Offering up New Year’s resolutions for every team in the Eastern Conference
With the new year upon us, The Point Forward offers up resolutions for every NBA team. We begin with the deflating Eastern Conference, with resolutions for the Western Conference coming Wednesday.
Atlanta Hawks: Continue to build in spite of Al Horford’s injuries.
No matter how seaworthy the Hawks’ roster, a major, season-ending injury is the surest way to take the wind out of a team’s sails. Al Horford — who underwent surgery on Monday to address a torn pectoral muscle — will be sorely missed the rest of the way, and his absence leaves the Hawks in a tricky spot. In the atrocious East, even the Horford-less Hawks are too good to tank outright; Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague provide a passable foundation, and there are still enough quality role players around to fill gaps as needed. Yet even at full strength Atlanta wasn’t capable of realistically challenging the best in the conference, leaving the current iteration even less qualified. A playoff berth will likely be theirs by default, but this makeshift Hawks team has relatively little to gain from a postseason appearance.
Still, this is a Hawks team in transition, leaving plenty of room for growth along the way. Teague, despite the newfound nuance in his driving game, has shot poorly from the field and struggled to finish around the basket. Lou Williams is still working his way back into volume scoring form, and only recently seemed to take a step forward by averaging 23 points over his last two games. Mike Scott, Pero Antic, and Gustavo Ayon have all been waiting to showcase their skills in bigger minutes, which Horford’s absence will undoubtedly afford. More broadly, there’s still a lot to flesh out in terms of individual player chemistries; much of the Hawks’ rotation consists of players new to Atlanta, all of whom are learning by the day how to best work off of one another. The effort and focus of the Hawks as a collective is high enough to keep chugging along that learning curve, fostering little bits of team-wide growth even as Atlanta plunges further into big-picture irrelevance.
Boston Celtics: Stay patient with Rajon Rondo, don’t sweat the Atlantic Divison crown.
Brad Stevens has done an outstanding job of giving a lean, unconventional roster a sense of purpose, but that doesn’t in any way change what should be an ultra-conservative treatment of Rajon Rondo’s rehabilitation. There is no immediate reason nor pressure for Rondo to return; not only has this team fared relatively well in his absence, but the season’s omens don’t exactly bode well for players making their return from major injuries. Rondo needn’t be put in a position to join that bunch (which includes Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook) on any accelerated schedule, for reasons of risk analysis more than cursed luck. There’s really no reason for it, not when the best outcome on the board for the Celtics is a middle, inconsequential seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
If the Celtics can accomplish that much by their own devices, good on them. But it shouldn’t be any kind of priority relative to the franchise’s greater goals, many of which begin with a healthy Rondo coming back to the court at his own pace. Whether he’s to be a core contributor or a valuable trade chip is up for debate, but the goals and timing in Rondo’s return should not be.
Brooklyn Nets: Fashion a robotic leg for Brook Lopez, rewind the clock on Kevin Garnett’s career, replace Deron Williams ankles with stretchy, forgiving silicone joints, concoct a witch’s brew to give Paul Pierce eternal youth, and knock on wood in hope that Jason Kidd pulls it all together.
More remote possibilities include: forging a title-worthy team defense and rising to rival the Pacers and Heat.
Charlotte Bobcats: Find a way to create workable floor spacing.
No NBA offense can function without room to breathe, yet the Bobcats’ offense subsists largely on pants and gasps. Post actions are stifled before they even have time to develop. Pick-and-roll sequences are crowded as they move closer to the paint. Every drive comes with a few defenders sliding over in the periphery, where they influence the play without ever fully committing to help defense. All that Charlotte aims to do is choked off because it has the very worst crop of spot-up shooters in the NBA per Synergy Sports, with only two players on the roster (Anthony Tolliver and Kemba Walker) converting three-pointers at a rate above the league average.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Bobcats’ near-league-worst offense has been markedly better with either Tolliver or Walker in the game; there’s only so much that teams can do to space the floor without quality shooters, and Charlotte doesn’t have the playmaking nor the offensive structure to manage an alternative course at the moment. At some point that will have to change. The Bobcats threw down $41 million to sign Al Jefferson over the summer, yet thus far have not given him the kind of shooting framework that all post players need. For all their substantial investment in a proven scorer, Charlotte’s offense — which was already quite bad (28th in the league) last season — has actually scored about two fewer points per 100 possessions.
Chicago Bulls: Cut down the turnovers, at the least.
This is far easier said than done, considering the Bulls might be one of the few teams in the league for whom signing D.J. Augustin was a definitive upgrade. There may be no more somber assessment of Chicago’s season than that, as Derrick Rose’s season-ending injury left the likes of Kirk Hinrich and Marquis Teague overburdened and overwhelmed.
Offensive struggles, then, are par for the course. No one should bat an eye at the fact that the Bulls have one of the three worst offenses in the league this season, with even last year’s marks sadly out of reach. Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli gave some life to a withering offense in Rose’s last absence, but this year’s team is starving for shot creation without either around to force the action. I’d wager that one of Robinson’s dribble-heavy possessions ending in a contested pull-up jumper has never sounded so sweet, as these Bulls are fortunate to get any play going in a productive manner.
They will not turn it around — their lacking play at the point, among other factors, won’t allow it. Yet with two clever, passing bigs and a crew of smart wing players, can’t Chicago at least do better than turning the ball over on a league-worst 17.4 percent of its possessions? Teams that work this hard shouldn’t be quite so stagnant, yet the Bulls seem to find new and exciting ways to give away possessions on a nightly basis. That needs to be remedied, even if there’s no panacea for what ails Chicago’s offense on the whole.