NBA 2014-15 Preview: Atlantic Division

It’s Zen time at the Garden, it’s Grit ‘N Grind time at Barclays, it’s winning time in Toronto, and it’s time to lose some more in Philly and Boston

Don’t forget to tune in to Place To Be Nation’s NBA-Team Podcast as Andrew Riche and Adam Murray break down every division for the upcoming season. Click here for the Atlantic Division preview.

Brooklyn Nets

BROOKLYN NETS (Last season: 44-38, 2nd in Atlantic, 6th in Conference)

IN: Jarrett Jack (trade), Sergey Karasev (trade), Bojan Bogdanovic, Jerome Jordan, Willie Reed, Alan Anderson (re-signed), Markel Brown (draft), Cory Jefferson (draft), Lionel Hollins (head coach)

OUT: Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, Marcus Thornton, Andray Blatche, Jason Collins, Jason Kidd (head coach)

Doesn’t it always feel like the Brooklyn Nets, since moving to the Barclays Center, are in some noticeable state of flux? After a first-round playoff exit in 2013, Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov bought in with a trade that brought in past-their-prime Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to go with Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson, mounting an insane $80 million luxury tax bill for a team coached by the just-retired Jason Kidd. Things looked bleak in the early going thanks to a season-ending injury to Lopez before Kidd’s team (and, in particular, Joe Johnson) got on a roll at the All Star break and reached the playoffs. They did one better by eliminating the Atlantic Division champion Toronto Raptors in the first round, but then got dispatched by the Miami Heat in the second round. The Nets had already put themselves in a bind by going so far over the salary cap that making any offseason moves without trade help was going to be close to impossible. So there went Pierce and Shaun Livingston, and they only got Jarrett Jack in exchange for Marcus Thornton.

Then the coaching musical chairs continued when Jason Kidd got a big head and decided to take an offer from the new owners in Milwaukee to coach the Bucks. What went on between Prokhorov, GM Billy King and Kidd is an untold story so far, but the departure led to the team’s fourth coach in three seasons, this time hiring Lionel Hollins, formerly of the Memphis Grizzlies. Hollins was renowned in Memphis for playing a sluggish, defensively minded style that focused on size and strength. The problem is that he does not have that type of makeup with this team, so it will be a tough adjustment at first. He does have some good young talent in Mirza Teletovic, All-Rookie first teamer Mason Plumlee, and Croatian import Bojan Bogdanovic, who impressed in the FIBA World Cup. Johnson’s turnaround last year was almost shocking given how he has been pegged as overpaid for so many years, so we will see how he handles being the team leader once again. The great fear is with Deron Williams, who has eroded almost as rapidly as Dwyane Wade has in Miami. His 16.1 PPG and 6.1 APG were his lowest stats since his rookie year, and he was non-existent at times in the playoffs. This might be Garnett’s last season, and although he has the fire, the body can’t match it anymore. The team is going to miss Livingston because he was, at times, a better point guard for Brooklyn than Williams was. I don’t know if Jack brings the same thing to the table. This would be a great time for Hollins to look to Lopez and Plumlee as primary bigs and mix and match the forwards. Good thing they brought back Andray Blatche. Wait, they didn’t? WELP!

PREDICTION: I don’t think Hollins was the main reason for Memphis’ success in the past few seasons, but his ability to institute an absolute style of play will be welcomed in Brooklyn. It won’t be an exciting team, but then again, they weren’t that fun to watch last year and still managed to get to the second round. This season, though, Toronto has made enough moves to stay ahead of Brooklyn while the Nets wait for some of their cap space to reappear in, oh, three more years. The Nets will be competitive, but expect growing pains as they try to get tougher. (2nd in Atlantic, 8th in Conference)

phil fisher
NEW YORK KNICKS (Last season: 37-45, 3rd in Atlantic, 9th in Conference)

IN: Carmelo Anthony (re-signed), Jose Calderon (trade), Samuel Dalembert (trade), Jason Smith, Orlando Sanchez, Langston Galloway, Cole Aldrich (re-signed), Shane Larkin (trade), Quincy Acy (trade), Travis Outlaw (trade), CleAnthony Early (draft), Thanasis Antetokounmpo (draft), Derek Fisher (head coach)

OUT: Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Jeremy Tyler, Metta World Peace, Lamar Odom, Kenyon Martin, Shannon Brown, Toure Murry, Mike Woodson (head coach)

It’s a new era at Madison Square Garden, even though the marquee name remains the same. After owner James Dolan hired 11-time NBA championship coach Phil Jackson to try his hand at being a team president in the spring, the writing was already on the wall for Mike Woodson’s team in the 2013-14 season. The worst thing Woodson did, seemingly, was have great success in New York in 2013 because it heightened expectations with a flawed roster that was already trying to fight up the neighboring Nets for attention. Carmelo Anthony had a great season, but the team was atrocious and Woodson was fired. Jackson was courting former player Steve Kerr to coach the team before he went off to Golden State, so he convinced Derek Fisher to retire as a player and teach the triangle offense in New York.

But the most important Zen move of all by Phil was convincing Anthony to re-sign with the Knicks in free agency after the Bulls, Rockets, and Lakers spent weeks wooing him to leave. The mind trick worked as Jackson convinced Anthony that sticking around for the finished product in New York down the road (with a beefier salary, mind you) would pay off. The hefty contracts of Andrea Bargnani and Amare Stoudemire are still in the way, but come 2015 and ’16, the Knicks will have lots of cap flexibility and a retooled roster. Anthony’s re-signing was coupled with what can only be described as a gutting of the roster. Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton are gone in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks. Jose Calderon is the new point guard while Fisher has to decide if starting Dalembert is a better move than running with Amare or Bargnani. Shane Larkin is a small but efficient point guard who got dumped in the Chandler/Felton deal, but I can see him playing a lot more here than he did in Dallas. I also think Fisher has something with the slasher combination of Iman Shumpert (a good defender) and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (who stood out as a rookie). I expect those two to play together most nights. And Lord knows what will happen with J.R. Smith.

PREDICTION: As topsy turvy as the last year has been throughout the organization, the Knicks finally have something to look forward to, even though the horizon is still not in sight just yet. If Fisher installs the triangle in Phil Jackson’s vision, expect Carmelo to play off the ball in the pinch post a lot in the same way that Jordan and Kobe did under Phil. How effective Melo will be as a distributor to open teammates is a whole ‘nother story. They don’t call him the Ball Stopper for nothing! I think Anthony’s stats will stay rich, just like his paychecks, and while there are some pieces in place, the team is not talented or cohesive enough to make the playoffs.(3rd in Atlantic, 10th in Conference)

TORONTO RAPTORS (Last season: 48-34, 1st in Atlantic, 3rd in Conference)

IN: Kyle Lowry (re-signed), Greivis Vasquez (re-signed), Lou Williams (trade), Patrick Patterson (re-signed), James Johnson, Lucas Nogueira, Jordan Hamilton, Will Cherry, Greg Steimsma, Bruno Cabaclo (draft)

OUT: John Salmons, Nando de Colo, Steve Novak, Dwight Buycks, Julyan Stone

There is a talent boom in the game of basketball coming from the fine country of Canada lately, so isn’t it fitting that the Toronto Raptors, a team that has merely had small pockets of success in its history, have finally become a perennial playoff team? The Raptors had a losing record in the 2013 season, but ended the season on a positive note that transferred over to last season. Masai Ujiri took over as GM and made a brilliant move by trading Rudy Gay for Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, and Greivis Vasquez, all of whom were great contributors and left more shot attempts for the rest of the team. Blame the malaise of the two New York basketball clubs and the evisceration of the Celtics and Sixers all you want, but Toronto took a major leap forward with a young and dynamic team that won the Atlantic Division title. Their youth and inexperience was exposed, however, in the first round of the playoffs as they lost a tight Game 7 at home to the Brooklyn Nets.

Many expected Kyle Lowry to leave Toronto as a free agent, like Chris Bosh had done in 2010, but the Heat could not convince Lowry to leave. With their star point guard re-signed for four more years, it is full speed ahead for winning ways at the Air Canada Centre. DeMar DeRozan made the All Star team and made great strides as the team’s top scorer, but he underwhelmed in the playoffs against the Nets, so he still has work to do. Jonas Valanciunas is a budding star, and he seemed to get even stronger during FIBA play. I expect him to average a double-double this season. But what really makes Dwayne Casey’s team go is its talent and depth. Terrence Ross is a great athlete and scored 51 points in a game last season. Vasquez is about as good of a back-up point guard as you can find in this league. Amir Johnson is a steady, reliable big man who keeps chugging along. I really liked the signings of Jordan Hamilton, a volume shooter, and James Johnson, an energetic power forward that will take some of the defensive pressure off of Valanciunas. Even their riskier pick-ups (rookies Bruno Capoclo and Lucas Nogueira, both from Brazil) were well-intentioned because they add even more athleticism. Their only notable subtractions were Salmons and Steve Novak, and they are easy to replace. This team seems ready to explode on the scene, and there is definitely wiggle room at the top of the East to pull that off if these young guns in Toronto have the wherewithal to do it.

PREDICTION: For the first time ever, the Toronto Raptors will be a playoff contender without the reliance of a bona fide star player like Bosh or Vince Carter. This is a much more dangerous Raptors team than those previous incarnations because they have advantages in many different spots from Lowry to DeRozan to Valanciunas. But Dwayne Casey has to do a better job of giving this team an identity. Like the Pacers in 2012, the Raptors were jacks of all trades but masters of none, and that cost them in the end because Casey did not have a system to rely on when the youngsters needed guidance. When Vogel shifted the focus to defense, the Pacers made a run. I wonder if Casey, a defensively minded assistant in the past, will focus on improving the defense and try to run teams out of the gym the way the Miami Heat did with the Big Three. I easily see Toronto winning this division, and I wouldn’t be stunned if we see them playing in the month of June. (1st in Atlantic, 2nd in Conference)


PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (Last season: 19-63, 5th in Atlantic, 14th in Conference)

IN: Nerlens Noel (draft), Joel Embiid (draft), Alexey Shved (trade), Luc Mbah a Moute (trade), Jason Richardson (injury), Pierre Jackson, Malcolm Lee, Jordan McRae (draft), K.J. McDaniels (draft), Jerami Grant (draft)

OUT: Thaddeus Young, Byron Mullens, James Anderson, Adonis Thomas, Lorenzo Brown

Let’s face it: It is tough to have a season as decrepit and eyesore-filled as the one that the Philadelphia 76ers had last season. After scorching the earth in 2013, the Sixers all but announced that they were tanking the regular season in hopes of making good with their two lottery picks (one of which they got from the New Orleans Pelicans when they shipped Jrue Holiday). The only fun last year came from Michael Carter-Williams winning Rookie of the Year and figuring out which team was going to be the one that the Sixers beat to snap their abominable 26-game losing streak in March (It was the Pistons). Things got even fishier when they traded away Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes, two of their best players, for change on the dollar. Head coach Brett Brown walked right into an abyss, it seemed. The team wound up winning less than 20 games, something only duplicated last season by the Milwaukee Bucks.

But alas, the tank continues. That groan you just heard was every Philadelphia 76ers fan at the end of the first round of the NBA Draft in June when the two players they picked were Joel Embiid, who has a broken foot, and Dario Saric, who won’t come over for at least another year. GM Sam Hinkle did do a good job of scooping up solid prospects in the second round like Jordan McRae, Jerami Grant, and K.J. McDaniels, and I bet you will see all of them playing this season. I thought McRae could have actually gotten starting time before he signed with an Australian club. As Embiid is on the mend, Nerlens Noel, who similarly sat out last year with a bad knee, will step in as the starting center. He looked great in summer league, so expect a big year from him because he will get tons of playing time. After that, cover your head for falling turds. Jason Richardson is washed up, top scorer Thaddeus Young was traded for Alexey Shved and Luc Mbah a Moute, and Tony Wroten and Henry Sims are bench players at best. I do think that Pierre Jackson, who ripped up the D-League last year, will have some notable scoring outbursts once he recovers from an Achilles injury.

PREDICTION: This team might actually be worse than last year’s, especially if Embiid sits out the whole year as expected. Michael Carter-Williams is now the main man on this team, but he definitely hit a rookie wall in the second half of the season and his shooting has to improve (40 % from 2 and 26% from 3 last year). The intrigue, once more, is in the future cards as we wonder what is to be when Embiid and Noel form a Twin Towers lineup and they get another high 2015 draft pick. Cover your eyes, Sixers fans. It’s not over yet. (5th in Atlantic, 14th in Conference)

stevens rondo
BOSTON CELTICS (Last season: 25-57, 4th in Atlantic, 12th in Conference)

IN: Avery Bradley (re-signed), Evan Turner, Tim Frazier, Will Bynum (trade), Marcus Thornton (trade), Erik Murphy (trade), Dwight Powell (draft), Tyler Zeller (trade), Marcus Smart (draft), James Young (draft)

OUT: Joel Anthony, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, Jerryd Bayless

The Boston Celtics’ situation is not exactly like the pit of misery that we continue stare into with the Philadelphia Sixers, but the mood has certainly changed from winning now under Doc Rivers to wait-and-see under Brad Stevens. Everyone was curious about how Stevens would handle his first try as an NBA head coach after having so much success in college at Butler, and I thought he fared okay given the circumstances. The team lost 57 games, but I didn’t think that the team tuned Stevens out and I also thought that there was a designed purpose to his game plans, playing from the inside out. Rajon Rondo came back from knee surgery and still looks like a premier point guard, but his contract expires next summer and there are already loud chirps that Rondo wants out of the rebuilding project. It didn’t help matters when Rondo broke his hand slipping in his shower right before preseason, putting him on the shelf for at least the first couple weeks of the season. The Celtics had already devised a back-up plan at point guard when they drafted Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma State, but how will Smart do in place of Rondo on opening week?

Avery Bradley was re-signed, and he plays much better off of Rondo, so it will be interesting to see how he eventually does bringing along Smart once Rondo is moved. All in all, though, Stevens’ and GM Danny Ainge’s team is about the same, with guys like Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Gerald Wallace and Kelly Olynyk all back in action. Vitor Faverani, a rookie center last season, will be out until Thanksgiving due to knee surgery. Green was the team’s leading scorer last season and is pretty reliable, and they got a boost on offense by picking up Marcus Thornton with a trade exception. Among the several pieces Boston received from Cleveland in the Keith Bogans trade, I think rookie power forward Dwight Powell might get some play in the rotation. Will Bynum is a steady provider, but that’s because he doesn’t provide very much outside of bench help. Evan Turner might make for a great sixth man because the Celtics do need players that are unafraid to take shots, despite Turner’s awful defensive skills. The defensive focus that Doc Rivers had once professed is still there under Stevens, but he just doesn’t have the horses.

PREDICTION: It is tough for Danny Ainge, a guy who has not been scared to shake his teams up in the past, and the Celtics fans to play a long waiting game with their next crop of talent after having so much success with Hall of Fame talent under Doc Rivers not even three seasons ago. But the reality of the situation is that Brad Stevens was hired to slowly bring the young talent along, just as he was used to doing in college. By consequence, this year’s Celtics team is not only dull and forgettable but underwhelming on the court. And it will only get worse when Rondo is eventually traded. I do think, however, that Stevens is too good of a coach to just watch it all burn the way it has happened in some, ahem, other places. (4th in Atlantic, 12th in Conference)