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Poised To Breakout: Atlantic Division

Ben Nadeau identifies the six breakout candidates to keep an eye on in the Atlantic Division during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Benny Nadeau

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The biggest free agents have signed, summer leagues have concluded and the NBA landscape has suddenly found itself in the doldrums of August. With far too much time before training camps kick off, Basketball Insiders has been taking a closer look at the divisional hierarchy each week.

First, we tackled the rankings. Then, the best new deals from each division got some shine. Now, next in the series, we’ll take a look at those poised to breakout in 2017-18. In the Atlantic Division, much of the mystery over who will lead the division is gone – hello, Gordon Hayward – but there’s still plenty to be unearthed up in the Northeast. This time, the spotlight is on the players, coaches and executives that could improve their league-wide standing due to their potential impact within the division.

Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics

The hype train for sophomore Jaylen Brown has well and fully left the station. After fearlessly taking on LeBron James last year, Brown played a pivotal role for a Boston Celtics team that stole away the No. 1 seed from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brown’s explosive first step and ability to catch fire from deep makes him a candidate to breakout in 2017-18, particularly so after his perceived growth this summer.

During his two games in the Utah Summer League, Brown averaged 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds and later remarked that he was using the competitions to prove that he’s ready to contribute when the wins and losses start counting for real this fall. Even better, Brown has proven to be an athletically gifted game-changer even when his jumper isn’t falling. From win-clinching blocks to strong rebounding efforts, there are plenty of ways Brown can pitch in while the team’s All-Stars handle the scoring load.

Of course, there are minutes to be had in Boston’s rotation following the departure of Avery Bradley, and Brown may already be the best-suited option to handle them. Still, Brown is just 20 years old and incredibly raw, all things considered, but the flashes of brilliance are absolutely already shining through. If he can capitalize on the available opportunities while playing alongside Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, Brown may just force himself into the starting lineup on a permanent basis.

D’Angelo Russell – Brooklyn Nets

This one seems like an absolute no-brainer as the Brooklyn Nets’ summer move for D’Angelo Russell was a win for all parties involved. Russell gets a fresh start with a franchise that figures to remain on the outside of the playoff hunt in 2017-18, even in the weak Eastern Conference. Without the bright California spotlight on him, Russell should have plenty of chances to bloom with the Nets. He’ll share the backcourt with Jeremy Lin and the dynamic, interchangeable pair will give opposing teams trouble when they’re connecting from three-point land.

Even with his alleged growing pains and off-the-court issues, Russell still averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists on 40.5 percent shooting during his sophomore campaign. Perhaps Nets general manager Sean Marks was compelled to trade away franchise centerpiece Brook Lopez for Russell simply to stop the guard from lighting up his team every time they played the Lakers. Over four career games against the Nets, Russell has tallied 24.5 points per contest – including the now-famous I’ve-got-ice-in-my-veins effort of 39 points on 8-for-12 from deep late in his rookie season.

With low expectations and the team built around him, Russell should have his finest season yet in Brooklyn.

Willy Hernangomez – New York Knicks

In the wake of Kristaps Porzingis’ sophomore year emergence and the debacle that can only be described as Joakim Noah’s first season in New York, Willy Hernangomez, by and large, flew under the radar. Hernangomez stepped into the starting lineup following Noah’s injury in early February and impressed during his limited time on the court. Notching 8.2 points and seven rebounds in just 18.4 minutes per contest, his second half growth led to an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection.

While everybody waits to see how the Carmelo Anthony situation resolves itself, the Knicks should be pleased with the 1-2 punch in their frontcourt. Assuming that Hernangomez has permanently leapfrogged Noah, even if the latter is finally healthy in 2017-18, the Spanish center will almost certainly bust out this season. Per 36 minutes, the 6-foot-11 big man pulled down 13.6 rebounds to go along with a solid 16 points on a superb 52.9 percent from the floor. With New York’s dearth of talent down low outside of the budding Latvian superstar, Hernangomez should easily build on his unexpected rookie season successes.

Brett Brown – Philadelphia 76ers

Since becoming the Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach in 2013, Brett Brown’s all-time record is less than stellar at 75-253 – good for a winning percentage of just 22.9. Yet, it would be impossible to pin many of those losses on the savvy Brown as he lived through the roughest years of former general manager Sam Hinkie’s much-maligned process. Between the constant stream of injuries and the borderline intentional tanking, Brown hasn’t gotten a truly fair shake at this head coaching gig quite yet. As one of the league’s best motivators, Brown, health permitting, has a massive opportunity to cash in on the 76ers’ patience.

Claiming an injury-free season for the 76ers at this point would be bold, but if that dynamic young core – starring Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid – can stay healthy, then Brown’s image will skyrocket. The wheels fell off in 2016-17 when Embiid’s season ended early, but it was Brown that had molded a pretty average roster into a darkhorse playoff contender, albeit however brief. Now that Brown has plenty of fancy toys to experiment with at every position, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the 76ers’ leader on the shortlist for Coach of the Year next season. While the raw, athletic talent of this Philadelphia core is undoubtedly electric, they’re still going to need a wise tactician to put it all together and get these youngsters into positions they can succeed in.

Through three seasons, Brown has already done so much with so little. Let’s see what he can do with a strong, healthy roster in 2017-18.

Allen Crabbe – Brooklyn Nets

One year after their initial pursuit, the Nets got their man. After handing over an offer sheet worth $75 million to Allen Crabbe last summer, Brooklyn acquired the sharpshooter for next-to-nothing in late July. In 2016-17, the Nets tossed up the fourth-most three-point attempts per game at 31.6, but, sadly, converted on just 33.8 percent of them – good for the 26th-worst mark in the entire league. So, despite his bloated contract, Crabbe represents a near perfect fit for the growing Nets.

Never quite able to get out from under the superstar shadows of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Crabbe has the opportunity to shine in the Nets’ run-and-gun system. He’ll likely start in Brooklyn at small forward, alongside the aforementioned Lin and Russell, bringing his 44.4 percent rate from three-point range with him. This Nets team clearly loves to shoot the ball from deep and they desperately needed a deadeye shooter like Crabbe to make opposing defenses pay. Thanks to the sheer volume of attempts he’ll grab under head coach Kenny Atkinson, that immaculate second-best three-point percentage (Kyle Korver, 45) will likely fall in 2017-18, but Crabbe could quickly become one of the Nets’ top contributors.

Scott Perry – New York Knicks

For now, a total meltdown in New York has been quelled thanks to the hiring of new general manager Scott Perry. To say the least, it’s been a hectic summer for the Knicks despite being largely uninvolved in the proceedings. Former executive Phil Jackson nearly dealt away Porzingis during the NBA Draft and once he was dismissed, the remainder of the front office opted to give Tim Hardaway Jr. an untouchable $71 million to go with the albatross deals given to both Noah and Courtney Lee last summer.

After successful stints with the Detroit Pistons, Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic, Perry is a fantastic candidate to clean up the mess at Madison Square Garden. Honestly, Perry has a chance to start off extremely well with the Knickerbocker-diehards by just playing things safe. Holding onto Porzingis is an excellent first step, but if he can get relatively fair value for Anthony, Perry will be hailed in New York almost immediately.

If front offices have learned anything lately, it may be that there are no shortcuts to success in this current NBA landscape. Undoubtedly, there’s plenty of work to be done, but time is on the Knicks’ side. So, if Perry doesn’t look for a get-rich-quick bailout plan in New York, he’s almost guaranteed to break out, especially in comparison to the former job holder.

Although the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors will likely remain atop of the Atlantic Division, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of compelling storylines to look out for in 2017-18. From bloated contracts to new opportunities, Brown, Russell, Hernangomez and Crabbe can all make this upcoming season their best respective full effort yet. After years of what seemed like limitless losing, Brown finally gets to prove his worth as an NBA head coach, while Perry enters a critical period in the Knicks’ franchise timeline.

On and off the court, this group of six players, coaches and executives are ready to break out in a big way in the Atlantic Division during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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