Team Needs: Atlantic Division

Tue, 06/24/2008 - 11:35pm

New York Knicks
2007-08 record: 23-59
Head Coach: Mike D'Antoni

The first in what will be many steps in correcting the Knicks course was taken by firing then GM Isiah Thomas and bringing in the highly respected Donnie Walsh. Walsh's first move as the new head honcho was to bring in Mike D'Antoni, seemingly prying him out of the hands of John Paxson and the Chicago Bulls. Replacing the people at the top is a great way to turn around a losing situation, but these moves will certainly be the first of many more to come down the road.

In analyzing this roster, I find it best to divide the players into two groups: those who will thrive under D'Antoni's mile-a-minute offensive scheme and those who will be left in the dust, because there are few systems in the NBA that require the right personnel quite like D'Antoni's does. Let's start with the keepers: Jamal Crawford, Fred Jones, David Lee, Quentin Richardson, Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler and Renaldo Balkman.

So lets identify what it takes to play in the "seven seconds or less" offensive scheme. It boils down to two things basially; 1) shooting ability and 2) athleticism. If you are going to shoot as often as D'Antoni would like, it only stands to reason that an emphasis is placed on being able to make a shot. D'Antoni also likes his players to be able to run the floor the entire game, scoring in bunches on fast breaks.

With those two requirements alone a player has value with D'Antoni, but special emphasis is placed on the point guard position, as seen with Steve Nash's past five seasons, and while his is a guard-orientated offensive philosophy, a big man who can score in the paint and run the floor is needed for the team to take the next step.

We'll start with Crawford -- the player that may thrive the most. Even when the system doesn't call for a shot in under seven seconds, Crawford usually delivers. He's a shoot-first hybrid guard who depends on volume to make a difference. On most teams, his skills as a scorer are overshadowed by what he doesn't do in a game (which is everything else). But for D'Antoni's Knicks, his scoring ability may well be the focal point of the offense. Look for Crawford to put up career offensive numbers next season.

As for the other guards, Richardson figures to be a starter from day one next season as he has the distinct advantage of playing for D'Antoni in Phoenix and enjoying his best days there. It also doesn't hurt that he may be the team's best three-point shooter.

Fred Jones is the type of athlete that D'Antoni loves to have running on his fast breaks, so look for him to see an increase in minutes next season and his dunk attempts to spike next year, as well.

Nate Robinson was drafted by Phoenix three years ago. People lauded the pick, saying that Robinson was tailor-made for the Phoenix system. He was then subsequently traded to New York in a move to bring in Kurt Thomas. Robinson now has a second chance at showing what he can do for D'Antoni. His ability to fly up and down the court will be an asset for New York.

So now we are left with only forwards Lee, Chandler and Balkman. Of the three, I expect Chandler to play the best next season. He's an athletic forward who has decent ability. I expect he knows whats at stake this next season and has been working on his outside shot as he has about as much to gain from the new coaching hire as anyone on the team. Expect him to log some major minutes at PF.

Lee figures to be the only big man on the team that runs enough to be a real weapon for D'Antoni. Lee's value the past couple season was providing a change of pace to the front court, playing behind the sluggish Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph. It wouldn't surprise me at all next season to see Lee starting next season. Someone has to play down low, and as we already know, D'Antoni isn't afraid to go small.

That leaves Balkman, who I would like to put an asterisk next to. Balkman's value comes from his athleticism and defense. While not much of a scorer, he rebounds well, runs the floor and plays great defense -- and someone has to play defense for the Knicks. He's going to be auditioning this season for D'Antoni as I'm sure he and Walsh are going to be evaluating whether or not he is included in their "Knicks of Tomorrow." I say he solidifies his position on the team with solid defense and rebounding and improved offensive numbers due to a scheme that emphasizes his few offensive strengths.

That leaves Mardy Collins, Curry, Jerome James, Jared Jeffries, Stephon Marbury, Randolph Morris, Randolph and Malik Rose looking for a role and a convincing argument as to why they should be retained in future seasons.

Marbury played for D'Antoni briefly in Phoenix and the two didn't mesh well, so Marbury was traded to New York. Score one for Phoenix. At this point in his career, Marbury is viewed as one of the most overpaid and diminished point guards in the league as he posted career lows in minutes, points, rebounds and assists. Marbury's contract makes him nearly untradeable, so look for New York to bring in another point guard and eat the rest of the Marbury contract.

As far as guards go, the only other guard on the team is Collins, who isn't athletic enough to warrant significant minutes. His size and point guard abilities may earn him some minutes, but ultimately look for Collins near the end of the bench.

Now on to the bulk of the losers in the D'Antoni hiring: the bigs. D'Antoni calls for a special type of post player -- athletic studs who can run and jump like gazelles. The Knicks current platoon of big men resemble cows or manatees more. They are big, but slow and have a tendency to earn a lot of money without giving a lot back to the team.

One caveat here; someone from this list is going to see significant playing time at center. It's just common sense. My two candidates for the job at this point are Randolph and Curry, and reports from New York have Curry leading the charge by default. Randolph is the more skilled player, so I expect him to win the job at 5, but its hard to tell at this point.

Randolph was brought in last season in a trade with Portland for Channing Frye. Randolph is still a good post player, consistently putting up good offensive numbers. But he plays little defense and has never been mistaken for a track star. His plodding, bruising ways work against him in D'Antoni's scheme. But he is the most capable rebounder and scorer on the blocks, so I expect him to win the job.

Curry's size and offensive skill is a plus, but the rest of his game leaves something to be desired. Not only is Curry slow, but he rebounds like an amputee. If I were Donnie Walsh, what I might try to do is play Curry extensively early in the season, build up his value as much as possible and ship him out to the highest bidder. Big guys who can score the ball always have value in the league, regardless how anemic the rest of their game is.

As for the other big guys, look for these guys to be sporting the finest suits New York has to offer at the end of the bench. (And thank god for those Isiah Thomas contracts, otherwise these guys might be shopping at Men's Warehouse.) The Knicks would be getting more value out of these contracts if they had these guys selling nachos in Madison Square Garden.

James is a terrible player and has been a terrible player almost his entire career. That fateful series against the Sonics (a team that had exactly zero legitimate big men on the roster at the time) earned James the favor of Thomas and a huge deal for one series worth of production.

Jeffries is another failed mid-level signing for Thomas. Billed as a defensive stopper in Washington, Jeffries can neither defend nor do anything else effectively on the basketball court.

Rose was once a brutal rebounder and defender, as well as a proven winner, having played with the San Antonio Spurs before going to New York. But the Spurs knew he was deteriorating when they traded him, whereas the Knicks thought they were getting the same power forward who helped San Antonio win a title. The joke was on New York as Rose hasn't played a meaningful minute of basketball in years.

And finally, Morris may have some value with the team given his youth, size and affordability. But his style of play will hold him back. D'Antoni may give him an opportunity to prove him self this season and win a spot in the rotation.

So the Knicks have already publicly stated that they know how hard this rebuilding process is going to be, so they are giving themselves two years to prepare this team for any kind of success. That means two seasons where the main objective is accumulate young players and draft picks and dump big contracts. If they happen to win in those two years, that's a bonus. It's all an effort to have the cap space in 2010 to go after the potential big name free agents. Its a novel approach, and a realistic one too as its going to take at least two seasons before the Knicks payroll is back to semi-normalcy.

As far as this draft goes, the Knicks could go in a lot of different ways. All indications are that Rose, Beasley, Mayo and Love will be gone. The players that seem to be perfect fits for D'Antoni are Indiana SG Eric Gordon, whose shooting ability would stand out ability amidst a team of bad shooters, and Jerryd Bayless, who if he slid to them has the most talent and potential available. Danilo Gallinari is another option who has the D'Antoni connection (played with his father), but would he fit D'Antoni's system?

New Jersey Nets
2007-08 Record: 34-48
Head Coach: Lawrence Frank

Are the Nets rebuilding after the Jason Kidd trade or do they still consider themselves contenders in the East? It's hard to say based on their personnel. They could go either way. The youth of Devin Harris, the two first round picks this year and the jettisoning of Kidd suggest rebuilding mode. But a core of Harris, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson is still good enough in the East. So which way do they go?

Most of the decision revolves around the futures of Carter and Jefferson. Both are still high level players but the question remains can the team as it is currently assembled go deep into the playoffs? If so then you either take the most NBA-ready players in the draft this year or trade the two picks for another veteran who can play immediately. If not then it's time to ship out both players, acquire youth and picks and hope for a resurgence in a couple of years.

Harris has the point-guard spot on lockdown for the foreseeable future, regardless which direction the team goes in. His tenacious defense, length and athleticism make him a weapon on the floor. As we have seen in the past though, guards who can't shoot particularly well and rely on athleticism and quickness wear down faster than more well-rounded guards who can be a threat away from the basket. Marcus Williams is still young, but has yet to show he's ready to assume starter's minutes. He's a big lead guard and there is still time, so if rebuilding is the game plan, Williams still figures to be kept around.

Carter is still a star shooting guard capable of filling the seats, but his game is beginning to diminish. And who knows when he will decide to mail in his next season, unhappy that he either isn't competing or not getting paid enough. His flighty personality is always a risk to a team in a transition period.

Behind Carter are Trenton Hassell and Maurice Ager, two pieces acquired in the Kidd trade. Hassell used to be a premier defensive guard in the league. Now he is simply an inflated contract necessary to make the Jason Kidd numbers work out. Ager looks as though he's still a few seasons away form contributing on a nightly basis, which isn't what you want to hear when talking about a 23-year-old player.

At small forward is Jefferson, who saw his career take a turn for the better this past season when he started all 82 games and returned to the form that earned him his lucrative extension, posting a career-high 22.6 ppg. Jefferson has always been a player when he's been healthy, but keeping the former Wildcat healthy has always been an issue. Here's hoping that his ankle issues are a thing of the past.

Between Jefferson and Carter, Jefferson has more value on the market given he is a little younger and a better defender, but if one is moved then expect the other to follow closely behind as it doesn't make sense to keep one and not the other.

After Harris, Carter and Jefferson there are few players worth mentioning, but there are a handful in the front court. Last year's first round pick, Sean Williams, played well in his rookie season, averaging 5 ppg, 4 rpg and 1.5 bpg. People were really intrigued by Williams' athleticism last year and it looks as though he's going to be a player in this league, as long as he can keep his nose clean.

Another interesting development in the front court came in the form of Josh Boone. In his second season in the league, Boone saw an increase in his minutes and responded by doubling his scoring average (8.2 ppg) while still maintaining his impressive field goal percentage (54.8 percent) and also more than doubling his rebounds (7.3 rpg). Look for the Nets to give Boone more opportunities next season.

Finally we have Nenad Kristic, the injury-prone 7-footer who at one time looked like he had the makings of an All-Star. The past two seasons have been unkind to Kristic, as he has only played in 71 games combined. He was always a talented offensive player on the blocks, but with the current makeup of the Nets front court (now with the defensive presence of both Williams and Boone) the three-man rotation could prove to be quite sold if Kristic can return healthy next season. Kristic is a restricted free agent this summer, but look for the Nets to retain the 24-year-old Yugoslavian.

Until the decision is made as to which direction to take this team, the rest of the roster seems to be in a state of limbo. Bostjan Nachbar, DeSagana Diop and Stromile Swift round out the lineup, but all three are unrestricted free agents this summer. I don't see where any of the three fit, so look for them to be in new digs next season.

As for this offseason, it all comes down to direction. If I were the Nets' GM, I get as much as possible for Jefferson while he's healthy and coming off a great year. Ditto for Carter. I deal both of those players and build around the young front court trio of Kristic, Williams and Boone and Devin Harris at point.

With this year's 10th and 21st overall picks, there are rumors about that New Jersey has given Italian sensation Danilo Gallinari some sort of guarantee. He would be a good fit in Jersey if they decide to ship out Jefferson, as his shooting and passing would compliment the front court nicely. At 21, the Nets should look strongly at Nicolas Batum, the long French shooting guard. He looks as though he's going to need some time to acclimate to the quicker, more physical NBA, but he's a good athlete and projects to be quite a player down the road.

Philadelphia 76ers
2007-08 Record: 40-42
Head Coach: Mo Cheeks

The Sixers entered the season with little hope of entering the playoffs, acknowledging their need to rebuild by drafting two players in the first round last year. But their youngsters responded well. Led by the veteran presence of PG Andre Miller, the Sixers got into the playoffs with the 7th seed where they gave Detroit all they could handle before being knocked out by the perennial Eastern power. Philadelphia must be excited as to where the team can go from here, but mustn't get too ahead of itself. This young team is still has a lot of work to do.

Miller's resurgent play was the real story in Philadelphia last season, where posted a career high 17 ppg and 7 apg. He's already 32 years old and can't shoot from behind the arc, but he shot nearly 50 percent this past season while putting up the most points in his career. He's a tough player to project from here on out. Health-wise, he's incredibly reliable as he has played nearly every game in his nine-year career. However, he is starting to get a little old and history says that point guards who can't shoot from the land of plenty usually don't age well. Miller proved to be the exception to the rule this past season, but how much longer can it go on?

Andre Igoudala is the focal point of Philly's game plan as it stands right now. The do-it-all player posted a career high 20 ppg this past season while also chipping in 5.4 rpg, 4.8 apg and 2.1 steals. The fourth-year guard out of Arizona is an absolute terror on the court, but I'm not convinced he's a superstar. I'd put him in the Richard Jefferson/Caron Butler/Lamar Odom tier -- great players who play their best ball next to someone who can lead a team. Igoudala is a restricted free agent this summer, but the Sixers need to be careful with his contract. There will likely be teams willing to throw huge sums of money at him to pry him away from Philly. The Sixers brass need to get this taken care of quickly and pay him appropriately. Don't panic and give him a Samuel Dalembert-type contract that will handcuff the team for years to come. The Sixers need to retain A.I. 2 for a modestly lucrative price.

Dalembert played well this past season, almost well enough to justify his contract. Averages of 10/10 and 2 blocks per game is nice, but a million dollars per point and rebound? Granted, there are worse players out there earning more, but Philly has to be hoping Dalembert can at the very least maintain those numbers throughout the rest of his contract.

Another big story in Philly last year was the play of youngsters Thaddeus Young, Jason Smith and Louis Williams. Young showed the most, given his age and the numbers he put up in his rookie season. Young projects to either be a quick power forward or a big small forward. He should ultimately fall into the 3-spot, but he should be able to stand out at either position for now.

Sixers fans also finally got to see dividends from the former high schooler/Allen Iverson impersonator Williams. The shoot-first point guard/vastly undersized shooting guard scored to the tune of 11.5 ppg, while seeing significantly more minutes and shots and without diminishing his shooting percentage very much (a promising sign).

Jason Smith played well in spurts, and while it's clear he needs more time, his hustle and size should prove to be quite an asset for head coach Maurice Cheeks to play with down the road.

There are lots of rumors floating around the league that the Sixers are interested in acquiring PF Elton Brand. While the move will be difficult to pull off, there is no doubt that it would solidify this lineup. For now though, Philly doesn't have Brand so acquiring another big forward to pair next to Dalembert seems to be a priority in Philadelphia. A player analysts have had pegged into the Philly slot for quite some time is Florida's Marresse Speights, whose game resembles Brand's, although his work ethic apparently does not. Another option could be C DeAndre Jordan, who recently worked out with the Sixers. Based on physical attributes alone Jordan is a top-5 pick, but many scouts question whether his skills and maturity will ever catch up to his body and freakish athleticism. At 16, I'd say its worth a shot.

Toronto Raptors
2007-08 Record: 41-41
Head Coach: Sam Mitchell

Since bringing over Bryan Colangelo and adopting Phoenix's run-and-gun style, the Raptors have dug their way out of the basement and clawed their way toward respectability. Their second season of success proves there are here to stay, but the team still doesn't have the feel of a contender. There is no way anyone can convince me that Toronto would win a seven game series against the Celtics, Pistons, Magic in the East, let alone the powerhouse teams of the West.

But to say that an ascent toward the top tier of the Eastern Conference is impossible would be foolish. They are actually not too far off. By already having two of the most difficult positions to fill locked up with good young players, they are only a few pieces away from placing themselves amongst the Eastern elite.

We will start with the strengths of this team, that being point guard and power forward. At point guard, the Raptors have the luxury of having two of the game's young stars, T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon. But as the Notorious Chris Wallace (not the Memphis GM) once said "Mo Money, Mo Problems," which is now the case in Toronto.

Calderon has made it be known that he wants to be the starter in Toronto and has no interest in sticking around if he comes off the bench another season. The numbers suggest he deserves the job as he shot around 42 percent from the arc last season while also chipping in career highs in points at 11 ppg and assists at 8 apg. The tandem is probably the best in the NBA but it doesn't sound as though they can co-exist any longer. Ford's frightening history of injuries and unreliable jumper has made him the odd man out and the subject of numerous trade rumors. Look for Calderon to be the starter next season and Ford to be playing elsewhere. Rumors of a Ford/Rasho Nesterovic/pick No. 17 package sent to Indiana to lure the oft-injured, yet All-Star-worthy Jermaine O'Neal north of the border continue to float around NBA circles.

Power forward is also a position of strength for the Raptors, beginning with All-Star big man Chris Bosh. Bosh continues to be the rock that anchors this team, the player that drives the team's success. The highly skilled forward has flourished under Sam Mitchell and his fast paced system as it plays to his athleticism perfectly. Although not the toughest forward in the league (which is a concern for the team as they are constantly looking for a rugged center to put next to him) he does well using his length to snag almost 9 boards and 1 block per game.

While the depth behind is Bosh is nice (Kris Humphries numbers jumped this season despite a marginal boost in minutes), the lack of progression from former overall No. 1 selection Andrea Bargnani has to be troubling after 2 middling seasons. His numbers actually dipped slightly his second season in the league. People expected him to struggle initially but now the all-important third season is looming. If Bargnani can't break out this season it will appear as though he will be tagged a bust.

As is the case with other teams around the league looking to make the jump from playoff participants to legitimate conference title contenders, the Raptors are simply starting too many players that are better suited coming off the bench. Both of their shooting guards, Anthony Parker and Carlos Delfino, are decent players, but neither is the caliber of player to be a starter. Same goes for their players at center, where Nesterovic is the incumbent and Primoz Brezec is the backup with Bosh and Bargnani also getting some minutes at 5. And while Jamario Moon was a nice story this past season, I just don't think he is starter material. An upgrade is needed at one of those positions. Having two positions manned by bench caliber players is fine, but three is simply too many for Bosh and Calderon to carry.

Luckily, this year's draft appears plenty deep so finding a player who can step into one of those spots shouldn't pose a problem. Players to consider would be Brandon Rush, who's defense, beautiful outside shooting and, now, championship pedigree would fit in nicely with the other pieces in place in Toronto. Another player to keep an eye on is Stanford center Robin Lopez, who's size, strength and hustle would presumably be a nice fit next to Bosh and a sizable upgrade over Nesterovic.

As the roster stands now, center is the weakest position, so drafting Lopez or another big who can play next season would reap the earliest rewards, but until the situation is resolved surrounding Ford and what he can be exchanged for, the best player available should be the tune Toronto's war room sings.

Boston Celtics
2007-08 Record: 66-16 (NBA Champions)
Head Coach: Doc Rivers

Danny Ainge's aggressive 2007 offseason paid off big with an NBA championship, making the rest of America hate the Boston sports scene a little more. But on the way to the Finals, some Eastern Conference teams exposed some weaknesses in the Boston roster, so if Ainge would like to compete for a repeat championship, he'll have to get creative this offseason and add some more weapons who can contribute from day one.

Let's reassess the status of "The Big Three." Paul Pierce was absolutely amazing in the Finals increasing his scoring average to 21.8 for the Finals, but even more impressive was the fact that he nearly doubled his assist output, going from 3.8 in the Detroit series to 6.3 in the Finals. Being the youngest of the three, I'd say the concern for Pierce is minimal.

Kevin Garnett proved he can still play at an elite level as well, but even more important he showed people how willing he was to change his game in the name of winning. He took the fewest shots in a season since the strike shortened 98-99 season but also shot the highest percentage of his career. He also anchored Boston's newly vaunted defense, earning him Defensive Player of the Year. Garnett looks as though he'll be fine for another two seasons.

Ray Allen's game, though, appears to be slipping. He is still a deadly shooter from anywhere on the floor, but looked absolutely terrible in the Cleveland series. At this stage in his career (Allen is in his 12th season), he is a spot-up shooter who can't generate his own offense for 82 games. Most of his offensive production relies on kick outs for wide open jumpers. But simply the name R. Allen on the defensive assignment board is enough to space the floor out and keep defenders honest. Look for Allen's minutes to decrease next season in an attempt to save him for the playoffs in hope that another Cleveland series doesn't happen.

While "The Big 3" were the driving force behind the Celtics memorable season, they wouldn't have won the Finals without huge contributions from key role players, beginning with Rajon Rondo. Entering the season with a bulls-eye on his jersey, a ready-made scapegoat if something were to go wrong with Boston's new veteran lineup, Rondo improved in nearly every category, showing huge improvements in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and points. It was in the playoffs where his athleticism and suffocating defense in the backcourt went on display and he proved to be just as valuable to the team as Pierce, Garnett and Allen were. On a team that at times looked really old and really slow, Rondo provided an unbelievable burst of speed and energy that helped to spark numerous fast breaks. Rondo may have just solidified himself as the Celtics point guard for the next decade with his impressive Finals performance.

Other role players who made a name for themselves during the Celtics playoff run were Leon Powe with his 21-points-in-15-minute outburst in Game 2 of the Finals. Kendrick Perkins also proved to be a capable player next to Garnett and put up some impressive games, including an 18-point, 16-board beat-down against Detroit. Eddie House has long been a solid backup point guard who can enter a game and score in bunches. He continued this trend in Boston and has proven to be a popular option for teams looking to add an inexpensive guard who can play big minutes and deliver oodles of points. The same can be said of James Posey's performance, but where House delivers quick offense, Posey provides defense and long-range shooting. His specialist role will make him an attractive option to teams looking for that final piece to make a run at the Finals, especially with his championship seasons in Miami and, now, Boston.

Outside of the important playoff players, the Celtics also have a few young players who showed flashes during the season, notably Glen Davis. While Davis may never be a starter, he certainly can come into a game and exploit mismatches, either pounding smaller defenders or using his unique agility to get by bigger defenders.

So how do the Celtics approach the offseason this summer? Surely it won't be as memorable as last summer's, but there are still some things I'm sure Ainge would like to get done to strengthen his team either next season or down the road. Either drafting a young shooting guard or picking one up with the mid-level exception should be priority No. 1.

Someone who can alleviate Allen here and there would be a tremendous help. While Tony Allen is a capable defender, he is coming off a serious injury so perhaps picking up extra depth and size at the position in the name of security may not be a bad idea.Another center may also be on the list, since both Perkins and Davis are slightly short for the position, although both are otherworldly strong.

A lot depends on who falls to the Celtics with the last pick in the draft, but going international may be an option too. Stashing a player with more upside away in Europe for a few years until the window fully closes for Boston may be an attractive option too. With all that said, players that would fill needs for the Celtics include SG Courtney Lee, Bill Walker (who may fall this far with his recent injury), Australian center Nathan Jawai, or Serbian center Nikola Pekovic.

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