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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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Basketball Insiders “First Quarter Grades” series continues by examining the Atlantic Division. And while grading teams is challenging given how every team has its own timeline for success and development, it’s a necessary part of evaluating progress.

The division appears to be the Raptors’ to lose. The Celtics have struggled mightily, whereas the 76ers upgraded their roster by trading for Jimmy Butler. Meanwhile, in New York, the Knicks and Nets are both developing their young rosters in hopes of future success.

While a quarter of the season is a relatively small sample size, enough games have been played to impact the playoffs and draw early conclusions. With that said, let’s examine the teams of the Atlantic.

Boston Celtics: D

The Celtics have struggled out the gate. Despite nice wins against the Raptors, Bucks and 76ers, the team has failed to establish themselves as the dominant force they were expected to be.

The Celtics are 11-10 through 21 games. And while their defense is still respectable (second overall in defensive rating), they are 26th in offensive rating scoring 107 points per 100 possessions. Comparatively, they ended last season ranked 18thscoring more per 100 possessions (107.6) in an environment where teams were scoring less per game.

But Boston’s main concern should be its rotation. Gordon Hayward is still struggling to regain his pre-injury form, which also has residual effects on Jaylen Brown (the team was +8.8 per 100 possessions with him on the court last season versus -3.6 per 100 possessions this season).

While their early season struggles are real, the Celtics are in the fortunate situation to have lots of talent on their roster. All should be well in Boston, but increased competition and inconsistent results should be a serious wake-up call.

Brooklyn Nets: B-

Even through just a quarter of the season, the Nets early results are a tale of two halves (or technically two-eighths). Entering play on November 13, the Nets were 6-7 with wins against the Pistons, 76ers and Nuggets. It appeared the future had arrived sooner than expected for the Nets, led by their young core of Caris LeVert-Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie-D’Angelo Russell and Joe Harris. But on November 13, leading scorer LeVert dislocated his right foot in a loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Since LeVert’s injury, the Nets are a measly 2-7, with five of the seven losses coming against sub-.500 teams. The lack of success is not a huge surprise given that they’re missing their best player, but it makes it all the more challenging to grade the team’s successes (or lack thereof).

Considering expectations were relatively low for the Nets, they are mostly right where they were expected to be, even considering the injury. To their credit, they still get after it on the offensive glass (tied for fourth in the league), but everything else they do is mostly average or below. With that being said, the Nets get a big pass considering the injury. They seemed to have a framework for a good team in place and should be even better come this time next year given their cap space this offseason.

New York Knicks: B-

The Knicks are (still) in limbo, but they too appear close to punching their ticket into respectability. We can’t rave too much about their early-season successes because, barring the recent three-game win streak, there aren’t many to speak of. However, the team is exactly on pace for its expected Win-Loss breakdown per basketballreferenece.com (7-16).

But the Knicks 2018-19 season has always been about player development and coaching rather than wins and losses. And the Knicks are seeing lots of progress in those areas: Coach Fizdale’s leadership style seems to be making believers out of the team’s young talent; Emmanuel Muddiay, Trey Burke and Noah Vonleh are all validating their lottery-pick status; Allonzo Trier and (to a lesser degree) Mitchell Robinson look like NBA-ready players despite their late or non-existent draft status; and Tim Hardaway Jr. is scoring a career-high 22.2 points per game. Further, the team’s management is viewed positively for the first time in a long time.

The lone disappointment to the young Knicks 2018-19 season is the lack of progress in Frank Ntilikina’s game. This was another important marker for the season, and he has seemingly taken a step back after showing flashes earlier in the year.

The Knicks are playing as expected this season considering Kristaps Porzingis is still rehabbing a torn ACL; however, they’re getting contributions from players that weren’t expected to play, let along affect the game.

Philadelphia 76ers: B+

Despite the Raptors early-season dominance, the Sixers look poised to make a run at the division crown. They are 15-8 through 22 games and sit 3.5 games behind Toronto. They are currently 6-5 against teams over .500, with wins against the Bucks, Hornets, Pacers, Pistons and Clippers.

What’s more, they are 6-2 since Jimmy Butler debuted for the team. While that transaction left their rotation a bit thinner than they’d like, Butler’s ability to create his own shot looks to be exactly what the team was missing. Need proof? Go track down clips of his game winning-jumpers against Charlotte and Brooklyn.

They are attempting the most free-throws per game of any team in the Association, a stat that will continue to improve with Butler on board. They’re also a great rebounding team. They turn the ball over too often – fourth most in the league – but considering their early successes, that leaves room for improvement for an already top-10 team.

Unfortunately, the Markelle Fultz situation is something of a black eye on the young season. His agent – Raymond Brothers – recently pulled him from basketball activities to seek additional medical opinions. It appears only a matter of time until Fultz and the 76ers part ways.

But on the whole, the 76ers look ready to contend, and they appear better with Butler than they were prior to trading for him.

Toronto Raptors: A

The first-place Raptors have exceeded expectations. They have 18 wins through 22 games, with three of their losses coming in a row between November 12 and 16. They’re second overall in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating. They have five players averaging 12.8 or more points per game, which speaks to the team’s depth. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have acclimated beautifully, improving an already impressive roster. They are taking care of the ball, averaging the fourth fewest turnovers in the league and they are shooting the third best effective field goal percentage. If the Raptors play out the remainder of the season as they’ve started, they should be a shoo-in for number one seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals.

With so much of the season still to come, we can only expect things to continue to heat up in the Atlantic. Trades will definitely play a role in shaping results, as will players returning from injuries (e.g. Kristaps Porzingis and Caris LeVert). The division is home to three teams that feel they are ready to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, so it is sure to be an interesting race to the finish.

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Donovan Mitchell, Jazz Ready To Become Contenders

Can Donovan Mitchell do for the new-look Jazz what Dwyane Wade did for the 2006 Miami HEAT? Utah’s title hopes depend on it.

Drew Mays

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After a five-year run that saw two regular-season MVPs, a 73-win campaign and three NBA championships, Kevin Durant’s departure and Klay Thompson’s torn ACL has Golden State on the outside looking in. The Warriors will still make a playoff push, and should likely succeed, as a healthy Stephen Curry and reinvigorated Draymond Green can do that for you. But the title no longer runs through Oracle – and not just because they’re leaving Oakland.

Golden State coming up short didn’t just signal the end of a dynasty; it represented a power shift in the NBA. Their loss to Toronto was the first domino to fall over six weeks of player movement that saw six All-NBA members switch teams. The conventional wisdom of the last decade – that you needed three stars to win a ring – had suddenly unraveled and players began doubling up instead of tripling.

The starriest example comes from the Staples Center, where Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on one side of the hallway, and LeBron James and Anthony Davis are on the other. On the whole, Los Angeles is now the overwhelming favorite to win the 2020 NBA Championship as Vegas puts the Clippers and Lakers at +350 and +400 respectively. Milwaukee, Houston and Philadelphia follow these two teams, with one boasting the reigning MVP and the others involved in splashy offseason moves.

There’s another sexy title pick, especially for those that consider themselves in tune with the NBA: the Utah Jazz. The additions of Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanović give the Jazz the much-needed playmaking and shooting they’ve badly missed over the past two postseasons. With them in tow and Rudy Gobert owning the middle, Utah is only one development away from winning the West: Donovan Mitchell becoming the 2006 version of Dwyane Wade.

Mitchell and Wade are often linked and for good reason. They share sizes, athletic abilities and euro-steps. They were both thrust into scoring roles on playoff-ready teams as rookies, and both have now played for Team USA.

Wade isn’t just a comparison for Mitchell, he should be an aspiration as well.

Dwyane Wade’s arrival on the national scene came in his third season. He dominated the 2006 NBA Finals, bringing the HEAT back from 0-2 and giving Miami their first championship. While year three was impressive, his real breakout occurred the year before. In year two, Wade’s numbers looked like this:

24.1 points, 6.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds per game on 47.8/28.9/76.2, with an effective field goal percentage of .483.

Now, here’s Donovan Mitchell last year, in his sophomore season:

23.8 points, 4.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds per game on 43.2/36.2/80.6, with an effective field goal percentage of .493.

The scoring numbers are almost identical and Mitchell has already proven himself a better three-point shooter. The assist discrepancy is a product of Utah’s reliance on Mitchell to score, causing him to force shots often. Mitchell also started this past season poorly and after the first 33 contests of 2018-19, the athletic guard’s line sat at just 20.7 points, 3.5 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game.

He played the next 44 games at a rate of 26.7 points, 4.9 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game with 44.5/42/82.5 splits.

In 2005-06, Wade averaged 27.2 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.7 rebounds a night, all despite being a nonentity from three. That season is eerily similar to the back end of Mitchell’s second-season effort and it should give Jazz fans optimism that he can play at the same level in 2019-20.

Of course, the odds of doing so are in his favor. Conley is as steady as they get, even coming off a career-year in points per game and his highest assist totals since 2012-13. Despite turning 32 years-old in October, he remains an above-average defender. But, most importantly for Mitchell, he’s another ballhandler and playmaker.

Utah has run into a brick wall in Houston during the playoffs each of the last two seasons. While their gimmicky defense and failure to hit open looks contributed to this year’s loss, the overarching struggle was a complete inability, by anyone not named Donovan Mitchell, to create shots. Joe Ingles is serviceable as a third or fourth playmaker as he can attack switches and overzealous closeouts.

But if he’s your second-best playmaker, or becomes the first out of necessity, the offense is in huge trouble.

Simply put, Conley solves that problem. He’ll naturally take loads of pressure off Mitchell, who tied LeBron James with the seventh-highest usage rate at 31.6%. Conley also allows Mitchell to slide back to his natural off-ball role, letting him can catch and swing passes against rotating defenses or run more side pick and roll. Both of these actions get Mitchell opportunities away from the teeth of the defense, which can’t happen when he’s repeatedly forced to initiate offense out high.

Along with Bogdanović, Conley also solves addresses Utah’s often awkward floor spacing troubles. The Jazz spent the last two years with Ricky Rubio at point guard – defense and vision aside, he’s still a below-average shooter that the opposition can leave open during the most important moments. Conley and Bogdanović replacing Rubio and Derrick Favors enables Utah to put three shooters and plus-defenders around Mitchell while the always-effective Rudy Gobert screens or waits in the dunker’s spot.

The newly-added Jeff Green, a healthy Dante Exum and an improving Royce O’Neal round out a solid rotation group. The key, then, is Mitchell. The Jazz figure to remain a top-five defensive team even in a loaded Western Conference, and the offensive mentioned above will make huge strides. However, when April rolls around, the games slow down. Movement-centric offenses don’t always succeed, and defenses break down. To win in the postseason, franchises need to create one-on-one opportunities. Analytics that preach threes, free throws and layups get tossed out the window; the midrange is in play again.

It’s why Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have dominated the postseason for years – they can score from all three levels.

Without a doubt, Mitchell has to be that player for Utah.

He’s the only player on their roster who can potentially match the star-power of other teams. If he regresses in 2019-20, the Jazz will fall victim to the same issues that sent them home the last two years. If he plateaus, they likely won’t have enough to overcome the top-half of the conference.

But, if Donovan Mitchell makes that leap, Utah will have a real chance to win the whole thing and bring their city its first NBA championship.

That sounds a lot like the 2006 HEAT.

Now, all they need is their Dwyane Wade.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Milwaukee Bucks

Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series moves along as Jordan Hicks discusses the offseason of the team that rosters the current NBA MVP.

Jordan Hicks

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One does not simply spell the name Giannis Antetokounmpo without at least looking it up first. Sure, you could get lucky the first time, but you’re lying to yourself if you think you won’t at least head over to Google to double-check.

Admittedly, a big thanks on our end will be sent towards our friends at Google for helping with the meat of the article. Obviously, Giannis hoisting the MVP award long after the dust of the 2018-19 season settled makes him the de-facto centerpiece when discussing his team and their offseason.

Yes, a case could be made for James Harden or Nikola Jokic for this past season’s MVP. But Antetokounmpo proved in a big way exactly why he deserved to be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

If it wasn’t for Kawhi Leonard, this article could potentially have a very different tone. For all intents and purposes, the Milwaukee Bucks were the team with all the momentum heading into the postseason. They were the one seed out East. They had (at the time) the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award. They deployed a system that could have potentially given Golden State fits. If Milwaukee could have bested Toronto, who is to say they couldn’t have beaten Golden State, injuries or not?

But this is the NBA. In a best-of-seven series, the best team usually wins. In this case, Milwaukee lost to Toronto, and the Bucks’ front office knew that they weren’t a championship-level team, yet.

Overview

The Bucks clearly didn’t end the 2018-19 season the way they’d hoped. Ultimately, their goal was to make it to the NBA Finals. They came just short after losing in six games to the Raptors. They went up two games to start the series but then Kawhi entered Terminator-mode and put the series to rest, helping the Raptors rattle off four straight – and quite surprising – wins.

This isn’t because people fully expected Milwaukee to win the series. Toronto obviously had a solid roster. But like previously mentioned, the Bucks were No. 1 in the East, they had the best defensive rating and fourth-best offensive rating, and were a full two points ahead of second-place for best net rating. They led the league in points per game, led the league in rebounds per game, were second in blocks per game and second in three-pointers made.

The Bucks were a good team in 2017-18. They were a great team last season. It’s quite easy to figure out just why they made that jump. Their success can be chalked up primarily to two specific things: the hiring of head coach Mike Budenholzer and internal player development (namely Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon).

Other small factors definitely played their part, as well. Everyone expected Brook Lopez to be a solid center. Absolutely no one expected him to shoot 36.5 percent from three on over six attempts per night. And we aren’t just talking run-of-the-mill attempts. Lopez was firing from deep, stepping back, defenders in his face. It was quite a spectacle.

Overall, Milwaukee had a really awesome season, but their regular-season success did not directly translate to postseason success. The best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season does not mean the best team in the Eastern Conference after the playoffs.

Offseason

Unfortunately for Milwaukee, there was a heap of tough decisions that needed to be made. Quite a few of their starters and main rotations guys became free agents.

They essentially let Nikola Mirotic walk, as he went on to join a team in Europe. In order to pay other players on their roster, they had to let Malcolm Brogdon accept an offer from the Indiana Pacers in a sign-and-trade. They could have matched as he was a restricted free agent, but if they wanted to pay other players it just wasn’t possible.

Their big offseason signings were all re-ups; the likes of Khris Middleton (five years, 178-million), Brook Lopez (four years, 52-million), and George Hill (three years, 29-million).

Losing Brogdon was a big blow to their roster. He played an incredibly vital role in the main rotation and was likely their best three-and-D player. They were able to nab Wesley Matthews who at one point might have been an upgrade over Brogdon but has since fallen victim to father time. However, he is still a great pickup and will certainly play an important role on both ends of the court.

They also picked up Kyle Korver who was traded to and then subsequently released from the Memphis Grizzlies. He, too, will be a big boost for an offense that lost two high-level three-point shooters (Brogdon and Mirotic). He is definitely a few steps slower than where he used to be in terms of defense, but he still fits seamlessly into just about any system. He is still elite at coming off screens and knocking down threes, and will absolutely help the roster stretch the defense when he’s on the court.

Korver paired with Giannis has the potential to be huge as the Greek Freak will certainly take advantage of a more spread out defense.

Other signings that could potentially turn out to be big are that of Frank Mason, Dragan Bender and Robin Lopez. The first two are still young and have room to improve. Dragan has been stuck on a less-than-ideal roster and Mason hasn’t really had a good opportunity to showcase his skills. The latter, twin brother of Brook Lopez, will be a solid backup center. He’s a great defender, plays with a crazy-high motor, and seems to boost the morale of any locker room he’s in.

If there wasn’t any indication before that Milwaukee is already preparing for the free agency of Giannis in 2021, the signing of his brother Thanasis definitely points to some solid preparation. Let’s be real, you can’t leave your brother in free agency. Or maybe you can. Either way, they don’t need to deal with that for two more years.

PLAYERS IN: Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, Robin Lopez, Frank Mason, Dragan Bender, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Jaylen Adams, Cameron Reynolds (two-way), Luke Maye, Rayjon Tucker

PLAYERS OUT: Malcolm Brogdon, Tim Frazier, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol, Tony Snell, Bonzie Colson Jr. (two-way)

What’s Next

Milwaukee’s offseason wasn’t ideal, but there wasn’t really much they could do. Because of the salary cap, there were certain decisions that had to be made. Losing Brogdon can very likely turn out to be a huge blow. If people didn’t realize just how important he was to the team’s success, it should stick out in a big way – at least at the beginning of the season.

There’s no doubt that Giannis still has room to grow. Middleton, too. But Brogdon had such a strong presence on both ends of the floor, that at times he was relied upon perhaps too much. They made the right move in paying Middleton, he’s clearly the better player, but Middleton making that much more money won’t make him that much better, obviously. So alas, the salary cap wins again and forced the Bucks to dump a key cog of their roster.

They would be smart to rely on Korver as little as possible throughout the season so he can be much better rested for the playoffs. We saw this with the Utah Jazz this last season. Utah acquired Korver via trade in November 2018 and was used almost exhaustingly at times. This really stuck out as Korver played virtually no role for Utah in the postseason.

It’s hard to give the Bucks a fair grade because their major roster changes were more-or-less out of their control. They did a pretty fine job with the cards they were dealt and ended up signing a handful of players that have the potential of really helping out. Plus, Giannis is coming off his best season yet with zero sign of slowing down.

It’s difficult to say that the Bucks got better, but it’s also not fair to say they got worse. Either way, we will just have to see how it plays out. A lot of teams in the East got better, so we will certainly see how much that gap between them and other teams closed.

At least Kawhi left Toronto. That will absolutely be one less worry for Milwaukee during the playoffs.

OFFSEASON GRADE: C+

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High-Performance Mindfulness: The Missing Link To DeMarcus Cousins’ Recovery

Jake Rauchbach discusses DeMarcus Cousins and one of the under-explored, but more critical aspects of the injury recovery process.

Jake Rauchbach

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Last week, DeMarcus Cousins sustained another career-threatening injury, tearing his ACL during a pickup game in Las Vegas.

Cousins, who battled back from a ruptured Achilles this past season, is now in jeopardy of missing a big chunk of the upcoming season for his third time in as many years.

He is expected to miss major time for a third straight season due to a lower leg injury. Before tearing his left Achilles on Jan. 26 2018, Cousins’ durability was never really in question. Before the initial injury, the big-man missed over 20 games just once in a season.

Virtually every year, we see stories similar to Cousins. A player who, at one time in his career had little to no history of injury, gradually becomes engulfed in a seemingly chronic and potentially career-ending pattern for injury – Derrick Rose being a prime example of this.

Common thought for chronic injury issues points back to the physical or structural aspect. Some of the most common theories as to why players experience these setbacks are generally due to pre-disposition, overcompensation and an over-ambitious goal for recovery.

With any injury type, there are obvious physical factors at play. However, a vital and under-explored aspect of the recovery process could be blocking these players’ recovery process.

The Mind-Body Factor

The mind and body are inextricably linked. A person cannot entertain a thought or emotion and, without effect, a chain-reaction in the body occurring. The same can be said for athletes that re-experience past traumatic injury by way of memory.

As humans, we tend to push overwhelming memories, such as traumatic injury, to the far reaches of our subconscious mind. This can be a problem, as these unresolved thoughts, emotions, feelings and psycho-somatic pain can get lodged within a player’s muscle memory.

When this happens, severe compensation, fear of injury and guarding patterns can arise in the body, which can have the effect of weakening the point of injury. This consequently causes structural weakness in other parts of the body. Rose and Cousins could be prime examples of this.

Subconscious mental and emotional blocks such as these, if left unaddressed, can create a nasty psycho-somatic injury loop, consequentially making players susceptible to further injury. Leaving imbalances unresolved at the unconscious level can jeopardize the physical health and well-being of an athlete. Finding a way to break this loop is paramount.

Mental And Emotional Blocks

The psycho-somatic memory of rupturing an Achilles or tearing an ACL can easily stay locked up within the deep mind or muscle memory of a player for years until fully processed.

In Rose’s case, his first major injury and psycho-somatic impediment may have occurred when he tore his ACL during the 2012-2013 season. Dr. Michael Casale, speaking about Rose, said:

“His injury must have caused so much mental trauma. The neuroscience part of me comes out and starts to think about, as far as the brain rewiring, it must be so unbelievably impactful to have that one moment change the way you think about yourself and your environment.”

Considering his past injury history – and the fact that some like Dr. Casale within the medical community believe that Rose’s injury may have caused psychological damage – it is not a stretch to think there has been a very real psycho-somatic element at play.

In Cousins’ case, he has sustained two major leg injuries in a relatively short period. It is generally challenging for big men with severe lower leg injuries to return to the court better than when they left it. Cousins could have his work cut out for him.

If Cousins or Rose are still carrying the deep mental and emotional discord from their past injuries, the chronic injury patterns that they have already experienced could likely persist.

Directly addressing unresolved psycho-somatic barriers with leading-edge High-Performance Mindfulness systems could help players like Rose and Cousins break the habitual injury loop that they have experienced.

The Missing Link – Streamlining The Injury Recovery Process

So what might be the next correct step in streamlining recovery?

High-Performance Mindfulness – Energy Psychology Programs that zero in on removing the mental and emotional baggage from past injuries, exactly what Cousins and Rose could require.

High-Performance Mindfulness can now identify which unconscious mental blocks are holding a player back wherein the subconscious mind-body they are being held. Through a systematic approach for removing and neutralize these impediments, players have been shown to physically improve once the emotional discord of the past experiences has been neutralized.

Frequently, the option of last resort, techniques such as these often have the effect of improving range of motion, eliminating fears of re-injury and eliminating those nasty guarding patterns.

Moreover, employing tools that interface directly with the subconscious mind have been shown to restore confidence, trust and rhythm for a player in regards to his or her own body.

For players like Cousins and Rose, there may be nothing more vital at this stage in their careers.

Getting to the root of these chronic injury patterns may be the key for Cousins, Rose and players like them challenged with similar injury patterns for unlocking, healing and preventing future injury.

Addressing the deeply held negatively charged thoughts, images, emotions and somatic feelings could be the way for doing so – and could be a game-changer for players coming back from injury.

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