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Ranking The NBA’s Atlantic Division

The Celtics and Raptors will lead again, but how will the rest of the Atlantic division shake out?

Benny Nadeau

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While many of the Eastern Conference’s All-Stars headed westward this summer, the Atlantic Division continued its rise as one of the most top-heavy groups league-wide. The Boston Celtics, who shocked the country by beating out the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed, added the crown jewel of free agency in Gordon Hayward, all but cementing another year as division champions. Elsewhere, the perennially solid Toronto Raptors managed to lock down Kyle Lowry to the frustration of a few Western Conference powerhouses – but, after that, the remainder of the division gets a bit murkier.

While the Celtics and Raptors will hope they’re now just a few steps closer to taking down LeBron James and the Cavaliers, the most intriguing storylines are those surrounding the other three franchises: The Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. As of now, here’s where things stand in the Atlantic Division through two and a half weeks of free agency (teams’ 2016-17 record is listed beside their name).

Boston Celtics — 53-29

Unsurprisingly, the Celtics will reprise their role as the division front-runners once again. Last year’s gritty, well-oiled machine has reunited head coach Brad Stevens with Hayward, which is a near-guaranteed recipe for success. The crafty Isaiah Thomas is coming off a fifth-place finish in the stacked MVP race and Al Horford, 2016’s key free agent signing, is still taking care of business down low in the paint. Even better, the Celtics locked up their small forward of the future without sacrificing too much of the strong core that led them to 53 wins in 2016-17.

Of course, the Celtics will have to adjust to life without long-time stalwart Avery Bradley protecting Thomas in the backcourt – but they’re hopeful that Marcus Smart is ready to step into a larger role this fall. There will be some anticipated growing pains as the Celtics navigate a starting lineup that’ll likely include the defensively-deficient Thomas and the offensively-raw Smart side-by-side, but the addition of Hayward should help quell those worries quickly.

The Celtics no longer employ the Game 7 heroics of Kelly Olynyk, swayed by the big money offer from Miami, and the likes of Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller have all been moved on as well. Thankfully, Jaylen Brown is a year older, Marcus Morris should be a reasonable replacement for Olynyk and… oh, Jayson Tatum is here too, fresh off a dominant week at summer league.

All in all, the Celtics won’t miss a beat and should contend for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference again.

Projected Wins: 53-60

Toronto Raptors — 51-31

While the Celtics’ roster changes were grand in nature, the Raptors remained favorites for a high seed by simply keeping their featured core together. Serge Ibaka, who was acquired near the trade deadline last winter, has committed his future to the Canadian powerhouse alongside Jonas Valanciunas and All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. While the invaluable Patrick Patterson left for Oklahoma City, Toronto replaced him with the underrated C.J. Miles, a sharpshooter that knocked down 41.3 percent of his three-point attempts last year. Additionally, the Raptors parted with their 2018 first- and second-round draft picks in order to move DeMarre Carroll’s large contract to the Nets further down the divisional ladder.

Unfortunately for the Raptors, they’ve fallen in the playoffs to the Cavaliers in back-to-back seasons and this year will likely bring more of the same. While Toronto should be praised for not blowing it up in the weaker-than-ever Eastern Conference, they still suffer from many of the same fatal flaws. If the Raptors are to take the next step, they’ll need improvements from their stockpile of prospects, including Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell. For now, it seems as if the Raptors are a lock for a top four seed, but they still don’t have enough to hang with the conference giants in both Cleveland and Boston.

Projected Wins: 49-55

Philadelphia 76ers — 28-54

This, as all good 76ers predictions go, obviously depend on the core’s health over the 82-game slog. Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz create an immensely exciting future for Philadelphia, but the league is still waiting for them to string together a full season. Last season, the 76ers were making a legitimate run for the conference’s final postseason seed before the injured Embiid missed the final 37 games of his fantastic rookie year. Additionally, Simmons missed the entire season after suffering a fractured foot in training camp – so, suffice it to say, health is Philadelphia’s key indicator of success.

In hopes of avoiding immense pressure on their youngsters once more, the 76ers signed J.J. Redick, the best available shooting guard on the market, to a loaded one-year deal. While Redick likely isn’t a long-term piece for the up-and-comers, he’ll be a consistent threat to catch fire if the opposition dares to double team the rest of their playmaking, positionless starters. Outside of the headlining names, Richaun Holmes and T.J. McConnell will look to improve on their unexpectedly impressive 2016-17 seasons, while Furkan Korkmaz, the No. 26 overall pick in last year’s draft, will join the team after staying overseas in Turkey.

The sky’s clearly the limit for Philadelphia, but before everybody gets ahead of themselves, it’d be wise to let the talented, young core prove it first.

Projected Wins: 39-45

Brooklyn Nets — 20-62

After the Nets’ first universally-praised offseason in years, they’re poised to take a step forward in their grueling rebuild for the final time. Understandably, the Nets finally dealt Brook Lopez – the franchise’s newly-minted all-time leader in points – and must surrender one more unprotected selection to Boston in 2018 before their Paul Pierce-sized penance is completed. Still, there’s reason to believe that the Nets will improve on their NBA-worst record in 2016-17, particularly so in a conference that is now much weaker.

As always, the Nets have nothing to gain from tanking, so let’s start there. On top of that, the team started gelling after Jeremy Lin returned from a combined 44-game absence and the Nets finished the season at a much more respectable 11-15 clip. Now, Lin may still be off the mark with his recent playoff-bound prediction, but with the star-in-waiting D’Angelo Russell sharing the backcourt, they should make a formidable duo in the Eastern Conference. Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Isaiah Whitehead and rookie Jarrett Allen round out the rest of the Nets’ raw, athletic building blocks, all looking to grow further under second-year head coach Kenny Atkinson.

Of course, their three-point shooting is an issue (4th-most attempts, 26th-worst percentage last year) and the defense is still porous, but make no mistake: The Nets will grind out some victories and cannot benefit from losing – that should be enough to surpass the division’s final team currently in freefall.

Projected Wins: 25-35

New York Knicks — 31-51

First and foremost, this comes with the disclaimer that Carmelo Anthony appears less and less likely to begin the season as a Knickerbocker every day. Should he depart for pennies on the dollar, these Knicks will have trouble with just about everything in 2017-18. While Kristaps Porzingis is most certainly a budding superstar, they’ll still be crippled by the massive contracts given to Joakim Noah (46 games, shoulder surgery) and Courtney Lee, both of whom have three years and about $92 million left on the books. Even after they flirted with trading Porzingis before the draft and then parted ways with Phil Jackson, the Knicks still doubled down and signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year deal worth $71 million.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as New York has successfully carved out a collection of prospects from very little over the past year. In fact, Willy Hernangomez was selected to the All-Rookie First Team last month, Ron Baker parlayed a sufficient rookie season into a guaranteed contract and the Knicks drafted French sensation Frank Ntilikina with the No. 8 overall selection in June’s draft. The point guard’s adjustment to the bigger and faster NBA won’t be easy, but Ntilikina and Porzingis could be a solid jumping off point for a franchise that’s starving for more success.

In the end, if Anthony leaves town and the wheels fall off early at Madison Square Garden, there will be a handful of good reasons for the Knicks to pull the plug, tank and add another important piece to their growing puzzle.

Projected Wins: 25-35

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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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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