As 2021 comes to a close (remember when this year was going to be better than 2020?) let’s take a look around the league, setting out some 2022 New Year’s Resolutions for the team in the Eastern Conference.
It might seem apparent, but we’re going to steer away from the blindingly obvious ‘get players back’ COVID related trope that literally every team in the NBA (other than perhaps Utah) could lean on.
Atlanta Hawks (15 wins – 19 losses)
Choose a direction
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has constructed a deep and talented roster since his hiring back in May of 2017. His Hawks are now at a crossroads: do they stick with their current iteration, or do they consolidate some of their assets for a bigger star?
Given the looming tax implications of keeping so many talented young players beyond their rookie deals, a trade seems inevitable at some point in the next 12 months.
The jungle drums continue to beat regarding a Cam Reddish trade. He doesn’t see enough of the ball to maximise his talent whilst playing next to Trae Young, John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Onyeka Okongwu would surely interest a rebuilding team somewhere.
The challenge for Atlanta is who they bring back, should they decide to make a trade. Another player who can reliably create offense is a must, given the Hawks are 29th in 4th quarter scoring, indicating an overreliance on Young.
Boston Celtics (16-19)
Find a way to maximise their tent pole stars
Boston have two of the most coveted assets in basketball: star level, jumbo sized two-way wings. Yet despite the presence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as well as a solid supporting cast, the Celtics continue to disappoint, playing sub .500 basketball to this point.
It’s worth noting that those two 23 and 25 years old, respectively – they have time to work things out. It took LeBron James and Dwyane Wade some time to get themselves singing from the same hymn sheet when they joined forces in Miami, when both were seasoned pros and (especially in Wade’s case) had significantly less to prove.
Right now, though, rookie coach Ime Udoka is having no more success than former coach – and current boss – Brad Stevens in getting his two young stars to dovetail. Finding a breakthrough is vital not just for this season, but for the C’s as we currently know them.
Brooklyn Nets (23-9)
Reintegrate Kyrie Irving
Kevin Durant has been impossible to guard and James Harden is rounding back into something more recognisable. Yet the Nets are still some way short of their best as a group (which is scary when you consider their record). With Joe Harris injured and Blake Griffin’s Indian Summer very much in the rearview, the career best play of Australian Patty Mills has been most welcome in Brooklyn. That said, for all the clutch shooting that Mills provides, he is not Kyrie Irving.
The controversial guard has openly admitted that the decision to forego a COVID vaccination hasn’t turned out as he thought it would from a basketball perspective. But now, with the team willing to welcome him back into the fold as a part time player, they need to devise a pair of game plans: one for (most) away games where Irving will be available; and one for home games where they’ll be without the seven time All Star.
Despite Irving’s talent, that’s easier said than done.
Charlotte Hornets (19-17)
Find a big man
Charlotte are one of the worst teams in the NBA at allowing 2nd chance points. They’re dead last in defensive rating. Both of those stats are indisputably tied into the fact that their most commonly used centres are PJ Washington (a wing playing out of position and defensively suspect in any case) and Mason Plumlee (the best of the Plumlee’s, which is a bit like being the skinniest kid in Fat Camp). Things are so bad that their leading rebounder is their point guard, LaMelo Ball.
It makes sense that coach James Borrego might not think that rookie big men Kai Jones or JT Thor are ready for rotation minutes (his criminal under utilisation of rookie guard James Bouknight is another matter) though in that case it falls on the front office to source themselves a big man on the trade market.
Indiana bigs Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis both appear to be very gettable. Would some combination of Kelly Oubre and either a 1st round draft pick or Bouknight be enough to tempt the Pacers?
Chicago Bulls (22-10)
Turn their Big Two into a Big Three
Firstly, let’s make this clear: Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso should never be a part of any Big Three. They’re fine players and their defense and play making is integral to this delightful Bulls team, but they’re not stars, they’re elite role players. And that’s perfectly fine. Now, back to that Big Three…
Zach Lavine and DeMar DeRozan are brilliant players who stylistically complement each other perfectly. What they need is for Nikola Vucevic to find himself in this new ecosystem. Vooch is averaging 15.8 points per game, by far his lowest scoring output since 2017. Most concerning is his efficiency. His 42% FG% is a career low whilst his 64.1% success rate on 1.6 free throw attempts are his worst since his rookie season in pre-Process Philadelphia. Hardly a defensive game changer, the Bulls need to figure out how to get the best from Vucevic on offense to maximise their surprise success this season.
Encouragingly, Vucevic has put up 18.6 points, 14.2 boards, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals and a pair of blocks over his past five outings, on 52% shooting. He’s starting to look more like his old self.
Cleveland Cavaliers (20-14)
Don’t get ahead of themselves
The Cavs resurgence this season has been nothing short of delightful. Currently sitting 5th in the Eastern Conference, their smothering defense and triple towers lineups have been the talk of the league.
It’s tough to predict how the Cavaliers front office will react to this start, given that for the entirety of this millennium they’ve either been rebuilding or in a LeBron James inspired win-now mode. Hopefully, they understand that this season, whilst impressive, is just the beginning of the maturation of their young stars and that they shouldn’t rush the rebuild.
On a recent podcast, the always insightful John Hollinger suggested a trade that would net Norman Powell from the Blazers. Though an excellent basketballer, Powell’s age (28) doesn’t fit in as either a part of the core or a veteran who can shepherd the youngsters through to NBA maturity.
Rather, Cleveland should use season ending injuries to Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio to see what they have in Isaac Okoro (now able to play at his natural 2-guard position) and whether Cedi Osman hang with a successful team. With all their own draft picks plus some others in their keeping, the Cavaliers re-emergence is only just beginning.
Detroit Pistons (5-28)
Free Jerami Grant
Grant bet on himself by joining the Pistons to be the main man instead of a role player on a contending Nuggets team. Whilst he’s certainly not a first option scorer for a contender he’s certainly proven himself a more complete player than many – including this writer – suspected. That said, the 20 points he gives the Pistons every night serves no real purpose for the worst team in the NBA. His 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks and air tight perimeter defense, however, would serve a contender very, very nicely.
This writer proposed a trade to the Utah Jazz in a column earlier this month, but there are plenty of teams that would gladly give up value for a versatile two way player like Jerami Grant.
Would the Bucks part with a pick and young player to get a massive upgrade on last years influential trade deadline addition in PJ Tucker? Would the Warriors part with one of their three prized youngsters and a pick? Grant would be the perfect addition to Chicago as a capable secondary scorer; he would form a devastating defensive trio with Ball and Caruso. His fit in Utah would be close to perfect.
From Detroit’s perspective, another 1st round pick and a young prospect will only help their rebuild.
Indiana Pacers (14-21)
Shake things up
From Nate McMillan, to the ill fated Bjorkgren era, to the returning Rick Carlisle, it appears that no coach is able to drag this version of the Pacers beyond dreaded mediocrity. So, maybe it really is the players that are the problem.
Rumours abound about Indiana looking to offload one or both of their star front court players, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Sabonis, a two time All Star at age 25, is clearly the better player of the two, though in a mini Ben Simmons type scenario, he’s a difficult skill set to just plug-and-play via a mid season trade. As an elite rim protector who can stretch the floor, Turner would fetch a pretty penny on the trade market, as well. In addition, TJ Warren is a 29 year old who’s reliance on athleticism, combined with seemingly never ending injuries, could see his performances fall away awfully quickly. The trade window in him is very quickly closing.
Malcolm Brogdon also turned 29 a few weeks ago. He’s not nearly as reliant on speed and leaping ability as Warren is, and as a genuine locker room leader, he – along with which ever big man the Pacers decide to stick with – should form the bridge between this generation of Pacers and the (hopefully) next great Pacers outfit.
Of course, general manager Kevin Pritchard could go the nuclear option and trade all four of them, too.
Miami Heat (22-13)
Despite having Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo both miss 10+ games through injury and enduring Duncan Robinson going through an elongated shooting slump, the Heat sitting safely in 4th place in the conference with a comfortable gap to the plateauing Cavaliers. As the Heat get players back on the floor, as Robinson rediscovers his stroke, as Kyle Lowry’s comfort with his new teammate increases, the Heat should only get better.
Heat Tsar Pat Riley is famously aggressive when it comes to chasing rings and with the East wide open and the Lowry/Butler combination not getting any younger, he’ll surely be tempted to push his chips into the middle of the table in trading for a difference making veteran. He’d be wise this time around to keep his powder dry.
Miami’s injuries have allowed then to give increased minutes to Gabe Vincent, Omer Yurtseven, Max Strus (quietly shooting 40% from deep) and Caleb Martin. When the Heat made their surprise finals run in 2020, their lack of depth – especially once Goran Dragic went down – saw their rotation become alarmingly shallow. Blooding those youngsters, along with the eventual return of Markeiff Morris from a neck injury, gives the Heat an enviable depth. Anything they get from Victor Oladipo would be a bonus.
Milwaukee Bucks (23-13)
Maintain their stars
Even before the recent spate of Health and Safety Protocol related absences, the Bucks were one of the most injury impacted teams in the NBA. Each of their formidable top three have missed multiple games, Book Lopez hasn’t been sighted since opening night and Donte Divincenzo is yet to make his season debut.
Despite that, the Bucks are still sitting in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference, with a 14-2 record when all of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday share the court – to this writer, they’re still the title favourite.
With that in mind, coach Mike Budenholzer needs to fight that instinct that all coaches have when injuries hit: leaning too heavily on the stars. In late November through early December, as the absences mounted, Bud started to ramp up the minutes for his star men, Holiday especially. Thankfully, he’s pulled back a little more of late.
The Bucks don’t need to be a top two seed. As long as they can hold onto a top four spot, their priority should be to keep their best players fresh, whilst blooding the likes of Grayson Allen, Jordan Nwora and reintegrating Divincnzo in preparation for another deep playoff run.
New York Knicks (17-18)
Remember when the Knicks were good? That was a fun week.
With New York resorting to their traditional performance levels after a return to the playoffs last season and a strong start to this campaign (any excuse to link this video) the bottom has well and truly fallen out.
Kemba Walker was banished until COVID absences forced his reinstatement – he duly went on to win the Eastern Conference Player of the Week – and Evan Fournier has struggled mightily after a white hot start. Rather than becoming the new Marcus Camby, Mitchell Robinson has regressed, as has RJ Barrett. Predictably, Julius Randle has reverted to form as a good but not great primary option.
This, traditionally, is where the Knicks sell the farm for a Carmelo Anthony or throw a boatload of cash at the fossilised remains of an Amar’e Stoudemire. As much as it’s fun to laugh at the Knicks, this writer sincerely hopes that the team decides to ride out a rough season, rather than trading out their promising youngsters for middling veterans.
Barrett, Robinson, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and the rookies Miles McBride and Quentin Grimes (or ‘Grimey’ as he likes to be called) would all generate a decent return at this stage of their careers. Packaged together they may even bring back a secondary star or two. This time around, with such a solid stable of youngsters, it makes sense for the Knicks to stay the course and bring the younger players along under the tutelage of their existing veterans.
Orlando Magic (7-28)
Don’t change a thing
After years of being the most uninteresting team in the entire NBA, this year’s Magic are – despite their awful record – really fun to watch.
Franz Wagner is an absolute delight. The 6’9” German is a genuine do-it-all type. He started the year as a shooter, has already developed a mean drive game and, with much of the Magic’s roster in Health and Safety Protocols, he’s even playing some point guard. Defensively he’s sneaky good: quick, great size, wonderful hands and elite anticipation, with just a hint of a mean streak coming through.
Throw in fellow rookie Jalen Suggs (rounding into form before injury struck), the resurgent Wendell Carter Jr, the belated emergence of Mo Bamba and the precocious talent of RJ Hampton, and you’ve got yourself a core. That’s before we even mention defensive juggernaut Jonathan Isaac and former #1 pick Markelle Fultz, both due to return from long term injuries at some point this season.
A cursory look at their record tells you that the Magic suck right now. But they’re an exciting team and are only going to get better.
Philadelphia 76ers (18-16)
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE TRADE BEN SIMMONS!!!
A memo to Daryl Morey: In the name of all things good and wholesome, please make it stop!!!
Toronto Raptors (14-17)
To Siakam, or not to Siakam. That is the question. (Shakespeare was a mad hoophead!)
When Toronto dropped a four year $137 million contract on Pascal Siakam, he looked a two way wing on the way up; a very good defender who could develop into a mid 20’s scorer. However, from the moment the ink dried, Siakam plateaued.
He’s still a very good defender – though arguably only the 3rd best wing defender on his own team – but that offensive production proved to be his ceiling, with the Cameroonian regressing over the past two seasons from 22.9 points in his 2020 All-Star season to 19.6 points this time around. Does that make him a poor player? No, of course not. He’s an excellent NBA basketballer. But it does make him overpaid.
In addition, the emergence of OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes has perhaps made Siakam a touch redundant in Toronto. He still has enough cache to be one of the best trade pieces in the NBA should he be made available. What would he bring in, though?
Given the Raptors are dead last in the NBA in assisted baskets at 54%, perhaps they’re missing Kyle Lowry more than they care to admit. Is there a distributor out there that would be a fair trade for Siakam? Would a Simmons move be viable? De’Aaron Fox would be an interesting trade target, should Sacramento decide to hand the reigns to Tyrese Haliburton.
Washington Wizards (17-17)
Reboot Bradley Beal
For the first time since his ascension to true Superstar status, Bradley Beal has a genuinely deep and talented team around him. Unfortunately, it’s coincided with Beal’s worst campaign since his age 22 season of 2016. Beal’s scoring has dropped an even eight points to 23.3ppg, on alarming 28.3% shooting from beyond the arc.
After years as the Wizards Alpha and Omega, the additions of Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Spencer Dinwiddie (amongst others) was expected to significantly lessen Beal’s workload, so a drop in scoring was anticipated. The balance was supposed to be an increased work rate on defense and increased efficiency.
Unfortunately, his off ball defense has remained at best inattentive as Beal averages a career low 0.8 steals a night. Offensively, perhaps the lessened load has seen Beal lose his rhythm? He’s taking around four shots less per game than last season and with Dinwiddie assuming point guard duties he’s also handling the ball less.
Finding a way to get the three time All-Star back to something approaching his All-NBA best is the biggest priority for the Wizards.
This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.