Atlantic preview: Can the Raptors repeat as division champs?
The Atlantic is the money division. Literally. With three of the top ten payrolls in the league—including the top two in Brooklyn ($94 million) and New York ($90.1 million)—teams in the Atlantic have proven to be unafraid to spend. But will it yield results? Entering this season, only Toronto stands as a legitimate conference contender while the Nets (which suffered key losses this offseason) and Knicks (improved, but still in transition) are nipping at the fringes. Meanwhile the rebuilding continues in Boston and the Sixers seem to be actively courting a historically bad season.
1. Toronto Raptors
2013-14 record: 48-34 | Lost in first round (4-3) to Nets
Worst move: None. The Raptors return 84.4 percent of its minutes played from last season, top 10 in that category.
Outlook: The word in Toronto: stability. While the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff field is dealing with at least one significant change, Toronto returns most of its rotation intact and adds Williams, a Jamal Crawford-like scorer off the bench, who will upgrade a second unit that ranked in the bottom five in the NBA in scoring last season. Kyle Lowry got a new deal and is coming off his best season. DeMar DeRozan was an All-Star. The defense was ranked in the top 10. Unlike others, Toronto’s priority is simply to build on what they already have.
Two players the Raptors are counting on this season are Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. Ross had his moments last season and his scoring average ticked up into double figures for the first time in his career. Ross has cited DeRozan as a role model, and the Raptors are hopeful he can make a DeRozan-like jump. Valanciunas oozes potential. He’s a relentless rebounder and defender who loves contact. But Valanciunas was a non-factor in the low post last season. If Valanciunas—who worked out with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer—can develop into a threat, Toronto will be a more balanced offensive team this season.
Best case: Toronto’s continuity pushes it to a fast start, its young stars all take a step forward and the Raptors surprise everyone by competing with Cleveland and Chicago for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Worst case: Lowry gets complacent, the defense struggles and all the progress made last season comes unraveled when Toronto falls into the bottom of the conference playoff bracket.
2. Brooklyn Nets
2013-14 record: 44-38 | Lost in East Conf. semifinals (4-1) to Heat
Best move: Jarrett Jack. Jack is a wild card. Is he the talented sixth man from two years ago in Golden State or did last year’s mediocre season in Cleveland represent real decline? Regardless, he is a solid veteran who provides insurance behind oft injured point guard Deron Williams.
Outlook: The Nets recovered nicely from the Jason Kidd debacle, hiring Lionel Hollins, who is probably a better coach anyway. After years cultivating a rough and tumble group in Memphis, Hollins brings that same intensity to Brooklyn. An early target of Hollins has been Brook Lopez. Lopez—who will miss the next 10-14 days with a sprained foot—is already a superior offensive center who will be asked to utilize his size and strength advantages more in the paint this season. A healthy Lopez gives the Nets an inside threat they lacked for most of last season.
Still, the Nets enter the season with plenty of questions. Can Kevin Garnett, at 38, still be a productive power forward? KG has spent a lot of time at center the last two seasons and there are some doubts as to whether he has the quickness to defend the four position. Can Joe Johnson still carry the offensive load? Johnson was terrific for the Nets last season, but at 33 it’s asking a lot for him to have a similar season. Can Deron Williams return to the ranks of elite playmakers? Williams was once talked about in the same breath as Chris Paul. Injuries and inconsistency the last three years have taken him out of that conversation.
Best case: Williams elevates his game, Lopez is a force in the paint and the Nets' size and experience makes them a real threat to Chicago or Cleveland in the second round.
Worst case: Lopez suffers another season-ending foot injury and GM Billy King conducts a fire sale with the NBA’s priciest roster.
3. New York Knicks
2013-14 record: 37-45 | Missed playoffs
Worst move: None.
Outlook: When was the last time the Knicks had a productive offseason? The Steve Kerr situation was embarrassing but New York may have ultimately got a better coach for Phil Jackson’s triangle offense in Derek Fisher. Anthony returns to play the Kobe Bryant/Michael Jordan role in the triangle and Jackson secured a solid triangle point guard in Jose Calderon, albeit at a steep price. Even the draft yielded something positive: Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early, a second-round pick who joins a growing number of young prospects on the Knicks roster.
Of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The triangle is tricky to learn, as the Knicks sloppy preseason play proves. Fisher—even with Jackson’s support from the front office and triangle gurus Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons help on the bench—will experience growing pains. J.R. Smith appears to be an ill fit for the offense, as does Amar’e Stoudemire, who has never played in a real system. And without Tyson Chandler—sacrificed in the Calderon deal—New York’s defense will suffer. Moreover, the Knicks roster—which has two big expiring contracts in Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani—could be turned over by midseason.
Best case: The triangle clicks by Christmas, Anthony thrives in it while Stoudemire and Bargnani piece together stellar contract years to push the Knicks back into the playoffs, where they give a top-four seed a fight in the first round
Worst case: The Knicks set a league record for turnovers that sends them spiraling towards another lottery-bound season and has Jackson wondering if the triangle can work without him overseeing it.
4. Boston Celtics
2013-14 record: 25-57 | Missed playoffs
Best move: Marcus Smart. The rookie has franchise point guard potential.
Outlook: Year 2 of Boston’s rebuilding project will be a critical one. A major reason GM Danny Ainge wasn’t able to land a Kevin Garnett-like star this summer was because Boston doesn’t have the assets it had in 2007, when Al Jefferson was the centerpiece. Boston has plenty of players with potential—Jared Sullinger is a rapidly developing power forward, Kelly Olynyk is a gifted offensive big man and Avery Bradley added a nice mid-range game to his superior defense last season—but no one star to entice teams with a trade. The job of developing that player falls to Brad Stevens, who impressed scouts in his first year with his unflappable demeanor and evolving play calling.
The big question in Boston though is what to do with Rajon Rondo. Rondo, a free agent at the end of the season, is young (28) and, when healthy, is a top-five playmaker. Both Rondo and Ainge have professed a desire to get a long-term deal done, but the drafting of Smart suggests the Celtics are ready to move on. Smart is big enough to defend some two’s, but his size, strength and defense are best utilized at the point. If Rondo—who is expected to miss the first week or two of the regular season with a broken left hand—shows he is healthy, he could return a haul of assets that will make it easier for Ainge to land a better fitting franchise player.
Best Case: Rondo is Rondo, Jared Sullinger develops into an All-Star and the Celtics get just enough rim protection from Olynyk and Tyler Zeller to squeeze into the playoffs.
Worst Case: The growing pains continue. Young players continue to pile up mistakes and Boston’s lack of perimeter shooting in the backcourt dooms them to a 25-win season. Worse: Ainge can’t make any deals that offer hope for the future.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
2013-14 record: 19-63 | Missed playoffs
Best Addition: K.J. McDaniels. Say that with a straight face.
Outlook: Philadelphia was one of the worst teams in the NBA last season. And they actively went out and tried to make the team worse. The Sixers dumped Young for spare parts. A year after drafting a player who wouldn’t play for them that season (Nerlens Noel), GM Sam Hinkie used his two lottery picks this year to draft two more. Joel Embiid will miss at least the first half of the season with a foot injury, and knowing Philadelphia they could elect to scrub his first year entirely. And talented forward Dario Saric will spend next season in Europe.
Philadelphia will lean heavily on Michael Carter-Williams, the reigning Rookie of the Year who did a remarkable job remaining focused during a brutal first season. Carter-Williams will get some help from Noel, his former AAU teammate. Noel’s shot blocking will upgrade the defense but his offense is limited to dunks and put-backs. To score, the Sixers will likely continue applying pressure on defense in an effort to turn mistakes into easy offensive opportunities. Head coach Brett Brown would love to incorporate some of San Antonio’s offensive sets, but as he discovered last year this team does not have the talent to execute them effectively.
Best Case: The Sixers get off to a decent start and avoid setting an NBA record for fewest wins (nine) in a season.
Worst Case: The Sixers bottom out and set the record for fewest wins in a season.
X-Factor: Atlantic division
Brook Lopez, Nets. Lopez is at a crossroads. At 26, he’s just entering the prime of his career. But another serious foot injury could permanently derail it. The Nets brought in Hollins to instill the same toughness Hollins cultivated in Marc Gasol in Memphis. Lopez doesn’t have Gasol’s defensive skills, but he’s a superior offensive player who has been automatic around the paint when he’s healthy. It’s a pairing with a lot of potential—if Lopez can stay on the floor.
Dark horse team
Knicks. The Knicks, let’s not forget, are two years removed from a 54-win season. The assets they like (Carmelo Anthony, Jose Calderon) are locked up long term and the ones they don’t (Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani) are in contract years, which (surprise!) often leads to motivated seasons. The triangle, no matter what Phil Jackson says, will be difficult for New York, an isolation-heavy offensive team under Mike Woodson, to adjust to. But if they do, there’s enough talent here to make a deep playoff run.
Valanciunas—the kind of defensive anchor every coach in the league craves—adds enough offense to be in the conversation for an All-Star nod at midseason. The Raptors have promised to feed him in the post early and often and players have publicly stressed the importance of being able to play inside-out. Valanciunas has the tools to be a solid offensive player. This is the season he puts them together.