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Ranking the Atlantic Division: End of August edition

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The NBA’s Atlantic has experienced a greater turnover than any other division this off-season. What will this mean for its five hopeful contenders?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

For a few years, the bulk of teams in the NBA’s Atlantic division have been more adept at positioning themselves among the top of draft lotteries than in playoff seedings. For some of the teams, [clears throat] like the Nets, finding themselves at either end of this spectrum would be a welcome reality.

This year promises to bring change to a division that seemed all but set in stone this time a year ago. Welcome to the ecstatic Atlantic, home to some of the largest markets in basketball, and some of the most engaging storylines as a result. Here’s where the division stands now, as we near the end of August.

5. Brooklyn Nets

The bottom feeders of the Atlantic a few short months ago have had as productive an off-season as any team in the Association. The acquisition of D’Angelo Russell from the Lakers, on what was essentially the world's biggest salary dump, immediately altered the perception of the organization. A fresh young face brings fresh new goals for the Nets, hoping to play competitive basketball for the first time since a mass exodus of Hall-of-Famers in 2014.

In addition to Russell, new faces include Timofey Mozgov, DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe, and first round draft selection out of Texas, Jarrett Allen. Mozgov and Carroll come to Brooklyn with relatively low expectations as they were both discarded by their respective teams in salary dump moves. These veterans will look to use their roles to once again establish themselves as valuable NBA commodities. Crabbe automatically finds himself competing for a starting wing spot with other hopefuls (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, and Sean Kilpatrick to name a few). Allen will likely see big minutes right away given the shortage of true centres on the Nets roster. Allen may even start immediately for the Nets depending on coach Atkinson’s confidence in Mozgov.

Even with such a positive off-season all but in the books, Brooklyn doesn’t figure to be a real threat to make the playoffs — at least not this season. While a projected starting lineup of Lin, Russell, Crabbe, Hollis-Jefferson, Mozgov would be a massive improvement on their starting five a year ago, this team is just too young and raw to make a serious push at the playoffs.

Projected record: 21-61

4. New York Knicks

The Association’s largest city doubles as a hub for the league’s biggest source of drama. Between the firing of Phil Jackson, the trade rumours of Kristaps Porzingis, the reports of Melo wanting out, and the Kyrie Irving wishlist debacle, New York Knick fans have been on an emotional rollercoaster for months. Rumours aside, what’s been most impressive this off-season is how much hasn’t happened. The Latvian Unicorn is still rocking blue and orange, so too is Carmelo Anthony, and we now know Irving will not be a Knick this upcoming season. In fact, the most notable acquisitions for the Knicks this off-season have been their two draft picks, Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson. Michael Beasley and Ramon Sessions were also signed to contracts in an effort to stabilize and compliment a youthful core. To make room for younger guards Ron Baker and Ntilikina, the Knicks also decided to move on from Derrick Rose — a smart move. Perhaps the most significant piece of news surrounding the Knicks is that owner James Dolan is still around and in charge. Many New Yorkers believe that as long as this is the case, their Knicks will struggle to attract big name free agents, coaches, or general managers to a city that requires no sales pitch.

A year ago the Knicks won a measly 31 games, utterly disappointing for fan base used to success, in a very desirable market. A projected starting lineup of Baker, Hardaway, Anthony, Porzingis, Hernangomez along with a slightly improved bench will prime the Knicks for a step in the right direction, but will leave them as long-shots to sneak into a playoff spot.

Projected record: 34-48

3. Philadelphia 76ers

It definitely hasn't been sunshine and rainbows of late for the 76ers, but a duo of highly touted rookies marching onto the scene would have you believing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Much like the sitcom of the same name, the past few years have been laughable for the city’s professional basketball team. The 76ers have just 38 combined wins over the past two campaigns which is, um... not good. Despite their near-unwatchable basketball for large chunks of those past two seasons, this team figures to contend for a playoff spot.

This season’s forecast? A youthful resurgence with a high chance of corner 3s.

The additions of this year's first pick, Markelle Fultz and last year’s top dog, Ben Simmons should be enough of a culture reset to thrust the lowly Sixers into the thick of things in the weak East. The acquisition of sharpshooter J.J. Redick will bring some much needed floor spacing to a squad that ranked 25th last season in 3-point percentage. Veteran Amir Johnson will bring some defensive grit and hustle to an otherwise inexperienced bench unit. With Simmons sidelined last season, two 76ers will be favourites to take home this year’s rookie of the year honours. A projected starting lineup of Fultz, Redick, Simmons, Dario Saric, and Joel “Trust the Process” Embiid has the potential to make even the powerhouses of the East tremble in their boots.

Projected record: 45-37

2. Toronto Raptors

The Raptors find themselves in NBA purgatory, stuck somewhere between the success of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and promising future of the 76ers. Toronto had a chance to establish a sense of direction this off-season, and with the re-signings of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the direction is crystal clear. Toronto’s window to win is closing, but with frantic movement of late in the Eastern conference, the Raptors have the continuity to give the city its best shot at a Finals appearance. Instead of opting for a massive overhaul of personnel, Masai Ujiri and company looked to altering the style of play to one which better suits the modern NBA. This will likely mean more time for Serge Ibaka at the five, and some off-season 3-pointer work for DeMar DeRozan. Personnel did not remain entirely the same, however, as backup point guard Cory Joseph was traded straight up for veteran marksman, C.J. MIles.

Though a projected starting lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Miles, Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas remains one of the league’s finest, Toronto will have to rely heavily on its young players to provide a spark off of the bench. Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam are now expected to be regular role players for a squad just one season removed from its only Conference Finals appearance. Other significant subtractions this season include Carroll, P.J. Tucker, and Patrick Patterson, which may prove costly (especially with a pair of draft picks going out with Carroll). Toronto used its only pick of the draft this off-season on OG Anunoby, the forward from Indiana who projects to be a defensive stopper at the very minimum. This role becomes especially vital given the loss of Tucker to the Rockets in free agency. If Toronto’s young talent can all take steps in the right direction, this team will remain favourites to hold onto a top three seed in the Eastern conference.

Projected Record: 55-27

1. Boston Celtics

Few teams in professional sports history have put themselves in as enviable a situation as the Celtics. The C’s are fresh off a Conference Finals appearance, selected in the top three picks in the last two drafts, managed to accumulate future picks by trading back in the draft, signed a low-maintenance All-Star, and pulled off the blockbuster trade of the summer. The Celtics were one of the few NBA teams that possessed the assets to bring in a Kyrie Irving-type player, and this off-season, they did just that. It is difficult to project how this team will fare given their two best players are both new to the scene in Boston. Though chemistry may be a hurdle early on, many experts predict the Celtics will finish atop the Eastern Conference in the regular season, and may derail the King’s path to an eighth consecutive Finals appearance.

This squad lead by Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford figures to be the biggest threat to a fourth consecutive big dance between the Warriors and Cavaliers. Though Boston will be without the services of Kelly Olynyk, Gerald Green, Avery Bradley, Amir Johnson, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and former face of the franchise, Isaiah Thomas; Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye along with the aforementioned All-Stars, will be called on to fill the void. Morris and Baynes will bring some experience, grit, and perhaps some much needed rebounding. Tatum, a skilled face-up three, has drawn many early comparisons to Carmelo Anthony, and Ojeleye has been described as a high-upside Swiss army knife. After all was said and done this off-season, the Celtics landed themselves multiple superstar-calibre players, managed to avoid having their depth suffer, and somehow also added to their impressive stash of draft picks. Hou-Danny Ainge has a Vegas show waiting for him after the magic act he pulled this off-season.

Projected record: 59-23