Admittedly, I have probably had too grand an outlook when it comes to the upcoming NBA season and, more specifically, the Eastern Conference. Lost in the sea of hyperbole surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers and whatever challenger they may face for the East crown, the Toronto Raptors are still the Atlantic Division champs and I’ve forgotten about that a little bit.
I should hardly be forgetting about either that accomplishment or the landscape of that division in the near future. I suppose it’s a good sign that the Raptors came far enough last year that the emphasis is now being placed on their ability to compete on a bigger scale, but if this team keeps winning divisions and hanging banners (divisional banners, mind you, but still something to look at) then it’s something to feel good about.
Last season I devoted a good share of time to writing about the running joke that the East had become. The Atlantic Division was hardly an outlier in the laughable narrative, with the Brooklyn Nets as my target. They were old and a collection of players put together with no real cohesive purpose other than a bunch of big names to try and scare the Miami Heat. That didn’t work, and Jason Kidd’s “experience” brought nothing to the table.
Fast forward to this upcoming season: That same Jason Kidd was treated like a coaching deity in the offseason and apparently has earned the right to run the Milwaukee Bucks into the ground and then think he deserves greener pastures. That seems about right. Maybe the Bucks will get the eighth seed in 2018 and Kidd will ask to be paid like Doc Rivers.
I still have to think that the Nets are the principal threat to the Raptors in the Atlantic. And on the coaching front, they are markedly better off. Getting Lionel Hollins was a coup. If he was run out of Memphis simply because he didn’t think the basketball world revolved around advanced statistics and the John Hollinger universe, well, then he has to be better off in Brooklyn with this curious collection of players.
So what do I make of the Nets as making a big challenge in the Atlantic this season? As much as I skewered Kidd and made assumptions that they would do nothing under his tutelage, I feel strongly in the other direction about Hollins. A veteran team may not need a steady hand like Hollins, but his voice and experience can’t hurt.
As far as the team goes, it may just be addition by subtraction. Paul Pierce was reasonably efficient even in his age-36 season and posted an above-average PER of 16.81. But he is very much a role player at this stage and not someone who the Nets should miss that much. In fact, his departure should only reinforce the Nets’ need to embrace a Brook Lopez-centered offense with the veterans as supplementary pieces.
Could they be better? Given that they are essentially swapping Pierce for Lopez, I consider that a significant upgrade. They should be. It’s not like they are counting on anything from Kevin Garnett and afraid they’re getting nothing. They know they’re getting nothing. Add in Bojan Bogdanovic and a bigger role for Mirza Teletovic and there is a reasonable infusion of youth and shooting. And, call me crazy, but I still think Deron Williams is capable of a renaissance 20-10 season. That would have a massive domino effect for Hollins’ new squad.
There is no question that the Raptors have to feel fortunate to be a part of such a weak division. Even though the Nets summoned up enough to win a playoff series against the green and wide-eyed Raptors, the grind of an entire season is another story. And the grind hardly sounds appealing to a veteran team trying to preserve all it can for the playoffs.
Even so, I’m a big fan of Lopez and an even bigger fan of Hollins. If the Nets can integrate some of the younger guys and have Williams play like he can, I think the Raptors will have an uphill battle to repeat as Atlantic Division champs.
If Jonas Valanciunas goes nuts, though, and they get him the ball, a lot, then there could be bigger fish to fry than just a divisional banner to celebrate.