NBA Atlantic Division Preview: Can Celtics Close Gap On Raptors?

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With the 2015-16 NBA season set to begin, NESN.com is breaking down each of the league’s six divisions. To kick things off, we’re focusing on the Atlantic, where the surprising Boston Celtics will try to wrest the top spot from the Toronto Raptors. Teams are listed in predicted order of finish (last year’s record and result in parentheses).

1. Toronto Raptors (49-33, first in division)
Key additions: DeMarre Carroll (free agent), Luis Scola (free agent), Bismack Biyombo (free agent), Anthony Bennett (free agent)
Key departures: Lou Williams (free agent), Amir Johnson (free agent), Greivis Vasquez (trade), Tyler Hansbrough (free agent)

The Raptors have been a pleasant surprise over the last two seasons, but they still can’t get out of the first round of the playoffs. Losing reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams hurts, but the Raptors have a very solid backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and DeMarre Carroll. As long as Lowry stays healthy, Toronto should have no problem winning this division and appears poised to make the leap past the first round.

2. Boston Celtics (40-42, second)
Key additions: David Lee (free agent), Amir Johnson (free agent), Terry Rozier (draft), R.J. Hunter (draft)
Key departures: Brandon Bass (free agent)

The Celtics took a massive leap from the NBA’s basement last season. But they haven’t reached the roof yet. Boston seems poised to continue in the right direction after sneaking into the 2015 playoffs, and it now has tremendous depth in both the frontcourt and backcourt after adding Lee and Johnson this offseason. The Celtics’ one glaring weakness, however, remains the lack of a proven star. Isaiah Thomas can score in bunches and Marcus Smart is a defensive stud, but until Danny Ainge swings a deal for an All-Star, this team’s ceiling isn’t higher than another spot in the back end of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

3. New York Knicks (17-65, fifth)
Key additions: Kristaps Porzingis (draft), Arron Afflalo (free agent), Robin Lopez (free agent), Jerian Grant (draft)
Key departures: Andrea Bargnani (free agent), Shane Larkin (trade), Tim Hardaway Jr. (trade)

Yes, the Knicks were one of the worst teams in basketball last season. But there’s at least some hope for the future. Fourth overall pick Kristaps Porzingis has been impressive in the preseason, as has his fellow first-rounder, point guard Jerian Grant. Phil Jackson made a few additions to Carmelo Anthony’s supporting cast by bringing in veterans Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez. This team still might be pretty bad, especially if Anthony finally gets fed up and demands a trade. This season, however, there’s some potential for improvement.

4. Brooklyn Nets (38-44, third)
Key additions: Andrea Bargnani (free agent), Wayne Ellington (free agent), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (free agent), Dahntay Jones (free agent)
Key departures: Deron Williams (waived), Mason Plumlee (trade), Mirza Teletovic (free agent)

The Nets aren’t in a good place right now. Beyond an aging Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, there isn’t too much talent on the roster, and newcomer Andrea Bargnani already is hurt. Yet Brooklyn doesn’t have the resources to rebuild — as it stands now, the Nets don’t control their own first-round pick in the next three NBA drafts. The best Nets fans can hope for is this team sneaking into the playoffs through the backdoor, but even that won’t do much good for Brooklyn in the long term.

5. Philadelphia 76ers (18-64, fourth)
Key additions: Jahlil Okafor (draft), Nik Stauskas (trade), Carl Landry (trade)
Key separtures: Jason Richardson (free agent/retirement), Thomas Robinson (free agent)

The Sixers continue in their quest to pull off the slowest rebuild of all time. Philly still is in full-on tanking mode, and with Joel Embiid set to miss yet another season, the results will continue to be very ugly. Sixers fans will have the pleasure of watching an exciting young frontcourt in third overall pick Jahlil Okafor and 21-year-old Nerlens Noel, and Nik Stauskas should provide some offensive spark. Outside that, you’ll once again need a smartphone or a game program handy to figure out who the heck is on this roster.

Other division previews: Northwest Division | Pacific Division | Southwest Division | Southeast Division Central Division

Thumbnail photo via Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports Images

Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) celebrates a basket with forward DeMarre Carroll (5) against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Timberwolves 112-107. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

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