Welcome back into The ‘Shop for another week of NBA-related banter between our Jabari Davis and Lang Greene. The two of them will get into:
Jabari: Alright Lang, always good to be back in the mix with you. Let’s kick things off with the Cavs and the addition of Kyle Korver. Particularly, because he’s been in your market for these last few years and you’ve seen the best and worst that he has to offer. Korver isn’t quite the player he was a few years ago when he nearly went 50-50-90 (48.7 percent/49.2 percent/89.8 percent) from the floor/three-point line/free-throw line, but he’s still one of the league’s top shooters and will be joining a squad that will undoubtedly get him the type of looks shooters would die for. One, what are you expecting from Korver down the stretch? Two, would you like to reassess your opinion on the best team in the league now that Cleveland has added a piece like Korver?
Lang: My man. As the church folks say “it is good to be in the number” this week. A lot of stuff to get to this week and you’re starting us off with a banger.
My first thought when I heard the news that Kyle was traded to Cleveland was that the old adage of the rich getting richer was true. No, Korver isn’t at All-Star form like he was in 2014 but to paraphrase Reggie Miller – the shot never leaves you. I think Kyle is in the perfect spot as his career winds down. Remember, he entered the league playing with Allen Iverson in Philly. Think about that. In my view, Cleveland gets a steal. Kyle is a solid team defender, total professional and damn near automatic shooter with any type of space. He will get plenty of clean looks with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James slashing into the lane causing havoc.
Personally, going to miss Kyle here in Atlanta. Always good for a nice quote and his work in the community here is also worthy of note. Let me end with this … Cleveland IS the team to beat. Period.
Jabari: Speaking of teams to beat, while I think Golden State is still clearly the best Western Conference team, is it possible that Houston might actually be the best (eventual) threat to dethroning the back-to-back WC Champs? I guess, the better question might be whether this style of play that leans so heavily upon one player as the main, driving force can ultimately be as successful in the postseason?
Lang: I don’t think anyone is capable of knocking out the Warriors in the West. But I also said this about San Antonio last season and look at what Oklahoma City pulled off. I think Houston would be a live dog in a series versus Golden State, but they have injury issues (and/or concerns) that I would like to see resolved. How will Clint Capela come back from his extended absence? Also, guys such as Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have been known to be brittle in the past. Their style of play also concerns me. The Cavaliers dethroned the Warriors last season with physical defense. The Rockets’ philosophy this season is about outscoring their opposition. No one … and I do mean no one … is beating Golden State in a track meet.
Jabari: I can’t fault you for thinking no one could or would have beaten San Antonio last year, especially once Steph Curry got hurt early in the playoffs. The uncertain nature of sports (injuries, matchups, etc.) is precisely what makes each season so much fun. Plus, as someone that bought in “hook, line and sinker” to what Minnesota was supposed to be bringing to the table this season, I can’t question anyone’s predictions!
That said, I tend to agree with you regarding the most likely way to beat these Warriors. It simply isn’t going to happen by attempting to outscore or outrun them. Speaking of things not (necessarily) working out the way we anticipated, now that we are right around the halfway mark for most teams, what are the biggest surprises and disappointments so far this year for you?
Lang: Like you bought into the Minnesota Timberwolves prematurely, I put all my stock in the Detroit Pistons making a bigger leap this season. So I think that’s one of the disappointments for me. I thought after getting a taste of that postseason nectar, the Pistons would enter the season favored more times than not to leave an arena with their hands raised in victory. I know, Reggie Jackson getting hurt early has played a role so we’ll see how things ultimately play out.
A pleasant surprise has been the play of James Johnson down in Miami. Listen, his numbers aren’t going to blow you away, but his play for a team going through the fire right now has been strong. He’s probably playing himself into a nice multi-year deal somewhere. Salute to him. I definitely was surprised by DeMar DeRozan’s early scoring barrage and defying the statistical crowd by shooting long twos and still giving folks that work. And how can I forget about the Houston Rockets. Who had them balling this hard? Who? Show me! James Harden has brought his can this season and is a legitimate M-V-P frontrunner.
Jabari: What’s funny about it is that you were one of the only ones telling us to pump the brakes on Minnesota and I have never been a believer in Detroit taking that next step. In fact, I’ll be straight up about it… I’m not a believer in the Andre Drummond hype anywhere near the level as (seemingly) most others. I’ll admit that I don’t watch a ton of Pistons basketball, but I tend to check out five-to-10 full games (not including highlights and recaps and such) of most teams per season and never feel like they are as good as others seem to think they are… or want them to be. As a guy who still appreciates big men like Drummond (whether you can win with a team ‘centered’ around them at this point or not), and someone that REALLY appreciates Sir Pepsi Swig as well, it’s absolutely nothing personal against them or the team. I just don’t see them as a true threat of any kind in the Eastern Conference.
Not mad at that James Johnson reference in the slightest. The HEAT aren’t going anywhere but to the top of the lottery (they HOPE), but Johnson and others still compete and play hard. That, and the fact that Johnson recently introduced your boy Steph to his personal poster party:
Play basketball long enough, you’re bound to get dunked on. Some of us just wind up on the wrong side of SportsCenter Top-10 lists.
I agree that Harden has usurped the Westbrook train at this point, but still think Russ has time to make another push after the All-Star break when it comes to the MVP discussion – especially if Houston runs into any additional injury issues with some of those players you mentioned in particular. For me, DeRozan’s continued progression has been great to witness, not just because he is a Southern California native (shameless reference), but the same reason you mentioned. I appreciate outliers and anomalies like that. I also appreciate someone that sticks to what they know and are best at. DeRozan is a mid-range and deep-two phenom and (clearly) isn’t about to change that while he’s playing so effectively and efficiently.
Transitioning to some rookie and young player talk, while I love that “Basketball Twitter” continues to entertain and enlighten (in some cases) on a nightly basis, part of me really hates the fact that we have become so intent upon labeling and determining a player as either a “bust” or the “next great” within 25 games of a guy’s career. I’m not even limiting that to “fans” as it seems like more and more writers and analysts are becoming guilty of this as well. I realize we are watching more basketball and discussing it even more than ever before, but the demand for 19- and 20-year-old players to enter the league as polished and poised products from the moment they walk on the court seems as futile as it is foolish.
Lang: I have one reaction for that James Johnson dunk on Stephen Curry: WhewLawd. My goodness. Steph knows better than that. Got to read the scouting report a bit more. As a player, you have to know who has the springs to deliver. But like I’ve told you before, Chef Curry offensively serves the plates, but defensively, guys put him on the main menu.
Let me go back to DeRozan for a second. A few years back, I remember Damian Lillard and him huddled up for what seemed like an eternity in Las Vegas during summer league. A few months later, I asked DeMar about it and he said they naturally just push each other to be great. In a competitive way. Hold each other accountable for working on their respective games. I thought it was really cool. So while some people don’t like the idea of guys being so cool with each other nowadays, there’s definitely a benefit to those relationships.
Personally, I just try to enjoy the game. I don’t get too high or too low on these guys. Most players in the NBA will produce “stats” if given minutes, but we also don’t know what each team is asking of these guys. Sometimes guys don’t have the green light to pull up from 17 feet. Sometimes guys are told to facilitate and are used as decoys to get other guys off. I learned a long time ago watching the league that just because a guy isn’t doing something doesn’t mean they can’t do it in another system. Guys like DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore come to mind.
I see former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett was waived the other day. It’s not shaping up too well for him, to get cut on a lottery team devoid of top talent. If you’re judging him as the number one overall pick, then it is okay to call him a bust. But he didn’t get to choose where he was drafted. If he was drafted No. 16 overall, he likely would’ve had the necessary time to get acclimated to the game with less pressure. Blame the Cavaliers for skewing the expectations and (likely) shortening the man’s career span.
Jabari: Great reference with that story about Lillard and DeRozan. That type of kinship and camaraderie is what makes it really fun to be able to peek behind the curtain as we cover the league. I also agree with you on the Bennett situation, as that was more about the Cavs simply making a foolish choice with that top pick. It seemed, essentially, like a “well…why not?” choice based on pre-draft hype rather than making an actual informed decision. I know the draft wasn’t chock full of top-tier talent, but Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert sure would look incredible with this group. So would Giannis, but I’ll leave that alone.
Bennett is now a legitimate candidate for bust status, but “we” are also beyond quick to label guys that are progressing at completely normal pace for young players. Take Brandon Ingram, for instance. The kid turned 19 (NINETEEN) in September, but folks were acting as though he was some sort of disappointment simply because he didn’t hit the court scoring 30 points a night. Not to pick on fans that focus on stats, but he’s a prime example of a player you cannot solely judge based on the box score. Not only does he influence the game in ways that don’t necessarily show up, but you won’t get a true appreciation for how vast his skill set is unless you actually take the time to watch him. To start the year, I said he would be that guy you suddenly look up and say, “WHOA, where the hell did THAT come from?!?” at some point during the second half of the year. He’s already making those types of plays all over the court, and doing it with regularity at this stage. Are there any young players, beyond Ingram, that you expect to see really take a step forward here in the second half?
Lang: I feel you. Fans’ expectations are tough to live up to. For instance, they saw Ingram scoring close to 20 a night in college and the team loses Kobe Bryant to retirement. So they expect a new top-dog type to come in and wreck shop. When they see a guy averaging 7-8 points a game and not putting up highlight reel packages on YouTube, the casual fan is going to gripe. I am a boxing guy, as you know, but not many people appreciated the brilliance of Floyd Mayweather. The technical skill, precision, alluding thunderous shots by centimeters in order to land a counter. People said he was running and would prefer to watch guys like Arturo Gatti (RIP). I mention all of this to say, only a small segment of any population is going to appreciate the subtle things. While you can appreciate the slip screen and the pass-to-assist percentage Ingram may provide, casual observers want something more visible.
Also, it’s tough for some fans to determine how good some of these guys are when they come into the league playing well within a system. Spotting an Allen Iverson or a Karl-Anthony Towns is easy because they destroy guys. I think people are spoiled by some guys coming into the league right out of the cereal box ready to perform. Guys like Shaq, Penny, C-Webb, Zo, AI, Duncan, Admiral, etc. came into the L ballin’ – no assembly required. For the record, Ingram will be fine. He has a high basketball IQ and there is a beauty in his patience in a market that is a pressure cooker. Shows maturity to me.
Jabari: No doubt, but the difference between many of the guys you listed and these new players is those guys went to school three of four years (in many cases), so they were more complete products by the time they made it to the league. So many of these current guys are one-and-done that there’s simply no way for them to be as polished at 19. For the record, you know I appreciate that boxing reference and since we were just talking about one of the thinner players in Ingram (not to mention your reference of AI earlier), let me get your top-five pound-for-pound players right now? For those unfamiliar with the idea, they would specifically be players that play “larger” or make more of an impact than you’d expect. For example, people might look at a player like Larry Nance Jr. at face value and not realize all of the ways he actually impacts the game (on both sides of the court) when he’s healthy and available for the Lakers. Let me get your top “little guys” OR Odom/Battier-type players for right now?
Lang: In boxing, the pound-for-pound designation is a way to compare fighters in varying weight classes. Heavyweights will never fight welterweights, but P4P evaluates fighters as if they were the same size.
At the top of my P4P list is Isaiah Thomas. Smaller guy, enormous heart.
Second is Damian Lillard, he is so Oakland. Tough. Now we just have to work on his defense. Ha. But he’s on my P4P list without a doubt.
Third is Patrick Beverley. Tenacious.
Fourth is Chris Paul – no explanation needed.
Finally, Russell Westbrook. He is eleventh in rebounding. He averages more rebounds than DeMarcus Cousins. Let. That. Sink. In.
Remember, this list is off the top of my head so Hoop Freaks don’t kill me. I’ll add two more though: Andre Roberson and Draymond Green. Those guys get after it.
Jabari: LOVE this list, but would also include Kyle Lowry to that mix with the how he’s playing this season. Folks, if you feel like we are missing anyone that deserves to be in this discussion, then remember to let us know about it in the comment section!
Going to introduce a new segment this week and it will come in the form of a ‘final shot’ of sorts. This will be an opportunity to address any topic (whether NBA related or not) before signing off. So, let me get your final shot of the week.
Lang: Final Shot: Hoops Freaks take the time to appreciate this current era of dominant guards. We hear all the time about the death of the big man. And this may be true from the fact we likely won’t see another Shaq, Hakeem, Admiral or Ewing in the post. But the big man in his new incarnate is on the way. I’m talking seven-footers pulling off crossover pull-ups out at the three-point line. Seven-footers euro-stepping and shooting 20-foot fadeaways. Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Greek Freak and Kristaps Porzingis are here and it’s amazing to watch. Throw in guys like Hassan Whiteside and Nikola Jokic out in Denver, and it becomes clear as day to me that the big man is alive and well. LG Out.
Jabari: LOVE this, too! You know I will forever be on #TeamBigMan, so I appreciate that reality check for those claiming the position is “dead” or anything like that. The game continues to progress and change over time, and each position is no different.
My final shot goes to the fellow fans and Hoop Heads who continue to show support and provide feedback for these weekly discussions. I know there were some that didn’t ‘quite’ get it at first, but S/O to those that stuck with us and keep providing topics and questions for us to address.
Beyond the comment section, remember to tag us with the topic of your choice via Twitter: @JabariDavisNBA and @LangGreene.
NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?
Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?
The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East?
The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.
The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis.
Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills.
Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line — in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.
RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.
But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.
The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games.
There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.
Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games.
That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.
NBA PM: The Best Remaining Free Agents
With a season of roster shuffling upon us, here are the league’s free agents that could play a pivotal role. Quinn Davis takes a look at five available players who stand out above the rest.
In the NBA’s most recent round of Coronavirus testing, there were no positive tests. In context, somewhere in the range of 500-750 nasal swabs returned a negative result for the virus.
Perhaps it was a stroke of luck, or perhaps a testament to the discipline of the players in this league. Either way, it’s likely unsustainable. The Houston Rockets kicked off the season by having their opener postponed due to multiple player infections. At some point, a virion will find its way into another team locker room as it did at times in the MLB and NFL.
An outbreak could result in postponed games or it could force teams to scramble to fill rosters for games unable to be moved. In the latter case, teams may be looking to the free agent wire for some last-minute help.
Unfortunately, the early-season free agent pool is a bleak and desolate place. It mostly consists of players who missed the cut in training camp and are now waiting for another opportunity to stick – it is unlikely there will be any needle-moving acquisitions.
With that said, the NBA is a league where eight minutes from the eighth man could make or break a game. One game could make or break a playoff berth. So, naturally, it is of great import that front offices know who to snag when a live body is needed.
Luckily for lazy front offices, Basketball Insiders has taken the liberty of ranking the five best available free agents. With apologies to Frank Jackson, Marvin Williams, TJ Leaf and Isaiah Thomas, here are five that should be on the top of many teams’ lists.
Roberson is a one-way wing with his area of expertise being on the defensive end. He spent five seasons in Oklahoma City, serving as the starting two-guard for many of the team’s playoff runs in the post-James Harden era.
Roberson missed nearly two full seasons with injury, which has understandably hurt his appeal. He did return for the bubble, however, and played nicely in his limited minutes. In 182 possessions with Roberson on the court in Orlando, the Thunder sported a defensive rating of 94.0. That number is well below the number that led the league last season, per Cleaning the Glass.
It’s a small sample size to be sure, so take that with a grain a salt – but that kind of defensive impact is a theme of Roberson’s career. The injuries are cause for concern, however, if Roberson can be close to his former self, he is worth a look as a situational defender. He could fit snugly on a contender like the Brooklyn Nets, who have the scoring and ball-handling departments well under control.
The speedy point guard from the University of Connecticut just spent the latter half of his sixth NBA season with the Washington Wizards. In his short time there, Napier put up solid numbers in 24 minutes per game – so he could be a nice, easy scoring band-aid too.
He doesn’t live at the rim, attempting only 24 percent of his shots there, per Cleaning the Glass, but he finished well when he had the opportunity and drew a decent number of shooting fouls. Most of his work comes from behind the three-point line, where he hit a league-average 36 percent of his attempts.
On Mar. 8th, Napier put up 27 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds against the Miami HEAT in 40 minutes. The overmatched Wizards lost the game, but it showcased what Napier can bring at his best.
Realistically, Napier will not consistently provide that kind of production, but he can provide a spark to a team in desperate need of one off the bench.
Mudiay is another point guard that found spot minutes as a backup throughout his career, most recently with the Utah Jazz. At 6-foot-5, Mudiay has good size for a point guard. Craftily using his frame to get into the paint, Mudiay attempts most of his shots either at the rim or from floater range.
He is a mediocre finisher, however, converting only 56 percent of those looks at the basket, per Cleaning the Glass.
Over his last two seasons, his best work has come in the midrange, where he has hit on 46 percent and then 48 percent of his attempts, respectively. The midrange pull-up was Mudiay’s weapon of choice out of the pick-and-roll as the Jazz scored 0.93 points per possession in that action with Mudiay as the ball handler, per NBA.com. That number is not too far off the numbers of Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson, albeit in a smaller sample size.
Mudiay has limitations as a passer, defender and floor spacer, but there is still room for a midrange pick-and-roll creator in the present day. As a betting man, look for him to find a home before the end of this season.
Ilyasova, a member of the Milwaukee Bucks last season, was a casualty of the failed Bojan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade that came apart after the franchise was hit with tampering charges.
The Turkish forward was set to join the Sacramento Kings, but after the deal fell through, the Bucks were forced to release Ilyasova, and he has yet to be signed.
Ilyasova isn’t the most well-rounded player, but he does a few things very well. He can space the floor consistently, shooting about 37 percent from deep over his last five seasons. His height and high release allow him to get those shots off in tight spaces rather easily.
Ilyasova also has a knack for making tough shots in the midrange, where he canned 61 percent of his long two-point attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
On the defensive side, Ilyasova is slow-footed and ground-bound, so he has his limits. There is one area where he excels though — drawing offensive fouls. He has the awareness and IQ to get in the right position and he combines that with a flair for the dramatic as any good charge-taker would. Just two seasons ago, Ilyasova led the NBA in charges drawn.
As teams look for wing depth, the veteran should find a place to contribute before the season’s end.
From Philadelphia by way of Arizona, Hollis-Jefferson has carved out a role in his first five seasons by bringing an edge defensively. At a long 6-foot-7, he manned both the power forward and the center position in Brooklyn and Toronto. He was added to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ preseason roster but surprisingly did not make the cut and now awaits another opportunity.
His offensive game leaves much to be desired, and Hollis-Jefferson has yet to develop a consistent jumper, struggling to finish at the rim amongst the trees. He does excel in the hustle stats, however, grabbing offensive boards at a solid rate and drawing fouls.
Hollis-Jefferson’s value comes on the other end, where his length and athleticism allow him to switch between guarding multiple positions. In almost 2,300 possessions in Toronto last season, the Raptors held opponents to a 107.0 defensive rating with the tweener on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. There is noise there, but it was clear from watching the games that Hollis-Jefferson was making a positive impact on that end of the floor.
Hollis-Jefferson did hit his free throws at a respectable 73 percent clip last season, leaving room for optimism on his offensive game. Even if the jumper never develops, there is usually a roster spot available for a player that is willing to guard and do the dirty work.
As mentioned at the onset, there are more than just these five who could fill out a team. While these veterans have been contributors in the past or look poised to contribute in the future, there are likely a few diamonds in the rough waiting to be uncovered.
In a season that promises a lot of scrambling, the team fortunate to find one of those diamonds may shine brighter than the rest.
NBA PM: Early-Season Atlantic Division Rankings
In the next edition of Basketball Insider’s divisional rankings series, newcomer Zach Dupont takes a look at the stacked Atlantic Division.
The NBA season has begun, and it’s time to overreact to the first few games of the year. In the next edition of Basketball Insiders’ inter-conference rankings, we will take a look at the Atlantic Division. In these rankings, we rank each team from worst to first based on their early performances and how we believe they’ll project for the rest of the season.
5. New York Knicks (1-2)
It feels cruel to place the New York Knicks behind the Toronto Raptors after such an impressive 20-point victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, but that’s what we’ve done.
The Knicks will finish last in this Atlantic Division, but there’s plenty to be optimistic about at Madison Square Garden. R.J. Barrett got his rookie season rolling with an impressive 26-point performance against the Pacers where he shot 11-for-15 from the field and 3-for-3 from three-point range. His 10-point, 2-for-15 follow-up in Philadelphia was less impressive – but in two of Barrett’s three games thus far, he has shown clear signs of improvement from last year.
Mitchell Robinson has also shown a leap early in the season. The burgeoning center has started all three games for New York, yet to commit over three fouls in any game while still putting up six total blocked shots. Other youngsters like Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickly showed promise in their single games this season, but both still have a long road to go before being high-level impact NBA players.
Additionally, the Knicks should be pleased with the early play of Julius Randle and Alec Burks. The duo leads the team in scoring, while Randle specifically has had a very strong start to the year, averaging 23.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists on 55.3 percent shooting. With the Knicks unlikely to be a competitive team, look for Randle and Burks to be on the move closer to the trade deadline if their strong play continues.
Despite the big win against the Bucks, the Knicks are unquestionably the worst team in this division. Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are still getting major playing time despite continued subpar performances – plus with so many young pieces in the rotation, it’s unreasonable to expect anything but last for the Knicks this season.
4. Toronto Raptors (0-2)
It’s been a shaky start to the season for the Atlantic’s only winless team, the Tampa Bay/Toronto Raptors. The Raptors dropped their season opener to the New Orleans Pelicans in an uninspiring 113-99 performance, then blew a late lead to the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors own the worst point differential of the division at -9.5 and are only one of four teams in the Eastern Conference without a win.
While Toronto should bounce back from this start, there are many things to be concerned about after these two games. For starters, OG Anunoby has not taken the offensive jump some expected from him after signing a four-year, $72 million extension just before the start of the season. In his first two games, Anunoby has played 72 minutes and only managed to scrape together 18 total points – 10 against the Spurs and eight against the Pelicans – on 44 percent shooting, 20 percent from three and 50.7 percent true shooting.
Worse, the losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka this offseason has been apparent on the defensive end for the Raptors. Gasol and Ibaka were two of the strongest defenders for the Raptors the past few seasons, and replacing their minutes with Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes has brought mixed results. Boucher managed seven blocks against the Spurs, but his thin frame limits his defensive ability, while Baynes’ lack of lateral movement does the same as well.
All of that being said, a core of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and an emerging Boucher won’t finish last in the Atlantic – sorry, Knicks fans – hence why they’ve been ranked fourth. But the early play from the Raptors has raised legitimate concerns about their ability to compete for the Eastern Conference title.
3. Philadelphia 76ers (2-1)
Despite the best winning percentage in the Atlantic, the Philadelphia 76ers land at third on our rankings.
The 76ers have had the easiest schedule thus far in the Atlantic, defeating the winless Washington Wizards, the hapless Knicks and taken a loss to the surprisingly undefeated Cleveland Cavaliers (but without Joel Embiid). So, the 76ers have held steady, but there’s some reason for some concern as they prepare to face off against some of the Eastern Conference’s better competitors.
In his fourth season in the NBA, Ben Simmons appears to have still not taken a leap as a scorer in any meaningful way. Simmons is averaging 15.3 points per game and is shooting 59 percent from the free throw line, both on par with his three past seasons in the NBA. While there’s no doubt Simmons’ defense and passing make him an elite player, his inability to elevate his scoring game could continue to hold Philadelphia back. It’s also disappointing that the 76ers tradition remains constant, with Tobias Harris continuing to look no better than a third banana at-best.
The 76ers also looked lost without Embiid on the court against Cleveland on Sunday night, letting Andre Drummond run wild for 24 points and 14 rebounds. On the other hand, the positive is that Embiid has looked dominant in the two games he has played, tallying 29 and 27 points, respectively. The team surrounding Embiid and Simmons also appears to have been taken a big step forward this year as Seth Curry and Danny Green provide some much-needed shooting on the wings, Dwight Howard was a nice addition off the bench and Tyrese Maxey has shown a lot of promise in his minutes so far.
Shake Milton has been good off the bench and with guys like Matisse Thybulle and Terrance Ferguson hardly playing, the 76ers have plenty of depth to choose from if they deal with injuries.
All in all, it’s been a solid start for Philadelphia, but we have yet to see what they can do against the better teams in the league.
2. Boston Celtics (1-2)
The Boston Celtics may have a losing record, but they have shown a lot of promise to open the season.
Most notably, the duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been very deadly through Boston’s first three games. Brown specifically has taken a jump as a scorer, leading the Celtics in scoring, averaging 26 points per game with Tatum just behind at 25. The pairing flaunted their high-level defense and distribution too, making them a lethal option at nearly all points of the game.
The Celtics’ most considerable concern is what the team looks like outside of Brown and Tatum. Kemba Walker is still out with a knee injury and Boston needs to find scoring from their depth while he’s out of the rotation. The third-highest scorer on the Celtics is Jeff Teague at the moment but he’s averaging just 9.3 points through three games – with Tristan Thompson and Marcus Smart behind at 9.0 points. Without Walker, the Celtics have struggled to find offense outside of Brown and Tatum – so if they want to compete at the top of the Eastern Conference, they’ll need Walker soon.
Boston has also had mixed results at the center position so far. Thompson has been the team’s best offensive option at center, while Robert Williams has shown to be the more reliable defensive option. Daniel Theis has been neither, but the big man was rock solid last year – and he will receive a substantial serving of minutes despite a shaky start to the year.
Despite a 1-2 start Boston has a lot of reason to be optimistic, and if Walker returns soon and stays healthy, they could top the Atlantic.
1. Brooklyn Nets (2-2)
The team to beat in the Atlantic Division is clearly the Brooklyn Nets.
After sitting out the entire 2019-20 season, Kevin Durant is back and looks as dangerous as ever. Durant paired alongside Kyrie Irving gives the Nets the best duo in the Eastern Conference. Irving is averaging 29.3 points per game and Durant is averaging 26.7, and both are doing it on extremely efficient shooting numbers.
The Nets aren’t lacking for depth behind their star duo either. Caris LeVert is a great offensive creator off the bench, Joe Harris is one of the best shooters in the NBA and the Jarrett Allen/DeAndre Jordan combination is a great duo of big men to have at your disposal. While news of Spencer Dinwiddie’s partial ACL tear isn’t great, and Landry Shamet has left a lot to be desired in his first few games with Brooklyn, the Nets have more than enough depth to cover these early-season road bumps.
Staying healthy will be Brooklyn’s most significant question mark this season. Durant and Irving will both miss games this season to “load manage,” with the duo already sitting out the Nets’ Monday night overtime loss to the Grizzlies. If Durant and Irving play three-fourths of their games, the Nets could drop behind Boston in the Atlantic. It’s also far from given that either or Durant or Irving stay completely healthy.
If one of the two gets injured, that changes the Nets’ outlooks dramatically – of course, Durant and Irving have both missed a lot of time in recent seasons.
If the Nets stars stay healthy, they’re the favorites to win the Atlantic Division, and their depth behind them gives the Nets a shot to compete even without Durant and Irving.
The Atlantic Divison is one of the best in the NBA, with potentially four of the best teams in the Eastern Conference… and the Knicks. Brooklyn, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston all have strong teams this year, and they should all be a blast to watch this season. While these rankings seem pretty cut and dry for now, proceedings will surely change a ton throughout the year – so keep your eye on one of the NBA’s sneakiest-best division in 2020-21.