This week, our team at Basketball Insiders has launched the series of six things to know about each division in the league. We’ve already covered the Southeast, Central and Pacific Divisions, respectively. Today, we are going to take a look at what you need to know about the Northwest Division.
There are several story lines that could shape not only the division but also the league as a whole in the Northwest this year. The main one is the recent foot injury to Kevin Durant and how the team will handle his absence. The Portland Trail Blazers, fresh off an overachieving season, would like to use this opportunity to gain some momentum early to put some distance between themselves and the Thunder if they struggle to maintain afloat. There’s also been some player movement of note that will impact the teams involved, with the Minnesota Timberwolves trading Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Arron Afflalo returning to the Denver Nuggets. The influx of youth for the Timberwolves will play a significant part in the expectations for the team as they look at the long-term picture. Speaking of youth, the Utah Jazz are in a similar spot, but their core young pieces have played together for a few years now and, with new head coach Quin Snyder, are looking to take the next step and start capitalizing on their potential. The Nuggets, coming off a very disappointing injury marred season last year, are looking to turn things around this year during Brain Shaw’s second year at the helm. Once again the Nuggets come into the season with some health concerns that could have a significant impact on their season. The top spot for the division will likely be decided between the Thunder and the Blazers. How that plays out may alter the playoff landscape and give the victor a significant advantage when the regular season ends.
1. The Thunder will be tested with Durant out.
Six to eight weeks. That equates to approximately 19 regular season games missed. That’s the initial recovery prognosis that was given when it was discovered that the discomfort franchise superstar Kevin Durant was experiencing on his right foot turned out to be a Jones fracture and would require surgery. The Thunder have not played without their franchise cornerstone for an extended period of time like this before. This will be a big test not only for the team but also for Russell Westbrook. The All-Star point guard has long been the second option, with Durant leading the charge as the team’s primary offensive weapon. A scoring guard by nature who’s averaged over 21 points per game for the last four seasons, Westbrook is no stranger to getting buckets. That being said, he’s also been heavily criticized in the media over the years for not deferring enough to his teammates and trying to take over games. With Durant out and scoring needed, this will be his opportunity to truly be the man and run the show. How he blends his scoring with his playmaking will determine how well the team will play in Durant’s absence.
When put on the spot about how what he will do now that Durant is out with injury, Westbrook had some choice words for Royce Young of ESPN earlier this week saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about our team. I can’t win games by myself. I can’t do anything by myself. I kind of want to take the attention off me and put it more on the team. Everybody keeps asking what I’m going to do and how I’m going to change. I think it’s more about our team and what we can do.”
This time will be an opportunity for other players to step up their game. Nobody can replace arguably the best player in the league. However, one advantage the Thunder do have is the team is deep. Serge Ibaka has improved every single year he’s been in the league and although he’s best known to be a force on the defensive end, his scoring has been a welcomed part of his progression as a player. As a rookie five seasons ago he averaged a paltry 6.3 points per game and last year he averaged a career-high 15.1 points per game. He’s expanded his range and his teammates have shown confidence in his offensive skills. Reggie Jackson, who’s also coming off a career high 13.1 points per game, has been chomping at the bit to prove that he is more than just a backup point guard. He’s also looking to receive a big payday and has been in talks with the team about a contract extension. Thunder GM Sam Presti has gone on record to say that he envisions Jackson with the team for a long time regardless of whether they come to a contract extension agreement by October 31 or wait until next offseason when he becomes a restricted free agent. Look for Jackson to try and build his value during this time to give Presti something to think about.
And let’s not forget about the young guys. Steven Adams turned some heads last year with his aggressive play as a rookie and has a little better than advertised offensive game coming out of college with Pittsburgh. Through five preseason games, he’s averaged 15.2 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and 1.4 blocks per game. Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are guys that have a lot of potential and were highly regarded first round draft picks who have not had much of a chance to show what they are capable of playing on a stacked title contending team in the Western Conference. Look for both of them to get some increased playing time and get an opportunity to see if they can contribute.
2. The Portland Trail Blazers will be eager to show last season was not a fluke.
We’ve all seen the three-pointer that Damion Lillard drilled at the buzzer to advance to the second round past the Houston Rockets last season. It was amazing basketball and the culmination of a great feel good story for the Blazers’ season. Why is that a big deal? Because the last time the team made it past the first round in the playoffs was back in the year 2000 when the roster featured the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis, Detlef Schrempf, Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen. That year they lost in the Western Conference Finals. The city has been yearning for a long time for their team to return as a contender in the league. Their fans got their hopes up when they saw flashes of potential with the duo of LaMarcus Adridge and Brandon Roy showing promise and bringing the team to respectability. A few years of first round exits and Roy’s early retirement due to his knees have made it a tough road to climb back to prominence. So what’s changed? They have talented pieces that fit and they hit a home run when they drafted Lillard.
It was not too long ago that there were murmurs about Aldridge looking to do exactly what Kevin Love just did and make a fresh start with a new team. Now, 54 wins later and with a new All-Star point guard sidekick who’s just starting to scratch the surface of his potential (averaging 20.7 points and 5.6 assists in only his second year in the league), his outlook has changed.
“I’m happy to stay, happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two,” Aldridge said over the summer to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian “This has no impact on my interest in staying in Portland. I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that’s the best decision on my part.”
The Blazers were not expected to make a jump like this by many experts last year before the season began. Now that the expectations are high and with some opportunities to make some noise in the division, look for the team to show that last year was not just a one hit wonder and that they are a team on the rise. Aldridge wants to win badly and he wants to stay with the team now that things have been going well but they will need to keep showing him that the future looks bright in Portland.
3. The Utah Jazz could be a sleeper team this year.
There are many factors that can be looked at when a team overachieves their projected win total. The Utah Jazz can make a case they have several of these factors going for them heading into this year. Similar to the Phoenix Suns of last year, the Jazz have a new head coach, a new up-tempo offense that plays more to the young team’s strengths, and young players who are more likely to show increased improvement as they mature. While all these things are nice to talk about, they still have to put it together on the basketball court. That’s where things get interesting.
So far through five preseason games, the Jazz are 4-1. They’ve beaten the Blazers (twice), Clippers and Lakers. Their only loss came on their second matchup with the Clippers that was very tightly contested to the very end until a scuffle between Trevor Booker and Blake Griffin sparked the Clippers to a narrow win. Does this mean the Jazz are guaranteed to exceed expectations? No. This is just a small sample size. The Jazz were one of the youngest teams in the league last year with an average age of less than 25 years old. The new additions of 19-year-old Aussie lottery pick Dante Exum and 21-year-old draftee Rodney Hood out of Duke aren’t going to help in that regard. Young teams struggle with consistency as they learn to perform at a high level each and every night.
The Jazz were one of the worst teams in the league last season, finishing with a lowly record of 25-57. One of the things that didn’t help the team get things started on the right track was a broken finger injury that sidelined rookie point guard Trey Burke early in the season. The Jazz should be at full strength to start out the season this year and Burke has shown nice strides, averaging 15.2 points, 6.2 assists and one steal per game so far in preseason. Alec Burks has only played in two games so far, but is expected to return to action soon. Exum continues to show flashes of why he was drafted fifth overall in June. Derrick Favors looks more assertive on the offensive end and has continued to display his elite defensive potential on the other end. The re-signing of Gordon Hayward was huge for the Jazz’s continuity as he is a jack of all trades and really helps facilitate the offense. The new weapons on the team have seemed to take some of the pressure off him and he’s playing confidently with his shooting percentages so far in preseason, shooting up to an impressive 61 percent from three point range and 52 percent from the field while averaging 14.6 points per game. If the Jazz can continue to assimilate to Snyder’s free-flowing, pass-laden offense and generate chemistry as a team, look for them to take teams by surprise. They may still not make the playoffs in a tough conference, but they may give us a reason to take notice of their improvement with a leap in their win total this year.
4. The Timberwolves are young in the post Kevin Love Era.
The drama of whether Kevin Love will stay or go is over. The trade that sent the aforementioned franchise star to the Cleveland Cavaliers is complete. What now for the Wolves? In return for Love, they received some key players who will be part of the future. The first being none other than Andrew Wiggins. No longer will the young Canadian-born player be under the heavy shadow of LeBron James with the Cavs; instead, he will be able to play his natural position of small forward, which should be better for his development. He now has the opportunity to play plenty of minutes and show why he went number one overall this year. Everything that we’ve heard from him since the trade is that he has a chip on his shoulder and intends to do exactly just that.
Another fellow Canadian, Anthony Bennett, joins Wiggins in his move to Minnesota. To say Bennett’s NBA career started out in dire straits is an understatement. He had one of the worst rookie seasons in recent memory for a number one overall pick last year for the Cavaliers. He had shoulder surgery before the season started, wasn’t able to get into the type of shape coach Mike Brown was looking for, looked lost on both ends of the floor and never really found his stride rarely seeing the floor by averaging 12.8 minutes and only 4.2 points per game. With all that said, I don’t believe Bennett is the bust many have already prematurely pegged him to be. With the shoulder no longer being a concern and his conditioning much improved, when he’s played he’s averaged nearly a double-double on the floor with 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Look for him to show he has more to his game than he showed last season if given an opportunity. He has stiff competition in a packed frontcourt with Nikola Pekovic, new addition Thaddeus Young and Gorgui Dieng.
The trade aftermath also further puts the focus on Ricky Rubio to show that he can indeed lead this team. Results on him so far have been mixed. Currently in the middle of active negotiations with the team on a contract extension, rumor has it he’s looking to get paid. Nobody has questioned he’s a gifted passer and can make the game easier for his teammates as he averaged nearly 8.6 assists per game last year. However, as it stands his team has yet to reach the playoffs during his tenure. His shooting percentages continue to leave plenty to be desired three years into his NBA career at a dismal 32 percent from three point range and 38 percent from the field. I love watching him play but he has plenty to prove this season and I expect the Wolves brass to keep a close eye on his development to see where his future stands with the team.
5. Health issues with Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari can sway the Nuggets’ season.
Last season was a brutal one for the Denver Nuggets. It was an injury marred season with a win total of 36 games, and it was disappointing to say the least considering the year prior the team achieved 57 wins under the helm of the fired George Karl. Nuggets coach Brian Shaw will be looking to put his stamp on the team in his second season but he is very mindful that health will be crucial. It’s without question that Ty Lawson is the spark that drives this team. The former Tar Heel has become a fixture on the team and they’ll only go as far as he takes them. He played in 62 games last year and was a big part of why it was hard for the team to get in sync with a lack of playmakers on the roster. Hamstring issues were the primary culprit for the missed time last season for him. What’s concerning is that he missed the end of last season with an ankle injury that did not allow him to train and do his conditioning to the level that he’s used to this offseason. We’ve seen how issues like this can somewhat derail a season for teams that rely heavily on their floor general from the point guard spot (see Brooklyn Nets PG Deron Williams). Coach Shaw is trying to do what he can as Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post pointed out.
“There is some concern,” Shaw said. “I haven’t really been killing him in practice or even in games. I’m cognizant of that. But once again, it’s something that he’s going to have to work himself through.”
Lawson will already be wearing a brace on his ankle throughout the season as a precaution, and during his most recent preseason contest against the Celtics he was not able to finish the game due to hamstring concerns. It will be something to keep an eye on this year.
Another potential impact player for the Nuggets is Danilo Gallinari. He’ll be eager to make his return this season after two knee surgeries over the course of the last year and be shaking some rust off slowly to regain his form. So far in limited minutes, he’s looked solid in the preseason showing the all–around play that makes him such a versatile player for the team. He’s stated he hasn’t experienced any knee soreness since he’s been thrust back into action so far, which is a good sign. However the NBA season is a long 82-game grind and we will need to watch how his knee holds up. If both Gallinari and Lawson can remain relatively healthy throughout the season, the team can improve from a disappointing season. If health issues arise once again, look for a repeat of last season.
6. The division crown will be a battle between the Blazers and the Thunder.
The Thunder have firmly secured the top spot in the Northwest Division for the last four season in a row. They have been dominant and regardless of the Kevin Durant injury, it will difficult to knock them out of that spot again this year. The Trail Blazers are a team on the rise, and will see a chink in the armor for the Thunder and look to exploit it. The Thunder will have their work cut out for them and will have plenty of adjustments to make in order to keep the ship on track to have division title number five.
The Blazers enter the season without many health concerns and have added some pieces in Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to solidify their second unit. In addition their prize rookie last year C.J. McCollum (a Basketball Insiders contributor) looked phenomenal during summer league play, averaging 20.2 points and for the most part has looked solid during preseason play as well. The Blazers look to have continuity and health on their side, so look for the head to head match-ups between these teams to be fiercely contested. In the end, I expect the Thunder to have enough talent to maintain within striking distance long enough for Durant to return to action and lead the way for another division title, but it will come down to the wire and the Blazers will give them a run for their money.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division
Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.
Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.
But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?
The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.
It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.
Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense
After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.
Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.
The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.
Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.
They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.
After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.
John Collins Suspension
The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.
But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.
Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.
As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.
If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.
At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start
Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?
On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.
With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.
And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.
Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.
Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.
Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.
NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution
Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.
Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.
When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.
The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.
The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.
Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.
Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.
Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.
It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.
Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.
He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.
Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.
Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.
The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.
Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.
Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.
Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division
Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.
The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.
And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around.
Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles
Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.
Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).
But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.
The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.
Knicks Offensive Woes
The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.
And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).
Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.
But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.
The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.
Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.
Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.
Now, he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?
On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.
But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.
Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug
This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.
Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.
And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.
Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again – to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.
We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.
But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.