The change from the Southwest Division to the Atlantic Division is stark. The former might have five teams in the playoffs, and the latter might have four in the lottery. I'll start with the lottery surety, the Philadelphia
The Philadelphia 76ers had a fun summer. They drafted quite a few players (they had two 1st round picks and five 2nd round picks), and made several trades on draft day as well. They ended up with Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the first round, and their second round picks got them K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, Pierre Jackson (through trade), and Jordan McRae. They were finally able to ship off Thaddeus Young to the Timberwolves, in exchange for a future 1st round pick (via the Heat), Luc Mbah a Mouté, and Alexey Shved. Their big "catch" in free agency was picking up swingman Chris Johnson off waivers after he was cut by the Celtics.
Philly received their first victory last week when potential draft reform legislation was voted against by the owners, making them the presumptive favorite for the #1 lotto spot again this year. The 76ers are going to be bad this year. Like awful. Maybe even worse than last year. I'm talking Grown Ups 2 level stuff right here. Their best player from last year, rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams, is out with a shoulder injury for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months into the season. He piled up assists, rebounds, and steals last year, but his efficiency was horrific and his assist/turnover ratio was well under 2:1, which is bad for a point guard. He needs to work on both those things to become an above average NBA starting point.
Nerlens Noel, their other first round pick from last year, didn't play at all his rookie season, and will be the other fixture in their starting lineup this year. He was my top overall prospect last year, and he should be a good defensive player and rebounder this season, but his offense is a work in progress. Saric is still overseas for at least another year or two and should be worth the wait. Embiid is out for most of the season with a foot injury, but he was the top prospect in this draft class and has one of the highest upsides in the entire NBA. Hopefully he comes back and shows some stuff in the last few weeks of the season.
Everyone else on the roster ranges from borderline NBA rotation player to "should be overseas or in the D-League". The best example of the former is Tony Wroten, who excited Philly fans last year with his athleticism and skills, but also frustrated them with horrible shooting and tons of turnovers. He is essentially a lesser version of MCW. Henry Sims is a solid backup big man, and Hollis Thompson is the same on the wing. Unfortunately, both will probably be starting this year. Arnett Moultrie, their first round pick two years ago, was in the doghouse last year, but has showed up in shape and played well in preseason.
There are the vets such as Mbah a Moute, Shved, and Jason Richardson (keep getting them checks, as Jalen Rose would say), but they probably won't get many minutes, and they aren't very good anyway. McDaniels was a standout defensive player at Clemson, and should hopefully be able to transfer that to the NBA, but his offensive game is rough. Grant is a project pick out of Syracuse, more of an athlete than a basketball player at this point. McRae is going to play in Australia for monetary purposes, and Jackson got cut due to injury. Coach Brett Brown says the right things and is from the Popovich coaching tree, but he has nothing to work with. Expect greatness this year, if greatness means a superb tanking job.
Projected Record: 15-67
Players to watch: Nerlens Noel, Tony Wroten, KJ McDaniels, Joel Embiid (if he plays)
Check out the 76ers blog for their thoughts: Liberty Ballers
The Boston Celtics were quiet this offseason, though they did switch up their roster a bit. They started by drafting Marcus Smart and James Young, both picks that I really liked. Avery Bradley was given a 4-year, $32 million extension, which seemed a bit high. They let Jerryd Bayless walk in free agency, and moved Kris Humphries to the Wizards for a trade exception. They also facilitated the LeBron re-signing in Cleveland by taking the contracts of Marcus Thornton and Tyler Zeller, for which they received a future first round pick. Finally, they signed Evan Turner to a one-year deal and swapped Joel Anthony for Will Bynum, though they're probably going to waive him.
The Celtics are one of the most nondescript teams in the league right now. Their biggest storyline will be what they do with star point guard Rajon Rondo, the last remnant of their title contending teams from a half decade ago. He was only above average last year after returning from a torn ACL, and as a very competitive player, he is not likely to re-sign with a long term rebuilding project. His play will determine if they trade him during the season, an option that appears likely at this point.
Avery Bradley will start opposite him, creating a very good defensive backcourt. Bradley upped his shooting last year, and at 23 could still make a breakthrough to becom a true plus on offense. The inconsistent Jeff Green will start at small forward, and he is the definition of average. Their frontcourt of Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk is young and promising, especially Sullinger, who stood out as a rebounder last year. However, they are terrible defensively, and still have a lot to work on in general.
The most exciting player on the team will be on the bench, at least until a Rondo trade happens (or doesn't). Marcus Smart was a beast at Oklahoma State as a sophomore, and while his shot is pretty broken and makes some questionable basketball decisions, he is a tank attacking the basket, a superb defender, and an underrated playmaker. Behind Bradley is a very different kind of player: Marcus Thornton, a natural born gunner.
Small forward is the veteran position on the team, with Evan Turner and the husk of Gerald Wallace in line for minutes backing up Green. They currently block out James Young, who may not be as exciting as Smart, but still has a lot of athleticism and shooting ability. If he gets minutes I think he will do well. Solid veterans Tyler Zeller and Brandon Bass fill out the rotation. Brad Stevens has a great pedigree at Butler and he is well liked by his players, but it will be a struggle to win many games this year, and that won't make him happy.
Projected Record: 24-58
Players to watch: Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger
The Celtics blog can be found at the aptly named CelticsBlog
The Brooklyn Nets had one of the most unusual off seasons in NBA history. This was due to the Jason Kidd fiasco. Kidd, the Nets' coach last year, made a power play for GM duties after just one season on the sidelines, and wanted a trade with the Bucks based on Brook Lopez for Larry Sanders. When this failed, he left for the Bucks while Larry Drew was still employed there. The Nets decided to leave him alone and replaced him with veteran coach Lionel Hollins, an upgrade in my opinion.
They bought a couple draft picks, landing Markel Brown, Xavier Thames (in Spain this season), and Cory Jefferson in the 2nd round. However, two of their best players last season left, with Paul Pierce joining the Wizards and Shaun Livingston going to the Warriors. Meanwhile, Andray Blatche went to China, Jason Collins retired, Andrei Kirilenko and Kevin Garnett picked up their options, and Alan Anderson was re-signed. Finally, the Nets brought over Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev for Marcus Thornton, and signed Bojan Bogdanovic, their pick from 2011, to a three-year deal.
One of the most boring teams to watch last year got even less exciting with the losses of Livingston and Pierce. Deron Williams, in my opinion always one of the most overrated players in the league, saw his production fall off a cliff last year. Only 30, he still has a year or two in his prime to turn his career around, but right now there are 20 point guards I think are better than him. Joe Johnson remains an underrated player: solid defender, good shooter, decent playmaker, and terrific in the clutch. His contract is an albatross but he is probably the best player on this Nets team.
Starting with him on the wing will be the rookie Bogdanovic, who the Nets hope can provide spacing and shooting. This is because their offense will probably run through Brook Lopez, who missed most of last year with injury, but who is still one of the premier post scorers in the league. The Nets will hope that starting Kevin Garnett alongside him will make up for Lopez' defensive deficiencies, as Garnett remains a strong player on defense. On the other hand, he is now useless on offense.
Jarrett Jack will be the main source of scoring for the bench unit playing at both point and shooting guard. The other backups at those positions are mostly unplayable for a hopeful playoff team, though the Nets have hope for athletic rookie Markel Brown. They are deep at the small forward position, with both Alan Anderson and Andrei Kirilenko being solid role players.
Mirza Teletovic is behind Garnett at power forward, and turned into a very effective stretch four last year. Expect his minutes to be in the mid-20s at least, despite coming off the bench. Mason Plumlee will be the energy big backing up Lopez, and with the injury history of Brook, it can be assumed he will get a few starts in as well. Lionel Hollins is a very good coach and has a veteran roster, but the Nets' talent level just isn't good enough to make the playoffs, and their lack of youth caps their ceiling.
Projected Record: 40-42
Players to watch: Brook Lopez, Mirza Teletovic
Look at the Nets perspective over at NetsDaily
The New York Knicks had a terrific offseason from a management and coaching perspective. Phil Jackson was brought in as president of basketball operations, and while he has no experience in that role, having someone in charge with a plan will be nice for Knicks fans, who have seen more than their fair share of incompetent leadership. Derek Fisher is also replacing Mike Woodson as head coach, and while he is inexperienced as well, he can't be worse than "Woody" was last season.
On the player front, the big move was re-signing Carmelo Anthony to a 5-year, $129 million max deal. The Knicks then flipped the disgruntled Tyson Chandler and "the penguin" Raymond Felton for Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington and a pick that became Cleanthony Early, who I think was a steal in the 2nd round. Jeremy Tyler and Ellington were traded to the Kings for Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw. Finally, they signed Jason Smith to a one year deal.
The reason I am more bullish about the Knicks than about the Nets is simple: the Knicks have a bona fide superstar. Carmelo had his best season last year, cracking 40% from 3 point land and hitting 85% of his free throws, playing improved defense and tearing down a career high in rebounds with eight per game. He is one of the best scorers the league has ever seen, and can absolutely take a team deep into the playoffs with the right cast. This isn't it, but he is still good enough to drag this team to the playoffs.
Calderon is one of the better passers Melo has ever played with, and is a terrific and underrated shooter, but also a truly awful defender. Iman Shumpert will try to make up for Calderon with his strong defense, but he needs to improve on his horrific efficiency from last year. His shooting must improve if he is to remain in the starting lineup. Jason Smith will start at power forward with his average defense and decent midrange game being his main attributes. He is mostly a starter in name only, as Amar'e will likely play more minutes than him. Dalembert completes the starting lineup. He is a pretty good defender and rebounder, but mostly invisible on offense, giving the Knicks only two real scoring threats amongst their starters.
The Knicks are going to have a pretty potent bench though. J.R. Smith will try to come off a down year and provide the explosive offense that made him 6th man of the year in 2013, and he'll be joined by 1st team All-Rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., who has shown some streaky shooting and impressive athleticism along with some terrible defense. Pablo Prigioni is a fan favorite for his passing and pesky defense, with Shane Larkin being a good change of pace as a young and athletic ball handler. Cleanthony Early is going to be backing up Melo, and should be a decent shooter and defender right away.
A lot of punch will be delivered by Amar'e Stoudemire, who looked surprisingly bouncy when healthy last year, and played well in limited minutes. They are hoping for health and nearly 30 minutes a game from him. I hope he is able to make it. The final piece is Andrea Bargnani, who completely fell apart last year. He shouldn't get minutes, but might due to his contract and a game that looks better than it really is. Fisher was always destined to be a head coach, but it is a tough transition, especially since he was still playing just last year. I think Carmelo and their offense will be enough to scrape into the playoffs as an 8th seed, but the Knicks could very well not make it, and their defense is going to be atrocious.
Projected Record: 42-40
Players to watch: Iman Shumpert, Cleanthony Early, Tim Hardaway
The Knicks fan preview can be found here at Posting and Toasting
The Raptors came off their best season in over a decade and did not sit still. GM Masai Ujiri made one of the most shocking draft selections ever by taking unheard-of Brazilian teenager Bruno Caboclo at 20th overall. He looked raw but impressed at summer league, and has a body type similar to the much loved "Greek Freak". They also selected DeAndre Daniels of the NCAA champion Huskies in the 2nd round, but he is going to Australia for the season.
Ujiri then focused on bringing back the band, re-signing head coach Dwayne Casey, team leader and starting point guard Kyle Lowry, and key reserves Grievous Vazquez and Patrick Patterson, all to very reasonable deals. He then flipped John Salmons to the Hawks for 'Sweet Lou' Williams and Lucas ‘Bebe' Nogueira, upgrading in talent and youth. Finally, he shipped Steve Novak to the Jazz, and then used the cap space to sign swingman James Johnson. Dwight Buycks and Julyan Stone were waived as well.
The Raptors were the third best team in the East last year, and are contending for a similar spot this year behind the Bulls and Cavs. Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan are both all-star caliber players in the backcourt, combining toughness, athleticism, shooting, and defense. DeRozan had a breakout season last year, and is still young enough to improve on his gains, especially as a shooter. Terrence Ross is mostly just a 3 and D player at this point, but is young and a very good athlete: the Raptors will be counting on improvement from him this season.
Amir Johnson is one of the most underrated players in the league, a very good defender and rebounder who averaged over 10 points a game last season. Jonas Valanciunas is their other young starter, and while he averaged close to a double double last season, the Raptors will expect a lot more from him this year. He is solid in the post on offense, but must improve as a rim protector to make the leap to stardom.
The Raptors bench was very good last season after the Gay trade, and should be even better this year. Vazquez is a terrific backup point guard, easily capable of running an offense and a strong outside shooter as well. Lou Williams had a down year in 2013 after a torn ACL, but a year further removed he might be able to regain some of the athleticism that made him a premier 6th man in Philly. James Johnson returns to the Raptors an improved player; he was a very good defender with the Grizzlies last year, and he's capable of doing some slashing and playmaking on offense. Patterson is a nice stretch four, and is a good defender as well, making him perfectly capable of starting in case of injury (he can play center as well).
Finally, Chuck Hayes will bring defense and veteran leadership to the backup center spot. Caboclo and Noguira have tons of potential, but are too raw to get minutes on such a deep team. Casey is a pretty good head coach, and will be heading a strong team filled with fairly youthful veterans and promising youngsters. The Raptors are going to be good, and are stocked in case of injury.
Projected Record: 51-31
Players to watch: Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, Lou Williams
This is the RaptorsHQ preview
As usual, please comment and give feedback! Next up will be the Central Division, home to the two Eastern Conference favorites, the Bulls and Cavaliers.