The early portion of the NBA season is fun for lots of reasons – namely, it helps determine which teams are contenders and those that aren’t. Additionally, it allows teams to gauge and grade their rosters. And on December 15, when newly signed players can be traded, the NBA season shifts gears from fun to cut-throat.
So with that beings said, let’s forge ahead with Basketball Insiders examination of buyers and sellers. We have already covered the Northwest, Southwest and Central divisions. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the Atlantic.
Boston Celtics 17-7 — Buyers
The Celtics have surprised most NBA experts so far this season. But not only because they’re playing well; more so due to looking significantly better than last season despite losing a top-flight point guard (Kyrie Irving), a workhouse center (Al Horford) and then replacing them with less talented players.
The Celtics are 17-7 through 24 games — good for fourth place in the conference. Entering Friday night, they’re playing at essentially the same pace as last season (99.2 possessions per 48 minutes vs. 99.6 in 2018-19), but with an average margin of victory of 7.86 (up from. 4.44), which is the fourth-best margin of victory in the league.
But it’s unlikely that the Celtics are satisfied with their early-season successes. And if they hope to crash the Milwaukee Bucks’ party and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, they’ll need some to add some depth to their frontcourt.
Despite being nearly 30 percent of the way through the season, the Celtics still need to shore up the center position. They entered the season with a by-committee approach from the beginning and they’ve stuck to it so far by starting Daniel Theis a whopping 18 times, Kanter three times and Robert Williams twice. Theis averages 21.8 minutes per game, compared to Kanter’s 15.8 and Williams’ 14.2. While the three-headed monster approach can be successful, they lack a true difference-maker.
They’ll need a more skilled and versatile center to put pressure on opposing big men like Joel Embiid and Al Horford, while also keeping the floor appropriately spaced. While good centers are hard to come by, the Celtics could package some combination of their rookies and future picks to entice a trade partner.
And it would be in their best interest to do so. Just look at their record against the Philadelphia 76ers this season. While it’s a ridiculously small sample size, their 0-2 record against Philadelphia, who boasts probably the biggest and best frontcourt in the league, should scare them into adding a big man before the deadline – and maybe as soon as this Sunday.
Brooklyn Nets (13-11) — Neither
The Nets have surprised folks, too — but unlike the Celtics, they did so through early struggles. With the newly acquired Kyrie Irving in tow, the Nets started the season by winning only four of their first 11 games – during which time, Caris LeVert suffered an injury, followed by Irving. And just like that, the sky was falling.
But then something monumental happened, proceedings just stabilized all at once. The Nets have won nine of their last 13 games since Irving’s injury. Spencer Dinwiddie stepped up, averaging 25.1 points per game in Irving’s absence. But it’s not all Dinwiddie. Since Irving went out, the Nets are 13th-best in net rating – compared to 20th with him in the lineup – and their chemistry looks much improved.
And what’s more, the Nets can still look forward to adding Irving back into the rotation. While they’ve struggled with him thus far, it’s not entirely Irving. After all, Irving’s return represents a major talent who was averaging 28.5 points and 7.2 assists per game. Dzanan Musa and Theo Pinson, too, have largely failed to fill in as the backup point guard too.
Sure, it’s going to take time to figure out their identity with Irving suited up. And the team must also welcome back LeVert and Wilson Chandler, who is set to return from a 25-game PED suspension on Sunday. But those are great problems to have.
Fortunately, the Nets’ 2019-20 season was always a placeholder until Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury. The team shouldn’t worry too much about a playoff run and, instead, they should be squarely focused on building exceptional team chemistry. And adding or subtracting to a newly-formed roster is a terrible way to do so.
Thus, playoffs or not, the Nets should spend the next three or so months learning one another’s styles and identifying their best rotations without tinkering.
New York Knicks (5-20) – Sellers
The Knicks are very obviously a dumpster fire. They have failed to properly develop their young talent through 25 games this year and prioritized playing time for a slew of their recently signed veteran free agents. Additionally, they panicked after a couple of 30-point losses and decided to fire coach head coach David Fizdale.
There are probably more firings to come. Rumors have begun to circulate about the job security of team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. But regardless of who’s at the helm, the Knicks must move many of their recent signees to capitalize on their favorable contracts.
The vultures have already begun to circle. According to SNY’s Ian Begley, interested teams could be willing to part with a late first-round pick in exchange for Marcus Morris.
The team should also begin shopping Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock (who has been injured so far all season), Elfrid Payton and even Julius Randle. Cashing in on any of those players would be helpful to a team that is clearly still in the early stages of a rebuild.
And they should be looking to acquire young players who are still viewed as projects — like the Orlando Magic did with Markelle Fultz last season — and/or draft picks. Nothing else. Fit does not matter. Bring in as much talent as you can and see what sticks.
Philadelphia 76ers (19-7) – Buyers
The 76ers are another Atlantic Division buyer.
Despite losing Jimmy Butler to Miami and JJ Redick to New Orleans, the 76ers entered the season with extremely high expectations — and they’ve mostly lived up to them. They are 18-7 overall and 7-3 against teams who are .500 or better. Joel Embiid is better than ever and Al Horford appears to be hitting his stride in Philadelphia. Further, Josh Richardson has looked like an extremely promising fit when healthy and rookie Matisse Thybulle has performed better than anyone could have expected.
So what do the 76ers need to add? One thing: Shooting. The 76ers rank 26th in three-point attempts and the team is currently lacking a Redick-level three-point threat. We’ve all seen opposing defenses, as the Raptors did in the 2019 playoffs, go under screens and sag away from Ben Simmons. Expect more of that. And expect teams to willingly pack the paint to affect Embiid, Simmons and Horford until the team surrounds them with more shooters.
The 76ers should be targeting guys like Kevin Love, Robert Covington, Danilo Gallinari, Marcus Moris, Davis Bertans and even the aforementioned Reddick – any of whom would be an excellent addition if the 76ers could put together an acceptable offer. But that’s where things get challenging. Remember, the 76ers have approximately $126 million tied up in their core five (Embiid, Horford, Simmons, Richardson and Tobias Harris) for 2020-21.
Toronto Raptors (16-8) – Sellers
This may be an unpopular opinion, but this at its core, shouldn’t teams either compete for championships or set themselves up to do so? Obviously that’s easier said than done and there are a number of teams that don’t adhere to such strategy because of the primary driver of profitability.
That being said, the Raptors are coming off a championship and just lost a player that many believe is one of the three best alive. In all likelihood, they’re not quite ready for primetime again, despite what their record suggests. Toronto’s primary focus now should be building around their young talent and adding even more to a team that is already ahead of schedule.
Their roster isn’t well-aligned from an age standpoint, anyway. Their 25-year-old centerpiece (Pascal Siakam) and relatively young core are on a different trajectory than aging stars Kyle Lowry, 33, Marc Gasol, 34, and Serge Ibaka, 30. What’s more, Gasol and Ibaka are on expiring contracts that’ll be chased by contenders looking to add versatile big men – like Boston.
Lowry is different given what he’s meant to the team and the entire city of Toronto. There is a clear benefit to keeping him on as a locker room leader and having him retire a Raptor. Even if they wanted to move Lowry, it would be challenging as he’s signed through next season.
But that doesn’t mean that moving him isn’t worth exploring. Plenty of contenders would benefit from Lowry’s services, even with another season at $30.5 million. Lowry can still lead a team and he’s a fearless competitor. Cooler, the former All-Star has played better this year than in the previous two seasons, scoring 19.1 points in 37 minutes of action per night across 13 games.
Considering how unlikely the Raptors are to win the Eastern Conference again, they should seriously consider moving at least one of their slightly-older stars. It could be one of their last opportunities to add additional building blocks. And as we saw last February and in previous seasons, contenders make silly deals as the trade deadline approaches.
December is an extremely exciting time for the basketball world. Christmas Day represents the sport’s first real prime time opportunity of the young season. But for many, the holiday comes nine days early as teams can begin trading players who were signed last offseason.
But it doesn’t stop there, intensifying in the lead up to the Feb. 6 trade deadline. So let’s all sit back and enjoy the best time of the year, all kicking off in just two days.