To start the NBA season preview, one might as well begin with the most depressing division in the NBA, the remarkably mediocre Atlantic Division. The woeful Atlantic features a second tier playoff team in the East as its best club. Next come two over-extended and cash-strapped teams who would love to make the playoffs but likely won’t, followed by two teams who are probably not even trying to win.
The Toronto Raptors finished last season at the top of the division, and return this year as the clear favorite. Point guard Kyle Lowry signed a four-year contract to stay in Toronto for the foreseeable future, a move that allowed the Raptors to retain their best player without risking future salary cap disaster. Unless Lowry implodes like he did in Houston, it’s hard to imagine Toronto regretting that deal.
As strong as general manager Masai Ujiri’s offseason was, it probably won’t be enough to make Toronto even a fringe contender. Lowry is an excellent two-way player, but it’s hard to imagine him being the best player on a championship team. Meanwhile, the much-heralded Jonas Valanciunas has not become the superstar many envisioned. Valanciunas is a quality center who has most of the tools one would want at that position, but for Toronto to become a serious contender, Valanciunas must play at an all-star level, which is unlikely to happen.
Demar Derozan took a step forward last year after the departure of Rudy Gay, and Terrence Ross is still young enough to have theoretical upside, but it’s hard to find too many people on Toronto who can seriously change the long term outlook of this franchise. Toronto is the heavy favorite to win the Atlantic, but a first or second round playoff exit is almost inevitable.
Meanwhile, the Nets and Knicks, both huge market teams with the theoretical ability to lure free agents, ended up mortgaging their futures on expensive players well past their primes.
Fortunately for the Knicks, some of the worst pain is already behind them. The calamitous Amare Stoudemire contract will expire after this year, finally freeing up some cap space for New York to throw at appealing free agents, most notably Marc Gasol, the type of well-rounded player the Knicks generally avoid. Unfortunately, this upcoming season will be very tough to watch for Knicks fans. If rookie head coach Derek Fisher really intends to execute the triangle under the watchful eyes of President Phil Jackson, then he has an interesting roster with which to work. The decision to trade Tyson Chandler for Jose Calderon will probably go down as a smart decision. Calderon is one of the best shooters in the world, and should be a great fit in the triangle. Apart from that and the return of Carmelo Anthony, few things hint at a chance of a playoff season for the Knicks.
The Nets are probably better than the Knicks now, but have a much worse long term outlook. After trading a large haul of future first round picks to Boston for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Brooklyn lost Pierce to the Wizards, while KG was, on the whole, terrible last year. With Deron Williams and Joe Johnson each saddling Brooklyn with massive deals, it’s hard to imagine too much roster flexibility moving forward. The X-Factor for Brooklyn is Brook Lopez, a true star when healthy, even if that is rarely the case. Yet even with Lopez, new head coach Lionel Hollins probably isn’t imaginative enough to turn this dysfunctional roster into a winner.
At the bottom of the Atlantic are Boston and Philadelphia, two teams who to differing degrees are trying not to win basketball games.
Boston’s decision to grab Brooklyn’s draft picks last summer is looking better and better every day, even if the team seems unlikely to produce strong results in the short run. Despite the additions of draft picks Marcus Smart and James Young, there probably isn’t enough talent for the Celtics to go anywhere. The real question for Boston is how they will deal with Rajon Rondo. He has been part of miscellaneous trade rumors seemingly forever, yet he is still in Boston. The Celtics won’t get rid of him without receiving a serious haul in return, although if the current backcourt duo of Rondo and Smart ends up as awkward a pairing as it seems, Boston might find some extra motivation to make a deal. Either way, Boston’s performance won’t change the playoff outlook this season.
In the cellar of the Atlantic sits the most ridiculous team in the NBA. After one of the worst seasons ever, Philadelphia returns with an even less impressive roster. Philly traded Thaddeus Young, clearly their best player, to Minnesota for Miami’s heavily protected first round pick in the Kevin Love trade. Even though they will finally get to see Nerlens Noel play professionally, the 76ers spent their two lottery picks on Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, guys who won’t be able to contribute meaningfully for as long as two years. Obviously, a rough year is in store for Philadelphia. Yet for Sam Hinkie and the Wall Street brain trust that runs the 76ers, that’s just about alright for this season.