Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the most pressing training camp questions in the Northwest, Southwest, Central, Pacific, Southeast divisions as the 2014-15 NBA season approaches. Today we tackle the Atlantic Division:
Will Rajon Rondo still be a member of the Celtics after February’s trade deadline?
Due primarily to the injury bug that has bitten him, we tend to forget just how good of a point guard Rajon Rondo really is. During both the 2011-12 and 2012-13 season, Rondo led the NBA in assists average (11.7 and 11.1 apg, respectively). When healthy, he is undoubtedly one of the NBA’s preeminent PG’s, and certainly the Celtics’ best player.
However, with Danny Ainge stockpiling draft picks and clearly building for the future, and Rondo (who turns 29 in February) set to hit free agency next summer, it may make sense to move Rondo at deadline and get something of value in return. But with Rondo’s latest injury (a broken bone in his hand that will sideline him 6-to-8 weeks), will Rajon be able to shake off the rust and return to form by next February? Would Ainge be forced to “sell-low” on his best commodity? Rondo’s play in December and January will help answer these questions.
Another factor that will determine Ainge’s willingness to move Rondo will be the play of Marcus Smart. Physically, Smart has the tools that make scouts drool. His versatile skill set and imposing size for a guard resulted in pundits hyping Smart as one of the top all-around players in the 2014 NBA Draft. However, there were some issues concerning Smart’s maturity level. In addition, some wondered whether he was a bit of a “tweener.” Will Smart be able to play PG in the NBA? Is he combo-guard that’s a better fit playing off the ball? With Rondo sidelined for all of training camp and the preseason, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens will get a good look at what the youngster can handle during his first full training camp as a pro.
Can they count on their star PG and center to stay healthy?
Brook Lopez played in every single game during his first three years in the NBA.
Then played just five in 2010-11, but bounced back to start 74 games in 201-13. Last season was another lost season for Lopez, who played just 17 games before again injuring his foot. When healthy, Lopez is arguably the best offensive center in the entire league. Before he hurt himself last season, Lopez was averaging 20.7 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor. Early reports form training camp have been positive and Lopez claims he now feels good and is ready to roll.
Deron Williams is also considered one of the best players at his position, but hasn’t been healthy enough to prove it over the last few seasons. D-Will had two more ankle surgeries over the summer and has admitted this week that he still is not 100 percent.
The Nets are toughest team to predict in this division. If both Williams and Lopez each play 70+ games for the Nets this season, they have a good chance to capture the Atlantic Division crown. On the other hand, the “worst-case scenario” is bleak because the health of their two best players is undeniably worrisome.
New York Knicks
Will the Knicks be able to defend and/or rebound well enough to win?
The Knicks will put up plenty of points next season. They have the second best scorer on the planet in Carmelo Anthony. They massively upgraded at point guard by bringing in Jose Calderon (who should be an ideal fit in the newly installed “triangle offense”), and have a bevy of skilled spot-up shooters to fill up the basket from three-point territory.
On the other hand, the other side of the floor will be a major issue for New York all year long. New York ranked 24th overall in defensive efficiency last season. And they finished 27 out of 30 teams in total rebounds collected. And, in order to upgrade at PG, New York had to sacrifice their best defensive player and top rebounder in Tyson Chandler. The only Knick, other than Chandler, to register more than 50 blocks last season was Andrea Bargnani.
The defensive system Mike Woodson employed last season, which was heavily reliant on switching, was a failure. Will new head coach Derek Fisher’s revamped scheme and professed commitment to defense yield improved results? This may be the biggest determinant of whether or not the Knicks are able to more closely resemble the 2012-13 edition that won 54 games, as opposed to last season’s squad, which tallied only 37 victories.
Are the Raps for Real?
Arguably the most pleasantly surprising team in the Eastern Conference last season, Toronto exceeded any and all expectations by capturing the Atlantic Division crown. The questions now are can the Raptors build on last year’s momentum and continue to climb towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings, or will they regress to what we expected heading into the 2013-14 campaign.
Kyle Lowry, who had some character concerns and run-ins with previous head coaches, was spectacular last season. As a pending free-agent and playing for a new contract, he was incredibly predictive and put up phenomenal numbers. Now that he has inked a big four-year, $48 million deal, will he remain motivated?
DeMar DeRozan put up career-best numbers across the board last season, earning his first All-Star nomination. Can the young high-riser take his game to an even higher level in 2014-15?
The good news for the Raps is that they have remarkable depth throughout the roster. Jonas Valanciunas is a solid big man with room to improve. Amir Johnson is an underrated grinder who is both efficient and effective on the offensive end. Greivis Vazquez is a terrific backup PG. Terrance Ross has been inconsistent, but has shown flashes of brilliance. Patrick Patterson is signed to a reasonable contract and has an NBA skill set. The Raps also shrewdly traded for sharp-shooter Lou Williams. Sweet Lou is perfectly suited to provide an offensive spark off the bench and late-game offense for Toronto.
All things considered, there are plenty of reasons for Raptor fans to remain optimistic, as Toronto is the odds-on favorite to repeat as Atlantic Division champions.
Will the 76ers be able to avoid making history?
Nine wins. The 1972-73 76ers lost 73 of the 82 games that played that season. That’s the lowest win total ever posted in a full NBA season. The current edition of the 76ers actually has an outside shot at breaking that record this season.
The highest paid player on the team is Jason Richardson, the oft-injured shooting guard who may not play a single minute this season. The recently acquired Luc Mbah a Moute, who averaged 3.5 ppg last season, is the only other 76er that has scored more than 2,000 points in their NBA career. After Richardson, the longest-tenured Sixer is Michael Carter-Williams, who was drafted last year.
This is a roster has been designed by GM Sam Hinkie to secure ping-pong balls and lottery picks, not wins.
Fortunately for 76ers fans, Hinkie has infused the roster with plenty of young, enticing talent.
Carter-Williams was a revelation as a rookie. He led all rookies in scoring (16.7 ppg), rebounds (6.2 ppg), assists (6.3 apg), and steals (1.9 spg). To put that in perspective, Carter-Williams is just the third player since 1950 to lead all rookies in scoring, rebounding and assist average. He also joined Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to average at least 16 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists.
This season, we’ll get to find out what Nerlens Noel can bring to the table. He almost certainly won’t be able to match MCW’s impact, but if he can stay healthy and show some improvement on the offensive end, it will be considered a successful season. Their most recent first-round pick, Joel Embiid, is still months away from even practicing, so we won’t get our first look at the highly-touted center for a while.
The Sixers have plenty of reason for hope in the future. The present, however, remains murky.
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