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NBA Daily: The Eastern Conference X-Factors

Drew Mays takes a look at four Eastern Conference players whose play will swing their team’s fortunes one way or the other.

Drew Mays

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The NBA is a star-driven league, and it’s almost impossible to win without one. But as important as they are, you still need role players to fill the gaps in between – you need an X-Factor, a player that can elevate his game either as a complement or when your stars are struggling.

So, with the season nearly underway, Basketball Insiders decided to examine a handful of those players who could have a significant impact on the success of their respective teams in the Eastern Conference. To make it more interesting, we tried to stay away from All-Stars.

Josh Richardson

Philadelphia rolls out one of the quirkiest starting lineups of recent memory. As the league trends towards downsizing, the 76ers bet big, re-signing Tobias Harris and acquiring Al Horford and Josh Richardson in the wake of Jimmy Butler’s departure. Their starting five will be (maybe) the best in the league and an absolute terror on defense.

But Richardson determines how far this team can go. While Butler was the headline exit, JJ Redick’s could be just as impactful. Outside of Redick, Philly didn’t really have any floor spacers – paramount in an offense whose two best players are Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Harris is a career 36 percent three-point shooter and he shot only 33 percent since joining the Sixers in the spring.

He shot 36 percent last season on almost nine attempts per game, a rate that was hampered by his 29 percent clip on off the dribble threes. Now on a team with more talented and versatile offensive weapons, more of his looks should come on spot-up attempts, and those pull-up three numbers should decrease.

Richardson’s biggest offensive responsibility may come in the playoffs as a ballhandler. Simmons’ lack of shooting glows in the postseason – so Jimmy Butler took the lead, operating in isolation and out of the pick and roll. Richardson was occasionally overtaxed as a playmaker in Miami. But with less of a burden throughout the regular season, he can hopefully provide it in spurts when playoff defenses load up on the non-shooting Simmons.

Cooler, he’s a stud defensively. Having him will be a welcome change from hiding Redick on that side of the ball. If Richardson can combine his defense with a portion of Redick’s shooting and Butler’s playmaking, the 76ers will find themselves in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.

Caris LeVert

LeVert was on a star-like trajectory before dislocating his foot last November. During his three-month absence, D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star and the Nets morphed into a trendy playoff team. LeVert returned in February, struggling for two months before being Brooklyn’s best player in their first-round playoff defeat.

Now, the Nets have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. With Durant set to miss the entire season, LeVert is in prime position to show whether he’s the third member of Brooklyn’s new big three, or an ancillary player for their big two.

Against Philadelphia in the postseason, LeVert was the only Net who could get anything going. He averaged 21/4.6/3.0 on 61.2 percent true shooting in only 29 minutes per game, using his length to get in the lane and challenge the bigs, something Russell was unable to do.

LeVert has the makeup of a prototypical secondary star. He isn’t a full-time lead ballhandler, but he has the talent to do so for stretches – his 24 percent usage in the regular season spiked to 26.9 percent during the playoffs – and he has the same slithery moves you see from someone like Paul George. George was a much better shooter, but his early Indiana years are comparable to what LeVert’s been able to do over the last season when healthy.

If he can stay on this path and bump his three-point percentage up to league-average, Brooklyn may have a third All-Star to join Kyrie and Durant.

If he doesn’t, the Nets will still have a good, useful player – just not one who can get them by Philadelphia or Milwaukee prior to Durant’s New York-era debut next year.

T.J. Warren

The Pacers are a mystery. Victor Oladipo is still months away from a return. Domantas Sabonis just signed an extension, but Indiana is still trying to figure out how, and if, they can play him with Myles Turner. Speaking of Turner: No one can figure out what he is, or if he’s going to make the mini-leap analysts have predicted for years.

Yet they are historically a postseason staple and they held it together without Oladipo last season. They added Malcolm Brogdon and whatever you think about his money, he’s a hyper-efficient secondary or tertiary playmaker and scorer. Between Brogdon, Sabonis, Turner and newcomer Jeremy Lamb, the Pacers boast four guys that averaged between 14.1 and 15.6 points per game. That’s not a bad problem to have, but someone inevitably has to take the reins as the go-to guy.

T.J. Warren could be the guy to do that. Over the last two seasons, Warren has averaged over 20 points per game per 36 minutes on 55 percent true shooting. After taking only 90 threes in 2017-18, Warren launched 180 from behind the arc and shot an impressive 42.8 percent. This occurred in Phoenix – so there’s a reason to believe this shooting is sustainable with more talented teammates.

There’s a chance Warren’s numbers with the Suns were empty calories on a tanking team. However, at 6-foot-8 and with improved range, Warren projects as a scoring stretch wing on a team that desperately needs it. The final piece of encouragement is this: Assuming that Oladipo comes back as some close-to form of the All-NBA player he was pre-injury, Warren only needs to be a primary scorer for two or three months.

If he manages to do so, Indiana will stay afloat and remain a playoff team. If he doesn’t, they’ll find themselves on the outside looking in when Oladipo returns.

Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward may be the most obvious X-Factor in this group; he’s the only former free-agent darling and former All-Star. But after a disappointing 2019-20 that saw Boston win just 49 games, the Celtics may win even less without a full-year of an effective Hayward.

Outside of the top two, the Eastern Conference is wide open. Hayward’s play has the chance to swing Boston anywhere from the No. 3 overall seed to the six or maybe the seventh, contingent on Miami with Butler and pending any midseason moves. The Celtics also lost Al Horford. A tough task already, they will look to replace him with Robert Williams, Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. After a down sophomore year, it seems rash to assume Jayson Tatum will fix himself.

Hayward’s return to his former glory renders these issues void. It adds a second All-Star alongside Kemba Walker and lightens the playmaking load on him as well. It would also lessen the burden on Tatum and Jaylen Brown to produce points, a welcome addition in an offense that should have more continuity than last year.

As currently constructed, Boston has only one star. Hayward’s ascension not only gives them a second but gives Tatum more room to become the potential third. His play post-All-Star needs to be the norm if the Celtics want to remain in the top half of the conference.

These four may not make an All-Star team this season, but their performances will have just as big of impacts on their respective teams as any other players in the Eastern Conference. Thankfully, after a long, long summer and offseason — the wait is finally over. Can these players help push their respective teams over the top?

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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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NBA Daily: Where Does John Collins Really Fit?

Since the Atlanta Hawks and John Collins were unable to agree to an extension in the offseason, rumors have swirled about the 23-year old big and his future. Ariel Pacheco breaks down which teams might be the best fit for Collins should he and Atlanta decide to part ways.

Ariel Pacheco

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John Collins has been the subject of trade rumors all season long. The Atlanta Hawks are reportedly seeking a “lottery level pick” in return for the talented big man. With Collins set to be a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason, any team that trades for him must also be willing to either offer an extension that will likely be north of $100 million or lose him for nothing.

This cuts down the list of potential suitors to just a handful of teams. These teams will have to be willing to part with draft capital and/or young players. Here’s a look at where John Collins could fit in. 

San Antonio Spurs

Few teams are as good of a fit for Collins as San Antonio. The Spurs are off to a surprising start at 16-11 and the sixth seed in the Western Conference. That said, they are in desperate need of a floor-spacing big with some upside and Collins is just that. With the 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge set to be a free agent and his play dropping off, Collins can slide right in as the team’s big of the future.

The Spurs have multiple young guys and their draft picks. The question is how much would they be willing to part with. There are a couple of iterations that the Spurs could send out to Atlanta. A trade centered around Derrick White and a protected pick could be something that interests the Hawks. They might also be interested in a deal that includes Lonnie Walker, salary filler and a protected pick. Again, it depends on how far San Antonio would be interested in going in their pursuit of Collins.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have quietly been a competitive team this season, possibly more so than they want to be. With a young star they certainly want to build around in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collins would represent an intriguing co-star to lead the franchise into the future. At the very least, the fit between the two would be beautiful to watch. Oklahoma City has a number of young, high-upside players they like in Lugentz Dort, Isaiah Roby, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon. Adding in Collins to compliment them would significantly accelerate their rebuild.

The Thunder also happen to have a war chest stuffed with draft capital. They have 16 first-round picks and 13 second-round picks through the 2027 draft. It’ll be impossible for them to select a player with every one of those picks and, while they are unlikely to just offer them recklessly, using some of that capital to swing a trade for a young talent with All-Star potential in John Collins would be a great use of resources. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, Cleveland just added Jarrett Allen. But that shouldn’t preclude them from a potential move for Collins.

The Cavaliers have struggled after a nice start to the season. While they seem to have settled on a core centered around Allen, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, they are in need of a frontcourt scorer who can space the floor for their guards. Collins might prove the perfect fit, as he can play alongside Allen and should prove a threat with both Sextan and Garland in the pick-and-roll. And, given his upside, the Cavaliers’ future would shine even brighter.

The difficulty here is finding a deal that works for both sides. If a deal were to happen it would more than likely have to be a three-team deal. The Cavaliers just aren’t a natural trading partner with the Hawks. A third team would be able to give both sides what they are looking for. Cleveland could also bet on Collins not signing an extension with a new team; in that event, they would be better off waiting until free-agency to offer him a deal. 

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento struck gold in this past year’s draft with Tyrese Haliburton. Alongside De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have their backcourt of the future firmly in place. Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield have both been rumored to be unhappy in Sacramento, involving one or both of them in a trade for Collins could give the Kings a lot more upside and add some frontcourt scoring. 

This is another situation where, given their personnel, the Kings and Hawks aren’t ideal trade partners and would probably need to involve a third team. Sacramento has shown some growth this season and an upgrade in talent could help make their playoff aspirations more attainable. The Kings own all of their first-rounders and should look to be aggressive in improving their roster.

Boston Celtics

Pursuing a Collins deal is unlikely for Boston, who has shown to be very reluctant in parting with future assets in recent seasons. Still, Collins would add a pick-and-roll threat Boston just doesn’t have. The Celtics would then be able to build around an extremely strong core of Collins, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Celtics would have to pay Collins in the offseason, however, making them even more unlikely to swing a deal for Collins. Already paying Kemba Walker, Tatum and Brown over $100 million each, Boston would almost certainly have to and the same to Collins, further restricting their ability to fill out a roster that, beyond those three, has been lacking this season. On paper they are a great fit, but there are just too many extenuating factors that make a deal unlikely.

Plenty of other teams could (and should) put their hat in the Collins-ring but are also unlikely to do so due to various factors. The Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets could all swing a deal for the big man, but they either have younger guys at his position or wouldn’t be willing to pay him.

Collins is a talented 23-year-old big man with All-Star potential. It’s not often someone of his caliber at such a young age is available on the trade market and teams should be aggressive in their pursuit. If Collins doesn’t get traded, teams will have a chance to sign him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency. He will likely command a $100 million deal, with any team that trades for him essentially ponying up for the first shot to pay him. 

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NBA Daily: Should Orlando Sell?

Injuries have once again foiled Orlando’s plans for success. Chad Smith assesses the situation and details why it is time for the Magic to finally blow it up and fully embrace the youth movement.

Chad Smith

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As the All-Star break approaches, the Orlando Magic find themselves in an all-too-familiar position. They are the basketball equivalent of a treadmill. Hell-bent on moving full steam ahead, they continue to squeeze out wins but, in the end, they are going nowhere.

There are a variety of reasons why Orlando continues to dwell in the quicksand, injuries being chief among them. There is plenty of young talent on the roster, but they just can’t seem to stay on the floor. Rookie guard Cole Anthony and star Forward Aaron Gordon are both dealing with injuries and will not return until after the All-Star break. It goes much deeper than just this season though.

Jonathan Isaac is in his fourth year but has played just 106 total games. He is expected to miss the entire season after appearing in only 34 games last year. Worse, just when it seemed as though Markelle Fultz had turned his career around, he was lost for the year with a knee injury just eight games into this season.

While injuries may be out of their control, Orlando hasn’t done much to help themselves, control the things they can control, either.

Drafting is a tricky puzzle, for sure, as there are always busts and sleepers that are only be realized years later. But, while Orlando has had the luxury of picking near the top every summer, they have yet to nail the star they have longed for (and desperately need). In back-to-back years they had the sixth-overall pick, which they used on Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. In 2015 they selected Mario Hezonja fifth-overall. None of their second-round picks in that span have contributed to this team, either.

The Magic have seemingly always lived in mediocrity. Despite having one of the easiest schedules in the league, they currently sit 12th in the Eastern Conference. While he obviously hasn’t had the group at full strength, head coach Steve Clifford’s team ranks near the bottom in virtually every statistical category. Player development is something that must be taken into consideration, which puts Orlando in a position where they must make a major decision.

Should they continue with their current nucleus and try to build on another lottery selection next season as they return to health, or sell off their talented veteran players now and embrace a full-on rebuild?

Orlando’s biggest asset is obviously Nikola Vucevic, the All-Star center in the midst of a career year. In year two of a four-year contract worth $100 million, Vucevic’s salary actually declines by $2 million each year. And, at the age of 30, Vucevic will no longer be in his prime once the Magic are relevant again.

Taking advantage of desperate teams that need help at the center position, like the Boston Celtics or Golden State Warriors, could net them multiple first-round picks and or a young player in return. The free agent class for next season is lukewarm at best, so teams may decide to explore trading to acquire top-tier talent. If Orlando puts him on the trade block, their phones will be ringing off the hook all the way up to the March 25 deadline.

Should the Magic decide to move their best player, it would open the window of opportunity for Bamba. The seven-footer is still under contract for one more season so he could be easily dealt if the franchise decides to hold on to Vucevic. Several suitors have already been knocking on Orlando’s door about his availability. With Bamba’s name already in trade rumors, it could signal that the team is headed in a different direction.

Gordon’s name is one that has already been in trade rumors even before the season tipped off. The fourth-overall draft pick in 2014 doesn’t have the same explosion and athleticism that he once possessed, but he is still just 25-years-old and would be a valuable piece for any team.

Despite his regression, Gordon’s value remains high for contending teams looking to add a piece that they believe will put them over the top. The return for Orlando will not be a huge bounty, but moving on from Gordon could be wise as he has one year remaining on his contract at just $16.4 million, which should be very enticing to interested teams.

After suffering 15 losses in 19 games, Orlando has now won three in a row and four out of their last five. While none of those victories came against top-level teams, it is a sign that perhaps the Magic aren’t ready to just cut their losses in the midst of an injury-filled season.

Orlando does have two Disable Player Exceptions, worth $6.1 million and $3.7 million, respectively. This would allow them to add another player but they are just $2.8 million below the luxury tax. That being said, there isn’t a player available that is going to turn Orlando’s season around. They will face the Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, and Atlanta Hawks before the break.

After missing the postseason six years in a row, Orlando has made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. The problem is they haven’t done much after getting there. In those two years, they have only won a total of two games; both first-round exits. The year-to-year improvement just hasn’t been there, as Orlando seems to have hit their ceiling with this core.

In the best-case scenario, the Magic would have a healthy Isaac and Fultz to pair with their two talented big men. They would have another lottery pick to add to their pool of young talent. Anthony avoiding the sophomore slump and the continued development of Bamba and Dwayne Bacon would be of major help for the future of this franchise as well.

Odds are, even with all of these coming to fruition, however, the team wouldn’t amount to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Evan Fournier is another name that could be on the move. The veteran sharpshooter will be a free agent this summer and would like to play for a contender, per Zach Harper of The Athletic. The Magic aren’t keen on the idea of re-signing the veteran scorer, as they will have to pay Isaac and Fultz. Finding Fournier’s new home this season could benefit both sides in the long run.

Orlando’s organizational philosophy has always been to compete for the playoffs, with all indications showing that will not change this season. But, with the trade deadline a month away, there is still a chance they could reverse course on that. Every organization starts a new season with the goal of reaching the postseason. But, at some point, the future must take precedence, even if it means suffering in the short-term for the long-term gain.

Orlando’s best route to long-term success would be to cash in on their talented veterans now. Investing in the future and going young is a blueprint that many teams have committed to. The Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans are all oozing with young talent and have bright futures. The Magic have the opportunity to add either another top draft pick or two or some young established players to their promising young core and they should seize it.

Sneaking into the playoffs and getting smacked in the first round once again is not going to improve this team in the long run. There is no added value in playing four or five additional games after the regular season. This franchise must see the big picture and position itself to succeed using a different path.

The goal for Orlando should not be making the playoffs again. Their goal should be to finally escape NBA purgatory. The plan should be to embrace the youth movement and accumulate some assets, while they still can.

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