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What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 2

Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look at what’s gone on in the Eastern Conference in the second week of the 2020-21 season.

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The NBA season is an ever-evolving beast. Even on a week-to-week basis, so much can go right or wrong for any one team.

That’s why Basketball Insiders started our “What We Learned” series. Every week, we’ll break down a few things we’ve learned in either conference. Today, in the season’s second week, we’ll check out what’s going on in the East.

Orlando’s Been Good — What’s Next?

The Orlando Magic have been one of the surprise teams of the new season, returning a core that netted them the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed a season ago. And, with a shortened offseason, that continuity has allowed them to get off to a fast start.

The Magic are 6-2, led by the outstanding early-season play of Nikola Vucevic. The All-Star center has averaged 21 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game and shot 50.8 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from three. He’s joined by Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon, who both return from last season, in Orlando’s starting lineup while Dwayne Bacon, an offseason addition from Charlotte, is a new starter that has given the team great minutes while playing within his role.

Terrence Ross has played like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate early on. The veteran wing is averaging 20.7 points off the bench while shooting 49.5 percent from the field, 46.7 percent from three, and 89.7 percent from the free throw line. It’s early, but Ross’ scoring averaging is more than five points per game higher than his career-best. Meanwhile, rookie point guard Cole Anthony has been another spark off the bench. The 15th overall pick in the 2020 draft, Anthony’s been inefficient but has added some much needed shot making to the bench early on in the season.

Unfortunately, starting point guard Markelle Fultz tore his ACL this week and is done for the season. The former number one overall pick had revived his career last season in Orlando and, this offseason, signed a three-year, $50 million extension. Orlando won’t replace Fultz with any one player — expect Anthony and two-way player Jordan Bone to see more minutes, as well as Michael Carter-Williams once he’s back from a foot injury.

The next few should determine if the Magic can sink or swim without Fultz — if they can’t replace his production, expect Orlando’s strong start to come crashing down.

Payton Pritchard Outplaying His Draft Spot

It’s been a tough year for rookies to make an early impact, given the lack of Summer League, condensed training camp and lack of preseason games. That said, one player that seemingly hasn’t been affected by any of that is the Boston Celtics’ Payton Pritchard.

A lot of people thought the 26th pick out of Oregon was an odd pick for the Celtics. The four-year guard doesn’t possess elite NBA size or athleticism. But, what he does have is confidence, a high basketball IQ and a toughness that has immediately translated to the NBA court. Meanwhile, entering the season, bench guard minutes were a major question for Boston — they have a bevy of young guards in Pritchard, Carson Edwards, Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith and Tremont Waters, all of which are unproven thus far in their short careers.

That said, with veteran offseason addition Jeff Teague injuring his ankle against the Detroit Pistons on January 3rd, the Celtics needed someone to step into the backup guard spot and Pritchard has done so admirably.

Since Teague’s injury, Pritchard has averaged 11.3 points in 26.7 minutes per game. While Boston has experimented with both him and Carson Edwards, the offense has operated much better with Pritchard on the court. He can lead whatever unit is on the court, take good shots within the flow of the offense and he’s played strong defense with a chip on his shoulder. And, despite his youth and physical limitations, Pritchard has been able to impact the game on both ends of the floor with his toughness; the best example being his put-back layup with less than one second left to beat the Miami HEAT.

At 6-foot-2, the smallest player on the court in both size and stature, Pritchard crashed the offensive glass and made the putback to give the Celtics the win.

Drafting players isn’t an exact science — a lot goes into a rookie’s early career success, particularly their opportunities on the court. And Pritchard lucked out; drafted into a great situation, an injury opened the door for some early chances to see the floor, while head coach Brad Stevens has allowed him to play through his mistakes. While he won’t post the gaudiest statistics for a rookie, Pritchard may end the season having made a bigger impact than many players that were drafted ahead of him.

What’s With the Knicks?

What’s going on with the New York Knicks?

This is the first time in what seems like forever that we can ask that question and expect a positive answer. The Tom Thibodeau-led Knicks won three games this week, two on the road, all against teams with at least a five hundred record. While they’re still fine-tuning, the team also seems to have solidified their top eight rotation and, in true Thibodeau fashion, he’s not afraid to give them all the minutes.

Julius Randle showed up this season in great shape. He’s averaging six more minutes a game from last season and is on track to improve on his points, rebounds and assists per game while shooting better percentages from the field and from three. But what’s stood out the most is his passing; Randle has always had a grab-and-go ability but, this season, he’s creating more for his teammates in transition and in the half court.

R.J. Barrett, meanwhile, has taken a big step from his rookie season into his sophomore year. In his last three games, Barrett has averaged 20 points and shot 45.8 percent from the field. He’s looked more comfortable and has played with much better pace, which has improved his decision-making and led to a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio in those games.

Reggie Bullock, Mitchell Robinson and Elfrid Payton round out the starting lineup while Austin Rivers has returned from injury and provided a scoring punch off the bench and stability as a backup point guard. Kevin Knox and rookie Immanuel Quickly have rounded out the eight man rotation.

It’s early in the season, but fun to see the Knicks playing so well and with so much energy. It will be interesting to see how they integrate Alec Burks and Obi Toppin back into the rotation once they return from injury. You don’t want to overreact to an early start, but the Thibodeau hire is paying early dividends and clearly changing the culture around the Knicks organization.

Later this week, we’ll take a peek at what’s gone on in the Western Conference in the NBA’s second week. Beyond that, make sure to lookout for our “What We Learned” series as it continues throughout the season.

Worked in college and professional basketball the past seven seasons, most recently as Director of Basketball Operations for the Detroit Pistons G League Affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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