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Milwaukee Bucks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Milwaukee Bucks were impressive a season ago, but came up short in the postseason. Can the Bucks improve or will the weight of expectations come crashing down on one of the NBA’s most interesting teams? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Milwaukee Bucks in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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A new offense and a new MVP headlined the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018-19, one that resulted in 60 wins and their first conference finals appearance since 2001.

But a season that may look successful from the outside is deeply disappointing from the inside.

The Bucks were on top of the mountain, up 2-0 on the Toronto Raptors and appearing poised to represent the Eastern Conference on basketball’s biggest stage.

They proceeded to drop four in a row and watched from home as the eventual champion took advantage of a dynasty that became ravaged by injury. Now, back with virtually the same roster (save Malcolm Brogdon), the winningest team from a year ago looks to learn from last season’s mistakes and get to The Finals in the most wide-open NBA season of the past decade.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Many things this writer predicted last season were wrong, but picking Mike Budenholzer as Coach of the Year was spot on. He unlocked even more out of Giannis Antetokounmpo as a playmaker, using player perimeter gravity as a formula to let the Greek Freak drive down the lane and take it from there. It’s either a pass to the corner, ferocious finish at the rim or a drawn foul nearly every time. While keeping Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez was absolutely necessary, it came at the price of losing Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers. Jon Horst brought in Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and Dragan Bender, as well as Thanasis Antetokounmpo, as his offseason acquisitions. George Hill agreed to return in addition. The Bucks are still in the driver’s seat in the Eastern Conference. Let’s see if they take the next step to the NBA Finals in Year 2 under Coach Bud.

1st Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Bucks were two games away from reaching the NBA Finals. Unfortunately for them, they proceeded to lose four straight games to the Raptors. With Kawhi Leonard now in the West, the Bucks presumably should be the favorites to come out of the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is only getting better, which is a scary thought considering how good he already is. The front office has done a solid job surrounding him with players that can all stretch the floor and shoot from distance. Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews were big pickups. They’re going to miss some of the defensive edge that Malcolm Brogdon brought to the team, but they’re hoping Matthews can replicate some of that. A lot really hinges though on Antetokounmpo’s development. He’s the best player in the Eastern Conference and the one who Milwaukee’s Finals hopes depend on. With Kevin Durant injured, the Bucks are the clear cut favorite in the East, with only the Philadelphia 76ers coming close as a potential challenger. The Finals is the goal this season and anything less, barring any major injuries, would be a failure.

1st Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

Even though the Bucks didn’t win the Eastern Conference last season, they will still have a huge target on their collective backs in 2019-20. They will be graded harshly this season if they don’t win the Eastern Conference – and I’m not sure they have the requisite depth to do so. But with Kawhi Leonard moving West, the Bucks are at least expected to find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals.

While they mostly flew under the radar, the Bucks offseason was more detrimental than most assume – namely because they lost their clear third option from 2018-19 – Malcolm Brogdon – to the division-rival Indiana Pacers. Signing Wesley Matthews is a low-risk move that could partially mitigate the hurt from losing Brogdon, but he’s a different player than he once was and you can’t expect too much from him (at least he only costs $2.56 million). The Bucks also signed Robin Lopez to back up his brother, Brook. It’s not a home run move, but it adds much needed depth up front. However, that isn’t the only pair of siblings on the roster. They also continued to try to appease Giannis by signing his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo – and as far as appeasements go, this isn’t a bad start toward resigning Antetokounmpo to a long-term contact. But ultimately the Bucks will have to prove they can win at a high level.

1st Place – Central Division

-Drew Maresca

Lump me in with the group of people who think the Bucks are going to miss Malcolm Brogdon more than the Bucks will publicly admit. I might feel differently if Eric Bledsoe didn’t struggle so mightily in the playoffs, but that has been an ongoing issue and it’s hard to say with any confidence that will change this upcoming season. While losing Brogdon will be an adjustment for the Bucks, they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is still just 24 years old and improving seemingly every day. Milwaukee also did well in bringing back Brook Lopez and adding on his twin brother, Robin. The Bucks will need as much size and physicality as they can get with the Philadelphia 76ers adding Al Horford and now featuring a massive overall roster. I have been a believer in the Bucks for a long time and think the sky is the limit for this team this upcoming season. But I just think Milwaukee should have valued Brogdon more and done whatever was necessary to bring him back.

1st Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Stop me if you have heard this before – “He is wired differently, he’d never leave,” or, “He’s too loyal, he loves this market.” These have to be the phrases that strike fear into the hearts of the Milwaukee Bucks’ front office. Pick a superstar in the NBA that is no longer with the team that drafted him, and those phrases were said about them at this point in their careers too. While it is true Giannis Antetokounmpo has operated differently than almost anyone not named Tim Duncan, there is a reality that Giannis has just scratched the surface of how good he could be, and he was the runaway MVP a season ago. Imagine what he’ll be when he reaches his prime? That’s why the Bucks had to go all-in on their free agents this summer and why they can’t allow the season to get off the rails this year. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure for a franchise, especially a franchise that doesn’t have extremely bright lights and glamor appeal. The Bucks have an impressive win-now roster, which should make them one of the favorites in the East, but it also means there won’t be a big margin for error either.

1st Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Bucks made a significant sacrifice this summer, choosing to sign and trade Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, instead of forcing the guard to play the restricted free agent game with an offer sheet. Instead, the team dropped under the salary cap to re-sign Brook Lopez. Milwaukee also made a sizable investment in paying Khris Middleton $177.5 million over five seasons.

Now the franchise is right under the luxury tax line of $132.6 million. They have no additional spending tools, outside of minimum contracts, but could venture over mid-season trade. Before November, the team needs to decide on options for D.J. Wilson and Donte DiVincenzo. Looming over the horizon is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract which ends after the 2020-21 season. The clear goal will be locking him down to a Supermax extension when eligible next summer.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning league MVP also continues his reign as Milwaukee’s best offensive player as we move into 2019-20. Antetokounmpo won the MVP on the back of a season that saw his traditional counting stat averages finish at 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Per Cleaning the Glass, Antetokounmpo’s effective field goal percentage was a ridiculous 60.2 percent, his on/off difference was in the 92nd percentile at plus-8.7, and he was in the 98th percentile in points per 100 shot attempts at 129.9.

Giannis also led the NBA in player efficiency rating, and with a roster built exclusively around him, the Bucks were fourth in offensive rating and second in both effective field goal and true shooting percentage, trailing only Golden State in the latter two.

He did all of this despite still shooting 25.6 percent from three, which remains his only glaring weakness. However, last season Giannis took and made more threes than he ever has. He appeared to find a certain level of comfort stepping into them from the extended elbows during the back-half of the season; if he can get to league average on three or four attempts per game, it will really be over for the rest of the NBA.

Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Surprise, surprise: Antetokounmpo is also Milwaukee’s best defensive player. He was second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, leading the Bucks to an NBA-best 104.9 defensive rating and finishing second in individual defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus.

He was also second in total rebounds and sixth in rebounds per game, the only non-Russell Westbrook perimeter player to finish in the top 15 in that category.

Antetokounmpo is the most physically gifted player in the league and uses his strength and size to switch across all five positions. You won’t find a more versatile defender, and this writer would bet on him beating out Rudy Gobert for a DPOY over the next few years.

Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo

This may be getting repetitive, but with a player this good, it’s hard to look anywhere else.

As mentioned, Milwaukee filled out their roster specifically to enhance Antetokounmpo’s strengths. Head coach Mike Budenholzer spaced the floor around Giannis (a la the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’s first stint with the team) and gave him all the room to drive and kick out to shooters. This resulted in Antetokounmpo leading his team in total assists and assists per game, and assisting on 29.3 percent of his teammates made field goals – in the 98th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Empowering Giannis to play as the de facto point guard for long stretches allowed him to become one of the better playmakers in the league. Entering year two of Coach Bud’s offense, it’s fair to expect him to be even better.

Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

This isn’t a referendum on the rest of the team, but a testament to just how good Giannis was as a 24-year-old MVP. According to NBA.com, during clutch time Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in scoring and shot 62.5 percent from the field while doing so. When the game is on the line, Milwaukee’s spread offense becomes even more pronounced, and they live and die by Giannis’s penetration and playmaking.

Their reliance on Giannis late in games was as evident as ever during Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs against Boston. Giannis scored 17 in the fourth quarter on his way to 39 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. He was everywhere in the fourth – scoring isolation on the block, driving and kicking to shooter, and attacking the offensive glass. He’s the Bucks’ best player, and their best clutch one, too.

The Unheralded Player: Brook Lopez

Brook Lopez was a revelation last season. After Los Angeles inexplicably let him walk, Lopez came to Milwaukee and fully transformed from post-up specialist to seven-foot spot-up shooter. Lopez hit from three at a 36.5 percent clip on 6.3 attempts per game, often the beneficiary of Giannis drives. Lopez even extended his range and regularly hitting from far beyond the line and thus giving Antetokounmpo even more room with which to work.

Lopez’s ability to shoot as a big was invaluable in Milwaukee’s offense, but he was effective when he posted up as well. He may well be the second most useful offensive player on the Bucks’ roster, and he too should see a bump in production and efficiency in his second year in the offense.

Best New Addition: Kyle Korver

We’ve talked a lot about Milwaukee’s offense, both stylistically and as a vehicle to augment Giannis’s gifts. Not many players fit this bill better than all-time great shooter Kyle Korver. Korver enters his 19th season fourth on the all-time three-pointers-made list and with a career three-point percentage of 42.9 percent. He will provide another floor spacer on the perimeter and will likely be a factor down the stretch of tight games.

– Drew Mays

WHO WE LIKE

1. Khris Middleton

After averaging 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2017-18, Middleton regressed a tad last season. But, he still put up a line of 18.3/6.0/4.3 and was named to his first All-Star game. Middleton is the clear-cut second option to Giannis and operates as the Bucks’ secondary playmaker. Expect Middleton to bounce back and push for another All-Star bid this year.

2. Ersan Ilyasova

In his second stint with Milwaukee, Ilyasova had a quiet 2018-19. He averaged just 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game but continued to be reliable from three, shooting 36.3 percent. He’s been a dependable role player and has deep ties not only with the Bucks organization, but with Mike Budenholzer, and will remain a steady and trustworthy stretch big.

3. George Hill

Hill is another player who had a down 2018-19, playing his fewest minutes since he entered the league in 2008. His effective field goal percentage dropped below 50 percent to 49.3, and he shot 28 percent from three. So why is he a guy we like? Because Hill flipped a switch in the playoffs and became one of Milwaukee’s best players during their run.

In 15 games, Hill put up 11.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest on 53.4 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three. He had a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 61.9 percent and stepped in as a ball-handler when Eric Bledsoe performed his disappearing act.

Hill, like Ilyasova, is a seasoned veteran that can be counted on when the games matter. Last year was likely an aberration, and his play will level out again in 2019-20.

4. Sterling Brown

The full effect of Malcolm Brogdon’s departure has yet to be seen, but one place it will inevitably show up is in the form of opportunity for Sterling Brown. Brown played 58 games last season, starting seven and playing just under 18 minutes per game. He has a similar physical profile to Brogdon, and they have somewhat comparable per-36-minute averages. While Brown is certainly less efficient than Brogdon – who is sneakily one of the most efficient in the league – he should be able to fill some of the gaps left behind with his aggressiveness on both sides of the ball.

– Drew Mays

STRENGTHS

Milwaukee’s strengths from last season will be the same this season. They will lean heavily on Antetokounmpo and, to a much lesser extent, Middleton. They should hold their ground as a top-five team in both points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage offensively and defensively. Even in a stronger Eastern Conference, they will likely again push for 60 wins and the top overall seed in the playoffs.

– Drew Mays

WEAKNESSES

What were the Bucks’ strengths during the regular season became their weaknesses in the Eastern Conference Finals. During the four straight losses to Toronto, Giannis struggled (under his standards), and as a result, Milwaukee struggled mightily. The supporting cast was unable to pick up the slack. In a league where stars are doubling and tripling off for, the Bucks have only a fringe All-Star behind their MVP. When playoff defenses tighten up and force Giannis to shoot, can the role players do enough to get over the hump?

– Drew Mays

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Milwaukee get to The Finals after last year’s disappointing Eastern Conference Finals exit?

The 2018-19 season was filled with stretches that showed us how good Milwaukee could be. They won 60 games, had a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals and looked sure to move on to face the Warriors in the championship. And then, they collapsed. No matter how well they space the floor and shoot threes, no matter how much better Giannis is, the same issues will arise.

Even with Kawhi Leonard’s departure and Kevin Durant’s redshirt year in the East, the lack of star power outside the MVP probably hurt them again. Philadelphia looks more Finals-ready than the Bucks.

Unless, of course, Giannis starts hitting threes. If he does that, all bets are off; Milwaukee could be back in The Finals for the first time since 1974.

– Drew Mays

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division

Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.

Chad Smith

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Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.

But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?

The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.

It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.

Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense

After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.

Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.

The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.

Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.

They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.

After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.

John Collins Suspension

The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.

But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.

Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.

As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.

If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.

At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start

Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?

On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.

With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.

And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.

Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.

Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.

Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.

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NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution

Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.

Jack Winter

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Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.

When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.

The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.

The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.

Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.

Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.

Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.

It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.

Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.

He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.

Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.

Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.

The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.

Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.

Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.

Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.

And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around. 

Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles

Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.

Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).

But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.

The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.

Knicks Offensive Woes

The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.

And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).

Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.

But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.

The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.

Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.

Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.

Now,  he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?

On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.

But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.

Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug

This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.

Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.

And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.

Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again –  to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.

We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.

But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.

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