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!
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Northwest Division
This week, Basketball Insiders starts its division-by-division “Biggest Disappointments” series. Matt John kicks it off by taking a look at who that would be from the Northwest Division.
A couple weeks ago, Basketball Insiders started a series looking over who were some of the biggest surprises so far in this young NBA season. This week, we’re changing it up a bit by taking a look at some of the biggest disappointments. To start this off, we’re looking at the Northwest Division.
It’s funny how over the last few years, the biggest disappointment coming out of that division, and possibly in the entire NBA, has been Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins’ odd regression over the last few years has made the NBA public lose their faith in him as a player, so much that, when this season started, he was seen as nothing but a young bust that Minnesota was burning oodles of cash to have on its roster.
It looks like Wiggins listened to the haters because he’s been playing like a man possessed this season. Averaging almost 25 points a game on 46 percent shooting from the field would qualify as career-highs for him. Even as a playmaker, he’s made some strides as his 3.1 assists at the present time is also a career-best. The Timberwolves have come down to earth since their hot start, but at least Andrew’s doing his part.
This is relevant to a certain degree. For a while now, the man they called “Maple Jordan” was called a disappointment because his career trajectory was falling — and falling fast. Now, it looks like he’s restored some of the hope he once had. Much like Wiggins over the last two years, the following disappointments in the Northwest have time to pick up the pieces, but for now, they have been rather underwhelming in these first three weeks.
The Nuggets’ Suddenly Unproductive Offense
It sounds weird, doesn’t it? The Nuggets currently sit at 7-2, they’ve beaten some good teams in the last week or so – Philadelphia and Miami – and last year, their offense was one of the best in the entire league. That was evidenced by them having the sixth-best offensive rating, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions.
It gets even weirder knowing that nothing really changed for the Nuggets over the summer roster-wise. The only noteworthy additions to this team were Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. Those guys really shouldn’t make Denver worse – which they haven’t – and could still add another dimension to the team. Besides them, the Nuggets overall have the same construct they did last year, so what’s different?
In a nutshell, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have not performed as well as they had been expected to. As a result, they now have the 23rd-ranked offense in the league, scoring 103.6 points per 100 possessions. In order to figure out how it got this way, we need to take a look at who’s responsible.
Let’s start with Nikola Jokic. In this ever so strange subplot of weird, it may be the weirdest to rag on the Joker considering he’s coming off of two consecutive buzzer beaters over the Nuggets’ last two games, but the point still stands- Jokic has not started the year off well.
In nine games, Jokic has averaged 16.7 points on 44/24/73 splits to go with 9.3 rebounds and 6 assists. When you compare those numbers to the ones he put up last year, a.k.a. the ones that got him All-NBA First Team Honors, that’s a drastic decline. Jokic at the top of his game is the most offensively polished big in the league. The Nuggets have managed to win in spite of his struggles, but they can’t expect to keep doing so if he can’t recapture the player he was last season.
Then, there’s Jamal Murray. Murray hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t shown much improvement since last season. Jamal was just given a fairly wealthy extension over the summer, so this lack of progress is a little troubling to watch.
Averaging 18.8 points on 45/37/85 splits are good numbers for a fourth-year player, but next year, Murray’s not going to be on a rookie contract. He’ll be making just a tick less than $30 million next season. Those are numbers you pay for a guy who can put up 25-30 on any given night. Jamal’s done that at times, but as yet to show extensive consistency.
The Nuggets still going at it strong because their defense has improved by a fair margin. Allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions has made them good for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. As disappointing as the offense has been, Denver has to be feeling good about its chances since the team’s still been able to win in spite of struggles.
CJ McCollum’s Regression
The Portland Trail Blazers altogether are kind of a mess right now — although it isn’t entirely their fault. Zach Collins’ shoulder injury just three games into the season is a massive blow to a team that was already pretty thin in the frontcourt. Besides Hassan Whiteside, they are relying on Skal Labissiere to give them minutes at the five.
To compensate for the departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, they are relying on the likes of journeymen like Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja to fill in at the three and four positions. The all-around downgrade in their frontcourt has definitely played a part in the team starting out 4-6.
Their struggles have come from the offensive end, as their offensive rating has gone from 114.7 (fourth overall last season) to 108.9 (11th currently). The new guys probably have something to do with that, but the biggest culprit might just be CJ McCollum’s slump.
McCollum’s still putting up solid numbers, averaging almost 20 points per game, but that’s coming on some of the worst percentages he’s put up since playing a larger role in Portland, putting up 39/31/89 splits. McCollum has the third-highest net rating on the team, as the Blazers are plus-12.4 with him on the court, but one can’t help if those stats are skewed from playing a lot of minutes with Damian Lillard, who is off to the best start of his career.
The duo shares a net rating of plus-7, but when you compare CJ’s net rating with some of his other teammates to Dame’s, they don’t look as promising.
CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside: plus-1.7
Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside: plus-6.4
CJ McCollum and Rodney Hood: plus-0.8
Damian Lillard and Rodney Hood: plus-6.4
CJ McCollum and Kent Bazemore: minus-2.9
Damian Lillard and Kent Bazemore: plus-1.9
CJ McCollum and Mario Hezonja: plus-5.6
Damian Lillard and Mario Hezonja: plus-10.1
Knowing McCollum’s reputation as a scorer, this should get better as time goes on, but how much time is what Portland has to keep in mind. The Western Conference has been unforgiving since the dawn of time, so if CJ and the Blazers continue to struggle, that can come back to bite them when they try to get good seeding in the playoffs.
Portland’s goal this season was to exceed last year’s extended playoff run. For that to come to fruition, they can’t afford to have their other elite scorer struggle from the field for too long.
Utah’s Continued Offensive Stagnancy
Yes, the theme of this has centered around offensive struggles, and yes, you can call this cheating since this writer brought up the Jazz’ woes on that end two weeks ago, but it’s still worth talking about because nothing has changed for Utah.
Three weeks into the season, they have the 27th-best offensive rating, scoring, 102.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s even worse remembering that last season, they had the 15th best offensive rating, scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions. Their offense certainly got in the way of their playoff chances then, but at least it was mediocre as opposed to bad.
This writer doesn’t want to say what he’s already said about Utah’s continued woes on offense. Instead, let’s take a look at one of the Jazz’s big wins over the weekend against Milwaukee. Everyone should remember Bojan Bogdanovic’s one shining moment.
BOJAN BOGDANOVIC AT THE BUZZER! WOW! pic.twitter.com/EjRZrQwmN7
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) November 9, 2019
Like any buzzer-beater, it’s always so thrilling to see plays like that happen. Not just because the Jazz beat a tough foe, but because it was such a beautifully drawn play to get arguably their best shooter wide open. So where do their offensive woes factor into this? Well, let’s take a look back at where the game was with 1:30 to go.
A Donovan Mitchell jumper put the Jazz up by eight with less than 90 seconds to go. Coming back from a three-possession game to win with that little time is near impossible. Yet, the Bucks were a Khris Middleton traveling call from pulling it off. They did this because Utah’s offense failed to put the game away.
In 88 seconds, missed free throws, costly turnovers and bad shots on Utah’s part got Milwaukee to close the gap. Not only had Utah lost the lead, but the team was also in jeopardy of losing the game. They may have won the game anyway, but they should not have been in danger of losing that game.
What’s more alarming is that the Jazz can’t afford to make those mental mistakes when facing opponents as tough as the Bucks. They won’t have to worry about facing Milwaukee in the playoffs unless they meet in the NBA Finals, but Utah’s going to have its hands full with other Western Conference competitors.
Like Denver, they’re still going strong regardless of their offensive woes, but they can’t have these problems if they want to go the distance.
Apologies if these disappointments all sounded the same, but honestly, there haven’t been that many disappointments in the Northwest Division. Utah and Denver are doing about as well as we thought they’d do. Minnesota is currently exceeding expectations. Oklahoma City is right where we thought they’d be. The only team that has somewhat disappointed is Portland, and that might not have been the case if Zach Collins wasn’t hurt — or Jusuf Nurkic for that matter.
And just because they’re disappointing now does not mean that will be the same by the time 2020 starts.
There’s still plenty of time for everyone’s outlook to change for the better. Just ask Andrew Wiggins.
NBA Daily: Choosing Philadelphia’s Backup Point Guard
With Raul Neto, Trey Burke and Josh Richardson playing well in the absence of Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers will have a decision to make at backup point guard. Quinn Davis breaks down what each can bring to the table.
Early in the Philadelphia 76ers’ game against the Charlotte Hornets, Raul Neto was tasked with chasing Terry Rozier through numerous pick-and-rolls on the defensive end. Neto — who head coach Brett Brown called the team’s best defensive player in their game against the Utah Jazz last week — held his own.
Neto was moved into the starting lineup after Ben Simmons sprained his right AC joint, and the fifth-year guard has been up to the task. While his defense has helped him become a rotational fixture, Neto has also kept the offense humming along and the team is boasting a net rating of plus-5.5 with him on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. His turnover rate has been a tad high, but he is shooting efficiently and moving the ball.
He has the experience and ability to make the right pass. Here he finds Furkan Korkmaz on the wing for an open three after Gary Harris helps too hard on the rolling Kyle O’Quinn.
Plays like this might not seem very complicated, but it is a facet of the game that has been lacking in the 76ers’ offense. These simple pick-and-roll plays are not viable when opposing defenses are comfortable dipping under screens.
In the past, there was no change of pace offensively when Brown went to his backup point guard. Last season, both T.J. McConnell and Markelle Fultz, when healthy, were not respected enough to command the kind of defense Neto will see.
While Neto has played well, the 76ers brought in a second player to compete for the backup point guard role this season in Trey Burke. Burke, who saw his first action of the season on Friday against the Denver Nuggets, has also been very effective.
In his 37 minutes this season, the 76ers have a net rating of plus-15.6, per Cleaning the Glass. A lot of this success has come in transition, where the Sixers have scored 1.38 points per transition play with Burke running the point.
Burke’s speed is underrated. Here he turns on the jets after grabbing a loose ball, opening up an easy layup for James Ennis.
Having Burke as the backup point guard could boost a transition game that the 76ers will need to generate consistent offense. Simmons is, of course, not too shabby in transition either, so having a second point guard to come in and provide that end-to-end ability would be a nice boost.
While Burke is not quite the defender or passer that Neto is, his edge in speed and shot creation ability off the dribble makes this a very tough decision when Simmons returns to the lineup. Burke does tend to dribble quite a bit and may wander from the fundamentals of the offense, but the ability to get buckets may trump any concerns in those areas.
There is, of course, the possibility of playing one of these two guards in the same backcourt as Simmons, leaving room for both to play. Basketball Insiders asked Brown about this postgame, but Philadelphia’s head coach seemed to be leaning away from that idea.
“You’d doubt it,” Brown said. “I feel like there are outliers in every game. For example, tonight I went with Kyle (O’Quinn) and Al for a chunk of time. It would have to be under funny circumstances. But the fact that it’s possible because they both have played well, is exciting.”
Brown was asked a follow-up question after that response, regarding how Josh Richardson fits into the backup point guard equation. Brown would not rule him out either.
“We’re finding our way. We have different options. I think when you heard me use the phrase horses for courses, it’s based on who we play and who’s playing well,” Brown said.
It would make sense for Brown to evaluate as the season goes on and make decisions based on matchups. Brown has noted in seasons past that he likes to break the NBA schedule into thirds and evaluate his team in each of those 27-game chunks.
Richardson’s defensive prowess and ability to guard multiple positions makes him a valuable option at the position. He also had a very nice game Sunday, tallying 11 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in the win. Brown made sure to praise the guard after the game.
“He’s wiry, active, gangly, at times you’re not sure which direction he’s going to go offensively,” said Brown. “He can make plays defensively. I think he’s got a motor that lets him play hard incredibly frequently. It’s hard to maintain that tenacity and energy with anybody. I’m surprised he actually has an endurance level that I see.”
It is worth noting that Richardson began the season running point when Simmons sat. When Embiid was suspended, the shortened rotation allowed Brown to experiment a little with Neto in that role.
The most likely scenario is that this becomes a backup point guard by committee. Richardson will be used against teams with very talented backcourts to maximize the defensive presence on the court. Burke and Neto will be used when the team is in need of a little more offensive creation or transition burst.
It’s also possible that one of these three separates themselves and takes hold of the role. Burke has been impressive in his stints, but only 37 minutes is not enough to make a judgment either way.
This subplot will likely be one of many that make up the story of the 76ers’ rotation this season. It will be exciting to watch it unfold.
NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks
David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.
Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.
The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.
For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.
He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.
“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”
Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.
But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.
“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”
In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.
Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.
But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.
“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”
Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.
“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.
Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.
“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.
“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”
At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.
“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”