As we approach the opening tip of the 2016-17 NBA regular season, The Shadow League looks at every one of the league’s six divisions and the players who will make this year an unforgettable one. Today, we examine what's soon to be popping in the division where the Celtics are primed for another run at glory

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Predicted order of finish:

1. BOSTON CELTICS - The Celtics finally reclaim the Atlantic Division crown, its first since the 2011-12 lockout-shortened 66-game season that began on Christmas Day. There’s a rumor among millennials and weekend millionaires that NBA super teams began with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joining forces. It wasn’t the first, nor, as we have seen a few times since, the last. 

Ruins tend to follow in the aftermath though. In the case of the franchise that won the 2009 NBA Finals, it plummeted to a 25-37 record in 2013-14. Yet, the Celtics President of Basketball Operations, Danny Ainge, has overseen a slow but sure improvement. Despite the wad of draft picks and cap space cleared by Ainge in dealing off the Big 3 and Rajon Rondo, his best move up to this offseason was hiring a head coach from the college ranks at Butler, Big Brain Brad Stevens. 

Yes, a mid-season trade for Isaiah Thomas in 2015 has been a sparkplug, leading the way to consecutive playoff berths.  But this summer, the Celtics took a major step to compete for a title. The biggest was the free agency acquisition of Al Horford from the Atlanta Hawks. It is reasonable to venture that the four-time All-Star big man will actually increase his 15.2 ppg from last season as the offensive focal point in Beantown while no longer sharing the ball within the balanced Hawks attack.


Also, the third overall pick Jaylen Brown is an athletic 6-foot-7 small forward who could be a poor man’s James Harden. He does not have quite the shooting touch as the Beard and he showed some issues finishing at the rim in summer league play. But Brown, who played one season at the University of California-Berkeley and is projected to come off the bench behind the rugged Jae Crowder, will eat at the free throw line. Avery Bradley, the lone holdover from the last division title winner, has improved his scoring average every year and holds down the two spot with tenacity and toughness. 

Look for the Celtics to be the most formidable challenger to the reigning two-time Eastern Conference champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers. 


2. TORONTO RAPTORS – The Raptors, similar to the Celtics, have been improving quite steadily over the past three seasons. Under the general manager Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey, the franchise reached many milestones last year with 56 wins and appearing for the first time in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, the team may have maxed out.

Center Jonas Valanciunas returns after missing the Eastern Conference Finals due to injury. But they also lost a dependable rebounder and outstanding shot-blocking defender in Bismack Biyombo, who parlayed his monster playoff performance into a lucrative contract with the Orlando Magic via free agency. In turn, the squad’s only significant offseason pick-up was power forward free agent Jared Sullinger, who at times can score buckets but has been inconsistent since being drafted 21st overall by the Celtics in 2012. 

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry form a dynamic duo, but this guard-driven tandem is not enough. Ranked by many as the second-best backcourt behind the Warriors’ Splash Brothers (although don’t sleep on the Portland Trailblazers’ Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum), they have been unable at times to raise the play of others around them. 


Furthermore, selecting the 7-foot center Jakob Poeltl with the 9th overall pick (from Denver via New York), the first Austrian-born player drafted in the NBA, who spent two seasons at the University of Utah, seems like a project.  A bolder move would have been selecting Thon Maker, who went just one pick later with the 10th selection by the Milwaukee Bucks. The 7-foot-1 Maker, who hails from Sudan, has travelled a basketball odyssey including successfully petitioning the right to enter the 2016 draft straight out of high school. He could have been a game changer for the Raps.

Rounding out the starting five are versatile small forward DeMarre Carroll, who only played in 26 regular season games last year, and power forward Patrick Patterson, who has decent skills but has yet to display all of them.   

Ifyou are not getting better, then you’re getting worse. The Raptors fall back slightly as the teamsaround them have improved. If you are not getting better, then you’re getting worse.  


3. NEW YORK KNICKS – According to new head coach Jeff Hornacek, “Luke Cage ain’t walking through that door.”  He didn’t really say that, but the Harlem Hero is welcomed to come downtown to the Garden to provide some toughness. This self-proclaimed Super Team, in the words of newly arrived point guard Derrick Rose, has accumulated a lot of talent but lack muscle.  

It all starts with Carmelo Anthony. Last season, Melo led the team in points, rebounds and assists! Coming off another successful Gold Medal Olympic triumph, his third, we can look forward to more of the same as he usually plays better in the NBA season following the summer games. Once perhaps the game’s most versatile offensive weapon who could score from any spot on the floor, he has matured to be a better all-around player. 

The other bright spot is the return of Kristaps Porzingis. The Latvian-born big man made a lasting impression last year as a rookie.  At 7-foot-3, the 21-year-old moves smoothly on the floor and has long-range shooting skills. But he will also dunk on you with the quickness and patrol the paint unlike many other European big men.

That nucleus was giving a protonic charge with several offseason additions by Knicks President and resident Zen Master, Phil Jackson. The most unstable element mixed into this alchemist brew may be former MVP point guard Rose. His injury history is well known, but now he is in the midst of a messy sexual assault civil trial. 


When the matter is resolved, he may face a suspension and financial payout. However, his play can be a windfall for the Knicks. Since sitting out the entire 2012-13 season, his games played has increased each season since, topping off last year at 66.  The 16 points per game and five assists he averaged last year would easily surpass the team's recent point guard production

Also added were several veterans led by the irrepressible Joakim Noah, who will provide energy on both ends of the court. The backcourt was completely overhauled with Rose, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings. Lee has bounced around the league, but is a solid pro. Jennings may have seen his production dip last year, but he has a lot of showmanship and guile that will move the crowd at the Mecca.

The team may take time to jell, but it is possible that even as a sixth seed it could pull of a playoff upset or two if they find their way by the post-season.


4. BROOKLYN NETS - This summer was a cataclysmic change for the NBA coaching carousel as a third of the big chairs were replaced. Yes, ten coaches were hired this offseason but Kenny Atkinson may be the most unknown. The former assistant with the Knicks and most recently the Hawks takes over the helm at the Barclays Center. And he has a tough task at hand.

The franchise relocation from the marshes of the Jersey Meadowlands to a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood after the 2011-12 season almost saw a team morph overnight into a contender. Big money and big trades brought a glimpse of success, but they mortgaged the future. With limited draft picks and about $5.5 million per year of Deron Williams’ contract on the books until 2020, what’s left is a quality but oft-injured center in Brook Lopez. The biggest offseason acquisition was Jeremy Lin.  


It seems eons ago that Lin-sanity loomed over the Metropolitan area, but Lin has proved he can play at every stop since he dazzled with the New York Knicks. Upon his arrival in the league, he looked and played the part of a humbled Harvard-educated baller sleeping on a teammate’s couch. Now, he is sporting a samurai-styled doo looking to do work in the chambers. Finally, this may be his team to lead with no distractions. 

Surrounding him are two shooters in Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Harris, an excellent player in college at the University of Virginia who rode the bench the last two years with the Cleveland Cavaliers.    

A promising defensive stopper may also be in the midst. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was drafted 23rd overall by the Portland Trailblazers last summer and acquired by the Nets in a trade. But he saw limited action, playing only 29 games due to an injury. The 6-7 wingman, who played two years at the University of Arizona, could eventually remind some on the defensive end of another former Wildcat in Andre Iguodala. However, his offensive game has a way to go, with a jumper that makes Shawn Marion’s shot put look like that smoove butter stoke of Ray Allen.

The Nets will improve slightly on last seasons’ 21 wins, but fail to make the playoffs.


5. PHILADELPHIA 76'ERS - The Sixers must be cursed. At the beginning of the decade under head coach Doug Collins, the team was building on something with a balance of youth and vets. The effort to fast track the franchise by trading for center Andrew Bynum backfired. That led to the Sam Hinkie era of tanking for talent, which never panned out forcing him to resign.  

However, his departing gift was the team winning the NBA Draft lottery this spring and selecting Ben Simmons with the top overall pick. Fast forward a few months later and the 6-foot-10 Australian prodigy goes down with a knee injury.  How long he is out is uncertain, with reports of his agent Rich Paul wanting him to perhaps not return until next season, while management is possibly looking for him to suit up early in 2017.

Joel Embiid returns after sitting out two seasons due to foot injuries. The wait for the 7-foot center from Cameroon, who played one season at the University of Kansas, has been almost unbearable. His skills and talent were once projected as sky high when he was selected with the #3 pick in the 2014 Draft.

Now, the expectations are murky hopes. Also in the fold are two other big men with foggy futures in Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.  This log jam of three young big fellas makes a trade inevitable.

  

Okafor had a solid rookie season with 17.5 points and seven rebounds per game. However, his season was cut short to 58 games due to injury, and there were several off-court mishaps like brawling in the streets. Noel also slipped in the draft due to injury and eventually found his way on the court. His defensive skillset, although quite capable, is not enough to mask his offensive game, which is mostly limited to put-backs and transition buckets.

Another Hinke holdover is forward Dario Saric. Also drafted in 2014, the Croatian-born 6-foot 10 Saric spent the last two seasons playing overseas. The 22-year-old is a complimentary player with multiple skills, but not a scorer. His playmaking ability may not be that compatible with Simmons, who does the same things, but much better. Also looking to make his mark is Nik Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 Canadian who played collegiately at Michigan and was drafted by the Sacramento Kings until a trade brought him to Philly prior to the 2015-16 season.   

The Sixers have nowhere to go but up after winning only 10 games last season. Coach Brett Brown gets them going in the right direction by at least doubling last year’s win total. 

***


PREDICTED RECORDS:

BOSTON CELTICS (57-25)

TORONTO RAPTORS (55-27)

NEW YORK KNICKS (44-38)

BROOKLYN NETS (25-57),

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (24-58)


***

Baller Award - Carmelo Anthony

Melo is coming off a great personal season in his 13th year in the NBA. His ability to run the floor may have diminished, but his shot is still there and his court intelligence has increased. No longer burdened with having to do everything, he will actually be able to provide more leadership. Look for Melo to lead the Knicks on a run that could lead to the Eastern Conference Finals. 


Youngin’ Award - Jaylen Brown

This would have been granted to Ben Simmons, but with his injury the award now goes to Jaylen Brown, who will get a lot of opportunity to shine in Celtic green. Just like another former Marietta, Georgia native who also attended Cal, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Brown can drop 20-plus on you before you even know it.




Lock Down Award – Rondae Hollis Jefferson

RHJ is a quick, 6-foot-7 defender with a massive wingspan who will keep 1's, 2's and 3's in check. He will block shots while dropping down into the post as well. 


Most Improved Player  – Nik Stauskas

As a college freshman, the Canadian-born Stauskas led Michigan, along with Trey Burke, to the 2013 NCAA Final Four. The agile sharpshooter seemed destined for bigger things. But being drafting by the Sacramento Kings seems to mess things up all the time. His trade to the Sixers last season provided him a new lease on his basketball life and he ended up scoring 8.5 ppg, doubling his output in Sacramento. Look for even more improvement this season.      


6th Man  - Corey Joseph

Another Canadian who played college ball in the US (Texas), Joseph returned last season to his hometown of Toronto after a four-year stint in San Antonio, and helped the Raptors advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. With point guard Kyle Lowry on his contract year and making it clear that he will test free agency, Joseph will look to show the Raptors that they have options.

 

He Still in the League??? – Anthony Bennett

OK, this has been unintentional…but another Canadian born player wins.  Listed as the fourth power forward in the depth chart of the Nets, the former No. 1 overall selection in 2013 keeps hanging on in the League despite not producing anywhere.  Last season he posted a 1.7 ppg as a Raptor.  Has anyone out there seen Bennett play more than five minutes in his career?

Rod Strickland Award – Brandon Jennings

Strickland is the best player in NBA history who never made an All-Star team. The slick New York City ball-handler and playmaker was content to deliver on the court and leave the marketing to others, a pose that denied him a rightful place at a midseason classic. Jennings, up until last year, averaged 15.5 points and six assists per game over his first six seasons. He looks to bounce back and could move the crowd at Madison Square Garden with some funky stylistics in the same way that Strickland once did. 



A Seat at the Table –Tyler Zeller, Marshall Plumlee, Justin Holiday

Solange just put in her bid to step out of her sister Beyoncé's shadow with her inspiring new release, A Seat at the Table. All three players share genetic code with more successful players in the NBA and are looking to surpass a sibling.   

Sweet Baby Jesus – Kyle O’Quinn

Take a look at Kyle O’Quinn and let me know if the name matches the face.  The bearded bruising 6-10 power forward/center has a name like that of an altar boy at the local parish.   And for him to be the starting line-up for the Knicks is a minor miracle for the Queens, New York born player who matriculated at the HBCU Norfolk State.