Season Preview: Atlantic Division
By Jay Cipoleti
The Celtics replace one of the best mid-range shooters of the last decade, Kevin Garnett, with Kelly Olynyk, the only player in the 2013 draft who shot above 50% from mid-range last season. That may be the only thing close to resembling a seamless transition.
Like their longtime Western Conference rival Lakers, the Celtics enter the season with a limited baseline to build upon. The trio of Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley and Jeff Green played 536 minutes together over 46 games, posting a very respectable 3.4 Net Margin (105.3/101.9), in line with last season's playoff team average and better than Boston performed overall.
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Did those three benefit from playing off departed stars? Hard to argue that they did not. Can they maintain that level of play as new head coach Brad Stevens plugs in a roster full of new players, implements a new system and welcomes back Rajon Rondo from injury?
There will be 82 opportunities to answer that question this year ... and even that will be different from last year's abbreviated 81 game season.
Two worlds collide this season in the Barclays Center, and we aren't talking about a Bostonian adapting to New York living.
Two playoff puzzle pieces of similar size (minutes played) are being thrown together on the court. How well they fit together will determine how long Brooklyn plays into the postseason.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were on the floor together for 1,459 minutes in Boston's 41-40 regular season. The holdover Big 3 of the Nets -- Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez -- played 1,564 minutes together in going 49-33.
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A best-of-both-worlds fit puts Brooklyn's first five in the elite realm of the 10.0+ Net Margin lineups, a level reached only by Miami, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Indiana last season. A warring-factions fit could leave the Nets in negative Net Margin territory, while a blending of the two somewhere in between puts them comfortably in the playoffs with some work to be done to make the top spot in the East.
The Knicks' 108.6 Offensive Rating ranked third in the NBA last season, despite making only 58.9% of their 2,057 Restricted Area shot attempts. Their 1,212 RA field goals ranked 23rd in the League. Take a couple steps back from the Restricted Area and the Knicks scored even more infrequently, their 491 FGAs and 171 FGMs In the Paint were both NBA lows.
Move out beyond the arc, and particularly above the break, and you find a team that dominated last season. No team held a greater margin from 3-point range than the Knicks at +750 -- the Rockets at +612 were the only other team that outscored their opponents by more than 500 points from deep. While their Corner 3 make rate of 37.8% lagged the 38.9% League average, their 38.0% mark from Above the Break was tops in the East and 2nd only to Golden State's 39.2%.
Gone, however, are Chris Copeland (Pacers), Steve Novak (Raptors) and Jason Kidd (in a suit on the Nets bench). With them went 322 of the Knicks' 891 3-pointers last season. Metta World Peace will take up some of that long range slack, but not all of it. Perhaps Tim Hardaway, Jr can slide into Copeland's rookie role from last year. Maybe J.R. Smith takes on a greater shooting load. It is possible that former Raptor Andrea Bargnani provides an RA scoring presence ... although he attempted three times as many Mid-Range jumpers as Restricted Area shots last year, hitting only 50% of his 60 RA attempts.
More than likely, Carmelo Anthony will again be asked to shoulder the offensive load at a level very few players can maintain. His season Usage Rate of 35.3% led the League -- over the last 20 games of the regular season that increased to 38.2%.
That may make for an exciting season in the Garden, but will not bode well for the Knicks' hopes of playing into June.
Prior to the Draft we identified shot creators and floor spacers as the greatest needs for Philadelphia, in order to reduce their NBA-leading 2,400 Mid Range shot attempts.
Jettisoning Jrue Holiday and his 442 Mid-Range FGAs was a start. Drafting Michael Carter-Williams and surrounding him with a number of young shooters and slashers was also a logical -- and predictable -- step. It mirrors the rebuilding process new General Manager Sam Hinkie helped to execute in Houston under Daryl Morey.
No player on the Sixers roster is older than 32-year-old Jason Richardson, with Kwame Brown (31) being the only other to have surpassed the quarter century mark. There are 11 players on Philadelphia's current preseason roster that are 22 or younger.
Hinkie has assembled the raw materials to build the Sixers in his mentor's image: MCW as the rim attacking distributor; an arsenal of 3-point shooters and wing slashers; an elite rim protector in Nerlens Noel. It appears Hinkie has added his own twist to the formula, placing a greater emphasis on rebounding, judging by the roster makeup.
The only thing missing is the fast forward button. It is no secret the Sixers will experience plenty of growing pains this season. Fortunately they have a fan base widely renowned for their patience.
Of the seven teams that allowed fewer 3-pointers than the Raptors, only the Blazers failed to make the playoffs. Five of those six held teams below 59% in the Restricted Area, including Conference Finals clubs Memphis, San Antonio and Indiana. The Nets, Blazers and Raptors all allowed teams to shoot above 60% in close.
It was not for lack of trying. The Raptors sent opponents to the foul line more than any team in the NBA, allowing an FTA Rate of 0.331. When shooting fouls are not committed in the act of protecting the rim, the result is usually disappointing on the defensive end. That held true for Toronto -- their 104.7 DefRtg was better than only four teams in the East and ranked 22nd in the League.
On the other end, Toronto was one of only four teams to take fewer than 2,000 shots in the Restricted Area, their 1,877 attempts falling short of the Nuggets' 2,016 MAKES.
The emergence of second-year center Jonas Valanciunas over the summer should address the Restricted Area concerns on both ends. Adding veteran banger Tyler Hansbrough gives them a reliable bench big behind Valanciunas, while the addition of Steve Novak (51.6% L3/41.3% R3/40.4% AB3) provides the marksman that was lacking as Toronto shot 35.5% C3/34.2% AB3.
The Raptors finished just four games out of the playoffs in 2012-13. New General Manager Masai Ujiri has quickly assembled a roster that can make up that margin this season.