Brad Stevens Make a Good Celtics Team Very Dangerous

Rewind to opening night in the NBA. Gordon Hayward had the latest gruesome leg injury and the Cleveland Cavaliers ruined Kyrie Irving’s Celtic debut. With Hayward out for the year, many immediately left the Celtics for dead and were ready to name the Cavs Eastern Conference champions yet again. After that, Boston lost to Milwaukee to drop to 0-2 and it looked like Hayward’s absence would indeed be missed this year.

All Brad Stevens and company did from there was rattle off 12 straight wins and now own the best record in the NBA. And while their opening night opponents are still struggling to find their identity, Boston seems to have theirs figured out. One large reason why is the man on their sidelines.

Say what you want about the top coaches in the NBA. Greg Popovich has been a mad genius for years. Steve Kerr and Golden State have lost just 24 games in two seasons. You can mention Thibodeau, D’Antoni, and Spoelstra. None of them have been as impressive as Brad Stevens has so far this season.

Imagine winning the Eastern Conference last season over the mighty Cavaliers. Then imagine trading your best player, who was the heart and soul of your club. Imagine trading away your defensive specialist on the perimeter. You replace them with two all-stars, but you lose one of them on opening night. You now have one all-star, who grant it is one of the best players in the league, and a back court of young, unproven players. Couple that with a thin front court. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for sbest record in the NBA.

Now I know that is exaggerated to an extent. The cupboard is not empty in Boston. They do have Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and two lottery picks in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. It’s not that they are winning that is the impressive part. It’s how they are winning. They come from behind (see their game against Oklahoma City). They win the close game (25% of their wins have been a one possession game). And they’ve even won at less than full strength (Irving and Horford have each missed games).

Brad Stevens has this team competing. He has them playing very balanced and serving their roles. Irving is the team’s leading scorer, but six other players are scoring 10 points plus a game, if you include Marcus Morris’s 12.2 in just five games. Horford leads the team in rebounding, but league sophomore Jaylen Brown chips in almost seven a game. Aron Baynes, the definition of a role player, adds six a game as well. Their assist leader? Marcus Smart. The guy everyone was worried would lose his place on this team. He also adds 1.67 steals per game, second to Kyrie’s 1.92.

Top to bottom Stevens is getting production from their guys on the floor. And the result is win after win. That’s the biggest thing a coach can do in the NBA; Get his team to buy into their roles and play as one, cohesive unit. Not bad for a guy that many thought would flame out after a couple seasons, as most college-to-NBA coaches do.

I’m not crowning the Celtics 2018 NBA Champions three weeks into the season. I’m not saying give Brad Stevens the Coach of the Year award yet either. There is far too much season. The Pistons are legit and the Cavs will be scary come playoff time when they get their point guard healthy. A lot can still happen. But right now it doesn’t seem to matter who Boston throws out on the court. Brad Stevens has them winning.

What Should the Sixers do With Jahlil Okafor?

Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor’s career as a 76er is quickly coming to an end. Philadelphia announced this week that they will not be exercising the 4th year option on Okafor, showing that the team plans to move on at season’s end. The Sixers are refusing to buy out his contract in full because they want to get a return piece(s) in a trade for him. The former Duke big man has appeared in just one game so far this season. He has expressed his desire to leave Philadelphia in order to rejuvenate his young NBA career. After

how this week has gone, it is hard not to side with him. I empathize with Okafor. He is still just 21 years old and wants the chance to prove himself with a franchise who believes in his ability. While I’m sure there are GM’s who still believe in his potential, Philadelphia has shown that they are willing to exercise some patience to find the right suitor.

Okafor averaged 18 and 7 in 53 contests as a rookie, but saw his numbers dip to 12 and 5 last season with the emergence of Joel Embiid. His role has been diminished even further in his 3rd season, and it has caused an early stir between Jah and the Sixer’s front office. Okafor is an extremely talented offensive player, with good touch around the rim and a solid all-around skill level with the ball in his hands. The issue has always been his defense. Okafor does not move well enough laterally and it makes him a major liability on the defensive end, especially matching up against versatile big men. This limits Okafor’s value on the trade market. While it is not wise to write off a 21 year old, I do not think many, if any, NBA GM’s see him as anywhere close to the franchise altering talent he was labeled out of Duke. This begs the question: What should the Sixers do with Jahlil Okafor?

#FreeJah

The answer here is simple: trade him. As mentioned earlier, the Sixers are not going to buy out his contract. Adrian Wojnarowkski stated earlier today that the Sixers are looking at moving Jahlil for a 2nd round pick. Chris Mannix of Yahoo thinks that in addition to 2nd round pick(s), a “salary filler or a stashed mid-level European prospect” are other potential options for the Sixers. Philadelphia is making a business decision to coerce another organization to eat the final $5 million of Okafor’s contract, but they need to move quickly. Their treatment of Okafor is already setting the league ablaze on social media (see Isaiah Thomas) and it would be in the best interest of both parties to move on swiftly.

Okafor wants to show another team why he was a Top 3 pick back in 2015.

The Sixers should move quickly to trade Okafor for future draft picks. Have the Sixers been drafting a lot in recent years? Absolutely. But dealing Okafor for another expiring gives the Sixers a piece for the remainder of the season before letting them go into free agency. Plus, they can pair the picks they would receive with a current player (preferably an expiring contract) to make moves for assets in the future. Rumors were tying Okafor to the Celtics if his contract were bought out, but it does not appear that is in play. In a trade the Celtics are probably not going to give up much in return. Okafor would give the Celtics an offensive threat up front off the bench, but it seems like there are hurdles to clear before that becomes a possibility.

Potential Suitors

If they decide to make a move for draft picks they may focus their potential moves on teams with at least $5 million in cap space. Atlanta, Brooklyn, Indiana, and Phoenix all fall into this category. Okafor and Myles Turner would be an interesting pairing, but the Pacers do not have a 2nd round pick until 2020. Collins and Okafor are redundant, but the Hawks are awful, and it is an opportunity for Okafor to put up offensive numbers. They have multiple 2nd round picks in 2019. Brooklyn and Phoenix are similar situations with bad teams and ample minutes for Okafor to get back on the court and earn a deal during the 2018 off-season. While Okafor may end up somewhere other than these four places, but the fit with minutes and cap space make them intriguing options for the Sixers to explore on the trade market for Okafor.

Philadelphia needs to trade Okafor, and do it fast. Find a suitor with a draft pick or two to part with and get it done. Continuing to stockpile future assets and potential trade bait, and give Okafor a chance to fulfill his potential in another city. I am far from the biggest fan of Jahlil Okafor, but he has handled the benching with grace and I will be screaming (figuratively, of course) #FreeJah until the Sixers make a move.

Should We Be Concerned About The Cavaliers Defense?

It’s two weeks into the NBA Season. The cause for concern for teams should be minimal and the hands should still be far away from the panic button. NBA seasons are not won and lost in October. Sometimes, they don’t even tell the story of how the season will go. They do however, give us a chance to see where improvements must be made. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, their answer is simple: Defense.

The Cavs started the season 3-1, but have since dropped their last three contests. A three game losing streak is nothing worrisome for a team with Lebron James on it. The King even noted that in his post game press conference that it is only October. And yes, the Cavs are still awaiting the return of Isaiah Thomas, and are not at full strength just yet. The problem is that Cleveland is doing well in the areas where Thomas helps. They are averaging 105 points a game and 21 assists per contest as a team. Thomas will help, and will allow Lebron to move away from the Point Guard position, but he will not solve their defensive woes.

In their four losses this year, Cleveland has given up 114, 1112, 123 & 114 points. They even gave up 112 in a win to a Chicago Bulls team that has only managed to score 100+ one other time, and his averaging 89 points a game in the young season. It’s a small sample size, but these are bad numbers for a team that has their eyes set on an NBA title.

Tyronn Lue has attributed some of the early season struggles to chemistry, as a new team gets adjusted playing with one another. That is completely fair to an extent, but the new additions aren’t exactly defensive specialists. Dwyane Wade is not the defender he once was and Derrick Rose can’t keep anyone in front of him. Furthermore, additions like Jeff Green and Jae Crowder have slid Tristan Thompson, one of their best defensive rebounders, further down on the bench.

When Gordon Hayward suffered his horrific injury, many dubbed the Cavs favorites to win the East, if they weren’t already crowned. Right now though, the Cleveland Cavaliers are not playing like a championship team. Championship teams don’t give up 110+ points to the Nets and Knicks within a week. Change does need to be made if Cleveland wants to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Fortunately we’re turning to the calendar to November, not April.

Rookie Power Rankings Week 1

The NBA season is now a week old, and it is time for the first installment of our rookie power rankings at Hoop Group Insider. While the sample size is small, some rookies are living up to the hype, some are off to a slow start and there are even a couple of surprises. Let’s take a look at the pre-season ranking for reference before diving into the Week 1 rankings:

1. Lonzo Ball
2. Ben Simmons
3. Markelle Fultz
4. Dennis Smith Jr.
5. Jayson Tatum
6. Josh Jackson
7. D’Aaron Fox
8. Malik Monk
9. Jonathan Isaac
10. Bam Adebayo

Now onto Week 1:

1. Ben Simmons – Philadelphia 76’ers

Simmons is off to a hot start as he is averaging a double-double (16.4 points and 10 rebounds a game) while flashing the court vision that made him such a special prospect (7.4 assists per game). Simmons is shooting at a 48% clip, and posted his first of many career triple-doubles this past Monday against the Pistons. While the 76’ers are off to a slow start, Simmons has proven to be well worth the hype early. His next game against fellow Rookie Dennis Smith Jr. is one to keep an eye on for NBA junkies.

2. Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics

Tatum opened his rookie campaign as a starter on one of the best teams in the league, and with Gordon Hayward’s injury will assume an even greater role within the Celtics offense. He is averaging 15 points and 8 rebounds a game while shooting 48% from the floor and 46% from 3-point range. In his last two games he has been averaging 19 points a game and figures to become a mainstay in the C’s offense for years to come. Originally I did not see Tatum getting enough touches to win Rookie of the Year, but if week one is any indication he will find himself in the thick of the race from beginning to seasons end.

3. De’Aaron Fox – Sacramento Kings

Fox has been extremely impressive early, showing the athleticism and skill to warrant the comparison of a much younger and raw left-handed version of John Wall. Fox is averaging 15/5/5 while shooting 46% from the field and 40% from 3. The Kings are going to be bad this season, but will be an interesting team to follow with all the young UK talent in the lineup in Fox/Cauley-Stein/Labissiere. Fox probably won’t win the Rookie of the Year, but he could end up being amongst the top 2-3 players in this draft class.

4. Lonzo Ball – Los Angeles Lakers

Ball had a rather lackluster debut, and has struggled shooting the basketball, but he is averaging 11.5/9/9 and is showing glimpses of the potential that made him such a hyped prospect. Lonzo is going to be among the league’s top assist men for years , and as he gets more comfortable could make a legitimate run at averaging 10+ assists per game as a rookie. On the flip side shooting 5-26 over a two game stretch shows how far Lonzo still has to go on the offensive side of the ball. Ball has been far from perfect, but he has shown flashes early on in his rookie campaign.

5. Dennis Smith Jr – Dallas Mavericks

Smith, a Hoop Group alum, opened up his NBA career with a double-double (16 points + 10 assists) against the Atlanta Hawks. Smith sat out the next two games, while playing the last two. Smith is averaging 15 points, 5 assist and 3 rebounds a game and has been given the keys to the Mavericks offense. Smith is shooting at a 48% clip and may find himself higher on this list in the future. The crop of point guards in this rookie class is incredible, and it will be fun to watch them all develop over the course of their rookie seasons.

6. Lauri Markkanen – Chicago Bulls

Markkanen is a new name to this list, and if he keeps up at his current pace he will skyrocket into the top half of the rankings. He is averaging 16 points and 9 rebounds a game while shooting over 45% from beyond the arc. Markkanen seemed to struggle at times over the summer in international play, and I was hesitant to list him amongst the top 10 rookies on the initial list, but he looks to be a good piece for the Bulls rebuilding efforts.

7. Josh Jackson – Phoenix Suns

Jackson has flashed his athleticism and potential at times early on for the floundering Phoenix Suns. He is currently averaging 11 points and 3 rebounds a game, while learning how to impose his athletic ability on the other end, which is still a work in progress. The Suns are going to be awful, which will hurt Jackson’s chances for Rookie of the Year or 1st team All-Rookie, but his development is key for the future of the Suns Franchise.

8. Donovan Mitchell – Utah Jazz

Donovan Mitchell is another new name to the list that was absent from the preseason rankings. Mitchell is averaging a modest 7 points and 3 assists per game, but has flashed major defensive potential, and an ability to create his own shot, even though they are not falling at a great clip early on. Mitchell snuck his way into the back end of the rankings due to the potential he has flashed early, and his production should follow as the game continues to slow down for him.

9. Malik Monk – Charlotte Hornets

Monk is averaging 7.5 points per game, and has struggled to find a consistent rhythm early, but he flashed his ability to score in bunches against the Denver Nuggets last night with 17 points. Monk will settle in as the rotations in Charlotte’s lineup tighten and he finds his shot, which is his 2nd best asset. Monk may never crack the top 5 on this list, but he will have plenty of outings similar to his performance against the Nuggets as he adjusts to the pace of the NBA.

10. Markelle Fultz – Philadelphia 76’ers

Fultz has gotten off to a slow start, and the news only got worse with news of an injured shoulder came out in the past couple of days. Fultz sat out Wednesday nights game against Houston and will miss his next 2 games before being evaluated further. The injury bug and Philadelphia rookie curse is still, unfortunately, alive and well, but hopefully Fultz can heal and get back on the court in short order. It’ll make more sense to evaluate Fultz ROY potential and his fit at the NBA level once we know when he will be 100% healthy.

With a week gone from the NBA regular season slate, these 10 stand out as the top 10 rookies so far. A lot of season left to be played and a lot of names that could still make a run at an appearance on the list. Until next week, rookie power rankings out. Check out the rest of my NBA articles on Hoop Group Insider.

NBA Opening Night Quick Hitters

Opening night in the NBA featured two great opening games, games that could be a predictor of both the Eastern and Western Conference finals next spring. Cleveland and Houston were victorious on opening night, a Tuesday evening that featured highlights and lowlights. Let’s take a look at some things of note and (likely) overreactions coming out of Tuesday nights opening slate:

Hayward Injured

First things first, the Gordon Hayward injury was as gruesome as it gets, and nothing in this article will replicate the sheer sound and reaction that took place early in the first quarter in Cleveland. It will be hard for the Celtics to replace Hayward and the firepower he would have given the Boston offense. The most important thing is to send positive thoughts Hayward’s way and hope for the quickest, healthiest recovery possible.

Boston Still Has Young Talent

While the Celtics will miss Hayward’s presence, back-to-back draft picks, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, both showed a ton of promise on opening night. Brown scored 25 points and looked comfortable within the offense. While he shot a poor 2-9 from the Three-Point line, and registered zero assists, his ability to score looks to be improved over his rookie campaign. He also continues to show that he will be a plus defender for the entirety of his career. Tatum looked very comfortable for a rookie making his debut on the road. He finished with his first career double-double and showed that he will be a key factor in the Celtics offense. Tatum will undoubtedly take his lumps as a rookie, but it is going to be a treat for fans to watch his development as he begins to get his feet wet in the league.

Kyrie and Lebron

It was great to see the mutual respect between LeBron and Kyrie at the end of the game. Following a nasty summer breakup, it was good to see the divisiveness off the court was not able to trump the respect for their games on the floor.

Cavs Played Small Ball

Cleveland went small with their starting lineup of Rose/Wade/LeBron/Crowder/Love. Coach Tyronn Lue will tweak the lineups throughout the season, when intermittent rest becomes a priority for Rose/Wade/Bron. Plus, it will be interesting to see how the rotation looks once Isaiah Thomas is back from his injury. Jae Crowder struggled from Three Point land (1-5) on Tuesday, but he will serve as an upgrade over the streaky JR Smith and Iman Shumpert.

Durant a Millisecond Late

Kevin Durant’s game winner was just a touch too late, as the Rockets upset the Warriors to open the season. It is not even close to time to hit the panic button on the Warriors, but it was surprising to see them drop the home opener.

Houston’s Bench Was Deep

Houston’s bench outscored Golden State’s 58-48 on the strength of 20 point outings from PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon and was a key in the victory. If Houston is going to have a chance at contending with the Warriors come May, the bench will need to continue to be as productive as possible. Gordon is a lethal 6th man in a Mike D’Antoni coached offense, while PJ Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute must continue to produce on both ends off the bench for the Rockets. Nick Young looks to be a good pick-up for the Warriors if he plays within himself and becomes a consistent scoring threat off of the bench.

CP3 Still The Same Floor General

Chris Paul only scored 4 points, and struggled from the floor in his Houston debut, but he played extremely well in every other facet of the game. He chipped in 11 assists (to only one turnover), and grabbed 8 rebounds and showed great command of the offense. The dynamic between Harden and Paul will be interesting to follow as the season progresses, but so far so good 1/82nd of the way through the season.

Off Night For the Golden State Trio

Durant/Curry/Thompson combined for ONLY 58 points, which was as much as the Houston bench. No cause for concern, as it was opening night, but an interesting statistic that caught my eye while looking through the Box Scores from last night.

NBA opening night 2017 was an interesting one, setting the tone for many more compelling nights of NBA hoops forthcoming this season.