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Which Struggling NBA Teams Should be Concerned?

Even though it’s early, is it time for teams like the Knicks, Thunder, Pacers, Lakers and Nuggets to be worried?

EJ Ayala

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Every offseason is full of optimism and promises of improvement from everyone up at the top of NBA front offices all the way down to the players. We are now a little over a month into the regular season and are able to gauge the reality of how teams are starting to shape up. Teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves were expected by many to have a rough go of things this year due to having rosters filled with younger players, lack of superstars, coaching changes, and/or very little team continuity. Today here at Basketball Insiders we are going to take a look at some of the teams whose early season struggles were a little more unexpected and need to be looked at further. These are teams with losing records that had higher expectations that we may need to keep an eye on later for possible player movement and coaching changes later on as the season progresses.

Los Angeles Lakers

The good news is Kobe Bryant still looks like Kobe Bryant. As the highest paid player in the NBA, earning $48.5 million dollars over the next two years, many questions lingered about whether he could still play at high level. He has once again proved his doubters wrong. The bad news is the rest of his supporting cast leaves much to be desired. The Lakers had hopes that Steve Nash could help propel the team back to the playoffs, but with news that he’s done for the season with nerve damage it will be up to Jeremy Lin to shoulder the load, so far the results have been mixed to say the least. There was also talk of rookie forward Julius Randle getting plenty of playing time this season and having the potential to be a Rookie of the Year candidate until he unfortunately fractured his leg during the first game of the season. The expression of disappointment on his face as he looked over at Kobe, in what ultimately is a season ending injury was heartbreaking. Carlos Boozer, one of the bigger acquisitions this summer, has also been underwhelming and has continued to bring little to the table on the defensive side of the court.

Byron Scott was said to be instilling a smash mouth, physical style of play into the Lakers’ identity on both ends of the floor. So far early returns show the Lakers are dead last in opponents points allowed with 109.4 as their defense has been atrocious. For a franchise with a history of Hall of Fame players, division crowns, championship banners and just being a winner period, expect tensions to increase if the losses keep mounting. It would not be surprising to see the Lakers looking to make some creative moves if the opportunity arises later on in the season.

New York Knicks

Patience. That is what everyone from Knicks President Phil Jackson all the way down to franchise superstar Carmelo Anthony has been preaching since the beginning of the season. Everyone knew it would be a process for rookie head coach Derek Fisher to instill the complex triangle offense, which requires a high basketball IQ to fully utilize properly, into a team that was so used to playing heavy isolation basketball in years past. In a New York market where the media scrutinizes every word and action a player makes it was hard not to notice Anthony pounding the ball against his head in frustration after the Knicks suffered their seventh straight loss at the hands of the Utah Jazz on a buzzer beating shot by Trey Burke at Madison Square Garden Friday night. Will this team be able to continue to buy into the triangle and what the coaching staff expects if the losses keep piling up? Right now the Knicks are near the bottom of the league with 92.4 points per game scored – good for fifth worst. They are also the slowest paced team in the NBA with a pace rating of 88.6, granted this is with their best playmaker Jose Calderon still out with a calf strain.

Despite all of this it’s time to hit the panic button quite yet. This team should improve in time and with Calderon back on the court. His impact as a leader and a teammate cannot not be underestimated. Amar’e Stoudemire has been surprisingly reliable this year and has been looking healthy, so perhaps the vinotherapy treatments have been been helpful after all. Even Andrea Bargnani’s eventual return later on in the season could really help this team’s spacing as the season continues to unfold. Iman Shumpert has also taken advantage of the time he’s spent on the court this season, averaging a career best 12.4 points, on 50.5 percent shooting from the field, and 53.3 percent three point shooting per game. The Zen Master has this right: the team needs time, and there will be some serious growing pains.

Indiana Pacers

After the devastating loss of franchise cornerstone Paul George with a leg fracture he suffered over the summer playing with Team USA, the Pacers knew they were going to be in for a tough season. That loss was only compounded by their inability to retain Lance Stephenson, who left as a free agent as he was swayed by rival team owner Michael Jordan to join the Charlotte Hornets. If that wasn’t bad enough, everyone from David West, Roy Hibbert, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Watson and the list goes on, have been sidelined at some point or continue to be out with various injuries.

So who does that leave picking up the slack? Initially it was thought that C.J. Miles could step in and help fill in, however, that has been far from the case as he’s been averaging a paltry 7.7 points per game, on 24.6 percent shooting from the field, and 16.7 percent shooting from three point land. After Miles went down with injuries himself the silver lining has been that 2013 second round draft pick Solomon Hill has proven to be serviceable with some impressive glimpses of potential he’s flashed when given the opportunity. Another thing the Pacers have going for themselves is they are holding their opponents to 94 points per game, which means head coach Frank Vogel is still getting this team to play defense as that’s good for fifth best in the league. The bad news is the Pacers were already known to have offensive struggles, even last year with most of the team healthy. Without a go-to scorer on the roster look for them to continue to struggle if they aren’t able to put enough points on the board as a balanced unit.

Denver Nuggets

Coming into the season there were high expectations for the Nuggets as they finally appeared to be healthy. The general consensus for this team was we didn’t really get to see what they were capable of last year due to various injuries suffered throughout the season. One of those was the ankle and hamstring injuries suffered by starting point guard Ty Lawson. It seems those same issues that plagued Lawson last year have continued onto this year and that is a major problem for the Nuggets. He is the team’s engine as the primary playmaker and scorer; the Nuggets will only goes as far as Lawson can take them. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, their early season struggles has landed them at the bottom of their division.

The pressure is already starting to mount in Denver and head coach Brian Shaw knows it. “It’s a tough situation that we’re in,” Shaw said to Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post. “If we don’t have that kind of effort from everybody, then we’re not going to ever get out of this situation, and I won’t survive it. And it’s that simple. And if it works, great. If it doesn’t, then my head is going to be the one that’s on the guillotine. I understand that. I accept that. It’s all part of this whole thing in what we do. As long as I’m willing to accept that, I’m going to go out swinging.” If they don’t break out of their early season slump soon look for Shaw to end up in the hot seat or a roster shakeup down the road.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have been snake bitten from the start of the season this year. If it wasn’t enough for them to lose last season’s MVP and the league’s top scorer Kevin Durant for an extended amount of time with a Jones fracture in his foot, Russell Westbrook is also out as he recovers from a hand fracture. The Thunder are a deep team, but unfortunately even the notable guys they thought could fill in to keep the ship afloat like Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Andre Roberson and Reggie Jackson have missed significant time so far this season. It got so bad that they were even granted a hardship exception that allowed them to carry 16 players on the roster to sign Ish Smith to help fill in at the point guard spot. This is not the type of start the Thunder envisioned prior to the beginning of the season and it puts their title hopes in serious jeopardy to start the season.

In a tough Western Conference where every game matters in terms of the standings, this may be a hole that proves too big to dig out of. The lone bright spot has been the stellar play of Reggie Jackson, who has been eager to prove he is starter material. After he failed to reach a deal on a contract extension with the team he is going to take advantage of every opportunity to show that he is worth a big payday and a starting role to teams with cap space next summer. So far he’s been looking phenomenal, posting averages of 22.4 points, 8.1 assists, and four rebounds per game. He may just get what he’s looking for, but will this team still be able to pull things together enough when the franchise stars return to action? It’s tough to see that happening.

Overall it’s still too early in the season to say any of these teams can’t turn things around. There’s a saying that it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish, but when you start off as bad as these teams have, it may not matter how well you finish.

E.J. Ayala is based out of Salt Lake City, Utah covering the NBA, NCAA, and international basketball. Currently serving as a newsline editor for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA DAILY: Free Agent Watch – Point Guards

Shane Rhodes starts off Basketball Insiders’ new “Free Agent Watch” series, looking at the best free agent point guards set to hit the market this summer.

Shane Rhodes

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We’re in the home stretch!

It’s July, and the NBA is set to reconvene in just 26 days — of course, those may be the longest 26 days in recorded history, but the wait is sure to be worth it. Soon enough, and Adam Silver will have crowned the next NBA champions.

Of course, the postseason should come-and-go in an instant, with an infinitely condensed offseason set to follow — and unfortunately, just as the season has, the draft, training camp and, free agency are sure to feel the restrictions of COVID-19. With that in mind, we here at Basketball Insiders are taking another look at the coming offseason, specifically at the soon-to-be free agent class position-by-position.

Today, our first entry in our Free Agent Watch, we’ll look at the point guards. Let’s jump in.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors — Unrestricted — $9,000,000

Even with the salary cap expected to dip next season, don’t expect it to keep VanVleet to get anything less than his due.

Just 26, VanVleet is cruising into his prime and has already proven himself an essential fixture on a championship-caliber roster — don’t expect his services to come cheap, and don’t expect him to sit on the open market for long. With VanVleet, however, it isn’t so much about how much he may earn, but where he may earn it. The former undrafted free agent has seemingly made a home in Toronto, but the Raptors face a number of other pressing financial issues in addition to VanVleet’s upcoming free agency.

Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, vital in their own right to Toronto’s championship run a season ago, are also set to hit the market. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam’s contract extension, worth more than $30,000,000 per year through the 2023-24 season, is set to start next season as well. Do Masai Ujiri and Co. see VanVleet as a star to pair with Siakam in the long term, or would the Raptors opt instead to re-sign Gasol and Ibaka (or at least attempt to) in order to maintain a more balanced roster?

Only time will tell. Either way, and in spite of the current global financial downturn, expect VanVleet to get paid rather handsomely — certainly more so than any other point guard expected to hit the market — come free agency.

Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $17,000,450

Relative to the other guards in the free agent crop, Dragic is old. But, even at 34, Dragic, who has transitioned to a reserve role in Miami, should continue to contribute at a high level over the next few seasons.

Dragic started just one game during the regular season, his fewest since his rookie year. That said, the reduced workload had proven a boon for his health; after a (mostly) lost 2018-19 season, in which Dragic played just 36 regular season games, he had rebounded mightily before the league was shut down. In 54 games, he averaged 16.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and shot 37.7 percent from three.

Given he’s made just three postseason appearances in his career, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see the 14-year veteran Dragic re-up with the HEAT — with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the fold, Miami should find themselves in the thick of the postseason hunt over the life of Dragic’s next deal. Any other roster — and most would be more than happy to work him in — with a legitimate title shot in the next few seasons wouldn’t be much of a surprise, either.

Would an opportunity to start for around the same (or even higher) contract value persuade Dragic to join an up-and-coming roster or non-contender? It would seem unlikely, again citing his lack of postseason appearances, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls — Restricted — $4,372,072

It would seem as if Dunn’s time in Chicago is over.

Coby White and Tomas Satoransky have displaced Dunn on the Bulls’ depth chart, while their presence would also preclude Chicago from matching any deal worth more than Dunn’s potential $7,091,457 qualifying offer. Meanwhile, the Bulls have a guaranteed lottery pick in a draft loaded with talent at the guard position.

So, what exactly would push Chicago to retain Dunn, or interest any team in adding him as a free agent? Elite defense.

Yes, Dunn has proven a bit limited on offense — he’s not exactly a score-first guard, and his ability as a passer isn’t spectacular, either. But Dunn is a defensive menace, a kind of player any roster looking to make noise in the postseason could take advantage of.

He may not garner the proper respect given the Bulls’ position near the bottom of the league, but Dunn made a legitimate case for an All-Defense nod in 2019; he was second to Ben Simmons in steals per game while he led all qualified players with 2.9 steals per 36 minutes.

Dunn is also more than capable of defending another team’s top offensive option and, given that he may not earn much next season, should prove a steal for any team looking to either shore up their defense or boost it to the next level.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers — Unrestricted — $734,025

Jackson may have the most to gain of nearly any player from the NBA’s restart.

Bought out by the Detroit Pistons back in February, Jackson was afforded the opportunity to aid the Clippers in their quest toward the NBA Finals. In doing so, he also has the perfect opportunity to recoup major value he had lost in recent seasons with Detroit.

In recent years, poor play, injury and a bad Pistons roster had relegated Jackson to the scrap heap, knocking him down from a once-promising (or breakout, even) player to an overpaid stat stuffer that didn’t necessarily help the team win games. Yes, on paper, Jackson’s Detroit tenure looked strong — 16.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 35.4 percent three-point percentage in his four full seasons with the team.

But, when you take into account that the Pistons managed to finish with a winning percentage above .500 just once in those four seasons and never finished higher than eighth in the Eastern Conference, those stats start to feel empty.

If nothing else, Jackson needed a change of scenery, and looked strong in his few games with Los Angeles prior to the shutdown. In nine games with the Clippers, Jackson averaged 9.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and shot a blistering 52.5 percent from the field and 45.2 percent from three in 19.4 minutes per game.

He certainly wasn’t going to earn anything close to the 5-year, $80,000,000 deal he signed back in 2015. That said, Jackson, 30, is young enough that, if he can turn that mini-resurgence into an even stronger postseason performance, he shouldn’t have any trouble finding a long(ish)-term deal next season (and could maybe even play himself back into a prominent role).

Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks — Unrestricted — $19,000,000

Teague isn’t the “flashy” move. He certainly won’t swing a series or push a team into title contention.

That said, he’s still capable of solid production. Split between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks this season, Teague averaged 10.9 points, 5.2 assists and shot 43.6 percent from the field — not great, but good enough in spot duty and limited minutes off the bench.

Teague also shot 36.8 percent from three, making him a solid addition for any team that has struggled with their shot from the outside.

That said, most interest in Teague may come in his veteran presence. A quality leader, Teague also has plenty of playoff experience, having made the postseason in nine of his 12 seasons. With Vince Carter now retired, the Hawks may opt to bring him back to serve in a similar role, albeit at a massively reduced salary.

These five may prove the best of the bunch, but the point guard group set to hit the market is deep. Expect more than a few to prove solid additions capable of some serious impact. And with that, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of our positional Free Agent Watch series later this week.

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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Pacific Division.

David Yapkowitz

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In less than a month, the NBA is set to resume the 2019-20 season in Orlando, Florida. And, in just a few short days, teams are set to report for an abbreviated training camp. With that in mind, we started a new series here at Basketball Insiders.

With basketball seemingly at our doorstep, we’re taking a look at some of the more pressing issues each team are set to face as they either make the trek down to Florida or wait at home for an abbreviated offseason. We’ve already covered the Atlantic, Central, Northwest and Southwest divisions and, today, we’ll go over the Pacific.

The Golden State Warriors are the lone team that isn’t set to take the trip to Orlando. That said, they have plenty on their plate, as do the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. Let’s get into it.

Golden State’s Draft Decisions and Andrew Wiggins Future

If the season does in fact resume without any COVID-19 interruptions, the 2019-20 playoffs are going to feel different without the Warriors. The team that has represented the Western Conference in the past five NBA Finals was dealt a major blow with injuries to both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They spent much of the season trotting out young players and funky lineups, winding up in a good position to take home the No. 1 overall pick for their trouble.

Of course, what to do with that potential pick is the issue they must address. Both Curry and Thompson are expected to return to the court next season and the two of them, paired with a motivated Draymond Green, should find themselves in the midst of postseason contention. So, do the Warriors draft a player who they’ll potentially have to wait on to develop, or do they trade the pick, perhaps a veteran that could contribute right away?

The incoming rookie class is looking relatively top-heavy draft, with the potential to nab a possible star with a pick in the top five. Make the right pick, and Golden State could set themselves up for seasons to come. And, considering the franchise’s success with the draft (Curry, Thompson and Green were all drafted by the team), it’s easy to envision them making the right pick. That said, would they sacrifice that long-term success for a more immediate impact?

Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins is another matter the Warriors may have to address. In somewhat of a shocking move, the Warriors traded away D’Angelo Russell after only half a season and got Wiggins in return. Wiggins is a talented player, albeit one that hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations as a former top pick and has seen continued criticisms of consistency.

That said, Wiggins is perhaps one of the keys that could accelerate the Warriors’ path back to contention. He’s a talented scorer and should prove a better fit with the team than Russell had and, with Curry and Thompson set to shoulder the offense, they won’t need him to do too much to return to prominence. But, his contract could become cumbersome — how long are the Warriors going to pay Wiggins’ salary for production that may prove no better than Harrison Barnes’ during his time with the team?

Kelly Oubre’s Future in Phoenix

When the Suns make the trip to Florida this month, they’ll be without one of their key players in Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre, who went down with a torn right meniscus just before the NBA’s pause in March, will spend his time at home, recovering from said injury.

The 2020-21 season is going to be a big one for him, however.

Set for the final year of his contract and based on his play, Oubre would appear to be in line for a nice payday. Prior to the injury, Oubre was in the midst of a career year: 18.7 points per game, 45.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.2 percent shooting from the three-point line. It would seem to be a no-brainer to keep Oubre, who is only 24, as part of this young core.

The only thing that may complicate that a bit is the emergence of Mikal Bridges. In his second year in the NBA, Bridges impressed as he moved into the starting lineup and is poised to take advantage of Oubre’s absence from Orlando. And, next summer, just as Oubre is set to hit the market, Bridges will be eligible for an extension.

With Bridges in line for a rise, would Phoenix also pay Oubre to play much of the same role? The team re-signed him last summer to just a two-year deal, rather than something more long term and, next summer, they could risk losing him if they offer significantly less than some other teams are willing to pay.

Sacramento’s Push Forward

The Kings have been synonymous with futility for nearly a decade — lottery finish after lottery finish and they have almost nothing to show for it. They’ve been hampered by poor decision roster management. Their decision to draft Marvin Bagley III over say Luka Doncic is still up in the air, although many would tell you that it was a horrible choice.

What the team and fans can, and should, take to comfort however is that they are one of the teams being selected for the Orlando restart. When the NBA season was put on temporary hiatus, they were only a mere 3.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. They have a potential franchise cornerstone in De’Aaron Fox. They must do everything in their power to ensure that he stays a King. They ran DeMarcus Cousins out of town, they cannot afford to do that with Fox.

Whatever happens in Orlando, they need to continue their push forward, to maintain an upward trajectory. If they lose Fox, they may never recover as a franchise. They need to ensure that the franchise has nowhere to go but up, or they may risk losing the team to somewhere else entirely.

Lakers Championship Window and Anthony Davis Free Agency

When the Lakers signed LeBron James two years ago, there was little question that they were looking to get back on track as a championship contender. After a few years of lottery-bound teams and high draft picks, they managed to package those assets and bring in Anthony Davis to pair alongside James last offseason.

And, while James has shown no signs of slowing down, at 35 years old and with two more years left on his current contract, there are questions as to how open the Lakers’ potential championship window is. Had this season been scrapped altogether, that would’ve been another year lost for the Lakers and James.

What complicates matters further is the fact that Davis is set to hit free agency this offseason. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he was adamant about his decision not to sign a contract extension and allow himself to become a free agent. From a purely financial standpoint, it makes sense for him to do so — he can re-sign with the Lakers and earn even more money in the long term. But, if the Lakers fail to take home the title, could Davis turn into a potential flight risk?

Logic would say no, as the teams that stand to court Davis can’t offer nearly as much as the Lakers. But, if Davis doesn’t believe the roster can support him and his championship aspirations in the long term, anything is possible.

It may be unlikely, extremely so, even. But stranger things have happened, and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Clippers Championship Window

Who would’ve thought we’d ever say this, but the most pressing issue facing the Clippers is the exact same one as their across the hallway rivals, how big is their potential championship window? Injuries have been a bit of a concern for the Clippers this season, with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George missing time for various reasons. Both have dealt with major injuries in the past and the “load management” the two may require going forward should be at least mildly concerning.

They also face the same scenario as the Lakers in that, were the season to be scrapped, 2020 would be another year down the drain, a year of health (something that is never a given in the NBA) wasted. And, aside from the injury possibility, both Leonard and George can enter free agency next offseason.

Both players have options on their contract, so the Clippers would probably like to take advantage of this restart and push for a title as quickly as possible. If they fail to win either this season or next, then the possibility of Leonard and George reevaluating their options could become a likely scenario.

If for some reason, the NBA is forced to scrap their plans for the season resumption, each of these teams will be affected. Perhaps none more than the Clippers and Lakers who, due to roster makeup, have to push for a title run as soon as possible.

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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA’s return grows nearer, but new doubts bubble up each day thanks numerous players testing positive for COVID-19 tests and surging virus numbers in numerous states — including Florida, where games will be hosted. Regardless as to whether or not we all agree with its return, we are fewer than 30 days away from NBA basketball. With that in mind, we at Basketball Insiders are going through each division and identifying “6 Situations” we feel are worth keeping an eye on. We’ve wrapped up work on the Northwest, Southwest and Central. Today, we get to the Atlantic Division.

The Atlantic Division is unique in that it’s the only division with four teams currently seeded in the NBA Playoffs (and one of three divisions with four teams returning for the final eight games). Still, many of the Atlantic Division’s major plotlines are rooted in the future and not the remaining eight games or the playoffs. There’s a lot of questions surrounding roster composition, coaching staffs and draft picks. So without further adieu, let’s explore the most compelling situations the Atlantic Division has to offer.

Knicks face another pressure-filled draft

The Knicks really, really need to make the right pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. They don’t necessarily need to win the draft lottery, but they must add another cornerstone player. They missed out on the opportunity to land a guaranteed star last year when they fell to the third overall pick in 2019 despite owning the worst record in the entire league — and that draft featured really only two sure things. They had almost as bad luck in 2018, when they won only 29 games (in 2017-18) and finished with only the ninth-worst record in a relatively star-studded draft. And so on and so forth.

But it’s not as if the Knicks are starting from scratch. There’s Mitchell Robinson, the 36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, who has exceeded any and all expectations set for him. There’s also RJ Barrett, who looks the part of at least a legitimate NBA starter – and maybe even, dare I say, a star. But that’s about all they can count on. Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are promising, but possess red flags that hurt their standings with New York and their trade value around the league.

Much of the Knicks’ 2020 draft will be luck. They have the sixth-worst record in the league, so they possess only a 9% chance of winning the lottery and a 27.6% chance of landing a top-three pick. As much as “best player available” is an overused cliché (to the extent that it actually describes a bad strategy almost as often as it’s good), the Knicks should adhere to it. After all, they have so many needs and there’s really only one guy they’d prefer over everyone else (LaMelo Ball). Assuming they aren’t lucky enough to draft him, there’s still Killian Hayes, Deni Avdija, Isaac Okoro and Obi Toppin — of whom plug into the Knicks lineup nicely. Even James Wiseman or Anthony Edwards would be nice additions, although their fit is redundant with Robinson and Barrett already in two, respectively.

Long story short, there are lots of options for the Knicks. New York must: A) not slide down in the lottery, which is out of their hands; and B) avoid making a bad selection. Ultimately, a number of teams will consider trading away lottery picks, and the Knicks have a number of other first-round picks they can pair with their 2020 pick to move up. There are lots of options they can consider. They just can’t mess this one up.

While the draft is only partially in their control, the Knicks must also select the right coach

The Knicks have had five head coaches since Phil Jackson hired Derek Fisher in 2014, and they’ve had three team presidents. New team president Leon Rose appears to be fully invested in this coaching search though, lining up a number of interviews with some candidates, some of whom could also be auditioning for assistant roles. There are presently at least eight candidates, but there are clear front runners — and then ones who should remove themselves from consideration fairly quickly. The Knicks should almost certainly avoid chasing gimmicky candidates in hopes of them attracting additional talent — Jason Kidd is a good example. Luring Giannis Antetokounmpo sounds great, but the Knicks have been burned chasing star free agents before — and it’s definitely not a reason to hire a head coach. Another candidate the Knicks should probably avoid is Mike Woodson. Woodson is a brilliant defensive strategist, but he’s already led the Knicks. Granted, he led them farther than any other head coach since Jeff Van Gundy; but the Knicks need a coach to come in and motivate and teach their young roster — and while Woodson is seen as being player-friendly, he’s not thought of as a developer of talent.

Kenny Atkinson should get a long look. He was an assistant coach with the Knicks from 2008-2012, and he’s familiar with the pressure that goes along with being a head coach in New York (Brooklyn). More importantly, Atkinson is thought to be excellent at player development, which bodes well for his candidacy. Tom Thibodeau is another candidate thought under serious consideration. His relationship with Rose, his former agent, should make for a warmer interview.  The young Knicks are probably not entirely ready for Thibodeau’s intensity, but he would improve team defense, (probably) mold Frank Ntilikina into a DPOY candidate and bring unparalleled professionalism to the locker room.

There are other candidates who deserve a fair look, too – including interim coach Mike Miller, Mike Brown, Ime Udoka, Jamahl Mosley and Becky Hammon. There are almost too many candidates, but that’s a good problem to have. Now, all the Knicks have to do is pick correctly.

Can Jacque Vaughn solidify his future in Brooklyn?

The Nets were riding incredibly high this time last year (although we all were, relatively speaking). Now, not so much.

The Nets will return to action as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. There was essentially no chance of them leapfrogging Philadelphia, but they’re only a half-game up on Orlando. As much as we in the media built up the idea that Kevin Durant might return, that was always a very long shot. Even Kyrie Irving was unlikely to return given that he underwent shoulder surgery in early March. But still, Brooklyn’s young core could benefit from the opportunity to jell under coach Jacque Vaughn.

But much of what Brooklyn (and Vaughn) hoped to accomplish was predicated on the notion that the team was able to learn its recently appointed interim coach (and vice versa). Instead, they learned about Spencer Dinwiddie’s positive COVID-19 test, which will likely result in him missing the NBA’s return. Their (relatively) newly-appointed starting center DeAndre Jordan also announced that he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and that he’ll sit out the remaining games. They also received the unwelcome news that Wilson Chandler was opting out of the remainder of the season. Oh, and rookie Nic Claxton will also miss the rest of the year due to shoulder surgery. So can Coach Vaughn still make a case to return as the Nets head coach next season?

Ultimately, the Nets were never going to advance without Durant and Irving. Will it be even harder for Vaughn to prove his worth now? Maybe. Without Irving and Durant, the Nets were never going to advance beyond the first round, regardless of if they draw the Toronto Raptors or the Milwaukee Bucks. But the Nets front office, led by general manager Sean Marks, has been particularly adept at reading between the lines. They traded for D’Angelo Russell when his value was at its lowest, drafted Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert and picked coach Kenny Atkinson. While it’s unclear if Vaughn is the best man for the job, he’ll certainly get an opportunity to make his case for it.

Will the 76ers’ “Process” come to fruition?

After taking the eventual 2019 NBA Champions to the last second of regulation in a game seven, the Philadelphia 76ers were identified as one of a select few teams to compete for the Eastern Conference crown. After a strong start that was solidified with an exclamation point in a Christmas Day win over the Milwaukee Bucks, they lost their way — going 16-16 after the holiday.

Their struggles resulted in (or from) injuries to their two best players — Ben Simons and Joel Embiid, who missed 11 and 21 games, respectively. It got so bad that rumors surfaced about the 76ers potentially moving one or the other as soon as this offseason.

But the play stoppage may result in some positives for Philadelphia. Both Simmons and Embiid had time to heal from their ailments. And while they are in the unfortunate position of being tied with the Indiana Pacers for the fifth seed, with Indiana holding the tiebreaker. Fortunately, Philadelphia has a pretty easy schedule with games against San Antonio, Washington, Orlando, Portland and Phoenix. They also play Indiana on Aug. 1. So the 76ers control their own destiny, at least as far as securing the fifth seed.

Unfortunately, their consolation prize would be a first-round matchup against Miami. While that’s a tall task for any team outside of the greater-LA area, Philadelphia needs to demonstrate progress. Organizationally, they’ve invested a lot of time in this rebuild. They’d like to see progress. In fact, the fate of this iteration of the 76ers might depend on at least advancing beyond the first round. If they don’t, Embiid and/or Simmons, coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand could all be elsewhere as of next season.

Does a deep run mandate that the Raptors bring back their core, again?

The Raptors have been the biggest thorn in the side of this writer – pretty much all season. I saw a golden opportunity for them to rebuild on the fly. Masai Ujiri knew better. He brought back most of the 2018-19 lineup and, sure enough, Toronto is entering the final eight games as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

That alone is far from a major victory, especially for the defending champions. Expectations traditionally remain high after winning. Even with Kawhi Leonard leaving town, the Raptors were clearly confident they could make a run. Further, there is the financial side of the business that probably factored in – remember, playoff games bring in significantly more revenue than the regular season. While that is in question now with games being hosted exclusively in Disney World, no one could have predicted the arrival of a pandemic when decisions were being made in the summer of 2019. And next year’s finances will present complications, too. Will the Raptors agree to continue spending without the guarantee of revenue? You can bet that the Knicks and Lakers will. Beyond them, nothing is certain in terms of spending.

But regardless if you believe in the direction taken by the Raptors for 2019-20 or not, they’ve out-performed expectations. If they fail to advance past even the Eastern Conference semifinals, there’s a strong case to be made for a quick rebuild. But if they advance the to the Conference Finals or beyond, can Ujiri convince ownership to get on board with dismantling a team that would have played in at least two straight conference finals and secured its first NBA Championship? In total, the team is only on the hook for about $85 million next year, but Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all enter unrestricted free agency. The Raptors will have to open up their wallets to retain even two out of those three, which would be a necessity if they hope to compete again next season — and that could make their 2020-21 salary untenable.

Another interesting aspect – will Ujiri even return? Rumors circulated – as they always do when New York is involved – that the Knicks were preparing Ujiri a monster offer.  But they’ve since moved forward with new team president, Leon Rose. However, there are other high-profile teams that could use his help. Our very own Matt John wrote about a few in his The Hot Seat – Eastern Conference this past March. Philadelphia would be a great fit given how much talent they’re sitting on and their (likely) desire to improve if they don’t at least qualify for the conference finals. The Chicago Bulls are another team that could entice Ujiri to jump ship. Regardless, Toronto faces tough decisions following the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

Boston’s present looks great. But what’s next?

Like Toronto, the Boston Celtics are looking down the barrel at some interesting salary cap implications. Boston’s roster looks well-structured considering its relative youth and versatility. But the challenge lies in its future — can Boston add to its core to the extent that it builds a serious contender?

As mentioned above, freeing up the cap space needed to sign another star will be made more complicated by the restrictions that a smaller cap will introduce. Gordon Hayward has a $34 million player option for 2020-21. Prior to the monumental financial challenges presented by COVID-19, this writer expected him to opt-out and sign a long-term deal. But the salary cap will take a significant hit, and the days of teams handing out $30 million per year are probably over for now, at least for players who aren’t major difference makers. So, expect to see Hayward on Boston’s roster next season, as well as on their payroll. Ultimately, the Celtics will have approximately $100 million in guaranteed salary next season, which includes Enes Kanter’s player option and Tatum’s $9.89 cap hit, but not counting any other team options like Daniel Theis ($5 million), Robert Williams ($2 million) or Semi Ojeleye ($1.75 million).

Looking past next season, Tatum will almost certainly sign a long-term extension (this offseason, but his 2020-21 cap hit will be unaffected)  that cannibalizes much of Boston’s future cap space. There’s also the new CBA, which will be hurt by COVID-19, and the NBA and Daryl Morey’s dust-up with China, which originated last summer, to factor in.

So that leads us to an interesting question: Are the Celtics good enough to win a championship as is? If they decide the answer is no,  they’ll be severely restricted in what moved they can make. Long-term implications are difficult to anticipate; but in the short-term, Ainge and the Celtics should look to add veterans willing to sign lucrative, short-term deals, looking to chase championships. Players like Danilo Gallinari – although many in the know believe Gallinari will sign with Miami – or Derrick Favors would be good additions to the already talented Celtics. They’d add much-needed talent and (hopefully) accept slightly smaller roles for the opportunity to contend. And getting Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown to help with recruiting would go a long way.

Like all divisions, the Atlantic Division’s teams possess their share of issues to sort out. No Atlantic Division team is poised to win now, but many are on the right track. If these six situations are handled correctly, all five teams will be in better places in the near future.

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