2019-20 Midseason Report Cards: Eastern Conference
NBA.com’s Sekou Smith breaks down all 15 teams team in the Eastern Conference. And, for a look at all the magic of the season to date, check out our Midseason Ultimate Highlight!
(Note: Teams listed in alphabetical order)
* * *
The Hawks harbored dreams competing for a playoff spot this season, but had those plans rearranged when John Collins failed a drug test and was suspended for 25 games. Combine his absence with the team’s already razor-thin margin of error (and leaky defense) and is there any surprise that they carried the worst record in the league at the midway point? They’re squandering outlandish offensive performances from Trae Young, who should be an All-Star.
For the Hawks’ sake, you just hope the continued losing doesn’t break their youngsters — and that includes coach Lloyd Pierce. He’s been through this before during his time as an assistant in Philadelphia. But there is no Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons waiting on the other end of this process. The Hawks have plenty of assets (Draft-related and expiring contracts) to work with, should they decide to abandon the long-term organic rebuilding pan.
Kemba Walker has been everything he was advertised to be and then some. The positive impact he’s had on the court and in the locker room for the Celtics is undeniable. The fact that he’s still scoring the way he did in Charlotte with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward all playing at their effective best offensively certainly helps the cause. If you don’t think the Celtics look like a much improved and more cohesive bunch with Walker at the controls, you’re not paying attention.
Overachieving in the regular season is fine, but the Celtics have to shore up a few things for the playoffs. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter have done an admirable job trying to replace the 1-2 big man punch Al Horford and Aaron Baynes provided last season. But can they count on Theis and Kanter in the postseason? That’s the question Danny Ainge will answer by the trade deadline or leave to coach Brad Stevens to figure out in April.
Given the circumstances (Kevin Durant out for the season and both Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert battling injury issues early on), there’s no reason to pile on the Nets for not having a better record. Irving’s 26-game absence was particularly tough to deal with because coach Kenny Atkinson still hasn’t had a chance to figure out his rotation with his star point guard involved.
The Nets remain one of the league’s better defensive teams and should improve as Atkinson figures out the Jarrett Allen/DeAndre Jordan dynamic. The goal this season, though, has to be to craft a playoff team with a solid foundation so when Durant returns next season from his Achilles injury, the learning curve for his supporting cast won’t be nearly as steep. The Nets are on a long-term plan right now, rather than a win-or-else predicament.
Coach James Borrego was charged with building the Hornets’ brand, a task made all the more difficult without the longtime face of the franchise (Walker) to work with. The early returns, though, have been more positive than anticipated. The Hornets have Terry Rozier in place as their point guard and surprise second-year guard Devonte’ Graham staking his claim to a spot as a backcourt staple himself. Rookie forward P.J. Washington got off to a blazing start before an injury sidelined him briefly.
Miles Bridges has assumed more responsibility in his second NBA season. But there is still a lack of identity for a team that ranks last in the league in pace and in the bottom third of the league in Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating and Net Rating. The absence of future assets prevents the Hornets from projecting as much more than a casual observer at the trade deadline.
The head-scratching about exactly what the Bulls are working with this season continues. There is a an abundance of raw talent, but little in the way of definition or recognizable difference-makers beyond Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Neither of that duo appears poised for an All-Star leap in 2020. Just a few short years ago the Bulls had the foundational roster pieces of what they thought was a transformative group. It never happened.
The rocky start to coach Jim Boylen’s tenure has smoothed out a bit. It’s up to him to corral his young leaders and develop some sort of accountability for the team. They have to accelerate the developmental process for a young big man like Wendell Carter Jr., who is again battling injury. Youngsters like Tomas Satoransky, Coby White, Chandler Hutchison and Daniel Gafford, among others, could use the structure.
The coach John Beilein era is off to a rather interesting start. That’s after disgruntled veterans admitted to acting more impetuous than some of the teenage teammates they were supposed to be mentoring and the coach creating firestorms with his words. Year 2 of the post-LeBron James phase is every bit as bumpy as the first, even with a new coaching staff and system in place. If anything, the drama lit a fire under the locker room. The Cavaliers played some of their best basketball of the season in the aftermath of all the recent drama.
The growing pains endured while the starting backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton mature and develop their respective games will be well worth it … if the Cavaliers have the patience to see it through. Getting the best (and most) out of vets Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson has to be a priority for GM Koby Altman. The heavy lifting in the Cavaliers’ rebuild is still the real work that lies ahead.
Any chance the Pistons had for a revival this season went up in smoke when Blake Griffin had his latest knee surgery. Coach Dwane Casey’s plans change dramatically if the trade rumors swirling around Andre Drummond and Derrick Rose come to fruition. Drummond’s time as the Pistons’ low-post rock seems like it has run its course. Rose, meanwhile, is authoring one of the great comebacks in league history. The former Kia MVP is one of the leading candidates for the Kia Sixth Man Award.
The Pistons invested in Griffin in an attempt to vault themselves back into the playoff mix when there was window open for everyone in the post-LeBron James era in the East. The Pistons got a taste of it last season with Griffin coming back to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. Trying to get back to that space this time around seems like nothing more than a pipe dream at this point.
Coach Nate McMillan doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the work he’s done withe the Pacers the past two seasons. Once again, he’s operating without his best player (Victor Oladipo) and once again, the Pacers have crashed the Eastern Conference playoff party. Domantas Sabonis has played his way into All-Star status and Malcolm Brogdon might have done the same if not for a brief injury absence. Myles Turner and the Holiday brothers have helped stabilize things until Oladipo returns later this month.
The reconstitution of the roster is the work of Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard, who goes about his business in the same fanfare-free way McMillan does. Perhaps that’s why things work the way they do for Indiana, which is solid on both ends of the floor while playing at what amounts to a snail’s pace in today’s NBA. With Brogdon and Oladipo back, the Pacers become a much more difficult team to deal with come playoff time.
Jimmy Butler punctuated his free-agent choice of Miami by leading the Heat to the most shocking start to this season by any team in the NBA. The Heat didn’t get off to this kind of start with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in their first season together as headliners. Butler’s leadership and ornery disposition that didn’t work particularly well in Chicago or Minnesota has been an absolute hit in Miami, where he’s the ringleader for a group that plays with a collective chip on its shoulder.
The real beauty of what’s going on in Miami is the organic growth of Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Derrick Jones Jr., Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro. They’ve all assumed elevated roles, for various reasons, and responded with quality and timely performances to help propel the Heat to the four of the Eastern Conference playoff chase. Erik Spoelstra should be one of the frontrunners for Coach of the Year.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are giving us an encore performance of the monster season they authored a year ago, when “The Greek Freak” won his first Kia MVP and the Bucks finished with the best record in the league. Losing in the conference finals to Toronto eliminated any chance of the Bucks easing into this season with the complacency that often accompanies a championship summer. Antetokounmpo is again leading the MVP pack and the Bucks are tops in the standings.
One new wrinkle for Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer is relying more on second-year guard Donte DiVincenzo in the spot Malcolm Brogdon occupied last season. The Bucks hit the midway point of the season on pace for 70 wins and, quiet honestly, it doesn’t matter if they get there. This is an all-or-nothing season — it is Larry O’Brien or bust, especially with the future unknown as far as Giannis is concerned.
At least former coach David Fizdale made it to Thanksgiving. But not long after that. The Knicks fired Fizdale on Dec. 6, adding yet another chapter to a brutal stretch that, since 2013, has seen the Knicks run through five different coaches. Interim coach Mike Miller picking up where Fizdale left off hasn’t changed things dramatically. The Knicks remain an ill-fitting collection of players that don’t bear any resemblance to a playoff team now … or any time in the near future.
They can’t even get a bump in the grade book for effort, not after coming up empty on all the biggest targets in free agency last summer. Unfortunately for the Knicks, this grade is based on their performance so far this season. There’s no telling what impact all of the losing and dysfunction will have on promising young talents like RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox. They might need reprogramming.
Magic coach Steve Clifford doesn’t do flashy. He does defense and this Magic team is no different. They’re at their best when they defend at a high level. Even without Jonathan Issac, who has developed into one of the league’s most versatile and underrated defenders, the Magic must stick to their defensive gameplan to return to the playoffs. They’re too inconsistent offensively to count on that to pave the way.
The Magic’s best move so far this season has been the relocation of Markelle Fultz’s game. He’s gets better with every outing, showing off the dynamic athleticism and playmaking that made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2017. If Clifford can fully unlock Fultz’s game, the Magic’s young core gets a huge bump in the right direction.
So much more was expected of the Sixers with the additions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford (as well as the return of Tobias Harris). Maybe they are not the elite team they’ve shown flashes of being — not yet at least. As talented a All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are, they don’t perform at the highest level consistently enough to push this team over the top.
Embiid’s surgically repaired left ring finger will require monitoring down the stretch of 2019-20. Horford provides the insurance needed if Embiid needs extra time to recover. And the Sixers are talented enough, even without Embiid, to keep pace with the East’s playoff elite.
There has been no championship hangover for the Raptors. They made that clear early in 2019-20, showing there would be plenty of fight in this group even after Kawhi Leonard’s offseason departure. Pascal Siakam was in the thick of the Kia MVP conversation before an injury sidelined him. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet were fortified from that championship run and Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol provide veteran hands at critical positions.
Coach Nick Nurse and his staff have shown an ability to develop young players that shined through when injuries popped up. Youngsters like Chris Boucher and Terence Davis saw an increase in their minutes, and a healthy OG Anunoby has also been critical. Veterans like Norman Powell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Patrik McCaw provide perimeter depth that few teams can lean on in a time of need.
A franchise reboot under new general manager Tommy Sheppard doesn’t change the fact that the Wizards are in limbo until they find out what John Wall looks like when he returns next season. The Wizards are operating without any expectations this year. That might explain why coach Scott Brooks and his players are smiling so much, win or lose. Working without the burden of expectations alleviates pressure at all levels.
Bradley Beal is the leader of a motley Wizards crew that has seen the likes of Ish Smith, Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, Moritz Wagner, Isaiah Thomas, Troy Brown Jr. and Jordan McRae all have their moments. Everybody is eating this season without relying on Wall, a way of life that was the Wizards’ trademark for years.
* * *
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.