The season is young. As of Thursday morning, there have been 324 games played, with 2136 remaining. Still, a lot can be learned from the first month of the season.
Basketball Insiders kicked off its new series, “Areas of Concern”, earlier this week to highlight issues we should keep an eye on as the season progresses. This installment focuses on the Atlantic Division. Like most divisions, the Atlantic Division has experienced its share of surprises. But things could be more chaotic (e.g., the Southeast or the Northwest). There have been blips in Boston and Philadelphia out of the gate; but beyond those teams, everything is mostly as expected. Let’s examine some specific concerns:
76ers Guards Must Learn to Play Together
The 76ers have a few problems, but their most glaring issue is with their backcourt. Specifically, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons and their ability to remain on the court with one another.
Fultz is shooting 30.8 percent on three-pointers so far this season while launching only 1.1 threes per game. And Simmons has totally disengaged with the long ball, choosing to shoot zero three-pointers in 341 minutes. And that makes it challenging to have them on the court at the same time. Defenses play off of them on the perimeter and go under ball screens, which clogs up the paint and makes life more difficult for their lead scorer – Joel Embiid. Even Head Coach Brett Brown conceded that the two must improve their “shooting and spacing” earlier this week to news.com.au.
But more troubling than their shooting is how they affect one another. The 76ers are a minus 6.3 when they share the floor thus far this season. And while Fultz is still seen as a project by most, Ben Simmons is viewed as a star. And Fultz’s presence isn’t exactly helping Simmons.
Looking back to last season, Simmons averaged 22.1 points and 11.6 assists per game per 100 possessions without Fultz in the lineup, and only 15.2 points and 8.9 assists per 100 possessions with him. While both players still have ample time to develop into well-rounded stars, the 76ers organization needs to figure out how the two can coexist more effectively sooner than later. The success of the season might be at stake.
Kawhi Leonard Already Missing Games
The Toronto Raptors haven’t had too much to worry about thus far. Through 12 games, the Raptors have 11 wins. They are the seventh highest scoring team in the league (117.1 points per game). They have the third-best offensive rating, ninth best defensive rating and the fourth best average margin of victory.
But there is one potentially troublesome item: Kawhi Leonard has missed four of the Raptors’ 12 games.
It could be strictly precautionary. But having just returned from a quad injury that cost him most of the 2017-18 season, one might wonder about his overall health. Leonard did recently jam his ankle, but that is unrelated to the injury that led to him missing time last season. And Coach Nick Nurse continues to state that Leonard’s quadriceps are healthy and that he is taking it “game by game.”
While it is likely an overreaction to worry about Leonard’s durability at this point, it is something worth keeping an eye on. Especially considering Leonard is the centerpiece of the Raptors’ offense and the key to them competing for a championship.
Knicks Need to Move Courtney Lee
The New York Knicks are in development mode. And while they seem committed to giving their young core time to develop, there is one noticeable outlier– Courtney Lee.
Courtney Lee has yet to appear in a game this season for the New York Knicks due to a mysterious neck injury. That isn’t terribly unusual – and it even allows them to grant more playing time to the rookies. But Lee and the Knicks are clearly heading in opposite directions. While the Knicks hope to develop the league’s third-youngest roster, Lee is an accomplished 33-year-old veteran hoping to compete in the playoffs.
The Knicks would probably prefer to accommodate Lee and move on from the $12.76 million they owe him next season, but Lee must first prove he can still be a valuable contributor. Both parties would be best served by Lee returning sooner than later and exhibiting his three-and-D skill set.
Celtics’ Production Hurt by Return of Stars
The Celtics started the season a mildly disappointing 6-4. They have played a difficult schedule so far, with losses against the Nuggets, Pacers and Raptors. But regardless of outcomes, the team clearly needs to get its house in order.
The source of their struggles is well-documented – the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They are players that most any team would love to incorporate, but their respective returns have had residual effects.
Irving is mostly back to his old self. While he is scoring only 19.2 points per game – his lowest average since his rookie campaign– he has come on of late. Additionally, much of his drop off in scoring can be attributed to the abundance of weapons on the Celtics’ roster. But his play isn’t the issue.
Terry Rozier filled in beautifully in Irving’s absence, averaging 16.5 points in the playoffs last season in 36.6 minutes per game. But with Irving back in the lineup, Rozier’s opportunities have diminished dramatically. Rozier will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and it was never clear if he was interested in remaining in Boston behind Irving. But with Irving back in the lineup, Rozier is averaging only 7.5 points in 22.7 minutes per game – thus, hurting his trade value in the short-term and hurting the possibility that he re-signs in the long-term. And teams around the league have taken notice of his dissatisfaction, which will only hurt his trade value to the club.
Hayward’s conundrum is more complicated. Yes, his production is down. He is playing 25 minutes a game and tallying 10.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Comparatively, he averaged 20.3 points per game in 35.5 minutes over his last three seasons in Utah. But he is only 10 games into his return from a horrific injury. This is mildly alarming, but not worth mentioning on its own.
But there’s a butterfly effect of sorts going on in Boston. Allocating 25 minutes per game to Hayward takes playing time away from others. Jayson Tatum’s recent slump is probably a separate issue given that he is seeing more playing time than he received last season, but Jaylen Brown is a whole other story.
Brown, averaged 14.5 points per game last season with a PER of 13.6. And remember, Hayward was injured early on in the first quarter on the first game of the 2017-18 season, so last season was virtually a year without Hayward. This season, Brown is down to 11.4 points and a PER of 8.7 – a significant drop off for a rising star.
And the effect on Marcus Smart is noteworthy, too. Smart’s scoring is down to five points per game (down from 10.2 last season), and his three-point shooting is down to an anemic 18.5 percent (down from 30.1 percent).
The Celtics will likely figure things out because good players led by good coaches typically get good results. But their slow start is definitely cause for concern.
The Nets Are Playing Too Good for their Own Good
Hot take – the Nets aren’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. At 5-6, the Nets are in the midst of their best start to a season since the 2012-13 campaign.
The team has a good amount young talent headlined by: Caris LeVert (20.5 points per game), Jarret Allen (11.3 points 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) and Spencer Dinwiddie (14.1 points per game on 43.1 percent from three-point range).
There is also added depth in the form of Joe Harris (55.4 percent from three-point range), D’Angelo Russel ( 15.4 points and 5.1 assists per game) and others.
What’s more, the team plays a great style of basketball for the modern NBA, placing sixth in pace in the league. But it’s still probably not enough to qualify for the playoffs. And even if it is, what’s the goal? To be a middle-tier team that gets eliminated from the playoffs each year?
The Nets have a bright future, but how much better could they be by adding a free agent or two this offseason, as well as a high draft pick? And remember, all the talent the Nets have amassed was facilitated through other teams’ picks that they traded for; the Nets haven’t owned their own pick outright since 2013. So just imagine what their front office could do with a lottery pick.
Many of the concerns listed above will work themselves out. And they will be replaced by new issues – that’s the nature of the beast. But some might linger and throw off a team’s season.