2015–16 NBA Preview: The Atlantic Division, A Galaxy of Broken and Flickering Dreams

The NBA’s Atlantic Division will be mostly hideous once again this year. Though two of the Atlantic’s five teams are trending in the right direction, one of those teams — New York Knicks — won 17 games last year, which makes it nearly impossible not to improve. The other upward-trending team is the Boston Celtics. We’ll get to them in a moment. First, let’s consider the idea that the Philadelphia 76ers may be the second team in NBA history (we can’t forget those expansion Vancouver Grizzlies) to win 18 games and not be expected to win 20 or more the following year. Not that Jahlil Okafor won’t be helpful, just that few other players on the team other than Nerlens Noel will be. But before we inspect the wreckage that is the Sixers roster, let’s start at the top:

1. Boston Celtics

Arrivals: David Lee, Amir Johnson, Perry Jones
Departures: Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Luigi Datome
Retained: Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko

Drafted: Terry Rozier (16th), R.J. Hunter (27th), Jordan Mickey (33rd)

2014-15: 40-42

Combine the win totals of our beloved Boston Celtics over the last two years (25 wins in 13–14; 40 wins last season) and you get 65 wins, one fewer victory than they recorded in that franchise-rejuvenating 2007–08 championship season. This year, if they can climb to 46, realistic Celtics fans should be happy.

The Celtics have 15 NBA-level players on their roster. Sadly, they have only one–5’9″ Isaiah Thomas–who might be considered a top scoring option. However, unlike many teams, the Celtics have four key ingredients, which, with good health, will enable them to win more games than they probably should:

  1. A roster full of defensive-minded, mentally tough, mostly unselfish teammates
  2. An analytically-inclined front office
  3. The Atlantic Division (12 of 82 games against the lowly Sixers, PG-less Nets, and confused Knicks)
  4. Coach Brad Stevens

This means the Celtics will once again be piecing together lineups based on match-ups, tossing up tons of analytically-minded shots (except for the range-less Evan Turner, and the strangely consistent Tyler Zeller), and playing physical defense, while pushing the pace whenever possible. With Amir Johnson on board, they now have an interior defender who can defend the pick-and-roll and the rim better than anyone they’ve had since Garnett was traded to Brooklyn.

The staff hopes 33rd pick Jordan Mickey can learn the screen-setting, pick-and-roll ropes from Amir. The Celtics are also hoping 27th pick R.J. Hunter can eventually stretch the floor and create spacing for Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart. Hunter has the savvy, length and court-vision to take on a bigger role in the coming years, if he is able to gain strength and defend both 2s and 3s.

This year, minutes will be hard to come by, with a glut of guards, a heap of small forwards, and one too many power forwards. Brad Stevens has been seen perusing Toys R’ Us hoping to find a pair of 12-sided dice to roll at random.

In crunch time (soon to be sponsored by Nestle, I’m sure) Celtics lineups are likely to include Isaiah Thomas and Amir Johnson.

The other three spots could go to any combination of:

  • In the frontcourt: David Lee, Tyler Zeller, Kelly Olynyk or Jared Sullinger (Sully is currently on the fringes of the 10-man rotation in preseason) alongside Amir. Of the three, Olynyk provides the best spacing and the worst defense. Zeller provides 15-footers, decent defense against the smaller centers and an ability to beat 7-footers down the court, and Lee provides passing, some post-play, and solid defensive rebounding. Sullinger appears to be the odd-duck out in a frontcourt that will only fit four on a given night. However, with a Lee injury or an Olynyk cold spell, Sully should get a solid look at some point.
  • Two of the following players at the wings: The Swedish Bird, aka Jonas Jerebko; the wonderfully dread-locked and eminently likable Jae Crowder; the versatile Evan Turner; the steady-but-unable-to-create Avery Bradley; the developing Marcus Smart, or the enticing R.J. Hunter.

Practice time might be more useful than actual games in the early going. The roster is very young, and with three more 1st rounders possible in 2016, getting younger unless a trade materializes. How the roster takes shape early could mean packaging some future picks and role players for a genuine scorer in the hopes of making a splash in the playoffs.

Isaiah Thomas is a fearless scorer, finishing at the rim more effectively than any 5’9″ guard should.

From Real GM’s Celtics preview, courtesy of the excellent Brett Koremenos,

“Over the course of the 21 games he played for the team, Thomas’ presence elevated the team’s offensive rating to 109.2 in the 545 minutes he was on the floor — a mark that would have been the third best in the league if it held up for an entire season.”

Though that mark illustrates just how effective and important Thomas was to the Celtics turnaround last year, it does come with two caveats: 1) the league had no game plan for this new version of the Celtics initially; 2) the average competition in that set of 21 games was especially weak on the defensive end. Still, the point is clear: Thomas transformed the offense. With IT initiating, the spacing that Stevens so emphasizes became possible.

Stevens has to build off the momentum of last year’s 24-12 finish. 44-47 wins is within reach if Amir and Lee can stay healthy, and if Smart and Hunter can progress quickly.

Also, RIP Gigi.

illustration via pianetabasket.com

Prediction: 46-36, 6th in East* (division champ not given top 4 seed anymore) 

2. Toronto Raptors

Arrivals: DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, Luke Ridnour
Departures: Amir Johnson, Lou Williams, Landry Fields*

Drafted: Delon Wright (20th)

2014-15: 49-33

Amir Johnson has been an analytics darling for a few years. He’s even started hitting three-pointers. The Celtics took advantage of his injury-depleted status and signed him to a two-year deal for a few reasons.

  • he sets great screens
  • he defends the rim with physical defense and arms that extend to find the ball more often than not
  • he takes whatever is given to him (even if it is re-gifted)

In other words, he’s really important in all the ways that obsessive fans love and playoff teams need.

Which brings us to the Toronto Raptors, a team that came unglued after the All-Star break last year. Toronto rode Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, with helpful contributions from Amir, Greivus Vasquez, and Lou Williams to a 25-8 start. A record that was greased by East opponents. As happens to many East teams, the record evens out after a few trips West.

Ultimately, Lowry’s creaky back acted up, Amir missed time, and the lack of defense came back to haunt the Raptors. Now they are missing their glue guy, but signed a different type of glue guy: DeMarre Carroll. Raptors announcers will now have to differentiate between DeMar and DeMarre.  Good thing DeMarcus Cousins is in Sacramento and DeMarco Murray plays a different sport. It’s all very demoralizing. Carroll was one of my favorite stories last year. Entering the season, few fans outside of Atlanta recognized the solid season Carroll put up in 2013-14. Under Coach Mike Budenholzer, every member of the Hawks was put in a position to succeed, with rapid ball movement and individualized player development turning Carroll into that essential component of a great team: the 3-and-D small forward. Carroll’s three-point percentage increased from 36.2 to 39.5. He parlayed that into a sweet contract with the Raptors. It will be interesting to see if Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas are able to come anywhere close to giving Carroll the looks that Atlanta’s offense was able to provide him.

Raptors starters: DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, and DeMar DeRozan. Apparently power forward is still being decided. (photo via Toronto Star, taken at Raptors Media Day 9/29/15)

Coach Dwayne Casey prays for center Jonas Valanciunas to make the leap from awful defender to tolerable defender, and prays for health from his primary everything, Sir Lowry. With the Celtics, Magic and Knicks all slightly better this year, the easy wins will be harder to find outside of Philadelphia.Bismack Biyombo has elite shot-blocking skills, but has yet to prove he’s ready for more than spot minutes. If Biyombo can set screens and catch lobs, that would help fill the whole Amir Johnson leaves behind. Cory Joseph is in to replace the wily Grievis Vasquez. Joseph has higher upside, but is less of a shooter than Vasquez. Luke Ridnour, apparently, will be in the league for one more year in case catastrophic injuries hit, though one has to wonder if the D-League would offer a better option in that case.

Prediction: 45-37, 7th in East

3. New York Knicks

Someone has to finish third in the Atlantic, so let’s say the Knicks will. Phil Jackson acquired actual NBA players to fill some of the many gaps that existed on last year’s Knicks roster.

Arrivals: Arron Afflalo, Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn, Derrick Williams, Lance Thomas
Departures: Tim Hardaway Jr., Jason Smith, Andrea Bargnani*

Drafted: Kristaps Porzingis (4th)

2014-15: 17-65

The 4th overall pick in the NBA Draft was Kristaps Porzingis. Poor Zingis, no more! The Latvian sensation will be making $4.1m in his rookie season, which is almost enough money to buy a condominium in Park Slope. Porzingis will either become a poor man’s Dirk, or perhaps a rich man’s Radmanovic. Either way, Knicks fans will prefer him to Bargnani the Terrible, who somehow received an offer (veteran’s minimum) from the Bushwick Nets.

Kristaps Porzingis throws out the first pitch at Citi Field. He may be called upon as a reliever in the NLCS. (photo via NY Post)

Phil says that Robin Lopez allows Carmelo to play PF, though Carmelo defending actual 4s would be ugly. RoLo’s energy may not be sustainable for more than one more year.

Depth charts currently list Derrick Williams ahead of Kristaps at PF. Derrick Williams is not Derrick Coleman. Kyle O’Quinn Medicine Woman will be backing up both lottery mistakes. Kristaps should see more minutes as the season wears on and there is little left to lose.

Jose Calderon continues to imitate a decent bottle of red wine. He’s aging without a problem, but nobody seemed to notice him to begin with. Afflalo is a solid shooting guard if healthy, though he is a questionable choice for a team that doesn’t have enough youth.

Now that the Knicks have actual players, does this mean Derek Fisher actually has to coach, instead of just stand there with his arms crossed with that stoic expression?

Also…Carmelo’s knee.

Prediction: 30-52, 12th in East

4. Brooklyn Nets

Arrivals: Thomas Robinson, Steve Blake, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington, Willie Green, Andrea Bargnani
Departures: Mason Plumlee, Deron Williams
Retained: Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young

Drafted: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23rd), Chris McCullough (29th)

2014-15: 38-44

The Brooklyn Nets are a sinking ship, sinking into the East River. The Brooklyn Nets are a playground hoop without a net…or even a chain…in Bed-Sty. The Brooklyn Nets are without a starting point guard, though they will call Jarrett Jack their point guard, and Barry Shane Larkin they’re back-up point man. After trading for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, fans envisioned at least one deep playoff run. Instead, they got a second round dispatching by the Miami Heat in five games after squeaking out a series win over Toronto. Then they received six games of playoff basketball against Atlanta. Those may be the last playoff games the Nets see for a few years.

Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, and Joe Johnson remain (for now) on a rudderless vessel. The ancient wisdom of Garnett has been returned to the Minnesota hinterlands, where he will teach the young pups interior defense, while Pierce has followed Doc back to his own childhood home, giving the Clippers another boost. The point guard once known as Deron Williams is in dysfunctional Dallas, where Nowitzki plays on his very last leg. I have a Mavs-fan friend who has named his fantasy team “Fuck DeAndre.” Enough said about Dallas’ situation.

Who surrounds Coach Lionel Hollins, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson?

Coach Hollins, center Brook Lopez and forward Joe Johnson wait patiently to find out who their teammates will be. (photo via Getty Images, as you can see)

Thaddeus Young and lots of question marks. Let’s leave it at that. The Brooklyn Nets? At least Bojan Bogdanovic isn’t afraid to shoot.

Celtics fans will be watching the lottery in May. They own Brooklyn’s pick (2016, as well as pick-swap rights in 2017, and the Nets pick in 2018) thanks to that KG/Pierce trade.

Prediction: 25-57, 14th in East (and a mid-season trade of Joe Johnson for a draft pick)

5. Philadelphia Gysies (76ers)

Arrivals: Sauce Castillo (originally Nik Stauskas), Carl Landry, Jason Thompson
Departures: Thomas Robinson, Jason Richardson*

2014-15: 18-64

In August of 2013, newly signed Sixers coach Brett Brown told Jason Wolf of USA Today:

“I was not going to take the job without the four years (guaranteed),” Brown said about his contract. “And I am extremely grateful to the owners where they took a step back, and I think it’s a tremendous reflection of what they truly think too. It’s going to take time. They really do have a tolerance. There is a patience. And as much as it was security for myself, I felt like they made a statement to the marketplace that they’re for real.”

Two years into that contract, the Sixers have rostered 48 players, many of whom the casual NBA fan has never heard of.

Meet the Philadelphia Gypsies backup small forward, Jakarr Sampson. (photo via USA Today, 9/29/15)

The Philadelphia Gypsies will play this season without the injured Joel Embiid (still looking for a Podiatrist he can trust) or Turkish League-delight Dario Saric.

Rhetorical Question: Would you want to keep coaching in the NBA if it meant you never got to see the time and energy you put into developing young players, building trust and a team culture turn into anything?

The Sam Hinkie build-a-bunker-Cold-War experiment goes on…

You wanted to coach in the NBA, Brett Brown? You were tired of being one of 20 assistants in San Antonio? Tired of the Australian League memories? Well here you go, Brett! Take this team of nameless, faceless nomads and try winning 20 games. We’ll tempt you with visions of high lottery picks that never actually play in a game.

At this point, Brett Brown is playing the role of Mr. Holland, without hope of an Opus. Just an unending wave of sadness and empty seats. What a patient man. What a devil that Hinkie is. Despite being the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia is notoriously cruel to its athletes. It’s only fitting the Gypsies play there.

Good luck, JaKarr. One injury to Sir Robert Covington and you’ll be an NBA starter.

Prediction: 16-66, 15th in East, and a copy of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.


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