A Way Too Early Look: Atlantic Division

In the NBA, November is very very early.  A months worth of games is just too soon to make any definitive conclusions.  Still, we know of the general surprise stories so far that are worth watching.  Just for fun, we’re going to go through each team quickly by division.  Here’s a review of some stories you might’ve noticed (or might’ve missed) from the Atlantic Division:

Boston Celtics: Boston has looked like as a good team as there is in the NBA.  Many have noted that Rajon Rondo has taken his play to the next level based upon his gaudy assists stats but his PER is actually pretty much in line with last year’s (19.2).  Rondo’s assist numbers have been ridiculously high so far (14.2 apg) but he’s given back points, free throws attempts, shot creation from last year.  The net result makes Rondo’s aggregate stats look flat in terms of overall offensive value from last year.  In fact, the real biggest stat gainer for Boston is Shaquille O’Neal, who has been highly productive in his 23 mpg (22.8 PER), his best numbers since 2005-06 in Miami.  Another issue of note is that Doc Rivers, who had usually been very careful in minutes with the Big Three in the past, has ridden them quite a bit so far.  Check the minutes per game of the Big Three (plus Rondo) this year compared to the past few years:

Season K. Garnett R. Allen P. Pierce R. Rondo
2007-08 32.8 35.9 35.9 29.9
2008-09 31.1 36.4 37.5 33.0
2009-10 29.9 35.2 34.0 36.6
2010-11 33.0 38.0 36.3 39.2

None of the the Big Three are playing much better than they have in the past but they’ve maintained their past production so far, while all (and Rondo) are playing more minutes then in most of the past.  Conventional wisdom should tell us that Shaq is due for a little regression (only because he’s playing so well at such an older age), while Rivers will have to reduce KG’s and Allen’s minutes (Pierce may still be able to gut it out near the 36 mpg rate).  It’s not clear if Rivers is looking to ride the team hard early to give them cushion and then rest the star vets over the next few months or whether he intends to go for broke in 2010-11.  In either case, the Celts are serious contenders again but should expect some regression over the regular season because the older players can’t continue to play at this rate all year (whether the reduction comes from injury or a conscious decision to protect them for the playoffs).

New York Knicks: Sure they aren’t great but they look like a real team so far.  Raymond Felton’s nice stats show us that it would behoove point guards with any offensive ability to try to get with Mike D’Antoni.  (Had D’Antoni not despised Stephon Marbury, he probably would’ve gotten Starbury enough stats to let him continue his NBA career a little bit longer).  Landry Fields has also been an interesting and capable rookie, as a quasi-two guard/small forward.  Fields probably cannot keep up his shooting pace (.563% from the field) but consistent with his college stats, Fields is a great rebounder for his size.  It speaks well for Fields (but poorly for the Knicks) that he is their best per-minute rebounders of any regular (8.7 rebs/36 minutes).  Fields is not going to be great but he has a unique enough skill-set to help teams in the NBA going forward.

Toronto Raptors: They still can’t defend but have improved from last year’s historically bad performance but have managed to give back offensively at the same time, which has kept them at the same tepid pace.  In terms of individual performances, Andrea Bargnani has been getting press for raising his scoring average to 21.2 ppg.  There is some concern here, though, because Bargnani’s raise in scoring has met with a decline to a career-low rebound rate (5.0 rpg).  The scoring is up apparently because his shots are way up.  Breaking down the improvement, we see that  has has17.7 shots per 36 minutes, up 3 per game, he is hitting threes at a career-high .420% (though he is actually shooting them slightly less), and has nearly doubled his free throw attempts from last year.  The end result is a career high but not astounding 16.3 PER.  Bargnani has value as a scorer but he’s never going to be a superstar.  Bargnani could be the part of the next good Toronto team but management should be ready to pounce if a contender is willing to offer some good young talent for him.

New Jersey Nets: Another team that is moving from ugly to just below average.  Per Avery Johnson policy, the Nets have slowed the pace way down (to the slowest in the NBA) and allow the seventh fewest points per game in the NBA, though they are actually only 20th in points allowed per possession, which is still way better than last year’s disaster.  Meanwhile, a healthy Devin Harris has returned to his 2008-09 numbers and Kris Humphries is having a breakthrough season so far grabbing 12.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and finally avoiding the foul bug that has plagues him in the past.  Humphries has also completely stopped shooting anything but dunks and put backs (he is at a career low 8.5 shots per 36 minutes but hitting a career high .596 FG%).  His skill set has become so specialized that it’s not clear how real an improvement this is (his free throw attempts are also way down to 2.5 per 36 minutes compared to a career rate of 4.6).  In all, he has a great 18.9 PER but I’m skeptical this will continue.  Also, it appears that Humphries is really eating into Brook Lopez’s rebounds, which are down to a ridiculously low 6.5 per 36 minutes (his career rate was 9.0 coming into the season).

Philadelphia 76ers: The good news is that Doug Collins has coaxed Elton Brand to level near his Clipper years.  How close are the stats?  Well here is Brand in his last full year with the Clipps versus his stats so far in 2010-11, both adjusted to per-36 minute levels:

Year Age MPG FGs FGAs FG% FTs FTAs FT% Rebs Asts Stls Blks Tos Fouls Pts PER
2006-07 27 38.5 7.5 14.2 0.533 4.1 5.4 0.761 8.7 2.7 0.9 2.1 2.4 2.8 19.2 23.1
2010-11 31 33.6 6.6 12.9 0.508 3.8 4.7 0.800 8.4 1.8 1.6 1.3 2.2 3.8 16.9 19.5

Brand isn’t quite what he was.  He can’t score or block shots like he used to but he is definitely an above average player again.  Will this last?  Hard to say but given how bad Philly is right now, his age, his injury history, and his cap killing contract the absolute goal of the season is to dump him for anything with a shorter contract ASAP.  It’s not clear this is possible but the longer he plays well the more possible it is that some contending team might take a gamble.

Despite Brand’s surprise reemergence, Philly has looked like a huge disappointment in two respects.  First, the team has looked awful so far and almost everyone but Brand and Thaddeus Young have been disappointing for the most part.  But the real problem is that most of the young players besides Jruue Holiday and Young have struggled, particularly Evan Turner.  Marreese Speights has not played much and been bad when he did and Turner has looked totally lost, shooting poorly and not doing anything particularly well besides rebounding.  It’s way too early to call Turner a bust but the returns so far are not encouraging and the rebuilding plan hinges on his development.  To Philly’s credit, they have been giving him playing time to see what he’s got.  If he continues to play poorly, however, we may have to worry that Collins bails on him to go for wins, a natural reaction of any competitive-minded coach.  This isn’t wrong in and of itself but the Sixers have to be very careful that Turner is not discarded prematurely, since his future development and his perceived value are both much more important than a run for the eight-seed.

Harlan Schreiber can be reached at Info@Hoopsanalyst.com

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