Basketball Insiders continues its series of ranking the top 10 players at each position. So far this week, we’ve looked at the top 10 point guards and top 10 shooting guards. Without further delay, here are our top 10 small forwards entering the 2016-17 season:
1. LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
You may love LeBron James or you may hate him, but there’s no debate: he is currently the top small forward in the NBA. Nearing the age of 32, James has a ton of miles on his body. With some nagging injuries over the years, some suggested that he has lost a step, isn’t the same player he once was or can’t dominate the way he used to. Well, James sent a big statement to his doubters in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, when he averaged an incredible 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game over the seven-game series. James led his team back from a 3-1 deficit and in Game 7, he logged 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocks and two steals to become just the third player in history to post a triple-double in a Finals Game 7. He also had a key block on Andre Iguodala with less than two minutes to go and the game tied that was instrumental in the Cavaliers pulling out the win.
It’s true that James can’t put out the same level of physical dominance as consistently as he could earlier in his career. But James proved that when his team needs him to be the best and most dominant basketball player on the planet, he can still deliver. Whether he is chasing down a block on the break, locking down a perimeter scorer, guarding someone in the post, working as a top-level playmaker or zoning in as a scorer, James is still a one-man force and the best small forward, if not the best basketball player, on the planet.
2. Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors
Yes, Kevin Durant now has to share the ball with three other All-Stars, which could bring down his box score averages. It doesn’t matter; he is still the second-best small forward in the NBA. Durant is probably the still the best pure scorer in the NBA and is a matchup nightmare. The question now becomes how well he fits with the Golden State Warriors.
Under head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors run a pass-happy, motion-based offense where players consistently pass up open looks for even better scoring opportunities for teammates. Durant now steps into the starting small forward position in place of Harrison Barnes, who mostly was looked to for spot-up shooting and the occasional drive to the basket. Durant is capable of much more in terms of scoring, shooting and playmaking. Durant may ultimately score less in isolation and rack up more assists with elite shooters around him. Whatever Durant’s role ends up being, he will still be the most talented small forward in the league aside from James and will make an already dominant Warriors team even better. This is especially likely if he can build off of his impressive defensive performance throughout the playoffs last season, where he looked like a light version Draymond Green.
3. Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs
Over his five seasons in the NBA, Kawhi Leonard has turned himself into one of the most well-rounded and best players in the NBA. Leonard has earned back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, edging out defensive savant Draymond Green and the league’s elite defensive centers. Leonard’s dominant defense is instrumental for his team’s success, and he is eager to lock down the best opposing scorer each and every night. Whether it’s jumping a passing lane that leads to an open layup in transition, forcing an elite scorer into a poor shooting night or guarding bigger players in the post, Leonard is the most versatile defender in the league aside from Green.
In addition to his defense, Leonard is a handful on offense and last season turned himself into an elite shooter from three-point range. Leonard had never shot better than 37.9 percent from distance until last season, when he shot an impressive 44.3 percent from beyond the arc. The Spurs’ offense generates open looks from deep consistently, so Leonard surely benefits from getting plenty of open catch-and-shoot opportunities every night. However, Leonard has also improved his ability to score off the dribble and is now a threat to take the ball into the midrange area and do damage from there as well. The next step for Leonard is becoming a better playmaker for his teammates, which may happen now that the Spurs will need to adjust their offense with the retirement of Tim Duncan. If Leonard improves that area of his game this season, he will take another significant step forward and could start pushing Durant and James for one of the top two spots in these rankings.
4. Paul George – Indiana Pacers
NBA fans were happy to have Paul George back on the court last season after he battled back from his devastating leg injury in 2014. Then, not only were they thrilled just to see him healthy, they were amazed to see him playing the best ball of his career. Over 81 regular season games, George averaged 23.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.9 steals, while shooting 37.1 percent from distance and 41.8 percent from the field. George’s efficiency dropped in some areas, but that’s partially because he had to shoulder so much of the responsibility on offense, acting both as a primary scorer and playmaker.
George took things to another level in the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors, where he averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and two steals, shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three-point range. George couldn’t lead the Pacers to a series victory, but he proved that he is still one of the best overall players in the game. Additionally, his defensive impact continues to be one of the best of any player as he consistently locks down opposing scorers. George may not be on Leonard’s level as a defender, but he isn’t too far off either. With more talent around him for this upcoming season, George may be able to lead the Pacers to a deep playoff run in the Eastern Conference.
5. Carmelo Anthony – New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony has been one of the best scorers in the NBA since entering the league in the 2003. However, last season Anthony focused less on scoring and became a better playmaker, averaging a career-high 4.2 assists per game. This is a significant development for Anthony and the New York Knicks, especially now that he will be surrounded by several talented teammates like Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings. Anthony may never be a LeBron James- or Paul George-level playmaker, but it is important for him to continue expanding his game as he enters his 15th NBA season at 32 years old.
However, despite his age and the miles on his body, Anthony can still produce in a big way. Last season he averaged 21.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and almost one block per game, while shooting 33.9 percent from deep and 43.4 percent from the field. Anthony will need to bring his shooting percentages up, which seems likely to happen considering he generally shoots better after playing with Team USA (as detailed by Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal) and he now has more talent around him.
It should be noted that Anthony has played significant minutes at power forward and could continue to do so. However, the league continues to move toward position-less basketball and small forwards are playing power forward in certain situations more often than ever before. Anthony may be better-suited to play at power forward at this point in his career, but he will still play significant minutes at small forward this season and he’s still one of the best all-around players at the position in the NBA.
6. Gordon Hayward – Utah Jazz
Over his six seasons in the NBA, Gordon Hayward has established himself as one of the best all-around small forwards in the NBA. He may not be the defender that Leonard is, the shooter Durant is or the physical specimen Giannis Antetokounmpo is, but he does everything really well and has no glaring weaknesses in his game. Last season, Hayward averaged 19.7 points, five rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game and shot 34.9 percent from beyond the arc and 43.3 percent from the field. Like Paul George, Hayward’s shooting percentages and efficiency stand to improve, but that deficiency comes as a result of shouldering such a big responsibility for running his team’s offense. A strong ball-handler, underrated passer and skilled scorer, Hayward is arguably the Jazz’s most important player.
Hayward is primed for a big season as he has reportedly spent the offseason working hard to improve his conditioning, strength and overall game. If the Jazz have some better luck with health this season, they could surprise a lot of people and make some noise in the Western Conference. If they do, it will likely be in large part because of Hayward’s considerable nightly impact.
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo is only 21 years old, but is already one of the most talented, versatile and unique players in the league. Entering just his fourth season, we have only seen glimpses of what ‘The Greek Freak’ is fully capable of. Last season, Antetokounmpo averaged 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, while shooting 25.7 percent from three-point range and 50.6 percent from the field. Antetokounmpo clearly needs to significantly improve his shooting to take another step in his development, but don’t let that shortcoming overshadow the other impressive parts of his game.
As I detailed in this article, Antetokounmpo has already become a very good playmaker from the small forward position. Antetokounmpo was particularly good after the All-Star break and registered several triple doubles throughout the season. Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd reportedly plans on using Antetokounmpo as a primary playmaker even more this season, so we should see him continue to run his team’s offense from the small forward position. If Antetokounmpo can continue improving as a playmaker, shooter and all-around team defender, he could become of the best overall players in the league sooner rather than later.
8. Nicolas Batum – Charlotte Hornets
There’s a reason why the Charlotte Hornets agreed to give Batum a five-year, $120 million contract this offseason. Like Gordon Hayward, Batum isn’t particularly elite in any single facet of the game, but he is a strong all-around contributor who can impact both ends of the court. Last season, Batum averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists and nearly one steal per game, while shooting 42.6 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from three-point range. Batum became only the fourth player in the franchise’s history to notch over 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 400 assists in a single season (Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn did so in 2000-01 and Anthony Mason did so in 1996-97).
Batum may be somewhat overrated as a perimeter defender at this point, but he is still a very good defender. His length and defensive instincts make him a tough matchup for most wing scorers in the NBA and provides Charlotte with a go-to defender for the toughest opponents. Now Batum can share that duty with all-world defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed the vast majority of last season with shoulder injuries. Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum should make a dynamic defensive duo for the Hornets, though Batum will have a bigger load to carry on offense since Kidd-Gilchrist is still working on his shaky shooting mechanics.
9. Andrew Wiggins – Minnesota Timberwolves
Andrew Wiggins is oozing with natural talent, but needs to make the move from volume scorer to all-around contributor. Wiggins averaged 20.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, two assists and one steal last season, while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range. Wiggins’ averages are solid for a 21-year-old, second-year player and they are likely to improve moving forward. Specifically, Wiggins needs to hone in on his shooting percentage from three-point range.
With Karl-Anthony Towns likely to draw double-teams consistently, Wiggins will need to knock down catch-and-shoot three-pointers consistently. He also will need to continue improving his game off the dribble. While Wiggins has the athletic ability to execute impressive plays going to the basket, too often he plays out of control and throws up difficult shots. Despite these criticisms, Wiggins has shown an evolving game over his short NBA career, including the ability to score in isolation, in the post, in transition and in cutting to the basket. He also was elite at drawing fouls last season, as he averaged seven free throw attempts per game.
Wiggins also has all the physical tools to be an elite wing-defender. However, Wiggins too often loses focus on defense, misses rotations or looks to make a home run play rather than focusing on smaller things like proper footwork or properly funneling his opponent into a weak side defender. That should change this upcoming season with Tom Thibodeau taking over as the team’s head coach. Thibodeau demands top-level effort and execution from his players, so Wiggins should make strides on the defensive end moving forward.
Once Wiggins adds some more experience and polish to his game and couples that with his elite athleticism, he should become one of the toughest matchups in the NBA.
10. Jae Crowder – Boston Celtics
Jae Crowder makes his way into this top 10 list after putting together a strong 2015-16 season for the Boston Celtics. Crowder averaged a career-best 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds. 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals last season and was instrumental in the Celtics earning a 48-34 regular season record. Crowder only shot 33.6 percent from beyond the arc last season, but defenses respected him enough to close in on him when he had an open look on the perimeter.
Where Crowder makes his biggest impact is on defense. Crowder is able to hold his own against the best scorers in the league and isn’t afraid to mix it up with opposing big men either. He is the quintessential Celtic as he does everything he can to help his team win, even if that means playing out of position or playing within a limited role. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has created a culture of discipline and effort in Boston and no one embodies those things quite like Crowder. Crowder may never overtake some of the more naturally talented players on this list, but he certainly deserves recognition for the significant impact he’s had for the Celtics over the last two seasons. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s locked into a bargain five-year, $35 million contract.
The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns
Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.
Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.
On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.
Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.
For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.
Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.
“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.
“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.
So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.
What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.
Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.
Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.
With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.
Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.
On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.
The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.
So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.
After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.
Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.
Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.
Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.
“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.
“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.
“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”
* * * * * *
When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.
It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.
So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.
As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.
Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.
If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.
That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.
* * * * * *
Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.
And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.
Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.
Josh Jackson Isn’t Surprised By The NBA’s Learning Curve
While most rookies are taken back by the NBA’s game speed, Josh Jackson saw it coming.
In a league that is usually full of surprises, Josh Jackson hasn’t seen anything he didn’t expect so far in the NBA.
The fourth overall pick in last June’s draft, considered one of the centerpieces in the Phoenix Suns’ rebuild, Jackson has been ready for the twists and turns thrown his way during the first month and change of his rookie season.
Most rookies and first-year players harp on how the speed of the game is so drastically different in the Association. Especially for prospects that spend just a year in the college ranks, adjusting to playing at a faster pace against grown men presents a bit of a learning curve.
For Jackson though, that hasn’t been the case at all.
“It’s been going pretty good,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders about his rookie season. “Nothing that I didn’t expect. The game is actually a lot slower than I thought it would be coming in from college. You can really tell it’s a thinking game, just read and react. The smarter players are the best players. You just gotta think the game a little bit more.”
Coming out of the University of Kansas, Jackson was considered one of the top prospects in his class. As a Jayhawk, he showed a deft ability to find his way to the basket and possessed physical traits that projected he could be a solid defensive wing at the next level.
Despite being ready for the next level, Jackson hasn’t been perfect on the court. Few rookies ever are. In the small forward’s defense, the Suns’ struggles as a team certainly don’t help his case any either.
Through his first 27 games though, Jackson has registered 32 steals, and has been responsible for guarding a multitude of the league’s best players. In the ever-evolving NBA, defensive matchups are rarely just “small forward on small forward” — sometimes it’s much more complex than that.
In his early goings, Jackson’s been put in that position more than few times. Again, no surprise to him, though.
“When we played the Clippers I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “It was pretty tough. He’s real strong. He’s really improving on his game from this year to last year, I think. It just shows that guys are always in the gym and always working hard, trying to get better.
“I saw it coming,” Jackson said about his assignment. “The game’s definitely changing. Guys like myself are starting to starting to play the four. The NBA is starting to lean towards small-ball. I already knew coming in I was gonna have to guard a bunch of different positions.”
From guarding Griffin, a 6-foot-10 power forward, to guarding the likes of John Wall, a 6-foot-5 speedy point guard, to Ben Simmons, who is a 6-foot-10 weird mix of the two players just mentioned, Jackson’s done it all.
Coupled with the struggles of his team, and the rookie bumps that Jackson’s taken, his team’s record and statistics may not directly represent the defensive versatility and potential Jackon has displayed in the early part of this season. To him, it doesn’t matter how good the individual can be on that end of the court.
“Defense is always a team effort,” Jackson said. “You can have the best defender in the world on the worst defensive team, and you know, they wouldn’t be a good defensive team. Just trying to keep that energy up, just trying to be that guy who’s pressuring the ball, running off of steals. Stuff like that.”
With his defensive potential serving as a hallmark reason Jackson was drafted so high, his offensive game can be given somewhat of a buffer period to be developed. Having no trouble getting to the rim in college, Jackson did struggle, however, when it came to shooting jump shots. A particular hitch in his shooting motion handicapped Jackson from showing true signs of growth while at Kansas.
After a slight retooling of his mechanics, Jackson’s form is looking a lot smoother than it did just a year ago, even if the results haven’t translated just yet. Jackson is posting a true shooting percentage of 45.1 and is below 30 percent from beyond the arc. With tweaked form, at this point, it’s about getting reps for Jackson.
“I don’t really focus on it that much, I just go and shoot,” Jackson said. “It’s all about repetition and muscle memory. So, more shots, the better you’ll be at shooting.”
Being a Kansas product, Jackson joins a big fraternity of Jayhawks in the NBA, some of whom are star-level talents. While he was in Philadelphia on Monday night for the Suns’ matchup with the Sixers, Jackson got a chance to catch up with an old friend, Joel Embiid.
Embiid and Jackson are good friends, and spent time working out while Jackson was still in college. Known for his Twitter fingers and sharp tongue, Embiid has taken a different role with Jackson as the 20-year-old wing player takes on his rookie season.
“Not that big of a trash-talker to me, more of a teacher I think,” Jackson said of his relationship with Embiid. “He’s been a great guy. Just trying to tell me what to look out for in the league, struggles that he had in his rookie season, just trying to keep my head, and knowing that I need to get better.”
Along with Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and other past Kansas players have reached out to Jackson since he was drafted and offered their advice and support. The NBA season is a long road, and bumpy one at times for a rookie, no matter how gifted they are.
The word of advice from Kansas players to Jackson is mostly to just keep his head up no matter what, and focus on being a better player every day.
So far in his rookie season, Jackson is off to a good start in that regard.
First Quarter Grades: Southeast
David Yapkowitz breaks down each Southeast Division team at the season’s quarter pole.
We wrap up our latest series here at Basketball Insiders with the Southeast Division quarter grades.
There was one brief surprise in the division during the first quarter of the season when the Orlando Magic started off looking like a playoff team. Since then, they’ve come back down to earth. The Washington Wizards are the obvious cream of the crop here, but even they have been up and down. Here’s our final installment of each team’s first quarter grades.
Atlanta Hawks 5-19
It was only a couple years ago that the Hawks were emerging into a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. In Mike Budenholzer’s second year as head coach during the 2014-15 season, they won 60 games and made a conference finals appearance. Since then, they’ve either traded away or allowed the key players from that team to sign elsewhere, entering a full rebuild.
Bright Spot: When teams start down the rebuilding path, getting draft picks right goes a long way to regaining prominence. The Hawks’ front office certainly got this last draft right with John Collins. Although the promising young rookie is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury, he’s been the biggest bright spot for Atlanta. Prior to his injury, he had been inserted into the starting lineup. He’s put up 11.5 points on 59.2 percent shooting and 7.1 rebounds so far. As the Hawks reshape their roster, Collins is proving he’s part of the future.
Areas to improve: During Budenholzer’s first couple of years with the Hawks, they were always one of the better defensive teams in the NBA. This year, the 108.6 points per game they’re giving up is all the way down at 25th out of 30 teams. They do have players on the team capable of being good defenders. Collins is one, and so is second-year forward Taurean Prince. Dewayne Dedmon is a solid rim protector. A lot of it comes with improvement as well as more effort on that side of the ball.
First Quarter Grade: D+
Charlotte Hornets 9-15
When the Hornets acquired Dwight Howard in the offseason, they looked like a team trying to get back to the playoffs. They haven’t played like it, though. The two worst teams in the league are clearly the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, but the Hornets are not all that much better. They’ve had two extended losing streaks, one of six games and one of four. Nicolas Batum was injured to start the season, but his return hasn’t managed to turn things around.
Bright Spot: Sometimes it takes a few seasons and a change of scenery for players to emerge into legit contributors. Such was the case for Jeremy Lamb. He started in place of Batum early on and was having the best season of his career. Coming off the bench now, he’s still kept up his solid production. He’s come off the bench for ten games now and scored in double figures for nine of those games. To date, he’s averaging 15.3 points on 44.7 percent, 35.7 percent from three, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.
Areas to improve: Defense has also been an issue for the Hornets. In Steve Clifford’s first year as head coach during the 2013-14 season, they gave up 97.1 points per game, good enough for 4th in the league. They’ve been slipping a bit each year since then and this season they’re down at 16th. Their defense hit rock bottom on Friday night when they gave up 119 points to the Bulls in a loss. The Bulls scored 56 points in the paint and had been on a ten-game losing streak. This isn’t a young team anymore so you can’t just chalk it up to being green. If they want to turn their season around and make the playoffs, they’ll need vast defensive improvement.
First Quarter Grade: D-
Orlando Magic 11-16
As the season began, the Magic looked like they had finally turned the corner. They revamped the front office, and the team was playing inspired basketball. At one point, they were even sitting atop the Eastern Conference. Things can change fast in the NBA, however. The Magic were 8-4 when they hit a rough patch that saw them lose nine games in a row. Since snapping their losing streak on Nov. 29, they’ve played .500 ball and suffered some critical injuries.
Bright Spot: Although he often played out of position, Aaron Gordon has always been a power forward. This season, he was moved back to his natural position full-time. He’s responded with the best season of his career to date. He’s averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game on 49.5 percent from the field and 8.3 rebounds. What’s most impressive, however, is his 40.6 percent from downtown. He’s definitely performed at an All-Star level.
Areas to improve: Rebounding-wise, the Magic could do a lot better. Their 42.0 rebounds per game are 22nd in the league, and they’re giving up 46.7. They have guys on the team in Gordon and Nikola Vucevic who should be capable of averaging double figures in rebounding. They also could stand to improve defensively. They’re giving up 110.8 points per game, right smack at the bottom of the NBA, 28th to be exact. For the Magic to regain that early season momentum, it would do them well to take a look at these areas.
First Quarter Grade: C-
Miami HEAT 11-13
Last season, the HEAT surprisingly finished with a .500 record at 41-41, and just missed the playoffs. This season, they’re on track to finish in a similar position. Considering they pretty much brought back the same group, it shouldn’t be too surprising. They’ve got the talent to make the playoffs in the East, but they also could just as easily finish on the outside looking in once again. They’re an average team.
Bright Spot: They have seen crucial development from some of their young guys, which is key to how they end up finishing the season. As detailed by our own Spencer Davies here at Basketball Insiders, Josh Richardson has emerged as a defensive anchor of sorts for the HEAT. He’s their best perimeter defender and he can score too, as evidenced by his 10.1 points per game. Starting center Hassan Whiteside has been out recently due to injury, and rookie Bam Adebayo has also shown defensive flashes with increased minutes due to Whiteside’s injury. He’s a multi-position defender, capable of patrolling the paint as well as switching off onto wings.
Areas to improve: The HEAT could stand to improve offensively a bit. They are averaging 100.2 points per game, which puts them down at 27th in the league. Better ball movement on the perimeter could help with that. They’re currently near the bottom half of the league in assists. It would also help if they were able to make more of their shots from the three-point line. They take a high number of threes per game at 32.6, third most in the league. But efficiency-wise, they’re down at 14th (36.7 percent). To be near the top of the league in three-pointers attempted, you should be hitting at a higher efficiency.
First Quarter Grade: C
Washington Wizards 14-11
Coming into the season, the Wizards were seen as a potential threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. They haven’t really looked the part, however. They’re only three games above .500 and 5-5 in their last ten. They look like an average playoff team, not one hoping to challenge the defending conference champs. That said, they’re still far and away the best team in the division.
Bright Spot: This may finally be the year that Bradley Beal makes an All-Star appearance. He’s overtaken John Wall as the leading scorer on the Wizards with his team- and career-high 23.8 points per game. His three-point shooting is down a bit at 36 percent, but he’s getting to the free throw line with more frequency. He’s always been a great outside shooter since coming into the NBA, so as the season goes on look for that improve.
Areas to improve: What the Wizards need to do is to stop being just average. They’re pretty much in the middle of the pack when it comes to every facet of the game from scoring, to defense, rebounding, assists, three-point percentage, you name it. They don’t really do any one thing exceptionally well. If that’s the goal, to be an average playoff team, then by all means, continue. But this was a team that was supposed to be in the upper echelon of the East. They can’t have a 6-5 record at home as they currently do.
First Quarter Grade: B-
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