By Rob Mahoney
With the new year upon us, The Point Forward looks at resolutions for every team. Below, Rob Mahoney examines all 15 Eastern Conference teams. Check out Ben Golliver's Western Conference resolutions here. (All stats and records are through Dec. 31.)
Atlanta Hawks: Find ways to better leverage physical advantages into free-throw attempts.
Honestly, there isn't all that much reason to nitpick Atlanta's performance. A team that even the cheeriest optimists pegged for one of the middle seeds in the East is tw0 games out of first place, playing terrific defense and nearing a top-10 offensive mark. There's obviously still room for improvement within their early successes, but mostly through minor elements of the team's overall play (Josh Smith's shot selection, some small quirks in Larry Drew's rotation, Devin Harris' play in general, etc).
From where I sit, there's only one area in which it's really necessary for Atlanta to resolve to change: the frequency of its free-throw attempts. The Hawks aren't avoiding fouls, but they are simply working in a way that's hardly conducive to drawing them. Smith and Al Horford have become a bit too perimeter-oriented at times with the Hawks working through their versatility. Jeff Teague isn't penetrating as much as anticipated, and though Lou Williams is still drawing fouls at a pretty respectable rate for a scorer who so rarely gets into the lane, he hasn't been able to recapture the complete gaudiness of his previous FTA per-minute marks.
With no offensive rebounding to speak of and so few chances to earn points at the line, the Hawks' offensive livelihood is dependent on converting a single shot, possession by possession. They're good enough to be an above-average offensive team, even within that framework. But wouldn't it be grand if they exploited their natural athleticism for the sake of generating easy scoring opportunities at the free-throw line?
Whereas the aging process has rendered some stars into role players almost overnight, Pierce and Garnett have enjoyed lengthy, meandering descents into their respective career twilights. The Celtics certainly appreciate their stars' prolonged (and gradual) decline and assumed that a solid, complementary roster could help the team pick up where last year's conference finalist left off.
That hasn't been the case, as the Celtics' defense hasn't yet played up to par and their offense has performed well below expectations. Pierce and Garnett are again having strong seasons, but desperately need more help in their efforts to anchor Boston on both sides of the ball.
The common prescription is for the Celtics to acquire one more rebounder, and it's hard to argue with that line of thinking considering that Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox both play regular minutes. Incremental improvements in Boston's defensive execution (particularly among the newest Celtics) could also go a long way, especially when Garnett is off the floor. Rajon Rondo's reluctance to attack the basket is depriving Boston of easy points. Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green still don't seem completely comfortable on offense. Jared Sullinger is acclimating himself to the NBA game as well as Boston's schemes. A little progress in any of these areas could make things significantly easier for Pierce and Garnett, who are doing what they can but are capped in terms of their usage and minutes, respectively.
Brooklyn Nets: Give up the delusion.
During their road trip from Newark to Brooklyn, the Nets somehow convinced themselves that they're more important to the overall NBA landscape than they really are. Avery Johnson's coaching this season was obviously flawed, but it's hard to blame just him after a .500 start. Brooklyn has every right to expect better play, but with a newly formed and glaringly incomplete roster, a 50-win season was unlikely. The Nets' front-office staff, coaches and players will all be better off if they let go of the pipe dream that's informed their thinking thus far this season. This isn't a first-tier team, and it's time that this franchise -- from top to bottom -- acts like a team trying to improve itself rather than one too good for the occasional losing streak.
Charlotte Bobcats: Keep course and always be evaluating.
First-time NBA head coach Mike Dunlap has done a good job of identifying his core players and giving them every opportunity to perform, and it's that sensibility that should make this season a successful one for Charlotte. The mounting losses, while obviously not preferable, are somewhat inconsequential; although no team wants to lose to the point that the players are marred by defeat, there's nothing wrong with a roster full of young players earning their stripes.
And that's exactly what's happening with the Bobcats, as Dunlap is working this roster in all of the right ways from a developmental standpoint. Nine-year veteran Ben Gordon plays, but not too much. Brendan Haywood, 33, relieves, but not at the expense of 20-year-old Bismack Biyombo. Stopgap wing Reggie Williams and the long-useless DeSagana Diop rack up DNP-CDs by the fistful -- all while Dunlap takes a good, extended look at every prospect on his roster. For some, playing time may never have been in question. But a more obstinate coach might find a reason not to play the 19-year-old Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, fourth-year center Byron Mullens or Biyombo. Yet all three -- in addition to second-year guard Kemba Walker, rookie guard Jeffery Taylor and fourth-year guard Gerald Henderson -- have been staples of Dunlap's rotation and have been given the opportunity to work through their mistakes. That's a simple enough mantra, but one that shouldn't be overlooked in the developmental process. Keep at it, coach.
Only a handful of players over the last five years have averaged at least 40 minutes per game for an entire season, but Luol Deng (40.3) is well on his way with Joakim Noah (39.2) not far behind. Tom Thibodeau just can't help himself, and though his intentions are good and his coaching instincts even better, this is one area in which one of the NBA's finest tacticians could stand to back off a little.
One can only hope that Thibodeau does just that when it comes to Rose's long-awaited return, though there's so little reason for optimism given the track record here between coach and player. Thibodeau will run any personnel he deems to be essential into the ground, and though for the moment only Deng and Noah seem to qualify, Rose may soon join their set as a savior of sorts for Chicago's creation-deprived offense. Expectations should be tempered while Rose reacclimates himself to NBA basketball. Thibodeau will do well to keep that in mind, even as his uncompromising bent -- the very same that makes him so successful as a coach -- inclines him to wear on Rose's surgically repaired knees from the get-go.
Trade season is officially upon us, and Varejao -- a 30-year-old big man who can rebound like hell, defend the pick-and-roll from cover to cover and carry his weight on offense -- is an understandably popular target. But as Ben Golliver and I posited, the Cavs don't have very much incentive to trade him; simply being a growing team is no reason to discard all veteran players, particularly when Varejao's on-court value is so high and contract value (he's owed $9 million next season and $9.7 million in 2014-15) is so reasonable.
That doesn't mean that the Cavs shouldn't deal Varejao if the right offer comes along, but given how delicate rebuilds can be, they should be careful to make sure that they're getting an adequate return for one of the most coveted pieces on the market. Varejao could make a lot of teams on the bubble (of either the playoffs or title contention) significantly better and deserves to be valued as an All-Star-level asset. If other teams don't come to the table with that same valuation, then there should be no urgency to make a deal. If they do, then the Cavs could theoretically be in line to acquire some quality young players to surround their existing core, or the kind of draft pick that could yield a similar supplement. But it should be clear that those are the only two reasonable options for Cleveland at this point, given both how coveted Varejao has become and how highly valuable he is within any team context.
Detroit Pistons: Allow Andre Drummond to earn even more minutes.
I'm not sure this qualifies as a resolution unique to the new year, but the Pistons' treatment of the unexpectedly productive Drummond has become a pivotal element of their season. Detroit isn't playing for anything save tomorrow, but it's still trying to build a sense of institutional order. Players need to understand that effort and execution are rewarded, regardless of who may be tabbed as a building block for the franchise. Couple that aim with the fact that Drummond still has plenty to learn as a player, and it's easy to grasp why coach Lawrence Frank might be reluctant to play him considerable minutes in specific cases -- even as the rookie center's overall playing time remains too low for us observing the team from the outside.
Frank has ceded more minutes to Drummond as the season has progressed, and honestly I don't think his treatment of Drummond's role has been all that flagrant. His initial reluctance to play the 19-year-old has subsided, and though he certainly could have afforded Drummond a greater margin for error early, one can see a growing patience from Frank instilled either through increasing familiarity or an edict straight from Joe Dumars' office. Drummond averaged 22 minutes per game in December, and the only players directly competing for the same minutes are Greg Monroe, Jason Maxiell (who has had a strong season overall) and Charlie Villanueva (who serves a very different -- and very important -- purpose in terms of floor spacing). Frank will likely be able to pull minutes from those three alternatives as the season rolls on, but the most important thing at this point is for him to remain open to the idea of continuing on course with the natural evolution of Drummond's role.
Indiana Pacers: Get healthy.
What the Pacers are really in need of is offense, but their hunger for points can be attributed to an overdue turn in their collective fortune. Indiana has had uncanny health over the last few seasons, but this year, two significant injuries have completely tanked a previously stable offense: Danny Granger's months-long absence because of a knee injury and Roy Hibbert's recently confessed wrist injury that has left him incapable of contributing like he is theoretically capable of doing.
Neither is different from the ailments that nag all NBA teams, but the Pacers have been uniquely affected because of the precarious balance of their offense. Granger, Hibbert, Paul George, David West and George Hill all rely on one another to create offensive harmony, and when a single player is absent, the integrity of the group is compromised. Add in the fact that Hibbert is having a dismal offensive season, and an otherwise competent offense becomes the third worst in the league. Thus is the fate of the superstarless, and with a dead-weight bench, the Pacers have no means to combat their current situation. All they can do is wait, and do everything in their power to assure that Granger and Hibbert are healthy by playoff time.
Miami Heat: Engender a crystal-clear understanding within the roster of who they are as a team and how they manage specific situations.
It would be easy to say that the Heat need to be more motivated or more fully focused, but I'm not sure that either is necessarily true. Miami has no need to prove itself. We know what this title-worthy team can do, and in all likelihood, will do. There's really no use in speeding through the season full-throttle, particularly when the team's breakneck play a year ago contributed to the postseason injuries of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. A fully functional roster is of far greater import than a handful of regular-season wins. It's undeniably true that the focus isn't always there, but the precedent is as such that we expect it will be come springtime.
In the interim, all the Heat need to concern themselves with is preparation. Erik Spoelstra needs to be aware of each and every one of the situational advantages created by his lineup choices. LeBron James needs to prepare for even heavier minutes alongside a single big man. Wade, while proceeding through the regular season at a light jog, needs to get stretched and prepared for a playoff sprint. Bosh could stand to refine his defensive positioning more. Ray Allen still needs to work on his awareness of his teammates' rotational responsibilities, and Shane Battier probably needs a break from the nightly task of budging bigger offensive players from the block. It's all pretty minor, but that's where Miami is -- through head-scratching losses and all, these are still your title favorites.
Milwaukee Bucks: Pick a team-building direction and stick with it.
It's hardly breaking news to say that the Bucks are stuck in the middle, but they have some huge decisions to make in the coming months regarding some of their core players, and they need to commit to moving in a direction other than sideways. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis (and to a lesser extent, Mike Dunleavy, Beno Udrih and Samuel Dalembert) are likely to be free agents next summer, leaving the Bucks precious little time if they do indeed hope to part with either starting guard via trade before the Feb. 21 deadline. Finding a taker for an impending free agent can be a tough sell at times, but Bird Rights alone could prove a powerful incentive for a team that's otherwise strapped by salary-cap limitations. If either Jennings or Ellis is put on the market, one would think that teams around the league would be interested. It's up to the Bucks to decide which player is worth committing to. (Hint: It's probably not the one who hilariously thinks he's as good as Dwyane Wade.)
New York Knicks: Pave the way for Amar'e Stoudemire, because they need him.
The historically ridiculous three-point shooting marks are drifting downward, injuries have stressed the limits of their depth and the Knicks' defense hasn't shown much reason to expect improvement. None of this has derailed what has ultimately been one of the season's most resilient teams, but we can't expect New York to hold up against such sustained trials in the coming months without some kind of shot in the arm.
If all were ship-shape, Stoudemire's return might still seem like an undue burden. But with all else that New York is managing, a potentially potent bench scorer (Sorry, Chris Copeland -- another potentially potent bench scorer) could give the team the boost it needs. J.R. Smith has had a fantastic season, but even at his best he isn't capable of anchoring the second unit on an every-game basis. That's where Stoudemire can hopefully come in to contribute in spots, not to mention offer some interesting lineup possibilities once the Knicks are fully healthy again. The narrative intrigue and scalding level of scrutiny throughout the entire process will be intriguing, but the Knicks will be a better team if they manage to integrate Stoudemire's game.
Orlando Magic: Reinforce their defensive foundation.
First-year coach Jacque Vaughn has been able to do something pretty special in Orlando this season: Take a team of merely solid defenders and inexperienced young players and make a run at being one of the league's top-10 defenses. The offense is, as expected, a disaster. But that shouldn't mitigate the fact that the Magic are winning games they frankly shouldn't, competing against teams that are far better on paper and managing in spite of numerous injuries. That's quite an accomplishment for a team that many projected to be among the league's worst, and though the players deserve plenty of credit, Vaughn was the one wholly unpredictable variable that has paid off handsomely for Orlando.
But now it's up to the Magic to accentuate that progress by continuing to work within the system in place. Many of these players may not be in Orlando by the start of next season (or at least the season after), but this is the start of a process that will be important for prospects such as Andrew Nicholson, Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless and E'Twaun Moore.
Philadelphia 76ers: Redefine an unsettled roster.
The Sixers have been among the league's best defensive teams over the last two seasons, but this year's shuffled roster has regressed in each of the four most important areas of defensive performance. That's to be expected after Philadelphia parted ways with two of its top defensive players (Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand) in the offseason, though perhaps neither was given enough credit considering how quickly Doug Collins' team has plummeted into defensive mediocrity. There are still some really strong individual defenders in the bunch, but the entire system has visible seams that opponents are all too willing to attack. Evan Turner may be able to approximate some of Iguodala's all-around production, and Brand's underwhelming box score contributions may be mimicked elsewhere, but this Sixers team is different on a fundamental level. If the Sixers are to win games with their defense again, Collins may need to revisit his system's structure and alter its imperatives to better suit this current group.
It's not all that surprising that Philadelphia seems a bit listless considering that Andrew Bynum -- who was supposed to anchor this team in a contract year -- has yet to play this season. But that doesn't change the fact that the Sixers are in very real danger of missing the playoffs and completely without the identity that had previously punched their postseason ticket.
Toronto Raptors: Resolve the pseudo-point guard dilemma.
The temptation to not mess with what's working is understandable, but in the case of the Raptors, that theory is a bit flawed. Jose Calderon is a good, efficient point guard destined to leave via trade or free agency. Kyle Lowry is a more productive player and a far better defender for whom the franchise parted with a future lottery pick. As much as I enjoy Calderon's game and what Toronto has been able to accomplish of late, that there's any kind of deliberation over playing time or a starting role confuses me. Why not dedicate some real time and energy into seeing how to best use Lowry before bringing him off the bench and risk -- as was the case in Houston -- needlessly aggravating a talented player? Teams obviously have greater needs than pandering to each and every player on their roster, but Toronto has made a considerable asset investment in Lowry already, and is best served by figuring out how to use him alongside DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and any other Raptors who figure to be around for the long haul.
Toronto has some bigger goals for the spring (creeping into the playoffs, trading Andrea Bargnani, etc.), but first things first: Set straight the point guard depth chart, or at the very least make sure that all parties involved know where they stand.
If the Wizards' 4-24 start has taught us anything, it's the prime importance of a dependable stopgap point guard. A.J. Price didn't quite cut it. Shaun Livingston was a quaint idea, but he didn't pan out. Jordan Crawford's cross-positional experiment was good for a chuckle, but it was a non-starter. Shelvin Mack's return won't hurt, but it isn't likely to help much either.
The substitute point guards have struggled in their own way, but it was only through their powers combined that the Wizards have sputtered to an offensive efficiency so lowly as to be matched but a single time (by those glorious 2011-12 Bobcats) since 2003. Washington's impotence couldn't be rectified by a single ball-handler, though I suspect we'd at least be able to classify the Wizards' offense within the same tier as the league's other lowest-scoring teams. As it stands, though, they've cleared the 29th-ranked offense (Orlando) by a good five points per 100 possessions, setting themselves well apart in their despair. Wall is inching closer to full medical clearance, but Washington should be looking beyond his return to which players might conceivably fill the void behind him. If Bradley Beal is the preferred reserve ball-handling option, then the Wizards should begin grooming him for spot duty in that role immediately. If there is a decent out-of-the-box option somewhere in the mid-to-late first round, Washington should start mulling potential offers. If free agency is the best way to go, then Ernie Grunfeld should already have a list of ordered preferences. The backup point guard slot isn't all that difficult to fill, but the Wizards need to make an effort to acquire a real player to fill that spot rather than rely on replacement-level flotsam.