Welcome back to The ‘Shop for another week of hoops talk. Our Jabari Davis and Lang Greene will continue last week’s point guard discussion with a few new players, take a look at how some of the youth movements from around the league are going and examine hometown fans actively recruiting opposing players.
Jabari: Good to be back in the mix with you, Lang. I wanted to continue with one of last week’s topics because I’ve really noticed a shift surrounding the top point guard debate. I won’t ask you to necessarily to rank a top-10, but has James Harden ascended to the best at the position?
Lang: Happy New Year, JD! Good to be back in the ‘Shop my man. Personally, I still consider James Harden a shooting guard but what he’s doing is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. I can’t think of another player that takes the volume of shots he does and still functions as a high-level playmaker. Stop and think about that for a minute. Someone asked me on Twitter a few days ago who my early season MVP candidate is and right now I am rolling the Beard. I know what Russell Westbrook is doing in Oklahoma City is insane, but Beard has the Rockets with the FOURTH-best record in the league.
Jabari: What’s crazy about it is this is absolutely NO disrespect to the Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving (or any other top player at the position) – it’s really just a testament to how incredible Harden and Westbrook have been this year. Folks may not be in love with his style, but at a certain point, 28.4 PPG, 11.9 APG, 8.2 RPG while shooting 45/36/85 from the floor/3pt/line simply has to be acknowledged for as great as it truly is. Shout out to my guy Kofie Yaboah (SBNation) for pushing the “Harden is the best point guard” narrative from the start.
Speaking of great point guard play, let’s take a moment to circle back to John Wall and the Washington Wizards. Like Harden, Wall was the Kia Player of the Month for December. Beyond putting up impressive numbers, his Wizards seem to have finally gotten things going in the right direction, having just completed their first 10-win (10-5) month since December 2014. Not only did Wall drop 52 (career high) in Orlando, but he shot 49.1 percent from the field and 81.4 percent from the free throw line over that stretch.
His Wizards are also now tied with the Bulls in the loss column for what would be the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, so I have to ask if your thoughts on what they should be looking to do moving forward have changed? Not to be the downer of the week, but shouldn’t they should STILL be looking to upgrade or make significant changes to that roster? Part of me feels like we’ve seen how this story ends, but could I be wrong about it THIS season. Might these Wizards be able to maintain this pace (6-4 over the last 10) and make another serious push for the playoffs come April and May?
Lang: My view on teams close to the playoffs might differ from a lot of folks. My view is if you’re close to the playoffs, then push the gas and try to secure a seed. I think making the playoffs, even as an eight seed, is better than eating popcorn on the couch watching the festivities as a fan. I use the Atlanta Hawks as an example. Do you know how many times over the years I’ve answered the question on whether the Hawks should just blow things up? Remember, this team was at one point led by Joe Johnson, then Josh Smith and then Al Horford. Joe is battling Father Time, Josh is out of the league and Al is no longer in Atlanta. The team has adjusted on the fly and have kept up the winning, and could be staring at 10 consecutive trips to the playoffs.
Back to your Wizards question. I think they should go full speed ahead, but I do have my doubts on the Bradley Beal and John Wall combination winning at a high level together. At first, I thought they complemented each other well … Beal’s shooting to Wall’s prowess at slashing, but if I’m Washington I would entertain trades for everyone on that roster not named John Wall (and maybe Marcin Gortat).
Jabari: I can definitely appreciate where you are coming from and would like to see them eventually find a way to be competitive (together) again. Otto Porter Jr’s breakout year has been great to see, and while I’ve doubted Coach Brooks’ ability to make in-game and in-series adjustments in the past, his track record in helping with the development of young players is impressive.
We’ll keep an eye on their progress of course, but let’s shift gears and take a look at some of the progress of the youth movements from around the league. I’ll throw a few quick-hitters at you.
I absolutely love the fact that Joel Embiid has finally been able to get on the court and show all that he can do. All the social media stuff has been fun these last couple years, but it’s great to see Embiid go to work. He’s still every bit as entertaining on Twitter, but the man is also putting up 19.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 46/38.9/77 from the floor/3pt/line in 25 minutes per contest. Is he your leader in the Rookie of the Year race at this point?
Lang: There’s no other rookie worth mentioning at this point. The guy is averaging almost 20 and 8 on sheer athleticism and energy alone. Just imagine when he really knows how to play the game- when he’s really learned how to use his size, to gain that extra leverage and to work the refs. The kid is an absolute beast and I am very happy for the Philadelphia fan base who had to endure enough over the past few seasons. Now it’s time for the Sixers front office to surround their big men with some talented perimeter players. That is the area that Philadelphia is severely lacking. No offense to Gerald Henderson and Jerryd Bayless, but those guys aren’t going to get the Sixers over the hump. They need some young gunners out there handling the rock.
Jabari: Keeping it rolling…The Lakers appear as though they are figuring it out after a rough stretch (1-11 after a 10-10 start) that followed a rash of injuries. Julius Randle continues to impress (second triple-double of the year vs the Grizzlies), Brandon Ingram is developing and Nick Young is back to doing this:
The question mark for me remains whether either one of the young players can ascend to being an All-Star player at some point?
Lang: I’m impressed by the Lakers’ young core. The kids are maturing before our eyes, even if the wins aren’t there. If I had to bet my bottom dollar, at this moment, I’m going with D’Angelo Russell becoming the All-Star out of the trio. It’s tough to get a read on Brandon Ingram at times because offensively there are possessions when he gets the rock and doesn’t even look at the basket for a shot … even as a bluff. Julius Randle is starting to put up some monster stat lines, but you have to wonder if a healthy Larry Nance Jr. would be stealing some of his time like last season. And that brings me back to Russell. There’s no reason on this Lakers squad that he shouldn’t be averaging 32-34 minutes per game. The fact he’s still below 30 minutes, like we discussed in last week’s edition, is truly a head scratcher.
Jabari: I still think the limited minutes for Russell are a result of the staff trying to even things out with that core 8 or 9 guys (when Larry Nance Jr. is healthy), but we could always see more from him over the next 45 games.
The Denver Nuggets (14-21) are currently just a game out of the 8th seed in the West in the loss column, and while we’ll tackle the suddenly easier path to the Western Conference postseason in an upcoming week, let’s take a moment to talk about the stretch their 21-year-old big man is on. Although the streak started about 15 games ago, over his last 5 games, Nikola Jokic is averaging 20.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists with shooting percentages of 58.6/44.4/81.8. The Nuggets may have lost their last three games, but prior to that Denver had won six of nine. Can the Nuggets make the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13?
Lang: I love Jokic, man. But one thing the young fella has to get under control is his penchant for fouling. Just check his Per 36 minute foul rate. My goodness. But the more I see him, the more it looks like the man is going to cause havoc on the interior for a very long time.
To your question on playoffs …everything is in play out West. The Nuggets have some solid pieces but their issue of consistency. How long can Jokic stay on the floor? Can Emmanuel Mudiay cut down on the turnovers and improve his efficiency from the floor? What are the Nuggets going to do with Kenneth Faried come trade deadline? Do I think they can make a run? Yes. Do I think they secure a berth? No.
Jabari: We’ll end on a fun one: did you see what happened in Boston when the Jazz came to town earlier in the week? Did Jae Crowder have a reason to feel disrespected by the crowd in Boston for showering Gordon Hayward with so much love in that game earlier this week?
Lang: Hell yes. The Boston Celtics aren’t some team struggling and looking for a lottery pick. So for the fans to go all googly-eyed about a guy like Gordon Hayward who hasn’t led the Jazz to the playoffs, I believe is disrespectful. It is absolutely disrespectful and I believe Jae Crowder should feel some type of way, especially since Hayward plays the same position as him. If this was something like the Philadelphia 76ers, devoid of talent, then I would understand the fans trying to do a little early recruiting. But since the Celtics are ready to win to a certain degree then I believe what the fans did there was a bit out of line.
Jabari: I can actually see both sides on this one. For one, I do understand Crowder’s disappointment. It has to be tough to hear the crowd (essentially) openly recruit someone to replace you. Ultimately, paraphrasing a great 21st-century philosopher named Omar Little (The Wire), these players know “it’s all in the game” when it comes to these situations. Hopefully, as appeared to be the case the other night, Crowder can simply use these slights as motivation to play his best basketball. If he continues to play at a high level, whether in Boston or somewhere else, someone will appreciate what he can bring to the table moving forward. Word to Andrew Bynum and his bank in every city. That’s all for this week, folks.
We continue to appreciate all of your feedback and topic ideas. Feel free to shoot them our way via Twitter (@JabariDavisNBA and @LangGreene) or right below in the comments section!
NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?
Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?
The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East?
The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.
The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis.
Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills.
Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line — in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.
RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.
But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.
The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games.
There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.
Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games.
That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.
NBA PM: The Best Remaining Free Agents
With a season of roster shuffling upon us, here are the league’s free agents that could play a pivotal role. Quinn Davis takes a look at five available players who stand out above the rest.
In the NBA’s most recent round of Coronavirus testing, there were no positive tests. In context, somewhere in the range of 500-750 nasal swabs returned a negative result for the virus.
Perhaps it was a stroke of luck, or perhaps a testament to the discipline of the players in this league. Either way, it’s likely unsustainable. The Houston Rockets kicked off the season by having their opener postponed due to multiple player infections. At some point, a virion will find its way into another team locker room as it did at times in the MLB and NFL.
An outbreak could result in postponed games or it could force teams to scramble to fill rosters for games unable to be moved. In the latter case, teams may be looking to the free agent wire for some last-minute help.
Unfortunately, the early-season free agent pool is a bleak and desolate place. It mostly consists of players who missed the cut in training camp and are now waiting for another opportunity to stick – it is unlikely there will be any needle-moving acquisitions.
With that said, the NBA is a league where eight minutes from the eighth man could make or break a game. One game could make or break a playoff berth. So, naturally, it is of great import that front offices know who to snag when a live body is needed.
Luckily for lazy front offices, Basketball Insiders has taken the liberty of ranking the five best available free agents. With apologies to Frank Jackson, Marvin Williams, TJ Leaf and Isaiah Thomas, here are five that should be on the top of many teams’ lists.
Roberson is a one-way wing with his area of expertise being on the defensive end. He spent five seasons in Oklahoma City, serving as the starting two-guard for many of the team’s playoff runs in the post-James Harden era.
Roberson missed nearly two full seasons with injury, which has understandably hurt his appeal. He did return for the bubble, however, and played nicely in his limited minutes. In 182 possessions with Roberson on the court in Orlando, the Thunder sported a defensive rating of 94.0. That number is well below the number that led the league last season, per Cleaning the Glass.
It’s a small sample size to be sure, so take that with a grain a salt – but that kind of defensive impact is a theme of Roberson’s career. The injuries are cause for concern, however, if Roberson can be close to his former self, he is worth a look as a situational defender. He could fit snugly on a contender like the Brooklyn Nets, who have the scoring and ball-handling departments well under control.
The speedy point guard from the University of Connecticut just spent the latter half of his sixth NBA season with the Washington Wizards. In his short time there, Napier put up solid numbers in 24 minutes per game – so he could be a nice, easy scoring band-aid too.
He doesn’t live at the rim, attempting only 24 percent of his shots there, per Cleaning the Glass, but he finished well when he had the opportunity and drew a decent number of shooting fouls. Most of his work comes from behind the three-point line, where he hit a league-average 36 percent of his attempts.
On Mar. 8th, Napier put up 27 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds against the Miami HEAT in 40 minutes. The overmatched Wizards lost the game, but it showcased what Napier can bring at his best.
Realistically, Napier will not consistently provide that kind of production, but he can provide a spark to a team in desperate need of one off the bench.
Mudiay is another point guard that found spot minutes as a backup throughout his career, most recently with the Utah Jazz. At 6-foot-5, Mudiay has good size for a point guard. Craftily using his frame to get into the paint, Mudiay attempts most of his shots either at the rim or from floater range.
He is a mediocre finisher, however, converting only 56 percent of those looks at the basket, per Cleaning the Glass.
Over his last two seasons, his best work has come in the midrange, where he has hit on 46 percent and then 48 percent of his attempts, respectively. The midrange pull-up was Mudiay’s weapon of choice out of the pick-and-roll as the Jazz scored 0.93 points per possession in that action with Mudiay as the ball handler, per NBA.com. That number is not too far off the numbers of Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson, albeit in a smaller sample size.
Mudiay has limitations as a passer, defender and floor spacer, but there is still room for a midrange pick-and-roll creator in the present day. As a betting man, look for him to find a home before the end of this season.
Ilyasova, a member of the Milwaukee Bucks last season, was a casualty of the failed Bojan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade that came apart after the franchise was hit with tampering charges.
The Turkish forward was set to join the Sacramento Kings, but after the deal fell through, the Bucks were forced to release Ilyasova, and he has yet to be signed.
Ilyasova isn’t the most well-rounded player, but he does a few things very well. He can space the floor consistently, shooting about 37 percent from deep over his last five seasons. His height and high release allow him to get those shots off in tight spaces rather easily.
Ilyasova also has a knack for making tough shots in the midrange, where he canned 61 percent of his long two-point attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
On the defensive side, Ilyasova is slow-footed and ground-bound, so he has his limits. There is one area where he excels though — drawing offensive fouls. He has the awareness and IQ to get in the right position and he combines that with a flair for the dramatic as any good charge-taker would. Just two seasons ago, Ilyasova led the NBA in charges drawn.
As teams look for wing depth, the veteran should find a place to contribute before the season’s end.
From Philadelphia by way of Arizona, Hollis-Jefferson has carved out a role in his first five seasons by bringing an edge defensively. At a long 6-foot-7, he manned both the power forward and the center position in Brooklyn and Toronto. He was added to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ preseason roster but surprisingly did not make the cut and now awaits another opportunity.
His offensive game leaves much to be desired, and Hollis-Jefferson has yet to develop a consistent jumper, struggling to finish at the rim amongst the trees. He does excel in the hustle stats, however, grabbing offensive boards at a solid rate and drawing fouls.
Hollis-Jefferson’s value comes on the other end, where his length and athleticism allow him to switch between guarding multiple positions. In almost 2,300 possessions in Toronto last season, the Raptors held opponents to a 107.0 defensive rating with the tweener on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. There is noise there, but it was clear from watching the games that Hollis-Jefferson was making a positive impact on that end of the floor.
Hollis-Jefferson did hit his free throws at a respectable 73 percent clip last season, leaving room for optimism on his offensive game. Even if the jumper never develops, there is usually a roster spot available for a player that is willing to guard and do the dirty work.
As mentioned at the onset, there are more than just these five who could fill out a team. While these veterans have been contributors in the past or look poised to contribute in the future, there are likely a few diamonds in the rough waiting to be uncovered.
In a season that promises a lot of scrambling, the team fortunate to find one of those diamonds may shine brighter than the rest.
NBA PM: Early-Season Atlantic Division Rankings
In the next edition of Basketball Insider’s divisional rankings series, newcomer Zach Dupont takes a look at the stacked Atlantic Division.
The NBA season has begun, and it’s time to overreact to the first few games of the year. In the next edition of Basketball Insiders’ inter-conference rankings, we will take a look at the Atlantic Division. In these rankings, we rank each team from worst to first based on their early performances and how we believe they’ll project for the rest of the season.
5. New York Knicks (1-2)
It feels cruel to place the New York Knicks behind the Toronto Raptors after such an impressive 20-point victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, but that’s what we’ve done.
The Knicks will finish last in this Atlantic Division, but there’s plenty to be optimistic about at Madison Square Garden. R.J. Barrett got his rookie season rolling with an impressive 26-point performance against the Pacers where he shot 11-for-15 from the field and 3-for-3 from three-point range. His 10-point, 2-for-15 follow-up in Philadelphia was less impressive – but in two of Barrett’s three games thus far, he has shown clear signs of improvement from last year.
Mitchell Robinson has also shown a leap early in the season. The burgeoning center has started all three games for New York, yet to commit over three fouls in any game while still putting up six total blocked shots. Other youngsters like Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickly showed promise in their single games this season, but both still have a long road to go before being high-level impact NBA players.
Additionally, the Knicks should be pleased with the early play of Julius Randle and Alec Burks. The duo leads the team in scoring, while Randle specifically has had a very strong start to the year, averaging 23.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists on 55.3 percent shooting. With the Knicks unlikely to be a competitive team, look for Randle and Burks to be on the move closer to the trade deadline if their strong play continues.
Despite the big win against the Bucks, the Knicks are unquestionably the worst team in this division. Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are still getting major playing time despite continued subpar performances – plus with so many young pieces in the rotation, it’s unreasonable to expect anything but last for the Knicks this season.
4. Toronto Raptors (0-2)
It’s been a shaky start to the season for the Atlantic’s only winless team, the Tampa Bay/Toronto Raptors. The Raptors dropped their season opener to the New Orleans Pelicans in an uninspiring 113-99 performance, then blew a late lead to the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors own the worst point differential of the division at -9.5 and are only one of four teams in the Eastern Conference without a win.
While Toronto should bounce back from this start, there are many things to be concerned about after these two games. For starters, OG Anunoby has not taken the offensive jump some expected from him after signing a four-year, $72 million extension just before the start of the season. In his first two games, Anunoby has played 72 minutes and only managed to scrape together 18 total points – 10 against the Spurs and eight against the Pelicans – on 44 percent shooting, 20 percent from three and 50.7 percent true shooting.
Worse, the losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka this offseason has been apparent on the defensive end for the Raptors. Gasol and Ibaka were two of the strongest defenders for the Raptors the past few seasons, and replacing their minutes with Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes has brought mixed results. Boucher managed seven blocks against the Spurs, but his thin frame limits his defensive ability, while Baynes’ lack of lateral movement does the same as well.
All of that being said, a core of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and an emerging Boucher won’t finish last in the Atlantic – sorry, Knicks fans – hence why they’ve been ranked fourth. But the early play from the Raptors has raised legitimate concerns about their ability to compete for the Eastern Conference title.
3. Philadelphia 76ers (2-1)
Despite the best winning percentage in the Atlantic, the Philadelphia 76ers land at third on our rankings.
The 76ers have had the easiest schedule thus far in the Atlantic, defeating the winless Washington Wizards, the hapless Knicks and taken a loss to the surprisingly undefeated Cleveland Cavaliers (but without Joel Embiid). So, the 76ers have held steady, but there’s some reason for some concern as they prepare to face off against some of the Eastern Conference’s better competitors.
In his fourth season in the NBA, Ben Simmons appears to have still not taken a leap as a scorer in any meaningful way. Simmons is averaging 15.3 points per game and is shooting 59 percent from the free throw line, both on par with his three past seasons in the NBA. While there’s no doubt Simmons’ defense and passing make him an elite player, his inability to elevate his scoring game could continue to hold Philadelphia back. It’s also disappointing that the 76ers tradition remains constant, with Tobias Harris continuing to look no better than a third banana at-best.
The 76ers also looked lost without Embiid on the court against Cleveland on Sunday night, letting Andre Drummond run wild for 24 points and 14 rebounds. On the other hand, the positive is that Embiid has looked dominant in the two games he has played, tallying 29 and 27 points, respectively. The team surrounding Embiid and Simmons also appears to have been taken a big step forward this year as Seth Curry and Danny Green provide some much-needed shooting on the wings, Dwight Howard was a nice addition off the bench and Tyrese Maxey has shown a lot of promise in his minutes so far.
Shake Milton has been good off the bench and with guys like Matisse Thybulle and Terrance Ferguson hardly playing, the 76ers have plenty of depth to choose from if they deal with injuries.
All in all, it’s been a solid start for Philadelphia, but we have yet to see what they can do against the better teams in the league.
2. Boston Celtics (1-2)
The Boston Celtics may have a losing record, but they have shown a lot of promise to open the season.
Most notably, the duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been very deadly through Boston’s first three games. Brown specifically has taken a jump as a scorer, leading the Celtics in scoring, averaging 26 points per game with Tatum just behind at 25. The pairing flaunted their high-level defense and distribution too, making them a lethal option at nearly all points of the game.
The Celtics’ most considerable concern is what the team looks like outside of Brown and Tatum. Kemba Walker is still out with a knee injury and Boston needs to find scoring from their depth while he’s out of the rotation. The third-highest scorer on the Celtics is Jeff Teague at the moment but he’s averaging just 9.3 points through three games – with Tristan Thompson and Marcus Smart behind at 9.0 points. Without Walker, the Celtics have struggled to find offense outside of Brown and Tatum – so if they want to compete at the top of the Eastern Conference, they’ll need Walker soon.
Boston has also had mixed results at the center position so far. Thompson has been the team’s best offensive option at center, while Robert Williams has shown to be the more reliable defensive option. Daniel Theis has been neither, but the big man was rock solid last year – and he will receive a substantial serving of minutes despite a shaky start to the year.
Despite a 1-2 start Boston has a lot of reason to be optimistic, and if Walker returns soon and stays healthy, they could top the Atlantic.
1. Brooklyn Nets (2-2)
The team to beat in the Atlantic Division is clearly the Brooklyn Nets.
After sitting out the entire 2019-20 season, Kevin Durant is back and looks as dangerous as ever. Durant paired alongside Kyrie Irving gives the Nets the best duo in the Eastern Conference. Irving is averaging 29.3 points per game and Durant is averaging 26.7, and both are doing it on extremely efficient shooting numbers.
The Nets aren’t lacking for depth behind their star duo either. Caris LeVert is a great offensive creator off the bench, Joe Harris is one of the best shooters in the NBA and the Jarrett Allen/DeAndre Jordan combination is a great duo of big men to have at your disposal. While news of Spencer Dinwiddie’s partial ACL tear isn’t great, and Landry Shamet has left a lot to be desired in his first few games with Brooklyn, the Nets have more than enough depth to cover these early-season road bumps.
Staying healthy will be Brooklyn’s most significant question mark this season. Durant and Irving will both miss games this season to “load manage,” with the duo already sitting out the Nets’ Monday night overtime loss to the Grizzlies. If Durant and Irving play three-fourths of their games, the Nets could drop behind Boston in the Atlantic. It’s also far from given that either or Durant or Irving stay completely healthy.
If one of the two gets injured, that changes the Nets’ outlooks dramatically – of course, Durant and Irving have both missed a lot of time in recent seasons.
If the Nets stars stay healthy, they’re the favorites to win the Atlantic Division, and their depth behind them gives the Nets a shot to compete even without Durant and Irving.
The Atlantic Divison is one of the best in the NBA, with potentially four of the best teams in the Eastern Conference… and the Knicks. Brooklyn, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston all have strong teams this year, and they should all be a blast to watch this season. While these rankings seem pretty cut and dry for now, proceedings will surely change a ton throughout the year – so keep your eye on one of the NBA’s sneakiest-best division in 2020-21.