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2015-16 NBA preview: Eastern Conference Part 1, the cellar-dwellers

The Nets are a mess and the blame falls at the feet of general manager Billy King. (Photo: WIki commons)
Expert
11th October, 2015
7

Continuing our NBA season preview, today we’re looking at the cellar of the Eastern Conference.

When we say that, we mean we are looking at the crypt of the basement underneath the cellar of the NBA. Nobody throws a better cellar party than Sam Hinkie, the king of the basement rave, so let’s start with his proudly awful 76ers.

15. Philadelphia 76ers
Last season: 18-64, 14th in the East
Key arrivals: Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas
Key departures: Luc Mbah a Moute?

For the first time since the glory days of 2013 – the magical Evan Turner/Spencer Hawes era – the Sixers might be able to run out a competent starting line-up. It won’t be good, no, it won’t even be mediocre. But in Kendall Marshall, Nik Stauskas, Robert Covington, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia can run out something approaching competence (admittedly, we are projecting positively with the backcourt).

Speaking of competence, Philly had a shockingly decent defence last year, ranking 13th in the league. Who says Furkan Aldemir isn’t a defensive beast? The problem is that their offence was historically bad. The gap between Philadelphia’s 30th ranked offence and New York’s 29th ranked offence was bigger than the gap between New York and Boston’s 18th ranked offence. Ish Smith, it turns out, can’t run an elite NBA offence.

With Okafor the Sixers finally have an offensive hub. He’ll be inefficient, and the free throws are concerning, but his counting numbers figure to be huge by necessity. He’ll help them be competitive. And by competitive I mean they’re going 20-62.

The problem with Philadelphia is that they’re three years into a bottoming out process of epic, previously unforeseen proportions and they effectively have four guys to show for it: Okafor, Noel, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. One is overseas, one might never be able to play in the NBA, and three of them play the same position. But hey, they’ve got Stauskas now, and Nik rocks.

Predicted record: 20-62

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14. New York Knicks
Last season: 17-65, last in the East
Key arrivals: Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Kristaps Porzingis
Key departures: Tim Hardaway Jr, Andrea Bargnani (arrivederci)

Full disclosure: my team is the New York Knicks. Full disclosure: my team is terrible.

There’s an uninformed sentiment floating around the NBA that the Knicks and Lakers might approach respectability this season. Call it big-market bias, or maybe call it forgetting that Kobe Bryant is 37 and Carmelo Anthony is 31-and-coming-off-a-serious-knee-injury bias. Both teams are going to be awful.

The prospects are slightly brighter for New York because they play in the East and there’s a decent chance that Melo can resemble Melo again. But even if Anthony is back at something close to full health, even if he can approach superstar status again, this team is still going to be a basket-case.

In 2013-14 Melo was a stud, putting up an insanely efficient 27 and 8, ranking second in the league in scoring. The Knicks won 37 games that year, and that was with Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Amare Stoudemire, Beno Udrih and Pablo Prigioni as a supporting cast. Troublingly, that supporting cast is significantly better than the one Melo has this year.

Lopez is a smart addition, Kyle O’Quinn was a steal and Porzingis was the right draft pick (pending Emmanuel Mudiay’s potential stardom). But Afflalo was terrible last season, Derrick Williams is barely an NBA player and Jose Calderon is perpetually injured. If Calderon goes down, and he will, we’re looking at a steady diet of the poet Langston Galloway and rookie Jerian Grant running the point, a recipe for a malnourished offence.

There’s enough evidence now to suggest that Anthony needs to play the four, but that doesn’t seem feasible because this team doesn’t have two other competent wing players to put beside him. Which means that either Williams will start (again, barely an NBA player) or Porzingis will play power forward, which is a defensive catastrophe. Add these issues to a clueless coach who is spending his off-season indulging in fisticuffs with Matt Barnes, and the Knicks are looking at a top five draft pick. Which, by the way, they don’t own – it goes to Denver. Good times.

Predicted record: 28-54

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13. Charlotte Hornets
Last season: 33-49, 11th in the East
Key arrivals: Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lin, Frank Kaminsky
Key departures: Gerald Henderson, Lance Stephenson, Bismack Biyombo, Noah Vonleh

Last season Michael Kidd-Gilchrist averaged 10.9 points and 1.4 assists. Despite playing on the wing he did not take a single three-point attempt. He’s a career 68.9 per cent free throw shooter. And this team is about to fall apart without him.

MKG, with his elite defence, remarkable rebounding and subtle, genius reading of the play, is a darling for the basketball tragics – which makes him being lost for the season with a torn rotator cuff an even greater basketball tragedy.

Kidd-Gilchrist is the second best player on the Hornets. He’s better than Kemba Walker. Last year when he was on the floor the Hornets had the best defence in the league. When he was off it they fell to 21st. When he was on the court Charlotte outscored their opponents by greater margins than Houston, Memphis and Chicago. When he was off it only Minnesota, New York and Philadelphia were worse teams than Charlotte.

MKG is a transformative defender, the engine that allows the Hornets to compensate for Al Jefferson’s deficiencies on that end. Without him they’re lost.

Now the Hornets are forced to deal with a crowded frontcourt of big man scorers who can’t defend and a wing rotation that has Nic Batum and almost literally nothing else (Jeremy Lamb, anybody? P.J. Hairston?). Enjoy the golf course Michael Jordan, you’re going to have plenty of free time during the playoffs.

Predicted record: 30-52

12. Orlando Magic
Last season: 25-57, 13th in the East
Key arrivals: Mario Hezonja, Shabazz Napier
Key departures: Kyle O’Quinn

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There is a chance, a small sneaking chance, that the Magic could be meaningfully good this year. Jacque Vaughn might have been the worst coach in the league last season, and simply replacing him with the proven competence of Scott Skiles is probably a five-win bump. The defence, with the length and feistiness of Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon, under the tutelage of Skiles figures to make huge leaps from its ranking of 24th last season. Gordon’s shot looks remade, Tobias Harris is poised to make a leap, and Nikola Vucevic is an All-Star talent.

The problem with this team is that the pieces just might not fit. When Harris, Vucevic, Oladipo and Payton – their four core players – shared the floor last year the Magic were killed. They weren’t just killed – they got annihilated. It wasn’t a small sample size either, with those four playing over 800 minutes together and getting outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions.

The defence is significantly worse with Vucevic on the floor which raises the question that Charlotte and Milwaukee will also be grappling with this season: how do you build a good defence when your centre is a liability?

The Magic’s line-ups are a series of losing trade-offs. Payton can’t shoot and for their careers Harris and Oladipo are below average shooters too. So you’d like Channing Frye on the floor for spacing, but he can’t play with Vucevic because it’s a defensive nightmare. When Frye and Vucevic were on the floor together last season the Magic were outscored by 10.8 points per 100 possessions. They were as bad as the Warriors were good.

So then you want Gordon on the floor for defence next to Vucevic, but that cramps the spacing even more.

Gordon is the key that can unlock this team and make the jigsaw puzzle work. If he can become an average shooter, combined with his potentially transformative defence, the team begins to make sense. An identity develops with the raw athleticism of Payton, Oladipo, Harris and Gordon wreaking defensive havoc, and just enough spacing to get by. Gordon’s shot looks better, but at the same time, he’s someone who has made 13 career NBA three pointers. On 48 attempts. We’ll have to see it to believe it.

Predicted record: 34-48

11. Brooklyn Nets
Last season: 38-44, eighth in the East
Key arrivals: Thomas Robinson, Andrea Bargnani, Wayne Ellington, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Key departures: Deron Williams

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Since moving to Brooklyn in 2012, the Nets have had three disappointing seasons compared to expectations. They have been the most underwhelming, uninspiring team in the league, coasting with their talent to the playoffs and then – with the exception of some much needed loudness from Paul Pierce – meekly exiting. But what if this annual tradition of the lifeless Nets becoming synonymous with timid underachieving was all due to one man, one chronic, timid underachiever. What if this was all Deron Williams’s fault?

By all accounts, Nets training camp is the most buoyant it’s been since they crossed the bridge. The reason everyone is giving is simple: D-Will is no longer allowed in the building. Williams has long been the pall that hung over Brooklyn, with his petulance and reticence to embrace anything resembling leadership strangling the team. Williams is gone now though, and maybe the Nets can finally breathe.

The problem is that they’re just not very good. Williams’s departure might lead to a cultural renaissance but it also leaves the Nets with the worst point guard situation in the league. Their floor leader rotation is some cruel post-modern satire, starring Jarrett Jack (by some metrics the worst player in the NBA last year), Shane Larkin, Donald Sloan and something called a Ryan Boatright.

The strength of the Nets will be the frontcourt. Brook Lopez is an All-Star and at 27 he should be primed for his best season. Thaddeus Young is a perfect complement at the four and the Nets have a handful of interesting wings in Hollis-Jefferson, the underrated Wayne Ellington and breakout candidate Bojan Bogdanovic.

The roster is uninspiring but Lionel Hollins is a proven taskmaster who should be able to extract something from the fringes. This projection might be a little optimistic, but in a post-Deron world, optimism reigns.

Predicted record: 34-48