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November 5, 2008
See Something Different?
Changes Abound in the Season's First Week

by Anthony Macri

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Each year, teams make adjustments both to their roster and/or their coaching staff that lead to significant changes in style and approach. Getting a handle on what these adjustments actually do and how they affect a team's production is an intriguing way to look at the first weeks of the season.

In this article, we will take a look at two teams from each conference to see how their changes will impact the product out on the floor.

Chicago Bulls

After last year's disappointing season, the Chicago Bulls have a brand new approach and at least one new difference-making talent to work with this season. Vinny Del Negro enters the scene fresh off spending the last three years watching, learning and working with Mike D'Antoni and the Phoenix "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns. Expect much of that philosophy to be put into action by the versatile Bulls, whose roster looks and feels like the Suns roster of two or three years ago.

Chicago has capable scorers at every position. While some have been more productive than others, there is no doubting their potential. One of the real questions will be what direction Del Negro decides to take the lineup. With a pace that is expected to be high, and an increased number of possessions, it would at least seem there should be enough basketball for everyone. This will also be a welcome change from the micromanagement of Scott Skiles.

Depth will be a major advantage for this Bulls team, and frontcourt versatility will provide them with length and athleticism, if not pure strength. Expect a monster year from Luol Deng, who could enter the All-Star conversation by repeating last year with more games played at a higher possession-per-game rate. Derrick Rose thrives in this type of environment, where he is able to rebound the basketball, push the break, find finishers (like Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah and others) at the rim and shooters (like Ben Gordon, Larry Hughes, Kirk Hinrich and more) stretching the defense. Even in the halfcourt, there should be plenty of production both at the rim and out beyond the three-point line, with the major minute players being at least serviceable off the dribble.

The Bulls will be much improved over last year. While Del Negro will need to learn the ins and outs of being the guy who calls the shots, there is no reason to think that Chicago fans won't have something more entertaining and successful to watch this season.

Sacramento Kings

Reggie Theus, coach of the Sacramento Kings, has an interesting challenge in front of him. Theus and the Kings announced earlier this fall that they would be employing aspects of, if not fully installing, the vaunted Triangle Offense. With the most underrated scorer in the league and a set of versatile forwards, Sacramento could make it work.

Kevin Martin now owns the show in Sacramento. Noted as one of the league's most efficient players and effective scorers, Martin can shoot from three (40.2% last year) and from the free-throw line (86.9% in 2007-08). He averaged 4.4 three-point attempts and 9.5 free throw attempts per game while shooting those percentages--proof positive that he is one of the league's most balanced scorers. Without other proven scoring options on the team, however, Martin will need to use the offensive system to find his opportunities. That system could very well be the Triangle, which has featured some pretty good scoring options at the two-guard spot in most of its successful implementations.

Because the offense constantly moves players into different scoring areas and forces different looks, the defense can never lock in to one play or one location. For a player like Carmelo Anthony, everyone knows his favorite spot on the floor is that right wing. The Nuggets run plays for Anthony to receive and attack from there. With Martin in the Triangle, however, they could get him the ball in five different attack positions on five consecutive possessions and it can be effective for him.

Any success the Kings will have implementing this system will rely on the versatility of their forwards. The Kings' bigs all can shoot out to at least 15 feet and are capable if not good passers (Brad Miller at 3.7 apg). They have depth in the frontcourt, which will give them the ability to change the focus of their offense on any given possession. A true back-to-the-basket banger is not necessary to run the Triangle, and the Kings don't have one anyway, so the spacing it creates can give other teams trouble.

In the end, the Kings will have a new look. That look, however, is so new (they are one of the younger teams in the league) that no one should expect a ton out of them in terms of wins. Martin, however, will be a lot of fun to watch; if his production and efficiency continue to rise (as they have in each of his NBA seasons), expect an All-Star caliber year out of the young guard.

New Jersey Nets

Rod Thorn must be an adaptable executive. During his tenure with the Nets, they have undergone a number of roster and style changes, whether it be their time with Stephon Marbury, Johnny Newman and Keith Van Horn as their big three, or their time with Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin as the big three, or their current big three of Devin Harris, Vince Carter and a player to be named later.

Much like the Kings, the Nets possess versatile, athletic forwards who will do well on the break and in the face-up game. Devin Harris, the young former Dallas point guard, enters his first full season with the team, and Coach Lawrence Frank has installed elements of the penetrate-and-pitch style of the dribble-drive offense. This offense will not feature a back-to-the-basket post player (which is good, as the Nets don't really have one), and will give Harris opportunities to create plays for himself and for his teammates. This is a strength of the quick guard, and should give him chances to be one of the league's most improved players.

This could also be a system that plays to the strengths of Yi Jianlian. A face-up three in a center's body, Jianlian has the skill level to get to the basket and play as a perimeter player. In dribble-drive concepts, he will be able to read closeouts of bigger, clumsy defenders not used to having to extend hard out to the three-point line. The question will be whether he can finish plays effectively. If he can, expect him to join Harris and Carter in that big three.

Speaking of Carter, the real key to this system working will be how it impacts the player once known as Half-Man, Half-Amazing. Carter is not known for the swiftness with which he makes decisions. Classically, Carter is more of the stare-down-the-defender type, rocking the ball before going on the attack. In this type of offense, spacing and rapid, violent penetration is needed. If Carter can break the habits of old, it could revitalize the once dominant scorer and free him up to create as a mid-air maestro once again. The jury, however, is out for now.

Dallas Mavericks

Some are predicting the demise of the Dallas Mavericks. I see something different, however. Obviously predicated on the idea that point guard Jason Kidd is healthy and integrated into their attack, the Mavericks may experience a renaissance of sorts as it pertains to offense.

Not known as an open-floor coach, Rick Carlisle will implement a more free-flowing, active style with this year's Mavs team. This will unlock the floor for forward Dirk Nowitzki, who is more dangerous when you don't know where he is coming from. In stagnant isolation sets as a one-on-one offensive player, really strong defensive teams could prevent Nowitzki from getting the looks he wanted at least some of the time. However, with more freedom, Nowitzki can attack from different angles and areas of the floor, making him a true load to deal with.

The real key to their success lies in the player most have least confidence in: Josh Howard. Howard is an outstanding talent. However, as he has proven over the last eight months (if not longer), he can short-circuit his production with a variety of issues. In the open court, he is a tough guy to stop. Assuming Kidd is healthy and locked-in, expect Howard to get a lot of run-out dunks, similar to Richard Jefferson when Kidd was with the Nets. With success, he may self-implode--or he may use it as a stepping stone to reach a higher level. Time will tell.

I would expect the Mavericks to start off rocky (their pre-season bears this out). However, a streak of wins as the All-Star break approaches will put them in the thick of an exciting Western Conference race. And their fans will enjoy seeing an open style again in Dallas.

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

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Tipoff '08-'09 (11/04)
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(11/07)

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