X-Toronto Raptors 49-33 (3)
Last season the Toronto Raptors came out of nowhere to win the Atlantic Division. The Raptors did it with a team that had a workman like approach and also had a star in the making. Last season Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan averaged a career-high in points with 22.7 per game and at 25-years of age he is in the process of becoming the new face of the franchise in Toronto. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri received good news this summer when point guard Kyle Lowry turned down an opportunity to join the Miami Heat and return to Canada. Like DeRozan, Lowry averaged a career-high in points last season (17.9) along with 7.4 assists per game. Heading into this season the starting backcourt of Lowry and DeRozan gives Raptors head coach Dwane Casey one of the best combos at the guard position in the Eastern Conference.
Aside from Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors will rely on a slew of role players that include center Jonas Valenciunas, power forwards Amir Johnson, and Patrick Patterson along with guard Greivis Vasquez who all know how to go out there and do all of the dirty things for Toronto to be successful.
The schedule at the beginning of the season is not a difficult one for the Raptors and as their expectations have changed, Toronto will need to be up for the challenge in 2014.
Brooklyn Nets 46-36 (5)
The Brooklyn Nets have called Downtown Brooklyn home for two seasons and in the process they have made a pair of trips to the postseason. But will the Nets be able to take that next step for the 2014-2015 NBA season? The Nets will begin this season with their fourth head coach since the start of the 2012-2013 NBA season. Lionel Hollins is the new head coach of the Nets. Hollins comes to the Nets after he led the Memphis Grizzlies to the 2013 Western Conference Finals and the main reason why he is in Brooklyn is the fact that he knows how to deal with different personalities.
The Nets are a veteran team that needs shooting guard Joe Johnson, center Brook Lopez, and point guard Deron Williams to all be healthy and on the same page. Last season Lopez only appeared in 17 games as a foot injury kept him on the sidelines. In the past three seasons Lopez has combined to miss 150 games. More than ever the Nets will need a healthy Lopez in the post as he has averaged 18.0 points per game in his NBA career.
It is put up or shut up time for Williams in Brooklyn. Last season Williams had his worst season since his rookie campaign during the 2005-2006 NBA season. Last season Williams only averaged 14.3 points and 6.1 assists per game as he drew the ire of many members of the New York media as they feel that he is not living up to the five-year, $98 million deal that he inked two years ago. Williams has cited bad ankles, but he has developed a reputation of being a coach killer and a prima donna. Williams must push all of that to the side and find a way to focus on being the leader of the Nets. For Johnson he is coming off of one best shooting years as a pro as he was 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc and he should flourish in Hollins’ offensive system.
Hollins and the Nets have a tremendous supporting cast of veterans and youngsters alike to support Lopez, Williams, and Johnson. Nets power forward Kevin Garnett is entering his 20th NBA season and his second in Brooklyn. Garnett is 38-years old and he is coming off of his worst season as a professional as he only averaged 6.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. But Garnett is the consummate pro and he wants to go out on better terms than that. Last season as rookie, Nets center Mason Plumlee averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds and he has the potential for a breakout season if Brooklyn cannot rely on a healthy Lopez. At 6’10″, Plumlee has a knack for running the floor and the basketball always seems to find him. This season the Nets will be the seventh NBA team for point guard Jarrett Jack. For his nine-year NBA career Jack has averaged 10.9 points and 4.3 assists per contest and he is a player that will push Williams for minutes at the point guard position.
Of the Nets first seven games in the upcoming season, only one contest will be against a playoff team from last season which is an opportunity for Hollins and his crew to jump out of the chute fast as they look to win the Atlantic Division.
New York Knicks 40-42
The New York Knicks are set to begin a new era of basketball that has their faithful fans in the Big Apple buzzing. After winning 11 NBA Championships as a head coach, Phil Jackson has returned to the franchise that he helped win a pair of NBA Titles as a player in the 1970′s. But this time around Jackson will not be coaching as he has instead opted to be the Knicks team president. Jackson came aboard late in the 2013-2014 NBA season and he began the process of shaping the franchise in his own image.
Jackson’s first order of business was to find a protege that he could groom as a head coach. Derek Fisher just capped off a 20-year playing career in the NBA. Fisher spent 9 of those 20 seasons playing for Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers where the two combined to win five NBA Championships. Now Fisher will get his shot to show the world that he can lead an NBA team.
Jackson had his hands full over the summer as he had to convince small forward Carmelo Anthony to remain with the Knicks. Anthony opted out of his deal and there was speculation that he would chase a championship in another NBA city. But the allure of being under the guidance of Jackson along with being in the Big Apple was enough to convince Anthony to remain with the Knicks. But this is not the most talented team in the world that will be around Mr. Anthony.
Knicks power forward Amar’e Stoudemire has a pair of bum knees and his stats have declined in each of his four seasons with the Knicks. Stoudemire is the final year of his contract as he is set to earn nearly $21.7 million and you can expect Jackson to attempt to trade him. The Knicks have a duo at the shooting guard position in Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith that have fallen out of favor with the Knicks front office. Shumpert could simply use a fresh start with a new team while Smith has a low basketball IQ which will make it tough for him to navigate the triangle offense. Veteran point guard Jose Calderon is 33-years of age and he has been a journeyman as he appears to be the Knicks starting point guard of the present, but how effective will he be?
For his 11-year NBA career, Anthony has been one of the best scorers in the league. In the triangle offense Anthony will be asked be more of a team player, but the Knicks simply don’t have that consistent sidekick that he can depend on. Six of the Knicks first eight games this season will be against playoff teams from a year ago and the New York media will have a field day if the Knickerbockers get off to a slow start.
Boston Celtics 32-50
The Boston Celtics are rebuilding and the process could take a little bit longer than they initially expected. The Celtics only won 25 games last season. The ping-pong balls didn’t bounce the way that the Celtics expected last spring as they had to settle for the sixth overall pick which they used on guard Marcus Smart. By trade Smart is a point guard, but he has a scorer’s mentality and it will be interesting to see how he will be used in Celtics head coach Brad Stevens’ system. The Celtics already have point guard Rajon Rondo and you never know how the wind will blow with him. Rondo has seen the best of times and the worst of times with the Celtics as he was the starting point guard when Boston won the NBA Championship in 2008. Rondo can be high maintenance and it would be in the best interest of Celtics general manager Danny Ainge to trade Rondo. But it will be tough to ship Rondo out of town now since he is currently recovering from a broken hand.
Whomever the Celtics starting point guard is for the upcoming season he will team with shooting guard Avery Bradley in the backcourt. But Smart and Rondo must find a way to get the Celtics froncourt involved that includes forwards Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, and Jared Sullinger, along with center Tyler Zeller. Sullinger has the potential to become an All-Star, but it all comes down to the big man remaining healthy.
Stevens is set to begin his second season as the Celtics head coach and a fast start this fall could go a long way for him and his young team.
Philadelphia 76ers 22-60
Unfortunately for the basketball fans on Broad Street, the term “starting over” and the Philadelphia 76ers seem to go together. The Sixers only managed to win 19 games last season and they have numerous questions marks on their roster heading into this season. The last two years have seen the 76ers use early picks in the NBA Draft on players that have been unable to contribute. Last year the Sixers traded point guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for the draft rights to center Nerlens Noel. While at the University of Kentucky, Noel suffered an ACL injury which kept him out of action for the entire 2013-2014 NBA season. Noel is expected to be on the floor for the Sixers this season, but you just don’t know what he is going to be able to give the team. Then there is center Joel Embiid. Embiid was selected by the 76ers third overall in last spring’s NBA Draft, but a broken bone in his foot currently has him sidelined. The Sixers do have the NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year in point guard Michael Carter-Williams who averaged 16.7 points per game to go along with 6.3 assists, but one man cannot do it by himself in the NBA.
For the fans in Philadelphia, they can take solace that their Eagles are in playoff contention in the NFC East which can help to cushion the blow another potentially bad season from the 76ers.