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NBA PM: Early-Season Atlantic Division Rankings

In the next edition of Basketball Insider’s divisional rankings series, newcomer Zach Dupont takes a look at the stacked Atlantic Division.

Zach Dupont

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Early-Season Atlantic Division Rankings

The NBA season has begun, and it’s time to overreact to the first few games of the year. In the next edition of Basketball Insiders’ inter-conference rankings, we will take a look at the Atlantic Division. In these rankings, we rank each team from worst to first based on their early performances and how we believe they’ll project for the rest of the season.

5. New York Knicks (1-2)

It feels cruel to place the New York Knicks behind the Toronto Raptors after such an impressive 20-point victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, but that’s what we’ve done.

The Knicks will finish last in this Atlantic Division, but there’s plenty to be optimistic about at Madison Square Garden. R.J. Barrett got his rookie season rolling with an impressive 26-point performance against the Pacers where he shot 11-for-15 from the field and 3-for-3 from three-point range. His 10-point, 2-for-15 follow-up in Philadelphia was less impressive – but in two of Barrett’s three games thus far, he has shown clear signs of improvement from last year.

Mitchell Robinson has also shown a leap early in the season. The burgeoning center has started all three games for New York, yet to commit over three fouls in any game while still putting up six total blocked shots. Other youngsters like Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickly showed promise in their single games this season, but both still have a long road to go before being high-level impact NBA players.

Additionally, the Knicks should be pleased with the early play of Julius Randle and Alec Burks. The duo leads the team in scoring, while Randle specifically has had a very strong start to the year, averaging 23.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists on 55.3 percent shooting. With the Knicks unlikely to be a competitive team, look for Randle and Burks to be on the move closer to the trade deadline if their strong play continues.

Despite the big win against the Bucks, the Knicks are unquestionably the worst team in this division. Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are still getting major playing time despite continued subpar performances – plus with so many young pieces in the rotation, it’s unreasonable to expect anything but last for the Knicks this season.

4. Toronto Raptors (0-2)

It’s been a shaky start to the season for the Atlantic’s only winless team, the Tampa Bay/Toronto Raptors. The Raptors dropped their season opener to the New Orleans Pelicans in an uninspiring 113-99 performance, then blew a late lead to the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors own the worst point differential of the division at -9.5 and are only one of four teams in the Eastern Conference without a win.

While Toronto should bounce back from this start, there are many things to be concerned about after these two games. For starters, OG Anunoby has not taken the offensive jump some expected from him after signing a four-year, $72 million extension just before the start of the season. In his first two games, Anunoby has played 72 minutes and only managed to scrape together 18 total points – 10 against the Spurs and eight against the Pelicans – on 44 percent shooting, 20 percent from three and 50.7 percent true shooting.

Worse, the losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka this offseason has been apparent on the defensive end for the Raptors. Gasol and Ibaka were two of the strongest defenders for the Raptors the past few seasons, and replacing their minutes with Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes has brought mixed results. Boucher managed seven blocks against the Spurs, but his thin frame limits his defensive ability, while Baynes’ lack of lateral movement does the same as well.

All of that being said, a core of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and an emerging Boucher won’t finish last in the Atlantic – sorry, Knicks fans – hence why they’ve been ranked fourth. But the early play from the Raptors has raised legitimate concerns about their ability to compete for the Eastern Conference title.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (2-1)

Despite the best winning percentage in the Atlantic, the Philadelphia 76ers land at third on our rankings.

The 76ers have had the easiest schedule thus far in the Atlantic, defeating the winless Washington Wizards, the hapless Knicks and taken a loss to the surprisingly undefeated Cleveland Cavaliers (but without Joel Embiid). So, the 76ers have held steady, but there’s some reason for some concern as they prepare to face off against some of the Eastern Conference’s better competitors.

In his fourth season in the NBA, Ben Simmons appears to have still not taken a leap as a scorer in any meaningful way. Simmons is averaging 15.3 points per game and is shooting 59 percent from the free throw line, both on par with his three past seasons in the NBA. While there’s no doubt Simmons’ defense and passing make him an elite player, his inability to elevate his scoring game could continue to hold Philadelphia back. It’s also disappointing that the 76ers tradition remains constant, with Tobias Harris continuing to look no better than a third banana at-best.

The 76ers also looked lost without Embiid on the court against Cleveland on Sunday night, letting Andre Drummond run wild for 24 points and 14 rebounds. On the other hand, the positive is that Embiid has looked dominant in the two games he has played, tallying 29 and 27 points, respectively. The team surrounding Embiid and Simmons also appears to have been taken a big step forward this year as Seth Curry and Danny Green provide some much-needed shooting on the wings, Dwight Howard was a nice addition off the bench and Tyrese Maxey has shown a lot of promise in his minutes so far.

Shake Milton has been good off the bench and with guys like Matisse Thybulle and Terrance Ferguson hardly playing, the 76ers have plenty of depth to choose from if they deal with injuries.

All in all, it’s been a solid start for Philadelphia, but we have yet to see what they can do against the better teams in the league.

2. Boston Celtics (1-2)

The Boston Celtics may have a losing record, but they have shown a lot of promise to open the season.

Most notably, the duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been very deadly through Boston’s first three games. Brown specifically has taken a jump as a scorer, leading the Celtics in scoring, averaging 26 points per game with Tatum just behind at 25. The pairing flaunted their high-level defense and distribution too, making them a lethal option at nearly all points of the game.

The Celtics’ most considerable concern is what the team looks like outside of Brown and Tatum. Kemba Walker is still out with a knee injury and Boston needs to find scoring from their depth while he’s out of the rotation. The third-highest scorer on the Celtics is Jeff Teague at the moment but he’s averaging just 9.3 points through three games – with Tristan Thompson and Marcus Smart behind at 9.0 points. Without Walker, the Celtics have struggled to find offense outside of Brown and Tatum – so if they want to compete at the top of the Eastern Conference, they’ll need Walker soon.

Boston has also had mixed results at the center position so far. Thompson has been the team’s best offensive option at center, while Robert Williams has shown to be the more reliable defensive option. Daniel Theis has been neither, but the big man was rock solid last year – and he will receive a substantial serving of minutes despite a shaky start to the year.

Despite a 1-2 start Boston has a lot of reason to be optimistic, and if Walker returns soon and stays healthy, they could top the Atlantic.

1. Brooklyn Nets (2-2)

The team to beat in the Atlantic Division is clearly the Brooklyn Nets.

After sitting out the entire 2019-20 season, Kevin Durant is back and looks as dangerous as ever. Durant paired alongside Kyrie Irving gives the Nets the best duo in the Eastern Conference. Irving is averaging 29.3 points per game and Durant is averaging 26.7, and both are doing it on extremely efficient shooting numbers.

The Nets aren’t lacking for depth behind their star duo either. Caris LeVert is a great offensive creator off the bench, Joe Harris is one of the best shooters in the NBA and the Jarrett Allen/DeAndre Jordan combination is a great duo of big men to have at your disposal. While news of Spencer Dinwiddie’s partial ACL tear isn’t great, and Landry Shamet has left a lot to be desired in his first few games with Brooklyn, the Nets have more than enough depth to cover these early-season road bumps.

Staying healthy will be Brooklyn’s most significant question mark this season. Durant and Irving will both miss games this season to “load manage,” with the duo already sitting out the Nets’ Monday night overtime loss to the Grizzlies. If Durant and Irving play three-fourths of their games, the Nets could drop behind Boston in the Atlantic. It’s also far from given that either or Durant or Irving stay completely healthy.

If one of the two gets injured, that changes the Nets’ outlooks dramatically – of course, Durant and Irving have both missed a lot of time in recent seasons.

If the Nets stars stay healthy, they’re the favorites to win the Atlantic Division, and their depth behind them gives the Nets a shot to compete even without Durant and Irving.

The Atlantic Divison is one of the best in the NBA, with potentially four of the best teams in the Eastern Conference… and the Knicks. Brooklyn, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston all have strong teams this year, and they should all be a blast to watch this season. While these rankings seem pretty cut and dry for now, proceedings will surely change a ton throughout the year – so keep your eye on one of the NBA’s sneakiest-best division in 2020-21.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, Boston.com and The Basketball Tournament.

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Will The Pacers’ Change In Style Pay Off?

With deals and changes abound, the Indiana Pacers’ wild rebuild marks them as a franchise on the rise.

Ariel Pacheco

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After coming off four consecutive first-round exits under head coach Nate McMillan, the Indiana Pacers decided it was time to make a change. Instead of dismantling or retooling a core that had been acquired mostly by opportunistic deals, general manager Kevin Pritchard went in a different direction and, early into the season, it seems like it has paid off. 

Under Nate Bjorkgren, the Indiana Pacers have dramatically transformed their style of play. Many of the mid-range jumpers they took last season have turned into shots at the rim or three-pointers instead. There are a lot more dribble hand-offs, staggered screens and an overall sense of purpose in every action on offense. The offense has operated like a well-oiled machine, largely with Domantas Sabonis acting as the main engine. 

This has led to Sabonis’ play and potential being unlocked. Ultimately, Sabonis is well on his way to another All-Star appearance, averaging career highs in points (21.7 PPG), rebounds (12.8 RPG) and assists (5.8 APG). While his usage is similar to last season’s, the way he’s being utilized is very different. With McMillan, Sabonis was mostly used as a post-up big who also scored a lot as a roll-man. Bjorkgren is giving him those same touches but he has also a lot more free reign to operate and make decisions.

Sabonis is now attacking teams in semi-transition after defensive rebounds. Basically, all the offensive actions are run through him, which have accentuated his passing ability. His range has also improved, and he’s turned his 20-foot jumpers into three-point attempts. Moreover, it’s a huge part of the reason why the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating (111.3). Sabonis is a walking mismatch who can play almost any role in an offense and Bjorkgren has let him roam free.

Better, Malcolm Brogdon is also playing at an All-Star level. He’s averaging 22.2 points per game along with 7.5 assists per game, both career highs. Brogdon’s shooting 43.3 percent from three and is another player who’s benefitted from Bjorkgren’s offense. Brogdon’s ability to shoot threes while dribbling off screens and the ability to attack out of dribble hand-offs has allowed for the Pacers’ offense to be far less predictable than in the past. 

Myles Turner is probably in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year so far. He’s averaging an insane 4.2 blocks per game, practically shutting down the paint for opposing offenses. Turner has been relegated to a mostly spot-up role in the offense, but those mid-range jumpers from last season have become three-pointers to this point. While he has struggled to hit three’s so far, his shot quality is considerably better. However, his value comes on the defensive end, where he is anchoring the 9th best team in defensive rating at 107.8. Opponents are shooting just 54.4 percent in the restricted area when Turner is in. Although his recent hand fracture will surely complicate proceedings there and the Pacers will miss him sorely.

The Indiana bench has also provided some good minutes. Doug McDermott is effective not only with his jumper but with his underrated cutting ability. Justin Holiday has been solid and is shooting 43.1 percent from three. His brother, Aaron Holiday, has had his ups and downs but built himself into a solid rotation player. Naturally, TJ McConnell has been his usual pesky-self. 

There’s still plenty of room for upside as the Pacers have dealt with injuries to some key guys. TJ Warren, last season’s bubble breakout star, is out indefinitely after having foot surgery. Jeremy Lamb tore his ACL last season, is close to returning but hasn’t played a single minute this season. The Pacers’ newest addition, Caris LeVert, will be out indefinitely after a small mass was found on his kidney. All three are proven guys who can really help Indiana take the next step.

Sadly, it gets more difficult with Turner’s injury too.

Interestingly enough, many of the players have seemingly gone out of their way to not only express their appreciation for Bjorkgren’s coaching – while also knowing the difference compared to years past. Brogdon, Sabonis and McDermott have all seemingly made it clear that this style of play is preferable to last year under McMillan. 

“In seasons past, the offense didn’t call for me to do those certain things,” Turner said “But coach has a lot of confidence in me… I’ve just had the chance to show it this season.” 

Questions about the Turner-Sabonis pairing now seem to have gone away. It’s no secret that Turner oft mentioned in trade rumors the entire offseason in large part due to his perceived fit with Sabonis. Bjorkgren has found a way to maximize both player’s skillsets while also keeping them happy with their roles. Bigger, Pacers’ lineups with Sabonis and Turner have a 2.5 net rating. 

The improved play of the Indiana stars is something that can be attributed to Bjorkgren’s shift in their style of play. It’s what Pritchard was hoping for when he made the coaching change. The Pacers made a calculated gamble when they fired a proven coach with this roster in Nate McMillan and now the Pacers are 8-5 with room to grow. If Sabonis and Brogdon can continue this level of play as guys come back healthy, the Pacers will be a team no one wants to face come playoff time.

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Myles Turner Making A Difference With Defense

The Indiana Pacers have always been a good defensive team, but Myles Turner is on a mission this season to take them to an elite level. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the impact Turner has had as the anchor of Indiana’s defense.

Chad Smith

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This week has been a roller coaster ride for the Indiana Pacers, who are returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast trip. It was supposed to be five games but their matchup with the Phoenix Suns was postponed due to contract tracing within the Suns organization. On their day off between games, Indiana traded away All-Star guard Victor Oladipo as part of a four-team blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

What they got in return seemed too good to be true, until it was. Acquiring a young and talented player like Caris LeVert, whom they originally drafted and subsequently traded to Brooklyn, took many people by surprise. With Oladipo not planning to return next season, it was a brilliant move by Indiana, especially when you consider LeVert’s upside and his team-friendly contract. On top of that, the Pacers also received a 2024 second-round pick (via Cleveland), a 2023 second-round pick (via Houston) and $2.6 million from the Nets.

Unfortunately, the Pacers’ medical staff discovered what the team described as “a small mass” on LeVert’s left kidney while undergoing a routine physical. The good news for LeVert is that this was found and he can begin whatever treatment is necessary for him to return to playing basketball at some point. For now, though, the Pacers will employ the “next man up” philosophy. The team has already lost TJ Warren indefinitely and have been without Jeremy Lamb all season. Now Myles Turner may soon join them on the sidelines.

Myles missed his first game of the season on Sunday due to an injury on his right hand. He met with team doctors on Monday and early reports are that he has a slight fracture in his right hand and will be re-evaluated in the coming days.

In that game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the absence of Turner was glaring. Even without Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams, the Clippers shot 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from behind the arc. Nearly half of their 129 points came in the paint as they destroyed the Pacers by 33 points, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Indiana had just two blocks in the game and even those came in garbage time.

When Nate Bjorkgren was named the Pacers’ new head coach back in October, many around the league wondered what that meant for Turner. Would the experiment next to Domantas Sabonis come to an end? Were his days as a Pacer now numbered? A rumored sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward never came to fruition, but that ended up working out well for both Myles and the Pacers organization.

When the Pacers selected Turner with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the opinions on him were split. While many saw the raw, unlocked potential that he possessed, others were skeptical of his lack of lateral movement and, of all things, the way that he ran up and down the court.

Draft evaluators were concerned that his awkward running style would lead to long-term effects on his knees. In a breakdown by Draft Express, they noted that “His awkward running style might not change anytime soon. He noticeably lumbers getting up and down the floor, and only made five field goals all season in transition situations.” That was in reference to his Freshman season at Texas, where Turner averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field.

Fast forward to 2021, where Turner is having arguably the best season of his career. While he is scoring at the same level, he has improved several other facets of his game. He is shooting the ball with more confidence, attacking the basket more off the dribble and even hitting the offensive glass. While his three-point shooting is down largely due to more attempts, his work in the paint has him shooting a career-high 63 percent from inside the arc.

Obviously, the blocks are what really pops out, as he leads the league at 4.2 per game. That is staggering when you consider the next best is Rudy Gobert at 2.7 per game, while Chris Boucher is the only other player averaging at least two per game. By comparison, when Turner led the league in blocks during the 2018-19 season his average was 2.7 per game. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, Turner was actually averaging more blocks per game than six teams.

Following a game earlier this season, Turner elaborated on his goals for the year: “It’s definitely been a goal for myself to start the season off strong on the defensive end. I’ve gotten the respect as a shot-blocker in this league. I know it’s something that I do. But I’m trying to take that to the next step.”

“I’ve already proven that you can lead the league in blocks and not make an All-Defensive team or not be Defensive Player of the Year. So it’s time to do more and assert myself more on that end.”

Turner has had four games this season with at least five blocks, including two games where he stuffed the opponent eight times. His defensive prowess is much more than just blocking shots though; he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game so far and has had seven games in which he recorded at least two steals.

Indiana’s offense will continue to run through Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are both playing at an All-Star level this season. But, as much attention as those two have gotten, it’s the defense that has really shaped this Pacers team.

The loss of assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke was a concern before the season began. The truth is the Pacers are much more aggressive on defense now, playing further up on the perimeter. This is the same scheme that Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse incorporated with the Toronto Raptors. Ibaka played that role last year and this season it’s been Boucher, who currently ranks third in the league in blocks behind Turner and Gobert.

With Sabonis often guarding the opponent’s biggest/strongest player, Turner is left to defend more on the perimeter. This is a real challenge given his disadvantage against smaller, quicker wing players. To his credit though, Turner has stayed in front of them. And that is what makes his shot-blocking even more impressive; every game and on multiple possessions, Turner is essentially guarding two players by himself for seconds at a time.

Since Turner’s rookie season, only three players have blocked more shots than he has. He ranks 15th in the league in deflections and is top-five in terms of defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Indiana’s defensive rating is a 107.7 when he is on the court and a 111.3 when he is on the bench. These are the signs of a truly elite defensive player.

And, with Turner as their defensive anchor, the Pacers have a scary three-headed monster that could ultimately be a nightmare for the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.

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2021 NBA Draft Evaluation: What Are We Missing?

With limited in-person opportunities to NBA franchises, will the 2021 draft be the toughest to scout?

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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There were loads of talks last offseason about how the 2020 NBA draft would be the hardest to scout in recent memory. The draft started in 1947 and – without knowing what it was like to try and scout a country full of potential players sans a large scouting department, over 100 games a week on national television, and even more via other streaming sites – it’s hard to believe that statement holds much water.

But it did have its challenges though. With the season ending as conference tournaments were getting underway, NBA teams lost out on several crucial scouting opportunities both in and out of season. Despite having college basketball back, the scouting landscape is still not the same. It has not been determined if NBA personnel will be allowed to attend the NCAA Tournament or what postseason events will look like.  In this piece, we go through some of the challenges organizations are facing while preparing for the 2021 NBA Draft.

THE CANCELLATION OF THE NIKE HOOP SUMMIT AND MCDONALDS ALL-AMERICAN GAME

The kickoff to scouting a new crop of freshman players actually happens before they ever step on campus. The Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American game are the first two events in which NBA scouts can watch the next incoming freshman class in person. While they may have seen some of the players at Youth FIBA events, they can get early evaluations of players that will most likely make up a majority of the lottery in the next draft class.

Getting an early evaluation of these players allows you to track progress. They’ve all been dominant at the high school level playing against their peers. But watching them allows you to evaluate where they are at, and gives you a baseline for what they can bring to the table. When you see them several months later playing at the college level, you are able to have an idea of what skills translate, which do not, and how a player has improved both physically and with their skills since leaving high school.  Getting the early evaluation on a player allows you to track whether a player progresses in college or whether they are the same player they were in high school.

The games themselves are not unimportant, but they do not have as much of an impact as a lot of people think, at least for the American prospects. The practices are what the organizations are really interested in seeing. This gives scouts the opportunity to see how these young athletes compete, handle coaching from someone they are not used to coaching them and conduct themselves on the court when there are no TV cameras or spotlight.  The Nike Hoop Summit, which pits 12 American prospects against a team of 12 international prospects, has proven to be a launching pad for international players looking to get drafted. Dennis Schroder and Bismack Biyombo are two examples of international players who turned a good performance at the Hoop Summit into an early-round draft selection.

Not being able to watch these players in person before entering their freshman season has put organizations behind in terms of getting a full, proper evaluation of them. While players like Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State don’t need events like this to boost their stock, other stand-out freshmen could have elevated their early projection.

THE ABILITY TO ATTEND COLLEGE GAMES AND PRACTICES IN PERSON

College basketball games have never been more accessible than they are now. Not only are there 100 games on TV every week, but for the games that are not, colleges upload them to Synergy Sports Tech, a film sharing website that every team uses and that NBA teams can access. Within one hour of the end of every game, teams will have the ability to download and watch full games.

The issue is not that teams cannot watch prospects, but seeing the game is only part of what scouts do when seeing players on college campuses.  Scouts often get to the games 2-3 hours ahead of time to watch warmups. They want to see how players approach the game.  Does he warm up hard?  What is his intensity like as the game approaches?  While you can get an idea for someone’s height, length, strength and wingspan over film it is much easier to get a gauge on it when seeing someone in person.  Warm-ups are also a chance to watch a player take over 100 jump shots and assess his form. During the game, they will pay attention to how he interacts on the court with his teammates, coaches and refs. When things go wrong during the game, they will want to see how he responds.

Practice is similar. Scouts want to see how early they get in the gym, do they stay after to get up shots and how do they respond during practice when the coach pushes them. While some states are allowing fans to attend games, scouts are not on the road like they normally would be at this time. Not only are most schools not allowing them to attend practices and games, but a lot of organizations are not sending their scouts out on the road for fear of them contracting COVID-19 and the quarantine restrictions they’d eventually face.

POSTSEASON SCOUTING EVENTS

It is still too early to see what post season scouting events will look like.  Last season, the Portsmouth Invitational, NBA Combine and individual team workouts at NBA facilities were canceled –  and these events are important for multiple reasons. First, it gives teams the chance to watch athletes in a different setting outside of their schools. While the top prospects won’t play at the combine, many athletes will and there is always someone who plays well and elevates their stock. Seeing players outside of the constraints of their college system helps teams get a better picture of how they could translate to the NBA.

Another benefit of having these postseason events is getting proper medical information. During Portsmouth and the Combine, you’re able to get proper measurables on the players and at your team facility, your medical staff can evaluate the players more thoroughly for physical injuries and potential lingering problems.

There is still a lot of time to determine what the scouting landscape will look like before the 2021 NBA draft. Given how things are going though, and depending on how things go moving forward, this could very well be one of the harder drafts to scout due to the limited in-person opportunities available to NBA teams. Not only will there be a smaller sample size of the incoming freshman class, but a year-and-a-half of in-person scouting information on the players who returned to college will be missing too.

Again, while this won’t make a huge difference for the class’ biggest prospects, it will simply change proceedings in every other aspect – but the NBA always finds a way.

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