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NBA 2016-17 Season Preview: Atlantic Division

Blazer’s Edge once again takes a trip throughout the NBA in order to preview every team’s 2016-17 season. Today, we start with the Atlantic Division.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

In a time-honored tradition, Blazer’s Edge once again will be looking across the entire NBA and offering season previews for all 30 teams. Today, we kick things off by looking at the Atlantic Division, where the rich got richer this summer (Boston, Toronto) while the division cellar dwellers (Brooklyn, Philadelphia) try to close the gap. Meanwhile, the Knicks are still in a class all their own.

Toronto Raptors

2015-16 Record: 56-26 (No. 2 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 110 (No. 5); DRtg: 105.2 (No. 11)
Roster Additions: Jared Sullinger, Jakob Poeltl (Rookie, No. 9), Pascal Siakam (Rookie, No. 27)
Roster Subtractions: Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, James Johnson
Coach: Dwane Casey; SBN Affiliate: Raptors HQ

After exceeding expectations in 2015-16 by winning 56 regular season games and pushing the Cavaliers to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors are once again poised to challenge for a top seed in the East.

Center Bismack Biyombo, who started only 22 regular season games and played just over 20 minutes a night, increased his minutes by over 10 per game in the postseason after starting big man Jonas Valancunias hurt his ankle in the first round against the Heat. Biyombo capitalized on his extra playing time, blocking over two shots a game and snaring 11 boards a night in Toronto’s final 10 playoff games. His postseason run earned him a $72-million deal with the Magic, and left Raptors fans wondering who will back up Valancunias up front this year between third-year center Lucas Nogueira — who’s played 248 career NBA minutes — and 2016 No. 9 pick Jakob Poeltl.

Biyombo’s interior presence will no doubt be hard to replace, but he didn’t truly blow up for the Raptors until the playoffs and after Valancunias was hurt. Coach Dwane Casey is no stranger to platooning his frontcourt rotations, and this year Patrick Patterson will continue stretching defenses out while the newly-added Jared Sullinger adds some size and toughness down low and should be a more-than-effective replacement for Luis Scola.

Don’t forget Toronto’s All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who combined for almost 45 points per game last season. Lowry nailed 38.8 percent of his threes last year and dished 6.4 assists a night, while DeRozan found seams in the defense and scored mostly off the dribble. Unfortunately for the Raptors, Lowry’s shooting dropped off a cliff in the playoffs, and DeRozan’s token inefficiency reared its ugly head at just the wrong time. DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross and Patterson all shot sub-30 percent from deep in the postseason, and Toronto couldn’t handle the loss of Valancunias, one of the league’s underrated pick-and-roll finishers.

Expect a motivated Raptors squad this season, as Lowry and DeRozan hope to prove to the rest of the league that they can once again carry one of the NBA’s most high-powered offenses to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Boston Celtics

2015-16 Record: 48-34 (No. 5 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 106.8 (No. 10); DRtg: 103.6 (No. 4)
Roster Additions: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown (Rookie, No. 3), Demetrius Jackson (Rookie, No. 45), Gerald Green
Roster Subtractions: Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger
Coach: Brad Stevens; SBN Affiliate: CelticsBlog

Last season’s Celtics squad landed in the top-10 on both sides of the ball behind the tutelage of coach Brad Stevens and the scoring prowess of diminutive point guard Isaiah Thomas, who led Boston with over 22 points per game. In a true team effort, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley all added between 9.1 and 15.2 points a night, proving Stevens’ team offensive concepts effective.

Sullinger and Turner departed Boston this summer, but the addition of All-Star big man Al Horford should help soothe those losses. In nine NBA seasons, Horford has averaged over 14 points and almost nine boards a night, and should plug in nicely with Stevens’ team-based efforts on both sides of the floor. Smart and Bradley, both ball-hawking defenders on the perimeter, should make Horford’s job of anchoring the defense much easier.

Olynyk led the Celtics last season from deep, hitting 40.5 percent of his 3-pointers. Bradley, Thomas and Crowder hucked 16+ combined outside attempts per game, but all shot between 33.6 and 36.1 percent. Thomas’ probing drives should again provide open looks from deep, but the addition of Horford should really gift Stevens with the ability to stretch defenses out — remember how Blazers coach Terry Stotts used LaMarcus Aldridge’s shooting abilities from the midrange to command double-teams and earn wide-open looks for shooters like Damian Lillard, Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews? Horford is similarly effective between the paint and the 3-point line, and opposing teams will likely have to choose between giving him extra attention and chasing shooters off the perimeter.

Boston, on an upward trajectory since Stevens came to town in 2013, has a shot to challenge Toronto for the Atlantic Division title. If fully healthy, they could even give Cleveland a run for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 spot.

New York Knicks

2015-16 Record: 32-50 (No. 13 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 104.6 (No. 24); DRtg: 107.6 (No. 18)
Roster Additions: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, Brandon Jennings, Mindaugas Kuzminskas (Rookie), Willy Hernangomez (No. 35), Justin Holiday
Roster Subtractions: Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Jose Calderon, Derrick Williams, Kevin Seraphin, Jerian Grant, Cleanthony Early, Langston Galloway, Tony Wroten
Coach: Jeff Hornacek; SBN Affiliate: Posting & Toasting

How do you know it’s officially fall? The leaves change colors, the days get shorter and colder and, once again, hope springs eternal for New York Knicks fans. This year, New Yorkers will look to newly-acquired Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings for salvation. Coach Jeff Hornacek was also brought in, but he might be the last guy personality-wise you would expect to mesh with the nucleus of players GM Steve Miller has assembled in New York.

But hey, it’s crazy enough that it just might work, right?

Injuries, however, threaten to derail the optimism train for Knicks fans. Rose hasn’t played more than 66 games in a season since his 2010-11 MVP campaign, Noah played in 29 games last year as he dealt with shoulder issues and Jennings has played a total of 89 games the last two seasons after he tore his Achilles halfway through the 2014-15 campaign.

Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis held down the Knicks’ frontcourt last season, but neither one hit more than 33.9 percent of his outside shots — which is a problem, as they combined for almost eight attempts per game. With Jose Calderon and Arron Afflalo gone, two of the Knicks’ three best outside shooters last season, Anthony and Porzingis will have to be more reliable from deep unless Hornacek wants to rely on Lance Thomas to lead his team from the perimeter. And with Rose, Jennings, Anthony and Porzingis gobbling up shot attempts, Thomas could hit 40+ percent of his threes this year and still not be a huge difference-maker.

Porzingis averaged almost two blocks per game last season. He and Noah, former-NBA Defensive Player of the year and two-time NBA All-Defense First-Teamer, should combine to help make the Knicks’ rim protection much more effective this year if both remain healthy. That’s a stretch for Noah, however, and the defense of Rose and Jennings on the perimeter could make life more difficult for New York’s center duo if Noah isn’t back to his pre-injury level, which is a giant gamble by New York’s front office that could either pay off in dividends or blow up in their faces.

If everyone stays just relatively healthy — a huge “if” with the Knicks’ core as currently constructed — New York could bounce back and Anthony could once again spark a playoff run. Even still, the Knicks’ shot at success this season hinges on several players who haven’t been healthy and effective for a full season in years. As such, the team might provide the most interesting Knicks storylines since former GM Isiah Thomas was run out of town eight years ago, which definitely says something.

Brooklyn Nets

2015-16 Record: 21-61 (No. 14 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 103.2 (No. 27); DRtg: 110.9 (No. 29)
Roster Additions: Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker, Luis Scola, Greivis Vasquez, Justin Hamilton, Randy Foye, Caris LeVert (Rookie, No. 20), Chase Budinger, Isaiah Whitehead (No. 42), Anthony Bennett
Roster Subtractions: Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young, Jarrett Jack, Sergey Karasev, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington, Donald Sloan, Thomas Robinson, Willie Reed, Markel Brown
Coach: Kenny Atkinson; SBN Affiliate: NetsDaily

When Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets in 2010 and subsequently moved them into the brand-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the emphasis was clear: Win now, at whatever cost.

So, in a two-and-a-half year period from 2011 to 2013, Nets GM Billy King managed to trade:

  • Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, cash, a 2011 first-round pick (Enes Kanter) and a 2013 first-round pick (Gorgui Dieng) to the Jazz for Deron Williams
  • Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and a 2012 first-round pick (Damian Lillard) to the Blazers for Gerald Wallace
  • Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams, a 2013 first-rounder (Shane Larkin) and a 2017 second-round pick to the Hawks for Joe Johnson
  • Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Gerald Wallace, a 2014 first-rounder (James Young), a 2016 first-round pick (Jaylen Brown) and a 2018 first-round pick to the Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White.

That’s seven future first-round draft picks sent out over the course of 18 months that netted a grand total of 174 wins in five seasons — an average of 34.8 victories per year for the Nets and Prokhorov, who watched his teams teams loaded with aging former superstars perpetually underperform.

After mortgaging the team’s future for five years of Eastern Conference mediocrity — at a cost of $123 million in luxury tax payments — Prokhorov recently put the wheels in motion to sell up to 49 percent of the franchise. King was finally let go last January, along with coach Lionel Hollins, and freshly-hired GM Sean Marks was left to pick up the pieces and re-energize the organization in the wake of King’s wild misspending of Prokhorov’s millions.

Marks began clean-up duty this summer, hiring Kenny Atkinson at coach and renouncing the rights to 10 players. He lured Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson with massive offer sheets, but their respective teams matched, and Marks made the most of his first offseason as Brooklyn GM by nabbing Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker with somewhat modest deals.

Center Brook Lopez has been one of the only constants in his time with the Nets. In eight seasons, the team has switched cities, transferred ownership, hired and fired several coaches, changed-over the front office staff and seen countless veterans, rookies and D-League prospects shuffled in and out of the lineup.

Brooklyn is only a few months into what will amount to be a several-year overhaul, and though Lopez (20.6 points, 7.8 rebounds per game last year) could be primed for an All-Star season, his supporting cast will likely leave him hanging more often than not.

Lin offers some scoring and playmaking punch in the backcourt, while Randy Foye could add a stable veteran presence even though his production has tailed off the last couple seasons. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson returns after missing 59 games his rookie season, and Bojan Bogdonavic looks to improve on his career-37 percent mark from deep in his third year.

Marks also took a few flyers by signing journeymen Chase Budinger and Justin Hamilton — as well as former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett — to small deals, hoping at least one of the bunch contributes regularly.

Don’t expect much from the Nets this season — success will certainly be measured in player development, not wins, for a while. Lopez seems content to rebuild in Brooklyn, though he’ll be 30 by the time his current deal expires. Will Marks flip the remaining $43 million and two years on Lopez’ contract for younger assets? That figures to be one of the more compelling storylines coming out of Brooklyn in the near future, unless rookies Caris LeVert (No. 20) or Isaiah Whitehead (No. 42) take the NBA by storm.

(Spoiler alert: You can probably bet on hearing more about a potential Lopez trade).

Philadelphia 76ers

2015-16 Record: 10-72 (No. 15 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 98.8 (No. 30); DRtg: 109.2 (No. 26)
Roster Additions: Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, Sergio Rodriguez, Ben Simmons (Rookie, No. 1), Tibor Pleiss, Dario Saric (Rookie), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (Rookie, No. 24)
Roster Subtractions: Kendall Marshall, Ish Smith
Coach: Brett Brown; SBN Affiliate: Liberty Ballers

The Sixers posted the league’s worst offense and a bottom-five defense last season as they cruised to just 10 wins.

Alas, after three infamous years of bottoming out for a shot at the first overall pick in the NBA Draft — and earning only two No. 3 overall picks to show for it — the tanking actually paid off with the ultimate reward as Philly finally struck lottery gold this past spring.

And, lo and behold, Sam Hinkie — GM and commander of the 76ers’ tank since 2013 — wasn’t around to revel in his team’s luck. He “resigned” just a month before the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery, and watched as Bryan Colangelo, son of Philly executive Jerry Colangelo, took over the vacant GM position and enjoyed the spoils of Hinkie’s labors.

Trust the process, right?

As it turns out, the 76ers trusted Hinkie and his process just long enough for him to lay the final pieces of groundwork for their future success, forcing him out after three years and a 47-199 record at the helm.

With the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Philly selected college star Ben Simmons, who promptly put on 33 pounds over the summer in an effort to bulk up his 20-year-old frame.

After sitting out his first two seasons due to injury struggles, center Joel Embiid — drafted No. 3 in 2014 — was ready to join fellow third-overall pick Jahlil Okafor (2015) in the Philadelphia frontcourt, along with Nerlens Noel.

Colangelo also signed a trio of former Blazers backcourt members — Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson, now the team’s three highest-paid players — while signing overseas draft-and-stash prospect Dario Saric to a rookie-slotted contract, a small victory in and of itself.

The 76ers were just now ready to turn the corner from being the team that made many question the NBA’s Draft Lottery process to becoming a promising, young up-and-coming squad in the East.

...And then Noel publicly aired his grievances with the Sixers for keeping three “starting-quality” centers on the roster: himself, Embiid and Okafor. A trade was not demanded, but Noel’s not-so-subtle comments implied that one would eventually become necessary to keep everyone happy.

A few days later, Simmons rolled his ankle in scrimmage and suffered a Jones fracture on the fifth metatarsal of his right foot, which could put his entire rookie season in jeopardy.

All is not lost in Philadelphia, however, as fans hope to see the offseason improvement of Okafor and Noel up front. And, in fact, Embiid’s tantalizing skillset and ability to stretch the floor may allow all three of Philly’s frontcourt blue-chippers to split time fairly evenly between two positions, instead of shoehorning all three in at center exclusively.

Okafor led the Sixers with 17.5 points in his 53 games last year, showing solid touch for a rookie inside. His moves might come from a bygone era, but Okafor can put the ball in the bucket and coach Brett Brown — in his fourth year with the team after three seasons of thinly-veiled tanking — finally has enough legitimate NBA talent to field a competitive roster and has the opportunity to show why he rose to the top of Gregg Popovich’s staff as his top assistant before Philly lured him away.

Brown’s coaching acumen should be on display this year more so than ever, and the challenge of working out his frontcourt rotation will be eased if Embiid’s apparent transformation holds true during the regular season. Noel’s shooting range extends to about three feet, but he’s a much, much better defender than Okafor. Not unlike the Blazers in some ways, the Sixers have three talented-but-limited (or unknown, as the case is with Embiid) players up front, and Brown will need to stagger their minutes while A) Keeping all of them content with their playing time, and B) Continuing their development. After all, the oldest of the bunch is Noel, at just 22 years old.

Rodriguez makes his return to the NBA after spending the last six years sharpening his skills in Europe. Last season with Real Madrid, he nailed 40.5 percent of his 3-pointers and almost 60 percent of his shots overall, scoring 12.1 points and registering over six assists a night. Jerryd Bayless, who also developed an outside shot later in his career, hit 43.7 percent of his threes last year en route to 10.1 points per game. Forward Hollis Thompson can also effectively spread the floor, while Henderson offers a solid change of pace for Brown, bringing defensive toughness and an effective iso game.

Is Philadelphia ready to challenge for the playoffs yet? Almost certainly not, and that’s no knock on either Brown or his players; improvement in the NBA can be incremental, and it’s a long way up from 10 wins.

The good news: even with Simmons likely out all year, the Sixers have a solid blend of tantalizing youth and veteran talent. And, after years of challenging their fans’ patience, there is almost literally nowhere else to go but up.


—Chris Lucia | blazersedgepodcast@gmail.com | @ChrisLuciaPDX