We’re only weeks away from another exciting NBA season. We thought this would be a good time to get going with a division-by-division preview and see what we have to expect. Sure, predictions are fraught with issues. Facts (and rosters) will change between now and April 2010, which will render some of what we see moot (think Billups, Chauncey and Detroit Pistons last year) but doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to chew up what we have so far. As a fun bonus, we’ll give you our All-Decade starting line up for each franchise. Today, we’ll start out with the Atlantic Division:
1. Boston Celtics: Maybe I’m a pessimist but I’ve always viewed the current Celtics core as on borrowed time. They were better than I realized in 2007-08 and while they regressed a bit last year, they were still quite good (and might’ve repeated but for Kevin Garnett’s injury). Of course things like that happen when you get older. Injuries aside, the key difference between the 2007-08 Celts and the 2008-09 was defense. Boston went for an otherworldly and NBA best 98.2 defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) to a very good 102.3 rating in 2008-09 (second overall). Can the Celts get back to the 2007-08 defensive level? Well, Garnett is older but they still have some nice young defenders in Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, not to mention assistant coach and defensive architect Tom Thibodeau. But it’s not clear that such great defense is sustainable long term. Since 1979-80, over 20 teams have racked up a defensive numbers under 100.0. The vast majority of these teams declined the next year and declined even further the following season.
The notable exceptions to this rule:
-The 2002-03 Pistons had a 99.9 rating and hit a ridiculous 95.4 the following season before declining the next three seasons.
-The Tim Duncan Spurs were under 100.0 every season from TD’s rookie year (1997-98) until 2007-08. In that span, the Spurs stayed under 100.0 but only improved their defensive rating on a year-to-year basis in 1998-99, 2000-01, and 2003-04.
-The Nets of 2001-02 (99.5), 2002-03 (98.1), and 2003-04 (98.0) are the only team since 1980 to improve its defense in three consecutive years while also staying under 100.0 each season.
Turning back to the Celts, it’s not impossible that they get back under 100.0 in 2009-10 but it’s not probable, particularly with the likely decline of the aging stars. Boston should still be pretty good. They’ll win the Atlantic handily and have an outside chance of beating the top two teams in the conference but they are not the title favorites anymore.
-PG, Rajon Rondo 2008-09: 11.9 ppg, .505 FG%, 5.2 rpg, 8.2 apg, 18.8 PER
-SG, Ray Allen 2008-09: 18.2 ppg, .480 FG%, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 17.3 PER
-SF, Paul Pierce 2005-06: 26.8 ppg, .471 FG%, 6.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 23.6 PER
-PF, Kevin Garnett 2007-08: 18.8 ppg, .539 FG%, 9.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 25.3 PER
-C, Raef LaFrentz 2004-05: 11.1 ppg, .496 FG%, 6.9 rpg, 1.2 apg, 17.3 PER
2. Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers are in a very weird place. They looked to have the move of last off-season when they poached Elton Brand to add to a solid young core. Instead, it was a disaster. Brand looked sluggish and out of place with Philly’s running attack with Andre Miller and the team slumped. After Brand’s injury, interim coach Tony DiLeo went back to running and the team finished strong and did as well against the Magic as one could reasonably expected in the playoffs (losing in six games). After the playoffs, the players, for the most part, only expressed how much they didn’t like DiLeo. DiLeo was an administrative guy so we wouldn’t expect him back regardless of how well he coached but it seemed strange to blame him when the team played much better under his leadership. Miller, their best player, is now gone to Portland and the Sixers are hoping to replace him internally with Louis Williams. They also have a new coach in former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, a running based coach himself.
Philly is not a bad team but it’s not quite clear what they are building towards. I guess the hope is that they get just enough out of Williams at the point to support a decent front court of Brand, Andre Iguodala, and Thaddeus Young. This is not a bad core but the line up is not well balanced. They shot a rather gross .318% from three, despite shooting over 500 less attempts than opponents. Philly made up for this by making a ton of free throws and keeping opponents off the line. If Philadelphia does nothing to its roster, the Sixers are good enough to stay around .500 and be a decent lower rung playoff team. I think the move here is to trade excess frontcourt to fix the backcourt. In this case, the likely candidate is Young, who is talented and cheap but is sure to earn a big deal and does not rebound enough to supplant Brand in the short term (only 5.3 rebs/36 minutes) or Iguodala, the team’s star at small forward.
-PG, Andre Miller 2007-08: 17.0 ppg, .492 FG%, 4.0 rpg, 6.9 apg, 18.4 PER
-SG, Allen Iverson 2005-06: 33.0 ppg, .447 FG%, 3.2 rpg, 7.4 apg, 25.9 PER
-SF, Andre Iguodala 2007-08: 19.9 ppg, .456 FG%, 5.4 rpg, 4.8 apg, 19.0 PER
-PF, Chris Webber 2005-06: 20.2 ppg, .434 FG%, 9.9 rpg, 3.4 apg, 18.4 PER
-C, Dikembe Mutombo 2001-02:11.5 ppg, .501 FG%, 10.8 rpg, 1.0 apg, 16.0 PER
3. Toronto Raptors: Toronto is a team in flux. Bryan Colangelo is feeling pressure to field a good enough team to entice Chris Bosh to stay in town right at the time when their reasonably good team is falling apart at the seams. Toronto was decent enough both offensively and defensively the prior two season but in 2008-09, they were poor in both categories. Given this general failure, it’s not clear that a single bold move can fix the problem. The Raptors plan seems to be:
-Hope Bosh and Jose Calderon stay healthy and continue to play well
-Hope Andrea Bargnani develops into a good player
-Hope Hedo Turkoglu is the missing piece to generally lift Toronto back to the playoffs
-Fill in the roster with some decent role players (Jarrett Jack, Rasho Nesterovic, Reggie Evans, Marco Belinelli, Amir Johnson) and DeMar DeRozan
Toronto’s plan is not ridiculous but it does seem to have some fatal flaws. On a most basic level, Bargnani and Turkoglu are not that good and are unlikely to lift the Raptors to the 50-win plateau. Looking at Bargnani’s rate stats, we see a decent player who can score. The hope that he’ll be the next Dirk Nowitzki is unfounded. Bargnani will be 24 this year and has not developed quickly. By way of comparison, at age-23, Dirk scored 23.4 ppg and had 9.9 rpg while Bargnani had 15.4 ppg and 5.3 rpg. If we were to see a big leap forward, it would’ve shown up the stats. Meanwhile, Turkoglu is 30 and, despite some nice playoff moments, was thoroughly average (and actually worse overall in the playoffs).
What we have here is not a happy year for the Raps. They will be on the fringes of the playoffs in short term but are stuck with a ton of money invested in Bargnani and Turkoglu long term. This team, as currently constituted, is a 40ish win team. There is a good shot, however, that Colangelo cashes in Bosh if he believes that there is no way to re-sign him. If that is the case, Toronto falls down to New York/New Jersey level.
-PG, Jose Calderon 2007-08: 11.2 ppg, .519 FG%, 2.9 rpg, 8.3 apg, 20.5 PER
-SG, Tracy McGrady 1999-00: 15.4 ppg, .451 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 3.3 apg, 20.0 PER
-SF, Vince Carter 2000-01: 27.6 ppg, .460 FG%, 5.5 rpg, 3.9 gp, 25.0 PER
-PF, Chris Bosh 2007-08: 22.3 ppg, .494 FG%, 8.7 rpg, 2.6 apg, 23.8 PER
-C, Antonio Davis 2000-01: 13.7 ppg, .433 FG%, 10.1 rpg, 1.4 apg, 16.5 PER
4. New York Knicks: Progress is relative. The Knicks of 2008-09 were a marked improvement over the circus that existed in New York the last few years. The Knicks had a coherent plan, a coach with a system and strategy, and a general sense that the Knicks mattered and knew what they were doing. Of course, the team still isn’t good and the present doesn’t matter as much as clearing cap room and getting good players for next decade. While the Knicks looked okay on the court last season, they were bad defensively (23rd) and, surprisingly, below average offensively too (17th), though the offensive problems were disguised by the frenetic pace.
Going into 2009-10, not much has changed. They have the same guys who can run and chuck but they were killed by bigger opponents, being out hot blocked by 230, out rebounded by over 300, and giving up .480% shooting. In fact, the Knicks had over 100 less blocks than the second worst shot blocking team (Milwaukee) and the Knicks’ 204 block were the fewest for a team we could find in a non-lockout NBA season since the stat was first tracked back in 1973-74. The hope is that Darko Milicic and Jordan Hill provide some help on the low post to allow the Knicks to make a playoff run. While it’s realistic to expect the Knicks to be in the mix, adding a decent rookie and Darko isn’t quite going to be enough to get a core of Chris Duhon, Larry Hughes, Al Harrington, and David Lee into the playoffs. This is just a placeholder for the future and not so deep down, management and the fans know this. Expect another team year of mid-30s in wins and hope Donnie Walsh figures out some way to dump Eddy Curry or Jared Jefferies for cap relief.
-PG, Stephon Marbury 2004-05: 21.7 ppg, .462 FG%, 3.0 rpg, 8.1 apg, 21.9 PER
-SG, Allan Houston 2002-03: 22.5 ppg, .445 FG%, 2.8 rpg, 2.7 apg, 17.7 PER
-SF, Latrell Sprewell 1999-00: 18.6 ppg, .435 FG%, 4.3 rpg, 4.0 apg, 15.7 PER
-PF, Kurt Thomas 2002-03: 14.0 ppg, .483 FG%, 7.9 rpg, 2.0 apg, 16.7 PER
-C, Marcus Camby 2000-01: 12.0 ppg, .524 FG%, 11.5 rpg, 0.8 apg, 20.9 PER
5. New Jersey Nets: The Nets are sort of in the same willful rebuilding mode as the Knicks but they have other issues that New York does not. The Nets rebuild has had some nice moments: trading Jason Kidd for the better Devin Harris, drafting Brook Lopez, and getting a nice young shooting guard in Courtney Lee. But there have been some ugly moments, namely trading Richard Jefferson for Yi Jianlian and pretending that Yi might be a viable starter. A fan of the Nets can’t take issue with starting over and trying to save money but dumping RJ for pretty much nothing? Having a ridiculously bad front court? One would hope they could do better than Bobby Simmons and Yi. The irony is that with even an average frontcourt, the Nets might’ve been in the playoffs last season. But sneaking into the playoffs, while nice, doesn’t address the larger problems about the financial future of the franchise.
It appeared that Bruce Ratner was out of capital last year to invest in payroll or to keep the long talked about move to Brooklyn alive. Alas some hope is coming in Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who should be around to fund the move and, perhaps, raise payroll. In the short term, the Nets look quite good with Harris, Lee, and Lopez but the lack of forwards will keep this team lottery bound. On the bright side, the team will have a ton of cap room this summer, a rich owner, and portions of a good lineup. Without real forwards, the Nets will struggle but the focus, again, is rightly about 2010 and beyond.
-PG, Jason Kidd 2002-03: 18.7 ppg, .414 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 8.9 apg, 22.2 PER
-SG, Vince Carter 2006-07: 23.8 ppg, .454 FG%, 5.7 rpg, 4.5 apg, 21.8 PER
-SF, Richard Jefferson 2005-06: 19.5 ppg, .493 FG%, 6.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 18.9 PER
-PF, Kenyon Martin 2003-04: 16.7 ppg, .488 FG%, 9.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 18.7 PER
-C, Brook Lopez 2008-09: 13.0 ppg, .531 FG%, 8.1 rpg, 1.0 apg, 17.9 PER