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NBA Daily: Biggest Surprises – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ series on the season’s biggest surprises as he examines the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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The calendar year of 2019 may be coming to a close, but the NBA regular season is still young. Just days old as the month flips over to November

That said, there has been plenty of time for players and teams to surprise us.

Every season has its share of early surprises. But, while some expectations temper, others continue to impress throughout the season. Basketball Insiders recently began a new series on these early surprises; we’ve already covered the Pacific, Central, Northwest and Southwest Divisions. Today, we pivot to the Atlantic, where both teams and fans have had their fair share of surprises.

Nets’ Synergy Struggle

We might as well address the elephant in the divisional room. While it’s not exactly the biggest surprise, especially after a recent Jackie MacMullen report, the Brooklyn Nets have a chemistry problem with Kyrie Irving at the center of it.

Between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, Irving has built up quite a reputation as a player that can be difficult to work with. While that factoid alone should be enough to trouble the team, the complete lack of chemistry, after last season’s team thrived together, has to be a bit worrisome.

Even worse, that lack of connection has started to plague them in other areas. As a team, the Nets have struggled to move the ball and defend, as they rank just 19th in assists per game and 21st in defensive rating. Given their talent, they have also lost a number of winnable games en route to their 1-3 start with losses to the Indiana Pacers and lowly Memphis Grizzlies.

There is certainly hope; as the Nets continue to play and as they become more familiar with one another, their play should improve, at least in part. But, the fact that that cohesion hasn’t taken some hold after a summer of together doesn’t inspire much confidence.

And, as apt as it may be to place blame with Irving, he has done more than his fair share on offense as he has averaged 35.4 points through Brooklyn’s four games.

That said, the Eastern Conference is rife with parity and opportunistic teams that could almost certainly take advantage of the Nets’ slow start. So, it would be great for Irving to take a step as a leader, the entire team needs to take a look in the mirror.

With Coach Kenny Atkinson at the helm, bet on them figuring it out sooner rather than later.

RJ Barrett Impressing Early

The early returns on RJ Barrett have looked promising.

And, while this may not be as much of a surprise as Barrett’s positive play, the fact that he has impressed has been a huge relief for New York Knicks fans. He, alongside Mitchell Robinson, is one of the few rays of hope for a fanbase and franchise that has long been stuck in the NBA basement.

But, unlike the talented but raw Robinson, Barrett has looked like a foundational talent, one with the polish and pose that a team can build an entire offense around.

Barrett is only the second Knick in franchise history to post at least 50 points, 15 rebounds and 5 steals in their first three career games, per Basketball-Reference. The other? Patrick Ewing. And, through four games, Barrett has placed second amongst rookies in points per game (18.2), rebounds (6.4) and fifth in assists (3.0).

Long story short, Barrett has looked like the real deal. And, while it shouldn’t be a total shocker, it’s always nice to see the fresh faces of the NBA live up to their potential. It’s almost certainly even better for Barrett, who, after an inefficient and underwhelming summer league, heard the bust and flop chatter from more than a few media personalities.

His story is far from written, but Barrett is off to a thrilling start.

Kevin Knox Improving

It may be because the weight of the franchise has shifted to Barrett. It may be because of a move to the bench.

But, for whatever reason, Kevin Knox has looked much better in 2019.

Knox has shot the ball with far more precision in his second season, and his improved eye has been put on full display from all over the court. In four games, Knox has shot an impressive 52.4% from three-point range – up from 34.3% last season – and has helped the team look competent rather than another team to just pass over in the schedule.

In fact, Knox’s effort from deep was crucial in securing the Knicks’ first win of the season.

And, while the percentages are promising, perhaps even more important is the fact that Knox has improved his shot selection immensely. He has fought the urge to bail the defense out by shooting off-balanced floaters as he did so often last season, and it has allowed him to take a step forward in his game.

So, while the local and national media were quick to write Knox off as a bust, he is only 20-years-old and should continue to improve. His numbers may not hold throughout the season — Knox has an eFG% of 57% (up from 43.8%) and has also shot an impressive 60% at the rim (up from 50%) — but he possesses a tremendous amount of untapped potential.

If he can find his game and continue to build on that potential, he could be yet another positive for a New York team that has been desperate for some.

Toronto Still A Force Sans Kawhi Leonard

Objectively, a team winning four of five games doesn’t qualify for a headline outside of their local market.

But when you’re the defending champs and you lost one of the three best players on the planet, it’s a big deal.

Even this writer predicted the Toronto Raptors would topple from the heights of the Eastern Conference hierarchy — and out of the playoffs, entirely — this season. But, through five games, Toronto has looked like anything but a team that is going to lie down or just mosey on into the sunset.

Quite the contrary, in fact. The Raptors have looked strong as they opened the season with four wins in five games. They’ve allowed the 9th fewest opponent points per game, posted the 3rd best margin of victory and possess the 6th best defensive rating in the NBA. Their strength of schedule (22nd) has played a part, and they’ll probably come back to Earth at some point, but the team has already proven doubters wrong.

The reigning champions already look like one of the season’s biggest surprises, while media personalities have started to look at Pascal Siakam as a possible back-to-back MIP winner, or maybe even an MVP candidate; he’s been that good, with averages of 28 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game while shooting 44% from three-point range.

Of course, without Kawhi Leonard, the fate of Siakam and the Raptors are tied together. If both parties can build upon a strong start, the team may be for real.

Matisse Thybulle: Defensive Stopper + Early Contributor

For a late first-round rookie, Matisse Thybulle has played incredibly well. So well, in fact, that’s he’s carved out 21.8 minutes per game on a team expected to reach the NBA Finals.

Now, for a dose of reality, that may not very likely to continue for the entire season. It’s been just four games and, while Thybulle has impressed, there is still plenty of time for him to show that he is, in fact, a rookie.

But, and not to get ahead of ourselves, there is certainly cause to believe the Philadelphia 76ers may have a draft heist on their hands.

Thybulle is the first rookie in 25 years to have multiple steals in each of his first four games. He’s also the league leader in steals (12) and deflections (21) through the first two weeks of the season.

His success has gone beyond the stats as well – and should continue to do so. Thybulle has everything teams require of the typical lockdown defender: he’s a solid 6-foot-5, 200-pound body with an impressive 7’ wingspan. For his age, his instincts and timing are also impeccable.

Even Thybulle’s All-Star teammate, Ben Simmons, has raved about him: “I love watching [Thybulle] play defense,” Simmons said recently. “In training camp, I was very surprised with the way that he was able to read plays ahead of time.”

With his defense, the former Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and 2018-19 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year clearly has a place in this league. And, as he’s been doing it for years, expect him to continue doing so for years to come.

It can be hard to draw conclusions such a short time into the season. Some players and teams have badly underachieved, whereas others have far and away surpassed expectations. In most instances, and with more time, these tend to even out over the course of the season. For the Nets, hopefully, they can right the ship.

But, thinking back to other recent fast starts, there are few things that are more exciting than watching specific players or entire teams prove the doubters wrong. Likewise, let’s hope these players and or teams can continue to build on their early-season returns.

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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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