As it stands right now, the Eastern Conference is wide open.
It definitely has its favorites, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But even they have their question marks.
There are teams who could be at that level, or possibly higher should things break their way, like the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. But, that remains to be seen; how they do depends on if their previously injured stars are back to normal and how much their young talent progresses.
Then there are others like the Brooklyn Nets, who honestly may have to wait a year before they’re put in the conversation, and the Miami HEAT, who just got their biggest free agent since LeBron James and could sneak their way into the conversation if they make the right moves.
And then, there’s the Orlando Magic.
There’s a lot of optimism coming out of the Magic Kingdom. And why shouldn’t there be? Orlando made its first playoff appearance in seven years, they had one of the best records in the league following the trade deadline (18-8) and they brought pretty much everyone back and even some reinforcements.
And yet, of all the teams in the East, Orlando’s the one that has no consensus. Or, more specifically, no one knows where they will fall in the conference. They might just be the biggest wild card in an Eastern Conference that already has plenty of them.
If all their hopes and dreams come true this season, the Magic could very well be right up there with the Bucks and the Sixers. If it goes the opposite way, they could find themselves back in the lottery.
But this Orlando team is good. They can make the playoffs, but they should be wary of their other competitors. The Toronto Raptors may have lost Kawhi Leonard but, as of now, they’re not going anywhere. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons. There is also a lot of buzz around two particular and young up and coming teams- the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.
If the Magic are to prove themselves better than those teams and as good as those aforementioned ones, they’ll need contributions from several particular players. They already know what they’re going to get out of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Wes Iwundu and DJ Augustin, but for the following players, Orlando’s odds of getting to that next level depends on their individual progressions.
Aaron Gordon has already proven himself an above average player. He’s an excellent athlete, a hard-nosed defender, has improved his three-point shot over the years and, in this past year alone, has shown improved playmaking ability, as his assist percentage shot all the way up to 16.6.
But now, entering his sixth season in the NBA, he still has yet to prove that he’s a truly special talent. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years to see an explosion from Gordon, the transition from raw talent to the superstar we anticipated he’d be. It’s not entirely his fault; previous Orlando management forced Gordon to play out of position for too long, which may have hurt his growth as a player.
It didn’t ruin his career, but it didn’t help one bit. Two years later, Gordon has some playoff experience under his belt. His first go-round was honestly quite solid for a playoff rookie. 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists while putting up 47/40/52 splits is promising, but those are satisfactory stats for a complementary player.
Gordon’s ceiling right now is still that of a future star. And, at 24-years-old, there is still plenty of time for him to reach that level. Last season, Steve Clifford wanted the young player to be more a defensive specialist, a role in which Gordon performed very well in. Now with higher expectations from the team, Gordon should be expected to take his game another step further.
We got an explosion from an athletic, defensively stout power forward who showed off the three-point range last season that we keep expecting from Gordon, but it came from Pascal Siakam. If Gordon is to take that next step, he should look at Siakam’s last season as an example to build his game on.
Jonathan Isaac is only 22-years-old. He’s 6-foot-10. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He plays more like a wing but does things on the court that any big would be capable of doing. When people think of Isaac, they think of raw talent.
Following an injury-plagued rookie season, Isaac did okay offensively in his first full year, averaging 9.6 points on 43/32/81 splits while also averaging 5.5 rebounds. Defensively, there was a lot to be excited about, as Isaac averaged 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals while also putting up a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.13.
With his insane physical measurements, there’s a lot to like about Isaac’s game and potential. His body frame has garnered comparisons (albeit unfairly) to Kevin Durant, but the potential he has makes it hard not to see a great future for him.
He knows how to use his length to bother his opponents; there are just too many advantages he has physically to not already be a good defender. Offensively, he’s not at the same level. But, every so often, Isaac showed he was capable on that end. There were even times where he took over games last season.
As of now, Orlando already has Vooch, Fournier, and Ross to handle the scoring load. If they want to take that next step, Isaac’s offensive progression would not only vault them higher in the standings, but it would also add a whole new dimension to the team.
There’s no rush for him to become a star, but if Isaac can show even more improvement in year three, then the Magic should become a lot harder to stop.
Now this is where the Magic’s ceiling gets interesting.
Markelle Fultz was a project from the day it was announced that he was traded to Orlando. It was clear he no longer fit Philadelphia’s timeline and that he needed his own timetable to get his game back on track. That said, he’s a project worth investing in; Fultz was a top overall pick for a reason.
Unlike Anthony Bennett, whom Cleveland reached for back in 2013, Fultz has the tools to be something special. It’s only been injury and mental gymnastics that have held him back. Now he has a fresh start and a team that can afford to be patient with him.
Because of all the off the court drama that was going on with Fultz, there’s no concrete data to support anything that he could do this season. All we have now are just preseason videos to see what Fultz can do. But, in the few preseason games that we’ve seen, the returns look promising.
With or without a reliable jump shot, Fultz is definitely an NBA-caliber player. He has good court vision.
Nice assist from Markelle Fultz! pic.twitter.com/JSFSXE4Nss
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 10, 2019
He can attack the basket.
Markelle Fultz attacks the rim, makes the tough finish over Joel Embiid! pic.twitter.com/IMtT5iN6u4
— beyond the RK (@beyondtheRK) October 13, 2019
And he has shown good instincts on the defensive end of the floor.
Jump shot or not, Markelle Fultz can be a very productive player in the league. pic.twitter.com/0pf8hJmXw7
— Bryan Oringher (@ScoutWithBryan) October 14, 2019
Then there’s his jumper. His jump shot looks… better? It doesn’t look like it’s completely fixed, but when your jumper is so ugly that it would have made Shawn Marion grimace, you have nowhere to go but up.
We’ll have to see how his new and improved jump shot will fare when the real competition starts. If it’s for real, then Markelle becomes a much more lethal scoring threat. He’s already shown that he can be a useful tool in the offense. His abilities as a scorer would make him all the more dynamic.
The reason why Fultz’s potential could pay more dividends than Gordon or Isaac this season is that the one area where the Magic desperately need improvement is at the point guard spot. DJ Augustin had one of his most efficient seasons ever last season, but that didn’t exactly take Orlando that far. If Fultz is to show that he was worth the top pick – which, at this point, may be unrealistic – then Orlando becomes so much better.
Gordon’s and Isaac’s improvements would definitely take the Magic up a notch. Fultz could vault them up so much higher.
We’re not going to include Mo Bamba on this list because, as long as Vooch is around, Bamba won’t be relied on to do much besides be a back-up five. Even in that role, he has some competition.
Now say these guys all progress enough to stay promising, but not enough that the Magic would take a major leap forward. Then comes the possibility of trading some of their youth for an established star.
Orlando has the assets to acquire someone good. Players like Blake Griffin or Bradley Beal could be had if they have an offer sweet enough to entice their respective teams, but it all depends on the progress of the roster as a whole. They may have to decide whether to try and open a win-now window by pairing Vucevic and Fournier with an established star or to build for a more glorious future around Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz.
Either way, this Magic team should be up next. What is left to be determined is how “up next” they truly are.
NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks
David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.
Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.
The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.
For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.
He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.
“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”
Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.
But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.
“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”
In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.
Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.
But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.
“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”
Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.
“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.
Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.
“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.
“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”
At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.
“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”
NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA
Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte
The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.
So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.
Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.
“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.
With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.
“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.
The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.
After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.
“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.
While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.
“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”
On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.
“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.
Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.
Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.
“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”
Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.
“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”
Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.
Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.
“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”
The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.
NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return
Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.
Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.
Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.
Then, it happened.
With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.
Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.
His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.
To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.
After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.
Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.
And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor
That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.
Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.
Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.
For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.
With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.
But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.
In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”
Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.
And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.