With the dust mostly settled on this offseason’s player movement — and there was a whole lot of it this year — it’s time to take stock of all the fascinating new faces in new places, as well as the more compelling stories of players who will face new challenges while sticking around. Over the course of the next few weeks, Andrew Unterberger will do a team-by-team look at the most interesting players going into next season — one new to the team, and one returning — as we all try to pass the dog days of NBA-less summer, dreaming of hoops-filled months to come. The series kicks off today with the teams in the Atlantic Division: the Celtics, Nets, Knicks, 76ers and Raptors.
Most Interesting New Player: Kelly Olynyk
Obviously, the Celtics’ offseason was more about the purge of the old than the welcoming of the new, as the departure of franchise-defining players like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett was balanced by the dudes in this super-depressing picture – hardly an even reconciliation of the team’s ledger in any respect. It’s unlikely that any of the guys received by the Celtics in their mega-blockbuster deal with Brooklyn will be of terrible consequence for the Celtics moving forward, and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if none of them even ended the season on the C’s roster.
A brutally depressing Boston offseason may have been slightly redeemed, however, with the drafting — well, more so the Summer League play — of Kelly Olynyk. The Gonzaga big man seemed like a minor stretch when Danny Ainge traded with the Mavs to move up in the draft and take him with the 13th pick, but Olynyk made the selection look like a steal with his impressive exhibition play in Orlando, scoring with ease both in the post and from the perimeter, rebounding and passing well, and generally showing a ridiculous feel for the game for a not-even-rookie. Olynyk was one of the stories of the summer’s exhibition season, averaging 18 and 8 on 58 percent shooting, with the name “Dirk” even being invoked on more than one occasion. Suddenly, there was a non-ping-pong-balls-related reason to be excited about the ’14 Celtics.
Of course, the list of Summer League mirages in the NBA is a long and foreboding one — ask Bill Simmons about Kedrick Brown some time (or maybe don’t) — and there’s some legitimate worry about how Olynyk will fare against the size and strength of pro-caliber big men, so it might be prudent to hold off on calling him Canadian Moses right away. Still, after the loss of Pierce and Garnett, Olynyk will undoubtedly be a focus for Celtics fans, hoping that they might have gotten a guy worthy of being included in future Boston Big Threes.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Jeff Green
It’s hard not to go with Rajon Rondo here, since Rondo is never not one of the league’s most interesting players, and will be particularly so next season, coming back from ACL surgery and now all of a sudden being the virtually uncontested Face of the Franchise after spending the last six seasons trying to get out from the Big Three’s shadow. But who knows when Rajon is returning next year, and in the meantime, Jeff Green will be one of the most fascinating case studies in the league, as he gets to be The Guy for the first time in his NBA career.
Lest we forget, Green came alive late last season as a starter for the injury-plagued C’s, averaging over 20 a game (on over 50 percent shooting both from the field and from deep) in 17 starts, and then leading the team in scoring with over 20 a game in their first-round series against the Knicks. And now after six years of overlapping on the depth chart with the likes of Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce, Jeff Green will open the season is Boston as the team’s obvious first scoring option, finally given the chance to be the offensive focal point that other guys have to adjust their games to fit around. He could average 22 a game, push for the All-Star team and solidify himself as a huge key for the team’s future, or he could struggle to score efficiently, serve as an offensive black hole and effectively be the tanking engine for Boston’s 2014 lottery push. Both seem pretty damn plausible at this point.
Either way, this is probably it for Green — after six years of Yeah Buts and Well If Onlys, he basically has no excuse now not to be his awesomest self. If Green disappoints at age 27 on a young team with (eventually, hopefully) one of the league’s best point guards setting him up, he’ll probably never totally live up to expectation. If there’s a bigger make-or-break season for any one player this year, I’m not sure what it is, and I can’t wait to watch to find out which way he goes.
Most Interesting New Player: Kevin Garnett
You could go with KG, Pierce, and arguably even AK-47 here — and how the Nets got ANY of these friggin’ guys on their capped-out, resource-less roster remains a marvel of modern medicine — but Garnett’s the one who I think really sways the balance here. A best case scenario for Pierce basically sees him serving the role Joe Johnson played last year for Brooklyn, the bail-out offensive option trusted most in late-game situations, an important role, but more complementary than primary. Kirilenko will be critical in his backup role, but it’s still a backup role, and there might be nights where he doesn’t even play 20 minutes.
But KG is the guy who, for the second time in his career, will be tasked with changing a team’s entire culture. For all their strengths, the 2013 Nets would certainly not be faulted for an over-abundance of emotional or physical intensity, and though their 17th-ranked team defensive rating (106.2 points per 100 possessions was still better than many probably expected from a team that began the season starting Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez in the frontcourt) it’s still pretty far from elite, which the Nets will have to at least be close to for a chance at title contention. Last year, Garnett’s Celtics had a 96.2 defensive rating when he was on the floor, and just 104.6 without. Entering the season at age 37, he’ll still be expected to provide that kind of impact for the Nets, to coax a little more defensive tenacity out of the likes of Lopez and Deron Williams, and to generally make Brooklyn a team tough enough to never again lose a Game 7 at home to a half-strength Bulls squad.
It’s hard to believe he can handle that kind of load in his 19th (!!!) NBA season, but when you listen to the testimonials of the fans, peers and coaches of his early days with the Celtics, all of whom swear by the immediate and seismic impact he had from basically the first time he took the court in Boston, it’s hard to really bet against him, either. At the very least, he should make those Nets-Knick games a real hoot.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Deron Williams
Truth told, none of the returning guys on this Nets squad are as interesting as the guys they just brought in — we basically know what we’re getting from most of them at this point — but Deron Williams is the guy with the most potential for volatility. Will he get along with Jason Kidd as a head coach and backseat driver? Will he be OK giving up touches to Paul Pierce late in the game? How will he react the first time KG lays into him for missing a defensive rotation? Williams remains something of an enigma on the court — though after the point guard KG and Pierce played the last six years with, they should be pretty used to that — and whether or not he’s going to be able to thrive with the most talented, most vet-heavy roster he’s ever played on will probably say a lot about D-Will and his eventual hoops legacy.
Still, it’s really just about those new guys. Hell, I’m even excited to see Shaun Livingston on a good team for once.
NEW YORK KNICKS
Most Interesting New Player: Andrea Bargnani
Will there be a weirder fit of player and team next year than the Knicks and Andrea Bargnani? Forget about floor spacing and defensive lineups, even. The Knicks have done an impressive job over the last few seasons of cultivating a coherent team personality — veteran-tough, charismatic, and more than a little cocky — which they’ve further cemented this year with the re-signings of Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith and, of course, the acquisition of amnestied New York native Metta World Peace. I remain hopeful and confident they’ll also pick up Ivan Johnson before all is said and done, because really, where else is Ivan Johnson gonna go? The Garden beckons, and they’ll love him unconditionally.
And then there’s Bargs.
It’s hard to picture Andrea Bargnani even wearing a Knicks uniform, much less sharing chest bumps and three-to-the-head signals with the likes of Melo, Metta and J.R. He’s not veteran-tough, he’s not particularly charismatic, and if he ever was cocky, he certainly didn’t have much cause or opportunity to be for the last year or so. And yeah, those spacing and defense concerns are legit too, as it’s particularly impossible to envision how he and Amar’e Stoudemire — remember him? — can possibly co-exist on the same squad.
The admittedly unlikely possibility lingers, however, that maybe Bargnani was just in a bad spot in Toronto, that the change not only in scenery but in team character will work wonders for him, and he’ll discover a nastiness and force of personality that we never knew he had North of the Border. Seven years into his pro career, Bargnani is rapidly running out of excuses, but he couldn’t ask for a much more aggressive reset than being traded to New York, and now it’s up to him to prove he can actually help a good team win games. I wouldn’t bet on it, particularly not the way Glen Grunwald has, but it’ll be one of the season’s more entertaining experiments, for sure.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Amar’e Stoudemire
You gotta feel for Amar’e. His half season as King of New York feels about as long ago as Papoose actually being a thing, and injuries have so dramatically reshaped the arc of his career that nobody even really remembers that during his brief run of healthiness as a second-unit anchor for last year’s Knicks squad, he was actually pretty good, posting 14 points a game on 58 percent shooting, and a PER over 22. Of course he gave a lot of that offensive gain back with his lack of rebounding or defense, but Knicks fans gladly would’ve taken that trade-off in last year’s playoffs when J.R. Smith was building brick houses in Boston and Indiana and the Knicks’ offense ground to a halt as a result.
Can Amar’e finally make it to the end of the season as a healthy contributor? The Knicks, who won’t have cap space or a tradeable draft pick until the year 2525, should certainly hope so, because having a healthy Amar’e at their disposal will be one of the only ways they can upgrade on last year’s second-seed squad in a much-improved Eastern Conference come playoff time. I’m rooting for ya, STAT.
Most Interesting New Player: Michael Carter-Williams
I hesitate to call any new player on this Sixers squad “interesting,” because none will be as “interesting” as they will be “bad” (MCW), “uninspiring” (James Anderson) or merely “inactive” (Nerlens Noel, Royce White). Still, Carter-Williams should be a fun read, because like Dennis Rodman and Uncle Luke before him, MCW can be as bad as he wanna be this season, without any risk of losing his starting job. Check out this half-intentionally comedic graphic display of the Sixers’ depth chart (courtesy of Zach Harper of CBS Sports), which illustrates that MCW is essentially running unopposed for the position, with no plans for a veteran backup signee imminent from the Sixers’ camp.
And let’s just say that there aren’t many teams in the NBA right now who would consider instituting Michael Carter-Williams as the unquestioned starter at the point in his rookie season to be a good idea. MCW shot 28 percent over five games at this year’s Summer League, and if he shot even 10 percent better than that over the course of next season, I’d consider it a sizable accomplishment. He’s gonna miss shots, he’s gonna turn the ball over, he’s gonna be absolutely disastrous at spacing the floor. But as an athletic, tall point guard with real upside as a defender and distributor, he’s gonna get every chance to take his lumps in the name of long-term improvement this season — especially since the Fighting Hinkies don’t really want to win more than a handful of games in this tankiest of NBA seasons, anyway. Win-win, as long as Carter-Williams’ spirit doesn’t get totally crushed in the process.
One thing for sure: MCW is gonna be responsible for some real full-bodied box score lines. I see a lot of 4-19 FG, 1-7 3PT, 10-12 FT, 6 REB, 9 AST, 8 TO type games in his future.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Evan Turner
The “former prospect on his last chance to make good” player type is obviously gonna be a recurring theme here, and Evan Turner fits this as well as anybody. He’s been pretty damn disappointing in his first three seasons in the league, with rare hot streaks summarily and repeatedly doused with month-long stretches where he goes Lou Gramm ice-cold, but there are still excuses to be had for the Extraterrestrial if you wanted to reach for them — he was used to being an offensive first option, he wasn’t set up to thrive in Doug Collins’ ultra-conservative offensive system, the showers at the Sixers’ practice facility suck, etc.
Well, no more. With career underperformer James Anderson and a thoroughly overmatched Michael Carter-Williams as his only real competition for touches in the backcourt — at least until Jason Richardson gets heatlhy — ET should finally get to put up contested 16-foot jumpers to his heart’s content, and maybe even learn to draw a foul or two on the way. If you’re playing fantasy this year, nab Turner a couple rounds earlier than feels right and natural, because he very well might end up posting the emptiest, least-efficient 20/5/5 season in NBA history. And again, that should be just fine for Hinkie and company. They don’t really want to win, and recent history shows that a pretty good way not to win is to give Evan Turner a whole lot of offensive responsibility.
And who knows? Maybe it’ll be a legitimate breakout year for Turner, and it’ll turn out that it really was Jrue Holiday, Doug Collins and the lack of solid water flow in the PCOM gym locker rooms holding him back all these years. And maybe Royce White will play all 82 games, Nerlens Noel will win Rookie of the Year, and Spencer Hawes will become a Hillary supporter. Things occasionally happen.
Most Interesting New Player: Tyler Hansbrough
No, Tyler’s not all that interesting, but the Raps had no draft picks this year, and their only other offseason moves were picking up a couple backup point guards (I did like Dwight Buycks in Summer League, but monitoring his battle with D.J. Augustin for the backup PG minutes will not be a League Pass focus of mine) and trading the aforementioned Andrea Bargnani for picks and scraps, none of which should have any impact for next season. At least Hansbrough should become a fan favorite in Toronto, sliding into their Reggie Evans role from a couple years back of bench rebounder/general agitator, and it’ll be fun to have him in the Atlantic Division where he has to go up against the Nets and Knicks four times a year. Kenyon Martin will punch him in the face at some point next season, trust.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Jonas Valanciunas
Whole bunch of interesting returning guys on this Raps team, actually — Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay all enter the season with much to prove, and Terrence Ross has an intriguing/frustrating rookie season to follow up on. Still, only one guy on this team was the Summer League MVP in Vegas this July, and if you end up watching a lot of Raptors games outside of the city of Toronto in 2013-14, he’ll probably be the reason why. Valanciunas averaged 19 points and 10 boards on 56 percent shooting — big numbers for Summer League — and generally looked like he was in a different league than the rest of the unwashed Vegas masses, creating as big a buzz for his second year as any returning sophomore in the NBA.
As a squad, the Raptors are in that super-awkward position of having solid, recognizable starters at every position, but none that really provide any kind of significantly above-average, difference-making production. They have the kind of team core that gets you to the middle fast in the NBA, an unenviable positioning. By making the big step he seems poised for in his second season, Valanciunas could break that mold and maybe help the Raptors get to the next level. Or, if they decide to go the other direction with it, at least give them a legitimate core piece to rebuild around.
The cautionary Summer League tale of JaVale McGee should probably keep Toronto fans at least a little grounded, until Valanciunas does it consistently in the regular season. I’m pretty damn in on Jonas, though, and he and Amir Johnson should make for one of the league’s most fun-to-watch frontcourts next season.