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NBA PM: Most Important Player – Atlantic Division

With the regular season right around the corner, here are the Atlantic Division’s most important players.

Benny Nadeau

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Following a crazy offseason, basketball has finally returned to television sets around the country. As of today, all 30 teams sit with an unscathed record – at least for a few more weeks, anyway. Until then, Basketball Insiders has another division-by-division breakdown in preparation for the 2017-18 campaign.

This series will take a look at the most vital player for every team and how those players will make an impact over the upcoming year. Today, the Central Division kicked things off – but now it’s time to travel up north to the Atlantic.

Boston Celtics – Kyrie Irving

Although Kyrie Irving hasn’t played a single game yet for the Boston Celtics, there’s little argument against him already being the team’s most important asset. After all, the Celtics traded away the beloved Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round draft pick just to acquire Irving – but if his stellar track record is any indication, he’ll be up for the new challenge.

With Boston, Irving will be the franchise’s top option offensively, a desire that motivated his surprise trade demand earlier this summer. He’ll need to replace Thomas’ 28.9 points per game, the third-highest average in 2016-17, but Irving’s advanced scoring abilities should thrive under head coach Brad Stevens. Irving can create his own shot or fire away from three-point range – he hit 40.1 percent from downtown last season – and that makes him a dangerous weapon from any spot on the court.

Last year, Irving averaged 25.9 points, 5.3 assists and 2.4 three-pointers per game during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ run to a third consecutive NBA Finals appearance. If Irving can put up similar statistics, the Celtics will become a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference throne next spring.

Philadelphia 76ers – Joel Embiid

Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Philadelphia 76ers own one of the NBA’s most exciting rosters but, undoubtedly, their success falls squarely on the shoulders on Joel Embiid. Last season, Embiid averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks per game at a 46.6 percent clip from the floor, starring both as a defensive anchor and an ideal three-point shooting big. He was the runaway leader for Rookie of the Year honors before an injury cut the season short after just 31 games and the 76ers quickly plummeted back down into the conference basement.

Now flanked by the No. 1 overall pick in back-to-back drafts – Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, the latter of which missed the entirety of the 2016-17 campaign – and sharp-shooter J.J. Redick, Embiid’s hybrid blend of skills have made Philadelphia a trendy underdog selection in the weakened Eastern Conference. However, it’s always difficult to discuss Embiid’s inherent influence on the court without also noting his extensive injury history as well. If Embiid avoids the trainer’s table, the sky’s the limit for Philadelphia; but if he gets hurt again, it could be back to square one.

Brooklyn Nets – D’Angelo Russell

D’Angelo Russell arrived in Brooklyn this summer with a chip on his shoulder and the keys to a new franchise. For the Los Angeles Lakers last season, Russell averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per game and he’s an obvious piece for the Nets to build their roster around moving forward. Alongside a slew of talented veterans like Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker and DeMarre Carroll, Russell should have plenty of opportunities to bloom in one of the league’s fastest offenses.

In fact, his dynamic backcourt pairing with Lin may just be Brooklyn’s most intriguing storyline headed into the 2017-18 campaign, but the two crafty guards should complement each other immensely. Additionally, Russell averaged 2.1 three-pointers per game last year at a 35.2 percent clip, an area in which the Nets desperately needed to improve. Ultimately, Russell could reward the Nets’ tortured fan base with some much-needed hope for the future, no matter how unlikely a playoff berth is this season for Brooklyn.

New York Knicks – Kristaps Porzingis

After outlasting both Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony this summer, Kristaps Porzingis enters 2017-18 as the Knicks’ No. 1 scoring option at long last. Simply put, Porzingis is an explosive athlete with a skill set that few other players possess, well deserving of his rare unicorn type label. Even at the age at 22, Porzingis can be an absolute nightmare to match up with and he was eager to hoist away from three-point range (35.7 percent) or take slower defenders off the dribble last season.

As a result, Porzingis finished his sophomore year campaign with an improved average of 18.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Of course, Porzingis missed 16 total games last season, so injuries are still somewhat of a concern, but the 7-foot-3 Latvian is a perfect fit for the modern NBA. Only four other players finished with more blocks per game in 2016-17 – Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Myles Turner – and none of them exhibit the same range that Porzingis does.

With the summer distractions now far behind him, it’s Porzingis’ time to shine in New York.

Toronto Raptors – DeMar DeRozan

For a player that averaged a career-high 27.3 points per game and was selected to his third All-Star appearance in four years, it sure seems like DeMar DeRozan continues to fly under the radar. DeRozan was less than impressed with his offseason player ranks this summer, a topic that spread like wildfire across the NBA community last month, and it’s not hard to see why.

Toronto set a franchise record for wins in back-to-back-to-back seasons from 2013-16, a feat that only emerged once DeRozan began scoring 20 or more points per game. Although the Raptors haven’t, much like the Celtics, toppled James and Cavaliers quite yet, that doesn’t make their attempts any less impressive.

Despite his status as one of the NBA’s purest scorers, DeRozan has always been a subpar three-point shooter and he sports a poor 28.1 percent career mark from deep. So, naturally, that’s what the star shooting guard spent his entire offseason working on. If DeRozan can push his numbers from three-point range somewhere closer to the league average of 35 percent, Toronto will have an even harder star to stop.

Whether or not DeRozan has actually improved as a three-point shooter may ultimately decide how high the ceiling is for this talented Raptors roster – that alone makes his importance inherently clear.

All five Atlantic Division teams likely have different expectations headed into the 2017-18 season, but their most important player will have a large say in where they ultimately end up. For Irving and DeRozan, they’ll hope to lead their franchises back to the heights they reached last season, while Embiid, Russell and Porzingis carry the weight for teams that are slowly on the rise. Should the Celtics, Raptors, 76ers, Nets or Knicks find success this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to find these names as the biggest reason why – so stay tuned!

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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