Disrespect the Atlantic Division at Your Own Peril

By Lenn Robbins | @lennrobbins

Rodney Dangerfield, one of the great comedic actors of all time, would have had a field day with the NBA Atlantic Division.

On paper, it’s fair to question if any team in the division improved from last season. Of course, the games aren’t played on paper, which is one of the beauties of sports: It is unpredictable.

For example: Imagine how much richer you’d be today if a year ago you put $100 on the Toronto Raptors winning the Atlantic Division? It happened. And the Raptors believe they have something to build on, even if they hold the belief that they are the Rodney Dangerfields of the NBA – you know, no respect.

The Raptors re-signed point guard Kyle Lowry, who was playing for a new contract in 2013-14. If he continues to play with the same passion, the Raptors have locked up one of the league’s top point guards for four years. But if Lowry shifts into coast mode, then the Raptors have a problem. Toronto will not sneak up on any team in 2014-15. It’s easier to be the hunters than the hunted. Let’s give the Raptors the benefit of the doubt that they win 48 games for a second straight season.

Is it enough to win the Atlantic?

Consider the competition:

The Boston Celtics, winners of just 25 games last season, drafted an NBA-ready guard in Marcus Smart. He is tough and talented.

Sounds good, right?

One problem: The Celtics have a tough and talented point guard in Rajon Rondo. Unless the Celtics plan on being the Phoenix Suns of the Eastern Conference, Boston might have one too many starting point guards.

The Philadelphia 76ers are so young they might consider adding a nanny to the support staff.

Last season’s first-round pick, Nerlens Noel, looked great in the summer league, which is sort of like saying a Miss America contestant won the talent portion of the competition. Does it really matter? Noel missed all of last season recovering from ACL surgery. If healthy, he is the NBA’s new prototype center, able to run the court as effectively as any of the league’s wing players.

Philadelphia used one of its first-round picks in this year’s draft on Joel Embiid, a 7-foot, 250-pound, back-to-the-basket center.

Sounds good, right?

One problem: Embid suffered a stress fracture in his foot just prior to the draft. His recovery time is expected to be between five and eight months.

The 76ers lost 63 games last season, including 26 straight, tying the longest losing streak in NBA history. They could be worse in 2014-15. No wonder the most action the 76ers were involved in this off-season was arguing against proposed changes in the NBA Draft lottery.

New commissioner Adam Silver wisely wants to reform the current system. Under the new proposals, instead of the team with the worst record having a 25-percent chance of getting the first pick, the bottom five or six teams will have an equal chance of getting the No. 1 pick.

The Knicks don’t expect to be in the conversation for the top pick in the 2015 draft after convincing superstar Carmelo Anthony to re-sign. But new president Phil Jackson, who has more championship rings (11) than he has fingers, faces challenges. Jackson hired highly respected former player Derek Fisher to be the team’s head coach. As was the case last season when the Brooklyn Nets hired Jason Kidd, Fisher has no head-coaching experience.

Fisher will need time installing the triangle offense. He doesn’t have a tremendously talented roster after Anthony. And he doesn’t have the veteran leadership Kidd enjoyed last season with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

So where does Brooklyn fit into the Atlantic Division conversation after advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals last season?

The Nets opted not to make an offer to Pierce, an unrestricted free agent. They were unable to match Golden State’s offer for point guard Shaun Livingston. GM Billy King made no blockbuster deal, though he did add an established veteran in point guard Jarrett Jack.

But center Brook Lopez and point guard Deron Williams are expected to make full recoveries from injuries suffered last season; Joe Johnson once again proved to be one of the most clutch players in NBA history; the roster got younger and more athletic with the additions of Bojan Bogdanovic and 2014 draftees Markel Brown and Cory Jefferson; and let’s not forget the ever-improving Mason Plumlee.

On paper, the Raptors can be considered the favorite to win the Atlantic for a second straight season. The Nets have other ideas.

Dangerfield would look at the Atlantic and bemoan the fact that it doesn’t get any respect. Toronto and Brooklyn don’t see it that way. And Anthony is one of the premier scorers in the NBA.

Now might not be a bad time to put a wager on your sleeper to win the Atlantic. Some would say every team in the division is a sleeper. They must have been Dangerfield fans.

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