NBA Preview: Atlantic Division Previews– Celtics and Nets

This Friday I am starting my NBA previews!  I know, I know– the NFL is going already and the NBA seems so far away, but doing these only weekly with 6 divisions to get through I will need to get an early start on it.

In my previews I like to go through division by division, team by team.  I’ll go in alphabetical order.  So we begin today in the Eastern Conference, Atlantic Division, which brings us to. . .

The Boston Celtics

Last Year: Finished 25-51 good for 4th place in the division.  Leading scorer: Jeff Green (16.9 points), Leading Rebounder: Jared Sullinger (8)m Leading Assist: Rajon Rondo (9.8)

Changes: Added– Marcus Smart, James Young (Draft), Tyler Zeller & Marcus Thornton (trade w. Cleveland & Brooklyn), Evan Turner (signed),  resigned–Avery Bradley, Joel Anthony (player option picked up), Lost– Kris Humphries (sign & trade to Washington), Jerryd Bayless (free agency to Bucks)

Positions:

Point Guard: Rajon Rondo, Marcus Smart, Phil Pressey.

The big question here isn’t really if Rondo will be traded, but when and for what.  Pressey didn’t show much of anything last year, so that would leave Smart as the projected starter once Rondo is moved out– the Celtics may have to bring back a veteran of some variety to simply fill in minutes here at least off the bench, though they may start Smart to try to develop him and acquire someone else who can play the point to back the rookie up.

Rondo is an amazingly talented player– quick, tenacious on defense, one of the best ball distributors in the league, capable of amazing stat line that put him in sentences that read like “third player to do X, joining Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain”.  But he doesn’t make sense in a young, rebuilding mode team– Rondo is at his best when he is dishing the ball to proven shooters, and he has proven unmotivated to fill up the stat sheet on a bad team rather than a contender.  There’s a reason his best performances are in the playoffs, and I have no doubt that by the end of the season he will be on a playoff team.

Shooting Guards: Avery Bradley, Marcus Thornton, James Young, Chris Babb

The plan here is pretty clear– Bradley is a young, athletic defender who the Celtics seem to think can still develop into an offensive game.  Thornton projects to be a useful scorer off the bench, which leaves rookie James Young to take garbage minutes and have few chances but not a lot is expected from players at his draft range.  Exactly how much of a chance he gets will say a lot about Brad Stephens development style that will be critical in this rebuild.  Babb is a bottom roster player who should get less than then 10 minutes per game he got last year, if he remains on the roster.

Small Forwards: Evan Turner, Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans, Chris Johnson

Jeff Green is a journeyman– better suited to being an overqualified role player on a good team as he has been in previous stints with the Celtics and the Thunder than the team’s leader.  Turner should start here, and pairing him with Bradley at the two makes a lot of sense. If Green starts, expect the Celtics to try to push his stats to flip him as a trade asset.  Wallace and Bogans are both past their primes– both also might have some value on a contender for defense and leadership, however the Celtics are not a contender.  I fully expect them to try to make trades with one, two, or all three of Green/Wallace/Bogans, though Wallace’s contract is an albatross of a deal.  Johnson is young, but averaging 6 points in 20 minutes last year does not project well going forward.  I don’t expect much playing time until/unless some other threes are moved out.

Power Forwards: Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynek

Is it strange that three out of the four starting spots seem to feature veterans that the Celtics will be looking to swap?  Because here again, I don’t really expect Bass to finish the year on this roster.  Bass’s best years are behind him, but he has an average shot and the boy type to play stretch four with average post skills.  The C’s will be looking for a contender with a larger power forward looking to add shooting at the spot in a trade, but I definitely rate his value lower than Green (and of course far lower than Rondo) but depending what trades the Celtics make he will likely be thrown in one way or another.

Taking him out of the equation that leaves Sullinger to start– going into his third season Boston will be hoping he can bring up his 13/8 average towards the 16/10 range.  Olynyk is a body at both the four and five who has shown some competency, plus he’s listed as seven foot flat, so I expect him to continue to take minutes as a backup to both positions.

Center: Tyler Zeller, Victor Faverani, Joel Anthony

Zeller is the clear starter here.  He is obviously the projected future (at least for now).  Faverani is in the mold of “non scoring backup”, and Anthony is woefully undersized.  The fact that Joel Anthony started games deep in the playoffs on Miami a few years ago is a testament to his effort and motor, but those teams were poorly constructed and lacking in size– with Zeller backed up by Faverani/Olynyk I don’t expect Anthony to see any play.

Outlook: This year should feature one or more trades, and end with the Celtics deep in the lottery for the second straight year.  Long term, the future looks bright– the Celtics have younger players at every roster spot (Smart/Bradley/Turner/Sullinger/Zeller), have extra draft picks (from Brooklyn, Cleveland, and Washington), and will project to pickup both a high draft pick this year as well as a high value asset for Rondo.  If that pick and or asset returns a superstar player, and some combination of Turner/Smart/Sullinger/Zeller improve their games by 10-25% then the Celtics could be back in the playoffs in 2015/16 or 2016/17– but there’s not much hope for 2014/15 and that’s the way the management wants it for this rebuild.

The Brooklyn Nets

Last Year: 44-38, 2nd in division, lost round 2 of playoffs versus Miami, Leading Scorer Brook Lopez (20.9); Leading Rebounds: Kevin Garnett (6.3), Leading assists Deron Williams (5.8)

Changes: Added–Markel Brown, Xavier Thomas, Cory Jefferson (purchased draft picks), Jarrett Jack, Serkey Karasov (trade), Bojan Bagdonovic (signed overseas draft pick from 2011), resigned Andrei Kirilinko, Alan Anderson, lost Marcus Thornton (trade), Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, Andray Blatche (free agents)

Positions

Point Guards: Deron Williams, Jarrett Jack, Marquise Teague, Jorge Guitarrez

The question with Williams is always whether he can ever return to the form of the top 3 point guard we saw for so many years in Utah, or the somewhat reduced version he’s been since coming to Brooklyn.  Either way, he’s set to start with Jack as a capable backup.  Marquise Teague couldn’t earn minutes on a Chicago squad with very little in front of him once Rose went down, and I don’t expect he’ll earn playing time here except as an emergency guard or in case of injury.  Guitarrez will play even less.

Shooting Guard: Joe Johnson, Alan Anderson, Markel Brown

The recurring theme again for Brooklyn– can their starter (Joe Johnson here) be what he was when he was a star in Atlanta?  Johnson was down almost 5 points from his peak season (05/06 in Atlanta) last year, but still put up a respectable 15.  This should be fine if you consider him a third option (behind Lopez and Williams).  Anderson has averaged over 10 points per game just once (13/14 in Toronto in 23 minutes), so the Nets will be expecting him to take the majority of Johnson’s backup minutes and hoping to get that level of production.  Brown, the highest drafted player the Nets paid cash for to compensate for their lack of draft picks this year was picked with the 44th overall pick, so he is unlikely to see anything but spot minutes on a team that wants to contend.

Small Forward: Andrei Kirilinko, Bojan Bagdonovic, Sergei Karasev

If that list of players doesn’t tip you off that this team is owned by a Russian billionaire nothing will.  The departure of Pierce here was somewhat unexpected, but barring back issues Kirilinko should be able to fill in well, though with a lower projected scoring total (more like the 12 point range he had as a starter in Utah than the 5 points he averaged last year.)  Bogdanovic may eventually supplant him as the starter– he has played well for Croatia in the World Cup this year, and is an intriguing combination of young and experienced at 25.  I expect these two to split minutes fairly evenly by the end of the season, though if Bagdonivic can push Kirilinko out and supplant him as the starter it could push the Nets to a better playoff seed than otherwise anticipated.  Karasev is a tweener with little experience and no scoring record to date, as with most spots he’s unlikely to see much play.

Power Forward: Kevin Garnett, Mirza Teletovic, Cory Jefferson

It’s safe to say Garnett will NOT approach his Minnesota peak (League MVP) or even his Boston peak (Finals MVP).  Brooklyn will be counting on him for defense and effort, and hoping for an uptick in scoring in rebounding to bring him closer to 10/10 rather than the 6/6 he averaged last year.  The return to his natural position of forward instead of center where he played most of last year after Lopez went down should help with this.  Teletovic can score, but his rebounding is fairly lackluster.  He will be called on to play heavy minutes in backup, however, as Garnett simply will not be able to play true starter level minutes.  Expect Kirilinko/Bogdonivic to see play at the four as well with Johnson shifting up to three and Jack/Williams playing as dual guards in small line ups.  I also expect Mason Plumlee to see play alongside Lopez here in super large line ups.  Cory Jefferson was the 60th pick that Brooklyn bought and I do not expect him to play barring a surprise– players in that range simply do not come into the league and make impacts on teams like this.

Center: Brook Lopez, Mason Plumlee

Lopez is a superstar when healthy.  The Nets will be relying on him to be healthy as much of their depth they projected to have at the start of last season has eroded.  Plumlee is getting quality experience with Team USA and he is an above average backup as well as being young and athletic.  I expect the two to see some play alongside each other under new coach Lionel Hollins who has experience with very big teams from his days in Memphis.   The knocks on Lopez are his rebounding and his defense, but the Nets plan to get those from Garnett.  There’s not a third center listed on the roster, so any minutes that don’t go to Lopez or Plumlee or any injuries will require one of the power forwards to play up.

Outlook: There are a lot of if involved in this team– if this collection of older players can stay healthy, if Lionel Hollins brings in a system that brings out their best, if some combination of Williams/Johnson/Garnett can be a little more like their old selves, if Brook Lopez can finally be a superstar instead of a borderline star or simply injured, if the illegal transfer of Rubles to Slavic players to circumvent the salary cap isn’t discovered (kidding– there is no evidence of this; just a whole ton of Eastern European players on a team owned by a Russian)– well that’s a lot of ifs.  High projections could put the Nets in the 6 seed range again, with a more reasonable expectation is to be competing for an 8 seed in the East.  The hope is that all they have to do is get in, then get healthy and hot for a few months and they could walk away with a title.  I don’t expect it, but its an outside shot– slightly less than we might have rated the 2010 Mavs title chances for instance, though with the advantage of being in the Eastern conference.  If the team misses the playoffs it will be a disaster as they basically have no picks ever for like ever do to all the win now trades they have made.

I’ll be back sometime next week to hit up the Nicks and Sixers, then on deck will be the Raptors and the Bulls as I move over to the Central Division.

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