The NBA Atlantic Division is the division of shot-callers. Each general manager is actively attempting to outsmart everyone else. Danny Ainge brought Al Horford to the Boston Celtics, while New York Knicks president Phil Jackson traded for Derrick Rose. Sam Hinkie and his brainchild were first marginalized, then replaced by USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo, thus ending “The Process” for the Philadelphia 76ers. Masai Ujiri, in charge of the Toronto Raptors, lost a few players but re-signed DeMar DeRozan for big bucks. Sean Marks, the new GM of the Brooklyn Nets, completely gutted their organization and started anew. These actions, in addition to the spike in the salary cap, make for an interesting NBA Atlantic Division.
2016-17 NBA Atlantic Division Preview
Last Season’s Division Standing
The Raptors ran away with the Atlantic Division last season, ending up with the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Boston was the only other team in the division that finished with a winning record. The Knicks won just 32 games. The Nets and 76ers had two of the bottom three win-loss records last season. The 76ers won a paltry ten games, completing the third season of “The Process”.
New Season, New Outlook
Brooklyn Nets: A New Beginning in Brooklyn
The Nets overhaul is underway. This is a complete reset. The front office is brand new, led by Marks and assistant GM Trajan Langdon. The coaching staff is now headed by Kenny Atkinson and includes Jacque Vaughn and Chris Fleming.
The mainstay of the players will be Brook Lopez. A lot is also expected of Bojan Bogdanovic. Some additions to the roster include Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker, Greivis Vasquez, Randy Foye, and veteran Luis Scola.
The Nets’ major issue is their ceiling. This team has minimal top-end talent, as proven by the fact that Lopez is the only one on the roster who has ever been an All-Star. While the team is made up of serviceable professionals, there is no star player. Another issue is rebounding. Lopez is not known for his ability to crash the boards. Newly acquired journeyman Anthony Bennett would be counted on to assist, but he’s struggled over his first few seasons.
However, the roster is balanced in terms of shooting threats inside and out. But many questions remain. Caris LeVert is a talent, but when will he be ready to play? Isaiah Whitehead’s development will prove to be crucial. Can Yogi Ferrell force his way onto the roster?
The trajectory is upward for the Nets, however they won a meager twenty-one games last season. One can reasonably expect them to surpass that total. Making the playoffs is the goal but one may call that ambitious. Progress is made but a frustrated season is expected. Expectation of 30 to 40 wins.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Process Finally Worked in Philadelphia
Change is afoot in Philadelphia. The 76ers finally won the draft lottery. Sam Hinkie’s “Process” came to fruition. However, like Moses in the Bible, Hinkie will not be the one lead his people to the “Promised Land”. Jerry Colangelo was brought in as Philly’s new Chairman of Basketball Operations. Hinkie, citing irreconcilable differences, resigned from his post as GM. Colangelo, in a nepotistic move, hired his son Bryan Colangelo to replace Hinkie. After years of “tanking” seasons, the 76ers finally won the draft lottery. They chose Ben Simmons out of LSU, by way of Australia.
Simmons is often compared to LeBron James because of his size and similar skill-set. If all goes well, he could be a great player, or even a superstar. But he’s just a rookie. The transition from college to the pros is difficult, and Simmons is expected to be the man right away. Sixers fans should be warned that it might not happen so quickly.
In the last three seasons of Hinkie’s tenure, the 76ers selected Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and, curiously, Jahlil Okafor. To the uninitiated, that may seem like a colossal waste of resources. However, there were mitigating circumstances. Embiid was injured and missed the last two complete seasons. He has yet to play a single NBA game. Okafor, on the other hand, got off to a promising start, averaging about 17 points and seven rebounds per game in his rookie year. Unfortunately, his season was cut short after 55 games, as he suffered a tear in the meniscus of his right knee. Noel played 67 games last season, averaging about 11 points and eight rebounds per contest.
There’s good news for Philadelphia here, though. For the first time in two years, Embiid appears fit and healthy. A healthy Embiid means that either Noel or Okafor will almost certainly be traded soon enough.
Dario Saric has signed a contract with the 76ers. He also pledged that he’ll be in Sixers colors this season. Saric is a stretch power forward with guard skills, and he’ll be hugely beneficial to this young team.
The Rest of the Roster
This roster is feast or famine. The best guard on the team is Jerryd Bayless, who’s not a bad player, but is far from All-Star caliber. Elton Brand is also a member, providing nothing more than veteran leadership off the court. Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas are young players with potential.
Coach Brett Brown will have some tools to work with. But the roster also has some gaping holes, particularly at the guard positions. Experience, or lack thereof, is also a factor. As of this moment, the roster seems top heavy; Philly just has too many bigs. Expect Colangelo (the younger one) to do some wheeling and dealing before the February trade deadline.
As a team, the Sixers will improve. They will win more than ten games this season. Expect them to win that many before the new year even begins. However, they won’t be in the mix for a playoff spot this season. A reasonable win total for them would be around thirty games. In addition to that, Brett Brown may be in the running for the Coach of the Year award.
New York Knicks: Start Spreading the News in New York
Over dinner with team president Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony expressed his displeasure with the Knicks’ lack of success. In response to his superstar’s pleas, Jackson acquired former MVP Derrick Rose from the Chicago Bulls via trade. The Knicks sent Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, and Jerian Grant to the Bulls for Rose. Soon after, they came to terms with former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, as well as shooting guard Courtney Lee. They also signed Brandon Jennings to a bargain one-year deal. All of these players are in addition to New York’s Latvian stud Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis, runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting last season, is expected to continue his development this year.
There is a theme here. The Knicks has gotten more talented on paper, but also more fragile. Rose had his bouts of injury in recent seasons, most notably on his knee. Noah had knee and shoulder issues. Jennings suffered a ruptured Achilles two years back. Noah has not been the defensive force that he once was, mostly because of his injuries. Rose’s game is largely based on his explosive ability. That ability was hurt by his injuries, so he has not been as explosive as he used to be. Since recovering from his injury, Jennings was a non-factor on both the Detroit Pistons and the Orlando Magic. The only good new for the Knicks here is that Lee played in 79 games last season.
This Knicks team looks great at first glance. However, the roster is woefully flawed. First off, in Rose, they have another ball-dominant player alongside Anthony. Jennings falls in this category, as well. Porzingis seems to have a skill-set suited to playing center, but the Knicks payed Noah an exorbitant amount to play that position. Spacing is another issue. The Knicks were not a great three-point shooting team last season, as they attempted the eighth-least number of threes and were 20th in accuracy. New York did precious little to rectify that, so the issue will likely come up again this season.
Defense is another problem. Porzingis is not ready for the grit-and-grind necessary to bang with NBA big men on a nightly basis – not yet, at least. Anthony is often non-comittal on that end of the floor, while Rose was also bad last season, defensively. Noah has been a shell of himself due to his numerous ailments.
Then There’s the Coach
After Derek Fisher’s controversial exit and Kurt Rambis’ ineptitude, the Knicks needed a new coach. Jackson originally wanted Luke Walton (then a Golden State Warriors assistant). In the end, Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek. It was a very curious choice, considering that Hornacek was not one of Jackson’s guys. Hornacek was previously the head coach of a very fast paced Phoenix Suns team. He has said that he wants the Knicks to play in a similar uptempo style.
This season could be an outright disaster for the Knicks. They somehow managed to improve and deteriorate at the same time. Rose is an improvement over Calderon, but Noah is not better than Lopez at the moment. The marquee outside of Madison Square Garden would herald big names, but are they any good! Health will play a huge factor in the Knicks’ ambitions this season. Can Porzingis continue to grow and blossom? Are there any point guards that Rose will be able to defend? Will Hornacek be afforded the freedom to implement his philosophy and system?
This team is a potential dumpster fire. In a perfect world, this team could win 45 games. But in reality, look for this team to win about 35 games – a slight improvement from last year.
Aw Shucks, Boston, No Durant
The Boston Celtics are an intriguing team. With the front office led by Ainge, the Celtics chose to operate similarly to their football counterparts, the New England Patriots. The Celtics are loaded with assets after fleecing the Nets for their draft picks. They even have the ability to swap picks with the Nets again this season! Though they missed out in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, the Celtics landed perennial All-Star big man Al Horford. Horford was the second most coveted free agent this off-season. This is partly due to the persistent rumor that Horford and Durant wanted to play together. That never materialized, but the Celtics still acquired a significant upgrade at center in the process.
Meet Brad Stevens, the Scientist
The Celtics have the most intelligent coach in the division and one of the top coaches in the league. Brad Stevens is an absolute basketball savant. He’s also a magnificent teacher of the game. It sounds cliché, but he’s a leader of men. Players want to play for him. Teams hate playing against teams coached by Stevens. As a team without an established star, the Celtics gave LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers all they could handle in the 2015 playoffs. After the series ended, Cavs players were gushing with praise for Stevens. It’s not every day that an opponent expresses such respect for an adversary.
Aside from Horford, the roster has a group of players who (for the most part) aren’t very talented, but play hard. Under Stevens, Isaiah Thomas became an All-Star. Jae Crowder is a workhorse who has made huge strides since he was traded to Boston. The team runs a unique offense and a very aggressive defense. The Celtics do the little things very well. Players move the ball around the perimeter, leading to good shots. They often turn their opponents over, leading to fastbreak opportunities.
This team will not only vie for the Atlantic Division title; they’ll even have a shot at the top seed in the conference. Expect the Celtics to win at least 50 games this season.
Toronto Raptors: We The North
The Toronto Raptors are the defending champs of this division. The Raptors are the best team that nobody knows about. ESPN personality Bomani Jones calls them the “NBATV All-Stars”. He calls them that because neither TNT nor ESPN usually carry Toronto’s playoff games. In Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have a magnificent talent spotter and deal maker as team president. Ujiri is all about finding bargains. He identifies diamonds in the rough and turns them into the most serviceable of players. Last season, the Raptors, through sheer force of will, fought tooth and nail with the eventual NBA champion Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. They came up short, but no one will ever take the Raptors lightly after that series.
The Raptors have the most raucous of fans in the Eastern Conference. Those fans pile into the Air Canada Centre and they are heard. Outside of the arena, there is “Jurassic Park”. Fans pack that space by the thousands to loudly cheer for the home team. Recruiting players to the province of Ontario is a challenge for Ujiri. Unfortunately, Ontario is in Canada. Americans aren’t overly eager about playing in Canada, for some ungodly reason. It’s patently ridiculous, really.
This Team Has Some Holes
Head coach Dwane Casey leads quite an eclectic bunch. The Raptors take on the identity of Casey: hardnosed, gritty, and tough. Casey’s philosophy is all about defense. The Raptors intimidate their opponents. Defensively, they are fundamentally strong. The entire team rebounds well, the big men protect the paint, and the wings lock down the players they guard.
The issue is Toronto’s offense. It is sometimes anemic and other times constipated. For all of Casey’s defensive virtues, his offensive system is pretty ordinary. This team’s star players are Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both of whom were All-Stars last season. Lowry and DeRozan also represented Team USA at the recently concluded Rio Olympic Games. DeRozan shoots a lot of mid-range jump shots, but he doesn’t shoot the three very well. This leads to a lot of forced shots come playoff time.
With all of that said, the Raptors are for real. They’re out to prove that last season was no fluke. Players like Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, DeMarre Carroll, and Jonas Valanciunas are eager to show their value. Valanciunas should receive All-Star consideration this season.
The Raptors’ success will determine who wins this division. Expect them to win at least 50 games this season.
The Atlantic Division will send two teams to the playoffs. The Celtics and Raptors are the class of the division. The 76ers are young and will suffer many growing pains as they mature into a force. The Nets are stuck rebuilding and, as a result, the wins and losses do not matter to them much this season. The Knicks are particularly fascinating. The team is littered with household names and stars of years past. They are a potential disaster in waiting – sorry Knicks fans. Whereas the Celtics and Raptors have flexibility and assets to alter and improve their rosters further, the Knicks have minimal salary cap flexibility.
Boston Celtics: 55-27 (division champs)
Brooklyn Nets: 35-47
New York Knicks: 37-45
Philadelphia 76ers: 28-54
Toronto Raptors: 51-31 (playoff team)