The NBA hiatus is coming to a close. With the season expected to resume July 30, just over a month away, there would appear to finally be a light at the end of this long, long tunnel.
That said, we’re not quite there yet. But, in the meantime, we here at Basketball Insiders will continue to do our best to help make that month-long lead up to the NBA’s return feel as short as possible.
With that in mind, we turn to our X-Factor series. Over the last few weeks, the BI team has looked at each of the 22 teams with a shot at the postseason. Specifically, we’ve tried to highlight each “x-factor,” the game changers that should give each team some sway and make some big-time plays as they either head into the tournament or fight for one of the last spots in the postseason.
Today, we’ll continue that series with a look at the Boston Celtics, the Eastern Conference’s third seed and, after the losses of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford from the season prior, one of the NBA’s biggest surprises.
So, without further ado, let’s get to it.
Like every team headed to Orlando, Boston’s roster has multiple players that, if given the opportunity, could sway any given play, game or even a series in their favor. But unlike every other roster, the Celtics have Marcus Smart — as unique a player as there is in the NBA today.
With Smart, no single play is taken for granted. Yes, the 2019-20 regular season was arguably the best of his career — but, somehow, the 13.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game box score doesn’t do Smart’s true game-to-game impact justice.
Smart, in the clutch, has consistently demonstrated the ability to manifest the impossible. Need to force a turnover? He’s got you covered. Looking for a steal to seal the game? No problem for Smart. How about a block? He can do that too. A timely charge take? He’ll give you two.
On the whole, Smart is an enigma. But he is one of just a handful of players that can seriously alter an entire game and its trajectory on any given play. With that in mind, and despite a roster loaded with talent, Smart will be the Celtics’ biggest X-Factor come the postseason.
But, again, Smart isn’t their only X-Factor. Given Gordon Hayward’s up-and-down Boston tenure — and despite the emergence of Jayson Tatum — the veteran swingman should prove a major factor on their quest toward the NBA Finals, too.
In his third season with the team, Hayward would appear to be over his gruesome ankle injury; in 2019, he averaged 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and shot 50.2 percent from the floor and 39.2 percent from three, a season on par with his best in Utah. That said, and despite that return to form, Hayward has continued to fade into the background on occasion — not to say that that’s always a bad thing but, in most cases, the Celtics would want their $40 million man leading the charge.
Whether more aggressive or passive, whichever Hayward the Celtics find in Orlando is going to have a serious impact on the team and their shot at the title.
If he’s passive, Boston, to its detriment, may have to lean more heavily on an extremely inexperienced bench.
But an unleashed, aggressive Hayward on the road to The Finals? He just might be the Celtics’ swing piece and their ace in the hole when faced with the best of the NBA’s best.
Beyond those two, the center spot may prove the team’s biggest X-Factor.
Daniel Theis is a strong (if underappreciated) option that can do a bit of everything when on the floor. That said, to compete at the highest level, the Celtics are going to need a bit more oomph from the five-spot. Of course, Boston has no elite option at the position while its depth, unlike Theis, is a bit more one-dimensional — to manufacture that oomph, they’re going to need to get creative.
Enes Kanter should provide a spark on offense and as a rebounder, something Boston has struggled with in the past, but may prove to be a defensive liability. Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams, meanwhile, could almost be seen as a defensive foil to Kanter — both are strong defenders, but Ojeleye is an extremely streaky shooter (with a career three-point percentage of just 33.3 percent) while Williams is mostly limited to a lob threat on offense.
Then there’s Grant Williams, a rookie that managed to carve out a consistent role in Boston’s rotation for much of the regular season, who may be the first to hear his name called in relief of Theis. That said, and despite his strong regular season play, the 6-foot-6 Williams is just a bit undersized and inexperienced to be relied on as a primary player in a postseason environment right now.
Luckily, Boston has one of the NBA’s craftiest in head coach Brad Stevens — if anyone can Frankenstein a “true” center out of their rotation, he can. And, as a group, if they can elevate their play to the point where they are able to contain, or even just compete with, players like Brook Lopez and Joel Embiid, it would be a major boon for the Celtics and their title odds.
In its fourth month and counting, it may seem as if the current NBA drought might never end. But every day we inch closer and closer and, before we even know it, the postseason will be upon us.
So keep on the lookout as we wrap up the X-Factor series and, if you haven’t already, make sure to go back and scope out its earlier entries. Stay tuned for the plethora of content on the way between now and July 30, as well.
NBA Daily: Washington’s Positionless Rebuild
Drew Maresca explains why the Washington Wizards’ are closer to legitimacy than you might think
Upon first glance, the Washington Wizards look like an absolute train wreck. They traded away a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick to swap out John Wall for Russell Westbrook – whose contract will haunt them through the end of 2022-23 – and they are on the verge of chasing away their 27-year-old, thirty-point per game scoring guard, Bradley Beal. So insert your “Washington can’t get their stuff together” comment here while you can, because the opportunity won’t be here for long.
Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, it’s worth acknowledging that the Wizards have, in fact, botched the opportunity to build a winner around Beal thus far. But, when John Wall opted to have heal surgery and subsequently ruptured his Achilles, the door shut on that option, anyway.
There is an obvious silver lining – Beal is signed through the end of next season with a player option for 2022-23. Given what the Milwaukee Bucks gave up for Jrue Holiday last offseason, one could assume that the Wizards would get more than enough to jump-start a rebuild in exchange for Beal.
But a look closer at Washington’s roster would reveal they’ve quietly laid a foundation for the future. Specifically, the Wizards’ last two lottery picks, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, embody position-less basketball, as versatile, highly skilled players who can be plugged into almost any lineup. Both were recently named to the Rising Star challenge — although it won’t be played due to inherent limitations in the arrangement of the 2021 All-Star Weekend, NBA coaches clearly agree. Sure, there’s international appeal given Hachimura’s Japanese background and Avdija’s Israeli heritage, which one could surmise was a major motivator in naming one or both to the team, but coaches aren’t known for playing politics.
So let’s take a closer look at the young Wizards hoping to lead Washington into the future.
Avdija is a top-flight, Israeli prospect who played on for EuroLeauge’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv – alongside former pros Amare Stoudemire and Omri Casspi – as a teenager for the past two seasons. He entered the NBA as a highly-touted playmaker, capable of playing and defending multiple positions. Somewhat surprisingly, Avdija fell to the Wizards with the ninth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, as he was rated as the fourth-best prospect by the Wizards’ front office prior to the draft, according to sources.
The comparisons between Avdija and Luka Doncic were inevitable, as both are big, point forward types with a flair for the dramatic. That put obvious pressure on the young forward and, while he’s struggled for much of his rookie season – Avdija is averaging just 6.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game while connecting on 35.6% of his three-point attempts – his ceiling is obviously sky-high. He’s shown flashes of his greatness, like in a game in early March in which he recorded 10 points, 7 rebounds; or an early January game in which he collected 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Further, no one should be discouraged by Avdija’s struggles. First, he shot just 27.7% on three-point attempts last season in the EuroLeague – so his three-point percentage this season should come as a huge relief. Further, Avdija is averaging just 21.4 minutes per game, often deferring to Beal and Westbrook (and, to a lesser degree, Hachimura and Thomas Bryant). So, as much as everyone wanted him to be the next Doncic, the opportunity simply hasn’t been there.
But the potential is.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks explained some of what’s went wrong for Avdija’s thus far: “It’s normal to have some good moments and some tough moments. Every player, every single player in this league. I’m sure Michael [Jordan] had a couple of bad games in his rookie year. Every player. Russell [Westbrook], I coached him his rookie year. He’s had a handful.”
“Deni’s gonna be a good player,” Brooks continued. “For all the rookies in the league, it’s never happened where you had no Summer League, really no training camp and then with the safety protocol, he missed three weeks in the middle of the season. That’s hard to overcome.”
To Brooks’ point, the lack of preparation has definitely made the transition for Avdija even harder. What’s more, it’s not just Avdija who’s struggled; Obi Toppin (New York) and Devin Vassell (San Antonio), two of the more refined prospects, have also struggled to get carve out a consistent role.
Further, Avdija isn’t the first lanky foreigner who needed more than a third of a season to acclimate to the NBA; Dirk Nowitzki averaged just 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes per game as a rookie; Manu Ginobili averaged just 7.6 points in 20.7 minutes per game; Danilo Gallinari averaged just 6.1 points in 14.6 minutes per game. The list goes on.
Once he gets an actual opportunity, Avdija’s bandwagon should fill up quickly.
If Avdija is Washington’s future facilitator, then Hachimura is its finisher. And, while questions plague Avdija’s performance, Hachimura is being praised for his.
To be fair, Hachimura is farther along in his development, with one NBA season already under his belt (and three years at Gonzaga). Hachimura, already 23, is a bit more refined and it shows in his output: 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists this season.
That said, a closer look at Hachimura’s play shows room for improvement – with a below league-average 12.9 PER and a 29.2% three-point percentage serving as his most glaring weaknesses. But, like with Avdija, the upside is clear as day. We’re talking about a second-year player who scored 15 or more points 11 times so far this season – just 26 games. He’s strong, polished and bouncier than advertised prior to the 2019 draft.
Further, a closer examination of his shooting numbers reveals that while his three-point shooting clearly needs work, his mid-range game is spot on. Hachimura is connecting on 41.2% of his shots from between 16 feet and the three-point arc – better than noted midrange expert Carmelo Anthony (37%) and just hair behind All-Star forward Jayson Tatum (42.9%).
But Hachimura’s offensive abilities have been known for what feels like forever, partially due to the ridiculously long 2019-20 season. What’s surprising, though, is how he’s continued to improve on the defensive end – so much so, in fact, that Brooks specifically called out his defensive development after a recent game.
But no one should be that surprised. Hachimura’s combination of speed and strength, along with his high motor, is tailor-made for defensive success. And, again, like Avdija, the 6-foot-8 Hachimura’s versatility is his major selling point. He boasts size, dexterity, touch and handle. And, while his skill set has become far more common in the NBA, plug-and-play guys of Hachimura’s build are still relatively rare. And, most importantly, they allow teams to get creative in roster construction, enabling the addition of players whose deficiencies could be covered up by players like Hachimura.
Ultimately, neither Avdija nor Hachimura is a guarantee. Both possess serious upside and could grow into perennial All-Stars, but neither is a sure thing. Their attitudes and approaches will be a major determining factor in their success, or lack thereof.
The Wizards could look very different as soon as next season. But, as of now, Washington looks ready to tackle its rebuild — and, between these two, they may already have a headstart.
Blink and you might just miss their entire rebuild.
NBA Daily: Three Teams Failing Expectations
Expectations were extremely high for three teams entering this season. A variety of factors have derailed their trajectory but there may still be time to address their issues and turn their seasons around.
Every offseason presents the opportunity for organizations to revamp their rosters in hopes of improving their team for the upcoming season. Between the NBA Draft and the free agency period, executives are busy around the clock. The flurry of phone calls and internal discussions among management is key to molding the future.
But the league found itself in an unfamiliar position this past year with the delayed season, the playoffs in the Orlando “bubble” and a shortened offseason that went by in the blink of an eye. The first preseason game tipped off exactly two months after the final game of the NBA Finals. The turnaround was quick and complicated for everyone involved.
That said, several teams were able to capitalize on the abbreviated turnaround. The Phoenix Suns knocked it out of the park with the Chris Paul trade and signing of Jae Crowder. The Charlotte Hornets nailed the draft and free agency, as Michael Jordan landed both Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. The New York Knicks found success in the draft with Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. The Brooklyn Nets added excellent role players in Bruce Brown and Jeff Green while re-signing Joe Harris, who has been worth every penny.
Some teams appeared as though they had hit a home run, only to see the ball being caught at the warning track. The hype and buzz surrounding these teams were well warranted at the time, but things just haven’t panned out for a variety of reasons. With the All-Star break finally here, these three teams would welcome the idea of hitting the “undo” button on their offseason moves.
The Raptors find themselves sitting two games under .500 entering the All-Star break. While they are certainly not out of contention, they are a far cry from where most people thought they would be at this point. It began with a rocky start to the season, where they dug themselves a massive hole with a 2-8 record.
The crux of their struggles came with their frontcourt issues. Both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka took the Kawhi Leonard route from Toronto to Los Angeles in the offseason. Losing one of their big men hurt, but losing both of them was crippling. The signings of Aron Baynes and Alex Len looked okay on paper, but the fit could not have been worse. Toronto currently ranks dead last in rebounding as a team.
Toronto ended up waiving Len, while Baynes has seen his role reduced even more. Fortunately, the emergence of Chris Boucher and Norman Powell has helped the Raptors turn their season around. Draft picks Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris haven’t had a major impact, but Pascal Siakam finally snapped out of his bubble fog and Kyle Lowry is healthy once again as well.
One good thing that the Raptors were able to do in the offseason was retain their sensational guard Fred VanVleet. Toronto has seemingly turned things around over the past few weeks and, considering they are playing all of their home games 1,400 miles away from their arena, they are positioned for a much better second half of the season.
Last season, the Mavericks boasted the best offense in the entire league, led by MVP-candidate Luka Doncic. The goal for them in the offseason was to acquire a defensive presence that could get this team more balanced. It appeared as though they addressed that when they traded Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson. Unfortunately, that has not been the case early on.
Dallas was also looking for an upgrade at the center position, but they missed out. They ended up having to settle for bringing back Willie Cauley-Stein on a two-year deal for $8.2 million. As a team, the Mavericks rank 24th in rebounding. James Johnson has been a solid addition, but he alone was not nearly enough to upgrade their porous defense.
Kristaps Porzingis has been quite inconsistent this season, so it is difficult to know what they are going to get from him every night. He is nowhere near the defensive presence that he was during his time in New York. Richardson is the guy that Dallas has been waiting on to provide outstanding perimeter defense, but he too has been unable to piece it together on a nightly basis.
The Mavericks did not find anything in the draft and it seems as though, once again, Doncic is having to do everything for this team in order for them to have success. His 36.2 percent usage rate is the highest in the league and that doesn’t appear to be going down anytime soon. If you are going to give the keys to the entire offense to someone, he is a good choice but Dallas struck out in terms of giving their franchise player more help this season.
No team had won the offseason quite like the Hawks. The organization was able to surround its franchise player with truckloads of talent in free agency. They added elite shooters like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. They added key defensive guards in Kris Dunn and two-time champion Rajon Rondo. They even scored more talent in the draft, taking Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick.
Atlanta lost no players of significant value, either, as general manager Travis Schlenk added to his already loaded young nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter. The problem here is that there are just too many overlapping pieces.
The veterans that were brought in either haven’t been able to get on the floor or are taking up valuable minutes for the younger players, potentially stunting their growth. The workload has been spread thanks to their depth as they deal with all of the injuries but there is no chemistry on the floor. In a season where practice time is near non-existent, that is a real problem.
Kevin Huerter on Lloyd Pierce: “Obviously, our problems extend a lot further than Lloyd, so in a lot of ways, he was the one that kind of took the hit for it.”
Huerter says he sent Lloyd a text thanking him for his time in Atlanta.
— Sarah K. Spencer (@sarah_k_spence) March 3, 2021
The Hawks hit the All-Star break in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a disappointing 16-20 record. The game is being played in their backyard, yet they don’t even have a player to represent them. And, in recent days, it’s gotten even worse; the team officially fired head coach Lloyd Pierce on Monday, with Nate McMillan set to take over as interim coach.
Atlanta has played 36 games this season. Their nine best players have missed a combined 143 games. Not including Dunn, who hasn’t played all season, that number is still well over 100 games missed. This locker room is a mixed bag of players that lack leadership and desperately need guidance. Pierce wasn’t the answer and Vince Carter isn’t walking through those doors anytime soon.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – March 5
Two rookies have pulled away from the rest of the pack in the hunt for the Rookie of the Year award. Tristan Tucker breaks down how the rookie pyramid is shaping up halfway through the season.
The All-Star break is nearly upon the NBA, and the Rising Stars rosters were just announced with several rookies leading the charge. Two players have pulled away by a significant margin in recent weeks, with several first-year players making impacts on winning teams. Let’s take a look at how the rookie ladder has changed over the last two weeks.
1. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: 1)
February was kind to the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, who’s ascended to another level of stardom in the NBA in just his first season. The rookie is averaging 20.1 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game during that span. Since Basketball Insiders’ last update to the rookie ladder, Ball put up a stretch of five 20-plus point games, including a 30-point showing against the Portland Trail Blazers and a 24-point, 12-assist game in Charlotte’s wild win over the Sacramento Kings.
WILD sequence at the end of Hornets-Kings as Malik Monk wins it with an and-one 😳pic.twitter.com/FNEhgdRVr0
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 1, 2021
One of the concerns surrounding Ball when he entered the league was his ability to knock down jump shots at an effective rate. The 6-foot-6 point guard has shattered those concerns with his recent play and knocked down 40.7 percent of his attempts from downtown in just under seven tries per game.
When Charlotte parted ways with Kemba Walker in the summer of 2019, it would’ve been far-fetched to imagine that the Hornets would be stacked at the point guard position in just two years. However, with Ball and Terry Rozier, the Hornets are looking at a legitimate shot at the postseason.
2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)
Together with Ball, Haliburton has all but cemented this Rookie of the Year race as a two-party contest. It gets harder to not give Haliburton the top nod with each passing week; the rookie out of Iowa State is completely dominating off the bench for the Kings. Though he’s missed the last three games for Sacramento, Haliburton is averaging 17.4 points, 6 assists and 2.4 steals per game while shooting a very impressive 47.9/39.4/85.7 line in five games over the last two weeks.
Haliburton’s excellence extends beyond his scoring, as the Kings are 1.5 points better when Haliburton is on the floor. Furthermore, the 6-foot-5 guard boasts an assist percentage of 24.6, which ranks in the 97th percentile of all NBA players and a 1.33 assist to usage clip, which ranks in the 100th percentile.
The Kings have to feel good about their young core in spite of their record, especially with Haliburton earning Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors and a spot on the Rising Stars roster.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 24, 2021
3. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: 5)
Before the season, nobody would’ve guessed that the Knicks would be the fifth seed at the halfway point of the season. Head coach Tom Thibodeau and improved veteran play from All-Star Julius Randle and others have sparked the franchise’s turnaround. No player, however, is more synonymous with that spark of energy than Quickley.
Since the last ladder update, Quickley is averaging 13.5 points on a staggering 48.4 percent clip from deep. When the team acquired Derrick Rose, Quickley’s playing time was in the air, but the rookie’s resilience and determination have kept him in the lineup as he continued to exceed expectations.
4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 6)
Bey’s placement here should be representative of the overall fantastic job the Detroit Pistons have done with all of their young pieces. Bey is obviously playing great — more on that later — but other draftees Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee are playing phenomenally as well. Then there’s the case of resurgences in Josh Jackson — averaging a career-high 13.5 points per game — and Dennis Smith Jr., who was just acquired and posted a triple-double in a blowout win.
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) March 4, 2021
But, in a year that many thought would be a throwaway for the Pistons, especially with seventh overall pick Killian Hayes sidelined, Bey and the rest of the young corps along with Jerami Grant and company have stepped up and delivered exciting basketball to Detroit.
Over the last two weeks, Bey is averaging 11.7 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 37 percent from deep on just under eight attempts per game. If Hayes pans out, the 2020 NBA Draft is shaping up to be a turning point for the Pistons.
5. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 3)
If Edwards could hit shots at even a 45 percent clip, there’s little doubt that he would be running away with the scoring title of all rookies and perhaps the Rookie of the Year award itself. However, it continues to be a hindrance, as Edwards is shooting a horrid 32.8 percent from the field and 25.4 percent from 3 in the last two weeks.
It’s unfortunate that the shooting is so inconsistent, as he’s put together a string of four 19-plus points per game contests and several highlight-reel plays across the span of the last two weeks.
ANTHONY EDWARDS…DUNK OF THE YEAR. 😳😳😳
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) February 20, 2021
The last two weeks brought a lot of turmoil to light for the Timberwolves, with the team undergoing a head-coaching change, bringing in Chris Finch from the Toronto Raptors to replace Ryan Saunders. But that’s not all, as Ricky Rubio recently voiced displeasure with the team’s performance and D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley continue to be out.
With all the drama surrounding Minnesota, it’s hard to envision any rookie seeing much success there. The fact that Edwards is able to put these high-scoring performances together at all is telling of how special a talent he can be.
6. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)
Tate’s on-court production has dipped slightly in conjunction with the Houston Rockets’ losing streak, but the hyper-athletic forward is still giving it his all on a nightly basis. Look no further than the fact that the team is parting ways with DeMarcus Cousins for proof that Houston believes in Tate as a member of its future.
Houston plays better when Tate is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. And with that comes rejuvenated energy from all points on the court. When Tate is on, the team’s offensive rebounding percentage increases by 8.1 percent, which ranks in the 98th percentile of the entire NBA.
Even though the Rockets are in a slump, Tate is averaging 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 47.9 percent shooting from the field. Most recently, he enjoyed a double-double in James Harden’s return to Houston.
Honorable Mention: Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers (Not Ranked)
Okoro gets his first rookie ladder nod after the Cleveland Cavaliers saw a fantastic stretch in which the team won four straight games. During that span of time, Okoro averaged 10.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals while seeing season-best shooting figures of 49.1 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from three.
The 6-foot-5 forward out of Auburn has played the second-most minutes of any rookie and has started in every game for the Cavs, a promising start to Okoro’s career. Okoro is also playing strong defense for a Cleveland team that desperately needs good defenders and his stock could rise as the weeks go on.
With a multitude of highlight-reel dunks, passes and plays in just the last two weeks, several rookies are making big impacts on teams in a year where young depth is crucial. While Ball and Haliburton are currently leading the race, don’t sleep on James Wiseman to make a resurgence, as he scored 14, 11 and 16 points, respectively, in his first three games since returning from injury. Be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders for the next rookie ladder to see how tight this competition gets!