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October 29, 2008
NBA Season Preview 2008-09
Atlantic Division

by Kevin Pelton

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1. Philadelphia 76ers (Projected Record: 54-28)
Offensive Rating: 112.9 (6th)
Defensive Rating: 107.3 (7th)

Projected Rotation

(WARP is projected Wins Above Replacement Player, while Win % is projected per-minute rating. Imp/Break/Dec measure the percentage of comparable players who improved, broke out or declined dramatically during the following season. For more explanation, see my introduction to the SCHOENE projection system.)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Andre Miller5.70.51615.03.86.50.440.040.11Sedale Threatt
Andre Iguodala12.00.61120.95.64.60.570.000.02Ron Harper
Thaddeus Young4.30.51411.45.71.30.600.000.00Trevor Ariza
Elton Brand9.30.58718.78.92.70.370.040.06Larry Nance
Samuel Dalembert6.40.5429.79.70.50.360.020.08Alton Lister
Louis Williams7.40.58514.62.64.30.690.190.04Terrell Brandon
Reggie Evans0.90.4533.44.80.60.620.050.08Jerome Williams
Royal Ivey-0.90.3784.41.31.80.620.180.12Keith McLeod
Theo Ratliff1.10.5022.72.00.40.400.100.00Alonzo Mourning
Willie Green-0.80.3634.40.90.80.440.070.09Tony Delk
Marreese Speights0.70.4713.02.20.3( R )
Kareem Rush-0.40.3641.80.50.30.440.090.07Tracy Murray

With the addition of Elton Brand, there's plenty of hype around the Philadelphia 76ers, and SCHOENE is completely buying it. The Sixers have quickly built one of the league's most balanced teams. Just two other teams in the league project to rank in the league's top 10 in both offense and defense, and those two happen to be last year's NBA finalists. There is no obvious reason to believe that the projection overstates Philadelphia's ability. Many predictions have the 76ers third in the Eastern Conference, but a notch below the Celtics and Pistons. I'm not entirely sure there's a gap, at least not between Detroit and Philadelphia.

The Sixers' starting five is as deep as any in the league. Thaddeus Young is projected as the least valuable member of the group, and even he scores as more than four wins better than replacement level with the potential for further improvement. In Louis Williams, Philadelphia has what amounts to a sixth starter, and no member of the group is a liability at either end of the floor. This is a legit contender that could threaten for a championship as soon as this season.

Notes:

  • The projection system does recognize the 76ers' one obvious weakness, a lack of outside shooting. Even with projected 46.0 shooting from Williams beyond the arc, Philadelphia still ranks ahead of only Oklahoma City in projected three-pointers. We'll see if the Sixers can add a shooter midseason; J.J. Redick seems like one obvious target.
  • The 76ers will compensate for the lack of outside shooting in part with outstanding offensive rebounding. Their projected 32.0 percent offensive rebound percentage is far and away tops in the league; Portland is second at 30.5 percent. This will probably go down somewhat with Young and Andre Iguodala spending more time on the perimeter.
  • Because Brand played so little last season, I arrived at his projection by averaging his 2006-07 and 2007-08 numbers. Like many players who suffered extended injuries that aren't necessarily likely to recur, I compensated by boosting his projected games played to 69. Brand's projection of 18.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game is very conservative; he hasn't performed worse since his first season with the Clippers.
  • Williams looks like a capital-S Stud. At 7.4 WARP, he's projected to be second in value amongst likely reserves, trailing only Manu Ginobili. Williams's top 10 comps feature five All-Stars, including Gilbert Arenas and Allen Iverson.

2. Boston Celtics (Projected Record: 53-29)
Offensive Rating: 112.0 (9th)
Defensive Rating: 106.6 (6th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Rajon Rondo7.60.57811.84.05.80.740.090.00Kevin Johnson
Ray Allen4.30.50015.53.43.10.290.000.16Eddie Jones
Paul Pierce8.50.57317.64.94.40.220.000.09Scottie Pippen
Kevin Garnett14.10.70216.88.43.40.140.000.05Karl Malone
Kendrick Perkins3.60.5077.26.11.40.560.090.06John Salley
Leon Powe3.60.5697.74.00.30.220.000.08Marlon Maxey
Tony Allen0.00.4177.42.41.70.590.120.14Damien Wilkins
Eddie House0.30.4257.62.22.10.350.020.08Dana Barros
Glen Davis0.70.4475.13.40.50.520.130.10Victor Alexander
Sam Cassell0.00.4164.91.21.90.290.000.14Avery Johnson
J.R. Giddens0.80.4663.22.20.9( R )
Bill Walker-0.80.3653.61.90.6( R )
Brian Scalabrine-0.60.3391.00.80.40.560.330.07Tim Perry

The danger is that the takeaway from this column is, "SCHOENE projects defending champs behind first-round loser." It shouldn't. Don't count on the Celtics finishing sixth in the league in Defensive Rating. Alas, Boston's biggest strength (defending opposing field goals) does not translate particularly well the way this projection system is built. If we subjectively account for the issue, the Celtics shoot to the top of the Eastern Conference and ahead of everyone else in the league save the Lakers.

There are some concerns with regards to Boston's depth, particularly on the perimeter, with the loss of James Posey. The Celtics can't count on Sam Cassell at his age, while Eddie House remains limited despite his excellent Finals performance. Tony Allen is inconsistent too. First-round pick J.R. Giddens might be Boston's best bet on the perimeter. In terms of the starting lineup, the development of Rajon Rondo in particular will help offset the aging of the big three. The offense projects to be as good as it was a year ago.

The Celtics won't win 66 games again, and that isn't the goal in Boston. Should the Celtics manage to secure the East's top seed, their chances are good at getting back to the Finals and attempting to become the NBA's first repeat champion since the Lakers from 2000-02.

Notes:

  • The projections for Ray Allen are very pessimistic, suggesting his scoring average will drop to its lowest mark since his rookie season. Amongst his most similar players, Rolando Blackman, Eddie Jones and Mitch Richmond all took major hits the following season, dropping off from All-Star level.
  • On the other hand, the system loves Rondo, who figures to take on a bigger role on the offense and improve his perimeter shooting while also handing out more assists.
  • Even with the issue I mentioned earlier, Boston projects to lead the league in opponent effective field-goal percentage while continuing to rank second in turnovers forced per possession. Last season, the Celtics became the first team ever to lead the league in both categories.

3. Toronto Raptors (Projected Record: 43-39)
Offensive Rating: 111.2 (12th)
Defensive Rating: 110.3 (18th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Jose Calderon12.30.63812.93.28.80.350.000.10Mark Jackson
Anthony Parker1.90.45311.84.22.30.380.000.08Dell Curry
Jamario Moon4.30.5138.56.21.40.340.030.00Shane Battier
Chris Bosh12.70.64821.48.32.80.370.000.10Terry Cummings
Jermaine O'Neal2.20.47111.36.31.90.400.000.05Elden Campbell
Andrea Bargnani-0.90.39612.14.61.50.760.340.03Kiki Vandeweghe
Jason Kapono-2.20.3609.52.01.20.470.110.04Sam Mack
Joey Graham-1.10.3564.82.50.60.680.270.05Mitch Kupchak
Kris Humphries2.00.4877.34.80.60.350.060.18Antawn Jamison
Willie Solomon1.50.4945.11.21.8
Roko Ukic-0.10.4082.30.60.8( R )

Inevitably, the trade for Jermaine O'Neal will define the Toronto Raptors' 2008-09 season. The move made sense for the Raptors, who had to deal one of their point guards (clearly T.J. Ford). Still, there is no doubt the trade was a major risk. O'Neal has played an average of 51.5 games over the last four seasons. Even projecting O'Neal to 69 games, as we do, seems optimistic (I did limit O'Neal's minutes somewhat to compensate). If Toronto gets a star center to pair with Chris Bosh in the frontcourt, the deal could help the Raptors get to the next level. If not, the team has sacrificed a lot of depth by giving up Ford, perennially underrated center Rasho Nesterovic and a first-round pick (even Maceo Baston could be a useful player).

Toronto is going into the season with 13 players on the roster, and rookie center Nathan Jawai has yet to be cleared to practice because of a heart irregularity. Depth is especially a concern up front, which is a problem when combined with O'Neal's injury history. In his absence, the Raptors would only have three bigs they could rely on--Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Kris Humphries. For better or worst, Bargnani figures to play a bigger role than last year backing up O'Neal. The system isn't especially confident about his chances of taking a major step forward.

Ideally, at some point SCHOENE will be equipped to project a range of possibilities for each team. In the case of the Raptors, the distribution would probably be all over the place. There's a chance O'Neal has major injury issues and Toronto misses him and misses the playoffs. Things could also come together and this team could break into the second tier of contenders in the East. For now, we've got the Raptors projected somewhere in between, making the playoffs but without home-court advantage.

Notes:

  • As usual, Toronto has been more aggressive than any other team in mining Europe for talent, signing three players who played across the pond last season. That doesn't necessarily mean European players; two of the three (Hassan Adams and Willie Solomon) are Americans with NBA experience, with Roko Ukic as the exception. Adams did not play in a major international competition, so we don't have translated numbers for him (he rated fairly well as a rookie in New Jersey in 2006-07). The more experienced Solomon posted better Euroleague numbers than Ukic and looks like a solid backup for Jose Calderon.
  • One surprise of the projections was that Calderon comes out with a relatively low assist average--8.8 per game. In this case, the system is suspecting that his high assist numbers a year ago were something of an aberration and has them dropping by more than eight percent on a per-possession basis.
  • A healthy O'Neal could really make a big difference at the defensive end of the floor. As recently as two years ago, I picked O'Neal as my Defensive Player of the Year. His defensive numbers have consistently been very strong. The defensive drop from O'Neal to Bargnani is probably the biggest between starter and backup of any team in the league. O'Neal is still projected to rank 15th in the league in blocks per game.

4. New Jersey Nets (Projected Record: 33-49)
Offensive Rating: 109.1 (20th)
Defensive Rating: 111.8 (23rd)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Devin Harris8.50.59015.82.85.90.460.030.05Rod Strickland
Vince Carter9.00.56719.45.85.10.330.040.09Rolando Blackman
Bobby Simmons-1.00.3847.73.51.10.500.110.07Bobby Hansen
Yi Jianlian1.10.4468.55.61.00.630.160.02Tony Battie
Brook Lopez1.50.45511.05.81.1( R )
Chris Douglas-Roberts0.20.4219.02.61.2( R )
Keyon Dooling0.60.4368.31.52.10.400.060.09John Battle
Eduardo Najera1.50.4684.53.61.00.340.040.13Mike Sanders
Josh Boone3.20.5346.05.20.60.380.060.11Dale Davis
Jarvis Hayes0.10.4216.72.20.80.510.110.04Tim Legler
Sean Williams1.90.5383.52.70.30.600.080.04Jermaine O'Neal
Ryan Anderson1.10.5063.72.30.3( R )
Stromile Swift0.50.4911.91.20.20.450.090.11Etan Thomas
Trenton Hassell-1.80.2721.40.90.50.570.240.04Ira Newble

It is no secret that the New Jersey Nets are rebuilding, and the process has just started. With three first-round picks and a deal on draft night that sent veteran Richard Jefferson to Milwaukee for sophomore Yi Jianlian, the Nets have gotten much younger over the offseason. Now Vince Carter is the odd man out, and the expectation around the league is that Carter will be gone by the trade deadline. If a deal materializes, New Jersey could sink near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. For now, however, the Nets might be surprisingly competitive. The backcourt of Carter and Devin Harris is a quality one, and the bench features some effective role players. Lawrence Frank should have his charges playing hard, allowing New Jersey to steal some wins against more talented teams.

Notes:

  • Now might be the right time to sell on Carter. At 31, he's reaching the point where declining athleticism figures to become a major issue. He's a year or two away from where Ray Allen is now.
  • In Lopez and Douglas-Roberts, the Nets have two of the seven rookies projected to score at least 9.0 points per game. Douglas-Roberts should be able to offer scoring right away in a reserve role. The challenge is to develop the rest of his game. Lopez, meanwhile, comes out as a much better defensive player than scorer as a rookie.
  • Officially, Yi's age is 21 as of Monday, but even gymnastics officials wouldn't buy that. I changed his effective age to 22.5 in coming up with Yi's comparables. He still comes out with a very high chance of taking a major step in his development.
  • I'm not sure what it's worth, but New Jersey has tremendous depth in the frontcourt. How many other teams can boast players as talented as Ryan Anderson and Stromile Swift as their sixth and seventh big men? The one way to use this might be for Frank to encourage his bigs to be very aggressive in using their fouls.

5. New York Knicks (Projected Record: 24-58)
Offensive Rating: 108.0 (24th)
Defensive Rating: 114.9 (30th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Chris Duhon0.60.4317.12.14.50.640.090.02Lee Mayberry
Jamal Crawford4.60.50119.32.44.90.380.020.02Allan Houston
Quentin Richardson-2.80.3498.35.21.90.510.080.04Albert King
Zach Randolph4.20.49717.911.02.30.360.000.04Wayman Tisdale
David Lee6.30.53812.310.41.50.240.020.07Michael Cage
Nate Robinson3.00.49513.13.03.10.550.040.06Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
Wilson Chandler0.20.4248.43.91.10.640.140.00Linas Kleiza
Jared Jeffries-0.60.3753.33.00.80.650.180.05Lionel Simmons
Eddy Curry0.00.41712.34.60.60.720.030.00Vitaly Potapenko
Stephon Marbury0.20.4256.01.22.20.370.090.16Dennis Johnson
Danilo Gallinari0.60.4524.01.50.8( R )
Malik Rose-0.70.3291.81.10.30.570.130.07LaSalle Thompson

It's reasonable to question how useful a projection system can possibly be when it comes to the 2008-09 New York Knicks. Other than determining the pace to change some of the per-game numbers, there is no adjustment for coaching. It would be hard to see a change more dramatic than the one the Knicks are making this season. I wouldn't be surprised one bit if New York indeed is the league's worst defensive team next season. The offensive end is obviously a different story, and I'd guess even with this mismatched crew Mike D'Antoni should be able to produce a ranking better than 24th. The Knicks will run-and-gun their way to a few wins they shouldn't get as well as probably blowing a lot of leads. If nothing else, it should be much more entertaining to watch than the dark last days of the Isiah Thomas era. Here's hoping the Garden crowd embraces the rebuilding effort and gives this group a chance to play, unburdened by expectations.

Notes:

  • A faster pace will mean a lot of rebounds, and SCHOENE likes both David Lee and Zach Randolph to average double-doubles. The only duo to accomplish that last season was Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, and even that was with Bynum playing less than half the season. Randolph projects to take full advantage of the situation to finish third in the league in rebounds per game.
  • For a 20-year-old rookie, Gallinari's translated statistics based on his Euroleague performance are pretty solid. Gallinari projects to a very low shooting percentage (37.7 percent) but as a mistake-free player with an assist-to-turnover ratio better than two.
  • Could there be any greater indictment of Eddy Curry than having Vitaly Potapenko as his number one comp? Oh yes, not being in the Knicks' rotation to start the season. Maybe that.
  • Assuming he beats out Patrick Ewing, Jr. for the last spot on the roster, Anthony Roberson figures to play a role (what, you're counting on Stephon Marbury to play a full season at this point?). Roberson did not play in either of the major international European leagues last year. I'm not a big fan based on his previous NBA performance.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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