X-Boston Celtics 60-22 (1)
There are times in the realm of sports where a team is unable to live up to the hype, but the Boston Celtics do not fall into that category. The Celtics went through a very short rebuilding process, and through shrewd trades, as well as smart drafting by the team’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, they have now become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Each of the last two years have seen the Celtics reach the Eastern Conference Finals, but each time they would fall short of reaching the NBA Finals as the Cleveland Cavaliers and small forward LeBron James would prove to be too much for them. Last season’s series with the Cavs was grueling as the Celtics pushed them to the limit, but they could not overcome the exploits of James. However with James now in the Western Conference as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Eastern Conference has opened up with Boston appearing to be the team to beat.
Five years ago when Brad Stevens was named as the head coach of the Celtics, he appeared to be an afterthought. But five years later Stevens is now one of the best in the business in regards to what he can do. Under Stevens, the Celtics win total has increased in each year. From Stevens’ first day in Boston, he has preached team basketball which had led to wins and respect from his players and peers alike. And whereas coaching philosophy is enough to get Stevens to the dance, he also has the personnel on his team to get the job done.
The Celtics had eight players who averaged at least 10 points per game last season, and this was done primarily without their two best players. The summer of 2017 was a big hit for the Celtics as they signed small forward Gordon Hayward in free agency, while also acquiring point guard Kryie Irving via a trade. But things changed for the Celtics in the first game of the season when Hayward suffered a dislocated ankle which ended his campaign before it even started. And in regards to Irving, he was able to lead Boston in scoring with 24.4 points per game, but he missed their postseason run following knee surgery.
Now Hayward and Irving are each healthy as they are providing the Celtics with even more depth. Irving could be the missing ingredient for the Celtics championship chase as he has shown throughout his career the ability to be a finisher which was evident by his contributions to the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Title in 2016. For Irving’s seven-year NBA career, he has averaged 22 points per game, but now he won’t have to worry about having that kind of productivity this season due to Boston’s depth.
The Celtics can be extra cautious as they work Hayward back into their rotation due to their depth on the perimeter. Ainge looks like a genius for trading out of the first overall slot in the NBA Draft last year to select small forward Jayson Tatum third overall. Tatum appeared in 80 games last season for the Celtics as a rookie en route to averaging 13.9 points per game. Tatum showed tremendous ability as a slasher in order to get to the basket and he combined that with fearlessness. In Boston’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, Tatum was the team’s leading scorer in the postseason with 18.5 points per game, and the youngster appears ready to take his game to the next level.
In regards to being a scorer, Tatum is the real deal and he has even gotten the blessing of former Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Braynt whom he trained with this past summer. And if Bryant who was one of the hardest workers of any professional athlete is willing to give Tatum his blessing, then you know that the 20-year old is the real deal.
Like Tatum, small forward Jaylen Brown was the third pick of his respective draft class, and he has progressed rather quickly as well. Brown has two years under his belt in the NBA, and in regards to Brown, he is developing into one of the better two-way players in the league. Brown is 6’7″, but he can play much taller due to his 7-foot wingspan. And that length allows Brown to guard the opposition’s best wing player which takes some of the bite out of their offense. Like Tatum, Brown is a slasher that is continuing to improve as a scorer due to his increased value as a perimeter shooter. Brown connected on nearly 40% of his three-point shots last season as he and Tatum are making their case to be the best duo of wing players in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics are also blessed with grizzled veterans who are not afraid to get dirty. Guards Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are known the play hard line defense on opposing guards, while power forward Marcus Morris would have fit right in with the Celtics title team as his “ask no quarter, give no quarter” mentality works at both ends of the floor. Morris is a throwback for the Celtics to the days of Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell as his toughness is helping the C’s to become the bullies of the Eastern Conference.
And then there is the case for power forward Al Horford who had many people questioning the better judgement of Ainge when he signed the veteran to a four-year deal for $113 million in 2016. But Horford has provided huge dividends for the Celtics due to his play on the floor as well as his leadership. Horford has developed into a solid perimeter shooter as his career has progressed, while overall he has averaged 14.2 points and 8.5 rebounds. Collegiately Horford won consecutive national titles at Florida as those teams were known for their unselfishness, and he has brought that same mindset to the Celtics.
Not every team is able to live up to the hype that is bestowed upon them, but we appear to be on the verge of another Celtics dynasty in the NBA.
Y-Toronto Raptors 55-27 (2)
Generally when NBA teams are coming off of a 59-win season which includes the head coach being named as the league’s Head Coach of the Year, they won’t enter the 0ff-season looking to rock the boat. But somebody forgot to mention that to the Raptors who have changed the complexion of their franchise.
After seven seasons as the head coach of the Raptors, Dwane Casey was let go. Casey led the Raptors to five consecutive playoff appearances which was highlighted by a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016. But the Raptors could not overcome the play making ability of LeBron James who would lead the Cleveland Cavaliers over Toronto in each of the last three postseasons. And when the Raptors were swept by the Cavaliers in the playoffs last season, the writing was on the wall that Casey would be the fall guy.
Casey’s departure has paved the way for Nick Nurse to be the ninth head coach in Raptors franchise history. Nurse has been an assistant coach with the Raptors since 2013, and now he will has his chance to implement his system.
But Casey’s termination wasn’t the only surprise for the Raptors who also managed to trade their best player over the summer. In nine years with the Raptors, swingman DeMar DeRozan became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, but that didn’t cement his spot with the team as he was part of a deal that saw Toronto acquire swingman Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs.
In acquiring Leonard, the Raptors are getting one of the best two-way players in the NBA when he is healthy. Leonard is a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year who can shut down some of the league’s top perimeter players in spite of their size. In eight seasons with the Spurs, Leonard won an NBA Championship in 2014 which included being Finals MVP. However Leonard’s honeymoon in San Antonio ended last season when a controversial quad injury forced him to miss 73 games. Leonard and the Spurs medical staff never appeared to be on the same page which led to dissension in the locker room. And when it was all said and done, the Spurs and Leonard were unable to repair the fragments of their once promising marriage.
There were reports that Leonard wanted to be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers over the summer, but with the Spurs unwilling to trade him within the Western Conference, they needed to find a suitor for him in the East. That is where the Raptors came into the equation as they were willing to talk turkey with San Antonio, and before you knew it, Mr. Leonard was headed to Canada.
Leonard only has one year remaining on their contract and the Raptors knew that going in as they must find a way to smooth things over with him in order to convince him to sign a long-term deal. And with the Raptors, Leonard has the opportunity to be one of the better players in the Eastern Conference due to the fact that he is a tremendous finisher at the basket, along with being a facilitator for his teammates.
Leonard’s arrival in Toronto should elevate the game of his new teammates such as point guard Kyle Lowry and center Jonas Valanciunas. Lowry has been a solid point guard throughout his NBA career which includes being in All-Star in each of the last four seasons. However Lowry has never been a player who can put a team on his back, and Leonard’s arrival will help to take some pressure off of the veteran. Valanciunas has shown signs of being able to put it altogether, but he needs to be more consistent close to the basket in regards to scoring which will only help the Raptors chances of winning.
It will be interesting to see how long that it will take these new Raptors to mesh together. But make no mistake about it that when it is all said and done, they will once again be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Y-Philadelphia 76ers 52-30 (4)
After years of futility the Philadelphia 76ers are once again a respectable NBA franchise. For five years the Sixers were the worst team in the NBA which included them losing more than 60 games in three consecutive seasons. But all of that was forgotten last season as the 76ers were able to put it altogether en route winning 50 games for the first time since 2001, while also participating in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And even though that the Sixers came up on the short end of the stick in their playoff series with the Boston Celtics, there is plenty of optimism for this team in the City of Brotherly Love.
A big reason for the Sixers turnaround is the play of center Joel Embiid. Embiid was selected third overall by the 76ers in 2014, but injuries forced him to miss the first two years of his career. However Embiid is showing the Sixers and the rest of the NBA that he was worth the wait due to the impact that he is having. Last season Embiid averaged 22.9 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.2 assists as he is showing that he could be the best big man currently in the league. Embiid is unstoppable in the paint whether it be for his scoring, rebounding, or defense. At 7’0″, Embiid is a freak of nature with a lengthy wingspan that gives him an edge at each end of the floor. But as good as Embiid can be, it will come down to whether or not that he can stay healthy as he has yet to appear in all 82 games in a season in the NBA.
Aside from Embiid, another youngster that the 76ers had to wait on was point guard Ben Simmons. Simmons was selected first overall by Philadelphia in 2016, but a foot injury forced him to miss what should have been his rookie season. However Simmons would make his debut for the 76ers last season and he didn’t disappoint as he averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds en route to being named as the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
Simmons is the real deal as he tallied 13 triple-doubles last season due to his ability as a rebounder and facilitator. At 6’10”, Simmons is a matchup nightmare due to his ball handling skills as he has already been compared to LeBron James and Magic Johnson. But one thing that has held Simmons back so far has been the lack of perimeter game on his part. Simmons failed to connect on a three-point shot last season, and until he develops an outside shot, it will hamper Philadelphia’s offense as teams will attempt to take the paint away from him.
And although that Simmons and Embiid will get most of the headlines for this Sixers team, there is a solid group of players around them that will help them to compete. At 6’10” power forward Dario Saric is the quintessential “stretch four” who can play off of Embiid in the paint due to his ability as a perimeter shooter. Last season Saric shot a shade under 40% from beyond the three-point line, and he should get plenty of open looks at the basket if teams concentrate on Embiid. Any team that has designs on winning needs a player like small forward Robert Covington. Covington falls into the category of being a scrappy player as he will do whatever it takes at either end of the floor in order to win.
Veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick continues to show that he is one of the league’s best three-point shooters. Last season in his first go round with the Sixers, Redick averaged a career-high with 17.1 points per game. And even though that Redick is now 34-years of age, his sharp shooting skills and veteran presence make him a vital part of any success that Philadelphia desires to have this season.
After making shooting guard Markelle Fultz the first overall pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, they really didn’t get to see what he could be as he only appeared in 14 games for them last season. Fultz was forced to undergo shoulder surgery that has made him alter his shooting motion, and only time will tell how effective that he can be in the NBA.
For Sixers head coach Brett Brown, things have turned around for him drastically as after not having a wealth of talent to work with in his first few years on the job, he is now overloaded. The Sixers are now one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference as they look to make a push towards claiming the franchise’s first NBA Title since 1983.
New York Knicks 36-46
To say that the New York Knicks franchise is a train wreck would be a huge understatement. Since 2005, the Knicks have only made the playoffs three times which includes missing out in each of the last three years. And all of this has gone down in a weak Eastern Conference where the Knickerbockers have failed to keep up. The 2017-2018 NBA season was another chapter in that disappointment for the Knicks as the biggest reasons for their 53-loss season were management and head coach Jeff Hornacek not being on the same page, along with forward Kristaps Porzingis being lost midway through the campaign to a torn ACL. But as hope always springs eternal, are better days on the horizon at Madison Square Garden?
The Knicks are set to begin a the NBA season in a very familiar position as they are debuting a new head coach. Former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Fizdale is now running the show for the Knicks and his hire marks the sixth different head coach that the Knickerbockers have employed in the last six years. Fizdale is a defensive minded coach who many people feel didn’t get a fair shake with the Grizzlies who fired him last season. But unlike Fizdale’s brief tenure in Memphis, he has more raw talent to work with in New York.
However the Knicks chances to improve this season will revolve around the health of Porzingis. Porzingis was coming into his own until he suffered his knee injury this past February. At 7’3″, Porzingis has a very unique skill set due to his ability to pass, shoot, rebound, and defend. When healthy there is nothing that will permit Porzingis from averaging 25 points per contest, while being considered as one of the NBA’s best players. But both the Knicks and Porzingis are being extremely cautions in regards to his recovery and thus it is highly unlikely that he will be in uniform before the new year.
The Knicks used their first-round pick this year on forward Kevin Knox who should be able to immediately contribute due to his versatility. At 6’9″, Knox has length, as well as the ability to pass for a big man and knock down the perimeter shot. Knox joins the Knicks fresh off of being named as the Southeastern Conference’s Freshman of the Year at Kentucky, and the fact that he fell slightly in the NBA Draft, along with being booed on draft night in New York will motivate him to be one of the league’s top rookies this season.
And when Porzingis is finally healthy, New York has the chance to have one of the better frontcourts in the Eastern Conference with him, Knox, and veteran center Enes Kanter. The Knicks acquired Kanter from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the summer of 2018, and in his first season in New York, he was able to average 14.1 points and 11 rebounds. Kanter gives the Knicks a legitimate scoring presence close to the basket, and he is someone who should benefit from the passing ability of both Porzingis and Knox.
The second time around with the Knicks has been much better than the first time for small forward Tim Hardaway Jr. Last season Hardaway was able to average a career-high 17.5 points. Hardaway is becoming more of a scorer, and his presence will provide the Knickerbockers with more depth as well as a mentor for Knox.
Another valuable veteran for the Knicks will be shooting guard Courtney Lee. Lee has ten years under his belt in the NBA and he falls into the category of being an underrated player. Lee is an energy player who can do a little bit of everything, and more importantly he is a guy who doesn’t necessarily need plays called for him on the offensive end of the floor in order to score. Lee is also a solid perimeter defender, and as Fizdale loves defensive basketball, the veteran guard will get plenty of minutes.
But the biggest question for the Knicks heading into the new season aside from the health of Porzingis is their conundrum at the point guard position. Last year the Knicks used a first-round pick of point guard Frank Nitilikina, but they also acquired point guard Emanuel Mudiay from the Denver Nuggets, as well as signing point guard Trey Burke off of the street. Each point guard is under the age of 25, while they each have different skill sets. Fizdale is not attached at the hip with any of these players, but he must find the right combination that will help to turn things around for the Knickerbockers.
It seems that for the first time in a long time, everyone within the Knicks front office is on page which means that there will be a positive trickle down effect to the team. The Knicks will be an improved team this season which should keep them in the mix for a playoff berth.
Brooklyn Nets 24-58
To give you an idea as to how bad that things have been for the Brooklyn Nets, they’ve won a combined 69 games over the last three years which is only four more than the Houston Rockets won for all of last season. The Nets have been a rudderless ship for some time now as they’ve yet to recover from the trade with the Boston Celtics in 2013 that saw them part with numerous first-round picks. And although that Nets general manager Sean Marks has two years under his belt with the franchise, his draft picks have yet to make an impact for this club as he and head coach Kenny Atkinson will have their work cut out for them in the upcoming NBA season in regards to making Brooklyn a contender in the Eastern Conference.
If the Nets are going to improve their productivity this year, they are going to need to find a player who can put this team on his back. Point guard D’Angelo Russell was acquired by the Nets last off-season and Brooklyn is hopeful that he can be the centerpiece of their turnaround. Russell has three years of NBA experience to his credit, but he is still a youngster as he is only 22-years of age. Russell has been able to show flashes of his potential, but he needs to put it altogether which includes him being healthy for an entire season.
Russell was the only player for the Nets who averaged more than 15 points per game last season and their lack of impact players will make it difficult for this team to contend in the Eastern Conference.
The Nets are biding their time with an eye on free agency next summer. But in the meantime, don’t expect Brooklyn to be a factor during this NBA season.