2013-14 NBA Preview: Will new-look Nets win Atlantic?
SI.com is previewing every division ahead of the 2013-14 NBA season. Up first, the Atlantic Division, where a budding New York rivalry is expected to dominate the division's narrative.
The Nets took out a second mortgage in order to build the most audacious rotation in the NBA. The team now boasts at least two future Hall of Famers in Garnett and Paul Pierce, three more All-Stars in the starting lineup and former All-Star Andrei Kirilenko and former Sixth Man Award winner Jason Terry off the bench. One year ago, the Nets were highly paid underperformers who sleepwalked through their first-round loss to the depleted Bulls. But the arrival of Garnett and the hiring of fellow future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd promises to caffeinate the entire organization. Kidd’s inexperience will be offset by the meticulous preparation of lead assistant Lawrence Frank, who will help make sense of the substitution patterns that will be crucial to the Nets’ success this year. The elderly squad knows better than anyone that nothing is more important than its health. With seven members of the rotation on the wrong side of 30, including the three former Celtics each 35 or older, their title hopes will depend on them being healthy and fresh going into the playoffs.
The skinny: If the Nets can’t manage their health, their enormous size and experience will go to waste against the younger Heat, Bulls and Pacers.
The Knicks will maintain the larger following, but during the regular season they figure to be the second-best team in New York. They’re going to miss the soothing influence of Kidd, and never mind his disappointing scoreless streak to end his career last spring -- up to that point he had helped bring out the best in Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. They remain a lock playoff team, but they carry many questions whose answers may conspire to prevent them from reaching the second round: Will Amar'e Stoudemire be healthy enough to be reliable off the bench? Will Andrea Bargnani flourish as the starting stretch 4 -- and will Anthony excel by shifting back to small forward? Or will the Knicks follow up last season's division title with a year of fearing whether Anthony will leave as a free agent next summer? Mike Woodson will spend the year preaching patience as the back-page headlines focus on the crosstown Nets.
The skinny: The Knicks must find a way to crack the top four -- their playoff run will be short without home-court advantage.
The front office has been overhauled with the departure of general manager Bryan Colangelo and the arrival of CEO Tim Leiweke and new GM Masai Ujiri, but the team on the court (apart from Bargnani) remains unchanged. Ujiri will be watching closely to see if there is a future in this team that should be making a run at the playoffs in the top-heavy East, where there are only five certain playoff teams and three spots up for grabs. Adding to the intrigue are the expiring contracts of coach Dwane Casey, leading scorer Rudy Gay (player option) and point guard Kyle Lowry. The Raptors need a strong start to create momentum for a run at their first playoff appearance since 2008 -- and to stave off rumors that are waiting to hatch at the trade deadline. The Raptors have enough talent to compete for the postseason, and if they lack the chemistry and commitment to make it happen, Ujiri will start the rebuilding ASAP.
The skinny: Even if some players are dealt by February, Casey may yet earn an extension and an opportunity to coach into the new era.
Rookie coach Brad Stevens is likely to grasp the importance of his six-year contract by January. In the absence of their beloved Big Three and with Rajon Rondo on the sideline at the start of the year as he recovers from ACL surgery, the Celtics are headed for the lottery for the first time since 2007 (when they traded the No. 5 pick for Ray Allen). The roster is disjointed -- too many players in the frontcourt, no point guard besides Rondo and the most talented healthy players (Wallace and Jeff Green) are both small forwards -- because it is just beginning to undergo its reconstruction after the trade that sent Garnett, Pierce and Terry to Brooklyn for a package of draft picks and placeholder salaries. The interior defense figures to be porous without Garnett’s leadership, while the offense will be without reliable ball handling in the absence of Rondo and Pierce. With all that said, expect Stevens to be worthy of the challenge: He knew what he was getting into, and this season is all about building up toward a payoff down the road.
The skinny: The Celtics may be out of playoff contention by the time Rondo returns to the lineup. He might not be there long, either, if GM Danny Ainge decides to trade the last holdover from the old regime.
Rookie GM Sam Hinkie was given a mandate for change, and in a few short months he’s changed the entire face of the 76ers. He traded Holiday to New Orleans for Noel and a first-round pick next year, and he signed new coach Brett Brown to a four-year deal, accounting for the likelihood that the Sixers will spend the first two years in the lottery. Noel’s return from knee surgery has yet to be determined, and even when he’s back in uniform, the Sixers will be cautious with their shot-blocking center of the future. Rookie Michael Carter-Williams, the No. 11 pick in a weak draft, will spend this year learning the hard way as the starter at point guard. Another big project will be to restore the confidence and value of fourth-year swingman Evan Turner, whether to include him in the rebuild or move him for assets. Philadelphia is going to struggle to score, and the best Brown can hope for is to establish a hard-fought defensive identity that can create easy baskets. It will be important for everyone to remember that a losing season is part of the larger strategy.
The skinny: The biggest victory for the 76ers will come in May -- if they should happen to win the draft lottery.
The 7-foot center will enable the Nets to match up with the frontcourt size of Chicago (Joakim Noah) and Indiana (Roy Hibbert) while creating mismatches in a potential playoff series against Miami. The paint figures to be parted almost biblically for Lopez thanks to the wealth of All-Star shooters who will be surrounding him on the perimeter as the ball zips around the floor before finding its way inside. Lopez had better enjoy this season, because his life in the paint may never be so comfortable again.
The reigning Sixth Man Award winner couldn’t make a shot by the end of the playoffs before undergoing surgery and earning a five-game suspension for a drug violation over the summer -- not exactly the type of headlines the Knicks were hoping for to combat the big splash created by the rival Nets this summer. With the top of the conference growing more competitive, the Knicks need Smith to build on his terrific regular season by playing explosively and yet still under control. They may be asking too much.
The Raptors’ 27-year-old point guard is known for getting carried away with his competitiveness, to the point of being divisive rather than inspiring. Now that he enters a contract year with his franchise at a crossroads, the Raptors will be looking for Lowry to help lead them toward the playoffs while defining himself as a winner upon whom Toronto (or another prospective employer) can depend. It was one thing for Lowry to lose his temper with coaches and teammates when he was a rising young player, but as he approaches his peak years, he must define himself in a constructive way.
The Nets will look like potential champs during the regular season, but the rigors of the playoffs and younger rivals will be too much for their tired legs.