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ICYMI: Southeast Division

Next up in our ICYMI series, Dylan Thayer takes a look at the Southeast Division and goes around the horn with some news.

Dylan Thayer

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For this edition of ICYMI for Basketball Insiders, we’re looking at the Southeast Division. This breakdown follows the recent publications of ICYMI on the Atlantic, Pacific, Central and Northwest. 

Starting off, this division is the only one in the NBA that has a single franchise above .500, the Atlanta Hawks. This should come as a big surprise as the Miami HEAT are coming off a legendary NBA Finals run, but this year things look very bleak for them thus far.

The Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic make up the second and third seeds in the division and should be in the mix for a play-in berth. Elsewhere, the Washington Wizards sit at the bottom of the standings and do not look like a very capable team this season. 

The last NBA Champion to come from this division also happens to be the HEAT, but that was in the 2012-13 season with the Big 3. Looking at the division, there’s no team with realistic title chances this season – although Miami certainly proved everybody wrong last summer.

Anyways, let’s take a look at each team in the Southeast division and some things that you may have missed.

Cole Anthony Taking Over For Markelle Fultz

At the start of the season, Markelle Fultz looked to be the spark that the Magic needed from their point guard. Fultz was a big part of the Magic’s 4-1 start to the new season and looked to have rejuvenated his career with the team. Three games later, he tore his ACL in his left knee. During the eight games Fultz played, he averaged 12.9 points and 5.4 assists per game.

Since the injury to Fultz, Cole Anthony has stepped in as the de facto starting point guard. Heading into the season, many people around the NBA said Anthony could be capable of a starting position eventually but ponded if he could do it efficiently. In the 20 games he has played, this has been the case: Anthony is currently averaging 10.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. 

The Magic once again looks like a borderline playoff team in the weaker Eastern Conference – but if they want to keep that energy going, the exciting rookie must continue to improve and fast.

The Hawks Back In The Playoff Picture

In the offseason, the Atlanta Hawks went out and added two shooters in Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. These guys were brought in to surround third-year star Trae Young while also adding range to a roster that severely lacked it last season. These additions have helped boost the team three-point percentage a little bit from 33.3 to 35.1 percent, so clearly, there is still some work to be done. 

One thing that has been working very well for the Hawks is rebounding the basketball. Clint Capela has been a monster on the boards by averaging 14.5 rebounds per game, which is good enough for second in the league.

John Collins has continued to be a presence on the boards too, as well as scoring consistently by averaging 16.7 points per game. Collins and Capela make up a very formidable frontcourt and the core looks poised to be the next league-wide darlings.

The Lamelo Ball Hype Is Real

Leading up to the 2020 NBA Draft, Anthony Edwards was considered to be the unanimous No. 1 overall pick with James Wiseman and Lamelo Ball also in consideration. So far this season, Ball is the clear frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year Award. 

He is currently fourth in rookie scoring with 12.2 points per game, but he leads rookies in rebounds (5.9) and assists (6.1) as well. As a very flashy passer, Ball can create shots for anyone on the floor. Crafty too, the youngest Ball knows how to use his handles to get to the rim at ease. Looking ahead, he’ll be the face of the Hornets for years to come and should earn a starting spot sooner than later.  

On Jan. 30, Ball had a career night against the Milwaukee Bucks finishing with 27 points, 5 rebounds and 9 assists.

Gordon Hayward has also been a very bright spot for the Charlotte Hornets. After an eventful offseason where many thought he would end up playing for the Indiana Pacers, Hayward took his talents to Charlotte. He had previously signed an offer sheet with the Hornets in July 2014, but it was ultimately matched by the Utah Jazz.

This season, Hayward is posting averages of 23.2 points, 5.2 rebound and 3.6 assists per game. As the go-to scorer in Charlotte, he is currently rocking a career-high in points per game this season. 

What Happened To The HEAT?

After their run to the NBA Finals in the bubble, the HEAT have not been a good team this season. The team has only had Jimmy Butler for six games this year due to health and safety protocols – and, obviously, it has hurt them. Butler is the clear leader of the team and without his presence on the floor, there is a clear negative effect on the roster.

Bam Adebayo has continued his ascension as a star in the league posting averages of 19.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, per Basketball-Reference. The blossoming stud should easily garner an All-Star nod and, if his play remains steady, maybe even an All-NBA team selection. 

The shooting duo of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson has continued to be a lethal long-range tandem by knocking down about five three-pointers a game between the two. Herro has elevated his play from this past season, but there is still more to be desired after such great play in the bubble. 

What’s Going On In Washington?

The Wizards have the worst record in the NBA. Yes, they do still have two superstars in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook and a winning coach in Scott Brooks, but they’re an abysmal 3-12. 

The major cause of this is the woes the team has suffered on defense. Right now, the only team who has been worse on defense is the Sacramento Kings with 118.4, followed by the Wizards at 114.7. To win games, this team has to shore up their defensive side of the ball.

The trade of John Wall for Russell Westbrook has not been too helpful for the team as a lot of fingers are being pointed at the latter for any woes. Westbrook has been inefficient in scoring the ball, shooting at 38.1 percent from the floor, and it has hurt the overall product. His numbers might not indicate that he is having an awful season, but he is. The last time he averaged under 20 points per game was with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2009-10 season, 12 years ago. 

Bradley Beal has somehow managed to look happy on the floor with this team falling lower and lower. Beal has molded himself into a relentless scorer and he has taken that to the next level with this struggling roster. He leads the NBA in points this year with 34.7 points per game and would be an immediate contributor to any contender. 

The Wizards are the worst team in the NBA right now, but things could change as the season progresses. Looking at this roster outside of the two stars, there are two promising young players in Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura – at this point, Washington must focus their efforts on developing them.

Ultimately, the Wizards need to blow up the team and, even though this has been said for years now, it has yet to be done.

With the addition of the play-in games this year for the ninth and tenth seed, we could see the Hornets or the Magic make a run for it, sadly, the division’s subpar start to the decade will only continue. In the end, this division has promise though and should be more competitive in future seasons.

Dylan Thayer is a Contributing Writer for Basketball Insiders, and a Sport Management student in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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NBA Daily: Should Toronto Add A Big?

The Raptors have started to thrive with their small-ball lineup. But, with some intriguing options available, should they look to add a traditional center?

Ariel Pacheco

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After a rough start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have hit their stride. They are now .500 and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve tinkered with their lineups for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to inconsistent play at the center position until coach Nick Nurse decided to just play small.

Aron Baynes’ play has been a huge disappointment. Brought in to be a serviceable replacement for Marc Gasol, but his play has dropped off after a career year with the Phoenix Suns last season. The starter to open the season, Baynes lost his job after failing to produce; his 35 percent three-point percentage from a season ago has dipped to an abysmal 23 percent in 2020-21. Alex Len was also signed to give the Raptors solid minutes but similarly disappointed, as he played just seven games in Toronto before he was released. Len’s defense was an issue and that left the Raptors with only one other candidate at center.

Enter Chris Boucher, who has easily been the best big on the roster. Despite his thin frame, Boucher has been an effective defender on the inside and, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to start him, Boucher has become one of the NBA’s best bench players, averaging 13 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 44 percent from three despite the unique form of his jump shot.

That said, since Nurse won’t start Boucher, the Raptors have turned to a starting five of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. It’s turned their season around and was a group often turned to last postseason. Versatile and easily switchable, defensively, the lineup can also provide significant firepower on offense. Together, they’ve posted a net rating of plus-11.1 in 51 minutes, per NBA.com, Toronto’s best among groups with at least 50 minutes together.

Pascal Siakam, who struggled to start the season, has benefitted from the lineup in particular. Spending more time than ever this season at the center-spot, the Raptors’ versatility has ensured Siakam a favorable matchup in almost any situation, which has helped both his efficiency and overall production.

With that in mind, should Toronto look to add a more traditional center?

In short, yes — but only if the price is right. Boucher has been excellent and, while he’s struggled, Baynes can still impact the game in short spurts, especially on the defensive end. There are certainly some intriguing names available, such as DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond, but neither would seem to be a great match for Toronto. 

Cousins, once at least a passable defender, has become a huge liability. Injuries have sapped his ability and Cousins would not only struggle to stay in front of quicker guards but would provide little rim protection. Offensively, he’s shooting 33 percent from the three-point line, below the league average. Cousins has also struggled to finish around the rim this season, as he’s only made 44 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, per NBA.com.

Andre Drummond is a more intriguing option, but only if he were to buy-in. Drummond is an elite rebounder and the Raptors, dead last in rebounds per game, could certainly use help on the glass. The issue with Drummond, however, is that he’s always tried to do too much on offense, which isn’t his strength. If he could settle into a role, rather than try to be the focal point of the offense, he could be a great fit — that said, he has yet to do that in his nine NBA seasons, so there’s little reason to believe might now. Adding him after a potential buy out, rather than trading for him, might make a Drummond gamble worth it for Toronto.

Their best lineup will always be their small lineup and should give them a chance against just about anyone. But the Raptors, if only to eat minutes throughout the rest of the regular season, will likely need to acquire another center at some point. As for the postseason, being able to throw some size at players like Joel Embiid, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo could prove integral to Toronto’s success as well.

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The Future of ‘Sexland’ in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland started hot but now find themselves in the back of the Eastern Conference standings. What does this mean for the Cavs’ future and for the viability of ‘Sexland’ long-term?

Zach Dupont

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When the 2020-21 season began, the Cleveland Cavaliers were among the hot topics in the NBA. The Cavaliers burst out of the gate with a 3-0 record and even claimed a convincing 118-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. This hot-start was primarily due to the play of their young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Before long, teammate Larry Nance Jr.’s ‘Sexland’ moniker started catching on quicker nationwide.

Since then, and in part thanks to a brutal schedule, Cleveland has faltered, falling to 13th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 14-21. The Cavaliers’ direction has become clear during this challenging season; they’re trying to get younger and better suited for the future. Made evident through their actions this season, like sidelining Andre Drummond until they find a trade partner and acquiring Jarrett Allen from the Brooklyn Nets in the massive James Harden trade.

In terms of a successful rebuild, the first point of discussion has to be about star guard Collin Sexton. Now in his third season, Sexton leads the Cavaliers in scoring, putting up 23.8 points per game and doing so efficiently with a 58 true shooting percentage. Sexton has already proven that he’s a legit NBA starter, but can he lead a playoff-caliber team with his scoring? Sexton’s three-point shooting is already at a high level, hitting on 39.2 percent so far and 40 percent this season, but what he offers off the dribble is what will elevate him to superstar status.

Sexton is shooting 46 percent on pull-up jump shots this season and 48 percent on step-back jump shots, per NBA.com. Compared to the rest of the league, Sexton is 14th in the NBA in field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, among those who shoot more than five per game. This scoring puts Sexton in elite company with the likes of the NBA’s best scorers, better even than Paul George, Jaylen Brown and Stephen Curry. Sexton is also a skilled finisher at the rim and, despite being just 6-foot-1, the guard has a field goal percentage of 60 from within five feet of the rim.

Sexton’s game is not without issues though, some of which hold him back from being an elite offensive engine. Perhaps Sexton’s biggest weakness on offense is his lack of passing skill. With Drummond – and his 30 percent usage rate – no longer playing, Sexton now has the greenest of lights and sports a 26.7 usage rate. Sexton’s offensive package of dribble pull-ups and attacking the rim naturally means he needs to have the ball in his hands, but his assist percentage of 20.3 is 107th league-wide. So far, Sexton isn’t a player who creates many shots for his teammates and that might hinder some of the overall development.

Sexton’s partner in crime is second-year guard Darius Garland. The Vanderbilt alum operates as the feature distributor, leading the team in assists per game at 5.9. Like Sexton, Garland is a shooting-oriented guard with 288 of his 398 shot attempts coming on jumpers. Further, Garland struggles to get offense generated at the basket. And worse, he’s only shot 107 layups all season and tallied a 53.2 percent field goal percentage from within five feet from the rim.

Incapable of reaching the free throw line, Garland only shoots 1.8 free throws per game, 123rd in the NBA. Of course, Garland is a more willing passer than Sexton but still has the same shoot-first mindset, which puts the Cavaliers in an odd spot.

If Garland improves to become a consistent 40+ percent three-point shooter and Sexton unlocks the ability to shoot from deep at a truly elite level, the pair could have a real dynamic shooting threat. On the flip side, running two undersized guards, neither of whom are elite offensive playmakers, could be a recipe for disaster… and that’s often been the case this season.

The Cavaliers have the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA at 105.4, beating out only the Oklahoma City Thunder. This inadequate offensive production isn’t all on Sexton and Garland, as Cleveland’s lack of depth –some due to long-term injuries – and poor shooting outside of their guards, has them 24th in field goal percentage and 27th in three-point percentage. While Sexton and Garland are both talented offensive weapons, the duo hasn’t thrived together as an offense. 

Playing the undersized backcourt has problems offensively, but defensively it’s been an issue as well. Garland and Sexton are both 6-foot-1 and sub-200 lbs, making them two of the smaller players in the league. In short, Cleveland has the 10th-worst defensive rating in the NBA at 113.7. This combination of lousy offense and lackluster defense gives them a net rating of -8.3, the worst league-wide. 

It’s safe to say that Sexland isn’t currently working down in Cleveland, but that doesn’t mean the franchise is destined for failure. The Cavaliers are a very young team and three of their everyday starters are younger than 22 years old – Sexton, Garland and newcomer Isaac Okoro. If you include Allen, that’s four, despite the massive payday he’s due this upcoming summer.

Kevin Love, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman and the currently-injured Larry Nance are all serviceable rotation players, but the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired. Until their next high lottery selection, the likes of Dylan Windler, Okoro, Allen and Prince will be given every opportunity to grow and succeed.

While the ‘Sexland’ pair may not be a serious competitor right now, the former is a talented player with All-Star potential and the latter has dangerous sixth-man written all over him. Sexton took a huge leap this season compared to last and, if he continues to improve, it’s not unreasonable to think he could be competing for All-NBA awards and championships down the line.

Garland’s shooting potential and ability to pass would make him a quality option on any second unit. Of course, he owns the potential to be a reliable starter himself, just not on a team that already stars a different 6-foot-1 point guard.

Although ‘Sexland’ will struggle with many of these enduring factors moving forward,  Cleveland has managed to build an impressive group of young players and will only continue to add to this core over the coming years.

Cleveland is far from competing right now, but the groundwork has been set for a competitive team to emerge from this core one day in the future. 

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