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NBA Daily: Post-Deadline Rankings – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series with a breakdown of the five teams in the Atlantic.

Drew Maresca

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With the trade deadline behind us, teams around the league must turn their attention to incorporating new players. For some teams, this is mostly moot due to their having been all but eliminated from Playoff contention already. But for others, how well new additions fit with the roster can make or break their entire season, which can also have longer-lasting effects like chasing away free agents or convincing current players to sign elsewhere.

The Atlantic Division’s teams saw more than its share of player movement this trade deadline. Just examining star movement: Kristaps Porzingis relocated out of the division and Tobias Harris and Marc Gasol moved in. The arms race was already on between Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto. And the deadline only amplified that.

Basketball Insiders kicked off a division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series to illustrate and analyze trades and signings, who benefited the most and how these transactions will impact the race to the top moving forward.

Let’s continue examining rankings with the Atlantic Division:

Boston Celtics

Deadline moves:

Traded Jabari Bird to Atlanta for cash considerations.

The Celtics have underperformed this season. They have looked lost at times, they don’t always share the ball as much as they should and they have more mental breakdowns than the 2017-18 iteration of the team. Further, the team’s chemistry seems a bit off after a number of flair-ups throughout the season including a mid-game shoving match between Marcus Morris Sr. and Jaylen Brown, rumors about Kyrie Irving’s dissatisfaction with the team and – most recently –Morris’ rant about the Celtics’ playing like individuals.

Still, they are 37-21 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics did not make any additions at the deadline, nor did they add anyone via the buyout market yet despite pursing Enes Kanter (Morris would like to team to purse Markieff Morris, his twin brother).

They also really don’t need any more talent or personalities. Their roster is already talented enough to compete for a championship. But they need to get their act together – and fast. While the Pacers will probably fall a number of spots thanks to the Victor Oladipo injury, they are even with the 76ers in the standings and both teams trail the Bucks and the Raptors – which means neither would be likely to have home-court advantage in the second round or the Conference Finals if the Playoffs started today.

Prediction: 3rdplace in the Atlantic Division, 4thplace in the Eastern Conference

Brooklyn Nets

Deadline moves:

Traded cash considerations for Greg Monroe (waived) and Toronto’s 2021 second-round pick.

The Nets continued picking the pockets of teams looks to dump salary. They took on a Greg Monroe (and waived him), which cost them nothing meaningful and added a future second-round pick to their arsenal of assets. While the trade does nothing for this season, it illustrates the Nets philosophy of being opportunistic.

As far as this season is concerned, the Nets are already huge winners having overachieved beyond belief. But team officials, coaches and fans want more – and more can be had.

While the Nets did recently return to the stratosphere, losing five of their last seven, Caris LeVert is already back from a November foot injury and Spencer Dinwiddie is expected back shortly following Allstar break. The Nets biggest challenge between now and the Playoffs might be how to manage rotations with all their talent. Lookout for them to hit their groove (again) at the perfect time and -cause some noise in the Playoffs.

Prediction: 4thin the Atlantic Division, 5thin the Eastern Conference

New York Knicks

Deadline moves:

Traded Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to Dallas for Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, Wes Matthews and two future first-round picks.

The Knicks kicked off deadline activity a week early with the Kristaps Porzingis deal. The deal materialized seemingly out of nowhere; however, the Knicks became increasingly disconcerted with Porzingis’ dedication to the team. They were a bit surprised with the return available after beginning outreach in January, but mostly recouped what they’d hoped for: a young stud (Smith Jr.), significant cap space for free agency 2019 and at least a future first-round pick (including the Mavs unprotected 2021 first-round pick).

The remainder of this season looks bleak for the Knicks, who have already lost seven straight since the trade (and 18 straight on the whole, which is a franchise record). The Knicks waived Matthews, but chose to hang onto Jordan, who is a good mentor for Mitchell Robinson and a friend of Kevin Durant, a player the Knicks hope to lure to New York come July.

Hopefully for the Knicks and their fans, the constant chatter about tanking for Zion doesn’t leave the young Knicks too disenchanted. Knox recently spoke with Marc Berman of the New York Post about his disdain for fans rooting for losses and he already sounds sick of it.

Updated prediction: 5thin the Atlantic, 15thin the Eastern Conference

Philadelphia 76ers

Deadline moves:

Traded Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, a (lottery-protected) 2020 first-round pick, a 2021 first-round pick, a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round picks in exchange for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott.

Traded Markelle Fultz for Jonathan Simmons, a 2020 (lottery-protected) first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick.

The 76ers pushed their chips to the middle of the table at the trade deadline. They started off the season 8-6. They then traded for Jimmy Butler and went 26-14 in the approximately three months from then until the trade deadline. Then they upgrade on the last day before the trade deadline with the addition of Tobias Harris and, separately, sent former number one overall pick Markelle Fultz to Orlando for a player with a lower ceiling and a higher floor. If they can play better basketball with Harris on the team than they did without him – which was .650 in the 40 games following the Butler trade), then they will be in excellent position to challenge all comers for the Eastern Conference crown.

Harris gives the 76ers a versatile wing who can stretch the floor, shoot from deep and handle the ball when needed. He is a legitimate star and possibly the best fourth option in the entire league – although Draymond Green and Jaylen Brown might not agree. If the Sixers can get 2017-18-like production from Jonathan Simmons (13.9 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 29.4 minutes per game), it would provide additional firepower to a relatively depleted Philadelphia bench.

Thus far, the 76ers are 3-1 following the trades, which bodes well for the team. With Oladipo’s injury and Boston’s continued struggles (despite beating Philadelphia this week in Philly), the third seed should be theirs’ for the taking. And while catching Milwaukee and/or Toronto is probably a pipe dream, it’s also within the realm of possibilities for a team with this much talent — and could set them up for a deep Playoff run.

Prediction: 2ndin the Atlantic Division, 3rdin the Eastern Conference

Toronto Raptors

Deadline moves:

Traded Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a future second-round pick to Memphis for Marc Gasol

Traded Greg Monroe and their 2021 second-round pick for cash .considerations

The Raptors appeared to be sitting pat this trade deadline, which would have made sense considering they just added Kawhi Leonard approximately six months ago. But after watching the Bucks and 76ers upgrade, team president Masai Ujiri swung for the fences with a deal that netted them Marc Gasol.

The Raptors were already quite deep, so subtracting Valanciunas, Wright and Miles does not hurt too badly – especially with the addition of a high-IQ player like Gasol, who represents an immediate upgrade at the center position. His versatility will almost certainly aid the Raptors.

Additionally, rumors indicate that Toronto will add Jeremy Lin soon. Lin was waived by Atlanta following the trade deadline and will be eligible to sign with the Raptors once he clears waivers – a certainty given his $13.8 million salary. Lin will be a serendipitous addition with Fred VanVleet missing three weeks with a thumb injury, and his playmaking ability should greatly benefit the team’s second unit.

With a division-best record of 43-16 and a 5.5 game lead in the Atlantic, it is unlikely they get caught (but not impossible). The Raptors will have a few kinks to work out with the new additions, but it’s a safe bet that they finish the year in the top two of the Conference. And if Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby can continue playing like borderline Allstars, the Raptors might be the most dangerous team in the entire East.

Prediction: 1st in the Atlantic Division, 1stin the Eastern Conference

The Atlantic Division featured some of the league’s top teams prior to the trade deadline, and it only got better as a result of it. Four of the conference’s top five most talented teams claim the division as their home. And with a shared division comes increased familiarity and competition. Expect fireworks come April, especially into the second round of the Playoffs and beyond, as three of the four conference finalists could very possibly hail from the Atlantic.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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