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Who’s In Trouble? Eastern Conference Edition: Week 1

Basketball Insiders kicks off its “Who’s In Trouble?” series by examining the Eastern Conference’s biggest Week 1’s disappointments.

Drew Maresca

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The 2020-21 NBA season is about one week old. Despite teams playing a maximum of only three games thus far, we’ve already seen lots of surprising happenings and results. Granted, we didn’t have to go long without basketball, as there was only a 2-month break between the decisive game 6 of the NBA Finals and opening night, but the return of NBA action is always a cause for celebration.

With the return of NBA basketball comes all kinds of lists and rankings, so Basketball Insiders isn’t above making our own. Let’s kick things off by identifying teams, players and/or coaches that look to be in trouble. Since we’re dealing with people’s livelihoods, we hope to be as explicit as possible to build a case for each. So without further adieu, let’s identify who is in trouble in the Eastern Conference.

The New York Knicks’ Fourth-Year Point Guards

The Knicks were never going to be successful this season, at least not by traditional modes of measurement. They had too much ground to make up and the No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 draft was never going to result in the type of talent needed to replace their failing to add a foundational piece (e.g., Fred VanVleet) in free agency. So while pundits are mostly looking for incremental improvements this season, there is still some disappointment in the Knicks’ locker room.

First, there’s Dennis Smith Jr., who is averaging 4.0 points in 18.0 minutes per game through two games. Smith Jr. missed the team’s game on Sunday after a quad injury on Friday night, but he was simply average in both contests in which he’s played, shooting only 20 percent from the field.

Then there’s Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina scored one point in a total of 7 minutes through the Knicks’ first two games. But then Sunday happened: With Smith Jr. out, Ntilikina knew he’d receive more playing time entering the contest – and he looked good. Ntilikina scored 12 points in nearly 18 minutes of action. He was a +5 and made all four of his three-point attempts – but which player is he?

It was widely believed that head coach Tom Thibodeau would take to Ntilikina given his proclivity for defense and his pass-first philosophy, but – even after last night – it’s hard to imagine him securing a major role given the excitement garnered by rookie Immanuel Quickley and the fact that the team also possesses a steadier, defensive-minded veteran point guard in Elfrid Payton. And sadly, Smith Jr. was the presumptive starter before getting to the preseason, so after last season’s struggles, another tough year would cast doubt on his ability to compete in the NBA.

Both of the fourth-year guards should be worried. Neither was given an extension prior to this season, which means both will enter restricted free agency. They both possess unique skillsets, so it’s unlikely that either is out of the league next season, but both are adding to the narrative that they’re long-term projects – and that’s just not where either wanted to be at this point in their respective careers.

The Toronto Raptors’ Entire Roster

Let’s get this out of the way early, Nick Nurse is in no danger of losing his jobs – none whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean that Masai Ujiri and the rest of the management team is happy with how they’ve played. Granted, there may not be any 2020-21 repercussions, but the Raptors have to turn things around quickly – or they could be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

The Raptors are 0-2 with losses against the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans, neither of whom was expected to be world-beaters. So what’s went wrong? Generally speaking, they’ve struggled to score points as the Raptors are No. 27 in point per game entering Sunday. And as much as it’s unfair to blame one or two players for the team’s early struggles, we’re talking about two winnable games in a slightly shortened season.

But more specifically, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet – the team’s two cornerstones – have not played up to their potential. Siakam is averaging just 18.0 points per game (compared to 22.9 ppg in 2019-20) with an eFG of 47 percent, down from 51.2 last season. Additionally, VanVleet hasn’t stepped up like many wanted him to, considering that he’s fresh off of signing an $85 million extension.

Granted, VanVleet is playing mostly the same as he did last season, but that doesn’t cut it anymore. VanVleet has obviously been prioritized as a cornerstone, so, naturally, he must provide more than 18.0 points and 6.0 assists per game. Again, it’s only been two games; but VanVleet is shooting poorly from the charity stripe, connecting on just 60 percent of his free throw attempts. Both, and the entire team, will likely figure things out – but with the shortened season, it’d be best to do so as soon as possible.

The Washington Wizards’ Scott Brooks

Granted, no one expected the Wizards to be elite. Still, it was widely assumed that they would be competitive and, maybe, qualify for the playoffs. After all, Bradley Beal was the NBA’s leading scorer in 2019-20, Rui Hachimura showed promise last season, Davis Bertans is a top-notch sharp-shooter and they added Russell Westbrook and rookie Deni Avidija. And yet, here the Wizards sit, 0-3 allowing the seventh-most points per game (121.0).

But the Wizards roster just added Westbrook within the past month, a seriously-big change that requires time and patience. Additionally, Hachimura hasn’t played yet and will miss a few more games after being diagnosed with eye infections. So, for now, the roster is probably off the hook.

But that’s not the case for coach Scott Brooks.

At 0-3, the Wizards are off to a slow start. And with a shortened, 72-game season, three games hurts – especially when we’re talking about at least two winnable games against Orlando. Brooks’ seat is getting hot. If he doesn’t turn things around, and quickly, he could be on his way out.

Disclaimer, better late than never: It’s obviously way too early to conclude anything. Blowout losses happen and players have off-nights. Still, most teams have played 4 percent of their schedules – and while it might be an over-reaction, all of the above assumptions will play out poorly if all involved don’t flip the script, and soon.

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NBA Daily: Jonas Valanciunas Spearheading Grizzlies’ Growth

Jaren Jackson Jr. made his debut last night after missing the first 56 games of the season. Still, the Memphis Grizzlies have stockpiled wins without their second-best player, thanks in large part to the strong play of Jonas Valanciunas.

Chad Smith

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With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the playoff races are heating up. The new play-in tournament will allow more teams into the thick of things as the season winds down. One team looking to make a return to postseason play is the Memphis Grizzlies, led by dynamic point guard Ja Morant. Memphis currently owns the eighth spot in the Western Conference, thanks to excellent team basketball.

Morant may be the face of the franchise, but he has had a minor sophomore slump this season. His shooting percentages are down across the board, which include 74 percent from the free-throw line and 27 percent from behind the three-point line. Like most everyone in the league this year, he has missed a handful of games that have prevented him from getting into the type of rhythm that he would like.

Memphis is the true definition of the word “team” as they have collected wins with a well-balanced attack. They don’t have one or two superstar players that carry them on a nightly basis. They don’t rely on that which either, which makes things difficult for the opponent as they prepare their defensive strategies. The Grizzlies are difficult to game plan for, which is a credit to their unselfish play.

Contributions have come from everyone on the roster, from top to bottom. Kyle Anderson has been a perfect fit in Memphis. Dillon Brooks is seemingly unstoppable when he gets going. Brandon Clarke continues to impress and Grayson Allen has been a revelation for this team. It doesn’t stop there either. De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman have been excellent additions by the front office and the continued development of Tyus Jones has been crucial to lessening the load on Morant.

The real surprise has come at the center position. Memphis was supposed to be a two-headed monster with the young duo of Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. The fourth-overall pick in the 2018 draft finally made his season debut last night against the Los Angeles Clippers, which makes what Memphis is doing even more impressive.

With Jackson sidelined for essentially the entire season, the only other center on the roster is Jonas Valanciunas. Memphis was concerned about having the veteran big man shoulder too much of the load, but he has delivered on a nightly basis. The nine-year vet is having a career year in Memphis. Unfortunately, the team announced on Sunday that he would miss some time due to a concussion.

Not only has the Lithuanian produced some incredible numbers so far this season, but he has also been a key cog to the Grizzlies’ winning ways. Valanciunas has a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 24.13 which ranks 18th in the league among all players. That is a remarkable accomplishment for a center in today’s game.

The rebounding numbers alone are quite impressive. Valanciunas has essentially led the team in that department each game and has done it by a wide margin. He currently ranks third in the league in rebounds, behind only Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert.

Valanciunas has 40 double-doubles this season in his 50 games played. As of last week, the only players with more double-doubles this season were MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook.

Valanciunas has been getting better as the season progresses. He averaged 15.0 rebounds per game in March. His numbers in April are a reflection of how well Memphis has been playing. He is averaging 20.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game this month. He is shooting 68 percent from the floor, 46 percent from three-point range and 86.2 percent from the free-throw line. His best game this month came against the Indiana Pacers when he poured in 34 points and grabbed 22 rebounds.

Before Valanciunas went out with a concussion, the Grizzlies had won seven of their last ten games. They are now 0-2 without him but the losses weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. They came up short in an overtime game against a red-hot New York Knicks team, then lost to the Dallas Mavericks on a ridiculous floating three-pointer by Luka Doncic. On Monday they fell two points short in a double-overtime thriller in Denver against the Nuggets. Without JV on the floor, Jokic erupted with 47 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists.

Sharing the ball has been a constant theme for this young Memphis team. Only the Golden State Warriors average more assists per game as a team. The Grizzlies also lead the league in steals per game, which is a testament to their effort on the defensive end of the floor.

Taylor Jenkins deserves much of the credit in Memphis, though he doesn’t want the spotlight. The second-year head coach has the Grizzlies playing elite defense despite being one of the faster teams in terms of pace of play. Their defensive rating ranks seventh in the league while also boasting the 11th best net rating. The road ahead doesn’t get much easier for them though.

Memphis is in the middle of a brutal seven-game road trip. It started well for them, with wins over the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. After the double-overtime loss in Denver, they beat the Clippers in Jackson’s season debut and now head to Portland for two games against the Trail Blazers. Their road trip wraps up with another visit to Denver before facing Portland for the third time in six days.

The last time Memphis made the playoffs was during the 2016-17 season. Along with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, that roster included players like Tony Allen, Vince Carter, Chandler Parsons, Brandan Wright and Zach Randolph. This Grizzlies team may not have the same level of veterans, but their talent runs extremely deep.

Adding Jackson back into the fold should give Memphis a potent punch heading into the postseason. With Valanciunas now missing games, Jackson should have the opportunity to shake off the rust. While they aren’t heading to the NBA Finals this season, this is a scary Grizzlies team that can derail the hopes of a championship contender in the West.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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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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