Atlantic Division Preview: Last Year’s – and Potentially This Year’s – NBA Champs

Welcome to the sixth of the Corner Three 2019-2020 NBA division-by-division season previews. In each of these previews, we use RJ Garcia’s player-by-player ratings (based on on/off metrics and career trajectory) and per-game minutes projections (taking into account potential minutes lost to injury) to project overall team quality for the upcoming season. RJ and Derek Reifer also provide their own analyses and commentary to provide any context and additional insights.

Northwest Breakdown here.

Southwest Breakdown here.

Pacific Breakdown here.

Southeast Division here.

Central Division here.

We continue with the Atlantic Division:


1. Philadelphia 76ers – 51 Wins (2018-19: 51 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Simmons, Ben 29 2
SG Richardson, Josh 30 1
SF Harris, Tobias 31 1
PF Horford, Al 26 3
C Embiid, Joel 27 6
6 Scott, Mike 16 -2
7 Ennis III, James 13 -2.5
8 Smith, Zhaire 12 -1
9 Korkmaz, Furkan 11 -0.5
10 Thybulle, Matisse 10 -1.5
11 Neto, Raul 9 0
12 Burke, Trey 9 -0.5
13 O’Quinn, Kyle 7 -1
14 Bolden, Jonah 7 -1
15 Milton, Shake 2 -2

RJ’s Big Picture:

The whole point of the 2019-20 regular season for the Philadelphia 76ers seems to be figuring out how to make a team work with what is probably the best starting lineup in the league – yet maybe the worst bench of any playoff contender in the league. Gone are Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, and in come Al Horford and Josh Richardson. This is likely a slight downgrade as a pure player talent swap, but there are reasons why Horford and Richardson could be a better fit for the Sixers than Butler and Redick if they play their cards right. For the Sixers, they could pretty easily play an entire playoff series having either Embiid or Horford at center at all times, either a phenomenal anchor for a postseason defense.

RJ’s Big Question:

How will the Sixers manage minutes? They are in a very odd spot, where generally a team that is so focused on the postseason that also has injury issues would be able to focus on keeping those guys fresh throughout the regular season. However, the bench is so bad that if Embiid or Simmons miss 20-25 games either with injuries or scheduled rest, there is a chance the team could fall out of the 2nd seed and have to play two playoff series on the road. Additionally, this team probably thinks they could get the #1 seed in the East, so it’s not even a matter of sitting safely at 48-50 wins, but instead trying to push to 55+ to beat out the Bucks.

Derek’s Big Number: 1.85.

That was Josh Richardson’s Real Plus-Minus last season, ranking 5th among shooting guards – better than big names like Bradley Beal, CJ McCollum, and Devin Booker. How’d he do it? A little bit of everything: good perimeter defense, underrated volume scoring (16.6 points per game), efficient playmaking (4.1 assists to 1.5 turnovers), and solid outside shooting (35.7% on threes).

Richardson will fit perfectly in Philadelphia’s absolutely horrifying defense, but he’ll also have a big load to carry offensively. Though he probably won’t be asked to take 14 field goals a game again like he was for the Heat, he’ll be effectively replacing JJ Redick in the Sixers’ offense. Will he be able to provide the spacing Philly desperately needs? Their starting lineup is surprisingly devoid of half-court creation, and continued improvement from the now-26 Richardson will be enormous for this team’s title hopes.

Derek’s Film Room:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My goodness. It must not be fun to be guarded by Josh Richardson.

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole watching Richardson steals to write this section, but this one might have been my favorite. He starts the possession on Jordan Clarkson, who takes one glance at J-Rich and decides he, as the kids say, doesn’t want that smoke. He calls for the screen to try and shake him:

Screen Shot 2019-10-20 at 9.04.49 PM.png

Richardson not only gets around the screen, but makes sure to get his hand in to prevent the handoff:

Screen Shot 2019-10-20 at 9.06.09 PM.png

Richardson then sticks with Clarkson like Darrelle Revis, sniffing out the play easily, and knocking the ball to his team for the turnover. Notice how he’s in such good position that it’s essentially Clarkson who is playing “defense”:

Screen Shot 2019-10-20 at 9.06.57 PM.png

Richardson isn’t Jimmy Butler, but he’s enough of Butler defensively to compensate considering the addition of Al Horford. With 4 elite-level defenders in their starting lineup, Philly should be fun to watch on that end this season.

Okay, fine. One more steal for the road:

 


2. Boston Celtics – 45 Wins (2018-19: 49 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Walker, Kemba 31 2.5
SG Hayward, Gordon 24 0
SF Brown, Jaylen 28 0.5
PF Tatum, Jayson 30 2
C Kanter, Enes 22 -1.5
6 Smart, Marcus 27 1.5
7 Williams III, Robert 16 -1
8 Theis, Daniel 13 0.5
9 Williams, Grant 12 -1
10 Ojeleye, Semi 9 -2
11 Wanamaker, Brad 9 0
12 Poirier, Vincent 6 -1
13 Edwards, Carsen 6 -2
14 Langford, Romeo 6 -2

RJ’s Big Picture:

I think it is safe to say that Celtics fans will enjoy this team leaps and bounds more than last year’s team. Getting rid of Kyrie Irving, who was a locker room cancer, and adding Grant Williams, is about as big of a swing in team chemistry as possible. Even more than just getting rid of Kyrie, the Celtics are going to play a lot of their younger guys that the fans love, with it being likely that the Time Lord Robert Williams starts games this year. The Celtics are back to what their bread and butter under Danny Ainge has been, a bunch of young dudes who have low expectations and love to play basketball.

RJ’s Big Question:

How much pick and roll will they run? This offseason the Celtics brought in a combo of players who are some of the best at their position at running the pick and roll, Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. Kanter scored 1.18 points per possession as the PnR roll man, and Kemba was at 1.01 as a pick and roll ball handler (and had the most pick and roll possessions in the league at 11.8 per game, compared to Kyrie’s 6.8). The play is clearly going to be a potent offensive weapon, however, it could potentially isolate Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who would be spaced out at the three point line to create space for the Walker and Kanter combo. Brad Stevens had a tough time managing all these personalities last year, and watching how much pick and roll Walker and Kanter run might be a good gauge of how much compromise is going on with the Celtics this year.

Derek’s Big Number: 0.35.

That’s how many more wins Kemba Walker was worth last season than Kyrie Irving, via RPM wins. Of course, Kemba did play more games, but that’s part of the equation – Kyrie has had injury concerns throughout his career (he’s already wearing a protective mask this preseason), while Kemba has started 79 or more games in each of the past 4 seasons. His size makes him a less effective defender than Kyrie is, but on offense things should look pretty similar.

The only concern is, and I’m far from the first person to bring this up, but the interior defense. The bigs on this team simply aren’t going to cut it in the playoffs, and things could be exacerbated, especially in defending the pick-and-roll, by a small point guard like Kemba. Of course, centers seem to be the easiest position to replace in today’s NBA, and there’s plenty of time to make a trade. We’ll see how Danny Ainge reacts to however this team gets out of the gate in the first month or so of the season.

Derek’s Film Room:

The single biggest question for the Celtics this year, though, has to be the development of Jayson Tatum. Last season, he had a radical change in his decision-making. Here are two nearly identical fast-break situations that Tatum looked at very differently, in two different seasons. The first, from his rookie year:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tatum senses the open space:

Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 8.59.30 PM.png

He then attacks hard, with a head of steam toward the rim, through traffic:

Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 8.59.37 PM.png

And finishes with a highlight-reel dunk. Needless to say, a dunk right at the rim is a highly efficient shot.

Now, let’s take a look at this similar-starting situation, from his sophomore campaign:

 

 

Again, there’s an open space to drive:

Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 9.03.08 PM.png

But once he hits the crease in the defense, he hesitates, allowing defenders to get into position. He opts for a 20-foot, contested, pull-up 2 pointer. There were 18 seconds on the shot clock.

Is Tatum becoming too jumper-reliant? Is he trying too hard to take over and focusing too much on getting his? 42.7% of Tatum’s field goals this season have been unassisted, up from 34.0% his rookie year.

Of course, it’s somewhat difficult to pick apart which is the cause and which is the effect –  is poor decision-making leading to lower efficiency, or is his low efficiency more allowable considering the larger offensive load he’s taken on? It could be a blend of both. Without Kyrie Irving and Al Horford this season, Tatum’s role will likely only increase. What that looks like could make or break not only the Celtics’ season, but future. (more on this issue with Tatum can be found here.)

 


3. Toronto Raptors – 44 Wins (2018-19: 58 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Lowry, Kyle 29 3.5
SG Powell, Norman 22 -1.5
SF Anunoby, Ogugua 22 -1
PF Siakam, Pascal 30 3.5
C Gasol, Marc 24 1.5
6 Ibaka, Serge 24 0
7 VanVleet, Fred 24 1
8 Johnson, Stanley 15 -2
9 Hollis-Jefferson, Rondae 15 -1
10 Thomas, Matt 10 -2
11 McCaw, Patrick 10 -3
12 Boucher, Chris 5 -1.5
13 Davis, Terence 5 -2
14 Miller, Malcolm 4 -2
15 Payne, Cameron 1 -2

RJ’s Big Picture:

The 6 got their title last year. Not to say that the Raptors or their fans don’t care about this season, but this is really a victory tour with the remaining players that are with the squad. After losing Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard in free agency, the Raptors locked up Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam on extensions (because even Masai Ujiri understands the value of post-title fan service). The team will be decent, don’t get me wrong – a core of Lowry, Siakam, and Marc Gasol is one of the better big threes in the league, but at the end of the day whatever happens this season will be secondary for fans to walking into the ACC and seeing that NBA Champions banner flying at home all season long.

RJ’s Big Question:

Will any of the young wings stick? The Raptors took some low risk chances at the margin this offseason, bringing in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, and euro player Matt Thomas. These three wings all have some sort of potential that is behind other flaws that have forced them to the point of taking one year, low money contracts. Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson both have the characteristics of strong defenders and poor offensive players, and Thomas vice versa. If the Raptors could do some sort of merge of talents between these wings they would have their replacement for Kawhi, but more likely none of these guys will be able to catch on with the team.

Derek’s Big Number: 59.6%.

That was Pascal Siakam’s effective field goal percentage last season when taking 7 or more dribbles. Many people have a conception of Pascal Siakam as offensively nothing more than a spot up guy or a cutter, but that simply isn’t true – he showed the ability to not only finish plays, but create them – for himself and others last season (3.5 assists per 36 minutes). Without Kawhi Leonard this year, 2018-19’s Most Improved Player will get an even bigger role, and could be up for the award again. Many sleeping on the Raptors this season are underestimating the continued growth of Siakam, who is entering just his 4th NBA season.

Derek’s Film Room:

 

 

 

This is superstar behavior. Guarded 1-on-1 by the league MVP in a playoff game, takes him to the rack with his off hand, and finishes over not just Giannis but one of the best shot blockers in the league in Brook Lopez (4th in the NBA in FG% allowed at the rim with at least 5 attempts per game).

The next step in Pascal’s on-ball development should be his off-dribble shooting – his eFG% on pull-ups last year was just 38.9%. But that number was 28.6% the previous season – there’s hope for an upward trajectory here along with the rest of his game. There’s a reason Masai Ujiri didn’t immediately tear down this team after Kawhi and Danny Green left – in a weak East, another jump from this budding star would put the Raps right back in playoff contention.

 


4. Brooklyn Nets – 39 Wins (2018-19: 42 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Irving, Kyrie 29 3
SG Harris, Joe 27 -1
SF Prince, Taurean 24 -1.5
PF Kurucs, Rodions 18 0
C Allen, Jarrett 23 0.5
6 Dinwiddie, Spencer 27 -0.5
7 Jordan, DeAndre 23 1
8 LeVert, Caris 22 -0.5
9 Temple, Garrett 17 -1
10 Chandler, Wilson 13 -2
11 Musa, Džanan 5 -1.5
12 Nwaba, David 5 -0.5
13 Claxton, Nicolas 4 -2
14 Pinson, Theo 2 -1.5
15 Durant, Kevin 0 3

RJ’s Big Picture:

This team went from the most asset-poor team in the league in 2015 to having both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in 2019. What an incredible achievement by this organization to create a window to potentially get to and win the NBA Finals. If the year was 2015, the combo of Irving and Durant would position the Nets as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. But this is not 2015, and Durant has a torn Achilles, will miss this year, and is far from guaranteed to ever return to All-NBA form, while Irving just finished a season which saw him being both a chemistry cancer and a playoff chucker, and leaving the Celtics on some of the worst terms possible.
The 2019-20 team will in all likelihood not be championship-caliber- it is almost impossible to win in the NBA with $37M of a team’s salary cap being out for the year (sup Wizards), but this year is important to for fans to understand how Kyrie wants this team to operate now that he has a year of a team being essentially all his.

RJ’s Big Question:

What will the offensive system look like? In recent days on the great website Twitter dot com there has been a debate raging over the mid range shot, with Kevin Durant defending mid rangers (which is all fine and good for Durant since he is so good at them). A great point was made by Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass, who said that the people that are happy that this discussion is still going on are teams that don’t shoot mid range shots, such as the Rockets and to a slightly lesser extent the Nets. Brooklyn had the 3rd-lowest percentage of their shots taken from long midrange last season, with just 7.5% of their shots being taken there. Kyrie has taken at least 17% of his shots from long mid range every year since he has entered the league. Will Kyrie lead the team to have more of a mid range mentality, or will Kenny Atkinson’s view of shot selection win out? We saw what happened in Boston.
More than that, this team has another big question mark in their offense in the pick and roll. The Nets have two centers that love to run the pick and roll, and are good at it, in Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan. Last year, the Nets ran more pick and roll than any other team with D’Angelo Russell at the helm. Someone who doesn’t like to run pick and roll is Kyrie Irving, using just 6 possessions a game with pick and roll last season. How will this play out, especially with both Allen and Jordan under contract for the long term? This is all to be seen.

Derek’s Big Number: 76.1.

That’s how many points per game Brooklyn has to replace this year from their 42-win squad a year ago. The most famous departure is D’Angelo Russell, but he’s just one of 8 significant rotation players that will be playing outside King’s County this season:

PTS/G New Team
D’Angelo Russell 21.1 Warriors
DeMarre Carroll 11.1 Spurs
Allen Crabbe 9.6 Hawks
Shabazz Napier 9.4 Timberwolves
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson 8.9 Raptors
Ed Davis 5.8 Jazz
Treveon Graham 5.3 Timberwolves
Jared Dudley 4.9 Lakers

There are, of course, plenty of points to be made up by new additions, most notably, Kyrie Irving. But this team is going to look a whole lot different from the scrappy 42-win squad from last season, and this time, there’s $37 million worth of cap space taken up by Kevin Durant, who won’t see the floor this season. There’s still plenty of reason for future optimism with this team, but this season should be viewed as a growing/experimentation year with tempered expectations.

Derek’s Film Room:

Man, this is some pretty basketball. There’s a reason Spencer Dinwiddie finished above the 85th percentile last season in pick-and-roll ball handler efficiency last season. The defenders of this pick and roll? Paul George and Steven Adams – no defensive slouches. Watch Dinwiddie’s subtle head fake to the top of the key to freeze Adams for a split second, before whipping the pass to his real target.

How much of this will we see next season, though? Many Nets fans/followers believed the offense was even better with Dinwiddie at the helm last season than D’Angelo Russell – offensive rating would back that up (Dinwiddie was at a 114; Russell 107). But now Kenny Atkinson is in the same position, with Kyrie Irving probably demanding an even higher usage than Russell did.

His roll man, Jarrett Allen, had a breakout season last year – but the Nets just brought in DeAndre Jordan. Yes, Allen is still the presumptive starter and will play most of the minutes, but it seems clear he’ll have a lower share of the pie than he had last season, when he was a member of 11 of the Nets’ 12 most-used lineups.

With more talent comes more responsibility. In the next couple of years, Kenny Atkinson will have a lot of big time decisions to make. Based on his previous tenure, though, he’s just the man for the job.


5. New York Knicks – 28 Wins (2018-19: 17 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Smith Jr., Dennis 23 -1
SG Barrett, R.J. 26 -2
SF Morris, Marcus 26 -1
PF Randle, Julius 27 0
C Robinson, Mitchell 22 1.5
6 Knox, Kevin 22 -2.5
7 Payton, Elfrid 20 -1
8 Portis, Bobby 18 -1
9 Ellington, Wayne 14 -1
10 Ntilikina, Frank 12 -2
11 Gibson, Taj 9 -1
12 Dotson, Damyean 7 -1.5
13 Trier, Allonzo 7 -2.5
14 Bullock, Reggie 5 -2
15 Brazdeikis, Ignas 2 -2

RJ’s Big Picture:

At the end of the day for the 19-20 Knicks, they have a player that has a legitimate chance of being a superstar in the future in RJ Barrett, and this season is all about getting him game reps and helping him develop into someone who can lead the young guns into the playoffs in 2021 or 2022. But man, did the Knicks do a terrible job of setting him up for success this year. In a pre-draft article for ESPN where Jonathan Givony, draft guru, was “buying stock” in RJ Barrett he said the following: “Barrett will never be asked to share the floor with as many non shooters as he did all season long with this poorly constructed Duke team”. Well, about that…
The Knicks this offseason decided to surround their young players with a bunch of veterans on one or two year contracts who largely can’t shoot. Between all of the players who are in the rotation, there are probably three players who are average shooters for their position, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, and Allonzo Trier, and one player who would be a considered a good shooter in Wayne Ellington. This team will struggle from the outside and it will be a serious issue for the Knicks for scoring this year, though it will realistically not be a huge deal for the long term plans for the franchise since so many of these deals are one year commitments.

RJ’s Big Question:

When will the Knicks’ civil war occur? I can’t remember another team with so many competing interests under one roof than this Knicks team. The young prospects (Barrett, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr., Trier, Iggy Brazdeikis, and Damyean Dotson) will be looking to get minutes to both continue to develop their game but also just continue to stay in the league and stay afloat. The veterans on short contracts (Taj Gibson, Ellington, Morris, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, and Portis) will be looking to get minutes and get shots and stats for their next deal whether that is next year or the year after. Coach David Fizdale, meanwhile, will be looking to win as many games as possible. The fans will be looking to push for the playoffs, but if/when that is proven to be a pipe dream, will want to give the young kids more minutes to get excited about the future. And the front office, well, who knows really? The question becomes, whose vision of the season will win out? There are going to be players that are very unhappy with their playing time and it is going to be extremely difficult for Fizdale and the front office to balance this to make it work.

Derek’s Big Number: 34%.

That’s the combined 2018-19 three point percentage of the Knicks’ presumed starting lineup, and that’s just the ones who shot it (Mitchell Robinson had 0 attempts in his rookie season). Is this team going to find a way to score in the half court? Dennis Smith Jr., RJ Barrett, and Julius Randle project to have similar offensive roles in terms of driving creation, so their fit is questionable, especially with Mitchell Robinson’s defense so important for this team.

One potential option for Coach Fizdale is running. This team has a lot of players who can push in transition off of a rebound, and actually projects to be one of the better rebounding teams in basketball, especially when Barrett, Morris, Randle, and Robinson share the floor. Without any real NBA-proven halfcourt creators, transition needs to be stressed for this team.

Running makes double sense for this team when you consider its depth – they may not be a playoff team, but the Knicks have at least 13 legitimate NBA players, and all are going to want minutes. Pushing the pace could take advantage of this abundance of bodies from a stamina perspective if the Knicks want to try to run teams with short rotations off the floor. So far this preseason, though, Fizdale has run a pretty short rotation, not yet playing over 10 guys in a game. His adjustment as the season goes on could be the difference between 15 and 35 wins, and whether or not he still has a job next season.

Derek’s Film Room:

Okay, RJ’s gonna laugh at me for this section, but I don’t care. Feel free to stop reading if you don’t like Frank Ntilikina highlights.

Of course, you can probably count on two hands the number of players who have shown less on offense than he has in the past two seasons, especially considering his shooting regressed from an already-poor rookie season in 2018-19. But man, this kid can do it all defensively. And I mean it all.

Point guard? He can check you full court and not even let you get a quarter of the way to your destination:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off guard? He’ll read your inbounds pass like some light French poetry:

 

 

 

 

 

Wing? He can block your three-pointer, even if you’re one of the quickest-release shooters in history, and even when he goes under the screen:

Forward? He’ll lock you up from your first dribble to your “shot attempt”:

Big? He’ll move over and help on the drive with verticality and his 7’1″ wingspan to do his best Rudy Gobert impression:

 

 

 

 

The weird thing is, the advanced metrics don’t love him on offense or defense. His RPM of -5.15 ranked 83rd out of 84 point guards last year, and his defensive RPM ranked 56th. So, what gives? It’s clear Frank has all the talent, but he needs to put it together. Between coaching staffs not appearing to have his back, injuries (especially last season), and poor defensive teammates, there’s definitely a portion of the blame to put on his environment. He’s always been viewed as a long-term prospect that required patience, but that hasn’t been a word in the Knicks brass’ vocabulary. He looked excellent on both ends in this year’s FIBA tournaments, and the Knicks just accepted his upcoming team option, so they’d appear to have some semblance of a plan for him.

Why not let him play next to RJ Barrett? It seems almost too obvious for it to happen. As I touched on before, Barrett’s need to dominate the ball doesn’t fit great next to Smith’s, and their off-ball skills are actually shockingly similar. Frank’s eFG% on catch-and-shoot last season was 43.5%. Smith’s? 44.5%. It seems logical Smith should run more with the non-Barrett lineups, while Frank’s defensive potential provides competitive advantage considering he won’t step on anyone’s toes offensively.

I’m still confident in my faith in Frank. I’m not as confident in my faith in the Knicks.

 

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by RJ Garcia, Northwestern University
contributions by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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