It’s been an exciting start to the NBA season with plenty to talk about through the first few games. And as teams begin to play their first games of the new year, it’s time here at Basketball Insiders to take a look at some early season takeaways in the Eastern Conference.
The East is Deep
The Eastern Conference looks like it will be unbelievably competitive.
There’s currently a four-way tie for the lead of the Eastern Conference between the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. The Orlando Magic have had an impressive start to the year, but they won’t factor into the top half of the conference long term. The remaining three teams, however, pose much more interesting cases.
The Hawks have been an offensive juggernaut so far, posting an NBA best 124.88 offensive rating through five games. Trae Young has looked like one of the NBA’s best early on, averaging 30.6 points and 8.0 assists per game. The Pacers, under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, have the fifth-highest margin of victory in the NBA at 10.20 points and move up to second when adjusted for strength of schedule with a mark of 11.21. Domantas Sabonis has taken another step forward in 2020-21, averaging 22.4 points, 11 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game, all of which lead Indiana. The 76ers have had the easiest schedule of the three so far, claiming wins over the Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, Magic and the struggling Toronto Raptors to start the year. That said, you can only beat who’s on the schedule and, so far, Philadelphia has done that convincingly, leading the NBA in defensive rating at 98.49 with their only loss coming to the Cleveland Cavaliers when Joel Embiid didn’t play.
Notably missing from the top of the Eastern Conference are the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami HEAT, the top four preseason favorites according to Vegas. Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Boston all sit at 3-3, while Miami is currently 2-3. All four of these teams have had an up and down start to the year but are absolutely still in the hunt to win the conference. Brooklyn has one of the best duos in the NBA with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, while Boston has an as nearly impressive duo with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Of course, the Bucks have back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and added Jrue Holiday to the fold this offseason which, in theory, should make Milwaukee even better than last year — when they had the best record in the conference. The HEAT are the reigning Eastern Conference champions and have gotten off to a slow start this season; they’ve had a tough schedule, going up against the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, Magic and Bucks twice. Jimmy Butler has also only played in three games so far and scored fewer than five points in two of them, which obviously won’t be the case for the rest of the regular season.
Even without considering the Toronto Raptors — a team that won 53 games last season — and a resurgent Cavaliers team, the East looks to be even more competitive in 2020-21.
Time to Panic in Toronto?
Speaking of Toronto, the Raptors have not had the start they wanted to the 2020-21 season.
With a record of 1-3 to start the year, with their only win coming against the New York Knicks, Toronto has struggled. The reason behind their struggles, however, are apparent; they just can’t score the basketball. The Raptors are dead last in offensive rating at 98.77, the Oklahoma City Thunder are 29th with a rating of 100.35. They’re also last in offensive efficiency, scoring 96.6 points per 100 possessions. For Toronto to improve, they’ll need to start shooting the ball better. Pascal Siakam (39.3), Fred VanVleet (39.7) and OG Anunoby (40.5) have all shot around 40 percent from the field on the season, while Normal Powell has shot a shocking 30.6 percent from the field on nine attempts per game. As a team, the Raptors are 29th in the league in field goal percentage at 41 percent, beating out only the 2-3 Golden State Warriors.
Toronto has problems beyond shooting, too. For one, they’ve struggled to get to the free throw line. Toronto is dead last in the NBA in free throw attempts per game at 15.5 and free throw rate at .173. For comparison, the Hawks are first in the NBA in both categories, averaging 33.5 free throw attempts per game with a free throw rate of .383. When they get to the line, the Raptors have knocked them down at an average rate of 75.8 percent as a team but, when they can’t get to the line to attempt them anyway, that doesn’t help much. They’ve also struggled to hold onto the ball, turning it over 17.8 times per game and 15.6 times per 100 possessions, the fifth and fourth-worst marks in the league, respectively.
Still, despite those struggles, the Raptors 1-3 record is somewhat deceiving. Toronto’s defense has been excellent to start the season, holding the NBA’s third-best defensive rating at 100.73. They’ve also been competitive in all three of their losses and are a late blown lead to the San Antonio Spurs away from a 2-2 record. The Raptors shooting numbers should also see improvement, as Siakam and VanVleet are both excellent players with neither shooting below 41 percent from the field at any point in their respective careers. Siakam specifically shot 45 percent from the field last season and above 50 in all three seasons before that. Toronto has also been solid from deep, hitting 34 percent of their three-point attempts — and, with 51 percent of the Raptors’ field goal attempts being threes, their total field goal percentage is bound to improve.
Toronto also has the NBA’s 18th best net rating at -2.1 — that isn’t good, but it’s much better than their 1-3 record would otherwise indicate. If the team can just turn it around, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism.
Was the Russell Westbrook trade a mistake?
The Wizards made one of the offseason’s biggest trades when they dealt John Wall and a protected first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Russell Westbrook. So far, that looks like it may have been a mistake.
Washington has been awful through their first six games, posting a 1-5 record, good for dead last in the NBA. It’s not like it’s been exceptional competition either; the Wizards have played two games each against the Magic and Chicago Bulls – all at home – and have lost all four of them. They did get their first win of the season on Saturday night, taking down the Minnesota Timberwolves without Westbrook even playing. With their next four games coming against Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston and Miami, there’s potential for this to get a lot worse before it gets better.
Westbrook himself is a crucial reason why the Wizards have been so bad to start the year. He’s currently averaging a triple-double of 19.8 points, 12.8 rebounds and 12.3 assists per game, but that is far from telling the whole story; Westbrook has shot 42 percent from the field and 27 percent from three-point range. He’s also turning the ball over 5.5 times per game, good for a turnover percentage of 20.9. While it’s one game, it is somewhat concerning that Westbrook’s absence coincided with the Wizards’ first and only win of the season. In comparison, Westbrook’s teammate, Bradley Beal, is having the worst three-point shooting season of his career — 21 percent from deep — and still has a true shooting percentage (57 percent) 10 points better than Westbrook (47).
Even if Westbrook’s play improves, it’s clear the Wizards are going to struggle to even compete for a play-in game this season, so what was the point of trading for him? Washington even gave up an asset to acquire Westbrook, making the move all the more head-scratching. And, at 32-years-old, Westbrook is nearing the end of his All-Star days – if it’s not already here – and it seems unlikely that the Wizards will be able to compete in the near future with this core. If this level of play keeps up, it may leave some asking if the team would really be any worse if John Wall was still around.
Westbrook and the rest of the Wizards’ have a lot of work to do to turn this team around, and if they don’t, the team could be looking back at this trade with regret.
It’s only been a few games, and there’s plenty of basketball left to be played. But early on, it seems there’ll be plenty of reasons to watch Eastern Conference basketball this season.
NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?
Do the Philadelphia 76ers have the roster necessary to compete for a title? Basketball Insiders’ Quinn Davis goes in-depth on one of the league’s most polarizing teams.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.
The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?
Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.
Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.
Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.
A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.
But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.
All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.
That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.
The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.
Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.
Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.
It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.
Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.
If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.
While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.
The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.
In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.
If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.
Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.
Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.
The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.
And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.
Point-Counter Point: Biggest Surprise In The NBA So Far?
While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?
From time to time there are things that surface in the NBA landscape that requires a little debate, we call that Point – Counter Point. We have asked two our of writers to dive into the biggest surprises in the NBA so far this season.
While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?
Ariel Pacheo and Chad Smith look at both sides of the equation.
No one could have predicted Julius Randle’s hot start after coming off a rough 2019-20 season. However, now that it’s here, there’s reason to believe it’s built to last. He’s averaging a career-highs across the board and almost none of it is unsustainable.
While his production is up, the way he is playing is what is more significant than the numbers.
Randle has always had the ability to set teammates up, but he is now making a concerted effort to get teammates involved. He’s finding shooters in the corner and setting up his frontcourt counterparts for dunks. His usage percentage is currently at 27.2, just 0.1 higher than last season, but his assist percentage is at 38.2%, which is 17.3% higher than last season. This shows that Randle has the ball in his hands the same amount as last season, but is creating for others at a much higher rate.
His playmaking has been his best skill and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue. Randle’s decision-making is much-improved. It seems as if he has a better understanding of how defenses want to play against him and he’s using it to his advantage to pick apart defenses.
Randle’s scoring may take a small hit, as his mid-range shooting numbers are unsustainable. He’s shooting 57.4% from mid-range, so that should drop some. However, if the Knicks were to play Randle in more lineups with shooting in them, he could turn those mid-range jumpers into drives to the basket. He is attempting the most free-throws per game of his career at 6.8 a game. He’s also converting them at a career-high 78.1%. There’s reason to believe he can sustain this, as he has been aggressive driving to the rim and drawing fouls all season.
Randle is having the best rebounding year of his career, as he’s been attacking the defensive glass. The added benefit of Randle’s defensive rebounding is he’s able to bring the ball up and immediately attack. He’s also been a lot more active on the defensive end this season. He’s had good one-on-one moments on the defensive end against guys like Domantas Sabonis and Kevin Durant.
Another reason to expect Randle’s play to continue is that the Knicks need him to be this good to have a chance to win games. They will continue to look to Randle to be the focus of their offense every single night. Randle is not only the team’s best playmaker, he’s one of the only few reliable ones on the roster. The ball will continue to be in his hands and he has consistently made good decisions up until this point.
Randle’s always had the talent to be a nightly triple-double threat, but it’s starting to come together for him. He’s giving full effort on both ends, all while being third in the league in minutes. Other than his rookie year when he broke his leg, Randle has proven to be durable. Even if his production drops off some, his effort and newfound style of play are what’s making Randle have this hot start. He’s playing at an All-Star level, and that should continue.
There is a new sheriff in town, and his name is Tom Thibodeau. After a long stint in Chicago where he earned Coach of the Year honors and guiding the lifeless Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, Thibodeau has made his way to the Big Apple. Skeptics were not sold on the hire when it happened, but perhaps he is making believers out of them with the help of Julius Randle.
It is no secret that Thibodeau’s calling card has always been defense. He has the Knicks playing aggressive on that end of the floor. Another skill that he possesses is the ability to put his players in a position that will maximize their talents. To that end, Thibodeau has made a world of difference. However, another common theme in his coaching style is eventually wearing his players out. While that is not his intention, he has done it with his best players at every stop along the way.
This is where some of these improved numbers come into play for Randle. Entering this season Julius was averaging 29.4 minutes per game. So far this season, he is playing 38 minutes per game. That is the 2nd highest in the entire league – trailing only his teammate RJ Barrett.
All of that being said, the individual numbers are very impressive. Averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists is nothing to sneeze at, even in this small sample size. The assist numbers, in particular, are quite astounding when you consider he has never had a season in which he averaged more than 3.6 per game. Part of the reason for this is that he is passing out of double teams, instead of trying to force up a shot.
Randle was the only bright spot in the Battle in the Big Apple on Wednesday night. Still, it felt like an empty calories game for the big man as he repeatedly fired away mid-range jumpers. It was New York’s fourth consecutive loss as they fell to the undermanned Nets, who were without several bodies due to the James Harden trade just hours before tipoff.
Unfortunately for Knicks fans, this same story has been played out before with Thibodeau and Joakim Noah in Chicago. His two All-Star seasons were filled with career-high numbers, but it didn’t necessarily translate to success in the playoffs. Right now Randle leads his team in points, rebounds, and assists. The only other players that are currently doing that are Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.
Finding open shooters on the perimeter has worked early on, but New York’s shooting has come back down to earth in the past week. They now rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of three-point shooting, and Randle himself figures to follow suit. After shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc last year, Randle was shooting at a 38 percent clip to open the season. A ten percent jump just doesn’t happen overnight. The seven-year pro is a career 29 percent shooter from distance. He is taking the same amount of shots as last season and averaging nearly four more points per game.
Even if the shooting numbers come down a bit, it doesn’t put New York back in the basement. The ball movement and effort on defense are the catalysts for the Knicks, not their scoring – in which they rank 29th at the time of this writing. Looking at Randle specifically, he is actually averaging more passes per minute than Steph Curry.
Randle is the main reason why this team has displayed a pulse for the first time in two decades. He was the 7th overall pick for good reason but the Knicks don’t necessarily need the talented lefty to be the star of the show. They need him to share the stage and allow the spotlight to showcase others.
Should he stay the course, Randle will undoubtedly be in line for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. If he regresses like I believe he will, he can still play a vital role in changing the culture and the perception of one of the league’s most popular franchises. The 26-year old has been a pleasant surprise this season, in what will surely be another roller coaster ride for Knicks fans.
– Chad Smith
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.