Egan: NBA Season Preview, Part I

Orlando Magic at New York Knicks

Welcome, Trax Pack! It’s my honor today to entertain you all… or hopefully at least one of you. In my debut on Off The Trax, this is Part I of a six-part series previewing the upcoming NBA season. In each installment, I will preview each team in each division while breaking down what to look for and expect over the next few months, while also making predictions on which 16 teams will be playoff-bound. I’ll plan for six installments, unless the showrunners deem me unentertaining. In that case, it’s been nice knowing you all.

Anyway, let’s get this show started!

ATLANTIC DIVISION

celtics

BOSTON CELTICS
Boston isn’t so concerned about winning this season; the Celtics are in full rebuild mode. They didn’t make a splash in free agency and focused on drafting promising players such as Marcus Smart and James Young. They also acquired Marcus Thorton and Tyler Zeller in a three-team trade in the offseason.

Marcus Smart is a good young point guard, who proved in college that he could be a leader of a team and carry that team for the majority of a season. That is, unless he hasn’t learned from his shoving incident back at Oklahoma State. He’s going to be a player in the league and possibly an All-Star someday. Hopefully he develops that consistent shot that Rajon Rondo could never find. James Young was a steal in the draft and is the type of wing player that many call a “3–and– D guy,” meaning he can knock down threes and play strong defense. These two rookies, if they play well enough, could make Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green expendable.

PREDICTION:
The Celtics finish only better than the Philadelphia 76ers. In the process, they trade both Rondo and Green for draft picks and younger players that could be future assets. But keep your heads up, Boston fans, the basketball gods love your team and the Lakers. It’s only a matter of time before Boston is relevant again.

* * *

nets1

BROOKLYN NETS
Do you want the good news first, or the bad? Good news, Brook Lopez is back! Bad news, Paul Pierce is not. Jason Kidd is also gone as head coach — and that’s good news or bad news depending on who you ask. The new man in charge in Brooklyn is Lionel Hollins, who has coached the Memphis Grizzlies to three straight playoff appearances. In an off-season trade, the Nets also picked up point guard Jarrett Jack.

Enough of the additions and subtractions, lets talk about the on-court performance. Last season, the Nets didn’t really get rolling until Lopez went down. That could be credited to Jason Kidd’s learning curve or to Brook Lopez holding the team back. I credit it to Kidd not fully sure of how to use his team properly early on. Hollins had his Memphis teams play through their bigs — Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol — so Hollins should know how to utilize Lopez and his abilities.

Pierce being gone isn’t a positive, but it’s not as bleak as some may believe. The team will lose a little firepower, but when you have Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez, scoring shouldn’t be an issue. With offense comes defense, and that is when Mr. AK47 himself comes in. Andrei Kirilenko is a defensive menace and an absolute hustler. He’ll play great defense on the other teams No. 1 options and give you the hustle plays that swing games. Shaun Livingston left for Golden State, but Jarrett Jack should soften the blow of that loss. Livingston played very well for the Nets last season, but Jack should put up similar to possibly better numbers.

PREDICTION:
At the end of the season the Brooklyn Nets will be in a three-way fight for the No. 8 seed. The other two teams? The New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. Ultimately, the Nets will fall short of that magical eighth seed and miss the playoffs.

* * *

philjackson

NEW YORK KNICKS
The “Zen Master” — Phil Jackson — is at it again. He reeled Carmelo Anthony back to New York — that… or the cash did. Knicks fans, Phil Jackson is here to save the day. Not only did Phil bring ‘Melo back, but he traded for a new point guard – Jose Calderon — while also shipping out Raymond Felton, who many fans had grown frustrated with. Jackson also hauled in a new center, Samuel Dalembert, in a deal with the Mavericks, which sent Tyson Chandler packing as well. During the draft, the Knicks selected Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early, who almost single-handedly beat eventual national finalist Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. And oh by the way, the Knicks brought in a new head coach by the name of Derek Fisher.

The Knicks will get off to a slow start. The problem, early on, will be the team getting accustomed to the new offensive scheme – the triangle offense that Phil Jackson made so famous with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Also, expect the same problems and adjustments for Fisher as a head coach that Jason Kidd went through last year. But just like Kidd, he’ll start to get the feel for coaching and become pretty good. Jose Calderon will bring his efficient offensive game to New York, where Dalembert will bring his highly touted defensive game. Dalembert won’t be Tyson Chandler, but then again after last season’s performance that may not be a bad thing. Early was projected to be a first-round talent, so the Knicks being able to get him in the second round is a nice steal. He should receive some minutes this season and become a solid rotation player in the future, if not toward the end of the year.

PREDICTION:
The Knicks were bad last year, to the record of 37-45, while missing the playoffs. They shouldn’t be that bad again. I believe they’re a mixture of last year’s team and of the 2012 team that went 54-28. As I mentioned earlier with the Nets, this team should be in a three-team race for that precious eighth seed. And just like the Nets, they’ll miss the playoffs. But have no fear, your future is bright with Jackson at the helm. You see, I’m a Bulls fan and if Phil Jackson has taught me anything, it is to always have faith in the Zen. It seems he taught Melo that same lesson, and New York may have the bright lights on them once again in no time.

* * *

sixers1

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
The 76ers are in all-out tank mode, and have been for a few seasons now. Their roster is full of lackluster talent, although have a few gems sprinkled in. This is done purposely so they receive lottery picks and obtain talented college players to continue building for the future. This year, the Sixers drafted both the highly-touted Joel Embiid (out of Kansas) and Elfrid Payton. On draft night, they traded away Payton for a European prospect by the name of Dario Saric and two future draft picks. They were involved in the Kevin Love trade with the Miami Heat and Minnesota Timberwolves and traded away Thaddeus Young for two role players and Miami’s future first round pick.

The Sixers’ main concern is getting top-notch prospects — from the draft — and acquiring more first round picks for more future prospects. They currently have the reining Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams. He is a tall and diverse point guard capable of doing many things, though has questionable skill sets when it comes to shooting and consistency. Those usually  come with age and experience, so as he continues to develop he should become a more complete player. Nerlens Noel is finally expected to back on the court  after being sidelined all of last season. If the summer league is any indication, he will be a difference-maker on the defensive end. He just needs to continue on bulking up and working on his lack of an offensive game. Right now, you can compare him to a developing Tyson Chandler.

Their 2014 prized lottery pick, Joel Embiid, is said to be a cant-miss future superstar in this league, with experts having already compared him to Hakeem Olajuwon. Problem is, Embiid is likely to be sidelined until February at the earliest while recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. Whether he is ready by midseason or not, once you mix him in with Noel, that has the potential to be a very scary frontcourt in the future.

PREDICTION:
This team will be terrible again, but with Carter-Williams and Noel, there will be glimpses of this team’s bright future. Embiid may miss the entire season, and the Sixers will likely do what they did with Noel last year and have him sit the entire season and come back at 100 percent the following year. They will again finish last in this division as they continue to acquire and develop young talent.

* * *

raptrors

TORONTO RAPTORS
The Raptors are the defending Atlantic Division champions, led by the same core group of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas. Their biggest move of the offseason was to resign Lowry and have their core stick together to build chemistry. They also traded for guard, Lou Williams, who will be a nice spark plug that will bring immediate points off the bench. He will be a strong candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award. In that same trade, Toronto also acquired Lucas Nogueira, the 16th pick in the 2013 draft who spent all of last season in Spain.

During this years draft, they selected Bruno Caboclo. Who’s that, you ask? Well, that’s why I’m here. Caboclo previously won MVP at Basketball Without Borders Americas last summer. He is a raw but a superior athlete, who’s potential ceiling is quite high.

PREDICTION:
By keeping the same group of guys, this team will develop better chemistry and know how to play with each other even more. That will lead to a better team during the season. Lowry and DeRozan will continue to thrive, while Terence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas continue to develop into better players. With Williams and Ross teaming together to provide dual scoring threats, this team should put up points in bunches. The Raptors will repeat as Atlantic Division champions and advance into the playoffs.

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