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!
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.