NBA Preview 2015-16: Atlantic Division

We still have a few weeks left but the 2015-16 NBA season is upon us.  Usually, during season preview time, we like to harken back to the past as well to get a little historical perspective as where each franchise was years ago.  This season, we have a nice historical period to review, the 20th anniversary of my favorite NBA season, 1995-96 .

It is possible that 1995-96 was not particularly legendary but it represented the height of my time as a pure fan in the pre-internet age.  I was young enough to watch every game and follow what was going, and that season had a ton to watch.  First and foremost, 1995-96 is the season of the best team of All-Time, the 72-win Bulls and resurgence of Michael Jordan.  But a lot of other fun and whacky stories were also going on.  In no particular order: the Knicks staged a mini-revolt against their coach, the three best young centers were in the process of switching teams by free agency or trade, Magic Johnson made a forgotten but impressive comeback, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf presaged the modern culture wars by refusing to stand for the National Anthem, Hakeem Olajuwon went for a three-peat, Gary Payon turned into a Hall of Fame player, and a ton more.

As usual, we will do the preview division-by-division and let you know who the real players are (yes, I know that everyone knows that the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs will be really good) and, at the same time, see where each of the franchises stood back in 1995-96.  We also know divisions no longer really count anymore for playoff purposes but divisional preview just work for me.  Today, we’ll start with the Atlantic Division:

1.  Toronto Raptors:The Raptors somehow went from a balanced good team in 2013-14, to an offense-only team in 2014-15.  Toronto was still good but the inability to stop anyone (25th in defense) was a huge problem against the Wizards in the playoffs, who usually struggle to score.  The backup backcourt of Greivis Vasquez and Louis Williams scored particularly poorly and both have been jettisoned.  Still, DeMar Derozan and Terrence Ross were also bad and Jonas Valanciunas’ defense has been declining every year.  The Raps have attacked this with the free agent signings of DeMarre Carroll and even Bismack Biyombo, who should actually get a large amount of minutes to offset some of the other sieves (including Luis Scola).

Carroll is a fascinating test case.  His advanced stats are great for the last two years in Atlanta but he is already turning 29 and there is a risk that his peak will be brief.  The best thing going for Carroll is that he should be taking the starter position from Ross, who has been so poor defensively.  While it is questionable if Carroll will be super valuable, in the short term, he gives Toronto a nice hole filler to keep it near the top of the conference and give it a chance to finally advance to the second round of the playoffs.

-Back in 1995-96:  The Raptors were a rookie franchise.  It is hard to believe that the team with the goofy mascot has been around for so long. It is also hard to believe that in 1995 someone felt that it was a good idea to trust an entire franchise to Isiah Thomas.  The inaugural team was perceived as a success because Thomas nabbed the rookie of the year in Damon Stoudamire and acquired Doug Christie (then a player considered young and full of potential) for trinkets.  The Raptors were bad but they had a nice win against the Bulls to hang their hat on.

So, everything seemed relatively positive, especially compared their sister expansion Vancouver Grizzlies.  Underneath this, though, there was plenty of weirdness.  Isiah hired a few players who were considered hands off by pretty much the whole NBA like Alvin Robertson (who had just choked an executive in Detroit and had all sorts of legal issues).  Then, after the season, Isiah fired coach Brendan Malone for no apparent reason.  At the time, Isiah cited “philosophical differences” but the rumors were either that he chafed under Thomas’ controlling management style and/or he played Stoudamire too many minutes for Isiah’s liking.  Within a year, Thomas also quit Toronto angrily after failing at a takeover bid of ownership.  Thomas left the team with some nice parts (Tracy McGrady and Marcus Camby) but some organizational chaos, a recurring theme in Isiah-controlled teams/businesses.

2.  Boston Celtics:The Celtics plan is sound.  Play and develop a bunch of young assets, amass a bunch of potentially valuable draft picks (thank you, Billy King), and then hope that this bundle of value can eventually be parlayed into a star to build around, as they did when they got Kevin Garnett back in 2007.   This is a good plan and the young players are pretty solid but the star doesn’t always become available and the Celts could ultimately be forced to rebuild with a well-balanced but lower ceiling team (sort of like the recent Pacers teams).

For 2015-16, however, this isn’t a huge issue.  Right now, the Celtics could contend for a playoff spot in the East.  Brad Stevens was able to really step up the pace and keep the team engaged defensively.   Boston will have to continue the improvement, particularly on offense (they were 18th last season).  All signs point positively.  They will have a full season of Isaiah Thomas (who was really effective after coming over from Phoenix) and likely improvement of the youngsters (Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and Marcus Smart).  This isn’t a really good team but they should be a bit better than last season, which makes them solid in the East.

-Back in 1995-96:  In 1995, Boston was trying to rebuild from the Larry Bird Era by giving full control to M.L. Carr.  Carr’s initial plan was to sign aged Dominique Wilkins.  The Celts actually made the playoffs with a very blah eight seed team in 1994-95 but the perception in Boston was not good.  Wilkins fled to Europe and Carr used his cap room to build a team around the hottest free agent of 1995, Dana Barros.  Barros, 27 at the time, was coming off of a very nice season in Philly (20.6 ppg, 7.5 apg) but the season really stuck out compared to his longstanding role as a solid reserve.  Carr was betting that Barros’ jump up at age-27 was real and permanent (Barros was a local Boston guy too, which helped his case too).

On Boston, Barros immediately reverted back to the same decent player he was before 1994-95 and the Celts remained a low 30-win team.  Carr blew up the roster to tank for the 1996-97 season.  Boston was terrible (15-67) but Carr didn’t survive the tanking and was fired after the season for Rick Pitino (which is a whole other story).

3.  New York Knicks:Let’s sort through the noise and hysteria of last season.  Phil Jackson’s twitter rants were usually stupid but the Knicks were not quite as bad as they looked.  Jackson somehow thought that the Knicks could contend for a playoff spot coming into the season with a team with little talent.  Once he saw that this was a bad idea, Jackson correctly shifted to tanking and they got a high pick.  The 2015-16 Knicks won’t be good but they look perfectly respectable with Carmelo Anthony, and solid vets like Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and Kyle O’Quinn.  This should shore up the offense and defense, both of which were awful last season. 

Being respectable will be important for Derek Fisher to keep his job (and for Jackson to avoid barbs from the media) but short term respectability isn’t really what should matter to Knick fans.  All that really matters is whether Kristaps Porzingis develops into a useful player, so that New York is ready to pivot into being a good team in 2016-17 while Melo still is at or near his peak.  Put another way, if the Knicks exceed expectations but don’t play Porzingis, the season would be a failure.  It seems that management understands this but we’ll see how these plans fare when faced with the pressure to win.

-Back in 1995-96:   This was a major transition year for the Knicks.  Pat Riley just bolted town for Miami and the Knicks weren’t sure what to do keep with title window open for the Patrick Ewing Crew.  The Knicks decided that their plodding, defensive team could use a change to Don Nelson’s fast-paced offense.  Nelson didn’t like the offense that consisted of isolations in the post to Ewing or threes by John Starks.

Instead, Nelson decided the offense should run through Anthony Mason and was not a fan of Starks at all.  Riley’s Knicks, were almost religious in their devotion to the defense-oriented approach and these changes were viewed with serious disdain by the players and the fans. In “Garden Glory,” Don Chaney put it thusly: “The toughest thing of all was that the Knicks were programmed to Pat Riley’s system, and it was very, very difficult for them to be deprogrammed.  And it was a problem.”

In “Just Ballin,’” Mike Wise and Frank Isola sum up the problem differently.  They note that Nelson “quickly decided that the Knicks of Ewing, John Starks, and Derek Harper had run their course.  The only problem was, management was not ready to break up its core players no matter how hard Nelson pushed to have Ewing and Starks traded.  Soon, the players carried out a mutiny, led by Ewing.”  Jeff Van Gundy, who was an assistant to Nelson and Riley, felt that Nelson’s only problem was an injury to Charles Oakley, which he felt sent the team into a bad patch that allowed the mutiny to occur.

Nelson was both a genius and a kook.  The Knicks had become stale and needed new blood but Nelson intentionally antagonized Ewing and Starks, when there was no rational reason to do so at the time.  Nelson allowed his philosophical beliefs to undermine his coaching responsibilities and it cost him.

Even today, though, Nelson is in denial.  In a 2007 interview, Nelson told Harvey Aaraton of the New York Times that he was fired for telling management that the Knicks should trade Ewing for Shaquille O’Neal: “I had coached Shaq in the world championships in ’94 and established a pretty good relationship with him.  I knew he wanted to go elsewhere and so I brought this up [at] a meeting with the Garden people.  I said ‘He would come to New York.  It’s going to be Los Angeles or us.  And if we give ‘em Ewing, it would be the best deal Orlando could make.’  Well, somehow that got back to Ewing and after that, I was toast.”

I’m pretty sure the Knicks would’ve traded Ewing for Shaq if this was at all viable.  But Orlando was not making the trade.  Shaq was approaching his peak and was probably the most valuable property in the NBA (hell, the Bulls probably would’ve considered trading Jordan for him at in 1996).  The Magic also offered him a ton of cash in free agency, indicating that they felt they had a good shot of re-signing him.  Bottom line is that Nelson has a unique vision which has succeeded but also failed spectacularly.  In this case, Nellie is bordering on delusional in his decisions.  Nelson was replaced with Van Gundy, who brought back the Riley style and the Knicks did a gradual rebuild around the core, though New York never did figure out how to gracefully transition out of the Ewing Era.

4.  Brooklyn Nets:The indicators here are really crappy.  The Nets need to play well in order to avoid handing over a really plum pick to Boston but the Nets are so deep into the luxury tax that they felt it was better to risk forking over a top pick than paying Deron Williams and his luxury tax bill to contend for the eight seed.  With Williams, the Nets could’ve been around .500.  Now, they are playing Jarett Jack and Shane Larkin at the point.  Yikes is that bad. 

The Nets aren’t totally terrible.  If healthy, Thaddeus Young, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez should keep them in the 30-win range.  The bottom line, though, is that the Nets chose cash savings over an attempt to mitigate the potential loss of their pick.  This isn’t a bad decision considering the luxury tax implications of Williams but it doesn’t make this very fun season for Nets fans.

-Back in 1995-96:  The 1995-96 season was also not fun for the Nets.  The Nets were faced with another money decision.  The Nets had to decide whether to keep Derrick Coleman and his big contract and whether to re-sign impending free agent Kenny Anderson, both of whom had star potential but had some red flags.  Both DC and Anderson had been treated like malcontents after a terrible 1994-95 season, when the Nets took a step back from the playoffs for no good reason.

Coleman wasn’t actually that young in 1995 (he was turning 28) but he had been quite good his first five seasons (19.8 PER).  DC came into the 1995-96 season hinting he wanted to be traded.  He didn’t help himself by coming into camp out-of-shape and being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. On December 1, 1995, Coleman was traded for Shawn Bradley.  Coleman would go on to have a solid career and the concerns about his work ethic mostly disappeared but his star potential faded away quickly.  Bradley got a rap as a bust but he was a solid enough center and he was the base of a big trade with the Mavs that let New Jersey accrue a ton of assets (which were ultimately flipped into Jason Kidd).

As for Anderson, coach Butch Beard slowly began to think that backup Chris Childs was the better player.  Anderson was still a tough offensive player but his defense was weak.  Childs did play well (though his defense didn’t score well by BPM either).  Anderson was traded early in the season to Charlotte for Kendall Gill.  After the season, Portland gave Kenny a big contract and he was very effective in 1996-97 (19.5 PER, 5.5 VORP).  The Blazers flipped Anderson to Toronto for Damon Stoudamire the following season.  Anderson then went into a nomad phase as a solid point guard before retiring in 2004-05.

Ultimately, the Nets were correct to reset the franchise and let DC and Anderson go.  The Nets have not always been the picture of great management but they accurately assessed that they needed to trade their assets while they still could get some value.

5.  Philadelphia 76ers: While this rebuild seems interminable, Philly has only have been terrible now for two seasons.  Being bad intentionally for three seasons is bad but is it really that egregious in the scheme of other rebuilds?  The real problem seems to be that the Sixers have treated their draft picks as fungible that no one believes they will ever be good.

Even though the 2014-15 Sixers won fewer games than the 2013-14 edition, they actually improved significantly on defense (from 26th to 13th) thanks primarily to Nerlens Noel, who almost single handedly lifted up that end of the court.  Unfortunately, the Sixers have had the worst offense two years in a row.  It’s not hard to find the offensive problem.  The Sixers were the second worst three-point shooting team (.320%) and second worst effective field goal percentage (.459%).

In theory, it shouldn’t be too hard to get from awful offensively to merely poor/below average.  In that regard, Jahlil Okafor should be a nice start to improve low post scoring (though the guard scoring will still be a big issue).  The Sixers will be bad but they should improve a little and be set to jump up in 2016-17 with Okafor, Noel, a healthy Joel Embiid (maybe?), and another high pick.  There are definitely worse franchises to root for (though there are also plenty better franchises as well).

-Back in 2015-16:  Hey Sixers fans, perspective is a wonderful thing!  The mid-1990s Philly franchise rebuild was much more awful than the current job. In 1992, the Sixers traded Charles Barkley to Phoenix for way under market value (getting Jeff Hornacek and trinkets).  They then traded Hornacek for even less (Jeff Malone’s last year or so and second round pick).  The end result was that Philly never won more than 26 games in a season from 1992-93 through the 1996-97 season.

In the 1995-96, the Sixers had given control to John Lucas as coach/GM.  Lucas was an energetic coach but his teams were bad and the 1995-96 edition was basically as bad as the current terrible Philly team (18-64, -9.45 SRS).  Lucas, a noted optimist, gave chances to a number of players who were almost out of the NBA (Richard Dumas, Vernon Maxwell) and messed around with other non-NBA players (remember Trevor Ruffin?).

I couldn’t find the old newspaper story but I vividly remember a story that encapsulated the older Sixers.  I am paraphrasing but Jayson Williams told the press that when the Sixers traded for Coleman in 1995-96, DC told Williams he was unhappy to go to such a bad team and that he was going to try to fail his physical to avoid this joke of a franchise.  Williams claimed he told Coleman something to the effect that: “That won’t work, the Sixers are such a joke that if you are injured, they will make you play wheelchair basketball at halftime to entertain the fans.”

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