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Who’s In Trouble? Eastern Conference Edition: Week 1

Basketball Insiders kicks off its “Who’s In Trouble?” series by examining the Eastern Conference’s biggest Week 1’s disappointments.

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The 2020-21 NBA season is about one week old. Despite teams playing a maximum of only three games thus far, we’ve already seen lots of surprising happenings and results. Granted, we didn’t have to go long without basketball, as there was only a 2-month break between the decisive game 6 of the NBA Finals and opening night, but the return of NBA action is always a cause for celebration.

With the return of NBA basketball comes all kinds of lists and rankings, so Basketball Insiders isn’t above making our own. Let’s kick things off by identifying teams, players and/or coaches that look to be in trouble. Since we’re dealing with people’s livelihoods, we hope to be as explicit as possible to build a case for each. So without further adieu, let’s identify who is in trouble in the Eastern Conference.

The New York Knicks’ Fourth-Year Point Guards

The Knicks were never going to be successful this season, at least not by traditional modes of measurement. They had too much ground to make up and the No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 draft was never going to result in the type of talent needed to replace their failing to add a foundational piece (e.g., Fred VanVleet) in free agency. So while pundits are mostly looking for incremental improvements this season, there is still some disappointment in the Knicks’ locker room.

First, there’s Dennis Smith Jr., who is averaging 4.0 points in 18.0 minutes per game through two games. Smith Jr. missed the team’s game on Sunday after a quad injury on Friday night, but he was simply average in both contests in which he’s played, shooting only 20 percent from the field.

Then there’s Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina scored one point in a total of 7 minutes through the Knicks’ first two games. But then Sunday happened: With Smith Jr. out, Ntilikina knew he’d receive more playing time entering the contest – and he looked good. Ntilikina scored 12 points in nearly 18 minutes of action. He was a +5 and made all four of his three-point attempts – but which player is he?

It was widely believed that head coach Tom Thibodeau would take to Ntilikina given his proclivity for defense and his pass-first philosophy, but – even after last night – it’s hard to imagine him securing a major role given the excitement garnered by rookie Immanuel Quickley and the fact that the team also possesses a steadier, defensive-minded veteran point guard in Elfrid Payton. And sadly, Smith Jr. was the presumptive starter before getting to the preseason, so after last season’s struggles, another tough year would cast doubt on his ability to compete in the NBA.

Both of the fourth-year guards should be worried. Neither was given an extension prior to this season, which means both will enter restricted free agency. They both possess unique skillsets, so it’s unlikely that either is out of the league next season, but both are adding to the narrative that they’re long-term projects – and that’s just not where either wanted to be at this point in their respective careers.

The Toronto Raptors’ Entire Roster

Let’s get this out of the way early, Nick Nurse is in no danger of losing his jobs – none whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean that Masai Ujiri and the rest of the management team is happy with how they’ve played. Granted, there may not be any 2020-21 repercussions, but the Raptors have to turn things around quickly – or they could be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

The Raptors are 0-2 with losses against the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans, neither of whom was expected to be world-beaters. So what’s went wrong? Generally speaking, they’ve struggled to score points as the Raptors are No. 27 in point per game entering Sunday. And as much as it’s unfair to blame one or two players for the team’s early struggles, we’re talking about two winnable games in a slightly shortened season.

But more specifically, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet – the team’s two cornerstones – have not played up to their potential. Siakam is averaging just 18.0 points per game (compared to 22.9 ppg in 2019-20) with an eFG of 47 percent, down from 51.2 last season. Additionally, VanVleet hasn’t stepped up like many wanted him to, considering that he’s fresh off of signing an $85 million extension.

Granted, VanVleet is playing mostly the same as he did last season, but that doesn’t cut it anymore. VanVleet has obviously been prioritized as a cornerstone, so, naturally, he must provide more than 18.0 points and 6.0 assists per game. Again, it’s only been two games; but VanVleet is shooting poorly from the charity stripe, connecting on just 60 percent of his free throw attempts. Both, and the entire team, will likely figure things out – but with the shortened season, it’d be best to do so as soon as possible.

The Washington Wizards’ Scott Brooks

Granted, no one expected the Wizards to be elite. Still, it was widely assumed that they would be competitive and, maybe, qualify for the playoffs. After all, Bradley Beal was the NBA’s leading scorer in 2019-20, Rui Hachimura showed promise last season, Davis Bertans is a top-notch sharp-shooter and they added Russell Westbrook and rookie Deni Avidija. And yet, here the Wizards sit, 0-3 allowing the seventh-most points per game (121.0).

But the Wizards roster just added Westbrook within the past month, a seriously-big change that requires time and patience. Additionally, Hachimura hasn’t played yet and will miss a few more games after being diagnosed with eye infections. So, for now, the roster is probably off the hook.

But that’s not the case for coach Scott Brooks.

At 0-3, the Wizards are off to a slow start. And with a shortened, 72-game season, three games hurts – especially when we’re talking about at least two winnable games against Orlando. Brooks’ seat is getting hot. If he doesn’t turn things around, and quickly, he could be on his way out.

Disclaimer, better late than never: It’s obviously way too early to conclude anything. Blowout losses happen and players have off-nights. Still, most teams have played 4 percent of their schedules – and while it might be an over-reaction, all of the above assumptions will play out poorly if all involved don’t flip the script, and soon.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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