NBA Eastern Conference Preview (ATLANTIC DIVISION)

Kyle Lowry

2017-18 NBA PREVIEW

(ATLANTIC DIVISION PREVIEW)

In-Depth team analysis of the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, and Toronto Raptors. Eastern Conference Atlantic Division Preview.

 

BOSTON CELTICS

At 8:00pm Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday evening, when the 2017-2018 NBA season officially tipped off, there was as much excitement around the Boston Celtics since the team had the original “Big three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.

And less than one hour later, all of that excitement vanished, after a horrific fall

Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart

that led to an even more horrific injury to forward Gordon Hayward, one of Boston’s major off-season acquisitions this summer. Hayward reportedly suffered a fractured ankle, which will likely sideline him for the entire 2017-2018 season.

That means that the team’s starting lineup of Kyrie Irving (their other major off-season acquisition), Jaylen Brown, Hayward, Marcus Morris, and Al Horford — which was primed to end the reign of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference — played less than half of one quarter together.

So what does Boston do from here? They’re likely going to give more minutes to guard Marcus Smart, 2017 first-round pick Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier. That also means they’ll dig deeper into their bench, getting more minutes from guys like Guerschon Yabusele and maybe even rookie Semi Ojeleye.

But without Hayward, you could make the argument that this team is no better than the one that was quickly dismissed by the Cavaliers in last year’s playoffs. In fact, with the loss of guard Avery Bradley, they might have taken a step back defensively.

Boston still has plenty of talent, but they now have a lot more questions than they were originally expecting.

 

Projected Record: 52-30

 

TORONTO RAPTORS

 We know that the foundation of this team is still the duo of All-Star guards in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. After briefly testing out free agency this off-season, Lowry re-signed with the Raptors via a three-year, $100 million contract. One year after signing a max contract of his own, DeRozan had a career year that culminated in a All-NBA Third Team selection last year.

But after those two guys, this team has a lot of questions that still need to be answered. Serge Ibaka is no longer the elite rim-protector he once was, and he’s morphed into more of a “stretch-4”-type player at this point in his career. Toronto also sees him as their big man in a small-ball lineup as well. That would then make Jonas Valanciunas the odd man out; it’s no secret that Toronto would happily deal him if the right deal — which provides them relief from any potential luxury tax ramifications — were to come along.

C.J. Miles is currently listed as the team’s starting small forward, but we’re talking about a 30-year old player who’s previously spent time in the D-League. The team hopes first round pick OG Anunoby can quickly recover from the torn ACL he sustained last year, and take over the position. When healthy, Anunoby is explosive in space and quick-twitch defensively with the versatility to guard 1 through 4 in a pinch. But he still has a considerable amount of development needed at the pro level.

Projected Record: 48-34

 

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

 The fans of the Philadelphia 76ers have long been told about “The Process.” But now, with so much talent seemingly collected, it’s fair to say most of them are now waiting for “The Payoff”… or better yet, “The Playoffs.”

For the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers are being considered as a legitimate playoff contender. Despite all of the excitement, however, there’s still one catch: the Sixers’ key players can never seem to stay healthy for an entire season.

Their starting five is an absolutely tantalizing group: Markelle Fultz (the #1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft), J.J. Redick (whom they signed in free agency), Robert Covington, Ben Simmons (returning from a season-ending injury last year), and Joel Embiid (the recent recipient of a five-year, $148 million extension).

That lineup consists of three lottery picks, including the last two No. 1 overall picks. Simmons could be one of the best passers in the league right away, Fultz could be an elite scorer fairly quickly, and the Sixers had the best defensive rating in the league last year when Embiid was on the floor. Add to that the fact that they play in the East, where south of 40 wins might well get you in the playoffs, and you can understand the optimism surrounding this team both short and long term.

So, will this be the year Philadelphia steers clear of any injury concerns? If so, one of the league’s bottom feeders in recent years could ride a bevy of young studs to their first playoff appearance in over half a decade.

Projected Record: 38-44

 

NEW YORK KNICKS

 Perhaps the operative phrase for the New York Knicks should be “addition by subtraction.”

Yes, the Knicks did acquire players like Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott via trades, sign guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Michael Beasley to (perhaps eyebrow-raising) contracts, and draft promising point guard Frank Ntilikina in the 2017 NBA Draft.

But the best thing that the Knicks might have done this off-season is to finally close the book on Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson. There’s no longer the question of the Knicks trying to keep Anthony happy, and whether Jackson was forcing the team to run his beloved (if not antiquated) Triangle Offense.

But to make matters worse, not only were Anthony and Jackson starting to become toxic to this team individually, but the inability for the two of them to co-exist overall only compounded the toxicity there. They were constantly in the news, for all the wrong reasons. We may not realize it, but that really begins to wear on a team.

Even if all the new guys are nothing but short-term solutions for guys to play around superstar-in-the-making Kristaps Porzingis, it’s still a step in the right direction for a team that just seems to be rowing in place year after year.

Projected Record: 34-48

 

BROOKLYN NETS

For a team that’s been catastrophically hamstrung by perhaps the worst trade in NBA history, the Brooklyn Nets — under the stewardship of General Manager Sean Marks — have made a handful of shrewd moves that look to get them out of the NBA’s cellar.

Only one player who was on the roster when Marks arrived — forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — remains. A new coach, player development guru Kenny Atkinson, was hired. Three first-round picks have been acquired in trades, and a fourth was used to help acquire D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nets also sent forward Andrew Nicholson, who was acquired from the Washington Wizards along with a first-round pick in exchange for Bojan Bogdanovic in February, to the Portland Trail Blazers for guard Allen Crabbe, whom Marks has always coveted.

Trading for Crabbe falls in line with the strategy Marks has employed since arriving in Brooklyn: Using his team’s cap space and salary flexibility to bring aboard either talent or other team’s unwanted contracts with assets attached. Now Brooklyn has Russell, Caris LeVert (its first-round pick last season), Jarrett Allen (its first-round pick this season), and both a first- and a high second-round pick in 2018 the Nets acquired from the Toronto Raptors in exchange for taking on DeMarre Carroll and the two years and more than $30 million remaining on his contract.

That plan, for better or for worse, appears to have  put the Nets on a path toward respectability and stability in the ever-weakening Eastern Conference. Given where the franchise stood 17 months ago when Marks took over, that’s a position they’ll gladly accept.

Projected Record: 27-55

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