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.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Follow through offensively to set up better shots inside.
While the Cavs have made some progress defensively under head coach Mike Brown, their offense remains both unimaginative and unproductive. Part of the problem, though, is that their three primary ball handlers — Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Jarrett Jack — have the same tendency to pull up for jump shots, thereby bringing offensive actions to an abrupt end. In fact, Cleveland is one of just three teams (along with Portland and Milwaukee) to have three players in the top 50 in pull-up attempts per game, per SportVU, which unsurprisingly coincides with a low number of attempts in the restricted area. Far too many offensive sequences for the Cavs are upended with a contested jumper off the dribble or a floater from just inside the paint, both of which could be replaced with better looks nearer to the basket given the creativity, quickness, and ball handling of the players involved.
That’s not a change that can happen overnight, and Cleveland has likely been warded away from the rim by the fact that its players finish their shots there at the worst rate in the league. Yet the looks in the restricted area that the Cavs do generate often aren’t of great quality, as players like Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao force up tough looks off scrambled plays or offensive rebounds. Improving too much inside will be tough until Cleveland imports better finishers, but creating more scoring opportunities down low could help center the offense for a team that has otherwise struggled to both make shots and generate free throws.
Detroit Pistons: Finish what they start.
While the Pistons have underwhelmed in many regards, they seem to have a particular talent for floundering in the fourth quarter. Consider as evidence Detroit’s implosion against Washington on Tuesday night; despite entering the fourth quarter with a nine-point lead, the Pistons wound up conceding 28 points in the final frame to lose by 12. That was slightly out of character for a team that, as noted by Dan Feldman of Piston Powered, generally tends to fade when behind rather than blow leads, but overall the fourth has given Detroit all kinds of trouble in most every situation.
Detroit is the league’s worst fourth-quarter team by a mile, as the Pistons are typically outscored by 13.4 points per 100 fourth quarter possessions. Boston comes closest with an eight-point margin in that same measure, though “close” is relative; the difference between the Pistons and Celtics is roughly the same as that between the 29th-ranked Celtics and the 19th-place Nets in terms of fourth quarter performance.
Take a look at how Detroit matches up with the rest of the Eastern Conference in terms of points scored and allowed per fourth quarter possession:
The axes represent the league average for fourth quarter performance: 104.6 points per 100 possessions.
Charlotte has performed worse offensively and Washington has been almost as poor defensively, but no team matches the two-way misery of Detroit’s fourth-quarter play. Consistency from quarter to quarter should not be so elusive.
Indiana Pacers: Return to dominance on the offensive glass.
Paul George has ascended, Roy Hibbert is thriving, Lance Stephenson improves by the day, and David West and George Hill remain sturdy. Yet the Pacers rank 13th in the league in scoring efficiency, just above the likes of Toronto, Sacramento, and Detroit. Turnovers remain a considerable problem on that front, but more glaring is Indiana’s odd slide on the offensive glass. Just last season the Pacers were consistently able to leverage their size into additional scoring opportunities, the frequency of which helped to offset their turnover problems. This season, though, Indiana has ranked 20th in offensive rebounding rate — a swing that has allowed six percent of their own misses to fall to their opponents relative to last season’s mark.
On a per-game basis, that’s a loss of about three potential field goal attempts per game. Accounting for the fact that Indiana returns 1.1 points per offensive rebound per Synergy Sports, that’s a loss of roughly 2.8 points per game — more than 230 points over the course of a full regular season. The decision to let go of Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Ayres is responsible for some of that dip, but Pacers across the board — from Hibbert and West on down — have seen dips in their individual offensive rebounding rates. How could such a big team with a post-centric focus be so underwhelming on the offensive boards?
Miami Heat: Dig around in the couch cushions for Shane Battier’s jump shot.
The defending champs are a team of resolution and as worthy a contender as any in the league. That Miami is playing so well while going to such great lengths to keep Dwyane Wade healthy is remarkable, and bodes well for the team’s performance overall and Wade’s availability come playoff time.
The only thing that seems to be missing is Shane Battier’s three-point stroke, which was last seen in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Miami is getting better at making do when Battier isn’t connecting from long range, but there’s no question that his ability to stretch the floor makes matchups against bigger elite teams easier for the Heat to handle. Battier may have a lead on finding his wayward shot after hitting 5-of-8 from deep in his last three games, but what matters most is that it surfaces by the time the postseason rolls around.
Milwaukee Bucks: Lean in.
One could say that the basketball gods have done Milwaukee a favor, as a roster designed to scrounge for wins has thus far been rendered the worst team in the league by rampant injury. With more losing and some decent lottery luck, the Bucks could soon be building around a core of Larry Sanders, John Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a blue-chip prospect to be named later. Also in the stable are solid young contributors in Khris Middleton, Brandon Knight, and Nate Wolters, along with a movable assets like O.J. Mayo and a potentially movable asset/reclamation project in Ersan Ilyasova. Also in play: Milwaukee is owed seven second round picks between now and 2019, making for a nice pile of potential deal sweeteners should the situation require it.
That’s not the foundation of the dynasty, but with the right lottery pick and a commitment to the developmental process, this could soon be a very solid team. All Milwaukee needs to do is lean into the stink, if only a bit; it shouldn’t take too much maneuvering to ensure that this roster loses plenty of games, but every effort should be made to preserve this opportunity and the long-term prospects of this core.
New York Knicks: Don’t do anything rash.
This would seem to run contrary to the franchise’s operating standard, but we’ve reached the point with the Knicks where all we can ask is that they keep their hands to themselves and not break anything. There is not a plausible trade out there by which New York could flip its meager assets for a shot at contention. As such, what matters most is that the Knicks retain the tradeable pieces they do have — Iman Shumpert, Tyson Chandler, what future draft considerations New York still owns — for the right deal. If that comes this season, so be it. But there should be no pressure to sell off players or picks to buy a life preserver for this drowning lot, not when their problems run so, so deep.
Consider all options and explore the trade market, by all means. Just fight the urge to be the Knicks when it comes to panic moves in a no-win situation.
Orlando Magic: Find a beneficial trade return for Arron Afflalo.
Afflalo is one of the best guards in the Eastern Conference, has at least one more season under a reasonable contract (he earns $7.5 million per year), and is entering the prime of his career. He’s also of more potential help to a playoff team than a rebuilding one, especially considering that Orlando has plenty of roster work to do before making any kind of serious run. Selling high on Afflalo, then, makes a lot of sense — he’s not in any way a problem to the Magic, but his current value could be better redeemed via trade than as a core contributor to a losing team.
Or, if you’d like a greater degree of difficulty: Find a beneficial trade return for Jameer Nelson. There’s not much harm in keeping Nelson around, and at worst the Magic could decide to waive Nelson before July 15 to reduce his salary and cap hit for next season to a mere $2 million. Yet that same salary flexibility could be attractive to another team, with Orlando in a position to eat salary in the interim in exchange for picks or prospects. It seems unlikely that the Magic would be able to net much of consequence in such a deal, but stranger things have happened.
Philadelphia 76ers: Leverage cap space into long-term assets.
The Sixers have more cap space than any team in the league, and thus a bigger workspace from which to make deals. Salary flexibility is important, but Philly is at a state in its development where using cap space to sign an impact player might not be a workable strategy. Not only would the Sixers likely have to overpay potential free agents to join a young, rebuilding team, but the players good enough to qualify as major targets likely aren’t young enough to align with Philly’s current core. Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel could be a great pairing down the line, but they have just 41 years — and 19 games of NBA experience — between them.
That cap space, then, becomes an effective means of storing another team’s bloated contract while demanding picks or young players in return. That the Sixers also have Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, and Spencer Hawes around as viable trade chips only widens the possibilities; the combination of veteran talent and ample cap room makes Philly one of the most attractive trade partners on the market, provided that teams looking to improve or shed salary today are willing to fork over developing players or future picks in exchange. If Sixers GM Sam Hinkie can capitalize on that opportunity, he could flesh out the foundation of his team
Toronto Raptors: Continue to layer new options into the offense.
Regardless of whether Toronto commits to a full roster teardown or opts to extend this group’s impressive run since the Rudy Gay trade, there’s some discovery and development to be done in terms of individual offensive weapons. The Raptors’ ball movement is worlds better without Gay’s volume shooting clogging up the works, but still this is a team of players to be groomed with synergies to be explored. Jonas Valanciunas has had more opportunity this year, but he might be soon due for offensive immersion to test the limits of his shot creation and scoring efficiency. DeMar DeRozan continues to grow as a player, and Dwane Casey has done well to put him in all kinds of situations — running pick-and-rolls, posting up smaller guards, running curls for mid-range jumpers — to see what sticks. There’s still plenty to test with Terrence Ross as well, who to date has been used as a spot-up specialist.
Some of that exploration could bode well for an offense that’s already much improved, perhaps to the point of establishing sustainable options going forward. It’s impossible to say where Toronto might go from here given their current predicament, but there’s room, regardless, to focus on the small-scale skills that could eventually pay off for the team’s big-picture offense.
Washington Wizards: Find a way to stretch beyond six-deep.
This is likely more of an offseason project, but the work of improving the Wizards roster isn’t reserved for the summer alone. That’s especially true when there are only six — maybe seven — players in Washington living up to their current roles. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Nene, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, and Martell Webster have all played well, some remarkably so. Kevin Seraphin has been genuinely helpful at times, though with such inconsistency that he’d be a better fit a rung lower on the depth chart. Beyond that, every other Wizard has been atrocious, with the since-marginalized Eric Maynor the most aggressively miserable among them.
Maynor has been dealt with, but replacing him in the rotation with Garrett Temple doesn’t address the fundamental lack of above-fringe talent on Washington’s bench. There are some workers among the reserves, but none heady or skilled or athletic or big enough to make much of a dent in the team’s oppressive plus-minus disparity. Monday night was the rare occasion in which the bench actually held up its end of the bargain, but that may only mean that it will be weeks (or months?) before they again do the same. Washington can be a fun team at times, but this top-heavy roster needs help in a bad way.