Ahead of Tuesday night's kick-off of the NBA season, TSN.ca looks at the big question facing each of the 30 clubs.


Are the Celtics the Atlantic’s best?

Perhaps the New York Knicks should take a look over at their Atlantic Divisional rival Boston Celtics to see what a successful rebuild can entail. Though the Celtics aren’t yet the finished product, they’re getting there and the addition of Al Horford makes Brad Stevens’ team a true player in the Eastern Conference. Whether or not we can add contender and challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers to that mantle remains to be seen. At the very least, though, the Celtics will give the Toronto Raptors a whole lot to think about.

Though some Celtics fans were holding out hope for Kevin Durant (they had a meeting with them and Tom Brady was there) or Russell Westbrook (they had serious talks with OKC before he re-signed), former Atlanta Hawk Horford is a massive upgrade to the Boston frontcourt. There are questions as to whether or not his best days might be behind him at 30, but there’s no doubt that the four-time all-star brings with him a pick-and-roll dimension and persistence on D the team for which the team cried out for at times last season. Add Horford to burgeoning star Jae Crowder, DPoY candidate Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart and the Celtics have one of the finest team defences in the game.

There is, of course, the issue of offence. Isaiah Thomas was a worthy all-star a year ago and consistently impress with the way he attacks the basket, but outside of him and Horford, Stevens will need the rest of his team to improve its shooting. The Celtics believe that Smart and Crowder are capable of making that next step and are especially hopeful on the latter.

With a potential first-overall pick on the way from the Nets and another likely lottery pick in 2018, Danny Ainge has two giant chips to move if he thinks he can add a superstar into the mix. Don’t be at all surprised if Ainge doesn’t work the phones in the hopes of prying away a LaMarcus Aldridge or Blake Griffin. If that were to happen, the Celtics immediately jump into the contender conversation.

For the first time in four years, the Celtics present an actual obstacle for the Toronto Raptors in the Atlantic and that’s good for the quality of competition in the Eastern Conference.


Just how bad will it be for the Nets?

Though he probably didn’t mean to, new Brooklyn Net Anthony Bennett has already set the tone for his team.

A blooper reel from promo shots for Shaqtin’ a Fool – Shaquille O’Neal’s weekly look at the worst plays of the week during the NBA on TNT – was released last week and had Bennett (mistakenly?) tells viewers, “Don’t watch us play next season.” Sure, that might have been an accident, but NBA fans might want to heed the former first overall pick’s advice. The Brooklyn Nets are going to be bad…especially bad.

It’s one thing for a bad team to take its lumps, knowing that means a prime lottery pick in June, but for the Nets, there’s absolutely no saving grace this season. Teams often mortgage the future in hopes of home-run trades and Brooklyn did just that in their acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in 2013. The deal ended up netting (sorry about that) the club a single playoff series victory, while giving the Boston Celtics three firsts (2014, 2016 and 2018) as well as the right to swap picks this season, which they will undoubtedly come calling on. So not only will the Nets be as bad as the Islanders’ Barclay Center ice, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

What does new coach Kenny Atkinson have to work with then? Well, Jeremy Lin is coming off of a good season with the Charlotte Hornets and can score, so that means there will be production coming out of the backcourt. Brook Lopez is one of the best offensive centres in the game and is an automatic double-double. Might GM Sean Marks dangle him in the hopes of adding some picks in the immediate future? Bojan Bogdanovic’s solid Olympics bodes well for his development. (An aside, Marks must be given some credit for aggressive offer sheets to Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson that the Blazers and Heat matched, respectively, but even had they signed, this team would still struggle mightily).

Other than that, though, it’s hard to like much. There’s very little depth here with an aging bench featuring the likes of Greivis Vasquez and Luis Scola. Another issue for Atkinson could be trying to get these guys to play as a team. On a club as bad as the Nets are going to be, it’s easy to see why players might go into business for themselves as they jockey for playing time, so unity is going to be a must, especially when the going gets tough. Atkinson will hope that professional pride will carry the Nets on some nights.


 Will the Knicks remodel pay off?

The fruits of a rebuild began showing for New York Knicks fans last season in the form of Kristaps Porzingis. The monstrous Latvian brought real excitement back to the Garden for the first team in three seasons, offering highlight-reel plays on both sides of the ball as Carmelo Anthony continued to do what he does best and scored in bunches. But instead of continuing on the path to eventually reestablish the Knicks as an Eastern Conference titan, the team made a number of high-profile acquisitions in offseason, all of which come with massive question marks.

We can start with the pair of former Chicago Bulls headed to the Knicks in Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. It became obvious early on last year that Noah wouldn’t return to the Bulls, having appeared in only 29 games. The oft-injured Hell’s Kitchen native looked a long way from his 2014 12.6 PPG and 11.3 PPG form that earned him his second straight all-star nod. Still, the Knicks locked up the former Florida Gator to a four-year, $72 million deal. If healthy, Noah is the lockdown defender this team sorely needs, but it’s such a big “if.” This is not the 2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. This is a lesser version, but the question is how much lesser?

As for Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP has never really changed the way he plays the game, despite his four years of injury woes that has seen him play in just 166 games over that period. You can call the confidence in his game admirable or you can call it stubborn and the reason why he spends as much time as he does on a training table. He played better in the second half of last season, so there’s hope that trend continues.

Courtney Lee – the Knicks’ safest offseason addition – provides a defensive presence in the backcourt, while Brandon Jennings – another injury reclamation project – could be found money if he stays healthy and contributes.

If new coach Jeff Hornacek gets Noah and Rose on the court more often than they’re off and finds a way to keep getting Porzingis touches, the Knicks should find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt in the East. But if their spotty injuries continue, the Knicks could be on the hook for an expensive mistake.


 Do the Sixers still trust the process?

The Philadelphia 76ers are not cursed. There is no such thing as curses. That’s stupid. Just ask the Chicago Cubs (wait for a little while before doing that…just in case).

Still, it’s not hard to see how Sixers fans might think they are cursed. A first-round pick in 2013, Nerlens Noel (who’s out now for up to five weeks with a knee injury) missed all of his rookie season. The third overall pick in 2013, Joel Embiid, missed his first two seasons. And since everything comes in threes, Ben Simmons – this past June’s first overall pick and potential superstar talent – looks to miss all of this season with a foot injury.

With Sam Hinkie having started “the process,” former NBA Executive of the Year, Bryan Colangelo, is there to continue it. What he and Brett Brown have at their disposal is a young, green team prone to making mistakes, but one with a significant amount of promise on the horizon. There will be pain in the short term, though.

While Simmons is off the table, Embiid is ready to make his NBA bow and he’s looked good in the preseason. He had 18 points in 18 minutes in the team’s final preseason game against Heat. Still, Brown and the Sixers realize how raw he is. Having just spent 24 months on the bench, it would be foolish to ask Embiid to go full bore and expect him to do so. He’s going to struggle on many nights, shaking off the rust. The other concern, too, obviously, is a recurrence of the foot injury that required two separate surgeries. Brown could look to platoon Embiid with second-year man Jahlil Okafor at centre in order to help limit the Cameroonian’s minutes. Okafor scored at a tremendous clip in his rookie season, but struggled mightily defensively. It will be a struggle, but the Sixers expect him to take a step forward in that regard.

There is a bit of a glut when it comes to the frontcourt for the Sixers. When Nerlens Noel is back, Brown will have to give playing time to all of him, Embiid, Okafor and another promising rookie in Dario Saric. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Colangelo to explore an in-season trade. Noel – who was rumoured to be on the block at the draft – would be the most likely candidate for a move, but what he can command as a return is probably the least out of any of the team’s young bigs. If a move were to be made, look for the team to try to shore up the backcourt. Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson are perfectly serviceable in the short term, but the Sixers would love a longer-lasting solution.


What’s a realistic expectation for the Raptors?

It was a grind and a half, but the Toronto Raptors finally turned a corner and won their first ever seven-game playoff series in the first round against the Indiana Pacers last spring. They followed that up by coming out on the victorious end of a seven-game war of attrition with the Miami Heat before finally falling in the Eastern Conference final to the eventual NBA title-winning Cleveland Cavaliers. The playoff run was a magical one for Raptors fans, finally seeing their team break through in the postseason. So what’s next for Dwane Casey’s club?

Well, the 2016-17 Toronto Raptors look a lot like last year’s team with a couple of cosmetic differences. The team will still rely on its all-star backcourt in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. While last season was a contract year for DeRozan, who earned himself a new five-year, $139-million deal, it’s Lowry’s turn this year. Both had terrific regular seasons, but again showed the inconsistency that plagued them in previous playoffs with the team winning in spite of their dynamic duo at times. DeRozan hit just four three-balls in 20 playoff games last year. Considering how close the team came to another early exit in April, regular season success – the team won a franchise-high 56 games last year – will be meaningless with another dire playoff. With Lowry on the verge of a giant payday, this upcoming spring will not be the time for the Raptors’ quarterback to disappear.

This season also marks a big one for centre Jonas Valanciunas. His fifth season in the NBA, the Raptors think that this will be the year that the big Lithuanian turns into an automatic double-double. He showed flashes of brilliance in the playoffs as a nightmare in the paint before going down to injury against the Heat. With Bismack Biyombo now plying his trade with the Orlando Magic, free-agent signing Jared Sullinger sidelined indefinitely with foot surgery and uncertainty with what can be expected from first-round pick Jakob Poeltl, Casey is going to need to trust Valanciunas in high-leverage situations late like he hasn’t before. It will be up to Valanciunas to repay that trust. Patrick Patterson shouldn't be a starter on a contending team, but with rookie Pascal Siakam the only other healthy option right now, this is where the Raptors find themselves yet again.

Elsewhere, the team is hoping to finally see the healthy DeMarre Carroll they hoped they were getting when they signed Carroll to a big-money deal two summers ago. Limited in both the regular season and playoffs through injury (knee), Carroll is back to full health and his tenacious defending will be turned to, especially against top-tier opponents. On nights where the backcourt struggles to finds its offensive touch, secondary scoring through Carroll would be a big help.

The other thing to consider for the Raptors this season is a resurgent Boston Celtics. The Raptors have won three straight Atlantic Divisions in a walk. It won’t be the case this season when the Celtics – considered a favourite by many for the Atlantic – will push them at every turn. Winning the division could be the key to home-court advantage in a potential second-round playoff matchup between the two clubs.