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Poised To Breakout: Atlantic Division

Ben Nadeau identifies the six breakout candidates to keep an eye on in the Atlantic Division during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Ben Nadeau



The biggest free agents have signed, summer leagues have concluded and the NBA landscape has suddenly found itself in the doldrums of August. With far too much time before training camps kick off, Basketball Insiders has been taking a closer look at the divisional hierarchy each week.

First, we tackled the rankings. Then, the best new deals from each division got some shine. Now, next in the series, we’ll take a look at those poised to breakout in 2017-18. In the Atlantic Division, much of the mystery over who will lead the division is gone – hello, Gordon Hayward – but there’s still plenty to be unearthed up in the Northeast. This time, the spotlight is on the players, coaches and executives that could improve their league-wide standing due to their potential impact within the division.

Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics

The hype train for sophomore Jaylen Brown has well and fully left the station. After fearlessly taking on LeBron James last year, Brown played a pivotal role for a Boston Celtics team that stole away the No. 1 seed from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brown’s explosive first step and ability to catch fire from deep makes him a candidate to breakout in 2017-18, particularly so after his perceived growth this summer.

During his two games in the Utah Summer League, Brown averaged 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds and later remarked that he was using the competitions to prove that he’s ready to contribute when the wins and losses start counting for real this fall. Even better, Brown has proven to be an athletically gifted game-changer even when his jumper isn’t falling. From win-clinching blocks to strong rebounding efforts, there are plenty of ways Brown can pitch in while the team’s All-Stars handle the scoring load.

Of course, there are minutes to be had in Boston’s rotation following the departure of Avery Bradley, and Brown may already be the best-suited option to handle them. Still, Brown is just 20 years old and incredibly raw, all things considered, but the flashes of brilliance are absolutely already shining through. If he can capitalize on the available opportunities while playing alongside Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, Brown may just force himself into the starting lineup on a permanent basis.

D’Angelo Russell – Brooklyn Nets

This one seems like an absolute no-brainer as the Brooklyn Nets’ summer move for D’Angelo Russell was a win for all parties involved. Russell gets a fresh start with a franchise that figures to remain on the outside of the playoff hunt in 2017-18, even in the weak Eastern Conference. Without the bright California spotlight on him, Russell should have plenty of chances to bloom with the Nets. He’ll share the backcourt with Jeremy Lin and the dynamic, interchangeable pair will give opposing teams trouble when they’re connecting from three-point land.

Even with his alleged growing pains and off-the-court issues, Russell still averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists on 40.5 percent shooting during his sophomore campaign. Perhaps Nets general manager Sean Marks was compelled to trade away franchise centerpiece Brook Lopez for Russell simply to stop the guard from lighting up his team every time they played the Lakers. Over four career games against the Nets, Russell has tallied 24.5 points per contest – including the now-famous I’ve-got-ice-in-my-veins effort of 39 points on 8-for-12 from deep late in his rookie season.

With low expectations and the team built around him, Russell should have his finest season yet in Brooklyn.

Willy Hernangomez – New York Knicks

In the wake of Kristaps Porzingis’ sophomore year emergence and the debacle that can only be described as Joakim Noah’s first season in New York, Willy Hernangomez, by and large, flew under the radar. Hernangomez stepped into the starting lineup following Noah’s injury in early February and impressed during his limited time on the court. Notching 8.2 points and seven rebounds in just 18.4 minutes per contest, his second half growth led to an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection.

While everybody waits to see how the Carmelo Anthony situation resolves itself, the Knicks should be pleased with the 1-2 punch in their frontcourt. Assuming that Hernangomez has permanently leapfrogged Noah, even if the latter is finally healthy in 2017-18, the Spanish center will almost certainly bust out this season. Per 36 minutes, the 6-foot-11 big man pulled down 13.6 rebounds to go along with a solid 16 points on a superb 52.9 percent from the floor. With New York’s dearth of talent down low outside of the budding Latvian superstar, Hernangomez should easily build on his unexpected rookie season successes.

Brett Brown – Philadelphia 76ers

Since becoming the Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach in 2013, Brett Brown’s all-time record is less than stellar at 75-253 – good for a winning percentage of just 22.9. Yet, it would be impossible to pin many of those losses on the savvy Brown as he lived through the roughest years of former general manager Sam Hinkie’s much-maligned process. Between the constant stream of injuries and the borderline intentional tanking, Brown hasn’t gotten a truly fair shake at this head coaching gig quite yet. As one of the league’s best motivators, Brown, health permitting, has a massive opportunity to cash in on the 76ers’ patience.

Claiming an injury-free season for the 76ers at this point would be bold, but if that dynamic young core – starring Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid – can stay healthy, then Brown’s image will skyrocket. The wheels fell off in 2016-17 when Embiid’s season ended early, but it was Brown that had molded a pretty average roster into a darkhorse playoff contender, albeit however brief. Now that Brown has plenty of fancy toys to experiment with at every position, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the 76ers’ leader on the shortlist for Coach of the Year next season. While the raw, athletic talent of this Philadelphia core is undoubtedly electric, they’re still going to need a wise tactician to put it all together and get these youngsters into positions they can succeed in.

Through three seasons, Brown has already done so much with so little. Let’s see what he can do with a strong, healthy roster in 2017-18.

Allen Crabbe – Brooklyn Nets

One year after their initial pursuit, the Nets got their man. After handing over an offer sheet worth $75 million to Allen Crabbe last summer, Brooklyn acquired the sharpshooter for next-to-nothing in late July. In 2016-17, the Nets tossed up the fourth-most three-point attempts per game at 31.6, but, sadly, converted on just 33.8 percent of them – good for the 26th-worst mark in the entire league. So, despite his bloated contract, Crabbe represents a near perfect fit for the growing Nets.

Never quite able to get out from under the superstar shadows of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Crabbe has the opportunity to shine in the Nets’ run-and-gun system. He’ll likely start in Brooklyn at small forward, alongside the aforementioned Lin and Russell, bringing his 44.4 percent rate from three-point range with him. This Nets team clearly loves to shoot the ball from deep and they desperately needed a deadeye shooter like Crabbe to make opposing defenses pay. Thanks to the sheer volume of attempts he’ll grab under head coach Kenny Atkinson, that immaculate second-best three-point percentage (Kyle Korver, 45) will likely fall in 2017-18, but Crabbe could quickly become one of the Nets’ top contributors.

Scott Perry – New York Knicks

For now, a total meltdown in New York has been quelled thanks to the hiring of new general manager Scott Perry. To say the least, it’s been a hectic summer for the Knicks despite being largely uninvolved in the proceedings. Former executive Phil Jackson nearly dealt away Porzingis during the NBA Draft and once he was dismissed, the remainder of the front office opted to give Tim Hardaway Jr. an untouchable $71 million to go with the albatross deals given to both Noah and Courtney Lee last summer.

After successful stints with the Detroit Pistons, Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic, Perry is a fantastic candidate to clean up the mess at Madison Square Garden. Honestly, Perry has a chance to start off extremely well with the Knickerbocker-diehards by just playing things safe. Holding onto Porzingis is an excellent first step, but if he can get relatively fair value for Anthony, Perry will be hailed in New York almost immediately.

If front offices have learned anything lately, it may be that there are no shortcuts to success in this current NBA landscape. Undoubtedly, there’s plenty of work to be done, but time is on the Knicks’ side. So, if Perry doesn’t look for a get-rich-quick bailout plan in New York, he’s almost guaranteed to break out, especially in comparison to the former job holder.

Although the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors will likely remain atop of the Atlantic Division, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of compelling storylines to look out for in 2017-18. From bloated contracts to new opportunities, Brown, Russell, Hernangomez and Crabbe can all make this upcoming season their best respective full effort yet. After years of what seemed like limitless losing, Brown finally gets to prove his worth as an NBA head coach, while Perry enters a critical period in the Knicks’ franchise timeline.

On and off the court, this group of six players, coaches and executives are ready to break out in a big way in the Atlantic Division during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.


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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays



Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer



The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz



Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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