Will the duo of point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan be together next season?
X-Toronto Raptors 54-28 (3)
The past three years have seen the Toronto Raptors become the class of the Atlantic Division. The Raptors have focused on basketball fundamentals which has led to more wins and a growing fan base in Canada. The Raptors will begin the upcoming NBA season as the three-time defending Atlantic Division Championships, and after Toronto reached the Eastern Conference Finals last June for the first time in franchise history, the expectations around this team have increased.
Dwane Casey is set to begin his sixth season with the Raptors and in each of his campaign’s in Toronto, the team’s win total has increased. And after the Raptors won a franchise best 56 games last season, they are poised to once again be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
The backbone of the Raptors has been their All-Star backcourt of point guard Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan averaged a career-high in points last season at 23.5 points per game as he continues to improve as a perimeter shooter. Lowry’s numbers have continued throughout his NBA career as he is emerging as one of the better point guards in the league. Last year Lowry averaged 21.2 points and 6.4 assists per contest and as he intends to test free agency next summer.
Around Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors have developing players such as center Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas has spent his entire four-year NBA career with the Raptors and his numbers continue to improve as he averaged 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds last season. Valanciunas is a prime candidate to average a double-double this season which could make the Raptors that more difficult to deal with. The Raptors signed center Jared Sullinger who could be a solid role player in Toronto after he spent the last four years with the Boston Celtics. And the Raptors first-round pick in center/power forward Jakob Poltl could give them another dynamic as a big man that can stretch the floor with his ability to hit he mid-range jump shot.
Size has been the one thing that has held the Raptors back in recent years, but as this team continues to get better in the front court, their chances of being a title contender are that much better.
Y-Boston Celtics 48-34 (4)
The past two years have seen the Boston Celtics become “The Little Engine That Could” of the NBA. The Celtics are not the most talented team in the league, but they scrap and claw on a nightly basis as they are a team that opponents are not excited to face. Brad Stevens is the Celtics head coach, and it is a post that he has maintained for the last three years. And in each year that Stevens has been in Boston, the Celtics win total has increased. The last two seasons have seen the Celtics make the playoffs, but they’ve been unable to advance past the first round. However will things change for the Celtics next spring?
Last year saw point guard Isaiah Thomas turn into a star for the Celtics. Thomas led the Celtics in points per game (22.2) and assists (6.2) as he earned his first All-Star Game nod. Thomas has solid ability as a point guard being that is able to penetrate, but for the Celtics to take that next step they are going to need a consistent low-post presence.
For the last nine years, center Al Horford has been one of the cornerstones of the Atlanta Hawks. With the Hawks, Horford was a four-time NBA All-Star as he averaged 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds during his time there. But when Horford became a free agent this past summer, the Hawks signed center Dwight Howard which made him expendable. And when the Celtics offered Horford $113 million on a four-year deal, he jumped on it.
Horford gives the Celtics a dependable scorer in the post, and he has already been named as one of the team’s captains which gives you an idea of the respect that he commands.
The combination of guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley continue to pester opponents with their frenetic play at both ends of the floor. Both Smart and Bradley are two of the better defenders at the point guard position along with each player providing a change of pace on offense which gives Stevens more options as he preaches versatility with his team.
Veteran small forward Jae Crowder should be able to feed off of Horford’s presence in the front court as he no longer has to be the Celtics primary scoring option in the post. The Celtics have high hopes for their first-round pick in small forward Jaylen Brown. But a sleeper on this roster could be rookie forward Ben Bentil who averaged 21.1 points and 7.7 rebounds last year in the college for the Providence Friars. Aside from leading the Friars in scoring and rebounds, Bentil also led the team with 52 made three-point field goals, and his scoring ability will be huge off of the bench for the Celtics.
Five of the Celtics first six games this season will be at home, and a fast start could be just what they need to push the Toronto Raptors for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
New York Knicks 41-41
When Phil Jackson became the president of the New York Knicks in March 2014, he brought excitement and expectations to the franchise. But in two seasons under Jackson’s regime, the Knicks have only managed to win 49 games, while the man that he was grooming to be the next “great head coach” in Derek Fisher was fired last season after the team got off to a 23-31 start. Kurt Rambis would be named as the Knicks interim head coach for the remainder of the season as New York went 9-19 under him. But what was even more surprising than the firing of Fisher was that Jeff Hornacek was hired to be the new head coach of the Knickerbockers.
The Knicks will be Hornacek’s second NBA coaching gig after he compiled a record of 101-112 in nearly three seasons as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Hornacek was never able to lead the Suns to the postseason, and the highlight of his time in Phoenix was when the team won 48 games during the 2013-2014 NBA season. However it is really going to be very interesting to see how the marriage between Hornacek and Jackson will work since Jackson is notorious for hiring coaches that will solely run his triangle offense which isn’t a specialty of the Knicks new head coach who prefers a more uptempo style of offense.
The hiring of Hornacek smells of Knicks owner James Dolan once again putting his nose into the day-to-day operations of the team which makes you wonder if Jackson’s days at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue are numbered? And even though that the Knicks can be described as the best circus in town, this group must find a way to co-exist in order to make a roster that has individual talent work as a team.
The centerpiece of any potential Knicks success is small forward Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has been with the Knicks since 2011 and he has given New York a face of the franchise while helping them reach the postseason on three occasions. Anthony also led the NBA in scoring during the 2012-2013 NBA season, but since then his offensive numbers have dipped. Anthony is 32-years of age with a bad knee. And although that Anthony can still fill up the bucket, the clock is ticking on he and the Knicks to win a championship together.
The Knicks are hopeful that power forward Kristaps Porzingis will be able to build off of his solid rookie campaign. Last season Porzingis averaged 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. Porzingis came into the NBA being compared to Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki, and he could be a player that could average 17 points and 10 rebounds this season under Hornacek.
This off-season has seen the Knicks bring in an array of veteran players. The Knicks signed former Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah to a four-year deal that is worth $72 million, while also signing guards Brandon Jennings and Courtney Lee. The Knicks would also acquire point guard Derrick Rose from the Bulls to complete their roster overhaul. But unfortunately for the Knicks, these are moves that should have been made five years ago.
In 2011, Rose was the NBA’s MVP as he was one of the league’s brightest stars. However since then knee injuries have derailed Rose’s once promising career. Noah was Rose’s teammate in Chicago where they helped the Bulls to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference when they were healthy. Noah was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 as his toughness and grit defined that era of Bulls basketball. But like Rose, Noah has been dealing with injuries as foot and shoulder issues have limited his effectiveness over his final two seasons in Chicago. The Knicks will be the fourth different team that Jennings has suited up for and he is seeking to find the explosiveness that he had earlier in his career. Like Jennings, Lee has bounced around the NBA as the Knicks will be his seventh different team. Throughout Lee’s career, he has been an underrated defender that should be able to provide a spark off of the Knicks bench for Hornacek.
The Knicks will look to push the pace of play more this season under Hornacek, but the most important thing for New York is to have everyone on the same page as it will be very interesting to see how this motley crew comes together as the season progresses.
Philadelphia 76ers 29-53
It’s no secret that the Philadelphia 76ers have become the worst franchise in the NBA. The 2011-2012 NBA season was the last time that the Sixers finished with a winning record and it was their only winning campaign over the last seven years. The last three seasons have seen the 76ers combine to win 47 games, and to give you an idea of how bad that it has been in Philadelphia, ten NBA teams won more games than the Sixers last year alone than they were able to accomplish over the last three campaigns. Last season was just about as bad as it could get for the Sixers as they managed to go just 10-72 which led to some wholesale changes.
Sam Hinkie was relieved of his duties as the 76ers general manager after he oversaw the worst stretch in franchise history. Former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo was brought in by the Sixers as an advisor and his first order of business was to name his son Bryan as the team’s new president and general manager. The younger Colangelo has a proven track record of putting a team together from his time as the general manager of both the Suns and Toronto Raptors as he was named as the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2007. Now Colangelo is tasked with making the Sixers respectable once again and they could be a team on the rise.
Brett Brown is set to begin his third season as the Sixers head coach and although that the man who hired him in Hinkie is no longer running the show in Philly, he will still be calling the shots on the sideline.
The Sixers will begin the upcoming NBA season on the wrong foot as they will be without the services of small forward Ben Simmons. Simmons was the first overall pick of the NBA Draft this past summer after he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in one year for the LSU Tigers. But a foot injury will keep Simmons out of action for at least three months which will postpone his NBA debut.
The inability for the 76ers to win games in recent years has led to selecting early in the NBA Draft, but Hinkie rolled the dice on players that weren’t healthy. In 2013, the Sixers obtained the draft rights to center Nerlens Noel from the New Orleans Pelicans, but he missed the entire 2013-2014 NBA season after he recovered from a torn ACL that he suffered in college. In 2014, the Sixers used the third overall pick of the draft on center Joel Embiid, but injuries have prevented him from participating in an NBA game. Last year the Sixers first-round pick was center Jahlil Okafor. Unlike Noel and Embiid, Okafor was able to suit up as a rookie for the Sixers as he averaged 17.5 points and 7 rebounds in 53 games before a knee injury cut his rookie campaign short. However all three players are healthy and it should give the 76ers a huge advantage in the front court.
The good things for the folks in Philadelphia is that it can’t get any worse than it has already been. Colangelo is working to bring a competitive team to the City of Brotherly Love and the 76ers should be an improved team this season.
Brooklyn Nets 22-60
Last year was a sign of things to come for the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets lost 61 games last season which was the third worst record in the NBA and the icing on the cake was that they didn’t have a first-round pick to show for their futility. The Nets are still suffering from the moves that were made by former general manager Billy King as most of their recent and future picks are now property of the Boston Celtics after the team’s failed attempt to become an instant title contender in 2013 when they acquired aging players such as power forward Kevin Garnett and small forward Paul Pierce. The Nets run at a title was short lived as they are coming off of their worst campaign since 2010 when they were still the New Jersey Nets.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has finally realized that winning an NBA Championship is not an easy process and instead of the quick process, he has finally decided on the slow, methodical process. Prokhorov has hired Sean Marks as the Nets new general manager and he’ll be tasked with making Brooklyn respectable.
Marks played for 11 seasons in the NBA and he won a championship as a member of the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. Marks has spent the last four years working in the Spurs front office and he is looking to bring some of that winning formula with him to Brooklyn.
Marks’ first order of business was to hire a new coach in Kenny Atkinson. The Nets will mark Atkinson’s first head coaching gig in the NBA, but he has had stints as an assistant coach in the league with the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. And now that Atkinson is running the show in Brooklyn, you can expect him to preach ball movement for the Nets.
One of the few bright spots that the Nets have on their roster is center Brook Lopez. Lopez is coming off of one of his best NBA seasons as he averaged 20.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in 73 games for the Nets. Lopez gives the Nets a solid presence in the post, but trading him to a contending team could return draft picks to Brooklyn that will be needed in order for them to turn things around.
Aside from Lopez, the Nets are a team that is mainly comprised of youngsters that are thankful to be on an NBA roster and veterans that are attempting to hold on. This past summer the Nets signed point guard Jeremy Lin to a three-year, $36 million deal as they are hopeful than he can give them a dose of “Linsanity” as he did when he suited up for the Knicks in 2012. Rookie shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead is a native of Coney Island and he won’t be fazed by playing in front of the hometown fans as he could have a positive impact on this team.
The Nets will be fighting an uphill battle all season long as they have finally come to grips of the reality that is their rebuilding process.
Y-Toronto Raptors 46-36 (7)
The Toronto Raptors are coming off of their best regular season in franchise history, but will they be able to take the next step in the NBA Playoffs? The Raptors have won the Atlantic Division is each of the last two NBA seasons, but it hasn’t resulted in success in the postseason as Toronto has been bounced in the first round each year. Under general manager Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have been a guard oriented team with their big men mainly focusing on rebounding. This philosophy is good enough for the Raptors to win Atlantic Division in the regular season, but the postseason is a different animal.
The Raptors two leading scorers recently have been shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry. DeRozan is an athletic wing player while Lowry is a grizzled point guard. Lowry has shed a few pounds during the off-season in the hope of being able to endure the grind that is the NBA season. Together, DeRozan and Lowry have the ability to put the Raptors on their back which could lead to another division title.
The Raptors do have some size in their frontcourt in center Jonas Valanciunas and power forward Patrick Patterson and they’ll need to improve on the boards as they were just 26th in the NBA in rebounding last season while the acquisition of power forward Luis Scola and small forward DeMarre Carroll should provide Toronto with some extra depth and scoring options up front.
For Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, “small ball” will once again be in effect for his team which should lead to another division title, but they will more than likely be hung out to dry next spring in the NBA Playoffs.
X-Boston Celtics 43-39 (8)
It wasn’t pretty at times, but the Boston Celtics found a way to make the NBA Playoffs last spring. The Celtics went 40-42 to grab a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as the rebuilding process under head coach Brad Stevens is paying off. Stevens is set to begin his third season as the head coach of the Celtics and his squad in Boston is reminiscent of his teams when he was the head basketball coach at Butler University. The Celtics might not have the overall talent of other teams in the NBA, but they scrap, claw, and play as a cohesive unit on a nightly basis which is something that you’ll see from them once again in the upcoming NBA season.
Like some other teams in the NBA, the Celtics have become a guard oriented team. The Celtics acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas last season from the Phoenix Suns. And in 21 games with the Celtics, Thomas averaged 19.0 points per contest. This season it would not surprise me to see Stevens employ a three guard lineup at times with Thomas, along with fellow point guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley as they all possess speed along with the ability to score and facilitate.
In the Celtics front court, they are hopeful that this will be the season in which power forward Jared Sullinger will be able to remain healthy. Sullinger in entering his fourth season with the Celtics, but he has only appeared in 177 games. At 6’9″, 280 lbs., Sullinger gives the Celtics an imposing presence in the post, but he cannot help the team if he is not playing. This off-season the Celtics acquired power forward David Lee from the Golden State Warriors. And if Lee is healthy, what he’ll be able to provide the Celtics with is a player that is always active who doesn’t need many offensive plays called for him in order to contribute which will fit into Stevens’ system.
Swingman Evan Turner is a solid wing player while small forward Jae Crowder, power forward Amir Johnson, center Tyler Zeller, and center Kelly Olnyk give the Celtics depth and size in their front court; especially coming off of the bench.
The Celtics won’t be able to sneak up on teams this season, but a favorable schedule to begin the NBA campaign along with solid determination will have them once again contending for a postseason berth.
Brooklyn Nets 41-41
In their first year under head coach Lionel Hollins, the Brooklyn Nets posted a losing record, but they still were able to navigate their way to the postseason. And in the upcoming NBA season, the Nets are out to prove people wrong who are ready to write them off as far as being able to be a contender.
It was addition by subtraction for the Nets when they parted ways with point guard Deron Williams over the summer. Williams had developed a reputation in New York City of being a “high-priced diva”. And when your production doesn’t equate to your paycheck in the Big Apple, the fans and media alike there don’t have a problem in letting you know that. The Nets would simply buy out the remainder of Williams’ contract as they decided that it was time for them to move on from their former franchise player.
The Nets are the seventh NBA team that point guard Jarrett Jack has played for. Last season with the Nets, Jack averaged 12.0 and 4.7 assists per game as he was splitting time with Williams. But with Williams now with the Dallas Mavericks, Hollins is giving Jack the opportunity to be a starter which is something that he hasn’t consistently done in the NBA. What Jack gives the Nets at the point guard position is a player who is a veteran floor general that can get his teammates involved while staying within the realm of what Hollins wants to have executed on the floor.
After flirting with trading center Brook Lopez last season, the Nets have decided to keep their big man around as he has begun to display the aggression that Hollins consistently needs from him in the post. Lopez has always been a solid scorer, but not a superstar. And if the Nets are cool with Lopez hitting his career averages of 17 points and 7 rebounds per contest, then they’ll have a solid contributor on their hands. Whereas the Nets traded center Mason Plumlee to the Portland Trailblazers over the summer, they are raving about the potential that power forward Thaddeus Young possesses. Nets general manager Billy King drafted Young into the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers back in 2007. And even at the age of 27, we still don’t know how good that Young can truly be as a player due to the fact that he’s never had a solid opportunity to be a focal point of a team which we should see more of this year.
The Nets still have veteran sharpshooter Joe Johnson who is in the final year of his contract. Johnson is set to earn $24.9 million this season and if he or Brooklyn gets off to a slow start this season, I could see him getting shipped out of town. But Johnson is still a solid three-point shooter that could benefit from pick and roll action with Jack along with playing off of Young and Lopez in the post as he looks to join the 20,000-point club this season.
The Nets reserve players will consist of point guard Shane Larkin, swingman Bojan Bogdanovic, and veteran small forward Andrea Bargnani who all have something to prove this season after up and down campaigns last season to say the least.
The Nets will embark on a difficult schedule to begin the NBA season which includes games against the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls, but Hollins is a good motivator and he knows how to adjust as the season goes along which should allow Brooklyn to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot.
New York Knicks 30-52
For some folks it may appear that there is a dark cloud hanging over Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks. The Knicks have not won the Eastern Conference since 1999 and they have not won the NBA Championship since 1973. But in recent years, the Knicks have become a laughing stock in professional sports. The Knicks are coming off of their worst season in franchise history as they went 17-65, and to make matters worse, the ping pong balls didn’t bounce their way at the NBA’s Draft Lottery as they received the fourth overall pick of the draft. The Knicks would select forward Kristaps Porzingis which was welcomed by a chorus of boos in New York City. Porzingis is a 20-year old native of Latvia who Knicks team president Phil Jackson is classifying as a “project” and only time will tell will tell how good that he can be. But the problem is that the folks in New York City don’t want to hear about a player being a project as they are looking for a winner right now which is something that they shouldn’t hold their breath on with this current Knicks team.
When Jackson came on board as the Knicks president, he wanted to do things his way which meant him bringing his famed triangle offense to town. Jackson hired Derek Fisher to be the Knicks head coach last year due to his familiarity with Jackson’s system during his playing days with the Los Angeles Lakers. But Fisher is the one who is coaching the Knicks and not Jackson and the message of the triangle is not getting across to the players in New York.
In Fisher’s first season with the Knicks, he appeared to be lost for the most part as their has been a steep learning curve for him as he made the quick jump from NBA player to being a head coach without any period of transition as an assistant coach. Fisher also hasn’t helped himself or the Knicks being that he is now embroiled in a saga involving himself and the ex-wife of current Memphis Grizzlies small forward Matt Barnes. And although the Ringling Brothers Circus no longer comes to Madison Square Garden, there is still plenty of circus action around 33rd and Broadway due to the calamity of errors that the Knicks have become.
Small forward Carmelo Anthony is the Knicks best player, but at 31-years of age, and coming off of knee surgery, can he be the same player that he once was? For his 12-year NBA career, Anthony has averaged 25.2 points per game. Anthony is a phenomenal scorer that doesn’t make the players around him better and with the triangle offense predicated on ball movement, it seems to be a marriage of oil and water between he and Jackson’s system.
With a team president that is out to lunch, a head coach that is searching for answers and a superstar player in Anthony that has a scorer’s mentality, fans of the Knicks don’t have a lot to look forward to in the upcoming NBA season.
Philadelphia 76ers 20-62
There’s bad and then there’s how bad that Philadelphia 76ers have been recently. During the 2012-2013 NBA season, the 76ers won 34 games. But over the last two NBA seasons, the Sixers have won a combined 37 games. And by the look of things, you can expect more of the same in Philadelphia from them during the upcoming NBA season. Sam Hinkie is entering his third season as the 76ers team president/general manager and even though he wants people to trust the process, it is time that he produces some positive results for this team.
The Sixers owned the third overall pick of the 2015 NBA draft which they used on center Jahlil Okafor whom they are hopeful will be a building block for them, but at the same time will they stick with him long enough to develop? Under Hinkie, the 76ers have a history of giving up on some of their young players quickly while they’ve also made turned the NBA Draft into a joke due to the fact that they select players that are injured as they’ll once again be without the services of center Joel Embiid for the entire season.
Under head coach Brett Brown, the Sixers have a young team, but they must find a way to become more competitive as they lost 23 games last season by at least 15 points. Right now the Sixers are not a respected organization around the NBA which means they are going to have to earn respect, but by the looks of things, they don’t have the personnel to be that competitive.
The Toronto Raptors are on the verge of their second straight Atlantic Division Title and with it another trip to the NBA Playoffs. But as the month of April is right around the corner, the Raptors don’t have the look or feel of a team that is ready to do some damage when the NBA Playoffs begin. The Raptors have lost 13 of their last 18 games. The Raptors still have a stranglehold on the top spot in the Atlantic Division due to the fact that it is by far the weakest division in the NBA, but they are fading in the overall standings of the Eastern Conference. For most of the season the Raptors were the second best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Atlanta Hawks. But now the Raptors have fallen into fourth place in the East behind the Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls.
This season the Raptors have been carried by their starting backcourt of point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. Fresh off of signing a new four-year, $48 million deal to remain with the Raptors, Lowry started real strong this season as in the month of December he averaged 22.3 points and 8.9 assists per game. Lowry was picking up the slack for an injured DeRozan and he kept the team afloat. And Lowry’s season was highlighted by him being named to his first NBA All-Star team. But through rest and injuries, Lowry’s numbers have now dipped. Lowry didn’t appear in the Raptors previous two games before exiting early this past Tuesday night in a 108-104 loss to the Detroit Pistons due to a back injury. Since returning from injury at the beginning of 2015, DeRozan has been valuable for the Raptors including his 23.8 points per game average this month. And depending on how long that Lowry will be out, DeRozan might be asked to do even more for the Raptors.
One of the things that is and will continue to hurt the Raptors is that they are built from the outside-in as opposed to the inside-out. The Raptors rely on Lowry and DeRozan along with other perimeter players such shooting guard Lou Williams and small forward Terrence Ross to do the scoring and creating whereas big men such as center Jonas Valanciunas and power forward Amir Johnson tend to grab rebounds and plug up the middle on defense. This philosophy for Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey will win games in the regular season; especially in the Atlantic Division, but it won’t be as easy for Toronto against the big boys of the NBA where size matters. The Raptors lack of interior size is evident by the fact that they are currently tied for 26th in the NBA for total rebounding at 41.4 per game while being a middle of the pack team for field goal percentage at .454 as they tend to rely more on perimeter shooting.
Last season the Raptors won the Atlantic and they had home-court advantage in their first round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets. But it was the Nets that had more size on the interior along with veteran experience that propelled them to the series win. And if you look at the current slump that the Raptors are on they have lost to teams that have size and for the most part a post presence.
When the calender shifts to April, the Raptors will have eight games left in the regular season and all of those contests will be against teams that currently have losing records. The Raptors need to take advantage of the also-rans in those contests along with getting some swagger back as they head into the postseason. I don’t see the Raptors forcing the issue to rush Lowry back now as they’ll need him healthy and ready to go when the playoffs roll around. This season the Raptors are a combined 3-7 versus the Hawks, Cavs and Bulls who are the tops teams in the Eastern Conference as they lose the size matchup with each team. And due to this discrepancy for the Raptors, I see them struggling when the NBA Playoffs roll around; even with a healthy Lowry.
In 2006, it was a bit of a shock when guard Kyle Lowry declared for the NBA Draft. Lowry played college basketball at Villanova University for two years where as a freshman he was a member of the Big East Conference’s All-Rookie Team in 2005 along with being second-team All Big East in 2006. As a sophomore, Lowry averaged 11.0 points and 3.7 assists per contest as he helped Villanova reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the first time since 1988. Lowry was one of four guards that Villanova head basketball coach Jay Wright implemented in his starting lineup that season. Lowry would be outshined by guards Allan Ray and Randy Foye that season and with the duo set to graduate in 2006, all signs pointed to Lowry having a bigger role the following season.
But in 2006, Lowry would be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. Lowry’s numbers have improved in every season; especially when he was traded to the Houston Rockets in 2009. By the end of the 2010-2011 NBA season, Lowry was averaging double-digits in points for the first time in his professional career as he averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 assists for the Rockets. However Lowry wasn’t on the same page with Rockets head coach Kevin McHale and in 2012 he was traded once more; this time to the Toronto Raptors.
With the Raptors, Lowry’s numbers have continued to improve as he averaged 17.9 points and 7.4 assists last season in helping Toronto win its first Atlantic Division Title since 2007. Other NBA teams noticed Lowry’s improved play. Last year teams such as the Indiana Pacers attempted to acquire Lowry, but Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri wasn’t interested in parting with the point guard. Last summer Lowry became a free agent and with teams like the Miami Heat vying for his services it would have been easy for him to leave Toronto, but he stayed with the Raptors after agreeing to a four-year deal worth $48 million.
This season Lowry has continued to improve his play as he is averaging 18.4 points and 7.1 assists which are both tops on the Raptors team. Lowry recorded a triple-double on November 7 in a 103-84 victory over the Washington Wizards which was just one of his highlights this season. Lowry’s improvement hasn’t gone unnoticed by the basketball world as not only did he participate in his first NBA All-Star Game last Sunday, but he was a starter for the Eastern Conference on the same squad that featured Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James and New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony.
At 6’0″, 205 lbs., Lowry brings that Philadelphia playground game to the NBA. Lowry is a physical guard that doesn’t have a problem with getting physical close to the basket along with providing speed as far as driving to the hole. Overall, Lowry is simply Philly tough. Lowry is the prime example of a player that has aggressively worked at his craft each day in order to improve and become not only a solid NBA player, but one of the better overall point guards in the league. A prime example of that was this season when Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan was sidelined with an injury for 21 games. DeRozan is the Raptors second leading scorer this season at 18.4 points per game and in his absence with Lowry leading the way, Toronto went 12-9.
At 37-19, the Raptors have the second best record in the Eastern Conference and they also have a cushy 13-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets for first place in the Atlantic Division. The Raptors are a virtual lock to make the NBA Playoffs this spring and they are looking to advance past the first round for the first time since 2001. For the Raptors to make some noise in the postseason they will rely on Lowry’s ability which he has displayed all season long as being a true floor general.
X-Toronto Raptors 49-33 (4)
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.
Y-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.
Y-Clinched Playoff Berth