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Atlantic Division Preview

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Taking a close look at the Raptors, Celtics, Nets, Sixers and Knicks, and the players who will make or break their seasons

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

General Division Outlook

Justin Rowan (@Cavsanada)

The Atlantic Division has been a bit of a mess over the last few years. With the Toronto Raptors firmly at the top, the rest of the division looked more like the Titanic Division.

The Brooklyn Nets went all in with pocket twos, the New York Knicks struggled to build around Carmelo Anthony, the Philadelphia 76ers decided to treat players like stocks and tank like crazy, and the Boston Celtics accumulated assets while moving on from the big three era.

But now things appear to be changing in the division. The Celtics begun to cash in some of their assets when they acquired Isaiah Thomas and now have a legitimate cornerstone piece in Al Horford to go with their roster of solid role players. The New York Knicks are still a mess, but they’ve added some name recognition and have promise for the future in Kristaps Porzingis. The Philadelphia 76ers appeared to have some entertainment value this season, but foot surgery will reportedly keep Ben Simmons out for the 2016-2017 season. Still, there’s some hope for Philly fans if Joel Embiid turns things around. The Brooklyn Nets on the other hand are still a few years away from undoing their misdeeds. They will once again be one of the worst teams in the conference and will have to surrender their draft pick to the Boston Celtics via a pick swap. Which is less than ideal in a rebuild.

So let’s take a look at where these teams rank heading into the 2016-2017 season.

5. Brooklyn Nets

With the Philadelphia 76ers looking to start resembling an NBA team, the Brooklyn Nets appear as though they will wind up at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division. While the Nets have Brook Lopez, his ability to stay on the court is a major question. He also is one of the few assets of value that could help the Nets begin a legitimate rebuild.

The biggest pick-up for the Nets was acquiring Sean Marks as general manager during last season. Marks is a well-regarded basketball mind and will likely be aggressive in trying to turn this ship around. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a great young piece for them who will look to bounce back from an injury-shortened rookie campaign. While he is raw, he has the physical tools to be an impact defender and monster in transition. Their core will likely feature Lopez, Hollis-Jefferson, newly acquired Jeremy Lin, and Greivis Vasquez. They also have a few hail mary prospects that they hope will find success including former Cavaliers Anthony Bennett. While they may have more talent than the Sixers to start off the year, my suspicion is that this is the year they move away from Lopez and start looking towards the future.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

It didn’t take long for heartbreak to hit the Sixers. Ben Simmons suffering a Jones fracture is the last thing the struggling franchise needed. But there are plenty of new faces to keep the Philly fans interested this season..

Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Sergio Rodriguez will all be making their Sixers debuts this year. Embiid was considered by most to be the best player in the 2014 draft, before multiple injuries derailed his momentum and forced him to miss the first two seasons of his career. Saric is also an interesting prospect, one that will get much more time at the power forward position with Simmons out for the year.

What the Sixers will need to do is figure out what to do with their log-jam of big man talent. If Embiid finds a way to live up to his potential and stay healthy, that means they will need to make some tough decisions with Nerlens Noel, who is up for a contract extension, and Jahlil Okafor. The league knows they can’t keep all three, so they will likely be dealing from a position of weakness. The process may have been flawed, but it’s left the Sixers with a lot of future assets and interesting prospects. They just need to figure out what to do with them.

3. New York Knicks

As Derrick Rose said, the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors are the two superteams heading into next season. That statement doesn’t even come near being the worst thing to come out of Rose’s mouth this summer. While people used to complain that he didn’t talk enough, it’s clear now that he doesn’t have much positive to say and should probably spend less time talking.

But aside from Rose’s pending rape trial that will surely take up a lot of the conversation surrounding the Knicks (and rightfully so), there are some interesting developments happening in New York. While the Knicks may have been better off keeping Robin Lopez, who is likely a better and more reliable player that Joakim Noah at this point of his career, the addition of Courtney Lee is a big grab for the Knicks. Lee is a phenomenal and underrated three and D role player that will open up driving lanes for Rose and Jennings when paired alongside Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis.

The Knicks are gambling that former Bulls Rose and Noah can stay healthy and regain their form that’s been lost over the last couple years. A healthy Noah would be a meaningful development for the Knicks, as his passing, rebounding and rim protection would supply the team with easy looks and a strong presence in the middle. The reality is that the Eastern Conference as a whole has improved a lot over the last couple years. The Knicks have made some calculated gambles this summer and likely need at least two of Rose, Noah and Jennings to find their form again in order to have a real shot at the playoffs. Unless Anthony and Porzingis play at an All-Star level and will the team to the playoffs. But at the end of the day, these gambles feel high-risk with relatively little reward. The Knicks will be one of the more interesting teams to keep an eye on this season.

2. Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics are the trendy pick to be this years breakout team in the Eastern Conference and some believe that they will be able to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers. The addition of Al Horford is certainly notable, as it provides the team with a defensive presence in the middle as well as a hub for their offense.

Last season the Celtics ranked fourth in defensive efficiency, despite Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk seeing major minutes at the center position. It’s a testiment to the coaching of Brad Stevens, who had the team playing solid team defense and maximized all of their role players.

One of the weaknesses of the team was an inability to get their offense going when teams would take away Isaiah Thomas. Having multiple initiators to an offense is essential in the modern NBA and the team hopes Horford will be able to step into that role. Horford’s vision as a passer and ability to space the floor will likely have even more impact on the team that his defense. With that being said, teams have found a way to limit Horford’s effectiveness in past playoff appearances. While Stevens is great at coming up with ways to maximize players, Mike Budenholzer had done the same in Atlanta and it still wasn’t enough. I just don’t trust that the Celtics have a player that can consistently create shots when the defense is set and the game slows down in the playoffs. They will likely have a lot of regular season success, but I’m still skeptical. They will likely finish either in the two or three seed, but for now I’m going with the team that has proven more to this point in the Toronto Raptors.

1. Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors once again appear to be the best of the Atlantic Division. Last season the Raptors finished one game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference with 56 wins. There’s also reason to believe that they will be an even better team this season.

Jonas Valanciunas showed tremendous ability in the playoffs for the first two rounds and was likely their best player in those games. However an injury against the Miami Heat killed any momentum. He missed 22 games during the regular season last year and there’s hope that he can regain his playoff form and continue to improve as he is only 24 years old. The Raptors big signing last summer was DeMarre Carroll who also missed the bulk of the season due to injury. If both players can stay healthy it will reduce the load on DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and help the Raptors have a strong 2016-2017 campaign.

The other x-factors for the Raptors will be newly acquired Jared Sullinger, who stunningly will be a defensive improvement from Luis Scola and is hoping his recent weight loss will help turn his game around. They also have second year guard Norman Powell who played great filling in for Carroll as an athletic three and D wing. The mercurial Terrence Ross also will provide scoring off the bench alongside Cory Joseph and Pattrick Patterson. There’s an argument to be made that the Raptors have the deepest team in the NBA, especially if they are able to stay healthy. They managed to survive an injury-filled 2015-2016 season due to their depth and coaching, and are hoping to have an even better year this year.

Beyond health, the main question will be at the backup center position. Last year Bismack Biyombo played a key role for the team when Valanciunas missed time, but didn’t necessarily shine in his backup role. That position will likely be filled by committee, as 9th overall pick Jakob Poeltl, 22 year old rookie Pascal Siakam (who looks NBA ready), and Jared Sullinger will all see time at the center. With the depth of Toronto, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Masai Ujiri try and pull off a big move this season. But they are the most proven team in the division and I’m not ready to give the division to anybody else until I see them take it.

Team to watch

Carter Rodriguez (@Carter_Shade)

Though the Knicks are a tempting team to spotlight given the overhaul to the roster this summer, the biggest threat in the Atlantic to the Cavaliers are certainly the Boston Celtics. The Celts won 48 games last year, and added the second-best free agent on the market in Al Horford to shore up a center position that featured a little too much Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson at the five spot.

The Celtics also had the third overall pick of this draft thanks to some classic Brooklyn Nets ineptitude (SERIOUSLY, THEY HAVE THEIR NEXT TWO FIRSTS), and surprised most by taking Cal forward Jaylen Brown. Brown is a hyper-elite athlete, and should turn into a useful defensive player and finisher at the rim. His jumper is fairly broken, but if he finds a way to make it workable, his game projects better as a pro than it looked as a college player. Still, he is a raw rookie, so it’d be somewhat surprising if he were a major contributor this season.

The Celtics are a rugged defensive team, and unlike most elite teams on that end, their strength comes in how well they defend the perimeter. While Isaiah Thomas is a negative defender, the wing combination of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder are all high-end athletes that get into their opponents’ chests and use their quick hands to force turnovers. Despite not having a great rim protector, Boston still finished tied for fourth in the league in defensive rating last year.

On the offensive end, the Celts make up for a lack of great individual playmaking by getting a ton of runouts off of turnovers and shooting a decent amount of threes despite the fact that they don’t really have many good shooters. Having decent volume on those shots is often enough in the regular season, and that volume allowed them to have the 13th-best offense in the league last year, which probably goes beyond what their personnel would suggest. That showed up in the playoffs in the last two seasons as Boston really struggled to go punch for punch with the Cavaliers or the Hawks.

Horford, unfortunately, doesn’t really solve what the Celtics need for a deep playoff run. He’s not a great individual scorer, but he’ll fit nicely in with what the Celtics do. He’s a great passer, a capable shooter, and an alright post-up player on mismatches, but he’s certainly not a high-volume star. As we learned last year, teams need players like that once the opponent is game-planning for you and knows every set you run.

That doesn’t mean that Horford won’t help, as he’s a great teammate and despite what some think about the mid-to-late 2000s Hawks, a consistent winner. He’s a great culture fit on the team, but they’ll likely remain a superstar away from truly challenging the Cavs.

Player to Watch

Alex Raulli (@EVR1022)

I originally planned to write about Ben Simmons in this space. A No. 1 overall pick that many are comparing to LeBron James? Easily the most interesting player to discuss in a division that features the three weakest teams in the Eastern Conference. But when Simmons went down I had to find another direction.

Scouring the depth charts for Toronto, Boston, New York, Brooklyn and Philadelphia yielded few interesting storylines. Al Horford to the Celtics? Dario Saric coming over from Europe? Brook Lopez trying to fight off one of the worst team W-L records in history? None of these seemed overly compelling.

Then I stumbled upon a player I’ve long considered underappreciated. He’s played for six teams so far in his NBA career. Five of them had winning records. Twice he’s been traded midseason. Here are the records of each team, before and after the trades:

2013-14 Boston Celtics13-21, .382 with player12-36, .250 without player

2013-14 Memphis Grizzlies15-19, .441 without player35-13, .729 with player

2015-16 Memphis Grizzlies31-22, .585 with player11-18, .379 without player

2015-16 Charlotte Hornets27-26, .509 without player21-8, .724 with player

Have you guessed the player’s identity yet? It’s shooting guard Courtney Lee. This offseason he signed with the New York Knicks, his seventh NBA team. While some consider the Knicks to be a super-team, Vegas set their over/under at 38.5 wins. Can Lee help them earn a winning record for the first time since 2012-13?

It won’t be easy. In the last two years the Knicks have only had a winning record in one month: 2-1 in October 2015. The depth chart remains very thin. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are starting at the most important offensive and defensive positions.

But Lee, while never putting up flashy numbers, has proven to have a consistently positive impact on teams. His skill set fits seamlessly into any offense. He’s a very good jump shooter, and takes around 58 percent of his field goal attempts from outside 16 feet. He’s drained long twos at a better than 45 percent clip four years running. He’s made three-pointers at better than 37 percent seven of his eight years in the league, including four seasons above 40 percent. But he’s not just a jump shooter - he’s quite capable of attacking closeouts and is a career 63 percent finisher at the rim.

Defensively, Lee has long been known as a tough wing defender. He doesn’t pick up tons of steals, but he’s fundamentally sound and can guard multiple positions. Wing defense has been a problem for New York ever since a trade they made in January 2015. Lee should certainly help in this regard.

That said, it’s difficult to quantify Lee’s impact in any individual statistics. His numbers are solid, yet his impact seems to show up far more in the win column than in the box score. Jordan White of VICE Sports wrote this about him:

“Even though he's never averaged more than 12.5 points per game, Lee has been able to carve out a niche for himself as someone who can do a little bit of everything whenever the situation calls for it. There's a strange and subtle value to his game, and the ways in which he seals various cracks and crevices to make his team more whole can be fascinating to watch, when it's visible enough to see. When he's right, he seems to be in the right place at the right time, not just in sets, but during moments of chaos as well.”

I think this is a good description of what Lee brings to the table. So much of what he does on the court happens in the background, unnoticed by many fans. A smart cut here, denying the ball to a shooter there. He’s a true professional that works hard and does his job day in and day out. But he’s also capable of stepping into the spotlight when his team needs it, such as a game-sealing offensive rebound and a game-winning 3-pointer in consecutive playoff games last season.

While many other players put up numbers that seem more impressive on the surface, few players fill in the gaps around a star better better than Courtney Lee. On a team full of big personalities, he might be just what the Knicks need to make it all work.