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NBA Training Camp Questions: Atlantic Division

Debating the key question facing each team in the NBA’s Atlantic Division.

Tommy Beer

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the most pressing training camp questions in the Northwest, Southwest, Central, Pacific, Southeast divisions as the 2014-15 NBA season approaches. Today we tackle the Atlantic Division:

Boston Celtics

Will Rajon Rondo still be a member of the Celtics after February’s trade deadline?

Due primarily to the injury bug that has bitten him, we tend to forget just how good of a point guard Rajon Rondo really is. During both the 2011-12 and 2012-13 season, Rondo led the NBA in assists average (11.7 and 11.1 apg, respectively). When healthy, he is undoubtedly one of the NBA’s preeminent PG’s, and certainly the Celtics’ best player.

However, with Danny Ainge stockpiling draft picks and clearly building for the future, and Rondo (who turns 29 in February) set to hit free agency next summer, it may make sense to move Rondo at deadline and get something of value in return. But with Rondo’s latest injury (a broken bone in his hand that will sideline him 6-to-8 weeks), will Rajon be able to shake off the rust and return to form by next February? Would Ainge be forced to “sell-low” on his best commodity? Rondo’s play in December and January will help answer these questions.

Another factor that will determine Ainge’s willingness to move Rondo will be the play of Marcus Smart. Physically, Smart has the tools that make scouts drool. His versatile skill set and imposing size for a guard resulted in pundits hyping Smart as one of the top all-around players in the 2014 NBA Draft. However, there were some issues concerning Smart’s maturity level. In addition, some wondered whether he was a bit of a “tweener.” Will Smart be able to play PG in the NBA? Is he combo-guard that’s a better fit playing off the ball? With Rondo sidelined for all of training camp and the preseason, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens will get a good look at what the youngster can handle during his first full training camp as a pro.

Brooklyn Nets

Can they count on their star PG and center to stay healthy?

Brook Lopez played in every single game during his first three years in the NBA.

Then played just five in 2010-11, but bounced back to start 74 games in 201-13. Last season was another lost season for Lopez, who played just 17 games before again injuring his foot. When healthy, Lopez is arguably the best offensive center in the entire league. Before he hurt himself last season, Lopez was averaging 20.7 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor. Early reports form training camp have been positive and Lopez claims he now feels good and is ready to roll.

Deron Williams is also considered one of the best players at his position, but hasn’t been healthy enough to prove it over the last few seasons. D-Will had two more ankle surgeries over the summer and has admitted this week that he still is not 100 percent.

The Nets are toughest team to predict in this division. If both Williams and Lopez each play 70+ games for the Nets this season, they have a good chance to capture the Atlantic Division crown. On the other hand, the “worst-case scenario” is bleak because the health of their two best players is undeniably worrisome.

New York Knicks

Will the Knicks be able to defend and/or rebound well enough to win?

The Knicks will put up plenty of points next season. They have the second best scorer on the planet in Carmelo Anthony. They massively upgraded at point guard by bringing in Jose Calderon (who should be an ideal fit in the newly installed “triangle offense”), and have a bevy of skilled spot-up shooters to fill up the basket from three-point territory.

On the other hand, the other side of the floor will be a major issue for New York all year long. New York ranked 24th overall in defensive efficiency last season. And they finished 27 out of 30 teams in total rebounds collected. And, in order to upgrade at PG, New York had to sacrifice their best defensive player and top rebounder in Tyson Chandler. The only Knick, other than Chandler, to register more than 50 blocks last season was Andrea Bargnani.

The defensive system Mike Woodson employed last season, which was heavily reliant on switching, was a failure. Will new head coach Derek Fisher’s revamped scheme and professed commitment to defense yield improved results? This may be the biggest determinant of whether or not the Knicks are able to more closely resemble the 2012-13 edition that won 54 games, as opposed to last season’s squad, which tallied only 37 victories.

Toronto Raptors

Are the Raps for Real?

Arguably the most pleasantly surprising team in the Eastern Conference last season, Toronto exceeded any and all expectations by capturing the Atlantic Division crown. The questions now are can the Raptors build on last year’s momentum and continue to climb towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings, or will they regress to what we expected heading into the 2013-14 campaign.

Kyle Lowry, who had some character concerns and run-ins with previous head coaches, was spectacular last season. As a pending free-agent and playing for a new contract, he was incredibly predictive and put up phenomenal numbers. Now that he has inked a big four-year, $48 million deal, will he remain motivated?

DeMar DeRozan put up career-best numbers across the board last season, earning his first All-Star nomination. Can the young high-riser take his game to an even higher level in 2014-15?

The good news for the Raps is that they have remarkable depth throughout the roster. Jonas Valanciunas is a solid big man with room to improve. Amir Johnson is an underrated grinder who is both efficient and effective on the offensive end. Greivis Vazquez is a terrific backup PG. Terrance Ross has been inconsistent, but has shown flashes of brilliance. Patrick Patterson is signed to a reasonable contract and has an NBA skill set. The Raps also shrewdly traded for sharp-shooter Lou Williams. Sweet Lou is perfectly suited to provide an offensive spark off the bench and late-game offense for Toronto.

All things considered, there are plenty of reasons for Raptor fans to remain optimistic, as Toronto is the odds-on favorite to repeat as Atlantic Division champions.

Philadelphia 76ers

Will the 76ers be able to avoid making history?

Nine wins. The 1972-73 76ers lost 73 of the 82 games that played that season. That’s the lowest win total ever posted in a full NBA season. The current edition of the 76ers actually has an outside shot at breaking that record this season.

The highest paid player on the team is Jason Richardson, the oft-injured shooting guard who may not play a single minute this season. The recently acquired Luc Mbah a Moute, who averaged 3.5 ppg last season, is the only other 76er that has scored more than 2,000 points in their NBA career. After Richardson, the longest-tenured Sixer is Michael Carter-Williams, who was drafted last year.

This is a roster has been designed by GM Sam Hinkie to secure ping-pong balls and lottery picks, not wins.

Fortunately for 76ers fans, Hinkie has infused the roster with plenty of young, enticing talent.

Carter-Williams was a revelation as a rookie. He led all rookies in scoring (16.7 ppg), rebounds (6.2 ppg), assists (6.3 apg), and steals (1.9 spg). To put that in perspective, Carter-Williams is just the third player since 1950 to lead all rookies in scoring, rebounding and assist average. He also joined Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to average at least 16 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists.

This season, we’ll get to find out what Nerlens Noel can bring to the table. He almost certainly won’t be able to match MCW’s impact, but if he can stay healthy and show some improvement on the offensive end, it will be considered a successful season. Their most recent first-round pick, Joel Embiid, is still months away from even practicing, so we won’t get our first look at the highly-touted center for a while.

The Sixers have plenty of reason for hope in the future. The present, however, remains murky.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division

Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.

Chad Smith

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Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.

But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?

The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.

It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.

Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense

After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.

Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.

The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.

Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.

They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.

After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.

John Collins Suspension

The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.

But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.

Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.

As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.

If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.

At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start

Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?

On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.

With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.

And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.

Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.

Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.

Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.

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NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution

Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.

Jack Winter

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Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.

When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.

The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.

The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.

Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.

Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.

Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.

It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.

Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.

He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.

Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.

Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.

The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.

Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.

Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.

Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.

And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around. 

Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles

Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.

Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).

But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.

The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.

Knicks Offensive Woes

The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.

And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).

Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.

But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.

The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.

Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.

Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.

Now,  he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?

On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.

But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.

Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug

This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.

Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.

And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.

Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again –  to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.

We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.

But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.

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