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What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 1

The first few games of the NBA season has taught us a lot, but which teams need to panic and which can feel a sense of excitement?



It’s been an exciting start to the NBA season with plenty to talk about through the first few games. And as teams begin to play their first games of the new year, it’s time here at Basketball Insiders to take a look at some early season takeaways in the Eastern Conference.

The East is Deep

The Eastern Conference looks like it will be unbelievably competitive.

There’s currently a four-way tie for the lead of the Eastern Conference between the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. The Orlando Magic have had an impressive start to the year, but they won’t factor into the top half of the conference long term. The remaining three teams, however, pose much more interesting cases.

The Hawks have been an offensive juggernaut so far, posting an NBA best 124.88 offensive rating through five games. Trae Young has looked like one of the NBA’s best early on, averaging 30.6 points and 8.0 assists per game. The Pacers, under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, have the fifth-highest margin of victory in the NBA at 10.20 points and move up to second when adjusted for strength of schedule with a mark of 11.21. Domantas Sabonis has taken another step forward in 2020-21, averaging 22.4 points, 11 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game, all of which lead Indiana. The 76ers have had the easiest schedule of the three so far, claiming wins over the Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, Magic and the struggling Toronto Raptors to start the year. That said, you can only beat who’s on the schedule and, so far, Philadelphia has done that convincingly, leading the NBA in defensive rating at 98.49 with their only loss coming to the Cleveland Cavaliers when Joel Embiid didn’t play.

Notably missing from the top of the Eastern Conference are the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami HEAT, the top four preseason favorites according to Vegas. Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Boston all sit at 3-3, while Miami is currently 2-3. All four of these teams have had an up and down start to the year but are absolutely still in the hunt to win the conference. Brooklyn has one of the best duos in the NBA with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, while Boston has an as nearly impressive duo with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Of course, the Bucks have back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and added Jrue Holiday to the fold this offseason which, in theory, should make Milwaukee even better than last year — when they had the best record in the conference. The HEAT are the reigning Eastern Conference champions and have gotten off to a slow start this season; they’ve had a tough schedule, going up against the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, Magic and Bucks twice. Jimmy Butler has also only played in three games so far and scored fewer than five points in two of them, which obviously won’t be the case for the rest of the regular season.

Even without considering the Toronto Raptors — a team that won 53 games last season — and a resurgent Cavaliers team, the East looks to be even more competitive in 2020-21.

Time to Panic in Toronto?

Speaking of Toronto, the Raptors have not had the start they wanted to the 2020-21 season.

With a record of 1-3 to start the year, with their only win coming against the New York Knicks, Toronto has struggled. The reason behind their struggles, however, are apparent; they just can’t score the basketball. The Raptors are dead last in offensive rating at 98.77, the Oklahoma City Thunder are 29th with a rating of 100.35. They’re also last in offensive efficiency, scoring 96.6 points per 100 possessions. For Toronto to improve, they’ll need to start shooting the ball better. Pascal Siakam (39.3), Fred VanVleet (39.7) and OG Anunoby (40.5) have all shot around 40 percent from the field on the season, while Normal Powell has shot a shocking 30.6 percent from the field on nine attempts per game. As a team, the Raptors are 29th in the league in field goal percentage at 41 percent, beating out only the 2-3 Golden State Warriors.

Toronto has problems beyond shooting, too. For one, they’ve struggled to get to the free throw line. Toronto is dead last in the NBA in free throw attempts per game at 15.5 and free throw rate at .173. For comparison, the Hawks are first in the NBA in both categories, averaging 33.5 free throw attempts per game with a free throw rate of .383. When they get to the line, the Raptors have knocked them down at an average rate of 75.8 percent as a team but, when they can’t get to the line to attempt them anyway, that doesn’t help much. They’ve also struggled to hold onto the ball, turning it over 17.8 times per game and 15.6 times per 100 possessions, the fifth and fourth-worst marks in the league, respectively.

Still, despite those struggles, the Raptors 1-3 record is somewhat deceiving. Toronto’s defense has been excellent to start the season, holding the NBA’s third-best defensive rating at 100.73. They’ve also been competitive in all three of their losses and are a late blown lead to the San Antonio Spurs away from a 2-2 record. The Raptors shooting numbers should also see improvement, as Siakam and VanVleet are both excellent players with neither shooting below 41 percent from the field at any point in their respective careers. Siakam specifically shot 45 percent from the field last season and above 50 in all three seasons before that. Toronto has also been solid from deep, hitting 34 percent of their three-point attempts — and, with 51 percent of the Raptors’ field goal attempts being threes, their total field goal percentage is bound to improve.

Toronto also has the NBA’s 18th best net rating at -2.1 — that isn’t good, but it’s much better than their 1-3 record would otherwise indicate. If the team can just turn it around, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism.

Was the Russell Westbrook trade a mistake?

The Wizards made one of the offseason’s biggest trades when they dealt John Wall and a protected first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Russell Westbrook. So far, that looks like it may have been a mistake.

Washington has been awful through their first six games, posting a 1-5 record, good for dead last in the NBA. It’s not like it’s been exceptional competition either; the Wizards have played two games each against the Magic and Chicago Bulls – all at home – and have lost all four of them. They did get their first win of the season on Saturday night, taking down the Minnesota Timberwolves without Westbrook even playing. With their next four games coming against Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston and Miami, there’s potential for this to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Westbrook himself is a crucial reason why the Wizards have been so bad to start the year. He’s currently averaging a triple-double of 19.8 points, 12.8 rebounds and 12.3 assists per game, but that is far from telling the whole story; Westbrook has shot 42 percent from the field and 27 percent from three-point range. He’s also turning the ball over 5.5 times per game, good for a turnover percentage of 20.9. While it’s one game, it is somewhat concerning that Westbrook’s absence coincided with the Wizards’ first and only win of the season. In comparison, Westbrook’s teammate, Bradley Beal, is having the worst three-point shooting season of his career — 21 percent from deep — and still has a true shooting percentage (57 percent) 10 points better than Westbrook (47).

Even if Westbrook’s play improves, it’s clear the Wizards are going to struggle to even compete for a play-in game this season, so what was the point of trading for him? Washington even gave up an asset to acquire Westbrook, making the move all the more head-scratching. And, at 32-years-old, Westbrook is nearing the end of his All-Star days – if it’s not already here – and it seems unlikely that the Wizards will be able to compete in the near future with this core. If this level of play keeps up, it may leave some asking if the team would really be any worse if John Wall was still around.

Westbrook and the rest of the Wizards’ have a lot of work to do to turn this team around, and if they don’t, the team could be looking back at this trade with regret.

It’s only been a few games, and there’s plenty of basketball left to be played. But early on, it seems there’ll be plenty of reasons to watch Eastern Conference basketball this season.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, and The Basketball Tournament.

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Jazz agree to trade Derrick Favors, first-round pick to Thunder



First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Utah Jazz are trading power forward/center Derrick Favors and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a future second-round pick. The goal here was to help reduce their tax bill. While the six-foot-eight Georgia native does not have any notable NBA awards or honors on his basketball résumé, in the 2020-21 NBA season, Favors averaged 5.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 63.8 percent. The 11-year NBA veteran also recorded a free throw shooting percentage of 73.8 percent last season.

The 2020-21 Thunder finished 27-50 (.306), ranking 14th overall in the Western Conference. They could use another first-round pick. Plus, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, this trade will put Utah $13 million below the luxury tax. On November 24, 2020, Favors signed a three-year, $29.2 million contract with the Jazz. Favors is set to earn $9,720,900 next season. This is the second time in his career he has left the Jazz.

He played with them from the 2010-11 season to the 2018-19 season, before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on July 7, 2019 for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick. For the 2022-23 season, he has a player option of $10,183,800. The Jazz plan to also re-sign Mike Conley, so this was somewhat of a drastic move to help clear up cap space. On July 6, 2019, Conley was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Jazz, in exchange for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick.

Moreover, scoring-wise, the 33-year-old point guard has not lived up to his performances from his last few seasons on the Grizzlies, but the Jazz need all the help they can get. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik will make it a top priority to re-sign Conley here soon. Conley earned $34,504,132 in the 2020-21 season.

According to Spotrac, Conley has a cap figure of $39,344,900. Center Rudy Gobert and shooting guard Donovan Mitchell have a combined percentage of 47.61 percent of Utah’s total salary cap. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five year, $205 million extension with the team. He will earn $35,344,828 next season.

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Wizards, Lakers agree to Russell Westbrook and Three-Player Trade Deal



The Los Angeles Lakers have agreed with the Washington Wizards to acquire Russell Westbrook in a three-player trade, sending Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft to the Wizards. According to ESPN, the Wizards are also giving up their 2024 and 2028 second-round picks as well. During last night’s draft, at pick No. 22, the Lakers sent Wildcats’ center Isaiah Jackson to the Pacers via the Wizards. At pick No. 15, the Wizards drafted Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert. In the second round, at pick No. 31, the Milwaukee Bucks traded NBA G League player Isaiah Todd to the Wizards via the Pacers.

On Thursday, Harrell decided to pursue his $9.7 million player option for next season. Yesterday, rumors surfaced across social media regarding a possible Lakers-Kings trade involving Harrell. Despite the outlandish predictions and mindless speculation from fans over these last couple of days, this trade move could work out great for both teams.

After all, Westbrook is a 9-time NBA All-Star and three-time assists leader. In his MVP season back in the 2016-17 season, over the course of 81 games, he averaged a career-high 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. On Twitter, Westbrook tweeted, “I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”

In the 2020-21 NBA season, Caldwell-Pope averaged 9.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game in 67 games started for the Lakers. The 28-year-old shooting guard will make $13 million next season. As for Kuzma, in 68 games played last season, he averaged 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. Kuzma is set to earn $13 million next season. For Harrell, in 69 games played last season, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. The six-foot-seven power forward/center is also a six-year player. Instead of having one or two notable super stars, the Wizards having several contributing players might work out better in their favor.

Last season, in 65 games played in his only season spent on the Wizards, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 32-year-old point guard finished the 2020-21 season with 38 triple-doubles, ranking first in the league and second highest in his own playing career. Westbrook also surpassed Oscar Robertson last season for the most all-time assists; Robertson accumulated 181 triple-doubles in 14 seasons. Now, the two-time NBA scoring champion has 184 career triple-doubles, the most all-time for any player. Furthermore, this is Westbrook’s fourth team in his NBA career.

He is the fifth former MVP in league history to play on four different teams over the course of four seasons or less, adding to the existent list of Bob McAdoo, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Derrick Rose. Moreover, on December 2, 2020, Westbrook was traded by the Houston Rockets to the Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round draft pick. He is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season. His player option for the 2022-23 season is $47 million. This trade deal will not be official until August 6th.

Per Bovada’s NBA Futures odds, the Lakers now have +300 odds of winning their eighteenth championship in the 2021-22 season. This is a move from 4/1 odds before the trade, leaping the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, and they now have the second best odds behind the Brooklyn Nets (+250). Westbrook also has the best odds of leading the league in assists next season, with first place odds showing EVEN. He is ahead of James Harden (+150), Trae Young (+450), and Luka Doncic (+600). With +6600 odds, he also ranks 19th in the NBA for next season’s MVP odds, trailing Lakers’ teammates such as James (+1200) and Davis (+2800).

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Russell Westbrook joins L.A. Lakers in One of the biggest trades in NBA History



(Image courtesy of AP)

In one of the biggest NBA Draft trades ever, Los Angeles Lakers acquired the services of Washington Wizards’ former MVP, Russell Westbrook, last night!

As a result of the trade, the Lakers can now boast a holy trinity of attacking talent in Westbrook, Anthony Davis, and, of course, Lebron James, unlike anything seen in recent memory. Assuming this new contingent clicks into gear, it might just be the most frighteningly talented trio to play together in NBA history, rivaling the Bulls triple horn of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, or that great Lakers team of the late 80s with Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In exchange for their star man, the Wizards received three players and what was the No 22 overall pick in last night’s NBA Draft. The former Lakers tasked with replacing Westbrook in Washington will be Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Montrezl Harrell.

Washington then spent the Lakers No.22 pick on Kentucky’s Isaiah Jackson, but immediately traded him on to the Indiana Pacers in a deal that saw the Wizards acquire pick No.31 and point guard Aaron Holiday. Wizards then used pick No.31 to draft Isaiah Todd to bolster their ranks at power forward.

(Image courtesy of AP)

The effervescent Westbrook had another great year in 2020-21, averaging 22.2 points, 11.7 assists, and 11.5 rebounds per game in his first season with the Wizards.

In joining the Lakers star cast, which already boasts the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Westbrook, a 9x NBA All-Star & 2016-17 MVP, will now be hoping to end his NBA championship drought.

Westbrook has since taken to social media to thank the WashingtonWizards franchise for a great year spent in the capital, tweeting:

“Thank you DC! You welcomed my family and I with open arms from day one,” he wrote. “Everyone from the front office, to the training staff, the coaches, my teammates, and the fans. I’m grateful y’all took a chance on me and supported me every step of the way.”

“I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”

With a legendary point guard now fixed among the ranks, 2020 NBA Championship winners the Lakers have all the talent required to wrestle back the title from the freshly-crowned Milwaukee Bucks.

So, get yourselves ready for an influx of NBA betting lines on Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Middleton vs. LeBron, Davis, and Westbrook for next year’s championship games!

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