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NBA Daily: Post-Deadline Rankings – Southeast Division

Matt John wraps up Basketball Insiders’ Post-Deadline Rankings series by taking a look at the player movement that happened in the Southeast Division.

Matt John

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For the past week, Basketball Insiders has gone over the outlook of every team in each division now that we’ve gone past the trade deadline.

This week, we’re wrapping with the Southeast Division. The Southeast has garnered a reputation for being the weakest division in the league. No one in the division is regarded as a contender. In fact, no team in this division is really respected as a playoff team.

Think of it like this – Charlotte currently leads the division with a 27-30 record, which miraculously puts them at the seventh seed in the east. If the Hornets were in the West, they’d be tied for the 11th seed with Minnesota.

No moves were made to boost anyone’s present, but the future became a little brighter after the deadline passed for some of these franchises. Some if it stems from getting cap relief while some of it stems from acquiring good young talent. Even if it didn’t really bring anyone up a level, the Southeast was pretty active before the trade deadline.

Orlando Magic (27-32)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Markelle Fultz and two draft picks from Sixers

Props to all parties involved in the Markelle Fultz trade. Orlando needed a point guard. Fultz needed a fresh start. Philadelphia needed to get something out of Fultz. Everyone wins. Sort of.

Trading for Fultz gives Orlando a low-risk/high-reward project that could work tremendously in their favor. There still is a very limited sample size for Fultz, but at only 20 years old, the potential for him to be something special is still in the cards.

It was one of the worst kept secrets in the league that Fultz was on his way out of Philly one way or the other. What is yet to be determined is if it was because Fultz’ injury issues were legitimate, or that he wasn’t ready for the win-now mentality that the Sixers has since his arrival, or that he just doesn’t have “it”.

We’ll finally get an answer when he plays for the Magic, who provides a more comfortable environment for a project like him. The Magic are currently on the upswing, having won five in a row and have an easy schedule for the rest of the season. Even though the playoffs are in the realm of possibility, they won’t demand Fultz back on the court until he’s ready because they still have a long way to go.

Fultz definitely has a lot of question marks, but for a team like Orlando, gambling on a guy like him is a chance you take ten times out of ten.

Predicted Division Finish: 1st

Charlotte Hornets (27-30)

Deadline Moves: Signed Shelvin Mack

Despite deep discussions centered around trading for Marc Gasol and moving Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte stood pat at the trade deadline. A pretty odd decision given they had the rare opportunity to acquire Gasol or someone of his caliber for cheap.

In their defense, their contract situation is pretty complicated in case you didn’t know. Their roster is filled with solid role players on bloated contracts. But looking at what Memphis got for Gasol, it really boggles the mind trying to decipher what the Hornets’ Front Office was thinking.

All it took for Toronto to get Gasol was trading Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and CJ Miles. Really MJ? You couldn’t top that? Now getting an aging star like Marc wouldn’t have made Buzz City a contender. It still would most likely have demanded more respect from their Eastern Conference competitors than they’ve had in quite some time.

Instead, Charlotte remains the same. A half-decent, lower-seed playoff team with both a limited ceiling and floor. With all apologies to Shelvin Mack, the Hornets didn’t move the needle at all. Since they plan to keep Kemba Walker at all costs after his contract expires, maybe the goal is hold out for a better player this summer. If that is their course of action, then props to them for thinking ahead.

That is, if that plan succeeds.

Predicted Division Finish: 2nd

Miami HEAT (26-30)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Ryan Anderson for Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington

Instead of trying to find an upgrade at the trade deadline, Miami instead opted to save some money. That’s a brilliant move when you look at their cap sheet for this upcoming summer. It’s also kind of depressing since the most brilliant move they could make with how the team is currently constructed was opening up some cap room.

By trading Johnson and Ellington for Anderson, the HEAT will escape the luxury tax bill with Anderson’s contract being non-guaranteed next season. It’s sad because Anderson can be useful among his other faults, but right now the teams who have recently employed him only look his team-friendly contract.

Because of that, it goes without saying that Anderson probably isn’t going to see much time in what is very likely to be just a half-season stint in Miami. The team already has a floor-stretching big in Kelly Olynyk, who wasn’t getting much time anyway thanks to the emergence of Derrick Jones Jr.

By getting rid of Johnson and Ellington, the HEAT also open up more time for some of their other guys to play at the guard position. Justise Winslow has found his calling since running the point, while Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and of course, Dwyane Wade, have all taken time at the guard. With Goran Dragic coming back soon, it was only going to get more crowded.

Miami made out well at the trade deadline by merely making their situation a little less bleak financially.

Predicted Division Finish: 3rd

Washington Wizards (24-34)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis from the Bulls, acquired Wesley Johnson from the Pelicans

When it rains, it pours in D.C.

It can’t be fun to tell a player he’s not getting traded only to go back on your word after everything around you just falls apart.

With John Wall out for the foreseeable future, the Wizards decided to rid themselves of Otto Porter in the meantime. By trading him for Jabari Parker and his team-friendly contract, the Wizards, much like the HEAT, are opening up a fair amount of cap room while also adding a dependable young talent in Bobby Portis – the same can’t be said for Parker.

As good as Porter is, he was overpaid for the role he played in Washington. Getting out of his deal while the team has struggled to get to .500 with limited opportunities to improve will probably be the right move in the long run. Taking a flyer on both Parker and Portis in the process is also a nice consolation prize.

Not much has gone right for the Wizards in the past year and a half. While Bradley Beal has played the best basketball of his career, the team’s playoff hopes are fading by the day. Portis and Parker at least add some pizzazz to what’s looking more and more like a lost season.

It seems they’re aware of that, because trading Markieff Morris for Wesley Johnson to get under the tax in their current state would usually signal a white flag.

Predicted Division Finish: 4th

Atlanta Hawks (19-39)

Deadline Moves: N/A

It’s weird how the Hawks aren’t a good enough team to make a win-now type of move, but aren’t bad enough to completely bottom out. They are firmly out of the playoff picture and yet not really in the tanking game.

In all fairness, the Hawks technically did something. They brought in Shelvin Mack and Jabari Bird the same way they brought in Carmelo Anthony. Other than waiving Jeremy Lin, no significant changes were made to the roster.

There’s not much else to say other than it’s surprising that Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon are still on the roster – the latter could still very well be waived. It is encouraging that despite that the Hawks are only one notch above awful, they are still a fun team with a promising future. John Collins is a stud, and Trae Young has gotten better as the season has progressed.

This is only the start of what should be a bright era of basketball for Atlanta. For now, all they can do is just pay their dues until their time comes.

Predicted Division Finish: 5th

Again, the Southeast Division is definitely the weakest one in the league. After the trade deadline, they can at least say that they made moves to make sure it doesn’t stay that way.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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