Connect with us

NBA

NBA PM: The Sleeper Contenders In The East

The top of the East seems pretty predictable even after free agency, but there are some sleeper teams that might be ready to break through.

Basketball Insiders

Published

on

The Sleeper Team In The East

There is little doubt that the landscape of the Eastern Conference has changed. The Boston Celtics got better. The Toronto Raptors re-signed their impressive core. The Washington Wizards added pieces to their bench and the Cleveland Cavaliers still have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

The question facing the Eastern Conference is with so much shifting of talent to the Western Conference, is there a team that could enter the 2017-18 NBA season as a Sleeper team to not only challenge in the East, but maybe be a dark horse to sneaking into the Conference Finals, much like Boston did a year ago?

In what will be a weekly Thursday feature, we asked three of our Basketball Insiders to weigh in on this idea, and give us their “Sleeper Team That Could Challenge the East”

The Philadelphia 76ers

On paper, the Philadelphia 76ers roster is impressive. The obvious, important caveat here is that the Sixers need their key players to stay healthy, but this team boasts intriguing upside if they can keep their core on the floor.

After tallying just ten wins in 2015-16, Philly won 28 games last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that 18-win improvement from season-to-season was the second-highest in franchise history. The key to the Sixers solid start early in the 2016-17 campaign was Joel Embiid. After missing two years due to a variety of injuries, Embiid finally stepped on the floor and immediately made a strong impression.

Embiid only appeared in 31 games, but was extremely productive when he was on the court. Despite playing just 25.4 minutes a night, Embiid averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 three-pointers and 2.5 blocks per game. In the process, he became just the second player in NBA history to average more than 20 points while playing fewer than 26 minutes. (The other player in this exclusive club is Michael Jordan, who averaged 22.7 ppg in 25.1 mpg during his injury shortened season in 1985-86.)

However, Embiid wasn’t the only rookie to exceed expectations last season. Dario Saric led all first-year players in points, field goals and rebounds. He was second in free throws, third in three-pointers, fourth in steals and seventh in assists. In addition, Robert Covington established himself as an elite 3-and-D wing, contributing significantly across the board. RoCo averaged two three-pointers, 1.9 steals and one block per game. Paul Pierce, back in 2001-02, is the only other player to match those numbers in those categories over the course of a full season.

This summer, Philly added a couple of important pieces to the puzzle. First, they traded up in the draft to select Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick. Fultz is widely regarded as a blue-chip prospect and one of the more promising point guards to enter the league over the last few years. After posting incredible numbers during his lone season at the University of Washington, he is ready to contribute right away.

The Sixers then made a splash in free agency. Needing to improve their outside shooting and add a solid veteran presence in the locker room, Philly killed two birds with one stone by signing J.J. Redick to a one-year deal. Redick has established himself as one of the NBA’s more reliable long-range marksman. He is one of only three players to have averaged at least 2.5 made three-pointers per game while shooting over 40 percent from behind-the-arc in each of the last three seasons (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the other two).

The Sixers will also anticipate getting Ben Simmons back on the court. Simmons was the top overall selection in the 2016 draft, but missed last year due to a foot injury. Like Embiid, the biggest question mark surrounding Simmons is his health. His remarkably versatile skill set has Sixers fans very excited. Both Simmons and Fultz will enter the season as two of the favorites to take home this season’s Rookie of the Year award.

With Embiid, Saric, Simmons, Redick, Fultz and Covington as the first six players in the rotation, Sixer fans have reason to be optimistic. Philadelphia’s bench is impressive as well. Jerryd Bayless and T.J. McConnell will provide depth at point guard. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Nik Stauskas will backup Redick at shooting guard. Justin Anderson and newly added Amir Johnson can be shuffled in at both forward spots. Richaun Holmes and Jahlil Okafor will provide solid minutes off the bench at center and serve as insurance should Embiid go down.

The Sixers are coming, and may arrive sooner than expected.

– Tommy Beer

The Milwaukee Bucks

Outside the East’s consensus top four of Cleveland, Boston, Toronto and Washington, the team with the most intrigue on the court next season might reside in Wisconsin. The Bucks have a budding superstar, a strong supporting cast and the kind of roster makeup to cause some issues for teams ostensibly above them in the conference pecking order.

It all starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo, last year’s Most Improved Player and a franchise-defining star. Set to turn 23 midseason next year, does Antetokounmpo have yet another leap in him? Opponents had better hope not, particularly if the improvement comes as a distance shooter – his one legitimate weakness to this point.

Even if we only expect roughly the same star-level performance from Giannis moving forward, there are other causes for optimism. Health is one: Khris Middleton missed most of last season and was never entirely himself upon his return, though he had his moments. Even a recovering Middleton was enough to lift the Bucks to a strong per-possession rating while he was on the floor, though, and he’ll be full throttle from the jump this season.

Jabari Parker also missed significant time last year, and that will continue into 2018. Bucks coach Jason Kidd recently placed a February target on his return, though expecting the same player after two serious injuries to the same ACL would be unwise. A look at team impact figures over the last couple years, though, reveals that Middleton was a larger influence on team success than Parker by a wide margin.

Outside the team’s top names, the Bucks are running a lot of the same program back next season. They got Tony Snell back for a fair deal after a solid season, and they’ll hope Greg Monroe can continue in a positive role he carved coming off the bench last year. No one is quite sure what Thon Maker will be able to do next year, but little would shock anyone at this point.

If they can get a little improvement from guys like Malcolm Brogdon and John Henson, plus continued depth contributions from Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic, this is a deep Bucks team that could rack up regular season wins over a weakened East. Come playoff time, Giannis and Middleton alone form a tough duo – throw a recovering Parker into the mix, and you might have a team that could make some noise.

– Ben Dowsett

The Charlotte Hornets

This was not an easy pick. I looked long and hard at the Miami HEAT and the Detroit Pistons, but in both cases I kept asking myself are either really better teams today?

In the end, I settled on the Charlotte Hornets for a couple of reasons. The biggest being Kemba Walker. As we saw last season, Walker is as a good as any guard in the East and may be headed towards an All-Star nod if he takes another step forward.

Injuries were another factor — last year Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist never seemed to get completely right.

Kidd-Gilchrist has endured several seasons of injuries and started last season with a back issue. He did end up playing more games than we’ve seen in a while, but his timing and rhythm never seemed quite right. Kidd-Gilchrist entered this off-season without needing to rehab for the first time in a long-time and could be poised for a breakout season.

Batum had a tough season himself last year dealing with a knee issue, ankle issue and freaky migraines that derailed his season. Fresh off a huge payday, the Hornets were hoping for a franchise season and got anything but from Batum. He was not terrible when he played, but he certainly didn’t change the season as some expected or at least hoped for.

Assuming both Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist bounce back and can stay healthy, along with the addition of Malik Monk in the draft, the Hornets should be markedly better. Additionally, the pre-draft trade for Dwight Howard should give the Hornets more production in the front court.

The Hornets have a loaded roster, they just have to live up to expectations. If they do, they might have the talent to really challenge in an sneaky and unexpected way.

– Steve Kyler

Every Thursday we’ll ask three of our guys to chime in on a common subject. If there is something you would like to see us address. Drop it to us on Twitter at @BBallInsiders using the hashtag #ConversationThursday.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

Advertisement




Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

NBA

Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

Published

on

It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

Continue Reading

NBA

NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

Published

on

When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

Continue Reading

NBA

Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

Published

on

Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending Now