NBA Preview Atlantic Division– Knicks and 76ers

The New York Knicks

Last Year: Finished 37-45, third in Atlantic Division; Leading Scorer Carmelo Anthony (27.4), Leading Rebound Tyson Chandler (9.6), Leading Assist Raymond Felton (5.6)

Changes: Added: Cleanthony Early (Draft), Jose Calderon (traded from Dallas), Louis Labeyrie Draft), Quincy Acy (trade from Sacremento), Samuel Dalembert (Dallas), Shane Larkin (Dallas), Thanasis Antetokounmpo (Draft), Travis Outlaw (Sacremento),  resigned– Carmelo Anthony, Cole Aldrich, Lost– Beno Udrih (Waived), Jeremy Tyler (traded to Sacremento), Lamar Odom (Waived), Metta World Peace (Waived), Ramond Felton (Traded to Dallas), Shannon Brown (Released), Tyson Chandler (Traded to Dallas)

Note– this is a lot of changes– I’ve left off a few recent signings who aren’t currently listed on the depth chart and who, barring something unforeseen are not likely to make it through training camp.  I’ve also left off some players traded to and then subsequently from the Knicks Roster.

Positions

Point Guard: Jose Calderon, Pablo Prigioni, Shane Larkin

Jose Calderon isn’t a spectacular player, but he did post a higher than career average points last year (11.4, just a point shy of his high of 12.8).  Calderon scores slightly more and assists slightly less than the Knicks last point guard– but I can almost guarantee he gets arrested for felony weapon possession a lot less which might very well be the most important factor in this being a huge upgrade from last year.  Pablo Prigioni was a feel good story as a 37 year old Argentinian rookie, but in almost 20 minutes he averaged less than 4 points.  Shane Larkin scores even less, but as a young player he may provide some upside or development, whereas we know what to expect from Prigioni at this point.  This is definitely a position of weakness for the Knicks, but if new Coach Derrick Fisher and front office head Phil Jackson are actually bringing the triangle offense then that weakness is actually fairly mitigated– the triangle would actually prefer a lesser points guard as it puts the ball in other players hands– Calderon’s career stats and .479 shooting percentage compare favorably to either Fisher himself or Steve Kerr two point guards whose teams had success in the triangle.

Shooting Guard: Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway J.R.

It will be interesting to see who actually ends up starting at this position.  Conventional wisdom suggests that Smith is a sixth man and a bench player and the Shumpert is presumably entrenched as the starter.  That said, Shumpert has not progressed offensively as the kind of high upside prospect the Knicks were hoping he would.  In his first year, Hardaway has already eclipsed Shumpert in scoring and in fewer minutes.  Shumpert maintains a defensive edge, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t end up in a starting role.  If J.R. Smith can keep his head in the game and avoid off the court issues this year, this is a position of strength for the Knicks with two scorers and a strong defensive player to split the minutes as needed.

Small Forward: Carmelo Anthony, Travis Outlaw, Cleanthony Early

Obviously, the Knicks biggest and most significant move of the off season was re-signing Carmelo Anthony.  There are a lot of questions remaining in reference to how Carmelo will fit playing the triangle and just how committed to him the Knicks and Phil Jackson were, but it remains clear that how Anthony does this year will dictate just exactly how far the Knicks can go.  Despite some negative chatter about Anthony’s attitude on the court, he has always been a brilliant scorer, and when dedicated to it a strong team player (ala 2008 Olympics era Carmelo.)  In the triangle, the more athletic wing player spends most of the time with the ball, and while that has typically been a shooting guard under Jackson, here it is clearly Carmelo.

What does that mean for Carmelo?  I would expect his scoring to remain high (Jordan and Kobe both used a high volume of possessions and scored a lot), I would also expect his assists total to go up slightly– the triangle requires more passing from wings than some of the pick and roll and slashing offenses Carmelo has been in before.

Outlaw is fine as a backup, especially as I would expect Carmelo to use the majority of the minutes here.  While there is the question of who would play for any period of time when Carmelo shifted to power forward for “small” line-ups, I don’t expect it to be a large part of New York’s offense– neither the Bulls nor Lakers under Jackson ever spent much time in small line-ups, with the Lakers notoriously using a trio of 7 footers in tandem (Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasal).  I would expect Outlaw’s minutes to be in the 10-12 range, and Carmelo to play most of the time at the three.

How much Early might play, and how the rookie will take to the triangle and the NBA remain to be seen.  Like most rookies on teams who envision themselves contenders, I do not expect very many minutes barring real break out performance.

Power Forward: Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, Quincy Acy

Amar’e managed to average 12 points and 6 boards in 23 minutes, playing 65 games last year.  That’s a  huge improvement over playing only 78 games total the two years before, and a sad state compared to his peaks when he was a 20+ scorer and starter.  He has never been an above average player, and his is not a skill set that has seen a lot of use in the triangle offense in the past so it will be interesting to see how Amar’e is used going forward.

Bargnani much more closely resembles the kind of power forward that Phil Jackson (and presumably Derek Fisher) will use– 7 ft, skilled passer, high shooting percentage and range to his shot.  I envision that Bargnani will be slotted in to do a Pau Gasol impression in the Knicks new system.

Quincy Acy is a deep bench player who doesn’t project to get many minutes.

Center: Samuel Dalembert, Jason Smith, Cole Aldrich

At center the Knicks has a trio of low scoring defensive centers in the 6′ 11” – 7″ range.  All three have PERs above 10, with Aldrich being the highest at nearly 20– mitigated of course by his having the fewest minutes per game.  I would expect the veteran Dalembert to start, with Smith getting the majority of the back up minutes.  Cole will split his time between center and occasional time at power forward alongside Dalembert or Smith.

Overall, the bigs are a serious strength for the Knicks and bigs rotation of Bargnani + Dalembert, backed up by Stoudemire/Smith and Aldrich filling in for both positions maintains a lot of size, which the Knicks could use to their advantage against many of the East’s smaller playing teams.

Outlook: For a one year rebuilding project starting from a pretty toxic place I’d say Phil Jackson has done a pretty good job making over the team from last year.  This team is going exactly as far as Carmelo will take them– as triangle teams tend to do, however the new system should help him out and the team has just enough echoes of the Bulls/Lakers roster designs to suggest they can succeed with what they have here.  For this team to really contend for a championship either Iman Shumpert or Cole Aldrich would need to have a serious break out year and both have been in the league just long enough to suggest they are what they are and no break out is coming, though stranger things have happened.  I expect a mid to low playoff seed and a 1st round exit from the Knicks this year.

Philadelphia 76ers

Last Year: 19 and 63 for worst in the division (and league); leading scorer– Thaddeus Young (17.6), leading rebounds– Spencer Hawes 8.5, leading assists– Michael Carter-Williams (6.3)

Changes: added– Joel Embiid (Draft), Jerami Grant (Draft), Pierre Jackson (Draft trade), Vasilije Micic (Draft), Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (trade from Minnesota), K.J. McDaniels (Draft),  Jordan McRay (Draft trade), Dario Saric (Draft),  Alexey Shved (trade from Minnesota); Lost– Lavoy Allen (mid-season trade), James Anderson (Waived), Spencer Hawes (mid-season trade), Adonis Thomas (free agent), Evan Turner (mid-season trade), Thaddeus Young (traded to Minnesota)

This is another team with a churn of signings, waivings, releasings– mostly of players who probably should not currently and in some cases probably should not ever have made it to the NBA court.  To be honest, I probably missed a veteran or two that was shipped off in my list– and I’ve purposefully omitted players acquired then waived or bought out and some of the incoming contracts from mid-season trades.

It is notable here that this team trade both their leading scorer and leading rebounder in the same season in exchange for draft picks, future draft picks, and contracts other teams wanted gone.

Positions

Point Guard: Michael Carter-Williams, Casper Ware, Pierre Jackson

Fun fact about Carter-Williams– of players on the roster going into this year who were also on the roster last year (I realize a very small subset of players) he leads the team in points (16.7), assists (6.3) and is second in rebonds (6.3 behind Henry Sim’s 7).  He was the Rookie of the Year for a reason, or several reasons which include both his ability and his opportunity on a bad team.  As of now, MCW is the future of Philadelphia, and if he can continue to develop his game and not fall prey to poor habits we have every reason to believe he will end up a star in the league in the next several years.

Ware was picked up on a series of 10 days then a rest of season deal last year, and distinguished himself in the Summer League this summer.  He averaged 6 points in 13 minutes with a high PER, though his tiny assist numbers might be telling going forward.  Also, at only 5′ 10″ there may be a certain cap to how productive a player he can be.  The hope for Philly is that he can mature into a scoring punch of the bench in the mold of a Nate Robinson.  Its just as likely he will only be a roster hold in the long term, but I would expect his minutes to be closer to the 15-19 range than the 10 range this year as the 76ers try to let him grow into a legitimate backup.

I don’t expect 2nd round draft pick Jackson to see much play barring injuries or unforeseen trades, though Ware’s spot is far from guaranteed and if he outplays the second year player in practice and limited time who can say– in Philly anyone might have a chance, whether a low draft pick, a D Leaguer, or someone wandering off the street and onto the court.

Shooting Guard: Tony Wroten, Elliott Wiliams, Alexey Shved

Wroten saw a huge increase in minutes, points, and games played after coming over from Memphis last year.  Whether this is because the second year player was coming into his own, or because someone simply needed to touch the ball on the dreadful sixers last year is hard to discern.  If nothing else Wroten is a good combination of young and cheap.  He could develop alongside this team and be either a quality starter alongside higher potential players at the four other positions (in theory MCW at point, Dario Saric at SF, Nerleons Noel at PF, and Joel Embiid at Center).  In the scenario where those other players reach their potential not much would be asked of Wroten long term, and he will have plenty of opportunities this year while several of them are not yet arrived.

Williams did half as much as Wroten in about 3/4s of the minutes.  I don’t expect he will be in the long term plans and he will be playing for his future in the NBA every time he sees the court.  Shved did 3/4s of what Williams did in five more fewer minutes.  Neither of these two project as much more than minutes eaters right now and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either one make a leap forward or simply be out of the league over the course of this season.

Regardless– until or unless Philly picks up a player here this is a position with three very young players trying to develop and battle for playing time and opportunity which could prove fruitful and lead to finding a hidden gem, or could simply end up destroying all three’s careers.  Philly might also just take a new SG with the 1st overall pick in the 2015 draft. . .

Small ForwardHollis Thompson, Jason Richardson

Long term Dario Saric projects to be the starter of the players whose rights the 76ers currently hold.  The 12th overall pick this year won’t come over from overseas for at least another few years, and in the meantime someone has to play the minutes at the three.

Thompson is a second year undrafted player who averaged 6 points for the 76ers last year.  Richardson is going into his 13th year and at 33 is on the downside of a solid in unspectacular career.  Either could start, but this is definitely a position of weakness for the 76ers currently.

Power Forward: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Arnett Moultrie, Jarvis Varnado

Longterm I project that Philly will eventually be starting Nerleons Noel and Joel Embiid together, being two players worthy of number one overall picks.  Unless one the other or both get traded before the rebuild is over.

For now, Mbah a Moute is a former defensive stopper and fringe starter with no scoring punch and on the downside of his playing career and at the beginning of his analysis and announcing career where he is charming and knowledgeable.  I project he ends up at ESPN, NBA TV, or TNT within the next 3-5 years.

Neither Moultrie or Varnado have shown much in their time to date or project as high upside players. Mbah a Moute probably take the bulk of whichever minutes at this position aren’t used by players currently listed as centers playing down.  None of these players will be on the next Philly team to make the playoffs.

Center: Nerleons Noel, Henry Sims, Brandon Davies, Hasheem Thabeet, Joel Embiid

Embiid projects as the long term starter here.  He would have been the clear number one overall pick had he not required back surgery that will keep him sidelined till after the All Star Break at a minimum and considering the 76ers current goals most likely till October of 2015.

Nerleons Noel is a rookie having missed all of last year with his gruesome knee injury.  However, reports are that his athleticism has not declined and the 76ers got him for a steal in the trade they made with the Pelicans to get him during the 2013 draft.  Right now he is listed as starting at Center, though at 6’11” long term I expect him to be shifted down to Power forward.  Considering the utter lack of talent at that position on this roster it may happen sooner rather than later– possibly giving Sims the start at center to get both young players quality minutes to develop.

Henry Sims showed real promise after coming over last year– his PER is around 16, his 7 rebounds and almost 12 points while a sixer in 26 minutes per put him in the range of quality backup big man.  I expect him to backip Noel this year and long term serve as a dual backup to both Noel and Embied similar to the role that Lamar Odom played on the Lakers during the years he was relevant.

Davis is a second year player who has yet to show any positive potential and will most likely play only in emergency situations and whose roster spot will likely be saved by the requirement of the 76ers to keep some amount of players under contract and the salary floor guaranteeing that they are spending the same amount whether they keep young players like this around or not.

Thabeet will most likely be waived to save $1.25 million before the start of the year.

Outlook: The 76ers are hyper young.   There is a scenario where they end up this year not starting a player with more than 2 years previous experience.  They have a lot of potential, but will need time to develop and for their pieces to arrive from injuries and overseas.  I expect this team to be good in 2017, and they may get there faster depending on how low they can go this year and how good of a player they can draft next June.  But this year they will be in a race for the bottom again– expect anyone who can be moved for future picks to be moved.  The only players on this roster who should be untouchable are Carter-Williams, Embiid, Noel, Saric, and Sims– four starters and a back up big man with Sims the “old man” of the crew at 24.  Add in another top 5 pick and some of the draft the tons of extra picks they have acquired exceeding expectations and Philly will eventually, presumably, stop tanking and start trying to win games.  In 2016 or 2017 that is.

 

Next up will be the Toronto Rapters and the Chicago Bulls.  Sidenote, at 5 weeks till the season startes and 26 left to go I am going to have to start doing more than two teams a week.  Not sure which days I will fit in the extra previews– Wednesdays and Saturdays are candidates, though I will not move Sunday’s gaming segments or Monday’s Sun Cycle stories.  I might also double down on some Fridays for 3 or 4 teams in a stretch or for double Friday posts, all dependent on my schedule that week/day.

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