Posted Sep 13, 2012 11:52 AM - Updated Oct 9, 2012 11:06 AM
Here's a crazy thought: The Atlantic Division, just three years after it sent only one team to the playoffs, could be the best in basketball.
The Boston Celtics have retooled and look to be the second best team in the Eastern Conference. The New York Knicks will once again be a dangerous playoff team. The Brooklyn Nets should be the most improved team in the league. The Philadelphia 76ers just got themselves a franchise player. And the Toronto Raptors should take another step forward under Dwane Casey.
Each team, of course, had some issues last year, mostly on the offensive end of the floor. The question is how well those issues can be addressed. So here's a deeper look at a key stat from last season for each team, and how that number might change this year.
Pace: 92.6 (22)
OffRtg: 98.9 (24)
DefRtg: 95.5 (2)
NetRtg: +3.4 (7)
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The Celtics have regressed offensively each of the last four seasons. Last season, their big drop-off was largely due to their free-throw rate. After ranking in the top 10 in each of the first four seasons with the big three, they ranked 22nd last season, getting to the line just 26 times per 100 field goal attempts.
One big reason for the drop in free throw rate was Kevin Garnett's move to center, with Brandon Bass (another jump shooter) replacing him at power forward. That will be the starting frontline again this season, so it will be difficult for the Celtics to get to the line much more often.
Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green are all solid additions, but none of the three will get to the line much. The Celtics' only hope for more trips to the stripe may be whether rookie Jared Sullinger can earn a spot in the rotation. Sullinger attempted 52 free throws per 100 field goal attempts at Ohio State last season, and shot them at a decent clip (77 percent) for a big man.
Pace: 92.7 (21)
OffRtg: 99.7 (23)
DefRtg: 106.9 (29)
NetRtg: -7.2 (28)
Four of the Nets' five starters are returnees, but you basically have to throw out last year's numbers. Gerald Wallace played just 16 games with the Nets last season, Brook Lopez played just five, and Joe Johnson adds an entirely new element to the mix.
Deron Williams has never played with a wing scorer like Johnson, and Johnson hasn't played with a dynamic point guard like Williams since he left Phoenix seven years ago. The two should make each other's lives easier.
When Williams was on the floor last season, his Nets teammates had a true shooting percentage of 52.7 percent, up from 49.8 percent when he was on the bench. When Johnson was on the floor last season, his Hawks teammates had a true shooting percentage of 53.8 percent, up from 51.9 percent when he was on the bench. So both players make their teammates more efficient.
True shooting percentage = PTS / (2 * (FGM + (0.44*FTA)))
Interior defense will certainly be an issue, but with an All-Star backcourt, the potential is there for the Nets to be a very potent offensive team.
Pace: 95.7 (5)
OffRtg: 101.4 (19)
DefRtg: 98.4 (5)
NetRtg: +3.0 (10)
Tyson Chandler made a huge defensive impact on the Knicks last season, taking them from the bottom 10 to the top five in defensive efficiency. But maybe even more amazing was that a team with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire could be below average offensively.
Anthony and Stoudemire obviously have very little on-court chemistry. The Knicks were even worse offensively (99.1 points scored per 100 possessions) when the two were on the floor together. And New York has been outscored by 123 points in the 1,880 minutes the two have played together over 1 and 1/2 seasons.
But the Knicks really regressed in just two offensive categories last season, and neither has much to do with how well Anthony and Stoudemire mesh on the floor. New York went from fourth (in 2010-11) to 27th in turnover rate, and from eighth to 21st in 3-point percentage.
There's plenty of reason to believe that the turnover issues will be (mostly) resolved this season. First, Anthony isn't going to be playing point forward anymore. Second, Jeremy Lin, who committed almost five turnovers per 36 minutes, is gone. Third, Davis is also gone, and the Knicks had a worse turnover rate with Davis on the floor (18.7 turnovers per 100 possessions) than they did with Lin on the floor (17.2).
New point guard Raymond Felton wasn't much better than Lin in terms of turnover rate last season. But the Knicks did take care of the ball pretty well when he was running the point two years ago. They committed just 14.1 turnovers per 100 possessions in Felton's 2,074 minutes on the floor.
Pace: 91.9 (24)
OffRtg: 101.7 (17)
DefRtg: 96.6 (3)
NetRtg: +5.1 (5)
The Sixers set an NBA record by turning the ball over just 11.2 times per game last season. But in every other aspect, their offense was pretty bad. And the Celtics' free throw rate problems (described above) were minor compared to those of Philly, who attempted less than 22 free throws per 100 field goal attempts.
Enter Andrew Bynum, whose free throw rate was almost twice that. Bynum and Elton Brand played the same amount of games last season, but Bynum (338) attempted 222 more free throws than Brand (116) did. Of course, like Brand, the two guys who led the Sixers in free throw attempts last season, Lou Williams (292) and Andre Iguodala (196) are gone.
Really, with Bynum on board, the Sixers' offense should be very different. Replacing Brand with Bynum, they should be less of a jump-shooting team. Only two teams (Charlotte and Boston) attempted a greater percentage of their shots from mid-range than the Sixers did last season. And Brand took more than half of his shots from outside the paint.
Bynum, despite his professed affinity for launching threes, took 90 percent of his shots from the paint. He's a big man who plays big, and that should benefit the Sixers offensively.
Pace: 91.6 (28)
OffRtg: 98.5 (25)
DefRtg: 101.5 (12)
NetRtg: -3.0 (23)
The Raptors were the most improved defensive team in the league last season, but they also regressed quite a bit offensively. And, like the Knicks, their biggest issue was turnovers, committing 16.5 of them per 100 possessions, the fifth-highest rate in the league.
It wasn't long ago (2007-08) that the Raps had the lowest turnover rate in the league, and they ranked sixth just two seasons ago. But point guard Jose Calderon's turnover percentage has risen each of the last two years.
The addition of Kyle Lowry could take some of the pressure off Calderon to make plays, but Lowry himself probably won't help in the turnover department. His rate of 18.8 turnovers per 100 possessions was worse than Calderon's and 22nd among starting point guards last season.
Either way, the return of Andrea Bargnani and the addition of Jonas Valanciunas should give the Raptors' offense a boost. But if Lowry and Calderon can do a better job of taking care of the ball, than the two bigs can make more of an impact.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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