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Celtics’ Early-Season Success Shouldn’t Be Surprising

The Celtics lost their two best players in free agency. But with a talented, versatile roster buying into each other and Brad Stevens’ system, Boston’s success shouldn’t be surprising. Jack Winter writes.

Jack Winter

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It was clear months before reports emerged that Kyrie Irving intended on continuing his career elsewhere that he wouldn’t re-sign with the Boston Celtics. A season that was supposed to cement his future as the next in a storied line of franchise icons – even ending with a championship, maybe – went off the rails almost as soon as it started, with Boston’s dearth of on and off-court chemistry superseding its enviable wealth of all-around talent.

By late May, after Irving played the most vexing, listless basketball of his career in a second-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, his imminent departure wasn’t the one supposed to doom Boston’s hopes of legitimate contention in 2019-20. Even if the Celtics hadn’t ultimately replaced him with Kemba Walker, there was a legitimate argument to be made that his exit could prove addition by subtraction.

Al Horford’s was far different, and not just because it came as a relative shock. He re-emerged as Boston’s two-way linchpin in the playoffs, just as he’d been the previous season when the precocious, undermanned Celtics came within a victory of the NBA Finals despite the absence of Irving and Gordon Hayward. Making matters worse was that Danny Ainge did nothing to address the gaping hole Horford left on the roster other than signing the one-dimensional Enes Kanter.

It’s Boston’s ability to basically render Horford’s departure moot so far that’s most surprising about its start. But the more you think about the Celtics’ stellar early-season performance, the more obvious it becomes that their 10-4 record and current status as Eastern Conference contenders shouldn’t be that surprising at all.

Coming into 2019-20, the Philadelphia 76ers’ starting five was broadly considered the best in basketball. The LA Clippers’ combination of top-tier talent and quality depth was unmatched, and it was difficult to imagine a roster more cohesive than the Milwaukee Bucks. A month into the regular season, none of those assumptions have been disproven. But what has is the notion that Boston lags far behind those title-chasing teams in terms of personnel.

Walker is perhaps Irving’s equal, and has already been a far better fit both in the locker room and on the floor for a team littered with proud young talent. Hayward, another year removed from that devastating leg injury, was rounding into his previous All-Star form before breaking his hand on Nov. 9. There’s debate on the most-likely trajectory of Tatum’s career, but even amid major struggles at the rim and from mid-range, he’s been the Celtics’ on-off panacea. Jaylen Brown has taken a mini-leap as a ball-handler and playmaker while continuing to play borderline all-league defense. Marcus Smart is launching threes with newfound abandon and is an early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.

Should those developments register as anything close to a shock? The impact of Walker and a healthy, confident Hayward needs no explanation. Tatum and Brown were on the fast track to stardom before Irving’s presence, tangible and otherwise, stunted their growth. Smart made significant strides from three last season and is just entering his prime in a modern NBA that increasingly values his unbelievable defensive versatility on an annual basis.

Still, it’s tempting to give Brad Stevens the lion’s share of credit for his team’s hot start. He certainly warrants praise for keeping the Celtics together in the midst of last season’s debacle and putting his players – from Walker and Tatum to Brad Wanamaker and Javonte Green – in the best position to succeed.

But even a subpar coach would understand the benefit of exploiting the switchability of a roster with defenders like Smart, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye. It’s not like Boston has reinvented itself into an egalitarian outfit offensively without Irving, either. The Celtics are running more pick-and-roll this season, and both passing the ball and holding it for longer than they did in 2018-19. Their shot profile, despite an uptick in shots at the rim to just below league average, is hardly some paragon of expected efficiency.

The story behind Boston’s play thus far is actually pretty simple. This is one of the most talented, versatile rosters in the NBA, with impactful veteran leaders, budding stars and young role players who have fully bought into a system maximizing their individual and collective ability.

Whether the Celtics’ play through the first four weeks of the season portends true contention remains to be seen. They’ve labored offensively without Hayward, struggles that will only be mitigated to a certain extent at full-strength against the postseason defenses of Milwaukee, Philadelphia and the Toronto Raptors.

Tatum probably needs to scrape his ceiling for Boston to score consistently enough come spring to beat teams who can match or exceed their talent. Maybe Hayward reverting back to a more measured version of his days with the Utah Jazz would be enough; lineups featuring he, Walker, Tatum and Brown boast a 116.8 offensive rating in an admittedly small sample size.

Regardless, it’s indicative of the Celtics’ likely staying power toward the top of the Eastern Conference that those prospects are worth broaching at all. Just as tellingly, that reality serves as yet another reminder that Boston’s success, despite the offseason loss of its two best players, shouldn’t have been hard to see coming.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 1/21/20

Michael Porter Jr. has forced Mike Malone’s hand in Denver, scoring so well that the redshirt rookie must see more playing time. As a result, he enters the conversation for most-impactful bench player in the league. Douglas Farmer revisits Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man Watch.

Douglas Farmer

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Unlike most other NBA awards, the Sixth Man of the Year can be won with only half a season’s worth of impact. That is an innate wrinkle to a conversation about players coming off the bench, anyway. So while most the league obsesses over defense, MVP-worthiness and postseason position jockeying, there’s another important award that has begun to heat up in a big way. Heading into the trade deadline and winter months can make or break many chances here, so check the standings, statistics and storyline of all mentioned below.

That said, and to kick things off, it may be unlikely, but a young player forcing his coach to play him more due to a blossoming scoring run can thus enter this conversation.

Michael Porter Jr. — Denver Nuggets

Porter has reached double digits in 7 of Denver’s last 12 games, including averaging 16.8 points in the last four games. At this point, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has no choice but to play the redshirt rookie more often.

Porter’s emergence has included shooting 44.8 percent from three in the last 11 games, and 40.6 percent beyond the arc on the season. While his defense remains questionable — not a shock for a player in his first year — and his assist numbers are practically non-existent, Porter’s ability to stretch the floor around franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokić fills a need Denver has struggled with for years.

If he continues grabbing rebounds with the same frequency as he has of late, tracking down 14 on Monday — and 8 and 10 in a back-to-back this week — then Porter’s strengths will inarguably outweigh his weaknesses. A second-half surge filled with double-digit scoring efforts will gain notice, and deservedly so.

Derrick Rose — Detroit Pistons

Now that the Pistons are actively shopping Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin is sidelined for the year, Rose is once again the best player on an NBA team. Yet, he continues to come off the bench.

Being the best player on a team finally embracing a long-needed rebuild may be a backhanded compliment, but it is Rose’s reality, nonetheless. Across Detroit’s last eight games, he has averaged 24 points per night, cracking 20 in all of them and in 10 of the last 11. On top of that, Rose is averaging 6.3 assists per game in the last seven.

Maybe his bench role is a version of load management for one of the league’s most injury-crossed players. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment of Rose’s inefficient shooting as he has needed 18.6 shots per game to reach these recent marks. It might be the byproduct of a quiet tank. Whatever the reasoning, it keeps the Pistons’ most consistent player out of the starting lineup.

As the rebuild gains momentum, Rose’s $7.7 million deal for next season may be palatable for a team chasing a low playoff seed. Detroit cannot expect to get too much in return for the 31-year-old, but anything would probably be more than anticipated when the Pistons signed Rose.

Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s not just that Oklahoma City is in the No. 7 spot out West or that it is five games ahead of the lottery. It’s that the Thunder are as close to the Utah Jazz at No. 4 as they are to missing the playoffs. This may not have been the rebuild expected, but it is one welcomed by the small market, and Schröder has made himself an indispensable piece of it.

His on/off rating of plus-12.8 ranks in the 97th percentile among point guards, per cleaningtheglass.com — something even more impressive when realizing backup point guards often suffer diminishing statistical returns due to the reserves they typically play with. Still, Oklahoma City outscores its opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions including Schröder.

He obviously benefits from playing alongside Chris Paul. Without Paul, Schröder’s net rating is minus-4.0, but when playing with the star point guard, the Thunder outscore opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions.

As long as Oklahoma City intends to make life miserable for the rest of the Western Conference, and indications are that will extend past this season, then keeping Schröder and Paul together is in the Thunder’s best interest, even if one of them is stuck to the bench to start games.

Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Even for the walking bucket known as Sweet Lou, averaging 24.8 points across a six-game span the last couple of weeks stood out. He shot 53.8 percent from the field during the stretch, including 50 percent from beyond the arc. Career 35.0 percent 3-point shooters are not supposed to find stretches that scorching.

Unless, of course, they are Lou Williams.

What may have stood out even more, though, were the 37 assists Williams dished out in those six games. That fits right in line with his season average of 6.2 assists per game, but that marked career-high remains the most surprising part of yet another stellar season from the 14-year veteran.

Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

Naturally, many of those Williams-tossed assists continue to land in Harrell’s hands. By just about every advanced metric, Harrell has been the second most important player to the Clippers’ season, behind only Kawhi Leonard — Paul George’s extended absence admittedly colors this gauge. Los Angeles is better on both ends of the court with Harrell involved than with him on the bench. Only Leonard’s absences are more noticeable on both ends, statistically speaking.

Porter’s rise may have pushed the Nuggets past the Clippers in the standings for the moment, but Harrell has a substantial lead on him in the race for this piece of Sixth Man hardware.

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NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz takes a look at what teams and names are generating buzz in the Pacific Division in Basketball Insiders’ Trade Targets series.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA Trade Deadline is a couple of weeks away. Here at Basketball Insiders, we’ll be breaking down which teams should be looking to make a move and which players could — and maybe should — have a new uniform by February.

In the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers have established themselves as being among the league’s elite. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should stand pat as they both could stand to improve their rosters.

The Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings are both entrenched in a battle with five other teams for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Realistically, the Suns have a much better chance as they are not too far behind the Memphis Grizzlies, who currently hold the eighth spot. But Sacramento is only two games back in the loss column. There could be a player out there who can bolster their playoff chances, but is it worth it?

The Golden State Warriors are clearly out of the playoff picture, and they have some veterans on the team who they could move to playoff contenders and perhaps net a draft pick.

Here’s a look at the teams and players in the Pacific Division who could be active leading up to the trade deadline.

1. Los Angeles Lakers – $120,604,780

Relative to the rest of the league, the Lakers are middle of the pack when it comes to team salaries. Not bad for a team widely considered to be one of the favorites to contend for a title. Outside of last night’s debacle in Boston, they’ve been playing very well and recently had a big road win against the Oklahoma City Thunder without LeBron James or Anthony Davis.

There isn’t anyone on the team whom they should move necessarily. Kyle Kuzma has had his name come up in trade rumors, but the Lakers should keep him if possible. What the team needs is a point guard who can break down defenses and hit the open shot. If they can trade for one and manage to keep Kuzma, the better. They should inquire about D.J. Augustin in Orlando; he certainly fits the bill.

2. Dario Saric – $3,481,986

Saric was part of the big draft-day trade that netted the Minnesota Timberwolves the sixth overall pick (Jarrett Culver) in the draft. He had shown a lot of promise to that point and looked to be a nice addition to Phoenix’s young core. He’s since seen inconsistent minutes in the rotation and doesn’t quite appear to be in the Suns’ future plans. He’s since returned to the starting lineup, but the Suns will have to make a decision on him.

He probably has some value around the league as a stretch big man who crashes the glass and could certainly help some teams. He’s still only 25 years old. The Suns are knocking on the door for the eighth spot in the West, and perhaps Saric could be part of a package that nets them a player to solidify their playoff hopes. It’s worth a shot for a team that could certainly benefit from a postseason appearance.

3. Los Angeles Clippers – $130,766,746

The Clippers went all-in on a championship run for this season and have the payroll to back it up. Injuries have given them an inconsistent lineup throughout the season, but when they have been healthy, they’ve definitely looked the part.

Where they could stand to improve is also by looking to add a true point guard who can handle the ball and run the offense. Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams are great at what they do, but neither is a true point in that sense. They should also inquire about Augustin, and since you never know what Sacramento is going to do, they should place a call about Cory Joseph as well.

4. Dewayne Dedmon – $13,333,334

It’s public knowledge by now that Dedmon wants out of Sacramento. He was recently fined by the league for publicly stating that. He was initially thought of as being a great pickup for the Kings this past summer, but he’s fallen in and out of the rotation and his numbers have been down across the board.

He can certainly help quite a few teams out there. To this point, he’s been a solid stretch big who protects the paint and rebounds well. His former team, the Atlanta Hawks, has been mentioned as a possible landing spot. He’s probably a prime candidate to be moved at the deadline, but you never know with the Kings.

5. Alec Burks – $1,620,564

In a season that’s now become a developmental one for all the young players on the Warriors’ roster, Burks stands out as one of the lone healthy veterans who has turned in a solid campaign thus far. He’s dealt with injury issues in the past, but has proven to be healthy and able to be a solid perimeter scorer off the bench.

His name has come up already in trade chatter, and he could certainly help some playoff teams looking for instant offense in the second unit. The Warriors probably can’t expect too big a return for him, maybe a second-round draft pick. Or they could opt to keep him and see how he’ll fit next season when everyone is healthy. But if they’re looking to free up more minutes to play the youth, he’s a likely candidate to be moved by the deadline.

As the days leading up to the trade deadline continue to pass, more and more trade chatter will likely emerge. Rumors run rampant this time of year, and it’s important to remember that they are just that, rumors. Ultimately we won’t know until the deadline is actually here, but it doesn’t look like the Pacific Division will have any earth-shattering moves this trade deadline.

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NBA Daily: Title Contenders Should Covet Derrick Rose

After rejuvenating his career over the past four years, Chad Smith explains why now is the time for a contender to make a move for Derrick Rose.

Chad Smith

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Every season, simply put, there are teams that fail to live up to expectations. Whether they are the fans’ expectations, the organization’s or our own, teams will consistently fall short for whatever reason. Often times it can injuries or team chemistry that are to blame. In the case of the 2019-20 Detroit Pistons, both of those would apply.

After a successful return to the playoffs last season, the Pistons were seemingly on the verge of taking the next step. If the then-injured franchise player in Blake Griffin returned to his All-Star level of play, they appeared to have the parts and pieces to make it happen. Unfortunately, Griffin’s campaign only consisted of 18 games before he opted for season-ending knee surgery.

After missing the first ten games, there was plenty of concern permeating through Motown. Even when Griffin returned to the court, it was evident that their star player just wasn’t right physically. As the losses mounted, so did the speculation that Andre Drummond was going to be dealt before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

The market has gone quiet on Drummond’s potential suitors, but the Pistons do have one more strong trade chip that they can and should play. That would be Derrick Rose, a former MVP and a saving grace for the franchise this year. Halfway through this season, the point guard has already put up some monster stat lines.

In his first season in Detroit, Rose has played just about every role for the team. He has started games, filled in after injuries to Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard, took over the scoring load and has played off the bench whenever needed. Right now Rose finds himself as one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year in many’s books around the league.

Rose has had plenty of experience in each of these roles throughout the course of his 11-year roller-coaster career. The Chicago kid was selected with the top overall draft pick by his hometown Bulls — where, of course, he earned Rookie of the Year. He elevated the Bulls back into championship contenders in the Eastern Conference. After the devastating injuries zapped much of his athletic ability, many people considered his career to essentially be finished.

After unsuccessful stops in New York and Cleveland, Rose was given a serious second chance by former head coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. The three-time All-Star re-invented himself as a member of the Timberwolves over the next two seasons. By resurrecting his career — and despite his lingering off-the-court issues — he won the hearts of many fans as he had become one of the best feel-good stories in the league. While he understood his value as a franchise player was no more, he did not let that become a roadblock to what the rest of his career could be.

Last year Rose played 51 games for the Timberwolves and finished with an average of 18 points per game. Better, he has increased that this season in Detroit, while also having more steals, blocks and assists. Moreover, his average of six assists per game right now is the most since his 2011-12 season in Chicago. Rose’s shooting efficiency numbers are up all across the board as well — his 55 percent from inside the arc and 88 percent from the free-throw line marks are both career-highs.

After signing multiple minimum contracts, Rose earned himself a two-year deal with the Pistons worth $15 million this past summer. He will be owed over $7.6 million of that next season, which is still considered a bargain for any team that covets him. There are several teams that could use this Rose 2.0 version player, including the title contenders.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has said that he is open to an extensive rebuild if that is what it takes. With the injuries and the probability of moving Drummond, the next order of business should be finding a new home for Rose. Dwane Casey won’t like losing his two best players, but he understands the return value for each is probably as high as it will ever be.

Finding the best fit for the 31-year old guard is interesting. Neither team in Los Angeles seems idealistic, as the Clippers already have a solid backcourt and scoring options off the bench. Playing alongside LeBron James didn’t work out well in Cleveland, while the Lakers will want to surround their star players with shooters. Assuming the Pistons would want draft picks in return, there isn’t much there from either of those teams either.

There isn’t a clear fit in the loaded backcourts in Denver, Houston, Oklahoma City — plus, Utah has already waived Rose once before. Staying in the Eastern Conference may be his best opportunity.

The Milwaukee Bucks are the clear class of the East, who hold a 38-6 record at the moment. They have been dominant, but acquiring Rose may come at the cost of losing George Hill, who has been fantastic for them off the bench this season. That being said, he would be a tremendous option for when Giannis Antetokounmpo needs a break. His scoring and slashing should keep their dynamic offense in full throttle.

Heading to the Miami HEAT would be another intriguing scenario. The obvious question would be the fit next to Jimmy Butler, as the two had issues playing together in Chicago. Toronto might be a sneaky team to monitor here, but Masai Ujiri may have something bigger up his sleeve. Boston doesn’t seem likely at all. Indiana is not likely either, as they have a nice 1-2 punch with Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo who is set to make his season debut in one week.

That leaves Philadelphia as the last true contender in the Eastern Conference — but one of that has displayed an interest in Rose already, nonetheless — and perhaps the worst fit of them all. Yes, their biggest need is clearly shooting and it would be a difficult pairing with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid clogging up the lane. On the other hand, it would allow him to propel their second unit when those two are not on the floor. It would give the 76ers another ball-handler as well and could even allow Simmons to play off the ball as a rim-runner off of ball screens.

For seven seasons, it was Rose to the rescue in Chicago. After all that he has given during his time in Minnesota and Detroit, it is now time for someone to rescue him.

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