Despite the Eastern Conference overflowing with below average teams, the Atlantic Division still figures to feature its fair share of headlines. The division is headlined by three playoff contenders, a fascinating tank job, and the unrelenting dumpster fire that is the New York Knicks.
That being said, it’s time to take a look at how the Atlantic Division could pan out in 2017.
5th/4th Place: New York Knicks
This may seem a bit odd, given the presence of the Brooklyn Nets, but hear me out. The Knicks are going to be bad in 2017, with or without Carmelo Anthony. If they decide to keep Melo, they should once again hover around the 25-30 win mark. If not, things could go downhill in a hurry. Although they added Frank Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway Jr., Derrick Rose is gone and Kristaps Porzingis isn’t exactly thrilled with the state of the organization. In essence, the Knicks have all the ingredients for a horrendous season: a disgruntled young superstar, an unhappy superstar with dwindling trade value, and a roster largely devoid of talent. Players such as Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez could develop as excellent complementary pieces to Porzingis, but as Sixers’ fans know, these things take time
Record Projection With Carmelo: 29-53 (4th place)
Record Projection Without Carmelo: 21-62 (5th place)
Player to Watch: Willy Hernangomez
5th/4th Place: Brooklyn Nets
This may not be the hottest of takes, but I think the Brooklyn Nets could surprise some people this year. While they lost Brook Lopez in a trade with the Lakers, they added D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, and Jarrett Allen. The Nets already had promising swingmen in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, and Jeremy Lin could be in for a productive season. This is not to say they will make or even contend for a playoff spot, but they have a sneaky amount of depth and a coach that kept up with the three-point trend that has taken the league by storm. In addition to that, Brooklyn has added some veteran players (similar to the 76ers) that can have a positive effect on the young players.
Record Projection: 27-55 (4th/5th place, pending a Melo trade)
Player to Watch: Sean Kilpatrick
3rd Place: Toronto Raptors
For some, a third place finish for the Raptors will come as a massive disappointment. However, it isn’t unrealistic to expect Toronto to take a step back this season. Beyond the trio of Kyle Lowry, DeMar Derozan, and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors roster has undergone its fair share of turnover since facing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. Even Lowry was injured for a large portion of the back half of the season, and has already played out his age-30 season. Derozan should continue to his ascent into the top 20 of NBA players, but Lowry and Ibaka are aging assets. Jonas Valanciunas is still a defensive liability, and their depth has slowly been picked apart. Toronto has had a good run, but this season it will become clear that they are reaching the end of it.
Record Projection: 46-36
Player to Watch: OG Anunoby
2nd Place: Philadelphia 76ers
For all of the credit Sam Hinkie and Bryan Colangelo get for piecing together a trio of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz, they’ve also done an excellent job of surrounding them with solid veterans and other young players oozing with potential. There is definite concern about Embiid not yet cleared for 5-on-5, but fans should be cautiously optimistic about his return. The Sixers also have plenty of offensive firepower to win games when Embiid is unable to go.
The 76ers have perhaps the deepest lineup in the Atlantic, and one of the deepest lineups in the Eastern Conference. After years of suffering, this year could finally be the one where things start to come together. It’s tough to envision such a young team beating Boston or Cleveland, but things are certainly heading in the right direction. The wildcard on the team is Simmons. Basketball fans have an idea of the ceilings’ of Embiid and Fultz, but Simmons has perhaps the highest ceiling of any rookie since LeBron James.
Record Projection: 48-34
Player to Watch: Ben Simmons
1st Place: Boston Celtics
The Celtics only return four players from last year’s team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. They lost their heart and soul in Isaiah Thomas and traded away their best defensive player in Avery Bradley. However, those losses should be offset by the additions of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Irving gives Boston the presence of one of the league’s most prominent stars, and Gordon Hayward is a two-way menace that is reuniting with his college coach, Brad Stevens. The Celtics lost some depth at forward with the departure of Jae Crowder, but made up for it by selecting Jayson Tatum with the 3rd overall pick. It will take some time for the new pieces to develop chemistry, but the Celtics have a roster stocked with firepower, and should have no trouble spacing the floor at all times.
Record Projection: 52-30
Player to Watch: Jayson Tatum
Overall, the Atlantic Divsion race should develop into an interesting one. Expect the Raptors, Celtics, and 76ers to compete for playoff spots while the Knicks and Nets continue their rebuilds.
“Photo: Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports”