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Ranking the NBA’s Eastern Conference

Tommy Beer ranks the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference after a busy offseason.

Tommy Beer

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Although the Eastern Conference is often mockingly referred to as the “JV” to the powerful Western Conference’s “Varsity” (or the “Leastern Conference”), the East can claim the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

And while the East may not contain another elite team, that’s part of what should make the conference so exciting and unpredictable next season. As detailed in the way-too-early rankings below, after the front-running Cavs, there is very little separation between the rest of the teams:

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Death, taxes and LeBron James representing the East in the NBA Finals. A child under the age of seven knows only this: The team with LeBron will be the team that represents the East in June. And there is certainly no reason to believe that will change next season.

LeBron is still very much in his prime and is undoubtedly the best player on the planet. Also, in the 2016 Finals, we saw Kyrie Irving step up and play some of the best basketball of his career on the game’s biggest stage – outshining back-to-back MVP Steph Curry.

The Cavs lost Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov this summer, but they were only used sparingly in the postseason. Assuming the Cavs re-sign J.R. Smith and don’t trade Kevin Love, Cleveland will bring back essentially the same rotation and will be heavy, heavy favorites to advance to the Finals yet again.

2. Boston Celtics

The Celtics won 48 games last season, tied for the third-highest number of wins in the conference. Can they make the leap from scrappy, up-and-coming team to legit threat next season?

Of all the free-agent additions made by teams in the East this summer, Boston adding Al Horford might be the most significant. The C’s have a cadre of capable defenders on the perimeter and the wing. Avery Bradley is arguably the best defensive guard in the NBA. Marcus Smart is limited offensively, but is a bulldog on the defensive end. Jae Crowder is a solid, versatile two-way player. Isaiah Thomas, the newly minted All-Star, takes and makes big shots. Yet, while Boston had some decent size and athleticism upfront, they were missing a true stud center. Enter Horford. It’s possible that Horford’s offensive and defensive contributions push the C’s past the Raps and Boston captures their first Atlantic Division crown since 2011.

3. Toronto Raptors

The Raptors have had great regular season success the last three seasons, winning three straight division titles. However, the playoffs had been far less fruitful. Toronto made amends this past postseason, squeaking past both the Pacers and the HEAT, before falling to the Cavs in the Conference Finals. The Raps are bringing back essentially the same roster – save the losses of Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola. Toronto will bring in Jared Sullinger to replace Biyombo as a back-up big off the bench.

Guard play is so important in today’s NBA, and the Raptors are powered by their dynamic backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and (the newly rich) DeMar DeRozan. Thus, along with the improved team defense, it would be foolish to assume the Raps don’t win around 50 games next season and return as a high seed heading into the 2017 postseason.

4. Indiana Pacers

If we are looking for a sleeper to climb into that upper echelon of the East, the Pacers are my pick. Indiana made some shrewd moves this offseason. They stole Thad Young (and his valuable contract) from the Brooklyn Nets. They inked Al Jefferson to an affordable deal.  They traded for Jeff Teague (although I do think they’ll miss George Hill). You add these new pieces to their existing core and there is plenty for Pacer fans to be excited about.

Foundation cornerstone Paul George is arguably the second-best player in the entire conference. Myles Turner is only 20 years old, but is already developing into a monster down low. The future is bright in Indy. They have a chance to make serious noise next season.

5. Detroit Pistons

After re-signing Andre Drummond, the Pistons are bringing back essentially the same roster as last season. Detroit finished with a 44-38 record last year and have room for improvement.

The growth of the Pistons will be determined by how much their young players improve. Their top six scorers from last season (Reggie Jackson, Drummond, Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Tobias Harris) are all 26 years of age or younger.

6. Washington Wizards

After the top five, the rest of the conference is a completely jumbled mess. I would not be shocked if any one of six teams finish as high as the sixth seed, or as low as 11th. The grouping will likely be that tightly bunched.

The Wiz were supposed to build off a promising 2014-15 campaign and take a step forward last season, but instead they went backwards. Their win total dropped from 46 to 41 and their disappointing season ended with them on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Led by stud point guard John Wall, the Wizards have the talent to bounce back. Washington committed major money Bradley Beal this summer; they will need him to stay healthy and produce.

7. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets lost a few important contributors such as Courtney Lee, Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin. They did, however, retain their most important free agent, Nicolas Batum, and also brought back underrated power forward Marvin Williams.

The X-Factor for the Hornets next season will be Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The former No. 2 overall pick missed all but seven games in 2015-16 due to a torn labrum. What can we expect from MKG in 2016-17? That answer will have a significant impact on the Hornets’ prospects next season and going forward.

8. New York Knicks

As discussed in-depth on the Basketball Insiders podcast this past weekend, the Knicks are an extremely interesting experiment. If (and this is a big IF) injury-prone pieces such as Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings stay healthy, the Knicks have significant upside and could flirt with 45+ wins. For this reason, and others, there are significant reasons for optimism as a result of the D-Rose trade.

There is also serious ‘dumpster-fire’ potential here. Mounting injuries could result in New York crashing and burning, and missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Only one thing is guaranteed in NYC: It will be fascinating to watch it all play out.

9. Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks have averaged 54 wins the last two seasons, so it is difficult to justify them falling all the way back to .500 next year. However, I’m of the belief that losing Al Horford will be more damaging than most anticipate. Dwight Howard is an Atlanta native, and Hawks fans are hoping he can reclaim his All-Star form in the ATL. I wouldn’t bet on it. I’m also not sold on Dennis Schroder as the point guard of the future.

10. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls, like the Knicks, have a boom-or-bust feel to them. Adding legendary Chicago native Dwyane Wade and the 2015-16 assist leader (Rajon Rondo) seems like a significant upgrade in the backcourt. However, the advanced metrics on Rondo indicate that the Kings actually often performed better with Rajon on the bench last season. And if Jimmy Butler had issues co-existing with Derrick Rose, will he get along with ball-dominant Rondo?

11. Milwaukee Bucks

The upstart Bucks have long, exciting athletes but they stumbled to just 33 wins last season. Milwaukee added Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic this summer, but other than that the team stayed mostly static. They have room for improvement, but they’re likely still a year or two away from jumping into the playoff picture.

12. Miami HEAT

The HEAT lost Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson from a squad that won 48 games last season. It’s usually foolish to underestimate Pat Riley, but Miami may have to deal with a down season before looking to re-tool and re-establish themselves in a major way by adding a stud free agent or two next summer.

13. Orlando Magic

It was a busy summer in Orlando. The Magic traded away former lottery pick Victor Oladipo in exchange for Serge Ibaka. They brought in Bismack Biyombo and also brought back Evan Fournier, and gave a big one-year deal to Jeff Green. They have plenty of size up front, which may lead to an eventual trade of Nikola Vucevic. The Magic’s long-term future likely hinges on the development Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja.

14. Philadelphia 76ers

Can the Sixers crack the 20-win plateau? Amazingly, it’s been three years since Philadelphia won more than 19 games in an NBA season.

Encouragingly, there is hope that the seedlings Sam Hinkie patiently planted in years past will finally begin to bear fruit. Still a number of question marks remain. Will Joel Embiid actually play? Will they trade from their abundance of big men to acquire a guard? Nonetheless, it’s possible that the 76ers will actually be competitive on a nightly basis as soon as this season. 

15. Brooklyn Nets

New Brooklyn general manger Sean Marks attempted to begin rebuilding and reinventing the Nets this summer. But after the Portland Trail Blazers matched his offer sheet to restricted free agent Allen Crabbe and the Miami HEAT surprisingly did the same for Tyler Johnson, Brooklyn had to settle for second- and third-tier free agents. Worst of all, Nets fans will have to suffer through a unexciting season and won’t have their lottery pick to show for it.

What do you think of these rankings? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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