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2018-19 NBA Predictions: Atlantic Division

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Philadelphia 76ers” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In what is the best division in the Eastern Conference – and maybe the NBA – the Atlantic Division featured the conference’s top-three seeds in the 2018 NBA Playoffs.

The Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers finished one, two and three, respectively, and all won a first-round playoff series. Boston and Philly faced off in the conference semifinals, with Boston emerging victorious with a 4-1 series win. Boston would end up forcing a game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals and losing the series to Cleveland.

With the Raptors making some big moves, the Celtics getting some key players back from injuries, and the 76ers a talented, young team on the rise, the upcoming 2018-19 season looks to be as entertaining as last season.

Let’s go ahead and take a look at the 2018-19 Atlantic Division.

 

1. BOSTON CELTICS

OFFSEASON & REVIEW

Record: 55-27 (2nd Atlantic, 2nd East).

Postseason Result: First round – Beat Milwaukee 4-3. Semifinals – Beat Philadelphia 4-1. Finals – Lost to Cleveland 4-3.

Offseason Acquisitions:

  • Drafted PF Robert Williams (Texas A&M; Round 1/Pick 27).
  • Re-signed PG Marcus Smart (4 yr/$52 mil).
  • Re-signed C Aron Baynes (2 yr/$10.6 mil).
  • Re-signed SG Jabari Bird (2 yr/$2.9 mil).

Offseason Departures:

  • C Greg Monroe (Toronto).
  • PG Shane Larkin (UFA).

2018-19 PREVIEW/THE BIG QUESTION

The Celtics started the 2017-18 season as contenders for the Eastern Conference after losing in the conference finals to the Cavs the year before. They had lost some key pieces from the team the year before, but added elite talents Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and used the third-overall pick in the draft to take Jayson Tatum. On paper, the Celtics were built to compete with – if not overtake – the Cavs. But hold on.

Just 5 minutes into his Celtics career, Hayward suffered a gruesome leg injury, and in an instant the landscape felt much different in Boston. The Celtics lost their first two games that year, and it became apparent that this injury had shaken the team and might affect their season. Well, the Celtics had other ideas. They rattled off 16 straight wins and became the team everyone thought they would be to start the year, albeit with their free agency prize out for the year. Why is this important to this year’s team you ask?

Well, the Celtics went on to win 55 games and take the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs – also while losing Kyrie Irving near the end of the season! – with a very young team. They got big time minutes and production from players who were expected to contribute off the bench. Fast-forward to this year, those players who saw valuable minutes are now the reserves again, as Hayward and Irving are healthy and ready to contribute. My point: this team is DEEP.

Look, I don’t know how Hayward fits in Boston. We haven’t gotten even a morsel sample size. But he’s a fantastic player and will only make this team better. His return was basically like getting a big time free agent this past off-season. Hayward’s injury bumped Jayson Tatum’s development up a year, and did he ever respond. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting and looked more like a veteran at times than he did a rookie.

“Scary” Terry Rozier is now a back-up point guard who could be starting on over half the teams in the NBA. Rozier was dominant at times in the postseason and was fantastic in the absence of Irving. Jaylon Brown is emerging as one of the top two-way shooting guards in the NBA, and Al Horford remains one of the better two-way centers in the Eastern Conference. The re-singing of Marcus Smart was huge, as Smart is one of the best defensive players in the NBA and a legit sixth-man contender.

Anyway you look at it, this team is talented. They are deep. They have the one of the best head coaches in the game in Brad Stevens. And after getting knocked out the Conference Finals the last two years by the Cleveland Cavaliers, this team is hungry.

Prediction: 60-22

 

2. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

OFFSEASON & REVIEW

Record: 52-30 (3rd Atlantic, 3rd East)

Postseason Result: First round – beat Miami 4-1. Semifinals – Lost to Boston 4-1.

Offseason Acquisitions:

  • C Mike Muscala (Trade w/ Atlanta)
  • SF Wilson Chandler (Trade w/ Denver)
  • Re-signed PG J.J. Redick (1 yr / $12.25 mil)
  • Re-signed C Amir Johnson (1 yr/ $2.4 mil)
  • Signed SF Jonah Bolden (36th overall pick in 2017 draft by PHI)
  • Drafted PG Landry Shamet (Wichita State; Round 1/ 26th overall), SG Zhaire Smith (Texas Tech; Round 1 / Pick 16), PG Shake Milton (SMU; Round 2 / Pick 54)

Offseason Departures:

  • PF Ersan Ilyasova (Milwaukee)
  • SG Marco Belinelli (San Antonio)
  • SG Justin Anderson (Traded to Atlanta)
  • SG Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (Traded to OKC)

2018-19 PREVIEW/THE BIG QUESTION

Featuring one of the NBA’s most dynamic players in Ben Simmons and one of the premier big men in Joel Embiid, the 76ers made a huge leap last season en route to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference standings.

Simmons won a debated rookie-of-the-year award last season after sitting out his entire, um, rookie season in 2016-17. Either way, Simmons is 6’10” and plays point guard for the Sixers, and he plays it well. The “rookie” averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds and was a match-up nightmare with his size on his way to becoming a new-age back-court player in the NBA. Simmons will only get better now as he enters his second season and should pose a nightmare for many teams with smaller lineups. The number-one overall pick from the 2017 NBA draft, Markelle Fultz, appeared in 14 games and adds a potential scorer off the bench behind Simmons. The jury is still out on this guy, but he could be another major player for the Sixers.

Embiid averaged a double-double in his second full season in the league and is on his way to becoming one of the best true centers in the NBA. Embiid likes talking trash, but he can back it up with his dominant play. Veteran Amir Johnson returns and provides valuable depth behind Embiid, along with newly-acquired Mike Muscala.

The Sixers return their top four scorers from last season, with Simmons, Embiid, J.J. Reddick, and Dario Saric. A combined 24.4 points from Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova are gone, replaced with Muscala and newly-acquired Wilson Chandler. Jonah Bolden will be an interesting name to keep an eye on as well.

The depth looks good in Philly, with three draft picks (Shamet, Smith, Milton) who could all provide valuable contributions off the bench. PG T.J. McConnell is a pesky rotational defensive player who adds some occasional scoring. So, with McConnell, Fultz, Shamet, and Simmons, this point guard group looks pretty fantastic.

Bottom line is this: teams need to watch out for the Sixers. Their youth was on display against the Celtics in their semifinal playoff series loss, but they have a ton of first round draft picks who are developing and are now a year more experienced. This team is scary good and will likely cause teams fits all year with their athleticism. How could I forget? They open the season against the Celtics in what could be an Eastern Conference finals match-up. Big time.

Prediction: 54-28

 

3. TORONTO RAPTORS

OFFSEASON & REVIEW

Record: 59-23 (1st Atlantic, 1st East)

Postseason Result: First round – Beat Washington 4-2. Semifinals – Lost to Cleveland 4-0.

Offseason Acquisitions:

  • SF Kawhi Leonard (Trade w/ Spurs)
  • SG Danny Green (Trade w/ Spurs)
  • C Greg Monroe (Boston)
  • Re-signed PG Fred Van Vleet (2 yrs/$18 mil)
  • Head coach Nick Nurse (assistant w/ Raptors)

Offseason Departures:

  • SG DeMar DeRozan (Traded to Spurs)
  • C Jakob Poeltl (Traded to Spurs)
  • Head coach Dwane Casey (Detroit)

2018-19 PREVIEW/THE BIG QUESTION

What an off-season it was for the Raptors.

They finished first in the Eastern Conference last season, won a first-round playoff series, then got swept by the Cavs in the semifinals, and thought, “Hey! I think we need to fire our head coach.” Waa waa. Well, head coach Dwane Casey HAD led the Raptors to an Atlantic Division title four-out-of-five years, and had ZERO Eastern Conference finals to show for it. And getting knocked out at the hands of the Cavs the last three years has GOT to be frustrating for the Raptors front office. So I guess maybe that’s why he was fired. Enter Nick Nurse – who has been an assistant for the Raptors since 2013 – to take over the reigns as head coach. At least there should be some continuity in the schemes he will be running for the returning players. Which leads me to my next point:

In what was one of the hottest story-lines of the NBA off-season (behind the usual LeBron drama), Kawhi Leonard was traded from the San Antonio Spurs to the Raptors in exchange for last season’s top scorer on the team, DeMar DeRozan. Say whaaaaat?! There were other parts to the trade, like Toronto giving up a protected 2019 first-round draft pick and back-up center Jakob Poeltl and Toronto getting Danny Green, but DeRozan and Leonard were the centerpieces. Kawhi had grown distant with Gregg Poppovich in San Antonio and the deal was bound to happen. But Toronto came seemingly out of nowhere to nab the defensive master Leonard and shore up an already solid defense. With Leonard a free agent after the season, it will be interesting to see what shakes up over the coming months. Will he sign long term, or is he just a very expensive rental for Toronto?

Adding Leonard to the lineup with center Jonas Valanciunas and power forward Serge Ibaka gives the Raptors a very solid offensive and defensive front-court. Ibaka is a blocking machine in the middle and Valanciunas is a 7’0″, 265 pound monster at center. Kyle Lowry and Danny Green make up a formidable back-court. Green moves into a starting role after playing as a reserve last year in San Antonio and will not match the scoring output DeRozan provided, but the hope is that Leonard will make up for that scoring and be a better defender for the Raptors. Bottom line, this team shouldn’t fall off too far, but with a new head coach and a potential diva in Leonard, the potential is there for a bit of a fall-off.

Prediction: 50-32

 

4. NEW YORK KNICKS

OFFSEASON & REVIEW

Record: 29-53 (4th Atlantic, 11th East)

Postseason Result: N/A

Offseason Acquisitions:

  • PF Mario Hezonja (Orlando)
  • PF Noah Vonleh (Chicago)
  • Drafted SF Kevin Knox (Kentucky; Round 1 / Pick 9), C Mitchell Robinson (Chalmette HS; Round 2 / Pick 36)
  • Head coach David Fizdale

Offseason Departures:

  • C Kyle O’Quinn (Indiana)
  • SF Michael Beasley (LA Lakers)
  • PG Jarrett Jack (New Orleans)
  • Head coach Jeff Hornacek

2018-19 PREVIEW/THE BIG QUESTION

The New York Knicks finished under .500 for the fifth-straight year in 2017-18. Another ho-hum year. Head coach Jeff Hornacek got fired as a result, continuing a trend of Knicks’ head coaches lasting two seasons and getting the axe.

Enter David Fizdale, who most recently lasted one season and 19 games with the Memphis Grizzles during the ’16-’17, ’17-’18 seasons. Fizdale was fired after a slow 7-12 start in ’17-’18 and benching star Marc Gasol. Now he gets to come to NYC, under an even bigger microscope than he was in while in Memphis. Remember, Spike Lee is watching.

Fizdale has a tough task ahead of him, as he will be without star power forward Kristaps Porzingas until at least December while he recovers from an ACL injury. Porzingis led the Knicks in scoring last year and will be a huge void in the lineup to start the year. The Knicks did sign power forwards Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh to provide depth at the position, but come on – no one can replace the unique skill set the 7’3″ Unicorn brings to the lineup.

Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter return as leading scorers (other than Porzingis, of course). Hardaway had a career year scoring (17.5 ppg), while also logging a career high in mintues per game – 33.1. Hardaway should see a lot more minutes this year – especially while Porzingis is out – so that the Knicks have someone on the court who can score. Kanter averaged a double-double and is a very good rebounder. Look for him to also benefit in the stat department while Porzingis recovers. Kevin Knox is a legit rookie-of-the-year candidate and should post some big stats, but again – he’s just a rookie. Can he lead a team? Unlikely.

The big thing for the Knicks is this – can they stay afloat while Porzingas recovers, or will this team sink before it even begins to tread water? They did finish 3-0 in the preseason, so maybe things are looking up in NY. But hey, does anyone remember how anyone finishes in the preseason? Nope. My guess is it’s going to be a long year in NYC for Fizdale and the Knicks.

Prediction: 27-55

 

5. BROOKLYN NETS

OFFSEASON & REVIEW

Record: 28-54 (5th Atlantic, 12th East)

Postseason Result: N/A

Offseason Acquisitions:

  • PG Shabazz Napier (Portland)
  • PF Ed Davis (Portland)
  • SG Treveon Graham (Charlotte)
  • PF Kenneth Faried (Trade w/ Denver)
  • SF Jared Dudley (Trade w/ Phoenix)
  • Re-sign SG Joe Harris (2 yr/ $16 mil)

Offseason Departures:

  • PG Jeremy Lin (Trade w/ Atlanta)
  • SG Nik Stauskas (Portland)
  • C Jahlil Okafor (New Orleans)

2018-19 PREVIEW/THE BIG QUESTION

What do you do to improve your team when you finish last in the Atlantic and 12th in the East? If you’re the Brooklyn Nets, mostly you do nothing. And that’s exactly the plan.

The Nets finished 2017-18 with their ninth losing season in the last eleven years, and if this past offseason was any indication, 2018-19 is shaping up to be their tenth in twelve years.

The Nets finished with 28 wins last season and did very little to improve their roster, a team who was last in the East in points allowed per game. They added a few names, but really no one of any significance. The Nets drafted two kids from Europe who will be stashed for the future, again without a high pick.

Shabazz Napier is probably the top free agent they brought in, as he was buried on the depth chart behind Damian Lillard in Portland. Napier played in 74 games last year, but only started nine. He did have 8.7 points per game, and now he comes to Brooklyn to again be a rotational piece with D’Angelo Russell. Russell is still young, but has not lived up to being the number two overall pick by the Lakers in the 2015 draft. He should have ample opportunities to score, so who knows – maybe this is the year he breaks out. I’m expecting he sets a career high in scoring, surpassing his previous high of 15.6 in ’16-’17.

Looking up and down this lineup, though, there is a lot of youth. And with youth often come growing pains. Just two players are over age 30 (DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley). The projected starting-five has an average age of 24.6 years old. 2018-’19 will likely be a bad year for the Nets. But it’s only year three of Sean Marks’ grand rebuild, and the Nets will finally have a first-round pick (likely lottery) in the 2019 NBA Draft after the Celtics have owned all their picks for what feels like a decade. Although there could be growing pains – a la the 76ers – the Nets could be heading in the right direction for the future.

The big question is this: How bad will this team be, and will they be bad enough for a top-3 pick in next year’s draft? I think there’s a good chance Brooklyn finally gets a chance to select a big name and start adding legit college talent to begin a slow rebuild. Just don’t mess it up.

Prediction: 22-60

 

PREDICTED DIVISION STANDINGS:

  1. Boston Celtics (60-22)
  2. Philadelphia 76ers (54-28)
  3. Toronto Raptors (50-32)
  4. New York Knicks (27-55)
  5. Brooklyn Nets (22-60)

There you have it. Polar opposites in terms of balance in the Atlantic, with three powerhouses at the top and two cellar-dwellers at the bottom. The Atlantic will have three teams in the playoffs yet again – and maybe even the Eastern representative for the NBA Finals – and continue to be one of the top divisions in the NBA.

 

 

 

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The GOAT Report-featuring Adam Hatlan

I'm the GOAT. Ok, maybe not. What I actually am is a freelance sports writer for three local newspapers in the Madison, WI area. I love hearing feedback and having friendly discussions about sports.

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