Friday, September 18, 2009

Atlantic Division Preview

Posted By on Fri, Sep 18, 2009 at 4:44 PM

We're about six weeks away from the start of the NBA season. Full-scale preview material on the Grizzlies will commence with media day at the end of the month and then with the beginning of preseason. But in the meantime I'm going to post brief previews and predictions on the rest of the league, going division by division at the rate of roughly one a week. First up, the Atlantic Division:

If healthy come May, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will lead the Celtics back to the title.
  • If healthy come May, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will lead the Celtics back to the title.
1. Boston Celtics
Conference Rank: 2nd
Forum Date: Monday, December 14th
Notes: Be still my heart: I only own two sports jerseys. One is a Kevin Garnett Timberwolves jersey. The other is a Rasheed Wallace Pistons jersey. So I guess I'll be rooting for the Celtics this season despite spending my first decade as an NBA fan rooting against the old Larry Bird Celtics. If this team is healthy come May, then they're my pick to take back the title. A frontcourt rotation of Garnett, Wallace, Kendrick Perkins, and Glen Davis has a chance to be the league's best — physical, versatile, experienced. Combine that with two playoff-tested shotmakers (Paul Pierce and Ray Allen), a dynamic, penetrating lead guard (Rajon Rondo), a multi-positional sixth-man type (Marquis Daniels) to keep the vets fresh, and a proven coach (Doc Rivers), and this team has everything it needs to be the last standing.
Pivotal Player: Rondo is a potential question mark because of a bumpy offseason and the lack of a strong backup. But the real pivotal player here is Kevin Garnett, who has an unusual number of miles on his odometer at age 33 and is coming off a season-ending knee injury. If Garnett can get back to 90% of his pre-injury self, he'll ignite what can again be the league's best defense and potentially keep volatile teammates such as Rondo and Wallace on the same page. If Garnett can't make it back, the Celtics can still be a top 4 seed in the East, but would have little chance of going all the way.
Griz/Memphis Connection: The Celtics spent the 58th pick in this summer's draft on Lester Hudson, the Memphis native and UT-Martin grad who was a dynamic scorer at the college level. Hudson is probably a longshot to make a loaded, veteran Celtics team, but he'll take a shot over the next six weeks, and there are few prospective pros more worth rooting for. Hudson tells part of his story — including financing his college education partly through loans, just like a lot of us — to the "Celtics Town" blog.

Are Andrea Bargnani and Chris Bosh a tough enough tandem to lead Toronto to true contention?
  • Are Andrea Bargnani and Chris Bosh a tough enough tandem to lead Toronto to true contention?
2. Toronto Raptors
Conference Rank: 8th
Forum Date: Friday, October 30th
Notes: By adding Hedo Turkoglu to playmaker Jose Calderon, emerging inside-outside scorer Andrea Bargnani, and elite finesse four Chris Bosh, GM Bryan Colangelo is assembling one of the league's more skilled cadre of offensive players and deploying them in a wide-open international-style system. If Bosh is focused on this season and not just free agency next summer, Toronto should be fun to watch and could be one of the league's better offensive teams. But the loss of tough wing Anthony Parker and big Jermaine O'Neal hurts an already mediocre defensive squad. Jarrett Jack and rookie DeMar DeRozan add some physicality on the perimeter and Reggie Evans adds strength to the middle if he can earn minutes. But this team still looks too soft to get out of the first round if they're able to sneak into the playoffs.
Pivotal Player: A former #1 over pick, Italian seven-footer Andrea Bargnani had been a disappointment until midway through last season (not coincidentally, around the time Jermaine O'Neal was traded), averaging 19 points per game from January on and shooting 41% from three. Now a match-up problem at center, he's looking like he could be a bigger, better Mehmet Okur. After rewarding him with a big extension, the Raptors need Bargnani to keep improving and fully tap into his all-star potential. But questions look beyond just Bargnani's own development: Can you win big with a finesse frontcourt tandem of Bosh and Bargnani? And if Bosh leaves next summer, can Bargnani carry the load as a primary scorer.
Griz/Memphis Connection: Marc Iavaroni had such a rough tenure in his first head-coaching job with the Grizzlies that he may have trouble getting another shot at a top job. But no-one's ever questioned his value as a high-level assistant, and he'll return to that post for the Raptors this season under head coach Jay Triano.

The Knicks Braintrust: Mike DAntoni and Donnie Walsh are still the real stars in New York, for better or worse.
  • The Knicks' Braintrust: Mike D'Antoni and Donnie Walsh are still the real stars in New York, for better or worse.
3. New York Knicks
Conference Rank: 12th
Forum Date: Friday, March 12th
Notes: The 2009-2010 Knicks are a hard team to get a read on because the team is so clearly biding its time until next summer, bringing in no veterans of note and resisting resigning its own free-agents to long-term deals. Free of stars, they're like a college team, attention focused less on players than on the suits — coach Mike D'Antoni and GM Donnie Walsh. Last year, D'Antoni revved the team's pace up to second in the league, but didn't have the point-guard play (Chris Duhon/Nate Robinson) to make the offense as efficient as it was fast and didn't have the frontcourt horses to guard the rim (24th defensively) or on the boards (27th). The team added rookie Toney Douglas to address the former and rookie Jordan Hill and retread Darko Milicic to address the later. Do those sound like difference makers to you?
Pivotal Player: Isaiah Thomas made a mess of the Knicks, but he generally drafted well. The early draft returns of his successors are a little shaky. The Knicks took Italian forward Danilo Gallinari with the 6th pick in a strong 2008 draft, ahead of rookie contributors such as Eric Gordon, Brook Lopez, and D.J. Augustin. Gallinari's rookie season was sunk by a back injury and he averaged 6 points and 2 rebounds in only 28 appearances. Meanwhile, Wilson Chandler took advantage of Gallinari's struggles to emerge at the small forward spot. Nevertheless, Gallinari might be the highest upside talent on this roster. As the first pick of the Walsh/D'Antoni regime, his development is important.
Griz/Memphis Connection: It's been amusing to read the national and New York takes on the team acquiring Darko Milicic from the Grizzlies, as many of them suggest that D'Antoni's system could finally bring out Darko's European skills as a perimeter big man. I don't know if those skills were ever present, but they are certainly long gone. Darko is awkwardly offensively but a strong post defender and rebounder when he's healthy and focused. If he — and the teams that employ him — can embrace that role, he can be a very valuable contributor. But if the Knicks think they're going use him as a ball-handling, floor-running, perimeter-shooting offensive cog in D'Antoni's uptempo system, well, good luck with that.

The Sixers hope a healthy Elton Brand can fit in with their open-court athletes.
  • The Sixers hope a healthy Elton Brand can fit in with their open-court athletes.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Conference Rank: 13th
Forum Date: Saturday, April 10th
Notes: The Sixers made a splash in free agency in signing Elton Brand, but Brand had a rocky, injury-ravaged season, averaging 14 points and 9 boards in only 29 appearances. Even when he did play, Brand's floor-bound halfcourt game proved a bad fit with the Sixers' track team of young athletes like Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, and Lou Williams. Brand is looking like a poor fit on what is otherwise also a very young team now that point guard Andre Miller has departed, but the Sixers are stuck with him and his enormous contract. The Sixers somehow made it into the playoffs last season, but it will be quite a challenge for new coach Eddie Jordan to keep them there.
Pivotal Player: With Miller gone, the Sixers are left with two highly questionable point-guard options: Untested rookie Jrue Holiday and former sixth-man scorer Louis Williams. Since Holiday hasn't proved he can play in the PAC-10, much less than the NBA, look for Williams to move into the starting lineup. A super-quick athlete who has been a prolific per-minute scorer, Williams has not demonstrated the playmaking ability to be a starting point guard. The transition from Miller to Williams could be rough for the Sixers. And getting him and Brand to mesh offensively will be key for the Sixers.
Griz/Memphis Connection: Former Mitchell High School star Thaddeus Young has played in the shadows of more established players such as Brand, Miller, and Iguodala through his first two seasons, but could be ready for more of a primary role. Forced to play out of position at power forward last season in Brand's absence, Young needs to move back to the small forward to max out his talents. If so, he could emerge as an all-star caliber pro over the next few seasons.

With Vince Carter gone, Brook Lopez will be asked to become a primary option in the Nets offense.
  • With Vince Carter gone, Brook Lopez will be asked to become a primary option in the Nets offense.
5. New Jersey Nets
Conference Rank: 14th
Forum Date: Monday, March 8th
Notes: You might think the Nets lost a lot of entertainment value when they traded Vince "Half Man, Half Amazing" Carter. But I'd say pairing goofy second-year center Brook Lopez with goofy incoming rookie Terrence Williams has tremendous upside potential in the realm of reality-based entertainment. On the court, the Nets are a team in transition, having jettisoned Carter, Richard Jefferson, and Jason Kidd in consecutive seasons, assembled a new young core (Lopez, Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, etc.), and set themselves up for a major overhaul next summer. This season, as with the Knicks, will largely be focused on figuring out who is part of the long-range plan and who isn't, with playoff contention a longshot.
Pivotal Player: The sixth overall pick in the 2007, Yi Jianlian has only averaged 8 points and 5 boards through his first two pro seasons. This could be a make or break year for Yi. There is little competition for him on the Nets roster and with Vince Carter gone the team has 20 points a game to replace. This means lots of minutes and shots for Yi if he can handle it. If he doesn't make significant strides, the Nets will be forced to play a lot of small-ball again this season — and start looking for a new power forward next summer.
Griz/Memphis Connection: Tiger Hero Chris Douglas-Roberts drifted into the second round of last summer's draft and seemed to be a steal for the Nets. But he struggled to get much run for most of the season. Douglas-Roberts did get a chance late in the season and responded by averaging 11 points a game off the bench. CDR doesn't have NBA three-point range and is a subpar athlete, but his late surge suggested that enough of his idiosyncratic scorer's game can translate for him to have a decent NBA career. The Nets jettisoned Vince Carter over the summer, but added both Courtney Lee and Terrence Williams to their wing rotation, both of whom match CDR's scoring potential with considerably more defense value, which means Douglas-Roberts will be fighting for minutes again.

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