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Poised To Breakout: Atlantic Division

Ben Nadeau identifies the six breakout candidates to keep an eye on in the Atlantic Division during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Ben Nadeau

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The biggest free agents have signed, summer leagues have concluded and the NBA landscape has suddenly found itself in the doldrums of August. With far too much time before training camps kick off, Basketball Insiders has been taking a closer look at the divisional hierarchy each week.

First, we tackled the rankings. Then, the best new deals from each division got some shine. Now, next in the series, we’ll take a look at those poised to breakout in 2017-18. In the Atlantic Division, much of the mystery over who will lead the division is gone – hello, Gordon Hayward – but there’s still plenty to be unearthed up in the Northeast. This time, the spotlight is on the players, coaches and executives that could improve their league-wide standing due to their potential impact within the division.

Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics

The hype train for sophomore Jaylen Brown has well and fully left the station. After fearlessly taking on LeBron James last year, Brown played a pivotal role for a Boston Celtics team that stole away the No. 1 seed from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brown’s explosive first step and ability to catch fire from deep makes him a candidate to breakout in 2017-18, particularly so after his perceived growth this summer.

During his two games in the Utah Summer League, Brown averaged 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds and later remarked that he was using the competitions to prove that he’s ready to contribute when the wins and losses start counting for real this fall. Even better, Brown has proven to be an athletically gifted game-changer even when his jumper isn’t falling. From win-clinching blocks to strong rebounding efforts, there are plenty of ways Brown can pitch in while the team’s All-Stars handle the scoring load.

Of course, there are minutes to be had in Boston’s rotation following the departure of Avery Bradley, and Brown may already be the best-suited option to handle them. Still, Brown is just 20 years old and incredibly raw, all things considered, but the flashes of brilliance are absolutely already shining through. If he can capitalize on the available opportunities while playing alongside Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, Brown may just force himself into the starting lineup on a permanent basis.

D’Angelo Russell – Brooklyn Nets

This one seems like an absolute no-brainer as the Brooklyn Nets’ summer move for D’Angelo Russell was a win for all parties involved. Russell gets a fresh start with a franchise that figures to remain on the outside of the playoff hunt in 2017-18, even in the weak Eastern Conference. Without the bright California spotlight on him, Russell should have plenty of chances to bloom with the Nets. He’ll share the backcourt with Jeremy Lin and the dynamic, interchangeable pair will give opposing teams trouble when they’re connecting from three-point land.

Even with his alleged growing pains and off-the-court issues, Russell still averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists on 40.5 percent shooting during his sophomore campaign. Perhaps Nets general manager Sean Marks was compelled to trade away franchise centerpiece Brook Lopez for Russell simply to stop the guard from lighting up his team every time they played the Lakers. Over four career games against the Nets, Russell has tallied 24.5 points per contest – including the now-famous I’ve-got-ice-in-my-veins effort of 39 points on 8-for-12 from deep late in his rookie season.

With low expectations and the team built around him, Russell should have his finest season yet in Brooklyn.

Willy Hernangomez – New York Knicks

In the wake of Kristaps Porzingis’ sophomore year emergence and the debacle that can only be described as Joakim Noah’s first season in New York, Willy Hernangomez, by and large, flew under the radar. Hernangomez stepped into the starting lineup following Noah’s injury in early February and impressed during his limited time on the court. Notching 8.2 points and seven rebounds in just 18.4 minutes per contest, his second half growth led to an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection.

While everybody waits to see how the Carmelo Anthony situation resolves itself, the Knicks should be pleased with the 1-2 punch in their frontcourt. Assuming that Hernangomez has permanently leapfrogged Noah, even if the latter is finally healthy in 2017-18, the Spanish center will almost certainly bust out this season. Per 36 minutes, the 6-foot-11 big man pulled down 13.6 rebounds to go along with a solid 16 points on a superb 52.9 percent from the floor. With New York’s dearth of talent down low outside of the budding Latvian superstar, Hernangomez should easily build on his unexpected rookie season successes.

Brett Brown – Philadelphia 76ers

Since becoming the Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach in 2013, Brett Brown’s all-time record is less than stellar at 75-253 – good for a winning percentage of just 22.9. Yet, it would be impossible to pin many of those losses on the savvy Brown as he lived through the roughest years of former general manager Sam Hinkie’s much-maligned process. Between the constant stream of injuries and the borderline intentional tanking, Brown hasn’t gotten a truly fair shake at this head coaching gig quite yet. As one of the league’s best motivators, Brown, health permitting, has a massive opportunity to cash in on the 76ers’ patience.

Claiming an injury-free season for the 76ers at this point would be bold, but if that dynamic young core – starring Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid – can stay healthy, then Brown’s image will skyrocket. The wheels fell off in 2016-17 when Embiid’s season ended early, but it was Brown that had molded a pretty average roster into a darkhorse playoff contender, albeit however brief. Now that Brown has plenty of fancy toys to experiment with at every position, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the 76ers’ leader on the shortlist for Coach of the Year next season. While the raw, athletic talent of this Philadelphia core is undoubtedly electric, they’re still going to need a wise tactician to put it all together and get these youngsters into positions they can succeed in.

Through three seasons, Brown has already done so much with so little. Let’s see what he can do with a strong, healthy roster in 2017-18.

Allen Crabbe – Brooklyn Nets

One year after their initial pursuit, the Nets got their man. After handing over an offer sheet worth $75 million to Allen Crabbe last summer, Brooklyn acquired the sharpshooter for next-to-nothing in late July. In 2016-17, the Nets tossed up the fourth-most three-point attempts per game at 31.6, but, sadly, converted on just 33.8 percent of them – good for the 26th-worst mark in the entire league. So, despite his bloated contract, Crabbe represents a near perfect fit for the growing Nets.

Never quite able to get out from under the superstar shadows of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Crabbe has the opportunity to shine in the Nets’ run-and-gun system. He’ll likely start in Brooklyn at small forward, alongside the aforementioned Lin and Russell, bringing his 44.4 percent rate from three-point range with him. This Nets team clearly loves to shoot the ball from deep and they desperately needed a deadeye shooter like Crabbe to make opposing defenses pay. Thanks to the sheer volume of attempts he’ll grab under head coach Kenny Atkinson, that immaculate second-best three-point percentage (Kyle Korver, 45) will likely fall in 2017-18, but Crabbe could quickly become one of the Nets’ top contributors.

Scott Perry – New York Knicks

For now, a total meltdown in New York has been quelled thanks to the hiring of new general manager Scott Perry. To say the least, it’s been a hectic summer for the Knicks despite being largely uninvolved in the proceedings. Former executive Phil Jackson nearly dealt away Porzingis during the NBA Draft and once he was dismissed, the remainder of the front office opted to give Tim Hardaway Jr. an untouchable $71 million to go with the albatross deals given to both Noah and Courtney Lee last summer.

After successful stints with the Detroit Pistons, Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic, Perry is a fantastic candidate to clean up the mess at Madison Square Garden. Honestly, Perry has a chance to start off extremely well with the Knickerbocker-diehards by just playing things safe. Holding onto Porzingis is an excellent first step, but if he can get relatively fair value for Anthony, Perry will be hailed in New York almost immediately.

If front offices have learned anything lately, it may be that there are no shortcuts to success in this current NBA landscape. Undoubtedly, there’s plenty of work to be done, but time is on the Knicks’ side. So, if Perry doesn’t look for a get-rich-quick bailout plan in New York, he’s almost guaranteed to break out, especially in comparison to the former job holder.

Although the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors will likely remain atop of the Atlantic Division, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of compelling storylines to look out for in 2017-18. From bloated contracts to new opportunities, Brown, Russell, Hernangomez and Crabbe can all make this upcoming season their best respective full effort yet. After years of what seemed like limitless losing, Brown finally gets to prove his worth as an NBA head coach, while Perry enters a critical period in the Knicks’ franchise timeline.

On and off the court, this group of six players, coaches and executives are ready to break out in a big way in the Atlantic Division during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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NBA AM: Most Likely All-Star Snubs

Damian Lillard seems to top the All-Star snub list every season. It couldn’t happen again, could it?

Joel Brigham

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This year the NBA has famously decided to mix up the way the All-Star rosters work, while rather infamously deciding against televising the draft that will organize those players into teams, but even as some things change, some things remain the same.

Just like every year, there will be snubs when the All-Star reserves are announced on Tuesday night. Oh, there will be snubs.

The starters already have been selected, chosen by a combination of fan votes, media votes and player votes, the latter of which were taken so seriously that Summer League legend Jack Cooley even earned a single nomination from one especially ornery player voter.

For those that missed the starters, they include LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, and Joel Embiid from the Eastern Conference and Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and James Harden from the Western Conference.

That leaves seven more reserves from each conference and way more deserving players than that from which to choose. These will be selected by the coaches, per tradition, but it’s anybody’s guess who ends up making the team. There absolutely are going to be some massive snubs this year, so let’s take a quick look at the most likely candidates to earn roster spots this winter, as well as who that might leave out of this year’s event in Los Angeles.

The Eastern Conference

Let’s start with the “sure things,” which almost certainly will include with Indian Pacers guard Victor Oladipo. Not only is he putting up a career-best 24/5/4 line, but he’s also averaging two steals per night for an Indiana team that currently lives in the playoff picture despite dismal expectations. That’s almost entirely because of Oladipo.

In the frontcourt, there was plenty of healthy debate when Embiid was voted the starter over Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis, so there’s a very good chance that those two guys find their way to the roster, as well.

Kevin Love, who also is having a monster statistical season, seems like the most obvious third frontcourt guy, but his defense stinks and the Cavs haven’t exactly proven themselves worthy of two All-Stars. Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris both are having borderline All-Star seasons for a borderline playoff team, but they are the closest contenders to stealing away that third frontcourt reserve slot from Love.

Beyond that, Bradley Beal or John Wall likely will be the “other” guard reserve, but choosing which one is dicey. Wall’s the four-time All-Star, but Beal arguably is having the better year and has been snubbed for this event entirely too many times already. It doesn’t seem likely that both guys will make the team.

The wild cards could be that “other” Wizards guard among Beal and Wall, one of those two Pistons players, Miami’s Goran Dragic (they are fourth in the conference, rather surprisingly), Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, or Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons.

What seems most probable is that Oladipo and Beal earn the Eastern Conference reserve slots, with Horford, Porzingis and Love earning the backup frontcourt positions. Lowry and Wall feel most likely as reserves.

That means the most likely Eastern Conference snubs will be: Goran Dragic, Ben Simmons, Andre Drummod, Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton.

The level of controversy with this group feels fairly low, though if Dragic or Drummond were to make the team over Wall or Love, the conversation would be a lot feistier.

The Western Conference

Choosing the reserve guards in the Western Conference is a no-brainer. It will be MVP candidates Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook, which immediately means that if Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Paul George are not named as Wild Card players, they will be left off of the team. That’s about as “yikes” as “yikes” gets.

The battle for the frontcourt spots are going to be no less brutal, even with Kawhi Leonard effectively out of consideration having missed so much time at the beginning of the season. The Spurs will have an All-Star anyway, though, which makes LaMarcus Aldridge all but a lock.

Towns, who is averaging a 20/12 with over two assists and 1.5 blocks per game on one of the West’s top teams, also feels likely to get in. That means Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic are the two guys expected to battle over that last frontcourt spot, and both deserve real consideration. Green’s importance is less obvious to this Warriors team with Durant on the roster, but he’s no less essential even if his offensive numbers are down. Jokic, meanwhile, has kept Denver in the playoff hunt even without Paul Millsap, and is the best passing big man in the game.

The most likely scenario in terms of Western Conference reserves has Butler and Westbrook getting voted in at guard, Aldridge, Towns and Green voted in as frontcourt players, and Thompson and Lillard voted in as the wild cards.

That means the most likely Western Conference snubs will be: Chris Paul, Paul George, and Nikola Jokic.

Paul has missed 17 games this season, which is just too many when there are so many other great guards from which to choose, and George’s usage has dropped massively in Oklahoma City. As for Jokic, somebody has to get snubbed, and the other reasonable possibility is that he be named a wild card player at the expense of Lillard, and no NBA fan should have to see that happen yet again.

The 2018 NBA All-Star Reserves will be announced at 7:00 p.m. EST on January 23 on TNT.

Tune in Tuesday night to see which players will make the team, and which will inevitably be snubbed.

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