Several teams trying to get over the hump in the NBA Atlantic division in 2016-17.
Projected Order of Finish
1. Boston Celtics
The Celtics made one of the biggest free agent signings this offseason, signing Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million contract. Horford fills an area of need and should slot in nicely as the team’s starting center. This team thrives on aggression and chemistry, a culture Horford should fit in perfectly. Brad Stevens, one of the best all-around coaches in the NBA, has the task of taking a deep, young roster that lacks top level star power to the next level. Horford brings intelligence, defense and veteran leadership, but he doesn’t address the team’s shaky three-point shooting (and neither do any of Boston’s other acquisitions this offseason). While I like the composition of this roster, I think it’s safe to assume that general manager Danny Ainge will continue looking for potential deals for another star up until the trade deadline. If he can turn his treasure chest of assets into a high-end contributor, the Celtics could become the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
2. Toronto Raptors
The biggest move for the Raptors this offseason was re-signing DeMar DeRozan to a five-year, $137.5 million deal. Keeping DeRozan means the Raptors can continue to work off of their dynamic duo in Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. The Raptors also have pretty good talent at just about every other position, but they’ll need a breakout year from someone like Jonas Valanciunas to have top-end talent on par with the elite teams in the league. Getting a healthy season from DeMarre Carroll could definitely help with that as well. Also, look for Norman Powell to build off of his solid rookie campaign and to be a significant part of the Raptors’ success. After years of having the same general core in place, the Raptors’ greatest strength may be their chemistry. However, it’s still not clear that this team can get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.
3. New York Knicks
Good for Derrick Rose, believing with all his heart that the Knicks are a “super team” on par with the Golden State Warriors, but that’s not the way the rest of the world sees it – not even with the additions of Rose, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee. However, it is more than fair to expect a drastically improved Knicks team, even if some of these new players can only give the team 60 healthy games a year. Noah looked like an also-ran a season ago, but that was more a result of the fire in his belly snuffing out than anything else. If he’s even remotely healthy, his chest-thumping, antagonistic style of play will help rejuvenate this squad (and the Madison Square Garden faithful) more than anything else. Rose should be super motivated to explode in a contract year, the undefendable Kristaps Porzingis will be another year along in his development and there’s little reason to believe Carmelo Anthony can’t still pour in 20+ points per game. They’re better than they were, but they’re still not a serious title contender.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers are headed for another sub .400 campaign, but let’s be clear unlike the past few seasons there is plenty of talent in Philadelphia these days. The team’s youth movement in the frontcourt will be their strength with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric all competing for minutes in the nightly rotation. This will create somewhat of a logjam, but it’s a good problem to have for the previously talent starved Sixers. However the team’s overall success could hinge on how much production they can realistically count on from its backcourt. The team signed veteran guards Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez for stability over the summer and all three will have the chance to challenge for 20-plus minutes per night. While the playoffs are still a very far cry away for the Sixers, the talent level is enough for them to move up in the Atlantic Division. Not sexy, we know, but definitely progress.
5. Brooklyn Nets
From the front office all the way down to the locker room, the Brooklyn Nets have plenty of work to do and a long way to go to before becoming relevant in the win column again. Brooklyn has new leadership at the executive level (Sean Marks) and roaming the sidelines (Kenny Atkinson), but the scars from the franchise mortgaging their future in a failed title run a couple years ago are evident. Marks attempted to infuse the team with much needed young talent this summer by signing guards Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe to offer sheets. But those deals were matched by Miami and Portland, respectively, and left Brooklyn scrambling. There isn’t a quick fix to get Brooklyn back in contention for the Atlantic Division crown. This is going to be a painstakingly long rebuilding effort, if it’s done right. Be prepared Nets fans – for plenty of losing until the ship is righted. In the end, I’m not sure that Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez will be able to get anything of substance accomplished in Brooklyn this season