With the 2016-17 NBA season rapidly approaching, we’ll use our division previews to take a look at a key question, play or theme that may define a team’s success.  

Philadelphia 76ers

- Will Brett Brown’s steadfast commitment to a Spurs-like approach work given the Sixers new direction?

It’s become almost comical how committed teams are to emulating San Antonio’s approach to sustained excellence. It’s like the NBA unofficial hiring motto is “when in doubt, hire a Spurs guy.” Almost any executive with San Antonio dust on him will get a look for a vacant front office position. On the coaching side, Pop-acolytes like Brown are hired to create the same aesthetically pleasing and ruthlessly effective socialist offense for their new franchise.

That’s exactly what Brown has attempted to do during his tenure with Philadelphia. While they don’t run exactly the same plays as San Antonio, the big picture concepts are still the same in Brown’s offense. He wants his team to play through their bigs, swing the ball from side-to-side and have a balanced attack on offense -- one where no single player dominates the ball.

When it works, like it has in San Antonio and Atlanta, it’s a thing of beauty. In Philadelphia, it clearly hasn’t. The team has been dead last offensively in each of Brown’s three season as a coach. That miserable performance has mostly been laid at the feet of Philly’s less than stellar personnel. But in a way, scapegoating the Sixers' underdeveloped roster has hid the fact that Brown hasn’t flashed much pragmatism when it comes to designing his offense.

What gets lost in translation when coaches like Brown mimic what makes the Spurs the league’s model franchise is that their offense isn’t just a collection of X’s and O’s scribbled on a dry erase board. In San Antonio, it’s part of a holistic approach to winning. Everything from the type of players they acquire to the team’s general commitment to player development feeds into why their offense runs like a well-oiled machine.

In part because of the Sixers' direction, Brown lacked the infrastructure to truly implement a Spurs-like system. For starters, it’s hard to play through your bigs when players like Nerlens Noel do this…

...when given the ball as the trail big.

Then there’s the fact that players like Hollis Thompson and Robert Covington, players who are not exactly the second coming of LeBron James, ran 94 combined pick-and-rolls, per Synergy data. Thompson posted a points per possession rating of .56 (not good) in his 52 attempts. Covington was far worse, with PPP rating of .26 (Yikes) in his 42 possessions. Thompson also had 89 plays charted as hand-offs -- an action pretty similar to a PNR -- in which his PPP was a slightly less bad .75. 

In most offenses, the random flows of the game will put players in spots that don’t suit them well. Even the NBA’s ultimate pragmatist, Rick Carlisle, can’t design a system that completely hides a players flaws. But the goal for a coach is to avoid putting players in spots where they aren’t very good -- which for Thompson and Covington means running pick-and-rolls. Those two ran roughly 94 more of them than they ideally should have last season. 

That this happened is a direct result of Brown’s attempt to bring San Antonio to Philly. In Spurs-land, all perimeter players are asked to handle in pick-and-roll because of the nature of the team’s offense. But unlike the Sixers, those players either arrive fully capable of utilizing that action (think your Marco Belinelli’s) or are trained over a series of years to execute out of them (think Danny Green). 

During his first three years in Philly, Brown didn’t have that type of infrastructure. Under Sam Hinkie, Philly churned over the bottom of their roster looking for diamonds in the rough, meaning there wasn’t time to develop someone in the way the Spurs developed Green. The team also wasn’t bringing in veteran free agents with well-rounded skill sets.

It’s easy to make the “lipstick on a pig” argument with all this. It’s not like they had world-beating options on the possessions where Thompson and Covington ran pick-and-rolls or Noel threw the ball to the other team. After all, this franchise was designed to be bad for multiple years, so why critique Brown’s approach so closely?

The reason is because is “The Process” is now history. Brown’s directive now is to start winning, which means getting the most out of this current Philly roster that’s a blend of Hinkie’s vision and Bryan Colangelo's new approach. Brown better hope this group better fits his attempt at recreating San Antonio’s archetypal approach in Philly or it could put his job at risk.

Toronto Raptors

- How much will this team feel the loss of Bismack Biyombo? 

After the most successful season in franchise history, the Raptors faced the harsh reality of a contender this offseason - the departure of key role players due to salary demands.  With Demar DeRozan signing a max deal and the rest of the team’s core locked into eight-figure deals, Biyombo’s defection to Orlando was pretty much a given. But with Jonas Valanciunas returning, Jared Sullinger brought in as replacement and rookie lottery pick Jakob Poeltl waiting in the wings, it would seem like the Raptors shouldn’t be overly concerned about Biyombo’s absence. 

Yet even before tackling Sullinger’s recent injury news and Poeltl’s preseason presence (or more aptly, lack of it), a dive into last year’s lineup data paints a different picture. For starters, Biyombo actually had slightly better on/off numbers than Valanciunas, despite the latter’s role as the team’s starter, per NBA.com data. On/off numbers can be a bit noisy, so it can’t be looked at as totally damning. In this case in particular, Biyombo impact was likely boosted by sharing time with bench units that were among the strongest in the league while Valanciunas spent a lot of time starting alongside Luis Scola.

Dig deeper, however, and a massive, Biyombo-sized hole starts to form. Of the nine 5-man combinations Toronto rolled out for over 100 minutes last year, only three posted positive point differentials per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com. In those three lineups, the big man anchoring them wasn’t Valanciunas, but a certain Congolese center now plying his trade in central Florida.

The Biyombo-Patrick Patterson-Terrence Ross-Cory Joseph-Kyle Lowry quintet was the Eastern Conference version of the “Death Lineup”, outscoring opponents by 16.5 points per 48 minutes. That lineup was a huge part of the Raptors ability to have success despite middling production from their starting five. Whether Biyombo helped fuel such a potent lineup or was merely a beneficiary of it remains to be seen.

That said, it’s hard to imagine Sullinger swapping out a place in that lineup and seeing it produce similar success. While he can rebound just fine, Sullinger obviously lacks Biyombo’s ability to protect the rim and falls short of his predecessors improved ability to finish in the paint out of pick-and-rolls. Though with his season now in the air, Sullinger may not even get the chance with that group. 

That responsibility of filling Biyombo’s shoes will now likely fall to Poeltl, the rookie center out of Utah who had a rather nondescript preseason. Against NBA competition (Toronto had one non-NBA matchup against Buenos Aires San Lorenz), Poeltl didn’t ever play more than 13 minutes in a single game. And in those brief appearances, Poeltl registered exactly one blocked shot -- something that shouldn’t come as a too much of a shock given his offense-first reputation coming into the league.

The hope for Toronto is that Poeltl can impact the team’s offense enough that his presence helps those hybrid Raptors lineups dominate opponents in a different way -- by simply outscoring them. If Poeltl fails to be up to the challenge, it will force the Raptors to sort through emergency scenarios like playing super small with Patterson at the 5 or crossing their fingers Lucas Nogueira has figured out how to positively impact an NBA game.

How the Raptors overcome the loss of Biyombo will go a long way in their attempt to get back to another Eastern Conference Finals.

Brooklyn Nets

- Can Brook Lopez bring more stability to this Nets franchise on the court or in a trade for future assets?

Brooklyn is going to be bad this season. Even the most ardent Nets fan will be hard pressed to come up with a dream scenario that finds this team even close to the playoffs. But after years of mismanagement, the Nets are caught in a miserable situation where they can’t tank and don’t have much to sell when it comes to impending free agents. 

Enter Lopez. Despite possessing one of the NBA’s strangest skillsets -- one that’s getting even stranger now that new head coach Kenny Atkinson is having him bomb 3’s all preseason -- Lopez is pretty much a known commodity around the league. 

He’s capable of scoring in the post with his array of awkward leaning flip shots while equally adept at hanging higher up on the floor out of pick-and-rolls and burying jumpers. Lopez isn’t the most nimble defender but his sheer size can make up for that, as evidenced by the fact Brooklyn was noticeably worse when he sat, per NBA.com data. Most importantly, he’s slowly dispelling injury concerns after a second successive season of playing over 70+ games.

With no clear path to a rebuild, there is certainly an argument to keep Lopez. Atkinson could certainly use an established veteran as he looks to implement a coherent offensive system. Lopez can anchor an offense for a middling NBA team and establishing a basic level of competency in one area of the floor would be big for a Brooklyn team that can’t just rely on successive lottery picks to import talent in the coming seasons.  

But using Lopez as something of a transitional piece may not be in the best interest of the Nets. And while their roster isn’t stocked with premier talent, it has enough pieces that they shouldn’t fall into a Sixers-level abyss should Lopez be dealt. Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez (if the latter is healthy) can make plays out of pick-and-rolls. Sean Kilpatrick is a younger version of Marcus Thornton, and Bojan Bogdanovic possess a well-rounded offensive game. Brooklyn could still score enough sans Lopez to avoid the prolonged losing streaks that create very toxic atmospheres.

It says something about how screwed up the Nets situation is that trading Lopez for draft picks isn’t a total no-brainer. But while the franchise is in a tricky spot, Brooklyn’s attempt to shape their future will begin with how they handle the status of their star center this season.

New York Knicks

- How can the Knicks get the most out of this eclectic roster even IF they scrap the outdated Triangle offense? 

Since I and the rest of the internet have voiced their opinions on the Triangle, this space might be best served delving into a hypothetical that may soon become a reality for the Knicks. At points during this preseason, New York strayed from the Triangle to great effect. While continuing to do so is probably a good thing, it’s hard to tell exactly how much creativity new head Jeff Hornacek will showcase during these non-Triangle possessions given this odd collection of talent.

One thing that may limit Hornacek’s offensive repertoire is that he doesn’t have much in the way of ball movers to work with. His best passer is arguably Joakim Noah -- something that actually functions as a pro-Triangle argument. Point guards Brandon Jennings and Derrick Rose have posted respectable assist totals, but both those players are volume scorers who amass assists simply because of the sheer amount of time they operate with the ball in their hands. Using point guard-centric sets may be fun on the nights Rose and Jennings have it going, but it could be very limiting to what are the team’s two most integral players: Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. 

As he has shown throughout his career, Anthony can score in a variety of ways -- from post ups to pick-and-rolls. Porzingis, who burst onto the scene his rookie year, is a work in progress. The promising youngster mostly did his work as a screener out of pick-and-rolls, actually leading New York in that category per Synergy data. Hornacek has been on record saying that Porzingis will add some more “pops” to his “rolls” after setting a pick, but it remains to be seen if the rookie can improve upon his 33.3 percent 3-point mark from last season.

Just as Anthony will still get chances to post up and iso, Hornacek will definitely use Porzingis as a screener often in non-Triangle sets. But what will be interesting to see is what position Porzingis will be manning when Hornacek chooses to use him in pick-and-rolls. With NBA defenses switching pick-and-rolls more liberally, Hornacek will have to be very selective in when he uses Porzingis in that action and, maybe most importantly, who is handling the ball when it happens.

In a 1-4 pick-and-roll, where Porzingis screens for Rose or Jennings, defenses may happily switch that live with the results. For all his promise, Porzingis was just okay in post up situations last season, posting a PPP of .821 according to Synergy’s database. That’s a number that doesn’t exactly strike fear into opponents when it comes to swapping their point guards onto Porzingis in order to snuff out a pick-and-pop.

With an inverse mismatch, the opposing power forward guarding Rose or Jennings, Knicks fans could see a lot of ugly results. Since his injury, Rose has fallen into a pattern of settling for a lot of tough, side-step/step-back jumpers that done his field goal percentage no favors. Jennings has survived his entire career on long jumpers, so a switch would all but in sure a stale possession ending in a long heave. 

Teams might be a little less inclined to switch pick-and-rolls between Noah and the two point guards as there are still enough 5’s out there who’d struggle to check perimeter players. The problem for the Knicks is that playing against a traditional pick-and-roll coverage isn’t much of an advantage given Noah’s subpar numbers as a roll man during the latter years of his career. Noah would instead be much more useful acting as more of a passer/facilitator in sets like “Delay Double Quick.” 

Given some of those issues, it will be interesting to see if Hornacek becomes more unorthodox as the season goes on. One fun thought is running 4-5 pick-and-rolls with Anthony -- who has always been an underrated pick-and-roll scorer -- acting as the ballhandler with a screening Porzingis. Teams wouldn’t dare switch more traditional 5’s onto Anthony, leaving opportunities for Anthony and Porzingis to slice defenses apart while shooters like Courtney Lee keep help defenders occupied.

With the Triangle perhaps on its last legs, the Knicks' fate may hinge on whether their new head coach can find fresh, effective concepts to maximize his odd mix of talent.

Boston Celtics

- Can Al Horford push this team into true contender territory? 

For the past few decades, the prevailing wisdom in the NBA is that a good defensive big is essential to a top flight defense. The 15-16 Celtics poked a huge hole in that sentiment last season by posting the league’s 4th best defense, per our RealGM rankings, sans a true backline stopper.

In fact, Boston’s frontcourt rotation members were the last group of players you’d expect to anchor an elite defense. Neither Jared Sullinger, Tyler Zeller nor Kelly Olynyk will be confused with Bill Russell anytime soon. Though the mobile Olynyk isn’t exactly a slouch (and also a holder of the team’s best defensive rating, per NBA.com), Amir Johnson -- a solid, positionally smart vet -- was the only frontcourt player with a defensive reputation on the roster.   

In look at their defense from last December, we found that this core of bigs were helped immensely by the perimeter defenders around them. Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder are perhaps the best trio of perimeter stoppers in the NBA. Their ability to impact ballhandlers and crowd passing lanes off-the-ball made life difficult for their opponents.

What’s scarier now is that the team has added a player with the defensive chops to take the Celtics to another level defensively. While Horford’s on/off splits have been mostly neutral during his time with the Hawks, he’s always been subjectively looked as a stabilizing force on defense. There’s definitely no denying Horford represents an upgrade over the departed Sullinger at the very least.

But in a brighter light, Horford gives Boston a chance to challenge for the title of league’s best defense because of the way he fits the team’s system. Instead of size, the Celtics use speed and positioning to dismantle opposing offenses. Not to mention they have multiple wing players who can switch onto bigs and, now with Horford, three frontcourt players who can hang with the vast majority of backcourt players in the NBA.

That type of speed and defensively flexibility are obviously helpful in terms of crafting a great regular season defense, but they’re even more valuable in the playoffs. To challenge in the East, any contender must find a way to combat LeBron James. Horford is one of the rare centers in the league that can handle both the power and speed of James -- giving Boston plenty of options when it comes to creating a game plan come the playoffs. 

While the narrative is still focused on Boston lacking the traditional superstar, the addition of Horford this summer may have just made their defense title worthy.

More Division Previews: Central Division, Northwest DivisionPacific DivisionSoutheast DivisionSouthwest Division