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2017-18 Season Preview: Atlantic Division

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The Atlantic Division is still fairly top heavy, and should once again have two teams at or above 50 wins. Boston figures to be a safe bet to be over 50, and will likely be either the 1 or 2 seed in the East. Toronto has won more than 50 games each of the past two seasons, 56 in 2015-16 and 51 in 2016-17, which are the two best win totals in Raptors franchise history. The other three teams, the Nets, Knicks, and 76ers, have all been perennial cellar dwellers the past few years. But all three have made positive changes, either to their roster or front office, in an attempt to alter their fate.

I’ll take a look at each team, in the order I expect them to finish within the division. Starting at the top.

Boston Celtics – Projected: 54-28. (DIVISION RANK 1)

Key Losses: Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Ante Zizic, 2018 1st round draft pick (Brooklyn)

Key Additions: Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Aron Baynes, Shane Larkin, Abdel Nader, Guerschon Yabusele, 2018 1st round draft pick (Lakers, via Philadelphia)

Projected Starters:
G – Kyrie Irving
G – Jaylen Brown
F – Gordon Hayward
F – Jayson Tatum
C – Al Horford

Boston enters the season with a ton of hype, stemming from their blockbuster moves this offseason. Danny Ainge had been stockpiling assets, and finally made the type of moves that we’ve come to expect from the crafty GM. They added two All-Stars in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving but lost some key core players that helped contribute to their recent rise to the top of the East.

Avery Bradley’s value on defense was such that he should have been an All-Defense 1st or 2nd teamer last season. He was snubbed. The losses of Bradley and Jae Crowder will hurt the Celtics both defensively and in the locker room. Those guys were huge for the culture. And while Bradley and Crowder helped to create the culture of the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas embodied it. Those losses all hurt in the short term, but the talent they added will ultimately make Boston better in the long term.

Expect it to take some time for Irving and Hayward to fully click in Brad Stevens’ offense, but it shouldn’t take long. Stevens’ is a master at using player movement and misdirection to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands in position to make something happen Al Horford is the perfect center for this system, and his presence as a passer will allow Kyrie and Gordon to come off of off-ball screens and look to score, something Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley excelled at last season.

Best Case: Boston clicks earlier than expected, and races out to an early season lead over Cleveland for the 1 seed. Kyrie puts up All-NBA numbers, and the Celtics have three All-Stars. With 60 wins, they lock up home court in the East. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston jumps out to a 3-1 lead, before dropping the next two games. But they win Game 7, behind a boisterous Boston Garden crowd, and a late-game after-timeout (ATO) play call by the master, Brad Stevens. The Celtics take a game from the Warriors in the Finals, probably game 3 or 4 at home, before losing the series in 5.

Worst Case: The Celtics defensive struggles will cost them more wins than anticipated. Unexpected overachievement from both the Heat and the Wizards leave the Celtics as an underwhelming 4 seed. They breeze through the first round but falter in round 2 against the Cavs. The Lakers’ first-round pick falls on one of the protected spots (1, or 6-30) and Philadelphia retains the pick.

And, just for kicks, Kyrie finally admits the Earth is actually round. (Update: He did, admitted he was trolling all along)

 

Toronto Raptors – Projected: 50-32. (DIVISION RANK 2)

Key Losses: DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, PJ Tucker

Key Additions: CJ Miles, OG Anunoby

Projected Starters:
G – Kyle Lowry
G – DeMar DeRozan
F – CJ Miles
F – Serge Ibaka
C – Jonas Valanciunas

The Raptors are fresh off the best two year stretch in their franchise’s history. #WeTheNorth has had plenty to be proud of. Toronto keeps most of their roster intact, and will now have Serge Ibaka for a full season. They lose DeMarre Carroll who was a starter last year but had been regressing. GM Masai Ujiri decided Carroll was no longer worth the $15 million annually and traded him to Brooklyn in a salary-dump. Toronto also unloaded backup PG Cory Joseph’s salary in a trade with the Indiana Pacers, which ironically freed up the space to sign former Pacer CJ Miles.

These moves likely suggest that the Raptors believe their younger players Norm Powell, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet, are ready for larger roles with the team this season. Ultimately, those trades have little impact on the continuity of this roster though. The team will once again rely heavily on the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have steadily improved their offensive skill sets for years now, and are both peaking at the same time. I expect them each to be All-Stars again, and compete for All-NBA 2nd or 3rd team slots.

Best Case: DeRozan finally adds a 3pt shot to his game and averages 30 ppg, surprisingly finishing in the top 3 for MVP. Toronto rides the production of their All-Star backcourt to an unexpected 2 seed. They beat Boston or Washington in round 2 before falling to the Cavs in a competitive Eastern Conference Finals.

Worst Case: Either Lowry or DeRozan misses an extended period of time. The team struggles to replace the missing offensive production and falls well short of 50 wins. With a 5 or 6 seed, they face a tough test in the first round of the playoffs, ultimately falling in 6 games to the Bucks, Heat, or Wizards.

 

Brooklyn Nets – Projected: 39-43. (DIVISION RANK 3)

Key Losses: Brook Lopez

Key Additions: D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, Timofey Mosgov

Projected Starters:
G – Jeremy Lin
G – D’Angelo Russell
F – DeMarre Carroll
F – Trevor Booker
C – Timofey Mozgov

This is considerably higher than any other publication will be projecting the Brooklyn Nets. I am a big believer in Head Coach Kenny Atkinson, and the cultural changes he’s enacting in Brooklyn. The Nets lost their best player from last season, Brook Lopez, but brought in plenty of new talent. D’Angelo Russell is the new face of the franchise, and I fully expect him to thrive in Atkinson’s offense.

Despite losing their top draft pick in consecutive seasons, the Nets have still been able to add young talent.  Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris Levert both looked impressive last season and could earn starting spots over Booker and Carroll.  Sean Kilpatrick signed with Brooklyn last year after bouncing around the G League, appearing in 70 games with 24 starts, and now transitions to a more well-suited 6th man role.

One of the biggest struggles for the Nets last season was overcoming the loss of Jeremy Lin for long stretches of time. Lin played really well in his first season in Brooklyn but only appeared in 36 total games. Most of those coming near the end of the year. Russell will help pick up some of that slack if Lin misses time again. In the Lopez trade, Brooklyn received a serviceable replacement center, Timofey Mozgov, as well. GM Sean Marks also traded for veteran leadership in DeMarre Carroll, who played for Atkinson in Atlanta. The Nets also add a sharpshooting wing, Allen Crabbe, who they tried to sign the last offseason.

Best Case: Brooklyn’s new additions come together beautifully in Coach Atkinson’s system to help lead them out of the East’s cellar. Flirting with a .500 record for much of the season, the Nets overachieve virtually everyone’s predictions and steal the 8th playoff spot in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. The fans and the organization are happy to be swept by the Cavs because simply tasting the playoffs feels so sweet when expectations are this low.

Worst Case: Lin once again misses extended periods of time. Carroll looks run-down and Toronto’s proven smart for dumping him. A still somewhat mediocre roster underachieves, reinforcing the stigma of the franchise, and the team sputters to a 20-some win season. Once again ending up in the lottery, but without a pick to show for it.

 

Philadelphia 76ers – Projected: 36-46. (DIVISION RANK 4)

Key Losses: 2018 1st round draft pick (Lakers)

Key Additions: Markelle Fultz, JJ Redick, Amir Johnson, Furkan Korkmaz

Projected Starters:
G – TJ McConnell
G – JJ Redick
F – Robert Covington
F – Ben Simmons
C – Joel Embiid

The #TrustTheProcess hype train is reaching new heights, aided by last season’s long-awaited rookie debut of Joel Embiid. The man who has become the symbol of the process lived up to expectations last year when he was on the court, which unfortunately wasn’t very long. Embiid will supposedly enter this season with no minutes restrictions, but will likely still rest on back to backs. At media day, Embiid was quite candid in saying, “I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ll play 82 games.”

Philly has the unique opportunity to debut two #1 draft picks in the same season. Two rookies, both drafted #1 overall, playing for the same team. Has that ever happened before? (Answer: Yes, once. The Cincinnati Royals selected Bob Boozer and Oscar Robertson #1 in back to back drafts, both debuted with the team in the 1960-61 season) The Sixers tandem of Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz figure to be competing with each other all season for Rookie of the Year honors.

Perhaps just as important as the young guns are the vets that the Sixers added this offseason. JJ Redick and Amir Johnson will be monumental in helping to create a successful and professional culture for a team led by young stars.

Best Case: Embiid and Simmons both play 70+ games. Philly’s new players mesh early and excel later in the season. The former laughing stock of the league finally breaks the .500 mark, going 43-39 and securing the 7 or 8 seed in the East. Unfortunately for Sixers fans, best case for this season still ends in a first-round playoff defeat. But the future looks considerably brighter.

Worst Case: Embiid suffers another major knee injury. Simmons sees minute restrictions and plays in just 50 games. The Process gets pushed back another year, as the Sixers once again find themselves in the lottery.

 

New York Knicks – Projected: 24-58. (DIVISION RANK 5)

Key Losses: Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday

Key Additions: Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, Michael Beasley

Projected Starters:
G – Frank Ntilikina
G – Tim Hardaway Jr
F – Doug McDermott
F – Kristaps Porzingis
C – Willy Hernangomez

After years of floundering in place, the Knicks are finally set to move forward. Phil Jackson’s triangular stranglehold over the organization is over. Carmelo’s drama and max salary are both gone. Kristaps Porzingis is the unquestioned face of the franchise, just don’t tell Michael Beasley that, and the future may finally be looking bright. Much of this will still depend on the development of Frank Ntilikina, but I’m a believer until proven otherwise.

A trade was inevitable, but Anthony’s no-trade clause meant he was able to choose his destination. After talks with Houston fell apart (because the Knicks have no need for Ryan Anderson), Melo gave Oklahoma City and Cleveland as acceptable options. And it didn’t take long for a deal to be struck. Enes Kanter should split minutes at center with Hernangomez, and help bolster an otherwise barren bench. However, the acquisition of Kanter, combined with Joakim Noah’s $17.7 million, now gives the Knicks $35 million in salary for two backup centers.

The most surprising move by the Knicks this summer was the signing of Tim Hardaway Jr. The same guy they traded away for the draft rights to Jerian Grant. Grant was then traded for D.Rose, and Rose’s rights were renounced in order to sign Hardaway. It’s a crazy chain of events, that seemingly only makes sense for a team this historically mismanaged. Ultimately, I like the move though. Hardaway has shown steady improvement and is a solid starter in this league.

Best Case: Porzingis blossoms as a primary option. Ntilikina proves more NBA-ready than initially estimated and is in the running for ROY. The drama of last season is officially history as this Knicks team surprises everybody and is in the thick of the race for the East’s 8 seed.

A more realistic Best Case may just be tanking instead, and getting a top 3 pick.

Worst Case: They aren’t good, but aren’t bad enough to get a top lottery pick. Relations between Porzingis and the organization continue to sour, and KP demands a trade.

There are very few “worst case” scenarios for this year’s Knicks team. Losing gets them a better pick.

About Preston Dubey

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