The first in a group of NBA divisional previews focuses on the Atlantic Division, which is set to be the weakest division in basketball. Two of the three worst teams in the league last season reside in this division, while all three teams who made the playoffs were defeated in the first round. This season figures to deliver more of the same.
1st - Toronto Raptors
The Raptors finished last season 49-33 and fourth in the Eastern Conference, but fell in the first round. Kyle Lowry remains a top quality point guard, and with DeMar DeRozan and the newly acquired DeMarre Carroll forms arguably the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference. Jonas Valanciunas has signed a new contract is remains a quality offensive centre, while former #1 draft pick comes home to Canada to attempt to salvage something of a career caught in neutral.
Opponents shot 46.0% against Toronto last season, which ranked them fourth-worst in the league in this category. While they feature one of the deeper teams in the league and have recruited well by bringing in Carroll, Bennett, Cory Joseph and veteran Luis Scola, they figure to be too poor defensively and lacking the star quality to contend with the top teams in the East. A playoff spot is a certainty, but getting out of the first round remains a coin-flip.
Likely starters - Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Valanciunas
Key reserves - Scola, Bennett, Joseph, Terrence Ross, James Johnson
2nd - Boston Celtics
The Celtics made the playoffs ahead of schedule last season, getting swept in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers when everyone, well, expected them to get swept. They have added veterans Amir Johnson and David Lee to a talented young nucleus and will play solid defence, but finding the right mix of offense and defence will be the challenge for second year coach Brad Stevens.
The addition of Lee is a great move. As small a role as he played for the Golden State Warriors last season, Lee has been a star in this league and if healthy could average 18 points and 10 rebounds a game. Point guard Isaiah Thomas provides instant offense, and looked to be a perfect fit when traded in during the season. However the weakness are not likely to be helped by these two players; the interior defence is woeful, as is the outside shooting. A solid core of 10 players should be enough to secure another playoffs berth, but their ability to do any more than again be first-round fodder rests largely with Lee, Thomas and the fast maturation of Marcus Smart.
Likely starters - Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Lee, Tyler Zeller
Key reserves - Isaiah Thomas, Johnson, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Johan Jerebko
3rd - New York Knicks
While they should finish 3rd in the division, they may well finish 13th in the Eastern Conference as the least-worst of a terrible Atlantic trio. Carmelo Anthony remains an offensive star and one of the very few players in the league capable of leading his team single-handedly to victory. On the flipside, he is often a black hole offensively and below par offensively, as well as being a far from ideal leader. While Robin Lopez, Kyle O'Quinn, Derrick Williams and Arron Afflalo have been added to the roster and provide solid depth, they would be more effective as complementary role players and not ones relied on to lead. All were given long-term contracts and will be looked to as the next generation of Knicks, and the Madison Garden faithful will be hopeful of success rather than expectant of it.
The offense was historically bad last season, ranking 30th in scoring and 29th in offensive efficiency and while this will improve if Anthony remains healthy there is very little else to get excited about on the roster. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis was one of the more controversial lottery selection of recent times at #4 and will feel the wrath of the parochial home town fans if he doesn't produce quality from the outset.
Likely starters – Jose Calderon, Afflalo, Anthony, O’Quinn, Lopez
Key reserves - Williams, Langston Galloway, Kevin Seraphin, Porzingis
4th - Brooklyn Nets
The roster turnover was significant as the Nets looked to find a way to become relevant again. Andrea Bargnani shapes as a handy offensive addition, but having him play alongside centre Brook Lopez will provide headaches as both are mediocre defenders. The losses of Deron Williams and Mason Plumlee could leave gaping holes, but Joe Johnson and Jarrett Jack provide consistency and swingman Thaddeus Young showed glimpses of potential in his first year as a Net.
Lopez deserves a decent run with injury, and if he gets it may well leap into the upper echelon of offensive big men but there is so much pressure on him to perform. Few rosters have less talent, and even if they can get the chemistry right the lack of offensive firepower and shortage of decent defenders their absolute ceiling seems to be 30-35 wins.
Likely starters - Jack, Johnson, Young, Bargnani, Lopez
Key reserves - Thomas Robinson, Wayne Ellington, Dahntay Jones, Bojan Bogdanovic
5th - Philadelphia 76ers
Tanking means something different to every sports fan, but a few would regard the 2014-15 season of the Sixers as being the pure definition of tanking, not that there is anything wrong with that. I mean, it enabled them to Jahlil Okafor and pair him with young star Nerlens Noel in a tandem that few other teams can match for pure young talent.
Outside of those two, it is as barren as any NBA roster in history as far as talent goes. Robert Covington and Tony Wroten have provided glimpses of being serviceable NBA players but they contributed heavily to a team that led the league in turnovers and shot an anaemic 40.8% from the field last season. Philadelphia natives would be best sitting back and enjoying Noel and Okafor in full flight, and hoping that Joel Embiid can catch a break with his foot injury because this team is shaping as one that will wallow in depths of despair for at least the next couple of years.
Likely starters - Isaiah Canaan, Wroten, Covington, Okafor, Noel
Key reserves - Carl Landry, Jerami Grant, Gerald Wallace, JaKarr Sampson, Kendall Marshall