In celebration of the holiday season, what better way to welcome in Thanksgiving as an NBA fan than to praise the team you love the most.
We are still early in the 2020-21 season, but teams are already starting to establish themselves as either potential contenders, teams on the rise or squad betting on a ping pong ball.
Nonetheless this is a season for being thankful so in this two-part series we will start by taking a look at the much-improved Eastern Conference. Going in alphabetical order, I’m going to share what I believe fans should be thankful for regarding their favorite Eastern Conference team through the first 20 games. Let’s get started!
Atlanta Hawks: The Rise of Cam Reddish
In a solid Year three for forward Cam Reddish, he has come off the bench for the Hawks and impressed so far this season. Reddish is posting a career-high 11.8 points thus far on 40.9% shooting from the field and 36.3% shooting from three.
The most impressive part about this efficiency is that these are the best shooting splits he’s had since entering the league in 2019, but he is playing the least minutes (23 minutes) than he has in either of his previous two seasons. Reddish is due for a potential rookie scale extension this season and is slowly starting to prove that he will be worth the money.
Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum Starting to Catch Fire
Entering this season, many believed that this would be the season where All-Star forward Jayson Tatum would take that next step into becoming a legitimate MVP candidate. Unfortunately to start the season he hadn’t really played like a potential MVP candidate. Through the first ten games of the season, Tatum was averaging 23.5 points on 39% shooting from the field and 32% from three. Not bad in terms of All-Star numbers, but surely does not put him in the MVP discussion.
But over the course of the last four games, Tatum has begun to catch fire. The Celtics are 3-1 in their last four games and over that time, Tatum has averaged 33.5 points on 50% shooting from the field and 38% from three. If the last four games are an indicator of who Tatum will actually be this season, it will be hard to leave him out of the MVP discussion by Christmas at the earliest.
Brooklyn Nets: The Kyrie Irving Situation is in the Background
The media is finally starting to slow down on all the Kyrie Irving talk. Entering the season there was not a single sports news outlet that was not using Irving’s vaccination status as a headline.
Now 18 games in for the Nets, all the talk is around how Brooklyn sits atop the Eastern Conference with Kevin Durant looking like a leading candidate for MVP next to Stephen Curry. Considering all the drama at the start of the season, this early stretch of success is just what the Nets needed to quiet down the media and prove most consider them to be the favorites to come out of the East.
Charlotte Hornets: Miles Bridges Emerging as a Potential Lead Guy
It was reported that this past offseason, Miles Bridges passed on a four-year, $60 million contract offer by the Charlotte Hornets. By doing so, he came into this season betting on himself with hopes that he will play himself into a heftier contract either from the Hornets or elsewhere. Well so far, betting on himself looks like the right call.
Thus far Bridges is having a career-year and looks like a lead candidate for the Most Improved Player award. Through 19 games he is averaging 20.8 points (7 points better than last season) along with 7.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals which are also career-highs. Most impressively, Bridges has asserted himself as lead option on the Hornets next to second-year sensation Lamelo Ball.
Behind Ball, Bridges is second on the team in usage rate at 23.5% despite most coming into the season viewing him as maybe Charlotte’s fourth best player. Bridges is playing way above expectations, and it could lead to him being a $100 million man this upcoming offseason.
Chicago Bulls: Demar DeRozan is Playing Like an MVP
Entering the season, most basketball analysts believed that it was wrong for the Chicago Bulls to give Demar DeRozan a three-year, $85 million contract. But through 18 games, he looks like he is worth every penny thus far. The 12-year veteran is averaging career-highs in points (26.3), free throw percentage (89.4%) and three-point percentage (35.6%) all while being on a Top-3 team in the East.
DeRozan has been a huge help in alleviating some of the offensive responsibilities on Zach LaVine and in turn has become the Bulls’ closer in late-game situations. According to this week’s Kia MVP Ladder on NBA.com, DeRozan is 4th in the running behind only Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic. Chicago has made a lot of acquisitions over the last year to help make this team competitive and appease LaVine but picking up DeRozan may easily be the best of them all.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland is Coming into His Own
Outside of 2021 No.3 overall pick Evan Mobley looking like a beast before injuring his right elbow, Darius Garland is easily the most exciting thing about the Cavaliers right now. After a solid sophomore campaign last season, Garland has only gotten better with the absence of Collin Sexton.
This season he is averaging 18.2 points, 6.8 assists, 2.5 rebounds along with 1.3 steals. When you watch him play alongside veteran guard Ricky Rubio, the Cleveland offense just runs smoother, and he has been able to play much more assertively on the ball. Although you hate to see a high-volume scorer like Collin Sexton go down, it may have been a blessing in disguise for Cleveland who may be looking to move on from Sexton this offseason and hand the key over to Garland.
Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham Starting to Show Why He Was Taken No. 1
After missing the first four games with an ankle sprain, it has taken some time for 2021 No.1 overall pick Cade Cunningham to catch stride.
But through 14 games he has shown flashes of why most viewed him as the consensus top pick. He has finished with 15 points or more in seven games including a season-high 25 points along with eight rebounds and eight assists in a loss against the Sacramento Kings. Cunningham also recently had his first triple-double of his career with 13 points, 12 rebounds and ten assists in the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Detroit Pistons may not be doing well in the winning column, but they have to be happy with the early signs of greatness displayed by their top draft pick.
Indiana Pacers: Chris Duarte Making a Strong Rookie of the Year Candidate Case
As part of an Indiana Pacers team that has not changed much from last season, Chris Duarte is the only new wrinkle in this team. Domantas Sabonis still looks like a double-double machine. Myles Turner is still a solid rim defender and is knocking the three down at a solid clip. But Duarte gives this Pacers team another blue chipper to soak up the lost TJ Warren minutes while also being a better defender than Warren.
Duarte has started 15 of the Pacers 17 games and in that time he is averaging 13.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and is shooting 38.8% from three. According to Sportingnews.com, their recent rankings have Duarte at 7th in the Rookie of the Year race as an honorable mention. But if he continues to produce at a high level, one thing he can say is that he is a real contributor on a playoff team which Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Evan Mobley can’t.
Miami Heat: Looks Like Bubble Tyler Herro is Back
After setting a high bar for himself in the NBA Bubble two seasons ago, last season was considered as an underwhelming for Tyler Herro by most. This season, Herro has bounced back in a big way and has been a major part of the Miami Heat’s early success this season.
Thus far, Herro is averaging 22.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game which are all career-highs while primarily coming off the bench. With a stat line like this, Herro should be considered as a Top-5 candidate for 6th Man of the Year and should be in the mix for Most Improved Player considering his significant jump across the board.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo Still Cannot Be Stopped
This is pretty expected considering is a 6-foot-11 beast, but the Milwaukee Bucks have needed MVP-level Giannis Antetokounmpo this season more than ever. Coming off their championship run and a quick turnaround, the Bucks have been bitten by the injury bug early.
Through 18 games, Khris Middleton (8 games missed), Jrue Holiday (6 games missed) and Brook Lopez (17 games missed) And that does not even include Donte DiVincenzo who is still out due to a torn ligament in his left ankle.
So Antetokounmpo continuing to dominate with 26.9 points, 11.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists and nearly 1.9 blocks has pretty much been the only thing keeping the Bucks afloat so far this season.
New York Knicks: Retaining Derrick Rose Has Been a Lifesaver
The best way to say this is that Kemba Walker still does not look like himself. Walker is averaging 11.4 points on a career-low 9.8 attempts per game. He has not been aggressive offensively and has been relatively pedestrian all season outside of shooting 40.7% from three. Thankfully the Knicks also retained Derrick Rose in the offseason to rely on another perimeter shot creator.
Despite coming off the bench, Rose is averaging more points (12.0), shot attempts (10.6), and is shooting better from the floor (45%). Getting Walker seemed like the saving grace of New York’s offseason but bringing Rose back has quietly been the most impactful move of the Knicks’ free agency.
Orlando Magic: Cole Anthony Looking Like a Real Long-Term Piece
Entering this season, Cole Anthony was seen by most as an inefficient, difficult shot taker waiting to have his job taken by incoming rookie guard Jalen Suggs. Instead, Anthony looks here to stay as he has not only outplayed Suggs, but he has easily been Orlando’s best player this season.
Through 16 games played, Anthony has skyrocketed from 12.9 points last season to 19.6 points a game this season. He has also increased his rebounds from 4.7 to 6.8 and his assists from 4.1 to 5.9. But most impressively, Anthony has improved his efficiency despite shooting at a higher volume. He has jumped from 11.7 attempts a game on 39.7% shooting from the floor to 16.1 attempts on 41.6%.
After struggling as a rookie, Anthony is starting to assert himself as a potential long-term part of this Orlando Magic rebuild
Philadelphia 76ers: Tyrese Maxey Embracing, Taking Advantage of Increased Role
In the absence of All-Star point guard Ben Simmons, it was well known coming into the season that the Philadelphia 76ers would need more from second-year guard Tyrese Maxey. But even with some of the flashes we saw last season, not many could have anticipated Maxey to get off to such a hot start.
Through 18 games, Maxey is averaging 18.7 points which is third on the team behind Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid who have both missed at least five games. Everyone talks about the impressive 50-40-90 season that his teammate Seth Curry is putting together thus far, but Maxey isn’t far behind. Maxey is shooting 51% from the floor. 39.3% from three and 88.5% from the free throw line.
In short, Maxey has been the Sixers most reliable player while growing into one of the team’s most important pieces this season.
Toronto Raptors: Scottie Barnes Living Up to Being Taken No. 4 Overall
Toronto Raptors fans and NBA Draft analysts alike were lost for words when the Toronto Raptors elected to pass on Gonzaga point guard sensation Jalen Suggs in favor of Scottie Barnes. There is only a small sample size to go off of but so far, the Masai Ujiri and Raptors seem to have made the right decision.
So far, Barnes is considered to be the lead candidate for the Rookie of the Year award as he is averaging 14.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. In terms of his comparison to Jalen Suggs, Barnes is beating him out in nearly every category while also being a much more impactful defensive player thus far. There are still a lot of games left, but thus far Scottie Barnes has lived up to the hype.
Washington Wizards: The Russell Westbrook Trade Paying Early Dividends
Outside of maybe the Chicago Bulls and the Golden State Warriors, the Wizards have easily been one of the most surprising teams in the league this season.
They are Top-5 in the Eastern Conference standing. They surprisingly are a Top-10 defensive team as they are 7th in opponents points per game and 5th in defensive rating. Not to mention they are playing without former lottery pick Rui Hachimura, center Thomas Bryant and Davis Bertans has been limited due to injury. Meaning that when this team gets healthy, they have the chance to go as far as 11 players deep in their rotation.
This kind of depth is something they have been lacking for years and now that they have it, All-Star guard Bradley Beal has a real squad built around him for the first time in his career.
Hi there! My name is Jalon Dixon, but most people just call me Jay. As an aspiring, young sports writer and podcaster, I enjoy discussing sports (mainly basketball and football) and sharing my knowledge with others. Growing up right in the middle of Towson University, Morgan State, Goucher College and others, I have gotten the chance to learn so much about a handful of the different athletic teams that thrive here in Baltimore. I want to be the voice of local fans and teams that may not get the same spotlight as others, but still play a big part in our everyday lives. My motto is “Always Embrace Conversation,” so if you ever want to give me feedback on a piece or even just have a friendly sports debate, feel free to email me! Hope you enjoy my work and maybe even learn something along the way.