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.