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From now until Celtics training camp opens, we’ll be asking questions about the team as the upcoming season approaches. Today: How does the Atlantic Division shape up?
BOSTON – Division titles have never been something the Celtics paid much attention to.
Having won more NBA titles (17) than any franchise, the idea of paying homage to anything other than a championship, at least around here, is downright sacrilegious.
But when talking about the Celtics and success at the highest level, those conversations have more to do with history than the present.
While Boston has either won or shared more Atlantic Division titles (21) than any other team in the division, the Celtics haven’t finished atop the Atlantic since the strike-shortened 2012 season.
Toronto, a member of the Atlantic Division since its inception in 1995, has emerged as one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams in the last decade.
And that success has been fueled in part by the Raptors consistently ranking at or near the top of the Atlantic Division.
In fact, the Raptors have finished with the best record in the Atlantic each of the past three years. Prior to that, Toronto only finished tops in the division once (2007).
Both are once again poised to have solid seasons, but fellow Atlantic Division teams New York and Philadelphia should also be better than they have been in recent years.
So how will the Atlantic Division shape up this season?
The Nets will be among the teams in the hunt for the top overall pick in next June’s NBA draft, and the Boston Celtics who can flip their own first-round pick for Brooklyn’s in 2017 could not be any happier.
Brooklyn has a rookie head coach in Kenny Atkinson who is known for player development after serving assistant coaching stints with New York (2008-2012) and Atlanta (2012-2016).
Other than center Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin, there’s not a lot to like about this roster. They have lots of youth with Randy Foye (32) and Luis Scola (36) the only players at least 30 years old.
Being competitive while figuring out which players among their youngsters to keep as part of the core going forward, will be at the forefront of challenges awaiting the Nets this season.
And unlike a lot of teams, they won’t have the luxury of being “rewarded” for their struggles with a high draft pick courtesy of the 2013 trade with the Celtics that sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn.
The Nets only got one season out of the trio which never came close to living up to the expectations which at the time centered around them being a power in the East.
Instead, Terry was traded to Sacramento while Pierce signed with the Los Angeles Clippers the following season.
With Terry and Pierce gone, Garnett dropped his no-trade clause which allowed him to be traded back to Minnesota – the franchise he spent the first 12 years in the league playing for.
That trade more than anything else, is why the Nets have been among the worst teams in the NBA the past couple of years and will struggle in the near future to avoid being a lottery team.
Finally, the NBA’s punchline for poor play is starting to show signs of fighting back towards respectability.
After years of tanking, the Sixers now have a roster that sort of, kind of resembles an NBA roster with potential.
Drafting Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick in last June’s NBA draft ahead of Brandon Ingram was a smart call. His ties with head coach Brett Brown, the versatility that he presents in a 6-foot-10 package, was just too good for them to pass over.
Jahlil Okafor was among the best low-post scorers among rookies last season, and Nerlens Noel really started to come into his own as a rim-protecting big man who could excel in the open floor by utilizing his speed.
The frontcourt is even deeper with Joel Embiid finally healthy enough to play (he has missed the past two seasons due to injuries) and Dario Saric deciding to join the team that traded for him on draft night two years ago.
The good news is that Philadelphia has a lot of young talent in the frontcourt.
The bad news?
They have a lot of young talent upfront which means there will be at least one really promising young player who will not play or see extremely limited action this season unless they do what most expect them to do and that’s trade one of them away.
If that was their biggest issue, the Sixers would be in pretty good shape going forward.
But in addition to an overflow of forwards, they also have a seriously talent-depleted roster at the point guard position. Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez and T.J. McConnell each have different strengths. But the one common thread that binds them besides playing for Philadelphia, is they’re all backups who will be vying for a job as a starter.
And as you delve deeper into the Sixers roster, the lack of talent they have relative to the rest of this division stands out which is why they will once again be among the worst teams not just in the Atlantic Division but the NBA as well.
NEW YORK KNICKS
The Knicks are one of the more intriguing teams in the Atlantic Division this season. They signed ex-Chicago big man Joakim Noah and traded for his Bulls teammate Derrick Rose, giving Carmelo Anthony another elite scorer (Rose) and an elite defender (Noah) to play with this season.
However, recent health issues factored into Rose being available to be traded and the Knicks having little competition for Noah who was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year just two years ago.
If both players are able to play relatively close to where they were a few years ago, the Knicks will be more than just a playoff team. They would have a team that could legitimately win a playoff series or two.
But the idea that all three players will stay relatively healthy most of the season and Kristaps Porzingis’ rapid development will continue to stay on the fast track, is asking for a perfect storm for a franchise that has a wide array of issues in recent years both on and off the court.
Rose has averaged 41.5 games played in the last three seasons, but he has a different court to worry about this season.
A woman referred to as “Jane Doe” has filed a $21.5 million civil lawsuit against Rose that alleges he and two friends drugged her at a party and hours later gang raped her.
Knicks president of basketball operations told ESPN New York’s Ian Begley that the Knicks “… anticipate that it will not affect his season hopefully, training camp or games.”
Regardless if it does or not, it’s not like the Knicks have been an Atlantic Division power lately; more like powerless when you see their weak track record in the last decade.
In the past 10 seasons, the Knicks have finished atop the Atlantic just once (2013), a time frame that includes finishing third or worst seven times.
For the past three years, the Raptors have been the class of the Atlantic Division. They have not only finished atop the division, but did so in convincing fashion with the average runner-up in the division being seven games back.
But this season has truly been one of transition for a Toronto team that’s looking to be more than just a good playoff team but a squad that can eventually knock off Eastern Conference power Cleveland.
Toronto went into last season feeling good about its chances, especially after they signed DeMarre Carroll who has been one of the better defenders in the league against Cavs star LeBron James. However, Carroll spent a significant chunk of last season out with a knee injury.
But the engine that drives the Raptors towards success remains Kyle Lowry, the All-Star point guard. His leadership, toughness and clutch factor was pivotal in Toronto advancing to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in the franchise’s history last season.
Repeating that success won’t be easy, especially when you consider the losses they suffered in the frontcourt.
The most noticeable change was Bismack Biyombo signing with the Orlando Magic. In addition to Biyombo, the Raptors also lost James Johnson and Luis Scola to Miami and Brooklyn.
However, the Raptors do return Jonas Valanciunas at center and added ex-Celtic Jared Sullinger via free agency along with drafting Jakob Poeltl.
Toronto will be among the better teams in the East and for the first time in years will have a serious challenger for Atlantic Division supremacy.
For a team that hasn’t been out of the first round of the playoffs, the expectations for the Celtics this season have been really high.
Vegas has them as one of just a handful of teams that’s expected to win 50-plus games.
That makes a lot of sense considering they won 48 last season and the roster Danny Ainge has assembled for this season, is noticeably better on several fronts.
Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley form a potent tandem. Jae Crowder gives them some much-needed versatility at the small forward position or power forward if needed.
The bench was a strength last season and is even stronger now with the offseason addition of first-round pick Jaylen Brown, ex-Celtic Gerald Green being back in the fold as well as veterans Jonas Jerebko, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller.
But maybe the most significant addition for this season and certainly in the Brad Stevens era, was getting Al Horford.
He becomes the most significant free agent signing ever for a franchise that has struggled mightily in attracting top-shelf free agents in the past.
For all the talent that the Celtics now have, adding Horford gives them a sense of completeness that they can not only build off of last season’s success, but also do something that Stevens-coached teams have not achieved – get past the first round of the playoffs.
In fact, it was Horford’s Atlanta Hawks that sent the Celtics home for the summer last season by knocking Boston out in the first round in six games.
The Celtics signed Horford to a four-year, $113 million contract because he’s a really good player. But just as significant, he’s a winner. Prior to playing for the Hawks, Horford won a pair of national titles at the University of Florida.
And while in Atlanta, he made eight playoff appearances with the Hawks getting past the first round five times.
That kind of steady success is one of the many things Boston will be banking on Horford to provide. And part of that success includes knocking off the Toronto Raptors in the Atlantic Division, something that’s far more attainable with Horford on board.