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
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