Oct 29 2013 5:01PM

Atlantic Preview

BOSTON CELTICS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 41-40, seventh in Eastern Conference, lost to New York in first round
The 2012-13 season definitely had the feel of a last hurrah, as the Celtics rode their core tandem of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to one more postseason appearance under coach Doc Rivers. Alas, the ride was not long. Boston dropped a six-game decision to New York in the first round of the playoffs, after posting 41 wins during the regular season. The Celtics weren't helped by Rajon Rondo's torn ACL, which he suffered just about midway through last season. Without him delivering the ball, providing a spark and adding an edge to the Boston effort, the team sagged and was not a factor in the Atlantic Division race or the Eastern Conference title pursuit. As the season progressed, it became clear the Celtics could not continue as they were constructed, and rumors about what GM Danny Ainge would do flew around the team. That certainly didn't help things. Pierce continued to be a strong offensive force, while Garnett provided leadership, defense and nastiness, even if his numbers dropped. But without Rondo, there was no third leg of the easel, and it often collapsed against better opposition.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Ainge insists that Boston is not in the process of tanking to gain a solid position in the upcoming NBA Draft, but there are those who find that hard to believe. His decision to let Rivers leave for the Clippers and the blockbuster deal with the Nets that sent Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry south for a package highlighted by Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans and draft picks certainly lessens Boston's status within the League. Further, the decision to dish away Pierce, a lifetime Celtic, was one that angered many fans. Bringing in 37-year old Brad Stevens to coach the team was a bit curious, too, given his unfamiliarity with the NBA game. But Ainge is a pragmatist, and he knows the team's future must be based around younger players. So, he'll start with Rondo, whom he hopes will return before the calendar turns to 2014. He'll rely on Humphries to rebound, Wallace to score, Avery Bradley to defend, Jeff Green to do a little bit of everything, and the deep 2014 draft to provide some young talent that can make the future bright. It's a calculated risk, since Pierce certainly isn't washed up, and Garnett and Terry know how to win.

3 POINTS

There are questions about how healthy Rondo will be when he returns to action, but a bigger concern with him will be how he handles the responsibility of being the leader of the team. Rondo has always been in Pierce and Garnett's shadow, and that allowed him to behave petulantly at times. Now that he is the featured performer, Rondo must be more reliable, both from production and behavioral standpoints. Green was a complementary player when the veterans were on board, but his grab bag of skills will allow him more freedom to produce, and he will have the opportunity to do so. Green played every game last year, a good sign, since he missed all of 2011-12 with a heart ailment. How well Green handles the extra responsibility will determine whether the Celtics are able to reach the playoffs this year, or if they are destined for the Lottery. It will be interesting to see what Jared Sullinger, last year's top draft pick, and Kelly Olynyk, this year's first-rounder, add to the Boston frontcourt. Sullinger had back surgery last February but showed the ability to succeed inside at times last year, while Olynyk is a highly-skilled player who prefers to play away from the basket, despite his 7-foot frame. On a team that lacks proven performers up front, it will be vital for those two to provide consistent production.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
There is no doubt Stevens accomplished a lot at Butler. He took the mid-major program to an unprecedented two Final Fours, becoming the youngest coach ever to accomplish that feat. He has a strong basketball knowledge base and the skills to manage a team. One of the theories about Ainge's decision to hire him is that Stevens' youth and NBA inexperience will play well with an 18-man roster that headed to training camp with seven rookies and 11 players with three or fewer years of experience. It will be interesting to see how Stevens adjusts to the next level. Wallace may be on his fourth team in four years, but the guy can score. His average dipped to 7.7 ppg last year, but that was due more to the other scoring options on the Nets. With the Celtics in need of a three man who can put up consistent points, Wallace is in the right place. A superior athlete who can also rebound and create some havoc in the passing lanes, Wallace is the perfect piece for the Celtics, who are transitioning to a different personality. Although he has been known more of late for his Kardashian-fueled personal life, Humphries remains someone who can rebound when given the opportunity. Last year, he averaged only 18.3 mpg in Brooklyn, and his numbers sagged. But on a team that has few proven interior performers, it will be important for Humphries to exert himself on the backboards and take advantage of offensive opportunities that arise on the offensive glass and when Rondo penetrates and draws big defenders to him. Olynyk is an interesting prospect, and there was some debate in NBA circles about how to regard his professional prospects. He is definitely a below-the-rim player, and there were those scared off by the fact that he had only one big year at Gonzaga. But Olynyk can definitely shoot the ball, and that means he will be a valuable weapon in the pick-and-roll game with Rondo. Don't expect him to be a fire-breather on the backboards or defensively, because at 238 pounds, he is hardly a beast. But as Stevens learns how to use him, and Olynyk becomes more comfortable in the NBA, he should be a productive perimeter weapon. It will be interesting to see how the Celtics manage this season. Clearly, a seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs and quick exit are not preferred outcomes, because that will push Boston down in the draft hierarchy, and that first-round pick acquired from Brooklyn in the big trade isn't likely to be all that valuable, given the Nets' prognosis. But a full-out tank might be tough with this bunch, because there is some talent, and losing 55 games or so isn't likely to make Rondo happy. With his contract up after next season, Ainge needs to prove to him that the Celtics are on the right track. It's possible that Boston could make another trade, but with a lot of unpopular contracts on the books, that might be tough. Since title contention is unlikely, how Boston approaches the season from an organizational sense could have serious long-term ramifications.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Celtics fans who have been used to watching Avery Bradley defending the entire court and spending his playing time hectoring opposing point guards will have to adjust to the fourth-year guard's different role. Instead of being the guy responsible for making it difficult for opposing teams to get into their offensive sets, Bradley will often find himself attached to rivals' best perimeter players, in an attempt to keep them from getting comfortable enough to get rolling. If you think it's going to be a change for fans, imagine what it will be like for Bradley. He has developed quite a reputation and a skill for being disruptive for the entire 94 feet. This year, in an attempt to give Boston a different defensive personality, coach Brad Stevens would rather have Bradley back in the halfcourt, helping his teammates develop a cohesion possession-by-possession, rather than being out in front of the D. With Kevin Garnett gone to Brooklyn, the Celtics' defense is without a leader. He called the signals, led the communication and was responsible for making sure his teammates did what they are supposed to do. With Garnett gone, it could be Bradley who becomes the spokesman, thanks to his ability to handle a variety of defensive assignments and his growing experience in the league. The good news for Bradley is that he won't have to play too much at the point, at least once Rondo gets back. He struggled with that position last year after Rondo's injury, and his difficulties there impacted his defense. Now that he'll be able to go back to his customary two-guard position, Bradley should be more comfortable and therefore effective at both ends. He'll still be able to fill in at the lead guard spot, but since it won't be his permanent home, he won't be as susceptible to trouble. That should allow him to concentrate on scoring from the wing and playing defense. Against just about anybody.

BROOKLYN NETS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 49-33, fourth in Eastern Conference, lost to Chicago in first round
Despite all of the fanfare that accompanied the Nets' move to Brooklyn, the season had something of a hollow ring to it. After winning 49 games and finishing second in the Atlantic Division, the Nets crashed in the first round of the playoffs, losing to Derrick Rose-less Chicago in seven games. Along the way, the Nets dumped coach Avery Johnson, on Dec. 27, after a stretch in which the team lost 10 of 13. P.J. Carlesimo took over in the interim and did a fine job, but he was never going to be the one to handle the team going forward. Still, 2012-13 was the Nets' first winning season since 2005-06 and the franchise's first-ever winning record on the road. But in the decisive game seven matchup with the Bulls, the Nets fell, and it was obvious the franchise was ready for further upheaval, as it tried to gain further traction in New York and continued to strive for success within its new identity.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
If you thought the Nets looked different last year, get a load of the 2013-14 edition. Jason Kidd has replaced last year's Carlesimo/Johnson exacta on the bench, while Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry have come to town in a Boston salary dump that adds an aggregate 47 years of experience to the Brooklyn roster and makes this one of the most interesting teams in the NBA. It certainly leads the League in sense of urgency, because none of the new faces is getting any younger, that's for sure. It will be interesting to see whether Kidd limits the minutes of his new faces, particularly Pierce and Garnett, the better to let them stay fresh for the postseason, because it matters not whether the Nets win 45 or 75 games from November-April. These guys have come to town to win a title. It will be interesting to see if they can do it. The best part is they don't have to do it all by themselves. Deron Williams remains one of the best point men in the NBA, and Joe Johnson is a first-tier shooting guard. Brook Lopez provides big interior production, while the acquisition of Andrei Kirilenko provides the kind of frontcourt depth that wins titles. Look out for point man Shaun Livingston, who appears healthy and ready to contribute behind Williams.

3 POINTS

It's always fun to assemble a bunch of talented players on one team and then speculate about how great that club will be. But the Nets now have to worry if Pierce, Johnson, Williams and Terry can co-exist, since each of them loves to have the ball. Garnett will be comfortable playing defense, rebounding and collecting scraps, but the perimeter guys all believe they can score 20 a night. That may be true, but it only happens on teams that are more interested in piling up points than they are in winning. Kidd must find a balance of minutes and scoring opportunities, the better to promote harmony and keep the team happy heading into the playoffs. Kidd takes over the Nets at a vital juncture in the team's history--with no coaching experience. There can be no denying his impact on games as a point guard, and his ability to run a team is indisputable. But this is a different role for him, and he steps into a situation that would test the acumen of even the most veteran coach. How well Kidd establishes himself and is able to create a rotation and culture that keeps his veterans happy and productive will determine whether this can be a special season, or whether it devolves into a train wreck. Even though Garnett will not be expected to score more than 10-12 points a game, his impact on the team could be the greatest of any of the newcomers, simply because of the toughness and single-minded approach he brings to the court. It's obvious that he won't even be playing 30 minutes a night, but his influence on Lopez, Reggie Evans and younger players like Andray Blatche and rookie Mason Plumlee could be huge. The Nets need a sturdier interior presence, and Garnett can help make that happen, even if he doesn't put up giant numbers.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
It took an NBA investigation to finalize the curious, two-year, $6.5 million deal between Kirilenko and the Nets. Howls of derision arose when the forward opted out of a deal with Minnesota that would have paid him $10.2 million this year to join Brooklyn. Perhaps there was some backroom deal between Kirilenko and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov that included some metallurgical mining rights in Mezhdurechensk, or something like that. More likely was Kirilenko's desire to play for a winner, after just one season in the playoffs. He averaged 12.4 ppg and 5.7 rpg last year and should be able to help. Williams got a little grouchy in mid-October when people started to worry about whether he would start the season on the bench, due to an injured right ankle. Kidd has been on the record as saying that he would prefer Williams to play, but if he is struggling with pain, it makes more sense for him to get healthy. Although Livingston has looked good in the preseason and has the talent to be a fine stopgap, the Nets will not accomplish anything of note without Williams at the point guard position. Say what you want about the other big names on the team, but Williams is the most important part of the puzzle. And with a coach who was a point man himself, Williams' role becomes even more vital, since he will understand what Kidd wants more than anyone else on the roster. Of the three players who left the Celtics for Brooklyn, the one who carried the heaviest heart to his new home was Pierce, who spent every one of his 15 seasons in the League in green. He will most certainly have his #34 raised into the Garden rafters in the future, and his contributions to the team have been historic. That GM Danny Ainge would deal him shows the crushing reality of NBA life. Even legends are vulnerable. Pierce had a clear role with the Celtics, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to being the third option often for the Nets. If he embraces the role, Brooklyn is in great shape. While the Williams/Johnson/Pierce/Garnett quartet will receive most of the attention this season, with a side of Terry and Kirilenko thrown in, it is vital for the Nets to play better defense. Brooklyn finished 23rd in the NBA in field goal percentage D, which is nowhere nearly good enough to win big. The Nets have to be convinced that scoring is fun, but playing well at the other end prevents things like first-round playoff losses to teams that are diminished by injury. The Nets have to force more turnovers (25th worst in the league) and play better at the arc, behind which rivals made an unacceptable 36.6 percent of their tries. Johnson averaged 16.3 ppg last year, the lowest since his second year in the League, when he scored 9.8 a game. He shot 42.3 percent from the field, also his worst since year two in the league. But Nets fans shouldn't be too disappointed in Johnson. It was a season of upheaval for the guard, and he should be more comfortable this season. But how will he respond with Pierce in the lineup? Granted, Pierce isn't the same guy who used to score 25 a game, but he did get 18.6, and he did play 33-plus minutes a night. How well those two mesh on the wing could determine the level of success Brooklyn reaches.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
So, guess who led the Nets in scoring last year? It wasn't the high-priced two guard. Or the All-Star point man. It was the center. That's right, Brook Lopez put up 19.4 ppg last year. Led the team with a 52.1 percent success rate from the field and blocked 2.1 shots a game, also best on the team. But when people talk about this year's Brooklyn squad, they rarely, if ever, get to the 7-foot, 275-pounder. You get the impression that's okay with Lopez, even if the arrivals of the new guys will mean he eats less on offense. But it remains vital that he contributes defensively and on the backboards. Most importantly, he needs to stay healthy. Two seasons ago, he played in only five games. His presence last year was every bit as important as Williams' or Johnson's, because of his ability to provide a low-post offensive presence that opened the perimeter. Adding Pierce should make Lopez the beneficiary of an even cleaner lane, and if he is able to keep clear of injury, Lopez should have another big year. Having Garnett to back him up makes his job easier, and he will learn plenty of veteran tricks from playing alongside the 18-year pro. The Nets will be the subject of plenty of excitement and attention this year, with most of it centered on the new arrivals and the high-priced holdovers. That's okay with Lopez, who will continue to be efficient and effective in the middle and not worry whether he gets on magazine covers. He'll be content with victories and playoff success. If everybody believes that someone else is the reason for that, so be it. But don't be surprised if he's right there with them statistically. In fact, count on it. You know the Nets will.

NEW YORK KNICKS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 54-28, second in Eastern Conference, Lost to Indiana in Semifinals
The 2012-13 Knicks were good enough to win the Atlantic Division but weren't good enough to accomplish much after that. Age, some poor defense and too great a reliance on the three-pointer conspired to hurt them in the postseason, and New York fell to Indiana in six games in the Eastern semifinals, after dispatching Boston in the same amount in the first round. Still, it was a good year. The team's 54 wins were the most since the 1996-97 season, and the win over the Celtics was the team's first post-season success since '99-00. Carmelo Anthony had a huge year, averaging a league-leading 28.7 ppg. The Knicks led the league in three-pointers attempted and made and were fifth in percentage behind the arc. But New York struggled defensively, ending up 19th in opponents' field goal percentage. And despite the presence of Hall of Famer Jason Kidd on the roster, the team was dead last in assists.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
The Knicks received some disturbing news a couple weeks before the season commenced when Anthony announced that he wanted to be a free agent after the season was over, because he liked the idea of being courted by other teams. When you're about to duel for division primacy with your cross-borough rival, that's not what you want to hear. Expect Anthony to score in bunches again, but how his remarks impact his play and his teammates will be something worth watching throughout the season. The Knicks didn't do a whole lot during the offseason to address their biggest needs. They will still start Raymond Felton at point guard, with Pablo Prigioni in reserve. Neither is a top-15 point man, so expect the Knicks to end up close to the bottom of the league in assists. Of course, part of that is Anthony's fault, since he dominates the ball. The other main concern was the team's board work. The team was outrebounded last year and was 26th in the NBA in boards grabbed. But did the Knicks go out and find some new interior heft? No. And thanks to his cranky knees, big man Amar'e Stoudemire may play only 15-20 minutes a game this year.

3 POINTS

It was no coincidence that the Knicks led the league in three-point tries last year. That's how the team wants to play, and Anthony and J.R. Smith took a bunch of long-range shots. But the third and fourth most-prolific gunners, Steve Novak and Kidd, are gone, which means new acquisition Andrea Bargnani will get ample opportunity to launch. The trouble is that he shot 30.9 percent from long range last year and 29.6 the year before. If the Knicks want to be the league's leader in long shots again, Bargnani must be more accurate. The Knicks' interior scoring and rebounding could well be a mess this year, particularly if Stoudemire is as limited as he might be. He had knee surgery in the spring and is unlikely to approach the production he had in his prime ever again. While Tyson Chandler can hit the boards (10.7 rpg), he only scored 10.4 ppg and isn't someone into whom you can throw the ball with a lot of confidence. Expecting Cole Aldrich or rookie C.J. Leslie to make significant interior contributions is unwise. It will be interesting to see the impact Metta World Peace has on the team. The 14-year vet is a New York native, and he is happy to be home, but he is a complementary piece on offense and while still game defensively, isn't as quick as he once was. World Peace will take a lot of three-pointers (he made 34.2 percent of them last year) but he isn't too strong off the dribble anymore. He can be a contributor if he behaves and shows his long-range eye is still relatively sharp.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
The Knicks shed themselves of some serious age during the offseason when Kidd, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace all retired, and Marcus Camby moved on. The four combined for 155 years on the planet and 66 years in the league. Guess that means there won't be any more Metamucil in the water buckets this year. Of course, this isn't exactly a youth movement in New York. World Peace will turn 34 this year, Kenyon Martin turns 38 in December, and Prigioni is 37. Smith underwent knee surgery during the offseason and returned to the Knicks expressing his desire to start. He earned the league's Sixth Man of the Year honors last season and played in 80 games. But Smith struggled mightily in the playoffs, making just 33.1 percent of his shots in 11 games against Boston and Indiana. Smith is a talented offensive player, but his value may be highest coming off the bench. Though he has said that "if coach [Mike Woodson] wants me to be a sixth man, I'll be a sixth man," one has to wonder whether Smith will act that way all season, if he continues to be the first reserve off the bench. Even though the Knicks picked up coach Mike Woodson's option for the 2014-15 season, he should not think he has much security. Paying him off in the event of a change won't be particularly onerous for James Dolan, so Woodson must deliver now. The problem is that it won't be easy. Miami remains the Eastern Conference's big dog. Indiana has everybody back, including Danny Granger. Chicago is better, thanks to Derrick Rose's return from injury, and Brooklyn has improved with the arrivals of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. Even lower-level Eastern teams like Detroit and Cleveland should take steps forward. The Knicks and their fans want a winner, and if Woodson struggles to deliver one--or spars with Anthony--he could become expendable. When the Knicks acquired Tyson Chandler, many thought they were getting the kind of piece that would help them contend for the title. While Chandler is a fine shotblocker and rebounder, he isn't the type of offensive player New York needed to take that final step. In fact, he can be a detriment sometimes, especially when he is paired with Stoudemire. With Stoudemire's minutes likely to drop this year, due to his flagging health, there should be more opportunity for Chandler to score. But let's not kid ourselves; even with more opportunity, it's unlikely Chandler will thrive offensively. No wonder the Knicks take so many threes. The Nets' acquisition of Pierce, Garnett and Terry may create some problems in terms of chemistry, since Deron Williams and Joe Johnson might not want to share so much, but it certainly gives Brooklyn some added pop in the battle for New York primacy. It's unlikely an outlying borough is going to supplant Manhattan in anything, but the Nets will launch quite a challenge to the Knicks this year, and it won't make for very happy times in Knickland, if Brooklyn succeeds.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
The one thing there will less of in New York this season is Raymond Felton. Not that the point guard will see less time on the court. It's just that he has dropped about 15 pounds from his 6-1 frame and expects to play this season at about 200 pounds, which will likely give him more quickness and endurance. That's a long way from his larger presence when he was with Portland in 2011-12 and even last year. Felton still isn't happy about how the Trail Blazers' fans treated him during that season, blaming him for the team's inability to make the playoffs. But he is looking forward to the 2013-14 campaign, when he plans to be more active on the break and in pick-and-roll sets. He has said the team was too old last year and is excited the Knicks added Bargnani, whom he thinks will work well with him, both as an option when Felton penetrates and kicks and on the pick-and-roll. Felton will also be more dangerous getting to the basket, and while he might not be able to withstand as much contact, he will be quicker and able to beat defenders more easily. With two more seasons and a player option left on the free-agent deal Felton signed with the Knicks before last season, he is entrenched at the point guard spot. And even though Woodson has said he will play him and Prigioni together this year, there really is no imminent threat to his status as the team's top point man. That means Felton could have gained 15 pounds and still have been safe. But thanks to his dedication and hard work, he should be able to make a bigger impact on the team. With the Knicks trying to expand their status in the improving Eastern Conference, that will be a big thing.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 34-48; ninth in Eastern Conference
With all of the trouble swirling around the Sixers last year, it's a wonder they were able to win 15 games, much less 34. It all began with the Andrew Bynum catastrophe. The Sixers acquired the center in the summer by giving up four key pieces (Andre Iguodala, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic and a first-round pick) and then watched as the mercurial pivot didn't play one game. He did sport some interesting hairstyles on the bench, and that injury suffered while bowling was a hoot. Then there was the intrigue surrounding coach Doug Collins and GM Tony DiLeo, both of whom were relieved of their duties at season's end. While the Sixers worked hard and played tough D--a Collins trademark--they were unable to muster the offensive consistency to make a real playoff run. One year after pushing Boston to a seventh game in the Eastern semis, the Sixers were irrelevant and dysfunctional. There was some good news. Point guard Jrue Holiday was named an All-Star. Bad news: He was traded away during the offseason.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
To their credit, the Sixers didn't simply think that a high draft pick and a little time would solve their problems. Owner Josh Harris swept out Collins and DiLeo, traded Holiday and committed to a full rebuild under new GM Sam Hinkie, a former Houston exec. It took a while--a long while--but Hinkie finally hired Brett Brown as the Sixers' head coach. On draft day, they dished Holiday to New Orleans and added point guard Michael Carter-Williams and center/power forward Nerlens Noel. Instead of stocking the team with expensive veterans, Hinkie chose young players, the better to promote salary flexibility. The result is a roster short on experience and talent but headed toward the kinds of opportunities available to teams with friendly cap figures and big hopes for the draft. Let's not kid ourselves one bit: The Sixers will not be very good this year. But that's the whole idea. Experts consider this draft the strongest in about 10 years, and the Sixers want a good spot in it. Since they also have the Pelicans' first-rounder (top-five protected), they could come away with two top prospects. On the court, expect Carter-Williams to have a big learning curve at the point, and Evan Turner to continue to need the ball in his hands a lot to be effective. Thaddeus Young is an undersized power forward who can be productive, and center Spencer Hawes is serviceable. Noel, who is recovering from a torn ACL, won't see a minute of action as the team announced before the season.

3 POINTS

Rather than bring in an experienced veteran to handle the point on nights when Carter-Williams is struggling, the Sixers enlisted the services of former Laker Darius Morris and Tony Wroten, a second-year man acquired from Memphis. Neither is a proven regular at the position, so it's likely the Sixers will have some nights where the offense sputters, and Turner ends up with the ball in his hands for long stretches. The Sixers have no proven commodity at the two spot. Jason Richardson, acquired in the Bynum blockbuster last year, has a torn ACL and isn't likely to play much during the 2013-14 season. That leaves fourth-year man James Anderson, who saw limited time with the Spurs and Rockets, and rookie Khalif Wyatt as the team's main options at the position, not the best situation. Noel tore his ACL last February, and despite the team saying he won't play this season, it'll be key for Noel to fully rehabilitate and soak in as much as he can from the bench. Noel distinguished himself as a shotblocker and rebounder at Kentucky last season, two traits the Sixers could certainly use this year. Once he does play, he will need considerable help with his offensive game and plenty of strength training to develop the endurance necessary to play inside.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Carter-Williams is going to have nights when he looks like a future standout at the point. He can penetrate well and dish to teammates, as he proved last year at Syracuse, when he averaged 7.3 dimes per game. His 6-6 frame allows him to overpower some smaller guards, and he is confident once he gets going. But Carter-Williams is not a good shooter at all, and rivals will learn that quickly and play him to drive. On nights when he can't get into the perimeter, he's going to struggle mightily, as he did during summer league games, when he committed piles of turnovers. When the Sixers drafted Turner, they thought they had a swingman who could hurt rivals from the perimeter and off the dribble. What they got was an oversized point guard without the speed to thrive at the position in the NBA. As he enters the fourth year in the NBA, Turner is clearly unable to handle full-time work at the point guard, and he isn't a true small forward, either. To accommodate him, the Sixers must play fast, the better to avoid having him in halfcourt situations, where he clogs the offense when the ball comes to him or misfires when he decides to shoot from long range. With Noel out of the 2013-14 picture, the Sixers' big man situation is pretty grim. Hawes leads the way, and he wouldn't be any more than a 15-minute-a-night reserve on a contender. The triumvirate of Kwame Brown, Lavoy Allen and Arnett Moultrie does not exactly inspire fear in opposing coaches. Although Young has shown the ability and energy to produce as a stretch four, he stands only 6-8 and lacks the heft to go up against other teams' more formidable power plants. Expect the Sixers to have plenty of trouble on the backboards this season. Brown spent six years as an assistant at San Antonio, so there is no way to dispute that he received the kind of top-shelf training necessary to thrive as a head coach. He also directed a pair of teams in the Australian League, and while that's hardly the NBA, he has been in charge and understands how to run a club. The question is whether he has the patience to be part of what will be a long rebuilding project in Philadelphia. There were reports that Brown had friends telling him not to take the Sixers job, because success was likely to be extremely elusive. But Brown is in town, on board and appears to have the necessary fortitude and personality to endure what is coming the next two or three seasons. The word "tank" is such an ugly term in sports. No one wants to be accused of losing on purpose, but in the NBA, being average just doesn't get the job done. Teams have to be either great or horrible, and living in between is tough to handle. Since the Sixers are a long way from contention, they have decided to go in the other direction and assemble a team that is cap-friendly and allows for maximum flexibility. It just doesn't leave too much on the court to win games. With a talent-packed draft ahead and the possibility of two top-10 picks, the Sixers will commit to a long view and use 2012-13 to assess their younger players and try to accumulate assets for future success.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
When the season reaches the trade deadline, one of the more talked-about players will be Young, who doesn't fit any specific position neatly, but who is capable of producing up front and is one of the Eastern Conference's more underrated players. Young isn't an All-Star-caliber player. He just doesn't have a diverse enough game to score 20 a night, and his size (6-8, 230) precludes him from sweeping 10 boards a night. But when it comes to all-around production and effort, Young is a valuable asset who would thrive as a first or second man off the bench on a contender. That's why Young will be in demand at the deadline, if not before. He has the ability to score around the basked in a variety of ways, and it helps that he's a lefty, because some opponents can't adjust to him. Young shot 53.1 percent from the field last year and grabbed a career-high 2.4 offensive boards a night, the second straight year he has accumulated at least two. Young can defend at the three and the four, and though he isn't able to dominate at either, he is willing and therefore effective. At about $27 million for the next three seasons, Young is reasonably priced, so he won't cramp another team's flexibility with his cap hit. He'll produce for the Sixers, but he'll likely be doing it as part of a long-term outlook, of which he is not a part. If the Sixers do trade Young to a contender and give him a chance to chase a title, they will be doing him a favor. If the team decides to hold onto him, it will get maximum effort and steady production from an underrated player with talent and drive. Talk about a win-win.

TORONTO RAPTORS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 34-48, 10th place in Eastern Conference
The Raptors completed their fifth consecutive season out of the playoffs by finishing in a tie for last in the Atlantic Division and never creating much excitement. The team did generate some big news in late January, when it was part of a three-team, six-player deal that brought Rudy Gay to town. Gay teamed with wing guard DeMar DeRozan to form a potent scoring punch from the perimeter, but while Toronto was able to score well, its defense wasn't so hot, and it struggled all year to gather momentum. The main culprit was depth. Although Toronto had a solid starting five, the Raptors' bench was extremely thin, and the team was unable to hold up throughout the full season. The weak performance led to the end of the Bryan Colangelo era and started a shakeup. After the season, Toronto hired former Denver GM Masai Ujiri to direct the team.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Ujiri built a strong reputation as the architect of Denver's exciting and successful team. And he wasn't shy about making changes during the off-season. None was seismic, unless you consider getting rid of underachieving shooter Andrea Bargnani as big news, but Ujiri was clearly intent on leading the Raptors into the playoff hunt. Given the soft underbelly of the Eastern Conference, contention is actually a possibility. It starts with Gay and DeRozan, two high-volume shooters who need to get more accurate for Toronto to thrive. Gay has a better long-range touch, but he isn't going to dazzle anyone with his three-point shooting. DeRozan is tough off the dribble, and each can get to the foul line and make opponents pay. Kyle Lowry is a solid point man who can hit the three, and the addition of D.J. Augustin provides some solid depth, particularly with solid Jose Calderon gone. The Bargnani trade brought long-range specialist Steve Novak to town, and that will help a team that finished 26th in the league in three-point percentage. Up front, Amir Johnson is a hard-working four man but not a fire-breather, and Jonas Valanciunas showed an ability to produce inside, but he has to continue to get stronger and build endurance. New acquisition Tyler Hansbrough provides much-needed spirit to the frontcourt.

3 POINTS

Fans love up-and-down basketball games, but when their favorite team finishes next-to-last in the league in points allowed, there is a problem. The Raptors didn't focus on adding nasty interior defenders during the offseason, although Hansbrough will help, so it's unlikely they will be able to make too much progress in the Eastern Conference. If Toronto can get a little tighter inside, and a lot of that depends on Valanciunas' maturation, they can make a run at the playoffs. Anything more, however, will require a more substantial commitment to the defensive end of the court. Gay arrived a little after the halfway point of the 2012-13 season in a fairly obvious salary dump by Memphis. He did a good job with the Raptors and helped the team to an 18-18 record and made it look like a real playoff contender. With two years left on his contract (one is a player option), it will be interesting to see if Gay is satisfied with his lot in Toronto, or if he begins to make noise about opting out after this season and testing the free agent market. His desire to stay in Toronto is vital to the team's developing into a force in the East, and Ujiri will have to show Gay that he can attract complementary talent that will help the team continue to grow. Valanciunas celebrated his 21st birthday last May and is continuing his development as an NBA pivot. He remains light (231 pounds) for the job, but there is no questioning his skill level. The key over the next couple years for him is to develop into a scoring presence inside, so that the Raptors' talented perimeter pieces have some more room to operate. As he gets stronger and is able to play more minutes, Valanciunas will also improve his rebounding numbers, which must grow from the modest 6.0 per game that he managed last year.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
When Ujiri dished Bargnani to the Knicks, it was a final loss for deposed GM Bryan Colangelo, who made the Italian shooter the first overall pick in the 2006 Draft. Bargnani's diminishing long-range accuracy (he made 29.6 percent and 30.9 of his three-point attempts the past two seasons) means that his departure won't be felt too much by the team. Novak, on the other hand, led the NBA in 2011-12 by making a ridiculous 47.2 percent of his treys and converted 42.5 last year. He will be quite a weapon for the Raptors and will force defenses to avoid double-teaming Gay and DeRozan when they drive to the hoop. It's hard to believe that Amir Johnson is only 26 but already has eight NBA seasons under his belt. The 6-8, 210-pounder is hardly what one considers the ordinary power forward, but his athletic ability helps him produce. Johnson is not a stretch four, because he doesn't shoot it well enough. But he is capable of grabbing seven or eight boards a game, blocking a shot and converting well from in the lane. That's not bad on a team that has enough scoring pop. But Johnson would be better suited coming off the bench to provide interior help with the second unit. Maybe it's because he plays in another country, but DeRozan doesn't get a lot of notice for being a two man on the rise. He averaged a career-high 18.1 ppg last season after signing a four-year, $38 million extension and has the potential to top 20 a game, provided he can become more accurate from the outside. DeRozan is durable and is tough to handle off the dribble. If he is going to make a jump to join the top players at his position, he has to make rivals pay from long range. If he does that, he and the Raptors will benefit greatly. Now in his third year with the team, Dwane Casey has a tough job ahead of him. The expectations for Toronto are growing, despite little reason to believe this team is a contender. But Casey has to find a way to improve the defense, create a second unit that is productive and cut back on turnovers. A no-nonsense man with plenty of self-confidence, despite not having an NBA brand name, Casey is facing the double trouble of working for a GM that did not hire him. It will be interesting to see if a roster that is incomplete is blamed if the Raptors have troubles, of if Ujiri looks to the coach's chair. Jurassic Park is no longer as popular as it was 19 years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, or at least the Cineplex and the toy stores, but Toronto is sticking with its name. The Raptors announced that they would consider moving away from the dino-centric identity but instead opted for rebranding the team, with a new logo and colors. It all coincides with the news that Toronto would be hosting the 2016 All-Star Game. The Raptors are going to promote themselves as Canada's team, a chore that will be made easier by some more wins.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Last year, Hansbrough was part of the Indiana team that reached game seven of the Eastern Conference finals. This year, he's with a team just hoping to reach the playoffs. The one thing you don't have to worry about is whether he will slack off, despite the difference in atmospheres. Never. Hansbrough, who was nicknamed “Psycho T” for his all-out approach to playing while at North Carolina, has refused to yield an inch during his time in the NBA. Casey calls Hansbrough's approach "hit first," and it didn't take long before his Raptor teammates found out that if they didn't approach practices with the same fervor as their new teammate, they would end up dunked on or lying on the floor after a body check. Hansbrough is never going to score 20 a game, even if he plays 40 minutes every night. That's just not the kind of guy he is. It's not that he's unskilled, but the physical nature of his play makes him so prone to mixing it up that applying a single-minded approach to scoring is practically impossible. Casey has said that when people talk about NBA players' skill sets, they usually are talking about shooting, ballhandling, rebounding or defending. They don't look at working hard every possession as a skill. But that's what Hansbrough does, and it is a rare trait to have in a league that grinds players down with tough travel, a relentless parade of games and tough opposition. For him to bring maximum effort every possession is as impressive as the most accomplished long-range marksman or unstoppable penetrator. The key now is whether Hansbrough's approach pays off on a team that could use more toughness and grit. If you see the Raptors banging people around a little more this year, give all the credit to Hansbrough, who would like to help Toronto reach the heights Indiana did last year.