1 Hot Take for Every NBA Team After First Week
One week of the 2020-21 NBA season is in the books, which can only mean one thing: A volcano of hot takes is about to erupt.
Over time, these will either prove premature rushes to judgment or prescient premonitions. But for now, we think we know enough to make spicy-hot assessments about every squad in the Association.
So grab a jug of ice water and prepare to stomach these habanero-laced evaluations.
The Take: The Hawks will fly into the playoffs and soar past the play-in tournament.
It's been three games and three wins—by a total margin of 38 points—for the ATL's finest.
Trae Young is so fiery hot he's been assigned a specially designed flame-retardant uniform. (Seriously, who averages 34 points on 53.1/42.1/91.3 shooting? Sheesh.) Atlanta's offensive depth is overwhelming (eight players are averaging double figures), and the Hawks have only had one game each of Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo and Clint Capela.
At this rate, forecasting an end to Atlanta's three-year playoff drought isn't hot enough. So our crystal ball goes a step further and sees the Hawks bypassing the play-in tournament by securing a top-six seed in the Eastern Conference after three straight finishes of 12th place or worse.
The Take: Boston's equal-opportunity offense is out; a top-three usage rate for Jayson Tatum is in.
Boston's days of running an egalitarian offense under head coach Brad Stevens are in the rearview. This is Jayson Tatum's team—and more specifically, Jayson Tatum's offense.
The supporting cast carries a defensive slant. Kemba Walker's return from a knee injury is foggy and won't be rushed. Jaylen Brown can pump in points, but he's best in a Robin role to Tatum's Batman.
Tatum, who veered toward superstardom late last season, has never posted a top-20 usage rate. But with his offensive responsibilities climbing in both the scoring and distributing departments (31.7 usage percentage, tied for 11th), he'll rocket into that range and wind up shouldering a top-three workload.
The Take: Brooklyn's offense features a pair of top-five scorers.
When debating whether Brooklyn should make a move for James Harden, one of the loudest dissenting opinions revolved around the Nets' impressive depth. But with Spencer Dinwiddie likely shelved for the season with a partially torn ACL, that depth isn't nearly the same.
While we could turn this take into something Beard-related, we'll instead gamble on the Nets solving this in-house by juicing the offensive oranges of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. You know, because they're Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Brooklyn's uber-dynamic duo has masterfully looked the part so far. They are collectively providing 56 points per game on shooting rates even NBA 2K legends couldn't match: 53.2/69.2/84.0 for Durant and 61.1/56.0/100.0 for Irving.
With Dinwiddie out, head coach Steve Nash should put even more on the plates of his stars and, in turn, produce the first set of top-five scoring teammates since Durant hit that mark with then-Oklahoma City Thunder running mate Russell Westbrook in 2011-12.
The Take: The Hornets should unload assets for an impact big man.
There's a distinct humming sound bouncing off the buildings in the vicinity of Charlotte's Spectrum Center. Buzz City isn't quite buzzing yet, but it took two major steps in that direction this offseason with the drafting of LaMelo Ball and the signing of Gordon Hayward.
Now, the Hornets need to correct the critical imbalance of this roster. They need an impact big man in a bad way—and that was true even before starting center Cody Zeller fractured his hand.
Rather than waiting for 2021 free agency, Charlotte should aggressively attack the trade market in search of the center who could get this club into at least the play-in tournament.
Could the Hornets pry Nikola Vucevic from the Orlando Magic? Would a move for LaMarcus Aldridge make sense? Can the money match up for an Al Horford exchange? We're not sure how this gets done, but a bold trade for a notable 5 could transform that hum into a full-fledged buzz.
The Take: Zach LaVine won't be in the Windy City past the trade deadline.
Zach LaVine isn't the root of Chicago's problems; he's just emblematic of them.
While a gifted scorer, a serviceable setup man and, of course, a highlight machine, he has no business being anyone's first offensive option. The issue is the Bulls don't have anyone ready to dethrone him. Coby White is erratic. Lauri Markkanen has shown flashes but has long battled inconsistency. Patrick Williams is a rookie. Otto Porter Jr. is, well, Otto Porter Jr.
With LaVine itching for his first taste of the playoffs, and Chicago—no longer headed by the front office that brought LaVine to town—stumbling out of the starting block, a split might be best for both sides. He has two years left on his contract, which is enough security for someone to sacrifice the assets needed to pluck him away from the Bulls.
The Take: There's a Most Improved Player finalist on this roster.
A lesser hot-take purveyor might seize the opportunity here to make some joke about packaging the inevitable cooling of Cleveland's hot start as a bold take. That's not our style.
Instead, we're buying into the growth of this young core—more specifically, the collective development of the backcourt.
Collin Sexton is pairing a top-20 scoring average (25.3 points per game, 13th) with a sizzling 53.5 field-goal percentage. Darius Garland is averaging a cool 18.5 points on 48.3/45.5/100.0 shooting while dropping 7.8 dimes against just 1.8 turnovers per game.
Maybe the clock will strike midnight and they'll turn back into pumpkins at some point. But we'll buy the sustainability for at least one of these young guards to make a surprise appearance in the top three of the Most Improved Player award voting.
The Take: Luka Doncic is about to make (more) history, this time by averaging a 30-point triple-double.
Two-plus years into what's already shaping up to be a legendary career, Luka Doncic is in that rarefied air in which hyperbolic speech seems impossible. Want to predict an MVP honor for the 21-year-old? Yeah, so does everyone else. Want to say he'll pilot a historically efficient attack? He did that last year.
Let's aim bigger, brighter and bolder.
Let's predict that Doncic will become just the third player ever to average a triple-double across an entire season. Oh, and let's tack on a career-best 30-point scoring average to the stat line because the Mavs might need all the point production they can get with Kristaps Porzingis battling a knee injury and the roster lacking a clear-cut third option.
Incredibly, even a prediction of historic proportions may not qualify as a super-bold take to some since Doncic nearly pulled this off last season (28.8 points, 9.4 boards and 8.8 dimes per game). Still, calling for an All-NBA first-teamer to simultaneously set personal bests in all three categories while posting a stat line only twice seen in league history should qualify as a hot take—even for Doncic.
The Take: Michael Porter Jr. should pace Denver in points.
Denver's front office hasn't wavered in its belief in Michael Porter Jr., who's effectively been off-limits in trade talks. Head coach Michael Malone has played it more cautious with the sophomore forward, forcing him to earn minutes by showing he can positively impact the game in areas beyond scoring.
That's an understandable approach for a coach, but Porter is a bucket-getter at heart. And the Nuggets might quietly have an opening for the former top prospect to jump to the top of the point-production pecking order.
Nikola Jokic can be hesitant to call his own number, which should perhaps be expected of the best passing big man this league has ever seen. Jamal Murray has long encountered hot and cold streaks, and those won't automatically disappear just because he had a great 2019-20 postseason. If Porter can stay on the floor—he logged a season-high 40 minutes Tuesday night—he might be the most natural No. 1 scorer on the roster.
The Take: Detroit spent wisely on Jerami Grant.
Every offseason seems to produce a "He got how much?" contract. While some might ascribe the 2020 distinction to Gordon Hayward's $120 million pact, at least he had an All-Star selection in his past and the name recognition that comes along with it.
Jerami Grant, on the other hand, packed a single-digit career scoring average and significantly more reserve appearances than starts into his carry-on luggage for a trip to Detroit that netted him a whopping three-year, $60 million contract.
Heads were turned. Eyebrows were raised. Scathing reviews were written. But...uh...maybe the Pistons knew what they were doing?
Throw out his deer-in-the-headlights nine-point debut and Grant has delivered scoring outputs of 28, 27 and 27 points. He shot 49.1 percent, snared 23 rebounds, blocked six shots and swiped three steals in those three contests. He looks, quite frankly, exactly like the player the Pistons thought he could be.
"Jerami was a guy who was No. 1 on the list to go after," Pistons general manager Troy Weaver said. "His versatility is growing. He has budding offense. ... He's professional. He's a great teammate. All the things we embody."
Golden State Warriors
The Take: It's time to start talking Stephen Curry trades.
If the Warriors hope to get back to being light years ahead of their competitors, they need to forget about the past.
Yes, they've previously formed a championship core around Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But the last (and only) time those three keyed a title run without Kevin Durant was in 2014-15. That's a lot of years, two devastating leg injuries for Thompson and perhaps a Draymond decline ago.
It probably feels premature to contemplate the nuclear option of a Curry trade—and perhaps it is—but NBA existences move at such a rapid rate that too soon can become too late in a hurry. James Wiseman flashes aside, Golden State's supporting cast isn't inspiring much confidence, and the club's financial hands are tied in a way that making any external improvement will be a challenge.
Dreams of the 2020-21 title were dashed as soon as Thompson tore his Achilles, which puts the Warriors at a crossroads. They can either spend the next year developing young talent and crossing their fingers about Thompson and Green returning to form in time to maximize what's left of the 32-year-old Curry's prime, or they can flip the two-time MVP for a mountain of assets that hopefully morph into a championship core down the line.
As hard as this will be for Warriors fans to hear, the second door might be the more rational gamble.
The Take: Christian Wood is for real, and there are multiple All-Star appearances in his future.
While a James Harden-based hot take might be the popular path to take, the only one that might qualify is that they shouldn't and won't broker a bearded blockbuster. But even Houston can probably admit a huge trade is coming sooner than later.
Shifting focus down the roster, then: Hello, Christian Wood!
The lanky forward is already legitimizing his late-season push with Detroit in 2019-20—and making the Pistons look foolish for not footing his new contract. But their loss is the Rockets' gain as Wood again looks unguardable and hyper-versatile: 27.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals per game on 54.8/57.1/66.7 shooting.
While the shooting rates might lose some helium, the volume can not only sustain and might also increase once Harden moves out of Houston's offensive orbit. With numbers like these, Wood has all the makings of an All-Star, and he could get the first of several invites this season.
The Take: Domantas Sabonis is a full-fledged MVP candidate.
Let's all make a pact to stop doubting the Pacers until they give us an actual reason to do so.
There were reasons to think this might be a step-back season in the Circle City—Victor Oladipo's uncertainty, Myles Turner's mentions in trade rumors, T.J. Warren's move back to the 3, the coaching change from Nate McMillan to Nate Bjorkgren—and yet, the Pacers are again flying high amid a 3-1 start.
Domantas Sabonis is at the heart of this success, and he looks ready to make the leap from All-Star to MVP-caliber superstar.
His stat lines are starting to appear as if they were copied and pasted from Nikola Jokic's game log, and his season averages are at levels only four players (Jokic among them) have previously produced: 21 points, 11 boards and seven dimes per night.
Assuming the Pacers can land among the East's top four—they'll get an internal lift when Jeremy Lamb returns from a February ACL tear—Sabonis could have the numbers and team success needed to sway some MVP votes in his direction.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Take: The Clippers aren't winning a title without upgrading at point guard.
It should be easy to buy the Clippers' championship chances when they're rostering both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Leonard is already a two-time champ and two-time Finals MVP, and for anyone wanting to slander Playoff P, it's worth noting his postseason averages since 2014 feature 23.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
But L.A. won't fully compete for the crown without addressing its glaring void at the lead guard spot.
The Clippers sit 20th in assist-to-turnover ratio, and there's no need for an "it's early" caveat when this club landed 24th in the category last season. Nicolas Batum—i.e., the guy waived by the Charlotte Hornets in November—is averaging more assists (3.5) than any of the Clippers' nominal point guards.
Patrick Beverley has as many assists as games played (four each). Lou Williams is more of a scorer than a distributor. Reggie Jackson is, well, Reggie Jackson.
The Clippers can't count on Leonard and George to be their top scorers, lead playmakers and best defensive stoppers in the playoffs. They must alleviate one of those burdens, and the passing department offers the most room for growth. Without addressing that need, they won't dethrone their Staples Center co-tenants.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Take: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the third-most-important player on the roster.
Considering they're the defending champs, the Lakers are absurdly (unfairly?) loaded with shiny, new objects. Between the offseason additions up front (Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell) and on the perimeter (Dennis Schroder, Wesley Matthews), the preseason breakout of Talen Horton-Tucker and the developmental strides made by Kyle Kuzma, this supporting cast seems significantly stronger than last season's.
But a quiet constant for this club hasn't changed: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is its third-most-important player.
A clean complement to superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Caldwell-Pope's dogged defense and lights-out shooting (56.5/50.0/85.7) should make him the first choice when head coach Frank Vogel fills out his crunch-time dance card around the stars.
The Take: The Grizzlies are playing for next season.
White flag-waving might not technically be allowed one week into a new campaign, particularly by one of the biggest success stories from the last one. But it was never going to be easy for the Grizzlies to keep up in the fully loaded Western Conference, and Ja Morant's ankle injury just sapped all the energy from Beale Street.
Thankfully, the reigning Rookie of the Year avoided a worst-case scenario, but a Grade 2 ankle sprain is still expected to sideline him three-to-five weeks.
That will feel like an eternity for a club that hasn't proved capable of treading water without him (plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions with him, minus-17.4 without) and could field a formidable roster with all of its unavailable players (including Jaren Jackson Jr., De'Anthony Melton and Justise Winslow).
Memphis should give its ailing players all the time they need to return. Developmental minutes for Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman Sr., Jontay Porter and Killian Tillie could all be beneficial in the long run. Favorable lottery odds for the stacked 2021 draft would be even more helpful.
The Grizzlies remain on the NBA's short list of up-and-comers, but a delayed ascension could be a good thing.
The Take: Miami must re-enter the James Harden sweepstakes—and win them.
Three games and three different leading scores for the Heat—none named Jimmy Butler or Goran Dragic. It's supposed to be part of their charm (er...#culture), a way of keeping opposing defenses off-balance with a bevy of capable scoring options.
But it's also born of necessity since this roster lacks a special scoring talent. The Heat could have an avenue to a bucket-getter of the highest order, though, should they re-engage the James Harden pursuit that ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported they aborted.
Miami is on the cusp of championship contention, but it needs that last lift to get over the top. While it might be content waiting to see if that boost can come from within the organization (looking at you, Tyler Herro), that seems too passive an approach for Jimmy Butler's age-31 season.
The jokes might write themselves if Harden hits South Beach, but pairing his offensive brilliance with the two-way versatility of Butler and Bam Adebayo sure sounds like a championship formula.
The Take: This won't be the first or second seed in the East.
Ho-humming consecutive winning percentages north of .730 is almost never advisable, but Milwaukee might be the exception. It might be daring (or just dumb) to doubt the powers of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but let's do it anyway.
The Bucks, off to a 2-2 start lowlighted by a 20-point loss to the New York Knicks, are no longer set up for regular-season dominance.
There's just too much movement on this roster—only three teams returned a lower percentage of their minutes from last season—for the Deer to gallop back into pole position in the East. They're lighter on depth and less connected at both ends, which, again, should've been expected with all the changes.
Now, any team with Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday will never bottom out, so even a slide down the standings shouldn't cut too deep. But as the Bucks build chemistry on defense and experiment on offense to work around past playoff falters, their loss total will swell in ways it hasn't the past two seasons.
If they're better prepared for the postseason, though, they won't be the least bit worried about their seed.
The Take: Anthony Edwards should make room on his mantle for the Rookie of the Year award.
It probably shouldn't be a hot take to claim the No. 1 pick is the Rookie of the Year favorite, but it's not like the selection of Anthony Edwards was followed with rapturous reviews.
"While scouts around the league have acknowledged Edwards' talent and likelihood of producing, many have questioned his ability to play efficiently or impact winning after he shot 40.2 percent and Georgia finished 13th of 14 teams in the SEC," B/R's Jonathan Wasserman reported.
It's too early to tell if Edwards can impact winning or if that's even possible on a Timberwolves team already weathering another wrist injury to Karl-Anthony Towns and not getting a great return on the investments made in Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver or Juancho Hernangomez.
But there's already evidence of the red carpet rolling out to steer Edwards to Rookie of the Year honors. He paces all NBA freshmen in points (15.0) and shots per game (13.8), ranks highest among rotational rookies in usage percentage (24.2) and is getting the sixth-most minutes per game (25.3). That's an award-winning recipe.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Take: A lack of firepower will keep the Pelicans out of the playoffs.
There may not be a more fascinating team in basketball than New Orleans, a club rostering arguably the game's most fascinating youngster in Zion Williamson. Tack on Brandon Ingram, who's still improving after winning Most Improved Player, the arrival of gritty veterans Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams and the leadership change to new skipper Stan Van Gundy, and it's tempting to buy this team.
But you can't win in the modern NBA without shooting. And the Pelicans can't shoot.
New Orleans sits dead last in three-point percentage (29.6) and third-from-the-bottom in three-point makes (9.3 per game). The Pels are also connecting on just 66.0 percent of their free throws, which somehow isn't the league's lowest mark. (Seriously, Charlotte? 59.4 percent?).
A bit of positive regression is coming—frigid take: JJ Redick won't shoot 29.2 percent from three all season—but the starting five might have one legitimate spacer in Ingram.
Williamson's explosiveness, Adams' muscle and the defensive might of a Bledsoe-Lonzo Ball backcourt aren't enough to hide this fatal flaw, which will keep the Pelicans, who have just one triple-digit score through four outings, out of the playoffs for the third straight season.
New York Knicks
The Take: Julius Randle is headed to the All-Star Game.
There are myriad ways to enter a new season. Julius Randle apparently opted for the shot-out-of-a-cannon route.
He flirted with a triple-double in the opener (17 points, nine assists and nine rebounds). He has scored at least 25 points in each of the three games since. He paced New York in points and rebounds (and tied for the team lead in assists) during its 20-point drubbing of Milwaukee. Then he thumped Cleveland with a 28-point, 12-board, 11-dime triple-dub, hitting all four of his three-point attempts in the contest.
This is how someone shifts the conversation from "good stats on a (probably) bad team" to "I don't care about the record; dude's an All-Star." He's averaging better than 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists so far, and that's a stat line only three players have previously produced.
Send the All-Star invite already.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Take: Isaiah Roby belongs in the circle of trust.
We know, we know: It's just one game. But it's also a third of OKC's entire season—and what a game it was.
Isaiah Roby, the 45th pick in 2019, received a spot start in place of Al Horford on Tuesday and immediately came, saw and conquered with 19 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal. He also obliterated Nikola Vucevic's ankles and then drove from the top of the key to thunder down a dunk, which feels kind of noteworthy for a 6'8" center with a 7'3" wingspan.
B/R's Jonathan Wasserman once described Roby as a "skilled big who can make threes and put the ball down to attack closeouts" while also praising his "bounce around the rim," lateral quickness and shot-blocking. That sounds an awful lot like an intriguing modern big man, no?
Roby could be on the Luguentz Dort path, going from roster afterthought to no-brainer keeper.
The Take: Orlando's next All-Star is Markelle Fultz.
Remember when Stephen A. Smith called Markelle Fultz "the biggest bust in NBA history?" About that...
For whatever reason, Fultz could never get right with the Philadelphia 76ers, but it's been the complete opposite in Orlando. He turned enough heads last season to score a $50 million contract extension this offseason, and that already looks like a bargain buy for the Magic.
He's big, athletic, decisive with the basketball and disruptive on defense. Oh, and he's 3-of-5 from distance his last two times out, so stay tuned on that front.
A nightly supplier of 18.3 points and 5.8 assists in what's just his second year in an NBA rotation, he has star potential the likes of which Orlando hasn't seen since Dwight Howard resided in Disney's backyard. Fultz's ceiling stretches higher than Nikola Vucevic's ever reached, and his offense holds more promise than a healthy Jonathan Isaac's.
We're not just on board with 2017's No. 1 pick. We see him becoming the Magic's next All-Star representative.
The Take: Philly's ceiling stops short of a title without an offensive upgrade.
If Joel Embiid plays 60-plus games, he'll be a top-five MVP finisher. He's that talented, and the extra breathing room allowed by the Sixers' upgraded shooting moves the big fella closer to the unguardable ranks.
The defense is ferocious, too. Philly sits fourth in defensive efficiency, and it still has room to grow. It's the kind of unit that can support a championship run—or could if the Sixers ever added their missing second scorer.
Tobias Harris isn't the second option on a contender, and Ben Simmons isn't aggressive enough to fill that role. Philly, which somehow sits 28th in offensive efficiency despite Embiid averaging 28.3 points on 62.4 percent true shooting, shouldn't just hope Harris suddenly leaps into full-fledged stardom or Simmons engages his personal green light.
It should look outside the organization for a missing piece like, say, the three-time scoring champ who's already looking at it.
The Take: The Suns will host a playoff series and play in at least two.
If Phoenix isn't stocked up on champagne bottles yet, this would be the time to place a bulk order. There could be several bubbly-soaked celebrations on deck as the Suns seem poised to not only snap their decade-long playoff drought but also to keep the postseason party going beyond the opening round.
Look, there's always some danger in putting the cart in front of the horse, but when Chris Paul is piloting said cart, it's almost assuredly headed in the right direction. Twelve of his first 15 NBA seasons featured a playoff berth, including each of the last 10. The floor general should push his personal streak to 11 as he makes full use of all the firepower around him in Phoenix.
The Suns are already 3-1 despite Devin Booker shooting 30.8 percent from three, Paul shooting 40.5 percent from the field, Deandre Ayton barely touching the scoring column (11.5 per game) and No. 10 pick Jalen Smith already battling an ankle injury.
The growth potential is real, and it's spectacular.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Take: Carmelo Anthony doesn't need regular minutes anymore.
Carmelo Anthony's NBA return made the short list of 2019-20's better stories, but—as is often the case—the sequel isn't nearly as good as the original.
The veteran forward has encountered a clunky transition to the second team, and his scoring specialty is no longer special enough to cover his shortcomings. He's a defensive liability and an offensive black hole. The Blazers could stomach that combo when they were clinging to faint playoff hopes last season and desperate for supplemental scoring. Both are no longer the case.
The forward spots have trended up with the additions of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr., and they aren't even hitting their outside shots yet. Bubble breakout star Gary Trent Jr. deserves significant minutes, and Rodney Hood should get a chance to soak up what's left behind. Portland will eventually need to clear space for Nassir Little and Zach Collins, plus it might want to experiment more with Harry Giles III.
That's a ton of depth to sort through, and those who play well with others should rise to the top. Anthony's isolation-based approach doesn't simplify the game for anyone, and his defensive limitations exacerbate the challenges at that end.
He's fine to have around for depth, which everyone will need in this season, but the normal rotation no longer needs him.
The Take: Sacramento snagged the draft's best player with the 12th overall pick.
All aboard the Tyrese Haliburton hype train. He's the 2020 draft's early win shares leader and a nightly jolt of energy and efficiency to a Kings club that should remain in or near the playoff picture all season.
"He plays beyond his years, and we all have the utmost confidence in him with the ball," Sacramento point guard De'Aaron Fox said. "... He's only played four games in his career, and you would have thought he's played a few years already."
Haliburton had a jack-of-all-trades reputation, with the backhanded compliment suggesting he was the master of none. Well, that doesn't exactly mesh with his 56.0/50.0/100.0 shooting slash, nor the colossal gap between his 5.3 assists and 0.8 turnovers per game.
The Kings are 6.3 points per 100 possessions better with him than without. That's the mark of an impact player, which is exactly what they found a dozen picks into the talent grab.
San Antonio Spurs
The Take: The Spurs skipped the rebuild and instead reloaded on the fly.
With DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay traversing through their 30s, it was fair to wonder when San Antonio might ignore its competitive itch and turn the keys over to its young nucleus. But who said the Spurs couldn't do both?
Gregg Popovich is a coaching savant, after all, so perhaps no one should be surprised to see him masterfully blending the squad's past, present and future together. The result is a fun 2-1 start in which DeRozan leads the team in minutes but the under-25 trio of Lonnie Walker IV, Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson rank second, third and fourth, respectively.
The narrative around the Alamo City is changing. The Spurs seemed like obvious sellers with a quartet of veterans on the last years of their contracts, but they might win enough to actually justify buying at the deadline.
Either way, their youth figures to play a prominent role in a season that could very well end with a playoff berth—or at least a play-in tournament appearance.
The Take: Toronto has tumbled out of the East's elite tier.
The Raptors have just enough holdovers from their 2018-19 title team to still hold them in championship-level regard. But they don't belong in that discussion any longer.
They have the season's worst offense, and it's not close. Kyle Lowry continues to win his fight with Father Time, but Pascal Siakam's leap has transformed into a free-fall, and Fred VanVleet looks nowhere near the $85 million player the Raptors are paying him to be. Siakam is shooting just 39.3 percent from the field; VanVleet is down at 36.4. Neither is clearing 34 percent from distance.
Those players, plus OG Anunoby, are supposed to be the bridge to Toronto's next contender. But the Raptors suddenly seem in need of major change.
Since the Giannis Antetokounmpo dream is over (at least for 2021), Toronto should be thinking long and hard about a massive in-season move. Without one, this club will struggle to be more than a feisty first-round test for one of the East's actual elites.
The Take: Mike Conley is back, and he's ready to be Utah's difference-maker.
Mike Conley was supposed to fix the offensive issues in Salt Lake City last season. But when his production lagged behind expectations, he instead became the scapegoat for any problems that popped up.
One year later, though, everyone's favorite he-should-have-been-an-All-Star is hooping like he's making up for lost time. His 19.3 points per game are the third-most of his career, and Utah has needed every last one with uncharacteristically turbulent starts by Donovan Mitchell (32.3 percent shooting from the field) and Bojan Bogdanovic (34.0).
"He's ... him," Gordon Monson wrote of Conley for the Salt Lake Tribune. "Fully acclimated. Wholly adjusted."
If positive regression is bringing Conley back to his grit-and-grind glory days, then he can still be the last piece of the Jazz's puzzle. Get him in a Big Three with Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, let Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Royce O'Neale fill in the cracks, and Utah can make the jump from pesky playoff opponent to heavyweight title contender.
The Take: The Wizards are broken beyond repair, and they won't fix themselves without trading Bradley Beal.
It's. Not. Working.
Washington should've seen this coming. This team was barely a road bump in the Eastern Conference last season despite squeezing more production than ever out of Bradley Beal. The issues ran deep enough that the offseason tweaks were never going to be enough.
Russell Westbrook hasn't played for a top-three team since he teamed with Kevin Durant, and even the most optimistic scouting reports on Deni Avdija had nary a mention of any transcendent talents.
Of course, if the Wizards had self-diagnosed their predicament, then Beal wouldn't be calling the District home right now. Instead, they clung to the belief they could build a winner around the All-Star guard. Four straight defeats—including two to Orlando and one to Chicago—debunk that myth.
This roster needs an overhaul, and only the sacrifice of Beal can bring back the rebuilding tools needed to right this sinking ship.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.