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New Faces in New Places: Atlantic Division

A close look at the new additions made by NBA teams in the Atlantic Division.

Cody Taylor

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After taking a look at the Southeast, Central, Northwest and Pacific Divisions, Basketball Insiders continues its New Faces in New Places series with a look at the Northwest Division.

Boston Celtics:

Marcus Smart – It seems the Boston Celtics might have been drafting based on best available player during June’s draft because drafting a point guard with the sixth overall pick was shocking considering that Rajon Rondo is still on the team. Once the Celtics drafted Smart, the rumors that Rondo was on his way out ignited and the Celtics’ summer has been an interesting one. What they do have in Smart is a young player who the team can build around. The Celtics have a ton of draft picks owed to them over the next four seasons (including as many as two additional first-round picks next season) and possibly even more if they do move Rondo. So far, Smart is struggling on the offensive side of the ball as indicated by his Summer League performance and his debut in the preseason after missing all eight shots he took in the Celtics’ first game. Smart will make an immediate impact on the defensive side of the ball, as he’s already drawn praise from head coach Brad Stevens. Smart was praised on his athleticism and toughness by Stevens. The team also added James Young through the draft.

Tyler Zeller – The Celtics were able to add depth to center by adding Tyler Zeller for practically nothing. They used a trade exception created in the Paul Pierce deal to add Zeller and Marcus Thornton. The seven-foot Zeller figures to be the backup center to Kelly Olynyk and adds a viable option for Stevens off of the bench. Zeller saw just 15 minutes a game last season with the Cavs, but will now get plenty of time to grow in Boston. Zeller should excel in Boston due to his ability to run the floor well, which is exactly the type of offense the Celtics want to have. Averaging just 5.7 points and four rebounds a game last season, Zeller should see a rise in production running the floor next to Rondo this season.

 

Brooklyn Nets:

Lionel Hollins – There was a point in the offseason in which Lionel Hollins almost didn’t have a job. With the success that Hollins has had, it was a bit surprising he was without a job for that long but then came the Brooklyn Nets’ job. The Nets moved quickly to bring in Hollins, and now the work begins for him. The job will certainly have its challenges for Hollins with a high payroll, an aging Kevin Garnett and the losses of Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston. Hollins will most certainly help the Nets create a name for themselves on the defensive side of the ball as Hollins’ past teams in Memphis shows. Hollins has had excellent work developing big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and should continue that work with sophomore Mason Plumlee. Hollins has studied up on what type of players he’ll be dealing with in Brooklyn and will create an offensive and defensive system based around their strengths, which is exactly what makes Hollins right for the job.

Jarrett Jack – After Hollins, Jarrett Jack was arguably the next best addition. In Jack, the Nets have a great backup point guard behind Deron Williams who is coming to the Nets trying to reinvent himself. Jack is coming off of a season in which he scored 9.5 points and 4.1 assists per game with the Cavaliers in 28 minutes a game. With Williams’ inability to stay healthy consistently, the Nets will be able to rely on Jack to step in and give the team solid production in a starting role. With a new defensive-minded coach in Hollins, Jack will likely thrive in his new system as he has shown the ability to be a great defender. Hollins may even elect to have both Jack and Williams on the floor at the same time, which would allow Jack to make up for Williams’ lack of defense.

 

Toronto Raptors:

Lou Williams – The Raptors remained relatively quiet in terms of adding new talent, opting instead to re-sign Kyle Lowry, but they did add veteran Lou Williams. With Williams, the Raptors have a guy that can play either guard position and could flourish in an expanded role. The former Sixth Man of the Year runner-up will provide Lowry and DeMar DeRozan a real option off of the bench when they need a breather. With DeRozan averaging 38 minutes a game and Lowry averaging 36 minutes a game last season, the Raptors are hoping Williams can give them 25 minutes a game to allow DeRozan and Lowry to be more rested as the season progresses towards the playoffs.

James Johnson – After a brief stint in the D-League, Johnson returns to the Raptors a changed player. Johnson left the Raptors a couple of years ago after an incident with Raptors head coach Dwane Casey and appears to have put that in the past and is ready to provide the Raptors any type of role that they need. Now that the Raptors have stars in Lowry and DeRozan, Johnson knows that he won’t be the star in Toronto and accepts his role off of the bench. Johnson also brings an element of defense with him that will help when the team faces off against the better teams in the Eastern Conference.

 

Philadelphia 76ers:

Nerlens Noel – Noel was on the team last year, but this season will be the first in which he will be available to the Philadelphia 76ers, and it should be a great season to watch him play. After Noel and Michael Carter-Williams, that may be about the only thing to watch as third overall pick in this year’s draft Joel Embiid and the No. 12 pick Dario Saric aren’t expected to play at all this season. Noel showed flashes in the Summer League of why the 76ers decided to acquire him injured from the Pelicans on draft night last year. In four games, Noel averaged 12.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and three blocks a game for the 76ers in Orlando. Noel showed very little rust during his time on the court and looked fully ready for the upcoming season. The 76ers will understandably be cautious with Noel this season, but he should be a contender for Rookie of the Year.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute – The 76ers acquired Mbah a Moute over the summer from the Timberwolves and he is already one of the team’s oldest players. After Jason Richardson, Mbah a Moute is the team’s second-oldest player at just 28, which proves just how young the 76ers are. Last season, Mbah a Moute averaged just 3.5 points a game between the Kings and Wolves, which leaves many thinking Mbah a Moute was brought in to mentor Joel Embiid. The two grew up in Cameroon and have known each other since 2011 when Mbah a Moute discovered Embiid at a camp. While many believe he is in Philadelphia to mentor Embiid, Mbah a Moute can add a lot to the defense. The 6’8, 230-pound Mbah a Moute moves well for his size and can guard three positions on the floor and make it difficult for ball handlers.

 

New York Knicks:

Derek Fisher – While the man that brought Fisher to New York may be deserving of a nod here, Fisher will suffice even though everyone knows it was Phil Jackson that chose him for the job. Fisher will understandably be under heavy pressure in New York, with many pegging the Knicks to return to the playoffs this season. That idea may have seemed crazy thinking about it at the beginning of this season, but Fisher has a better roster to work with this season. The success of the Knicks will rest on what type of performances they will receive out of their supporting cast, including Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire. If the Knicks can just score enough points and then have a decent defense, the Knicks could be in good shape. Fisher is aware of the questions regarding the defense and focused heavily on it during training camp. Fisher will provide stability to a team that just hasn’t been able to find the right head coach, but with Jackson in charge, it seems Fisher may be the right guy.

Cleanthony Early – After having no draft picks the week leading up to the draft, Jackson acquired two of them from the Dallas Mavericks. One of those the picks was used to take Cleanthony Early with the 34th pick in the second round. Early is a player that some believed was a huge steal for the Knicks and is a player that can contribute immediately. Early averaged 11.5 points on 45 percent shooting from the field in the Summer League and will provide Fisher with solid production behind Carmelo Anthony. Part of what Jackson has been able to do so far is allow the team to get younger by acquiring the draft picks. Early indications are he will fit into the triangle offense as an athletic forward that can cut to the rim very well. Fisher may also have one of his better defensive players on the team, and on a team not known for its defense it’s fair to say Fisher welcomes Early’s versatility.

Jose Calderon – The Knicks have needed to add a legitimate answer at point guard for a while now and finally have that in Jose Calderon. With Calderon running the show in New York now, the Knicks get a player that won’t turn the ball over and can shoot the three-point shot very well. Calderon is a 41 percent career three-point shooter and converted 45 percent of his three-pointers last season with the Mavericks. Speaking of turnovers, Calderon finished third in the league in assists per turnovers with 3.66, which was behind only Chris Paul and Pablo Prigioni. With Anthony back in New York on a new contract, Calderon will flourish in Fisher’s triangle offense and will be the man for the job.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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2018 NBA All-Star Sunday Recap

Michael Petrower recaps the All-Star Game from Sunday in Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2018 NBA All Star Game had some added appeal this year, with Captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry selecting playground style from the pool of All-Stars. Although it was not televised, it drew a lot of interest to say the least.

Team Lebron was headlined by Kevin Durant (the alleged first pick), Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. Sadly, Team Lebron suffered big losses with John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Kristaps Porzingis going down with injuries. Team Stephen was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Demar DeRozan.

NBA fans were ready to indulge on the highlight real of plays to commence…That was, until the NBA inflicted a marathon-like performance that seemed a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Kevin Hart was at the center of theatrics that had NBA fans scratching their heads questioning what was on their television screen. Fergie topped off the saga with what was one of the more questionable national anthems we’ve seen in recent years. However, if you stuck around long enough, the game started at 8:40 PM EST and the flashy plays that we hoped for, began.

Joel Embiid made his first A;l-Star game appearance and kicked off the scoring festivities for Team Stephen with a ferocious and-one dunk. Team Stephen led all of the first quarter and won the quarter 42-31. Karl Anthony Towns led the first quarter scoring with 11 points. Team LeBron, however would storm back and cut the lead to two, 78-76 at half. LeBron came into his 14th straight All-Star game and lead his team at the half with 15 points. Klay Thompson also lead Team Stephen with 15 points at half.

The second half ensued and after some back and forth between the two teams, Team Stephen was leading by three going into the fourth quarter, 112-109. Team Stephen grew their lead to 11 while LeBron and KD got some rest. But after the two came back in, the 11-point deficit was erased after a LeBron three and the teams were now tied at 144 with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter.

DeRozan would make a free throw to put Team Stephen up one point, but Lebron followed with a strong two-pointer to put his team up one. DeRozan tried to answer, but threw away a pass which resulted in an easy two points for Russell Westbrook to ice the game. Team LeBron was the 2018 All Star Game winner with a score of 148-145.

LeBron James went on to win his third All Star MVP after finishing with 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds, eigh assists and a steal on 12-17 shooting. DeRozan and Damian Lillard lead Team Stephen with 21 points each.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform, he clearly has his eyes open. On Silver’s watch, the league also eliminated the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, and it’s become clear that he simply gets it. Silver isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in order to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

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