BOSTON – For years, the Atlantic Division has taken a back seat to just about every one of its divisional brethren in the NBA.
Times have changed to the point where you no longer hear those Atlantic/Titanic references as much.
In Boston, you have the odds-on favorite to get to the NBA Finals being led by established stars Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford as well as on-the-rise studs in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier.
Philadelphia boasts a youthful, star-studded roster, headlined by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, that appears to be Boston’s stiffest competition for Eastern Conference supremacy.
The Toronto Raptors took a sledgehammer to their core by parting ways with coach Dwayne Casey and the franchise’s leading scorer DeMar DeRozan in the offseason. From underneath the rubble of change emerged Kawhi Leonard, who, when healthy – and that’s a big "if" right now considering he spent most of last season sidelined with a quadriceps injury – is arguably the best two-way player in the NBA and gives the Raptors more than just a puncher’s chance at leap-frogging Boston and Philadelphia.
New York and Brooklyn aren’t title contenders this season, but are trending in the right direction to at least be competitive. For years that hadn't been the case with either franchise.
And with that, we begin today Sailing the Atlantic...Division, that is.
BAD PRESEASON BLESSING IN DISGUISE FOR CELTICS
Don’t believe the hype.
Yes, it was one of the more memorable hits from the rap group Public Enemy in the 1990s.
It’s also something that Celtics coach Brad Stevens and his players have to be on guard for. With so many folks telling them how awesome they are going to be, it’s easy to envision them getting sucked into buying into the praise.
Which is why having such a sucky preseason may be the best thing for this group.
The mistakes made, the inconsistent effort and overall struggles, only serve to reinforce the importance of as Stevens puts it, not “taking any shortcuts.”
Indeed, there’s a process to getting back to being an elite team that’s about more than speculation.
It requires substance; the kind that comes about when you play well on the floor – a point that a poor preseason reinforced.
Celtics guard Terry Rozier lamented recently about how the Celtics were acting as though, “we arrived or something like we won something. Teams know that, people talking about us every time you turn on the TV. So, that’s going to motivate them to beat us, second string, third string, it don’t matter who it is. So, we have to stay grounded and go back to playing Boston Celtics basketball and who we are instead of thinking we’re above everybody.”
NET GAINS (FINALLY)
The dark cloud that has lingered over this franchise since 2013 has finally been lifted – sort of. Brooklyn will have its own first-round pick with no conditions attached to it, now that the terms of the 2013 trade with Boston is finally completed. Brooklyn traded a boatload of draft picks for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, future Hall of Famers, who, at the time of the deal, were well past their primes. It was a gamble that set the Brooklyn franchise back for years. But now, there is clear hope down the road for the Nets, courtesy of the roster they have assembled, which is short on elite, superstar talent but long on promising, good-effort players who compete. Credit third-year coach Kenny Atkinson and GM Sean Marks for building a foundation of blue-collar types that have made them a much more competitive bunch in recent years. According to NBA.com/stats, Brooklyn played in 50 games last season when they were ahead or behind by five or fewer points with five minutes to play, with only the Miami Heat (53) being in more games under those particular late-game parameters. Still, this Nets team doesn’t look the part of one bound for the playoffs. And if they fall short of making the postseason, they at least have their own first-round pick to use as a means of replenishing their roster and they don't have to send it Boston’s way. And to the Celtics credit, they have wisely used those picks to build large chunks of their current core which includes back-to-back No. 3 overall picks in Jaylen Brown (2016) and Jayson Tatum (2017) as well as an unconditional 2018 pick that was sent to Cleveland as part of a package that netted five-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.
“He’s definitely more vocal than he’s ever been, on and off the court,” Green told reporters recently. “It looks like he feels comfortable. It looks like he feels at home. He’s talking to guys, he’s leading by example, in the huddles he’s chiming in, saying what he feels, saying his opinion.”
That is a stark contrast from his days in San Antonio when he emerged as one of the best players in the NBA who seldom did interviews.
Reports out of Toronto indicate he has been among the more talkative players throughout the first couple weeks of training camp, saying all the right things that lead one to indicate he’s not looking beyond this season and that being traded to Toronto may, in fact, work out for the Raptors after much speculation that this season was nothing more than a pit stop until he can get to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers or Clippers.
"I want to play here," Leonard told reporters during his introductory press conference. “I came in with an open mind. I want to do great things … focus on this year. If you’re looking toward the future, you’re going to trip over the present.”
IT IS FULTZ’S DEFENSE – NOT SHOT-MAKING – EARNING PRAISE
Having spent a significant chunk of last season and this summer having his shooting mechanics revamped, the idea of Markelle Fultz making the Sixers starting lineup appeared to be a reward for the strides he has made in becoming a better shooter.
He has spent a good chunk of the preseason with the first group starting because of what he has brought to the table defensively.
“He is a willing defender; it’s not pulling teeth,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said recently. “The NBA defense is incredibly different than anything he experienced in college [at Washington], or DeMatha in high school. So it starts with, are you a willing participant? Are you a willing defensive player? Will you let me coach you defensively.
Brown added, “He will, yes he can, and yes he does.”
In four preseason games (all starts), Fultz has averaged 9.0 points per game along with 2.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds. Just as significant was his defensive rating being under 100.0 in three of Philly’s four preseason games.
DURANT TO NEW YORK?
With Kyrie Irving telling the world he plans to re-sign with the Celtics next summer when he becomes a free agent, the popular name making the rounds these days as a target of the New York Knicks is Kevin Durant.
As crazy as it may sound, a Durant-to-New York scenario isn’t quite as far-fetched as one might initially believe.
John Tjarks of the Ringer lays out a realistic scenario with rational reasoning as to why such a move would be driven primarily for basketball reasons and the continued growth and evolution of Durant as a player.
The idea that Durant would walk away from the most ideal situation in basketball in Golden State, where he has won two NBA titles, for the uncertainty of the Knicks is a difficult theory for me to get behind. He’s not looking for an easier path to the Finals. He’s been there, won that … two times! He plays with great players, but none of his teammates in Golden State are casting a huge shadow over him. And the New York, he would have another superstar in Kristaps Porzingis, which is similar to what he had in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook.
As much as we’ll be talking about the growth of Kevin Knox and how undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier aka “Iso Zo” is playing his way out of the two-way contract he signed and into a spot on the roster, the present for the Knicks is very much about their future. And that future has to involve making a major splash via trade or free agency, with the latter more likely.