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.
ICYMI: Atlantic Division
To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division.
So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.
Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate
After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.
In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.
Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.
Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?
The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.
Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.
There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.
While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well.
Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer
After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.
Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.
Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.
Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.
They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.
Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season.
Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.
Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.
NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer
Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.
For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.
In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.
The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.
Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.
Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them.
That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game.
Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.
While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.
As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.
That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.
Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.
But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.
NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte
No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.
Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.
Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.
But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.
While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.
With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.
Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.
The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.
Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.
Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.
As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.
The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.
It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.
Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.
The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.
He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.