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The Next All-Stars: Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ The Next All-Stars series by identifying the most likely players from the Atlantic Division to become first-time All-Stars in 2021.

Drew Maresca

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Being name an All-Star is an arbitrary accolade – but an accolade none-the-less. There are no prerequisites that must be met prior to achieving it, only that you’re well-liked by your fans and peers.

But popularity and effectiveness go hand-in-hand (to a certain degree). Players traditionally become more recognizable after proving their worth on the court. Long story short, it’s is an inexact science. And that’s mostly OK.

But regardless of how fair the process is, players still strive to become All-Stars. And what’s more, the number of times that all-time greats qualify for All-Star teams serves as one of a finite number of metrics through which careers are graded.

Last season, the NBA welcomed 10 first-time All-Stars, all of whom were 23-years old or younger save for two. Further, there were five first-time All-Stars in 2019 and six in 2018. All of the newcomers are likely to contend for a spot. Add in the upper echelon of the NBA and there are simply a limited number of spots up for grabs.

With that in mind, Basketball Insiders is currently identifying the future All-Stars – guys on the precipice of becoming house-hold names, but who haven’t made it yet. We’ve already covered the Northwest and Central divisions. Now, we turn our attention to the Atlantic.

Before we get too far, it’s worth pointing out that only five of the 12 recent Eastern Conference All-Stars are older than 25: Pascal Siakam (26), Khris Middleton (28), Kemba Walker (29), Jimmy Butler (30) and Kyle Lowry (34). Lowry is obviously declining relative to a few years ago; Butler and Walker are at their pinnacles. Siakam and Middleton are still on the upside of their careers – but any of them can be knocked out by one of the players listed below. Further, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are likely 2021 All-Stars who didn’t make the 2020 team due to injury. So competition will be fierce for all 12 roster spots.

Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

Brown was a 2020 All-Star snub. We can all assume that he’s better positioned for the All-Star team come his fourth professional season. He demonstrated serious progress in 2019-20, with jumps in points (20.4 points, up from 13), rebounds (6.4, up from 4.2) and assists (2.2, up from 1.4). What’s more, Brown shot a career-high 38.1% on three-point attempts and he solidified the first above-average PER of his career (17.1).

As though those stats aren’t reason enough, the 24-year-old is a Swiss-Army knife. He defends, finishes and creates for his teammates. He fits perfectly alongside flashier players like Walker and Jayson Tatum, but he also possesses the requisite bravado to stand on his own. Brown probably had the best case of all of the Atlantic Division future All-Stars to qualify for the 2020 All-Star team, but we’re looking ahead and not back. Will it matter that two Celtics are seen as being more valuable than Brown? It shouldn’t, but the All-Star voting process is subjective– so only time will tell.

Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets

There is no hard-and-fast rule that dictates that only one up-and-coming player per team gets All-Star consideration. But the Brooklyn Nets have two other All-Star locks in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – neither of whom were All-Stars last season due to injuries – and it’s unlikely that any team boasts as many as four; a feat that’s only happened seven times in NBA history (1962 Celtics, 1975 Celtics, 1983 76ers, 1998 Lakers, 2006 Pistons, 2011 Celtics and 2017 Warriors).

So with that in mind, we had a tough decision between Spencer Dinwiddie and LeVert. Ultimately, this writer decided that LeVert’s ceiling – which is higher than Dinwiddie’s – will play a bigger role than Dinwiddie’s past success, which is more noteworthy than that of LeVert.

This isn’t meant as a knock of Dinwiddie – who actually tallied significantly more All-Star votes than LeVert in 2020. But LeVert has the kind of upside that makes scouts drool. He averaged 16.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 31.5 minutes per game prior to the 2020 All-Star break as a guy still working his way back from injury. Those figures increased to 24.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game following the break, including a 51-point performance in a win at Boston on March 3. His silky-smooth game is tailor-made to complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn – or really any top-tier star. And he’d look pretty good on his own, too.

Ultimately, LeVert (25) is younger than Dinwiddie (27). He’s also significantly taller despite the incorrect listings – 6-foot-6 for LeVert and vs. 6-foot-5 for Dinwiddie – and his skillset is more versatile and better fits the mold of a franchise-caliber player. It’s not mandatory that three Nets are named 2021 All-Stars, but there is simply too much talent to overlook – and this writer feels LeVert is set-up for a big-time breakout season.

Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

Robinson is the biggest dark horse of them all. His floor and ceiling differ the most of any player on this list – and maybe as much as anyone in the entire league. He covers more defensive ground than anyone in recent memory. He’s an athletic rim runner who can finish lobs as well as almost anyone in the NBA. He averaged 15 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3 blocks per-36-minutes in 2019-20, and he posted a PER of 23.5 over the entire season. While his game is still limited, his effect is so great that it doesn’t even matter.

But those statistics ignore Robinson’s main challenge as a pro – he can’t seem to figure out how to stay on the court and out of foul trouble. He fouled out of seven games in 2019-20 and was in foul trouble (five or more fouls) in 15 of 61 – meaning that Robinson’s minutes had to be closely monitored in nearly 25% of the team’s games.

There is something of a silver lining, though. Robinson registered no more than three fouls in any one of his last nine games – a marked improvement from earlier in the season. The more Robinson can stay on the court, the greater the odds are that he puts up All-Star numbers.

But the 2020-21 season probably won’t tip-off until Christmas Day (at the earliest). How might that play a role? It probably works in Robinson’s favor more so than anyone else on the list. It means that the 22-year-old has that much more time to add muscle to his lower body – making him all the more difficult to push out of position.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors

VanVleet certainly had the look and feel of a future All-Star this season, didn’t he? He’s shown growth in each of his four professional seasons, most recently demonstrating the ability to co-lead a team in the thick of a playoff race. The 26-year-old is a bit of a late bloomer from an age standpoint, but that doesn’t undo his successes. He averaged an impressive 17.6 points, 6.6 assists and 1.9 steals in a robust 35.8 minutes per game. He’s a pesky defender and a career 39% three-point shooter.

The key to VanVleet securing an All-Star spot will be situational. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and should receive the keys to the castle — so the speak – regardless of where he signs. But opportunity doesn’t always translate to results. VanVleet must select his next employer carefully, looking for pieces in place that complement him as much as possible. If he does so correctly, VanVleet can walk into a situation in which his positives are highlighted and his deficiencies are concealed – and in that kind of a situation, VanVleet’s chances of securing one of those coveted 12 All-Star spots looks pretty good.

As was alluded to above, the Eastern Conference has a number of All-Star locks in 2021 like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Trae Young. There are only 12 spots for each conference, so every spot will be competitively vied over. There could be just one new Eastern Conference All-Star or – realistically – as many as six. But one thing is for sure: The Eastern Conference is stacked with young talent and no one’s conceding their spot on the team just yet.

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NBA PM: What Brooklyn Needs At The Deadline

The Brooklyn Nets are rightfully among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Garrett Brooks takes a look at what the Nets need at the deadline to give themselves the best chance to win it all.

Garrett Brooks

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As they’ve acclimated to one another, the Brooklyn Nets are finding their groove on both ends of the floor recently. While that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA, there are still things the Nets need to address before making their eventual playoff run.

Winning regular-season games is one thing, winning playoff series is a whole different animal. We know the Nets have offensive firepower like few teams in the history of the NBA. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can carry them to regular-season success.

If they want to maximize their chances to win a title, though, they have more moves to make to fill out the roster.

Another Frontcourt Option

The Nets have to be pleased with what they’re getting from Jeff Green in small ball lineups at the five, as well as the recent emergence of Bruce Brown too. That’s going to be a trend for this team moving forward, as it should be.

Still, there’s a lack of depth on the roster in terms of capable defensive big men that needs to be addressed before an eventual run at an NBA Championship. This is especially true because of the teams they could face on their way to a title, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers. Simply put, beating those teams four out of seven games with a big man rotation consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green is just highly unlikely.

Green is a great weapon to use at the five but is far too undersized to be counted on in any given playoff series. He’ll get picked on by opposing bigs with offensive skillsets if he’s asked to play all the minutes that Jordan isn’t on the floor. While Brown has been great in his own right, asking him to defend Nikola Jokic, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and beyond is just too big an ask.

Jordan is not the player he once was but is still a difference-maker in the right situation. Additionally, it would be ideal to add another big that has a different skill set than Jordan in order to increase the options head coach Steve Nash has with his lineups.

With a rim runner in Jordan and small ball fives in Green and Brown, the Nets need to target a versatile big man to add to the mix. Floor spacing would be ideal but isn’t necessary if they bring in someone that can make a big enough impact on the defensive end.

The ideal target will bring two key attributes to the team: The first is rim protection when called upon. The Nets don’t have a long list of strong perimeter defenders, so extra help at the rim would be much-needed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a shot-blocker as it can also be a smart defender that mainly relies on successfully contesting shots under the rim.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the center they target needs to be capable of switching on the defensive end. One way the Nets like to cover themselves defensively is by going switch-heavy for stretches. This allows them to play the passing lanes aggressively and often forces the opponent out of their offensive rhythm. The more capable their big men are when it comes to switching, the better this strategy will work.

Kevin Durant’s versatility on the defensive end allows the Nets to search for somebody that excels in defending multiple positions even if they may not be great as the last line of defense. Durant is a strong help defender and has the length to make things difficult at the rim. This ability is proven by the 1.8 blocks he averaged during the 2017-18 season with the Golden State Warriors.

Durant can be the help side defender when asked, but how often can he be asked to bang in the post defensively? The answer is not often.

It’s important that any addition to the frontcourt can hold their own in the post against players such as Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. But the harsh reality is that the Nets likely won’t have the luxury to be picky with the type of big man they add. It’ll be hard to find a player that can defend most bigs and switch on most positions throughout a game.

Given their lack of assets remaining, the Nets will need to target what they can afford on the market.

Names to keep an eye on: Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls; JaVale McGee, Cleveland Cavaliers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets.

Depth At The Point Guard Position

With James Harden leading the way as the point guard and Kyrie Irving very capable of handling the offensive load as well, this is an easy need to overlook. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t afford to do that as the trade deadline approaches. If they can’t acquire a traditional point guard for depth, they’ll need to address it on the buyout market.

After Harden, Irving and Durant, the Nets’ core rotation does very little in terms of playmaking. In fact, DeAndre Jordan ranks next among players in the rotation for assists per game. The big three can certainly carry the load when it comes to getting players involved, but the Nets could use another veteran that’ll get their offense good looks.

Most notably, this type of move would aid them in finishing the regular season without riding their stars too hard – which they’ve already done. That versatility would be a great asset to Nash and his coaching staff in both the regular season and playoffs.

That’s without mentioning the always-existent possibility of injury or potentially-required quarantine. It’s always best to have depth and options, and that’s truer than ever in the current NBA landscape. The ideal addition would be a natural distributor capable of knocking down an open shot and holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.

That may seem like a tough sell, but it’s certainly a skill set that will be available for the right price. The Nets would do well in targeting a player that is underperforming due to circumstance. It’s fair to assume a lot of players would benefit from playing in the kind of environment the Nets are currently constructing.

Names to keep an eye on: Austin Rivers, New York Knicks; Quinn Cook, Free Agent; George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Nets can address these two needs they’ll be as well-rounded as any team. The added versatility and flexibility would make them that much stronger come the playoffs. While they’re finding some excellent, wonderful regular season successes, the postseason is a different beast – and the Nets, plus a rookie head coach, will need to learn how to adapt on-the-fly.

General manager Sean Marks is never truly done molding his rosters – and Spencer Dinwiddie may even be available, according to Ian Begley of SNY – so what the Nets run with today certainly isn’t final.

We know what the big three are capable of – now it’s time for the roster to be rounded out for their best chance to succeed.

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Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center

Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have. 

Enter: Bruce Brown.

Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury. 

In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team. 

Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green. 

Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle. 

When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn. 

Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer. 

“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”

Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able. 

Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.

 

He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5. 

The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends. 

But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.

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NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?

The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.

Bobby Krivitsky

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After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.

Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.

Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.

Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.

 

 

While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).

One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.

Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.

So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.

Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.

If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season. 

Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.

If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.

There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.

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