeks, the wins against Indiana and Washington boosted them from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference race. They’re one good stretch from being right back where they were before the walls came crashing down on them.

Long-term, the Celtics should be fine. Tatum and Brown, of course, have already led them to two conference finals appearances over the last three years. While this stretch, which has objectively been one the worst in the Brad Stevens era, just seems so troubling for a team as successful as Boston has been for the last several years.

And for a team that once seemed to have all the time in the world, time might be of the essence for them now.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – April 16

With under 20 games to go in the regular season, the Rookie of the Year race is becoming clearer. Tristan Tucker breaks down the ladder’s changes over the past two weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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With under 20 games to go in the NBA season, each award’s frontrunners are coming into clearer focus. A two-man race is forming at the top of the rookie ladder, with Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton leading the charge. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the rookie race is shaking out mid-way through April.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 2)

Edwards is scorching hot and he’s bumped his scoring up to 18.1 points per game on the season. Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Edwards eliminated all concerns of a jump shot, something that’s coming more consistently to him.

In that period of time, Edwards is averaging 23.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals. The talented wing out of Georgia is shooting 36.2 percent from three and 44.4 percent overall, much improved from earlier in the season.

There are still some concerns, but Edwards has clearly made the Timberwolves a more competitive team as of late. With D’Angelo Russell back from injury, the Wolves will finally get a chance to see their young corps in action.

2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 1)

After Sacramento won seven of eight games, the team has dropped eight in a row and Haliburton moved back to the bench. During this stretch, Haliburton’s ultimately struggled with accuracy, though it hasn’t impacted his season averages.

For Haliburton, team success and overall impact on the floor is his strongest case for the Rookie of the Year award. However, now that the Wolves are much more competitive and the Kings are on the decline, Edwards is the frontrunner.

3. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 5)

With Ball and James Wiseman sidelined, Bey seems like a good bet to be the third in line for consideration for Rookie of the Year. Bey is rising up the historical ranks for rookie three-point shooters. Bey’s 38.6 percent clip from deep on over six attempts per game would rank as the best for a rookie ever.

In the last two weeks, Bey’s averages have jumped to 15.6 points, 3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Meanwhile, his shooting is up to 47.5 percent from the floor and 42 percent from deep on even more attempts.

4. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 3)

In a season without many consistencies, Tate’s been a diamond in the rough. Tate can do a little bit of everything, boasting good hands, high efficiency, somewhat of a deep shot and a passing vision. In the last two weeks, Tate is averaging 12.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game while playing huge minutes.

If Houston holds onto its first-round pick this year, it’ll have an exciting young group to look forward to. Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. have also shined this year, while fellow rookie Kenyon Martin Jr. looks like a steady professional already.

5. Chuma Okeke, Orlando Magic (Previous: Not Ranked)

Okeke makes his debut on the rookie ladder, cracking the top five. Originally drafted in the 2019 draft, Okeke sat out for the year and didn’t sign his rookie contract until the 2020 offseason. Following Orlando’s firesale at the trade deadline, Okeke became a full-time starter and has shined.

As a full-time starter, Okeke is averaging 12.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 1 block per game. While the Magic is spiraling, Okeke’s been a bright spot for a team looking for franchise cornerstones.

6. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies (Previous: NR)

Bane’s been a long-range sniper all season long but he’s upped the ante in recent weeks. Since the last ladder, Bane is shooting a whopping 45.9 percent from deep on just under five tries per game.

Bane fell all the way to the last pick of the first round in the 2020 NBA Draft, giving the Grizzlies an extremely experienced rookie for the second year in a row, joining Brandon Clarke in that regard. On the year, Bane is averaging 9.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game.

Honorable Mention: Malachi Flynn (Previous: NR)

In the last few weeks, while Kyle Lowry heals, Flynn has stepped in nicely. During the last two weeks, Flynn is averaging 14.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2 steals per game. Furthermore, the 22-year-old is shooting 45.2 percent from deep on six attempts per game in that span.

Flynn’s development is extremely underrated, especially if Lowry departs in the offseason. If Flynn’s per-game numbers can be consistent, the league will be on notice.

LaMelo Ball’s injury is unfortunate for several reasons, but one of them is the fact that fans won’t get to see the fiery Rookie of the Year race near the top that could’ve been. However, fans can rest assured knowing that the NBA is in good hands. It’s especially reassuring to see so many great rookies emerge in a class that many presumed to be weaker than most.

Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to see how the race pans out and to see who is eventually crowned the rookie champ.

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NBA Daily: Can Anyone Challenge the East’s Top Teams?

The Eastern Conference Finals will likely have two of the top three teams represented. While the rest of the teams in the East battle amongst themselves, do any of them have a shot to knock off Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in the playoffs?

Chad Smith

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The Western Conference has been dominating the league once again, in terms of quality teams from top to bottom. The 13th worst team in the West would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Though their depth is lacking, the East still has a few teams that are championship contenders this season.

The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks all have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals this summer. It is championship-or-bust for these franchises who have emptied their wallets in order to pursue the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Each of these teams has at least two star players and another All-Star caliber player to help them reach their ultimate goal. Each one of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate. In Brooklyn’s case, they just might have the greatest offensive three-headed monster the league has ever seen.

Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are what separates these three teams from the rest of the conference.

This season there is plenty of parity among the remaining teams in the East. The standings change every night as these teams battle with nearly identical records. It would be a shocking surprise to not see one of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee make it to the NBA Finals.

Odds are that two of these three teams will meet in the Conference Finals, but is there another team lurking that could upset the apple cart? Do any of these teams in the second-tier have enough talent and firepower to upset one of the East’s elite? Here are four teams that could play spoiler.

Miami HEAT

After reaching the NBA Finals last season in the bubble down in Orlando, the HEAT have definitely cooled off this year. They had a slow start at the beginning of the season, then had a long pause as health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on their roster. Not having Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic available really hurt them, but the tide could be turning.

Butler himself has been on a tear since returning to the court — and his teammates have followed his lead. Bam Adebayo has quietly had another outstanding year and they finally got their man Victor Oladipo before the trade deadline passed. Unfortunately, his recent injury put a serious damper on their hopes of getting back to the Finals.

Miami needs Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to play more consistently, especially with Oladipo out. Veterans Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza should help in the postseason as they incorporate another perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica. They have the star power and the experience needed to make another run, but the odds are stacked against them.

Atlanta Hawks

After a dismal start to the season, the Hawks appear to have figured out their identity. Much like the situation in Boston, this team was tasked with trying to build chemistry during a pandemic without essentially any practice. That is a difficult proposition and something that was going to take time. They also still needed to develop their young guys like Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu.

After turning things over to Nate McMillan, he has been able to coach up this young squad, even without some of their top talent. Every player on the team has missed a chunk of time this year and they have had to seriously rely on their depth to get them through most of the regular season. Having won 15 of their last 20 games, they now find themselves in a position to have home-court advantage when the playoffs begin.

The vision that Travis Schlenk had in the offseason is finally becoming clear. The incredible play of guys like Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and even Solomon Hill has been vital to their success. They will still lean on Trae Young and John Collins for their offense but the talented pieces around them are what will make this team tough to beat in a seven-game series.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises this season, even after the acquisition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Charlotte is the true definition of a team, as they have multiple guys that have stepped up and played well in spots throughout the season. PJ Washington, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Bismack Biyombo, Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins of Cody and Caleb have all contributed to their success.

The play of LaMelo Ball had him sitting at the top of the rookie class before he suffered his broken wrist. His phenomenal first season may be over, but the organization is holding out hope that he may be able to return in the playoffs should Charlotte earn a spot in the postseason. Hayward is also back on the shelf as he continues to deal with a sprained foot. Charlotte has been able to stay afloat during their absences, which is a huge credit to James Borrego.

One more major difference-maker for the Hornets this season has been Terry Rozier. The electric guard is one of the top 40 scorers in the league this season and has been one of the best clutch performers as well. He is shooting a career-best 41 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent overall from the floor. They can be a dark horse come playoff time, but they will need their two best players healthy in order to have any chance.

Boston Celtics

It has been a very strange season for the Celtics, who entered the year with high expectations. They have been the greatest mystery this season and a puzzle that Brad Stevens is still trying to put together. Jaylen Brown has taken his game to another level and Jayson Tatum has had his moments as well. Both have cooled off since the All-Star break and Kemba Walker has been hot and cold from game to game.

Marcus Smart missed a lot of time and they brought in Evan Fournier at the trade deadline but he has yet to fit in like many thought he would. Chemistry could be the issue, but no one has really been able to put their finger on their kryptonite. The good news is that Tatum appears to finally be returning to health after his battle with COVID.

The center position has been a revolving door for this team all season, with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet all trying to fill the void left by Enes Kanter. They could have had the league’s leading shot-blocker Myles Turner, but Danny Ainge let Hayward walk for nothing instead.

On paper, this team is oozing with talent and should be much better than their record indicates. They may finally be figuring things out, having won six of their last seven games, including four straight. If their issues are truly fixed and if they can stay healthy, they will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.

The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.

But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.

After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.

“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.

“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”

One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.

They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.

With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”

In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.

“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”

A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.

He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.

“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”

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