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2016-17 Eastern Conference Preview: Atlantic Division

It looks like the Atlantic Division is either Boston's or Toronto's to lose at the moment, with New York somewhere in the middle and the other two teams trying to rebuild.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlantic Division was not nearly as close as the Southeast last season, as Toronto easily ran away with the title on their way to a second-place finish in the East. As a whole, the Atlantic was one of the weaker divisions in the NBA, featuring two weak teams (Brooklyn and Philadelphia), and one mediocre one (New York) beside its two playoff teams (Toronto and Boston). The division should still be fairly top heavy this year, but at this point in the year it looks like the balance of power may be shifting, as the question of which team is the best is no longer a simple one.

Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics were an intriguing team last year. Players like Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas formed part of a core that was solid, but not quite top-level. To that end, 48 wins and a first-found exit in the playoffs seemed to more or less match this team's skill level. Boston's expectations for this offseason were to get better, borne out by the team's pursuit of Kevin Durant and signing of Al Horford. After free agency, there were whispers that Boston would trade for someone like Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin to add a final piece, but the team has elected to leave its roster unchanged for the time being.

Going into the 2016-17 season, the Boston Celtics have taken a clear step forward by signing Horford and are well-positioned to compete in the East. Whether or not they will move any of their highly valuable future draft picks remains to be seen, but even if this team stands pat at the trade deadline they should still be better at both ends of the court than they were in 2015-16. The Celtics are still beatable, with exploitable weaknesses, but there aren't many teams in the East who are clearly better than this squad right now.

Brooklyn Nets

Unfortunately for Brooklyn, there isn't much to look forward to about this upcoming season. After dumping many of its veteran players last year, the Nets are looking to rebuild, and facing the unenviable prospect of doing so without control of their draft picks. Signing Kenny Atkinson for the head coaching job seems like a great move (Atlanta will certainly miss him), and Jeremy Lin is at least a fully competent NBA player who can provide leadership and direction for this team. Any positive prospects for the short term end here, though, as Brooklyn will most likely struggle all season, and be unable to reap the usual rewards of poor play next summer.

Every NBA franchise goes through dark periods, and the Brooklyn Nets are staring such a time in the face right now. This isn't meant to criticize their ownership, coaching staff, or players, but rather just to sum up a harsh reality that the entire organization is struggling to cope with. Brooklyn can't be bad forever though, and their fans can take solace in the fact that there are glimmers of hope (in both Lin and Atkinson) for the future.

New York Knicks

New York's other team has much better short-term prospects than the Nets, but the Knicks' plans rest on extremely shaky ground. By trading for Derrick Rose and signing Joakim Noah, the Knicks have built a solid starting lineup made up of aging veterans, clearly choosing the win-now path instead of building future assets around Kristaps Porzingis. On one hand, these moves are understandable, since New York has a much better chance at making the playoffs this year than they have had in the past few seasons. Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, and Joakim Noah are all good NBA players, and their collective veteran experience could easily offset some of the aging problems that could face each of them.

However, this team's chances hang on paper thin contingencies, the first of which is simply staying healthy. Rose's unfortunate injury history is well-documented, and depending on a full season of high production from Noah is hardly a safe bet at this stage in his career. The absolute best-case scenario for the Knicks is undoubtedly positive, as Rose, Anthony, Noah, and a budding Porzingis have a lot of upside. But when you consider that this team's roster is shallow, and that Porzingis' true prime will not come until his three most important teammates have clearly declined, New York's moves look far less enticing. This team has a decent chance of making the playoffs this year, which is more than one can say for their past few years. However, one has to question whether sacrificing the long-term prospects for utilizing a team's best player is worth a one-year gamble at a playoff appearance that may or may not pay off.

Philadelphia 76ers

After finishing with the worst record in the NBA last year, the 76ers are finally looking at improved prospects, even if they're still a few years away from actually being a good team. Philadelphia has simple goals this year, which consist entirely of developing its talented core of young players and looking to continue to build through the draft next year. This year represents one of the most interesting phases of rebuilding for a team, as the 76ers have most of the pieces for future contention, and should field some very good (if completely inexperienced) players every night.

Here, the comparison to Brooklyn is obvious. Although finishing with a worse record than the Nets last year, Philadelphia is fielding a team with a much better chance of success in the next five years. The 76ers aren't good yet, but their rebuild is completely on track with Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor, and Joel Embiid forming an intriguing core of young players who all have high ceilings.

Toronto Raptors

As Cleveland ended Toronto's season in the Eastern Conference Finals, commentators were amazed by the constant, unrelenting chants of "Let's go Raptors" that continued to fill the arena even after Toronto's chances had faded. This illustration provides the perfect way to describe the Raptors' season: a huge success that was unblemished by their conference finals defeat. Certainly, the standards for a great season in Toronto are far lower than those in Cleveland or Golden State, but pushing the Cavaliers to six games in the conference finals was a great accomplishment for a team that was swept out of the first round a year earlier. The Raptors raced to a 56-win, second-place finish en route to their postseason run, satiating their fans and providing a foundation for future success.

The offseason for the Raptors was mostly static, as signing DeMar DeRozan to a five-year contract was the team's biggest move. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were the indisputable leaders of the Raptors last year, and this should continue for the foreseeable future. Losing Bismack Biyombo was somewhat inevitable after DeRozan's contract, but Jonas Valanciunas was the most important center on the team last year and that wouldn't have changed in 2016-17.

Toronto still isn't good enough to truly challenge Cleveland, and Boston has made enough moves to to potentially pass them. However, the full list of external reasons to doubt this team ends there. It's possible that some players on this team regress a little, such as DeRozan, but there's really no reason to expect a steep decline from Toronto overall. They may not reach 56 wins again, but look for another playoff run from Canada's only NBA team.

Summary

The two best teams in this division are clearly Toronto and Boston, with New York somewhere in the middle and Brooklyn and Philadelphia bringing up the rear. Although this division is fairly top-heavy with two very good teams and two very bad ones, the potential race between Toronto and Boston for the second seed in the East could be very interesting. New York will also be a team to follow as well, but they will need some incredible luck to be better than these two front-runners. However this apparent two-team race eventually plays out, look for exciting opponents in Atlantic.