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NBA Daily: Post-Deadline Rankings – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series with a breakdown of the five teams in the Atlantic.

Drew Maresca

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With the trade deadline behind us, teams around the league must turn their attention to incorporating new players. For some teams, this is mostly moot due to their having been all but eliminated from Playoff contention already. But for others, how well new additions fit with the roster can make or break their entire season, which can also have longer-lasting effects like chasing away free agents or convincing current players to sign elsewhere.

The Atlantic Division’s teams saw more than its share of player movement this trade deadline. Just examining star movement: Kristaps Porzingis relocated out of the division and Tobias Harris and Marc Gasol moved in. The arms race was already on between Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto. And the deadline only amplified that.

Basketball Insiders kicked off a division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series to illustrate and analyze trades and signings, who benefited the most and how these transactions will impact the race to the top moving forward.

Let’s continue examining rankings with the Atlantic Division:

Boston Celtics

Deadline moves:

Traded Jabari Bird to Atlanta for cash considerations.

The Celtics have underperformed this season. They have looked lost at times, they don’t always share the ball as much as they should and they have more mental breakdowns than the 2017-18 iteration of the team. Further, the team’s chemistry seems a bit off after a number of flair-ups throughout the season including a mid-game shoving match between Marcus Morris Sr. and Jaylen Brown, rumors about Kyrie Irving’s dissatisfaction with the team and – most recently –Morris’ rant about the Celtics’ playing like individuals.

Still, they are 37-21 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics did not make any additions at the deadline, nor did they add anyone via the buyout market yet despite pursing Enes Kanter (Morris would like to team to purse Markieff Morris, his twin brother).

They also really don’t need any more talent or personalities. Their roster is already talented enough to compete for a championship. But they need to get their act together – and fast. While the Pacers will probably fall a number of spots thanks to the Victor Oladipo injury, they are even with the 76ers in the standings and both teams trail the Bucks and the Raptors – which means neither would be likely to have home-court advantage in the second round or the Conference Finals if the Playoffs started today.

Prediction: 3rdplace in the Atlantic Division, 4thplace in the Eastern Conference

Brooklyn Nets

Deadline moves:

Traded cash considerations for Greg Monroe (waived) and Toronto’s 2021 second-round pick.

The Nets continued picking the pockets of teams looks to dump salary. They took on a Greg Monroe (and waived him), which cost them nothing meaningful and added a future second-round pick to their arsenal of assets. While the trade does nothing for this season, it illustrates the Nets philosophy of being opportunistic.

As far as this season is concerned, the Nets are already huge winners having overachieved beyond belief. But team officials, coaches and fans want more – and more can be had.

While the Nets did recently return to the stratosphere, losing five of their last seven, Caris LeVert is already back from a November foot injury and Spencer Dinwiddie is expected back shortly following Allstar break. The Nets biggest challenge between now and the Playoffs might be how to manage rotations with all their talent. Lookout for them to hit their groove (again) at the perfect time and -cause some noise in the Playoffs.

Prediction: 4thin the Atlantic Division, 5thin the Eastern Conference

New York Knicks

Deadline moves:

Traded Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to Dallas for Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, Wes Matthews and two future first-round picks.

The Knicks kicked off deadline activity a week early with the Kristaps Porzingis deal. The deal materialized seemingly out of nowhere; however, the Knicks became increasingly disconcerted with Porzingis’ dedication to the team. They were a bit surprised with the return available after beginning outreach in January, but mostly recouped what they’d hoped for: a young stud (Smith Jr.), significant cap space for free agency 2019 and at least a future first-round pick (including the Mavs unprotected 2021 first-round pick).

The remainder of this season looks bleak for the Knicks, who have already lost seven straight since the trade (and 18 straight on the whole, which is a franchise record). The Knicks waived Matthews, but chose to hang onto Jordan, who is a good mentor for Mitchell Robinson and a friend of Kevin Durant, a player the Knicks hope to lure to New York come July.

Hopefully for the Knicks and their fans, the constant chatter about tanking for Zion doesn’t leave the young Knicks too disenchanted. Knox recently spoke with Marc Berman of the New York Post about his disdain for fans rooting for losses and he already sounds sick of it.

Updated prediction: 5thin the Atlantic, 15thin the Eastern Conference

Philadelphia 76ers

Deadline moves:

Traded Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, a (lottery-protected) 2020 first-round pick, a 2021 first-round pick, a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round picks in exchange for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott.

Traded Markelle Fultz for Jonathan Simmons, a 2020 (lottery-protected) first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick.

The 76ers pushed their chips to the middle of the table at the trade deadline. They started off the season 8-6. They then traded for Jimmy Butler and went 26-14 in the approximately three months from then until the trade deadline. Then they upgrade on the last day before the trade deadline with the addition of Tobias Harris and, separately, sent former number one overall pick Markelle Fultz to Orlando for a player with a lower ceiling and a higher floor. If they can play better basketball with Harris on the team than they did without him – which was .650 in the 40 games following the Butler trade), then they will be in excellent position to challenge all comers for the Eastern Conference crown.

Harris gives the 76ers a versatile wing who can stretch the floor, shoot from deep and handle the ball when needed. He is a legitimate star and possibly the best fourth option in the entire league – although Draymond Green and Jaylen Brown might not agree. If the Sixers can get 2017-18-like production from Jonathan Simmons (13.9 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 29.4 minutes per game), it would provide additional firepower to a relatively depleted Philadelphia bench.

Thus far, the 76ers are 3-1 following the trades, which bodes well for the team. With Oladipo’s injury and Boston’s continued struggles (despite beating Philadelphia this week in Philly), the third seed should be theirs’ for the taking. And while catching Milwaukee and/or Toronto is probably a pipe dream, it’s also within the realm of possibilities for a team with this much talent — and could set them up for a deep Playoff run.

Prediction: 2ndin the Atlantic Division, 3rdin the Eastern Conference

Toronto Raptors

Deadline moves:

Traded Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a future second-round pick to Memphis for Marc Gasol

Traded Greg Monroe and their 2021 second-round pick for cash .considerations

The Raptors appeared to be sitting pat this trade deadline, which would have made sense considering they just added Kawhi Leonard approximately six months ago. But after watching the Bucks and 76ers upgrade, team president Masai Ujiri swung for the fences with a deal that netted them Marc Gasol.

The Raptors were already quite deep, so subtracting Valanciunas, Wright and Miles does not hurt too badly – especially with the addition of a high-IQ player like Gasol, who represents an immediate upgrade at the center position. His versatility will almost certainly aid the Raptors.

Additionally, rumors indicate that Toronto will add Jeremy Lin soon. Lin was waived by Atlanta following the trade deadline and will be eligible to sign with the Raptors once he clears waivers – a certainty given his $13.8 million salary. Lin will be a serendipitous addition with Fred VanVleet missing three weeks with a thumb injury, and his playmaking ability should greatly benefit the team’s second unit.

With a division-best record of 43-16 and a 5.5 game lead in the Atlantic, it is unlikely they get caught (but not impossible). The Raptors will have a few kinks to work out with the new additions, but it’s a safe bet that they finish the year in the top two of the Conference. And if Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby can continue playing like borderline Allstars, the Raptors might be the most dangerous team in the entire East.

Prediction: 1st in the Atlantic Division, 1stin the Eastern Conference

The Atlantic Division featured some of the league’s top teams prior to the trade deadline, and it only got better as a result of it. Four of the conference’s top five most talented teams claim the division as their home. And with a shared division comes increased familiarity and competition. Expect fireworks come April, especially into the second round of the Playoffs and beyond, as three of the four conference finalists could very possibly hail from the Atlantic.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

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

Bobby Krivitsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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