The Summer League wrapped up last week, and the official dog days of summer are officially here. All NBA teams still have some fine-tuning to do on their rosters, but most of the major moves have been made.
The shifting landscape in the Atlantic Division gives us a chance to take an early look at how the 2015-16 might unfold. Despite a lackluster group last year, the division still sent three teams to the playoffs.
In order to send three teams again, there will need to be a little luck involved. Non-playoff teams like the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers made significant upgrades through free agency and the Draft. While the Pacers will jockey with a number of teams for the 7-8 seeds, the Heat has an opportunity to put itself in the upper-half of the conference.
Miami might very well be competing with Boston for a four seed.
Boston Celtics (48-34)
Pegging the Celtics as the Atlantic Division favorite has more to do with anticipation than past success. With Brad Stevens running his system, and a host of additional talent to work with, I’m taking a leap that the Celtics will switch places with the Atlanta Hawks in 2015-16.
While Boston lacks the true star presence, it arguably has the best depth of any team in the East. Of the 15 guys likely to be on the roster, the case could be made for almost any of them to start. The Celtics, much like the Hawks, won’t win a championship that way, but their method will be conducive to regular season success.
With Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and Tyler Zeller, the Celtics had decent frontcourt depth. Danny Ainge subsequently went out and acquired David Lee, Amir Johnson, and Jordan Mickey (an early second rounder who thrived in Summer League).
Of all of Ainge’s draft picks–including No. 16 Terry Rozier–R.J. Hunter has the highest ceiling. His ultra-quick release, penchant for shot making, and sly ball-handling skills could see him emerge as a poor man’s Stephen Curry. Marcus Thornton, the Celtics’ last pick in the second round, has deceptive speed and ball-handling skills, as well.
“Obviously, we have a lot of guards,” Ainge said following the Draft. “And we’ll figure it out. I like them all. We may have to make some tough choices, but we really like all the guys.”
It is entirely possible that management tries to flip some of these assets and future draft picks–some courtesy of the Nets–to acquire a star player. While the team had a solid offseason, Ainge still craves that star presence. He was rumored to have had interest in both DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love.
Perhaps the Celtics’ biggest advantage is the ability to have many guys seamlessly play multiple positions. Stevens can go small or big, having the ability to play three guard sets or go with multiple bigs.
Projected depth chart:
PG Marcus Smart/Isaiah Thomas
SG Avery Bradley/ RJ Hunter/Terry Rozier/Marcus Thornton
SF Evan Turner/Jae Crowder/James Young
PF Amir Johnson/David Lee/Jonas Jerebko/Perry Jones
C Tyler Zeller/Kelly Olynyk/Jared Sullinger/Jordan Mickey
Toronto Raptors (46-36)
The Raptors have the division’s best star quality, and much like the Nets, they went into the offseason with a clear goal of how to reload the team. Toronto has long been plagued by shoddy defense and isolation hero ball, so general manager Masai Ujiri went out and acquired players who fit that bill perfectly.
DeMarre Carroll, a revelation with the Atlanta Hawks, will step right in as the team’s starting small forward. Nicknamed “Junkyard Dog,” Carroll comes from a system that placed a premium on defending, moving the ball, and knocking down open jumpers. The prototypical “3 & D” guy, Carroll will help to mask some of the defensive deficiencies of those around him–namely DeMar DeRozan.
“I’m not focused on offense; my number one focus is defense,” Carroll said during his introductory press conference. “I’m here to make this team a better defensive team. That’s my goal.”
The Raptors also made a massive upgrade at the backup point guard position. They traded Greivis Vasquez to the Milwaukee Bucks and filled his roster spot with free agent Cory Joseph. Joseph comes from the same style of system as Carroll, and he was mostly overshadowed by playing with a loaded San Antonio Spurs team.
While the Raptors have the Atlantic’s best top-end talent, one wonders if players like DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will be able to buy into the kind of system that made Carroll and Joseph’s previous teams successful. At the end of the day, the team’s two incumbent leaders want to take contested mid-range jump shots. Their willingness to change will determine how successful the team ultimately becomes.
Better depth, a better coach, and a better style give the Celtics the early edge.
Projected depth chart:
PG Kyle Lowry/Cory Joseph/Delon Wright
SG DeMar DeRozan/Terrence Ross/Norman Powell
SF DeMarre Carroll/James Johnson/Bruno Caboclo
PF Patrick Patterson/Luis Scola/Ryan Roberts
C Jonas Valanciunas/Bismack Biyombo/Lucas Nogueira
Brooklyn Nets (36-46)
A lot can go right or wrong for the Brooklyn Nets in 2015-16, but one thing needs to happen: Brook Lopez needs to stay healthy. After years of trying to trade away the franchise center, Billy King has now placed all of his eggs into one basket. By moving on from Deron Williams and adding younger, more complementary pieces, the Nets have all but admitted that the entire offense will run through the big man.
Aside from Lopez’s offensive consistency, there is not a lot the Nets can absolutely count on in the upcoming year. Their crippling financial situation prevented them from making a splash in free agency, so the team resorted to the best available free agents in their price range: Shane Larkin, Thomas Robinson, Wayne Ellington. The team even brought in Andrea Bargnani on a low-risk, medium-reward flier.
But unlike the other four teams in this division, the Nets did not get immediately better. Instead of upgrading, they reloaded; which was necessary because of the team’s dire salary cap/draft pick straits.
Although not necessarily popular at the time, King’s willingness to move on from Williams signals a shift toward responsible team building and ends a rather unsuccessful era. King is now cleaning up the mess he is partially responsible for creating, but better late than never.
The team will rely on players in their low-to-mid 20’s to create a more athletic and defensive team. This group is more in the mold of Lionel Hollins, and the very least, the locker room will be better. Williams was the poster child of the sort of overpaid, underperforming (perhaps ambivalent) star culture parading through Barclays Center over the last three years.
The blue-collar, lunch pale mantra will make this Nets team far more likeable from a fan’s perspective, and it sets the foundation for teams in years to come. This season, however, the Nets cannot be expected to best the results of the past few Brooklyn teams. The Nets will need to stay entirely healthy to compete in a conference where virtually every team improved from last season. Lopez will need to build on his strong close to the season, and Thaddeus Young will need to assume a greater offensive burden.
At this point in his career, Joe Johnson would probably be best served by losing some weight that has made him a force in backing down smaller players in the paint. In doing so, Johnson will take some pressure off his legs (entering his 15th season) and perhaps become more of a three-point threat at this stage in his career. Lopez and Young should create shooting opportunities for him and the aforementioned Ellington.
Projected depth chart:
PG Jarrett Jack/Shane Larkin/Ryan Boatright
SG Bojan Bogdanovic/Wayne Ellington/Markel Brown
SF Joe Johnson/Rondae Hollis-Jefferson/Quincy Miller/Sergey Karasev
PF Thaddeus Young/Thomas Robinson/Chris McCullough
C Brook Lopez/Andrea Bargnani/Willie Reed
New York Knicks (34-48)
The Knicks will jockey with the Nets for New York City supremacy (and third place in the Atlantic Division). Just by getting Carmelo Anthony back healthy, the Knicks are sure to improve on their meek 17-win season of a year ago.
Despite a wealth of salary cap space, the Knicks were not able to lure any big free agents to the Big Apple. Phil Jackson did, however, make smaller, more calculated additions that undoubtedly make the team better. Granted, they could not have set the bar any lower.
While the Knicks do not have much depth to speak of, their starting five is quite solid, and the pieces are in place to have success with that first unit. Like the Nets, the Knicks cannot afford any injuries to key players.
New York had a surprisingly solid draft night, highlighted by Jackson’s ability to flip embattled shooting guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. for a first round pick that turned into Jerian Grant.
In many ways, Robin Lopez was the perfect addition. He will anchor the team’s defense, rebound the basketball, and not take shots away from Carmelo. Kristaps Porzingis will also benefit–at some point–from playing with another big man with a different skillset, so there’s no overlap there.
The Knicks and Nets are close as far as predictions go, but Brooklyn has the best player in Brook Lopez, giving it the slight edge.
Projected depth chart:
PG Jerian Grant/Langston Galloway/Jose Calderon
SG Arron Afflalo/Ricky Ledo
SF Carmelo Anthony/Cleanthony Early/Lance Thomas
PF Derrick Williams/Kristaps Porzingis/Lou Amundson
C Robin Lopez/Kyle O’Quinn
Philadelphia 76ers (19-63)
The Philadelphia 76ers got considerably better during the offseason. Unfortunately for them, most of the other teams did, as well. General manager Sam Hinkie swung a heist with the Sacramento Kings, acquiring Nik Stauskas, Jason Thompson, and Carl Landry. All three will step in and help what was a woeful Sixers team a year ago.
The most prized addition, though, is Jahlil Okafor. Many people considered the Duke big man the best player in the Draft, so the Sixers lucked out when he fell to No. 3. His addition helps defray the loss of Joel Embiid, the incumbent first rounder whose career is in limbo as he undergoes a second foot surgery.
By adding Okafor, Stauskas, and Thompson–and having Tony Wroten return from injury–the Sixers are positioned to at least be competitive in a number of games this season. As his been their M.O., winning now isn’t a priority, so the team will continue to lose games. One year, perhaps, the strategy will work.
Projected depth chart:
PG Tony Wroten/Isaiah Canaan/Scottie Wilbekin/Pierre Jackson
SG Robert Covington/Nik Stauskas
SF Jerami Grant/Hollis Thompson/JaKarr Sampson
PF Jahlil Okafor/Furkan Aldemir/Carl Landry
C Nerlens Noels/Jason Thompson/Joel Embiid (Injured)