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What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 1

The first few games of the NBA season has taught us a lot, but which teams need to panic and which can feel a sense of excitement?

Zach Dupont

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Its 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.

Theres 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 wont 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 NBAs 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 whos 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; theyve 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 wont 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 cant 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. Theyre also last in offensive efficiency, scoring 96.6 points per 100 possessions. For Toronto to improve, theyll 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, theyve 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 cant get to the line to attempt them anyway, that doesn’t help much. Theyve 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. Torontos defense has been excellent to start the season, holding the NBAs third-best defensive rating at 100.73. Theyve 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 NBAs 18th best net rating at -2.1 — that isn’t good, but its much better than their 1-3 record would otherwise indicate. If the team can just turn it around, theres still plenty of reason for optimism.

Was the Russell Westbrook trade a mistake?

The Wizards made one of the offseasons 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, theres 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. Hes 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. Hes also turning the ball over 5.5 times per game, good for a turnover percentage of 20.9. While its one game, it is somewhat concerning that Westbrooks absence coincided with the Wizards first and only win of the season. In comparison, Westbrooks 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 Westbrooks play improves, its 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 its 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.

Its only been a few games, and theres 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.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, Boston.com and The Basketball Tournament.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA

NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Play-In Game — East

With the play-in tournament just around the corner, Matt John previews who in the Eastern Conference might qualify for it.

Matt John

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It’s official: we’re entering the regular season’s endgame. Every game from here on out will have much bigger consequences, a statement even truer in 2021 than perhaps any other season thanks to the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

If you’re not familiar, the play-in tournament will consist of two matchups within each conference. The seventh and eighth seeds of both conferences will face off against one another, while the ninth and 10th seeds shall do the same. The winner of the seven-eight matchup will take their conference’s seventh seed, while the winner of the nine-10 game will face the aforementioned match’s loser for the eighth and final spot in the postseason. It’ll serve as a nice appetizer before the playoffs get underway.

So, now that we have 15 games left give or take, it’s time to get a full scope of who we’re most likely to see in this year’s play-in, starting with the Eastern Conference. There’s really no need to go over teams that have all but clinched their playoff spots like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee. Just like there’s no need to mention teams that are way too out of a reach for a playoff spot like Detroit and Orlando.

But that does leave ten teams in the Eastern Conference that we could potentially see in the play-in. At first glance, it would sound ridiculous to say that Boston and Cleveland could be in the play-in seeing how they are separated by ten and a half games, but Boston is only two and a half games ahead of Miami for that seventh seed while Cleveland is only three games behind Chicago for the tenth seed.

The best way to evaluate is to divide these into tiers. One for playoff teams who are likely to avoid the play-in, one for teams that are most likely to be in the play-in, and those that are likely to miss out on the play-in.

Likely to Avoid

Atlanta Hawks (30-26)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Six
Games Against East: 13

Replacing Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan proved to be a genius move by Atlanta’s front office, as the Hawks have won 16 of their last 23 games. They may have had that stretch where they lost four of five, but that was on a West Coast Trip. Seeing how almost 75 percent of their remaining games will be at home, it’s hard to see Atlanta collapsing. They may be decimated by injuries right now, but the schedule seems a little too easy for them to blow this.

Boston Celtics (31-26)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Four
Games Against East: 10

Much like Atlanta, Boston’s really hit their stride over the past few weeks. Getting healthy and making a few roster changes have helped them rediscover the team that started out so well at the beginning of the season. It’s hard seeing Boston folding down the stretch primarily because they won’t be facing too many strong opponents from here until the regular season’s end. Given their recent strong play, don’t expect an appearance at the play-in tournament.

Likely Play-In Teams

New York Knicks (30-27)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: Six

Give credit where credit is due. The Knickerbockers are not going away. They’ve stayed the course when many thought this was going to be another wasted year for them. They’ve given no reason to indicate that they’re stopping now. The reason they’re not as sure of a thing as Atlanta or Boston is because, over this last stretch, they’re going to face off against several Western Conference contenders looking for the highest seeding possible. As tough as that’s going to be, the Knicks are going to make each one of them earn those wins, guaranteed.

Miami HEAT (28-28)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East: 11

It’s been difficult to get a read on the reigning Eastern Conference champions. They go on stretches that basically even out each other. After starting out 11-17, they win 12 of their next 13, then follow that up by losing their next six games, then win six of their next seven, then finally and most recently, they lose their next three games. No one really knows what Miami’s ceiling is right now. Odds are, the HEAT will probably be in the play-in. It’s just a matter of where. Also, why have we still not gotten any updates on Victor Oladipo?

Charlotte Hornets (27-28)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: 13

What’s happened to the Hornets over the past few weeks is just straight up not fair. If LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were playing, they’d solidly be in the same tier as Boston and Atlanta. With their squad fully healthy, Charlotte’s a playoff team, but being down their two best players definitely takes them down a peg. They deserve props that they haven’t rolled over since losing those two, but sadly they’re nowhere near as good as they were with their whole squad. Their schedule is easy enough that it shouldn’t knock them out of the play-in. If LaMelo and Hayward are back by then, then it’s hard not seeing the Hornets get into the postseason.

Indiana Pacers (26-29)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East Teams: 11

It hasn’t been talked about enough how injuries have really shaken up Indiana’s season. TJ Warren’s foot injury was a substantial season-long setback and Caris Levert’s cancer, as miraculous of a story as that was, was another prolonged absence. Overall, Indiana’s injuries have led to a rather underachieving season compared to past results. Luckily their schedule for the rest of the season shouldn’t be too tough, so making the play-in seems realistic.

Outside Looking In

*One of these teams will get the play-in as the 10th seed.

Toronto Raptors (23-34)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: Seven

That’s right, the same Raptors, who only weeks ago were in serious talks to trade Kyle Lowry to the highest bidder, have suddenly found themselves in the fight for the final spot for the play-in. It’s not that they’ve suddenly turned it all around. It’s that the competition is too weak for them to bow out completely. Their schedule may allow them to go all-in on the tank, but maybe one last hurrah with the franchise’s greatest player isn’t the worst way to go.

Chicago Bulls (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Seven
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: 16

Good news: Nikola Vucevic looks like he’s fitting in splendidly. Bad news: The team has been on a downward spiral since his (and others) acquisition. Chicago has only won four of their last 13 games since the trade deadline and their remaining schedule is not going to be a breeze. On paper, they should be a shoo-in for the 10th seed, but the roster holes right now appear to be too glaring for Chicago to take the next step. If they don’t at the very least make the play-in, that’s not going to be a good look after all the moves they made.

Washington Wizards (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Five
Games Against East Teams: 10

Remember when Washington was one of the worst teams in the league record-wise? And how they managed to only slightly improve themselves over the course of the season? Well, apparently that was enough to get them into the conversation for the play-in because, lo and behold, they’re now tied with Chicago for that 10th seed. It gets better too. They only face two tough challenges from here on out – Lakers and Bucks – but after that, it’s honestly easy enough that they might be the favorite to get that last play-in spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-36)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams over .500: Six
Games Against East Teams: 12

This sounds the most ludicrous seeing how the Cavs are currently the East’s 13th seed, but being three games behind Chicago while facing only six teams over .500 gives them a fighting chance. If the Cavaliers are actually able to get the play-in, that’s a big stepping stone for their future. It’s an accomplishment to build off of in an era with no LeBron James to speak of, which they haven’t been able to do since Friends was on the air.

As you can see, the play-in has, in a way, brought a new dimension to the NBA season. In any previous season (excluding the last one) no one would bat an eye at the 10 through 13 seeds. Their season at this point would be all but done and no one would care, but because of the possibility of going to a play-in tournament, teams suddenly have the chance to make something of what usually would have been a lost season.

Some teams may get annoyed by it because their time is coming to a close and there’s no need to delay the inevitable. For others, the play-in signifies that it could just be the beginning.

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