Monday, September 29, 2014
2014-15 Atlantic Division Preview
The NBA season is just around the corner, which means that it's time for me to start doing my previews for each division. I am starting with the Atlantic Division, home to the Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, and Philadelphia 76ers. I will preview each team in order of where I think they will finish in the division with their projected win total in brackets.
Toronto Raptors (53)
Under the guidance of their brilliant general manager Masai Ujiri, the Raptors had one of the best seasons in franchise history last year with a 48-34 record. Losing in 7 games to the Nets in the first round of the playoffs was a tough way to go out, but the Raptors established themselves as a team that is going to be competitive for many seasons to come.
Their major offseason move was re-signing their start point guard Kyle Lowry to a 4 year, $48M deal. This move is key because it greatly ups the odds of DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas staying with the Raptors for the long-term. DeRozan made his first all-star team last season, averaging 22.7 points and 4.0 assists per game, establishing himself as one of the best young swingmen in the NBA.
As for Jonas Valanciunas, he is entering his third NBA season after averaging 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game last season. He still has a lot of work to do, but he too is emerging into one of the best young players at his position. If the Raptors can keep Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas together, they could be contending for championships in the near future.
Their most surprising move of the offseason was drafting Bruno Caboclo in the first round of this year's draft. This move shocked everybody and created quite a stir on draft night. Caboclo is a small forward out of Brazil who has tremendous upside but is considered to be very raw in his development. He might be the most important piece the Raptors have in that he could be what puts them over the top in a few seasons. If he develops into an elite small forward in the NBA, the Raptors will really be cooking with gas. Watching how Caboclo develops in his first NBA season will definitely be an interesting thing to monitor throughout the season since he still remains largely a mystery and an enigma.
Overall, the Raptors have a really talented squad that should once again win the Atlantic Division. The trio of Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas will continue to get better and perhaps Caboclo surprises people and ends up being a solid contributor in his rookie season. They still don't have enough to contend for a championship, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth keeping an eye on. With the Eastern Conference so wide open, the Raptors could possibly find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Brooklyn Nets (47)
The Brooklyn Nets are one of the most bizarre teams in the NBA. They have some fantastically talented players, but they can't seem to figure out how to make it all fit. Deron Williams is showing signs of age with all the injuries he's had, but he still remains one of the better point guards in the NBA; Joe Johnson is one of the most offensively potent shooting guards in the NBA; and Brook Lopez might be the best center in the NBA when healthy. Yet despite having those talented players on their team, the Nets still find ways to fall short.
Losing Brook Lopez for the season definitely hurt them last year, but even with him I doubt they would have gotten past the Miami Heat. The Nets almost seem to have an identity crisis in that they really aren't super good at anything. They just range from being "ok" to "good" at everything. That's a problem that Lionel Hollins, their new head coach will have to fix. He'll have to find a way to get his team an identity. In order for a team to be successful they need to have an identity or something to pride themselves on. E.g. Defense, rebounding, or scoring.
More specifically, the Nets need to figure out whose team it is. Is it Deron Williams' team? Is it Joe Johnson's team? Is it Brook Lopez's team? I personally think it should be Brook Lopez's team with him as the focal point of the offense. He's their best overall player and the player who is most valuable to them because so few teams have quality big men.
Before going down for the season, Lopez was having a career year, averaging 20.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. The team had to reformulate their identity with him out of the picture for the vast bulk of the season and I think that really hurt the development of the team since Lopez has to be their guy. If the Nets want to be successful this season, they have to make sure that Brook Lopez is the featured player. Otherwise, they'll continue to stay where they are at, which is a mid-pack Eastern Conference team that goes nowhere.
New York Knicks (41)
Let me cut to the chase: This team sucks. I think Carmelo Anthony is fantastic, but the rest of the team is garbage. Amar'e Stoudemire is washed up and merely a shell of his former self, Andrea Bargnani is a decent offensive player who can't play any defense, J.R. Smith just screws around and takes wild threes, and Iman Shumpert has regressed each season he's played in the NBA.
As for Phil Jackson and his puppet head coach Derek Fisher, nothing can smell more like manufactured hype than this duo. These guys won rings in Los Angeles, but that was over five years ago in a city that is more than 2,000 miles away. This time around there is no Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal to save them, which is why they aren't going to ever win another championship together. They seem to only be interested in reuniting with each other and having a jolly good time in the Big Apple at the expense of the Knicks and their fans.
Tim Hardaway, Jr. is the only other guy on this team that I like. He's a talented 6'6 shooting guard who could be a star for them in the future, but as for this season he'll still be going through growing pains. He's really the only guy worth paying attention to in that he might be a piece the Knicks can use in the future to help them win games. As for the rest of team outside of Carmelo Anthony, they can all go play in the Chinese Basketball Association for all I care.
Boston Celtics (32)
The Celtics are in full-blown rebuilding mode right now. Rajon Rondo, who is their star point guard appears to be on his way out, which leaves small forward Jeff Green as the only other viable weapon on the team. Green averaged 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season, which was his best season to date. He'll continue to get better and might even become an all-star one day. But beyond that, the team has nobody to help them win games this season.
Their rookie point guard Marcus Smart, third year power forward Jared Sullinger, and second year center Kelly Olynyk might form a nice trio to go around Jeff Green in a few years, but for right now they have a lot of growing pains to go through.The one good thing that I will say about the Celtics is that they have a quality head coach in Brad Stevens and management that can be trusted. Unlike the Knicks, who are run by a bunch of baboons, the Celtics have quality guys in their front office, which is why I like them to be better than the Knicks down the road.
However, at the present moment, the Celtics have a team that will struggle to win games. Even if Rajon Rondo hangs around the whole year, they still will only have Rondo and Green as viable go-to options. Everybody else is either past their prime like Gerald Wallace or still in the very early stages of their NBA development.
Philadelphia 76ers (25)
The Philadelphia 76ers are garbage, but they are garbage with a game plan. The plan is to be bad right now so that they can be good in the future. The 76ers so far have tanked really well, drafting talented players who can't help them win games right away. Probably the most important thing to look for when watching the 76ers this season is how their point guard Michael Carter-Williams does in his second season and also how their rookie center Nerlens Noel does after sitting out all of last season with a torn ACL.
If Carter-Williams and Noel can prove to be an effective duo, then the 76ers should feel good about their tanking strategy. I personally expect both of those guys to play really well, but that doesn't mean the 76ers will win a lot of games. It'll be another long year in Philly, but hopefully one in which they feel like progress is being made towards building a team that can be a force in the East.
---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord