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NBA Atlantic Division Preview

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We start our 2015-16 previews with the Atlantic Division.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlantic Division was the worst in the NBA last season, featuring two of the three worst records in the league, as well as the only division winner that failed to reach the 50 win mark. It should once again be the weakest division in the upcoming season, without a team you can legitimately consider a contender even for the Conference title, while the 76ers are likely to once again be among the worst in the league, and things in Brooklyn and/or New York could fall apart in a hurry if things go wrong.

The teams in the division were busy this off-season, and some improvements were made both for the present and future, but a lot more work needs to be done by all five franchises in the Atlantic. Let's take a team-by-team look at what we can expect.

Toronto Raptors
2014-15: 49-33, 4th in East
Lost 0-4 in first round to the Wizards

Coach: Dwane Casey

Major losses: Amir Johnson (FA signed with Celtics), Lou Williams (FA signed with Lakers), Greivis Vasquez (traded to Bucks)

Key Additions: DeMarre Carroll (FA signing), Cory Joseph (FA signing), Bismack Biyombo (FA signing), Delon Wright (1st round draft choice).

There are, in broad terms, two ways to go when you are an NBA team without a superstar. One of them is the 76ers way. The other is to try to build the best team you can and try to keep pushing forward. The Raptors have emerged over the past couple of seasons as the (dreaded?) good team without a superstar. 48 and 49 wins over the last two years have led to division titles but also first round exits from the playoffs, including a humiliating 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Wizards in 2015.

Playoff disappointment notwithstanding, the Raptors have built an interesting team, but one with clear flaws. Last season, while their offense was 4th in the league, mostly led by their perimeter trio of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Lou Williams, their defense struggled to a 25th ranking. They responded to that by letting go of Williams and Greivis Vasquez, guards who have problems defending, and replacing them with wing DeMarre Carroll and guard Cory Joseph, free agents known in part for their defensive toughness.

Carroll cashed in on his tremendous season with the Hawks by signing a big deal with the Raptors, and will be counted on for both his defense and three point shooting, in addition to his underrated ability to pass the ball and provide a significant amount of the proverbial glue to the lineup. Joseph has championship experience with the Spurs, and has the added benefit of being a native of Toronto. He is slated to back up Lowry and add some bite to the 2nd unit.

Both of those guys should help, though the loss of starting power forward Amir Johnson hurts. Patrick Patterson, who shared time with Johnson over the last couple of seasons is still around, and the Raps signed veteran Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo to help fill that void.  But the only way the current iteration of the Raptors is going to move into the first tier of NBA teams is if center Jonas Valanciunas takes several steps forward into stardom.

Valanciunas is heading into his 4th year at 23 years old, meaning he will hit restricted free agency next summer unless the Raps sign him to an extension prior to the season. He has some nice looking numbers: top 10 in TRB%, TS% and EFG% last season, but it hasn't all come together yet to make him a dominant interior force. He failed to crack the top 30 centers in RPM in either of the last two seasons, mostly because, despite making a high percentage of shots, his offense still holds back the Raptors efficiency. This is mostly because he does not create shots for himself or others, which burdens the rest of the lineup.

Expectations: I expect the Raptors to capture another Atlantic Division title this season, given that there is minimal competition. I generally like the way their off-season has gone, and while I'm not sure we didn't already see the best season of DeMarre Carroll's career, he should help on both sides of the ball. As a result, marginal improvement would not be surprising, which might include a playoff series win, or even conceivably two. Realistically, unless Valanciunas surprisingly becomes a superstar level center, anything more than that is unlikely.

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Boston Celtics
2014-15: 40-42, 7th in East
Lost 0-4 in first round to the Cavaliers

Coach: Brad Stevens

Major Losses: Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green (mid-season trades), Gerald Wallace, Brandon Bass

Key Additions: Amir Johnson (FA signing), Jonas Jerebko (FA signing), David Lee (Trade with Warriors), Perry Jones (Trade with Thunder), Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter (1st round draft picks).

The Celtics made the playoffs last season almost accidentally, as they are clearly in rebuilding mode following the dismantling of their last championship group. This has included the acquisition of a ton of future draft picks, setting them up for a possible big influx of talent of the next three seasons. Meanwhile, they snuck into the playoffs thanks to surprising good play up front from guys like Tyler Zeller, Jared Sulinger, and Kelly Olynyk, and an inspired mid-season trade for Isaiah Thomas from the Suns.  Reasonable contributions from rookie Marcus Smart, and a terrific coaching job by Brad Stevens was enough to get them to the post-season in a terrible Eastern Conference.

While some would argue that making the playoffs is a bad thing in the long run, one of the nice things for the Celtics is that they don't have to rely on their own failures to be able to add talent in the draft over the next few years. They could be using the Nets first round picks in each of the next three drafts, in addition to several other potential first rounders. Meanwhile, they are developing a competitive culture under Stevens, who has emerged as one of the brightest young coaches in the league.

They have several guys on inexpensive contracts that should help them on the court or in trades, including Avery Bradley, Thomas, and Jae Crowder. Their lottery pick last season, Marcus Smart, showed flashes of his terrific defensive potential but will need to improve offensively.  The signing of Amir Johnson will help them on the defensive end, where they have had some problems in the paint.

They are likely to struggle offensively again, particularly with their long range shooting, a real weakness, and in shot creation from the wing, where they lack a dynamic offensive player. In other words, they don't have a star, either on the wing or inside, to serve as a centerpiece. Eventually they will find that player, but until they do, it will be a lot of mixing and matching to hold things together.

Expectations: It wouldn't be surprising if the Celtics take a bit of step back this season, or at least stay about where they were last year. They have a bunch of guys to sort through to determine who is going to be part of their core going forward, and Danny Ainge is still in asset acquisition mode, so it would not be a surprise to see nearly anyone on the team moved at some point before the trade deadline.

Still, you can really see the beginnings of good things here. Thomas, Bradley, and Smart make for an interesting and talented trio of guards. The guys they brought in--Johnson, Jae Crowder, will add some toughness and defensive presence, and they are stocked with relatively young pieces that could either emerge for them or be valuable to other teams around the league. It won't happen this year, but I have little doubt that the Celtics will be back among the league's better teams in fairly short order.

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Brooklyn Nets
2014-15: 38-44, 8th in East
Lost 2-4 in the first round to the Hawks

Coach: Lionel Hollins

Major losses: Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett (mid-season trade with Wolves)

Key Additions: Thaddeus Young (mid-season trade with Wolves), Andrea Bargnani (FA), Thomas Robinson (FA), Chris McCollough (1st round pick), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (1st round pick-trade with Blazers)

I like to think of NBA franchises occupying various spots along a continuum. One one end of that continuum is the franchise that has no interest in winning games, and in fact are actively trying not to win--the tanking team. At the other end is the franchise that cares about nothing but winning right now, and will sacrifice everything to achieve that goal. In reality, no franchises truly occupy either extreme (even the 76ers players and coaches try during games), but the Nets of recent vintage might be as close to the right end of that continuum as we've seen.

Trading recent and future picks for the likes of Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, and as a result going deep into the luxury tax, in an ultimately doomed attempt at making a championship run has left the Nets bereft of assets from which to rebuild going forward.

Given their lack of draft picks, they currently have little incentive to tank, and once again are spending well above the cap this season, having re-signed center Brook Lopez and forward Thad Young to sizable contracts. Joe Johnson remains on the team, with one season remaining on his monster deal that will pay him $25M.  Meanwhile, they continue to choose to bring in veterans to fill in their roster (Andrea Bargnani, Wayne Ellington, Thomas Robinson), instead of using those spots to audition younger players.

In short, it's a mess. They don't have the talent to make a serious run at anything, and they don't have either trade or draft assets that could help them turn things around in the short term.

They do appear to be entering into at least a partial tear down, having come to a buyout arrangement with Deron Williams, and presumably planning to let Joe Johnson walk at the end of his deal.

Expectations: Not many. They squeaked into the playoffs in the 8th seed last season due to the East's weakness, and I guess something similar is possible again this year, though with Jarrett Jack as the apparent point guard and Joe Johnson with another year of mileage, things remain in grave danger of completely falling apart. Given where things stand, I expect the Nets to continue to shuffle pieces and spend what money they can to try to stay afloat over the next few years. What they must do is stop trading draft picks for stop gap solutions if they expect to do better than tread water going forward. It's going to be a long few years in Brooklyn.

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Philadelphia 76ers
2014-15: 18-64, 14th in East

Coach: Brett Brown

Major Losses: Michael Carter-Williams (Mid-season trade).  K.J. McDaniels (mid-season trade)

Key Additions: Jahlil Okafor (1st round draft pick),

The "process" continues. It was another lost year for the 76ers, as their top draft pick from 2014, Joel Embiid, missed the entire season due to foot problems, and is slated to miss the upcoming year as well.  The 76ers cycled through a remarkable number of players last season (25 made at least one appearance), and once again did not hesitate to trade one of their headliners--Michael Carter-Williams--to the Bucks in a deal that netted them yet another draft pick.

The 76ers plan is to give themselves as many chances as possible to land a superstar via the draft. So far, it seems they haven't been able to do so, though their 2013 lottery pick, Nerlens Noel, finally made his debut this season and would have been a defensible rookie of the year choice, as he was already a strong presence defensively as a 20 year old rookie, though his offense, like the team's, was a huge mess.

Despite the constantly changing roster and limited talent, the 76ers admirably made an effort last season, and coach Brett Brown had them in the upper half of the league in defensive rating, a remarkable achievement. Their offense, however, was the worst unit in the NBA, and it's unlikely to get a lot better this year.

Expectations: Another season of tanking. What matters for the 76ers this year is the progress of Noel and rookie Jahlil Okafor, and this remains nothing resembling an NBA team put together to try to compete. They are young and somewhat talented in the front court (with the emphasis on young), but the perimeter features a mish-mash of players none of whom are likely to be on the next good Sixers team, whenever that happens.

Losing Embiid for another season is a rough blow, and his career now must be in question before he has even competed in one NBA game. Dario Saric remains in Europe after being chosen in the 2014 lottery. The Sixers appear once again ready to play for ping pong balls and hope things fall their way. In addition to their own pick, they have the rights to several other future picks as well, and their future largely hinges on the successful use of those picks.

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New York Knicks
2014-15: 17-65, 15th in East

Coach: Derek Fisher

Major Losses: Andrea Bargnani (FA), Tim Hardaway Jr. (Trade with Hawks), Amare Stoudemire (FA), Quincey Acy (FA), Alexey Shved (FA),  J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert (mid-season trade).

Key Additions: Arron Afflalo (FA signing), Robin Lopez (FA signing), Kyle O'Quinn (FA signing), Derrick Williams (FA signing), Kristaps Porzingis (1st round pick), Jerian Grant (1st round pick-trade with Hawks)

The Knicks knew that last season was not going to be a good one; they changed management (hiring Phil Jackson) and coaches (Derek Fisher), and were prepared to punt a season in order to get out from under mistakes like Amare Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. Thus, letting Carmelo Anthony sit out the 2nd half of the year with knee soreness made some sense for them, and they wound up with the 2nd worst record in the league.

The plan was to make a big splash in free agency and rebuild quickly around Anthony, who remains a lethal scorer but is not getting younger or healthier following the massive contract he signed in the summer of 2014. It didn't quite go to plan, as the cream of the free agent crop was not interested in the Knicks, and they wound up dropping to 4th in the lottery.

Still, they did a reasonable job with what they had to work with, adding Porzingis with their lottery pick--a player many are high on especially after showing his skills at Summer League, grabbing a potentially useful point guard (Jerian Grant) in a draft night trade that only cost them Tim Hardaway Jr. who struggled over his first couple of seasons in the league, and then going to work in free agency once the biggest names were gone. Robin Lopez is a starting quality center who will shore up what was a terrible defense last year, Arron Afflalo is a reasonable starter at the off-guard spot, and Kyle O'Quinn is a terrific cheap pick up for front court depth.

Expectations: They will be better, but not good. They still have gaping holes at point guard, where they will be relying on Grant, Langston Galloway, and Jose Calderon, power forward, where Porzingis will eventually play but likely needs time before he can help, and Derrick Williams was signed, and quality depth in most spots. In addition, Derek Fisher needs to show he can coach a team successfully, as last year was a disaster with the Knicks finishing in the bottom 3 in both offensive and defensive rating.

They are still short on talent, and will not have a 2016 pick (owed to Toronto). They will once again be looking to bolster their team through free agency next summer, but will face stiff competition to land the best players in a year when the salary cap in set to explode.

They did a reasonable job this summer, but it remains unlikely that they will be in a position to take advantage of whatever good seasons Carmelo Anthony has left, which makes the next couple of years awkward and potentially damaging to the future if they get too desperate to build around Melo before it's too late.

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