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NBA Daily: Why The Boston Hype?

The Celtics’ hype train got rolling a bit during the NBA’s hiatus. Matt John explains why many seem higher on Boston than they were before, and why that train may still need some brakes.

Matt John

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Excuse me while I do my best Carnac the Magnificent impression. *Puts an envelope to his forehead* The Milwaukee Bucks, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Los Angeles Clippers.

“Name the three teams most likely to be crowned champion of the 2019-20 NBA season.”

Okay that bit might be way too old for you youngins to get, and honestly, that may have been the worst possible tribute to such a classic sketch, but you know what we’re getting at here. When people think about the safest picks to win it all this season, it’s those three without question. With Golden State’s juggernaut down for the count, the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers have stood out as the three teams most likely to be the last one standing when (or if) the season finishes.

Yet, there seems to be a question that’s grown exponentially since the NBA’s hiatus – “Why not Boston?”

When word got out that the season was going to be resumed after all, national media types started picking the Celtics to be the surprise team to come out of the east. Shortly after that, gambling odds started to favor them a little more too. This narrative became so popular that, in their case, the term surprise in surprise pick didn’t sound accurate anymore. The Bucks were (and still are) the safe pick to win the Eastern Conference, but the Celtics suddenly became the sexy pick.

In all fairness, when you compare them to the crème de la crème in the NBA, they split the season series with the three top teams in the league – although that will change when Boston and Milwaukee face off on Friday – and five of those games were must-watch thrillers. The only exception being when the Celtics spanked the Lakers on Martin Luther King Day.

So, is the growing hype around Boston justified? Yes and no. The Celtics have for the most part been an excellent squad this season – impressive seeing how much firepower they lost, especially on the defensive side – but they have been hot and cold. One game they are giving the Lakers all they can handle on LA’s home turf – without Kemba Walker no less – and the next they are blowing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the very undermanned Brooklyn Nets at home. The good stretches have outweighed the bad stretches, but the bad stretches still stand out.

That of course explains why Boston is viewed as more of an underdog compared to their three elite competitors instead of being right there with them. Still, the fact that the Celtics have risen up to the occasion against the best of the best does make picking them to make the finals appear not as irrational as some may think.

Really, the fascination with the Celtics stems from the fact that their ceiling remains somewhat mysterious. We still haven’t really gotten to see what this squad looks like together when everyone is healthy. Boston’s top four players – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Kemba – have played all of 19 games together. Just as one would come back from injury, another seemingly would get hurt shortly before, during, or after the return.

The shame of it all is that when those four have shared the floor, the Celtics have a scorching near-121 offensive rating together – the best among Boston’s four-man lineups that have played at least 200 minutes. By the way, just to point this out, the fact that the Celtics have gone 31-14 in games with at least one of their core four out speaks volumes as to how invaluable Marcus Smart has been for them.

The Celtics don’t have a duo of players on their squad that match the talent of LeBron James/Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard/Paul George or James Harden/Russell Westbrook, but they may very well have the best quartet of players in the league. No one else has a trio of players averaging 20 points a game, and having another scorer who averages 17+ on top of that is a rare luxury. The only other team that comes close to what the Celtics have among their top four guys scoring-wise is the Clippers, and we all know what their goal is.

When rotations shorten, having multiple guys who are capable of putting up big scoring numbers on any given night is incredibly crucial. Now that Boston will have all four of their top guys in ship shape, that gives them an almost unfair amount of cushion compared to their rivals both in their conference and around the league.

That’s not all. There’s something else worth bringing up about Boston and their health that many have overlooked. Let’s start with Jayson Tatum’s ascension.

The sublime numbers that Tatum put up in February – 30.7 points on 49/48/77 splits – was very much the talk of the town before the hiatus. Let’s not beat around the bush here- that’s the kind of production you’d expect from a young superstar. We all believed Tatum had that potential, and we were seeing him fulfill it.

The only problem was that it coincided with the worst stretch of Kemba’s career. An ill-fated knee injury took away a lot of his burst, which definitely hurts someone like Kemba Walker. When Walker wasn’t recuperating from his knee injury, he was not himself. From Jan. 28 to the hiatus, he was averaging 16.3 points on 32/31/83 splits. He made a valiant effort to play, but let’s not beat around the bush here either- He stunk.

With the hiatus, Kemba’s had the time to heal up. While it’s no guarantee that we’re going to see the same old Kemba we’re used to, and that knee is definitely a concern, combining what he was before his knee started acting up with Tatum’s dominance makes the Celtics that much more lethal. The Celtics have taken it slow with their star point guard since the Bubble began, and their efforts look like they haven’t been in vain.

Sadly Boston is all too familiar with the “When they get (player X) back in (Y amount of time), imagine how good they are going to be!” mindset. There’s no guarantee that Kemba will be Kemba when the postseason starts, but because we know what he can do when he’s 100 percent, the Celtics’ playoff potential skyrockets putting him with what they already have.

So, should Boston enter the season at full strength, there’s a lot to like about them, but there’s still a reason why they are not put in the same tier as Milwaukee or either of the LA teams. That starts with their depth. Enough has been said about how good their four best guys are when they play together, but the rest of the roster outside of Smart and Daniel Theis is a question mark.

The Celtics’ top six of Tatum, Brown, Walker, Hayward, Smart, and Theis is capable of winning a championship, but a title team can’t consist of just six rotation players. There are too many minutes for just six guys. Outside of them, it’s hard to say who will fill out the rest of the rotation. The most likely candidates will be the likes of:

  • Enes Kanter: Has been uncharacteristically injury-prone this season. When healthy, he’s been his usual post-dominant self, and the Celtics have done a good job minimizing his defensive lapses – He somehow has a better Defensive Real Plus-Minus than Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard – but he’s been badly exploited in the wrong matchup as usual.
  • Grant Williams: Fits perfectly into Boston’s scheme of playing multi-positional wings with defensive versatility. He’s even shown he has the strength to handle players bigger than him. Even though he’s shot 35 percent from three since hitting his first one on Dec. 9, opponents will leave him open until he can make them pay.
  • Brad Wanamaker: Inconsistency has been his biggest issue. His month by month numbers have been a roller coaster all season. There’s no telling which Wanamaker Boston would get if they played him.
  • Robert Williams III: A hip injury got in the way of what was supposed to be a baptism by fire type of season. The physical tools are definitely there for him to be an exceptional rim protector, but he’s been prone to brain farts and block chasing. The playoffs would be a perfect time for him to learn, but his raw skillset could make him a disaster to play.
  • Semi Ojeleye: In and out of the rotation all season. He brings defensive muscle and even an improved three-ball. He’s even had his moments at times. Besides that, not much progress has been made on his part.

There are other options, but those are the most qualified ones the Celtics have at their disposal, and as you can see, it’s not cut and dry. If one or two of those options pan out well, then Boston should be right there. However, because there are no answers, we’ll just have to see who fits best with what they want to do.

The Celtics could potentially have a lot going for them when the postseason arrives. There are X-Factors that could result in a first-round exit or a trip to the finals. Their health and their depth could play a huge role on how these playoffs turn out. If they play their cards right, Boston might just turn into the team everyone thought they would be.

Last year that is.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: With Harden in Tow, it’s Championship or Bust for Brooklyn

Adding another former MVP to an already talented Nets team means higher expectations in Kings County. Drew Maresca identifies the major challenges remaining for the Brooklyn Nets.

Drew Maresca

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Unless you’re living under a rock, you already know that the Brooklyn Nets pulled off what will go down as the blockbuster deal of 2020-21. Just last week, the Nets added James Harden for Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and future draft swaps and picks. While the deal was more complicated than even that sounds, the fact of the matter is that the Nets added another superstar– and you know what they say, the team that gives up the star rarely wins the trade.

With Harden in tow, the Nets are now equipped to compete with anyone in the NBA thanks to its newly-minted big three. But there is a downside to the Harden deal, too. The Nets entered the season with incredible depth. But after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a knee injury and trading away LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and Allen, they’ve thinned out, probably too much, for their own comfort.

The Nets’ depth is an issue that will be challenging to solve. What’s more, how will they arrange Kyrie Irving and Harden to get the most production out of them? And how does rookie head coach Steve Nash respond to the first-time challenges of overseeing a championship-caliber team?

Regardless, our first look at the Nets was pretty darn impressive. Brooklyn beat the Orlando Magic on Saturday, getting 42 points from Kevin Durant and a 30-point triple-double from Harden that also included 14 assists. The Nets will boast one of the league’s most talented starting lineups once Irving returns– which could happen as soon as today – but don’t be fooled, there are still challenges on the horizon, and they’re all internal.

How do Irving and Harden fit together?

Harden might look like a shooting guard and Irving is obviously a point guard, but that doesn’t mean that they fit together. Harden is at his best initiating the offense, and since joining Houston in 2012-13, he hasn’t posted a usage rate lower than 27.8 but has gotten as high as 40.5 (2018-19). Further, he’s averaged 9.5 assists or more in each of the last five seasons, tallying at least 10 assists per game in three of the last five. While his style is clearly isolation-heavy, it looks like he’s finally willing to take a bit of a backseat now that he’s playing alongside his buddy and former-MVP in Durant.

Irving is another player high-usage player, with a usage rate of 30 or more in four of the past five seasons. While he looks more like a traditional point guard than Harden, his career totals don’t necessarily back that up. Unlike Harden, Irving has never averaged 10 assists per game. He averages only 5.7 assists per game for his career with a high of 6.9 in Boston during 2018-19.

Maybe the solution is letting Irving play off the ball. But there’s a problem with that initiative, will Irving accept it? Irving hasn’t been heard from since leaving the team for personal reasons following the Jan. 6 event in Washington D.C. Has his absence been a social commentary? Was it a power play forcing Brooklyn’s hand to trade for Harden? Or maybe it’s all enigmatic of a bigger personal problem with which Irving is dealing? Only time will tell, but Brooklyn can’t be too comfortable – unless they already know the answer.

Lack of depth is a problem

Obviously, the Nets are more than Durant, Harden and Irving. But do they have enough to get over the hump? After all, fair or not, it’s championship or bust. Yes, the Nets also have Joe Harris, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And, sure, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been a great surprise, while lots will be expected of Landry Shamet. But that’s it.

There’s also Nic Claxton, but there are two main problems with expecting significant contributions from him – Nash said he isn’t expected back soon and he’s extremely untested. Sure, Claxton is talented, having drawn comparisons to Chris Bosh, but he only appeared in 15 games during his rookie season, averaging just 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds over 12.5 minutes of action.

But the idea that the Nets are undermanned is about more than a missing piece. Firstly, the Nets don’t have a reliable scorer in the second unit. If Dinwiddie were healthy, they’d be in significantly better shape with him anchoring the second team. Granted, if managed correctly and everyone stays healthy, one of Irving, Durant and Harden will be on the floor at all times. But it’s impossible to ensure that health will prevail and Irving hasn’t even rejoined the team yet, so there is deeper uncertainty around their rotation and the fit for now.

Focusing on health for a moment, we’re still dead smack in the middle of a pandemic. And in 2020-21, teams can’t operate under traditional norms. Losing a player to COVID would do the Nets a huge disservice, losing two or three nearly renders them unable to play. But more importantly, losing any one of their big three hurts badly and changes the entire makeup of the team. The Nets are incredibly top-heavy and once they establish chemistry amongst their three stars, proceeding without one would of them will be a major hindrance. Losing two of them would be a death blow.

Nash’s first rodeo

On top of all of the team’s issues, Nash is in his first season as a head coach – or even being a part of any coaching staff whatsoever.

Throughout his 18-year career, Nash developed a reputation as an extremely high-IQ player – but how will that convert to leading a team from the sideline with such high expectations? Granted, he knew exactly what was expected of the Nets when he accepted the position – but the Harden trade comes even more pressure.

As of the deal, the Nets became easily the most polarizing team in the association. Even before adding another former MVP, the Nets did their best to better position Nash by adding two-tie Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni to their bench, which already featured an experienced assistant in Jacque Vaughn. But while the team may have a disproportionately accomplished coaching staff, all of the questions will be directed squarely at Nash come the playoffs and beyond.

For what it is worth, rookie coaches have fared pretty well of late. While it might not affect the Nets directly, three of the nine rookie coaches to go on to win a championship in their first season did so in the past six seasons –  Steve Kerr, Ty Lue and Nick Nurse. While no two coaches are the same, the fact that rookie coaches have been so successful of late speaks to the idea that teams are doing a better job of identifying raw coaching talent – and Nash is as raw as it comes.

It’s hard to find fault in Brooklyn’s desire to add Harden and the fact that they just added another top-five player to an already insanely-talented roster is flat-out unfair. But now the bar has forever changed: anything less than an NBA Finals’ appearance will be judged as a failure, even that could be deemed an underperformance. While greater expectations mean you’re closer to success in the NBA, the team also ponied up its future through 2026.

Good luck, Brooklyn, no pressure.

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NBA Daily: First Time All-Star Watch

From Christian Wood to Jaylen Brown, these are the breakout players reaching for their first-ever All-Star appearances.

Dylan Thayer

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In this feature for Basketball Insiders, we will take a look at players who have started hot out of the gate, and have vastly improved. The article will touch upon new faces in new roles, as well as players who have expanded their previous roles with their teams. The league has a pretty good amount of guys who have earned All-Star appearances previously in their careers, but the players in this article are ready to add their name to the list 𑁋 so without further ado 𑁋 let’s take a look at five players who are cementing their names around the league. 

Christian Wood

To the casual fan, Christian Wood is having a huge surprise season. But for the people who had him on their radar, and knew he could succeed with more minutes and a larger role, you were right. The 25-year-old began his journeyman career with the Philadelphia 76ers as an undrafted free agent out of UNLV. He then played for the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and now the Houston Rockets. In his first 10 games this year, he is putting up 23.2 points per game to go along with 10.9 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game, per NBA.com. This is a major improvement for a guy who only averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year as a rotational player for the Pistons. Wood’s remarkable season thus far has put the league on notice and shown he is the clear frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award.

Julius Randle

In his seventh season, Julius Randle has finally become a star in the Big Apple for the New York Knicks. Randle spent the first five seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, before signing with the Knicks before the 2019-20 season. This year, Randle has taken the lead role on the team becoming an above-average facilitator, while also raising his shooting percentages and totals.

According to Basketball-Reference, Randle is having a career-best season so far averaging 23.2 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game, and 6.7 assists per game along with shooting 50.2 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from three and 78.2 percent from the free-throw line 𑁋 all career highs. Randle’s play helped the Knicks get off to a 5-3 start before a recent five-game losing skid. Randle’s ascension as a player, as well as providing Knicks fans with a glimmer of hope, make him a good bet to represent the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game this season if there is such an event.

CJ McCollum

Yes, CJ is the well-known sidekick to Damian Lillard for the Portland Trail Blazers, but this season has seen him steal some of the spotlights. Through the first 12 games of the season, McCollum has three 30-point games –including a 44-point and 8-assist performance against the Rockets – plus another 37-point outing to boot. His per-game numbers increased in points, assists, steals and three-point percentage, thus resulting in a very impressive 27.6 PPG, 5.3 APG, 1.4 SPG and 43.4 percent from deep. 

McCollum has done enough as a player to this point to establish himself as an above-average player in the NBA – but with the way he’s playing this year, he could be in line for his first All-Star selection. The lethal backcourt of Lillard and McCollum has led to a hot start this year – but the injury bug continues to haunt the team again this year. Already, they’ve lost Jusuf Nurkic for eight weeks and potentially now McCollum with a left foot sprain too, per Chris Haynes.

Jerami Grant

The Detroit Pistons made a really good decision to bring in free agent Jerami Grant on a three-year deal. The 6-foot-8 small forward has been putting up career-best numbers and his play for the Denver Nuggets during their Western Conference Finals run at the bubble helped get him this deservedly big contract. In the team’s first 12 games this season, Grant is averaging 24.8 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game, while also improving his free throw percentage and shot-creating opportunities. Unfortunately, it’s likely that he’ll miss out on any real All-Star chatter, given his place on one of the worst teams in the league – but the all-around improvement is there. 

Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown, the former third overall pick out of California, has molded himself into a star this season for the Boston Celtics. Brown’s improvement has been no secret around the league, especially after an Eastern Conference Finals run this past season – but this year he looks like he belongs up there with the best. Brown has been relentless in taking the ball to the rim and using his body to create contact when going up. He has also boosted his points per game from 20.3 to 25.8, while also adding more assists to his game with 3.9 per game. Brown should be a first-time All-Star this season with the Celtics currently sitting atop the conference. 

These players are all having breakout seasons and have well-earned consideration for their first All-Star appearances this year. Of course, the game is not happening this year with the pandemic, but the players will still be recognized and added to the history books for their achievements, so the honor remains large all the same. Whether they make it or not is yet to be determined – but with the sample size of games played to date, they’re right in the conversation.  

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NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?

Do the Philadelphia 76ers have the roster necessary to compete for a title? Basketball Insiders’ Quinn Davis goes in-depth on one of the league’s most polarizing teams.

Quinn Davis

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Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.

The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?

Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.

Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.

Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.

A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.

But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.

All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.

That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.

The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.

Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.

Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.

It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.

Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.

If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.

While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.

The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.

In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.

If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.

Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.

Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.

The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.

And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.

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