Breaking Down the NBA’s Atlantic Division
This is the second of HOOPSWORLD’s division-by-division previews as we come to the end of the NBA preseason.
Although what happens in the preseason is not entirely indicative of what is to come when the real games get underway, we have seen enough from players and teams to get some sense of where these organizations are headed in 2013-14.
In the first installment, we took a look at the Central Division and continue along by breaking down the NBA’s Atlantic Division.
2012-2013 Record: 41-40
2013-2014 Projected Win Range: 30+
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG — Rajon Rondo
SG — Avery Bradley
SF — Jeff Green
PF — Brandon Bass
C — Kelly Olynyk
With Rajon Rondo on the shelf for the foreseeable future, the Celtics enter play on October 22 having gone 1-6 during the preseason. Losing, at least this year, will be a recurring theme for the proud franchise.
During the preseason, two players who have shown signs, though, are Avery Bradley and rookie Kelly Olynyk.
After missing 50 games over the past two seasons, Bradley has performed admirably, thus far. His signature on-ball defense has been as pesky as ever, but he has surprisingly shown more confidence in his midrange jumper. Although he has not hit shots with the proficiency with which one would hope, most NBA players fire blanks during the preseason. We expect him to continue to progress.
Addressing the media before the Celtics took on the Brooklyn Nets in the preseason, Jeff Green stated that he was ready to take on the challenge of helping to lead this young team. Like the Toronto Raptors’ Rudy Gay, Green must elevate his game if the Celtics are to make any noise this season. Green, Bradley and Rondo are now the franchise players.
As for rookie Kelly Olynyk, as alluded to previously, he has shown that he has the tools and the talent to be a major contributor in the NBA right now. Against both Brook Lopez and Tyson Chandler—two All-Stars—Olynyk has held his own and has shown the requisite patience and polish that a successful big man in the NBA requires. Numbers aside, having a feel for the game is not something that can be measured in a young big. Olynyk, it is clear, has the third best odds of winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award for a reason.
Similar to one-time Celtic Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Jared Sullinger is a young power forward who is not afraid to throw his body around and will always find a way to be effective when he is on the floor. He, along with Courtney Lee, MarShon Brooks, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries completes the Celtics as a team that has nine or ten players on its roster that most teams would be happy to have in their rotation.
Over the preseason, this group has predictably resembled a team that lacks an identity and has been assembled with mismatched parts. With the 2014 draft, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But it will be a bumpy rainbow ride.
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG — Deron Williams
SG — Joe Johnson
SF — Paul Pierce
PF — Kevin Garnett
C — Brook Lopez
Most of the NBA universe is convinced that the Brooklyn Nets will win the NBA’s Atlantic Division this season, but not as many are as confident that the team will be able to make it through the balance of the season without any of its aging core suffering any setbacks. As it currently stands, Deron Williams is battling ankle issues and Andrei Kirilenko has recently begun experiencing back spasms.
Still, even without Williams playing a single minute during the preseason, the Nets entered play on October 22 having won four of their five preseason games. Their offense has looked smooth and the ball is moving—neither of which is terribly surprising considering the willingness of Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to share.
It is probably fair to say that the preseason has not revealed anything new about the Nets. With Kirilenko and Andray Blatche coming off of the bench, Jason Kidd’s team probably has the deepest frontcourt in the entire league. The backcourt, however, leaves something to be determined.
At 36 years old, Jason Terry is coming off of a less-than-stellar season with the Boston Celtics last year and aging guards do not typically improve as time passes. Shaun Livingston and Tyshawn Taylor would each need to play over their respective heads if the Nets are to have a formidable backcourt coming off of its bench. The need for more depth in the backcourt is even greater considering the concerns over Williams’ ankle.
The saving grace for the Nets is Pierce’s ability to play on the perimeter, but potentially extending his minutes is not a good idea for an aging team, so even a scenario where he plays in the backcourt may be a catch-22 for Brooklyn.
Last season, as a member of the New York Knicks, coach Jason Kidd saw firsthand that a team of aging and middle-aged veterans needs to be paced over the course of the regular season. Not wanting to suffer the same fate that the 2012-13 Knicks did—losing in the second round despite having homecourt advantage—expect the Nets to pace themselves over the course of the season and end up somewhere in the 50-win range.
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG — Raymond Felton
SG — Iman Shumpert
SF — Carmelo Anthony
PF — Andrea Bargnani
C — Tyson Chandler
Aside from the absences of J.R. Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Andrea Bargnani have been receiving the most attention from the New York City faithful. Bargnani has already shown some synergy with Carmelo Anthony and Anthony, to his credit, has been making it a point of duty to find the Italian seven-footer.
Bargnani has struggled shooting the ball this preseason, but he has spaced the floor well as a power forward and has recently begun showing the pinch-post shooting proficiency that has been M.I.A. for a short while. As he finds his rhythm and gets more comfortable playing in Mike Woodson’s offensive system, he will progress.
Meanwhile, Hardaway has looked like a springy and energetic prospect who is a dead-eye shooter and a difference maker. Woodson even went as far as to tell the media that Hardaway has played himself into the rotation, and coaches do not normally do that for rookie players, especially not after only a few preseason games. Whether those minutes come at the expense of Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith will be one of the more interesting developments to watch in the early season in New York.
Smith, it should be pointed out, missed the Knicks’s first five preseason games and so has Stoudemire. If both are able to contribute and provide the Knicks with rotation minutes for the lion’s share of the season, the defending division champions will have a solid rotation that could go 11-deep.
And if Stoudemire is unable to? The acquisition of Metta World Peace and the re-signing of Kenyon Martin will pay increased dividends. World Peace has come into camp in shape, hitting his jumpers and walking and talking like a 14-year veteran who has a championship ring. The Knicks need that.
Tyson Chandler has been hitting perimeter shots consistently during the preseason, as well. If that proves to not be an anomaly, the Knicks should have a realistic opportunity to repeat as division champions for just the second time since the NBA expanded prior to the beginning of the 1970-71 season.
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG — Michael Carter-Williams
SG — Jason Richardson
SF — Evan Turner
PF — Thaddeus Young
C — Spencer Hawes
For the Sixers, the most commonly asked question of the team has been whether or not they can avoid the dubious distinction of being one of the worst teams in NBA history. As it stands, that “honor” belongs to the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats who finished the lockout truncated 2011-12 season with just a .106 win percentage.
It is difficult to imagine these Sixers being that bad, but the preseason has done little to assuage those fears.
At this point, it is still difficult to reconcile the franchise trading away a 24-year old All-Star on the upswing in Jrue Holiday. It is apparent that—at least in the era of newly installed president and general manager Sam Hinkie and his head coach Brett Brown—this franchise is not only thinking about tomorrow, they are looking at next week.
In other words: far, far past today.
In the interim, though, it is time to buy stock in Evan Turner. Turner not only enters the season as one of the longest-tenured members of the team, he is probably its greatest talent. He has put forth some great all-around preseason performances and will be expected to do similar things in the regular season.
The play of rookie Michael Carter-Williams is one of the other major storylines to follow in Philadelphia this season. After being selected with the 11th overall pick in last June’s draft, Carter-Williams has received copious amounts of playing time this preseason, but has managed an assist-to-turnover ratio of just 2.75. That must improve. The rookie will have the same opportunity that his predecessors Lou Williams and Holiday did. And the latter two both took advantage of the extended playing time they received early in their careers.
Finally, is the question of Nerlens Noel. With their sights set firmly on the 2014 NBA Draft, the Sixers made the questionable decision of trading the still ascending Holiday for Noel—an unproven prospect who is currently rehabilitating a torn ACL suffered back in February 2013 while he was a freshman at the University of Kentucky.
With news recently coming down that Noel may miss the entire season, the uneventful Sixer-tenure of Andrew Bynum immediately comes to mind. Like Holiday, the Sixers traded a very productive Andre Iguodala for Bynum. Sixers fans saw no fruit from that trade, as Bynum left for the Cleveland Cavaliers as a free agent this past summer.
The Holiday-Noel trade, though, was all about the future. During this very long season in the City of Brotherly Love, Sixers fans will need to be constantly reminded of that. And the team’s overall poor preseason play was a reminder of that.
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG — Kyle Lowry
SG — DeMar DeRozan
SF — Rudy Gay
PF — Amir Johnson
C — Jonas Valanciunas
North of the Border in Toronto, there is a recurring theme: Proving one’s worth.
Head coach Dwane Casey is entering the final year of what may be a lame-duck season and with Andrea Bargnani shipped off to the division champion New York Knicks, the Raptors need to start seeing a return on the Lithuanian-born Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas was selected with the fifth pick of the 2011 NBA Draft and is expected to get ample playing time this season.
In terms of basketball talent, Rudy Gay, the former Memphis Grizzlie, was acquired last season for cents on the dollar. After receiving a five-year maximum contract worth $82 million back in July 2010, the Grizzlies lost faith that Gay could help the franchise get to the next level. So now, he will attempt to rise up and join the conversation of the league’s elite small forwards as a member of the Raptors.
Helping to drag this team to it’s first playoff berth since Chris Bosh did so in 2008 could go a long way toward proving that Gay merits at least some mention alongside the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.
Fresh off of signing a rookie extension for four years and $38 million, DeRozan—one of the mainstays on this team—has the same mandate on him as Gay.
All the way around, it is time to put up or shut up in Toronto.
Fortunately, after winning five of their first six preseason games, the Raptors have shown signs. More than anything, the team has collectively shown fearlessness and aggressiveness with attacking the basket. As a unit, the Raptors have attempted a whopping 33.5 free-throws per game.
The newly acquired Tyler Hansbrough provides incumbent Amir Johnson with another hard-nosed, blue collar banger to give the team some toughness on the inside. If Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields remain healthy, the Raptors may beat out the likes of the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons for one of the lower seeds come playoff time.