Believe it or not, the NBA 2020-21 season is almost one month old. To help assess where each team stands in the league, here’s one major question that each Eastern Conference team either has to answer for themselves or to quiet their doubters.
Philadelphia 76ers — Without Harden, what now?
Several of you celebrated the news. Several of you (see: my friend and colleague Dan Volpone) lamented it. James Harden is not a Philadelphia 76er, even after that dramatic Wednesday in which a wretched Ben Simmons’ performance coalesced with Harden’s postgame tirade, leading us all to believe the move was imminent.
The moment has now passed and the Sixers must move on without the three-time scoring champ. Philly has obviously gotten off to a great start this season behind the dominant play of Joel Embiid, but there are still underlying issues. Their defense is no longer tops in the league (down to 7th according to Cleaning the Glass), while the half-court offense ranks 15th. This team can hang with almost any squad in the East and remains in contention for a second round playoff appearance, but starting a guy in Ben who doesn’t command any spacing respect from the defense, without positioning himself effectively on the interior, limits your offense in the most important moments in ways that a perimeter dynamo such as Harden doesn’t. Going forward, if the Sixers want to take that next step of making the “final four”, they either need to unlock a new level of scoring proficiency with their current roster or look for another trade for a half-court creator.
Brooklyn Nets — What now with Harden (lol)?
A triple-double and a franchise record for assists is a pretty good answer if we’re being honest. The Nets were my pick to win the conference preseason, and even with some fair questions arising about their depth and defense following the Harden acquisition, I think they’re an absolute juggernaut. In Harden, KD, and Kyrie, they have three guys who can create shots for themselves and shoot at above average rates in almost every area of the court. Add in one of the league’s best off-ball craftsman in Joe Harris, a potential small-ball five in Jeff Green, and other a couple other rotation-level veterans, and you’re looking at a team with talent in spades.
Boston Celtics — Is this Jaylen Brown for real?
Celtics fans had good reason for legitimate concern entering the ‘21 season. Gordon Hayward, while often injury-prone and not near the same athletic dynamo he was in Utah, was still a driver of good offense in Boston as a tall wing who can dribble, pass and shoot at above average levels. Add in Kemba Walker’s knee injury and a rotation that’s so thin it requires 17.3 minutes of Semi Ojeleye per game, and things weren’t looking good for the Leprechauns.
Then Jaylen Brown happened.
He’s upped his points-per-game average to 26.3 after averaging a then-career-best 20.3 PPG last season, all while shooting more efficiently from each major area of the floor then he ever has before (according to Cleaning the Glass). Once a player some criticized for his lack of self-creation skills and porous off-ball defensive awareness, Brown’s handles have gotten shiftier and his defense more alert. If this is who he is from now on, the Celtics should be just fine.
Toronto (er, Tampa Bay) Raptors — Are you guys okay???????
They finally got off the schneid with a 111-108 win over Charlotte to improve to 3-8 on the season, but the south has not been kind to the team of the north. They’re not as bad as that record indicates, as the Raps sit 17th overall in Net Rating per CTG, which is more indicative to long-term success than pure win-loss results, but that still seats them as a fringe play-in team rather than an Eastern Conference contender. Aron Baynes and Alex Len are giving them next to nothing at the moment, Pascal Siakam is still being asked to be a primary when he fits tertiary creation responsibilities much better, OG Anunoby hasn’t taken the super leap some hoops nerds predicted, and what’s left is a team that’s contention window is closing. It’s hard to ever count out a Kyle Lowry-led squad, but I’m on the brink of doing so.
New York Knicks — What is RJ Barrett?
As Ben Simmons hounded the Knicks’ sophomore forward into miss after miss, I took to Twitter to reassure any doubters that the performance was a more credit to BS than a slight to RJ.
To any Knicks fans that follow me - No RJ Barrett is not bad. Ben Simmons makes good offensive players look bad quite often.— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) December 27, 2020
Narrator with a deep voice, “This take aged very, very poorly for Daniel.”
To gauge just how bad things are going, chew on this — Barrett is shooting 54 percent at the rim, placing him in the 22nd percentile among all NBA wings per Cleaning the Glass, and that’s the best percentile rank he has from any of the three major areas on the court. Jumpers are clanking left and right for the “Maple Mamba”, leaving many a Knicks fan to wonder what they have in 2019’s 3rd overall draft pick. Barrett still does a good job barreling his way toward the rim as a 6-foot-7 ball handler, and he’s yet to be placed in an optimal context with four shooters spacing the floor around him, but the early season struggles are concerning nonetheless.
Milwaukee Bucks — Is the shooting for real?
The Budenholzer Bucks have always manufactured efficient regular season offenses via a hefty diet of 3-pointers and at-rim attempts, finishing in the top five for 3-point attempt frequency each of the last two seasons. However, this did not make them a team composed of good shooters. Milwaukee finished below league average in 3-point accuracy in ‘19 and ‘20, and this lack of precision from deep has bitten them badly in the playoffs. This season, they’re scorching the nets to the tune of 41.5 percent per CTG, the second-best mark in the league, while also maintaining a top-10 rate in frequency. If the shooting improvement is real for Bucks such as Donte DiVincenzo, Bryn Forbes and Khris Middleton (who’s somehow even deadlier than he was last year), Cream City might shake their postseason woes.
Indiana Pacers — Are they a second-round playoff team this year?
The offense is humming though Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner is blocking everything in sight, and they haven’t even had bubble demigod T.J. Warren at their disposal for the most part. But does this make a difference? Does Indiana finally escape their depressing pattern of being good enough in the regular season before getting stomped out in the first round? It’s amazing to think that the last time the Pacers played in a round outside the first was the 2014 Conference Finals against LeBron and the Miami Big 3.
Swapping Victor Oladipo (who was unlikely to re-sign with the team this offseason) for a dude in Caris LeVert who is both good and under contract was good business (it was announced Saturday afternoon that during an MRI a small mass was found on LeVert’s left kidney, ruling him out for some time). I want to believe that this is the year they finally prove their worth in the postseason, it remains more of a “I’ll believe it when I see it”-type deal.
Detroit Pistons — Do they have to attach assets to get rid of Blake Griffin?
This sucks. Blake was a legit top-20 player in the league during his 2018-19 redemption tour for Detroit, but it seems like the magic that once was has been fully sapped for Griffin. Weeks ago in a close loss to the Boston Celtics, I watched in agony as he flung up flatlining bricks and was targeted in the closing moments for Tatum’s game-winner.
Jayson Tatum game-winner and then the defense of Blake Griffin at the buzzer pic.twitter.com/plDjq36OOQ— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) January 3, 2021
Watching Blake slump to the floor with an inability to hang with young legs is sad. He’s only got two years left on his albatross contract, so I wouldn’t say it’s untradeable (what really is untradeable in the modern NBA), but it’s a legitimate question of worth to the Pistons if they have to attach important future assets to try and rid themselves of the former Clippers superstar.
Chicago Bulls — When are things going to get better?
Zach Lavine — for as much as we fairly question how he helps a team win with his lack of upper-tier passing and porous defense — has been scoring with tremendous volume and efficiency this season, posting over 28 points per game on near 50-40-85 shooting splits. That’s great!
The Bulls are 4-8 and 26th in Net rating per CTG (not great!).
For the past three years, it feels like some sector of NBA fandom talks themselves into the Bulls as a frisky fringe playoff team, only for the same disappointing problems to arise. This isn’t a declaration that they must blow things up or that everything is lost, but this is shaping up to be another season without true answers for the future of the franchise.
Cleveland Cavaliers — Do they think that forwards are real?
I, too, have ridiculed the Cavs’ decision-making post-LeBron, but they’re starting to appear more prudent than I gave them credit for. “Sexland” (the hilarious moniker for Cleveland’s young backcourt) can drive some good offense with Sexton’s self-creation and Garland’s knack for setting up others. Meanwhile, the trees surrounding Sexland have guided the Cavs to a shockingly great defense in the early goings, ranking second overall in points allowed per 100 according to CTG. Rookie Isaac Okoro is a good defender already, and can be a forward if you want though he stands at only 6-foot-5, and with Kevin Porter Jr. out right now that leaves the Cavs in the peculiar position of kind-of, sort-of not having any rotation-level wings. Should they draft in the lottery again (likely), they might have the chance to select a shot-creating wing that can slot in perfectly to their current core and form a true up-and-coming team in Cleveland. Given that the 2021 draft class is absolutely stacked near the top, I think Cavs fans can truthfully be optimistic on their franchise’s outlook for the future.
Charlotte Hornets — When is LaMelo Ball going to be inserted into the starting lineup?
Despite lineups featuring Devonte’ Graham still posting a positive Net rating due to some almost inexplicably good defensive numbers, his offense has been brutal. He’s down to 31.4 percent from 3 after shooting 39.7 percent last year, and the two-point shooting is a downright ghastly 27.9 percent. Meanwhile, LaMelo is doing stuff like this on a nightly basis and has firmly cemented himself in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
It's amazing how effortless this pass looks from LaMelo, flicking it out with one hand with the exact amount of speed needed + ideal placement for Bridges to catch and shoot. pic.twitter.com/ja0JYTuIrI— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) January 15, 2021
Not starting LaMelo isn’t some coaching blunder of epic proportions (for the most part I think James Borrego is a very good head coach), but I think Charlotte would both be more fun and setting themselves up better for the future by giving the keys to the budding 19-year-old star.
Orlando Magic — Is this really what you want?
Death, taxes and the Magic remaining respectable despite producing a below average offense under Steve Clifford. Being stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity jokes might be overdoing it with Orlando, given they’ve only made the playoffs for two straight seasons now, but one can’t help feeling the stagnation in the franchise as they sit at 6-7, staring down a play-in tournament appearance at season’s end.
It sucks that this organization’s two most promising young players — Jonathan Isaac and now Markelle Fultz — have both suffered season-ending injuries, as those two would give reason for far more excitement moving forward, but the bottom line remains the same. They’re more pleasant for their fans to watch than the previously mentioned Chicago Bulls, but in the same ilk, franchise-altering decisions are likely needed on the horizon.
Washington Wizards — Are they not as bad as we think?
Did you know that this 3-8 squad is actually outscoring its opponents per 100 possessions? Despite their shoddy record, the Wiz are not some trash team getting obliterated on a nightly basis. They’ve lost their eight contests by a combined 52 points, equivalent to only losing by around 6.5 points on average in each of those contests, and the largest margin they’ve fallen by this season is a mere 10 points. I understand there are systemic reasons as to why they’re losing close games (cough, Westbrook and defense, cough), but I wouldn’t give up on the Zombie Bullets just yet.
Atlanta Hawks — What are they going to do with John Collins?
The restless NBA Twitterverse was quick to jump on the fourth-year big man out of Wake Forest after he finished Hawks’ loss to the Blazers with a mere eight points, connecting Collins’ poor performance to the recent reports of dissatisfaction behind the scenes in Atlanta and suggesting that he should be traded.
I think that might be an overreaction. We’re talking about a forward/at-times small-ball center who was both a dangerous lob finisher and a plus-40 percent 3-point shooter last season. Those guys don’t grow on trees. What the team does with JC certainly deserves monitoring given both sides failing to agree on a contract extension this offseason, but don’t rule out a reconciliation just yet.
Miami Heat — When are they going to have their team again?
The defending Eastern Conference champions’ most-played lineup has only seen the floor for 109 non-garbage time possessions, the fourth-fewest possessions played in the NBA of a team’s most played lineup behind only Brooklyn, Detroit and Minnesota. That core lineup of Herro, Robinson, Butler, Adebayo and Olynyk(!) have won their minutes by a sizable margin, but until we finally get to see more of them in action, it’s tough to evaluate the Heat. I’d bet they’re going to finish much better than their current 4-7 record though.