Boston Celtics: Complete Eastern Conference Preview

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Feb 20, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Kyle Korver (26) is fouled by Toronto Raptors forward James Johnson (3) on his way to the basket during the second half at Philips Arena. The Raptors defeated the Hawks 105-80. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Hawks

It’s hard to imagine the Hawks not enduring at least a minor drop-off in performance, given last year’s squad set a franchise record with 60 wins. 2014-15 included a 19-game winning streak and a 42-9 start. Don’t get me wrong, Atlanta will still be a good team, but replicating last year’s number one seed and Eastern Conference Finals appearance is a tall task, and I don’t see it happening.

The Hawks had four All-Stars last season, tied for the most all-time from a single team, and each one is back, but their fifth starter, DeMarre Carroll, will be lacing it up for the Raptors this season after inking a four-year, $60 million deal. That’s a big loss. The additions of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Tiago Splitter will help make up some of the difference. 22-year-old point guard Dennis Schröder should continue to improve and Kent Bazemore has the potential to fill in nicely in Carroll’s absence. Still, the Hawks had something magical about them last season. It ended abruptly when the Cavaliers swept them in the Conference Finals, and I don’t think they’ll get it all the way back this season.

Atlanta should still end up in the East’s top four, but coach Mike Budenholzer’s exceptional system won’t be enough to get them over the hump. This team’s starless approach is admirable, and they’ve had the most success with it since the Detroit Pistons of the mid-2000s, but the lack of a singular go-to scorer down the stretch will make it tough for them to close games when the chips are down. Unfortunately, the Hawks also play in an Eastern Conference that includes LeBron James. As long as the four-time MVP remains at the peak of his powers they won’t be sniffing the Finals.

Toronto Raptors

As mentioned, Toronto managed to snatch DeMarre Carroll away from Atlanta, but they should still fall off a bit from their 49-win total of a year ago. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams has fled the North for La La Land to suit up with the Lakers, taking his 15.5 points per game with him. All-Star Kyle Lowry will be expected to make up some of the difference, but he finished 7th among qualified point guards in minutes per game last season and might not be able to do much more than he already is.

DeMar DeRozan is a reliable scorer, but doesn’t necessarily bring that much else to the table. Toronto will be lucky to squeeze ten good minutes a game out of former number one pick Anthony Bennett, who has yet to find his footing in the league. Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson are reliable complimentary players, and veteran Luis Scola adds some depth to the frontcourt. Still, I don’t see the Raptors instilling much fear in opponents this season, especially after a 12-16 finish last year and four-game sweep at the hands of the Wizards.

Lowry, DeRozan, and center Jonas Valanciunas are fine players, but not the blue chippers that have basically become a prerequisite for making a serious Finals run. After years of mediocrity, Toronto appears to be trending back in that direction. Teams behind them in the standings a year ago have clearly gotten better and should push the Raptors back towards the outskirts of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

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