The 2015-16 NBA Preview – Atlantic Division

by DREW SORRELLS

It was a fantastic season for the NBA in 2014-15. Young talents turned into full-blown superstars. The likes of Steph Curry and James Harden became social media moguls, with countless vines of ankle-breakers unleashed on any given night. Young talents emerged as true threats to the crown, and veterans like LeBron James and Chris Paul were put on notice. Who will be the new faces to throw their names into contention this season?

Now the NBA preseason is in full-swing and teams are tasked with expectations following an offseason of change. Anticipation must translate into tangible results, as young teams attempt to prove their worth and aging teams watch as their window for championship aspirations close before their eyes. We’re here to help you sort through the murky uncertainty as next season comes closer with our division-based team analysis.

We start with one of the weaker divisions in basketball: the Atlantic Division. Even in what is going to be another down year for the Eastern conference, there will only be two teams who can realistically compete for the playoffs in this division. The bottom of this division will be bad and may hold three of the worst teams in the entire league this year. Here’s what to look for from each team.

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Toronto Raptors:

  • 2014-15 Record: 49-33 (4th in the Eastern Conference)
  • Key Acquisition: DeMarre Carroll (Hawks)
  • Biggest Loss: Lou Williams (Lakers)
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Kyle Lowry, Demar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, and Jonas Valanciunas

What you need to know:

Drake’s Raptors ended last season on a less-than-stellar note, swept by the Wizards in the first round. While the core of their team remained intact, they made a big investment in Hawks swingman DeMarre Carroll, in hopes he would bring toughness on the defensive end and another 3-point threat on the offensive side of things. By doing this, they allowed 2014-15 Sixth-Man of the Year and perennial bad shot chucker Lou Williams to depart and head to the Lakers. Their intention was to establish a more efficient offense around big-man Jonas Valanciunas, who also inked a 4-year extension worth $64 million and continued his upward progression as one of the more dominating interior threats in the league.

Toronto should improve next year based on this philosophy, behind the steady backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan. They will be players to challenge the Cavaliers and LeBron James for the Eastern Conference crown, but the only certainty out of the North is that Drake will keep churning out hits. However, don’t be surprised if the Raptors make some noise of their own. They have a solid core with young pieces and a proven floor general in Lowry. Much of their success hinges on the improvement of Valanciunas and DeRozan, and they have to prove last year’s debacle in the playoffs was not their ceiling.

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Boston Celtics:

  • 2014-15 Record: 40-42 (7th in the Eastern Conference)
  • Key Acquisitions: David Lee (Warriors), Amir Johnson (Raptors)
  • Key Losses: Brandon Bass (Lakers)
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller

What you need to know:

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge came up short in his pursuits of a big name this offseason, failing to lure a superstar to Boston. But the C’s front office made some not-so-sexy moves that will improve their returning roster. Their biggest asset lies on the sideline, with the coaching of Brad Stevens. The third-year coach out of Butler University has proven to be a top-tier NBA coach and knows how to play to the strengths of his teams. The addition of Amir Johnson gives them a rim protector and rebounding big, and Boston will be stout on the defensive end.

They have one glaring weakness that will inhibit their success this season, on the offensive end. They lack an elite scorer who can take over a game or go bucket for bucket with some of the better players in the league. The 5’9” assassin Isaiah Thomas has the ability to give an offensive spark off the bench and is indeed a weapon, but won’t be enough to propel them into the conversation for an Eastern conference title. That being said, there is a chance this team will put the right pieces in the rights places and steal a higher playoff seed than most expect.

In the weaker Eastern Conference, tough defense, coaching, and their knack for outworking opponents will steal them games in the regular season, but will not translate to postseason success. There is a high probability that trader Danny Ainge throws his hat into the ring for a high-profile midseason deal, in hopes to get that coveted big name that will propel them into the league’s elite. If he swings and misses again, they still have the core that can compete in the East. However, they do not have the group who can reasonably contend for a title and it’s tough to see Boston returning to its former glory without making a move to achieve this.

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New York Knicks:

  • 2014-15 Record: 17-65 (NBA worst)
  • Key Acquisitions: Robin Lopez (Trail Blazers), Aaron Afflalo (Portland)
  • Key Departures: Tim Hardaway Jr. (Atlanta)
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Jose Calderon, Aaron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Robin Lopez

What you need to know:

Phil Jackson followed his legendary coaching career with a less than impressive start in the front office last season. He consistently trotted out lineups containing little to no actual NBA talent. This year they will improve, but that’s not saying much. It will be a couple of years before we see how his heavily criticized first round pick, Kristaps Porzingis, will translate in NBA play.

If Carmelo Anthony has a good bounce back year and proves he still has something left in the tank, it is conceivable that the Knicks will contend for the final playoff spot. This will also require big years from role players and breakout seasons for young and unproven ones like Derrick Williams whose talent they made investments in. However, success in NYC looks to be a couple of years out and it will take some more pieces to turn them into the legitimate contender that fans expect Phil Jackson to put together. For the aging Melo, this season will be a crystal ball of sorts to see how the rest of his career plays out.

However, the past has proven that aging superstars who are high volume shooters do not mix well with young undeveloped teams; Kobe’s Lakers will be another example of this. While there has been consistent denial on this front, a deal that takes Carmelo out of a Knicks uniform could benefit both sides in the grand scheme of things. The Knicks are still rebuilding and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Courtesy: NetsDaily
Courtesy: NetsDaily

Brooklyn Nets:

  • 2014-15 Record: 38-44
  • Key Acquisitions: Andrea Bargnani (Knicks) (Depending on your definition of “key”)
  • Key Departures: Deron Williams (Mavericks)
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Jarrett Jack, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young, Brooke Lopez

What you need to know:

Look, we know what you’re thinking. Who is Bojan Bogdanovic? How, in the year 2015, can a team willingly trot out a lineup with Jarrett Jack as the starting point guard?  We all remember the debacle that was the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett experiment, and this team is still suffering from those failed acquisitions. They lack draft picks and are anchored to the weight of lucrative contracts for older, less productive players. When they were able to capitalize on a horrendous Eastern Conference and sneak into the playoffs last year, they actually managed to give the top-seeded Hawks a scare. But realistically, there is no foundation for success in this team’s locker room and no reason for optimism. They have no superstars, no game changing talent and nothing that will make them anything but mediocre at the very best. The likelihood of real progress is bleak. Brooklyn is a boring team on paper and it’s looking to stay that way. But hey, they did just get a new court! That’s something, right?

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Philadelphia 76ers:

  • 2014-15 record: 18-64
  • Key Acquisitions: Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Nik Stauskas (Kings)
  • Key Departures: None (They had no NBA players on their team last year)
  • Projected starting lineup: Kendall Marshall, Nik Stauskas, Robert Covington, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor

What you need to know:

Last year, 99% of America (including the 76ers players, probably) couldn’t name five players on Philly’s NBA team. They were historically terrible, but still somehow managed to win more games than the previous season. GM Sam Hinkie’s plan to tank their way into contention has yet to field any results that remotely resemble success and many of his moves have left observers scratching their heads in unison.

They will be more competitive this season, which could translate into more wins, but this team will be in the lottery once again. While the franchise considers Joel Embiid to be a cornerstone for the future, all signs point to him being out the entire season due to injury once again. This is cause for concern and it will not bode well if Embiid can’t get on the court. Nerlens Noel is coming off of a huge defensive season and should continue to progress on the offensive side as well.

The most interesting storyline from Philly will be how Jahlil Okafor plays in his rookie season and whether he can be a franchise changing talent or not. While they are not going to be as abysmal as they have been in recent years, they still will not contend for anything except the number one pick in the 2016 draft lottery. They have more NBA talent than in the past, but still lack anybody who can take over a game, as well as feasible role players who can translate into wins.