2012-13 Atlantic Division Preview

Mark BirdsellContributor IIIAugust 11, 2012

2012-13 Atlantic Division Preview

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    This has been one of the busiest offseasons in recent memory.  Some of the league’s biggest names have new homes.  As a result of various trades and free agent signings, the Atlantic Division has become arguably the toughest in basketball.

    The Nets are ready to move to Brooklyn next season and open the Barclay’s Center.  Their goal this summer was to transform the team and make sure they have a fanbase from Day 1.  Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire, only cares about winning.  The NBA’s more punitive luxury tax system clearly doesn’t faze him.

    Similarly, James Dolan has never been afraid of spending.  The New York Knicks have one of the richest television contracts in the league.  He was not going to be outdone by the Nets in this fight for New York City.

    The Boston Celtics were supposed to begin their rebuild this summer.  However, after coming within one game of the NBA Finals last year, Danny Ainge decided to bring back most of his core players to make one more title run.

    The Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors also made same interesting moves this summer and are poised to be much improved next season.

    Next I will take a look at each Atlantic Division team, its projected starters and sixth man, as well as how the 2012-13 season is likely to break down.

Toronto Raptors

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    The Raptors were hoping to have a big offseason.  Bryan Colangelo was in New York to start free agency.  He took with him a large contingent of front office personnel, along with Wayne Gretzky available by telephone.  All this, in an attempt to woo the biggest name in Canadian basketball into joining the Raptors.

    Steve Nash ultimately decided to turn down Toronto’s three-year, $36 million contract.  Instead he did the unthinkable and convinced the Phoenix Suns to trade him within the division to their hated rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers.

    No Raptor fan can blame Nash.  Not only are the Lakers a better team.  They are also only an hour flight from Phoenix, where Nash’s young children still live.

    With that being said, Toronto had a solid offseason and looks to be much improved.

    Projected Starters

    PG – Kyle Lowry

    SG – Demar DeRozan

    SF – Landry Fields

    PF – Andrea Bargnani

    C – Jonas Valanciunas

    6th Man – Jose Calderon

    Strengths

    Under Dwane Casey, the Raptors have become much better on the defensive end.  This should continue to be the case with the additions of Lowry, Fields and Valanciunas.  Toronto isn’t the laughingstock it once was, nor does it have one of the worst defensive teams in the league.

    Toronto is also a rather deep team.  The Raptors have two quality players at each position. There won’t be much drop-off between the bench and the starters.  With that being said, the team does not possess a truly dominant player.

    The Raptors improved their winning percentage last season with almost entirely the same personnel as in 2010-11.  This improvement was due to a change in philosophy under Casey.  With a full training camp, Toronto should be that much more improved and may be fighting for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

    Weaknesses

    Toronto had problems putting points on the board last season.  The team has few proven scorers, relying mostly on Bargnani and DeRozan.

    The addition of rookie Terrence Ross will help, but the Raptors will again be relying on Bargnani and DeRozan as their primary options.

    Bargnani looked like an All-Star and finally worthy of his draft position early last year.  He averaged 23.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game over the first 13 games of the season.  However, he sustained a calf injury and only played in 18 of the remaining 53 games. 

    Consistency has always been a problem for him.  Now is the time for him to step up.  Otherwise, Colangelo might finally have to bite the bullet and trade the Italian.

    Projected Record

    36-46–5th in the Atlantic Division

Philadelphia 76ers

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    The 76ers overachieved last season under coach Doug Collins.  The team finished four games above .500 and earned the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.  Philadelphia beat the Chicago Bulls, minus Derrick Rose, in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the Boston Celtics in the second round.

    The team looked like it might take a step back this season after using its amnesty clause on Elton Brand.  There is no question Brand is not the player he once was, clearly overpaid at $18.2 million this year.  However, he was a key contributor to last year’s success.

    Instead, the 76ers finally traded Andre Iguodala.  He had been rumored to be on the trade block for the last two seasons.   The opportunity was right, as Philly was able to help facilitate Dwight Howard’s move to Los Angeles and acquire the second-best center in the NBA in the process.

    Andrew Bynum has only played a full season once since entering the NBA, but there is no denying his talent.  The 76ers no longer have to rely almost exclusively on the fast break. They now have a legitimate half-court threat.

    Projected Starters

    PG – Jrue Holiday

    SG – Evan Turner

    SF – Dorrell Wright

    PF – Thaddeus Young

    C – Andrew Bynum

    6th Man – Jason Richardson

    Strengths

    Last season Philly's best chance to beat its opponent was to run them out of the gym.  The team was loaded with so many athletes that it was almost impossible for teams to keep up.

    This year’s team is likely to have a very different flavor.  With the addition of Bynum, the 76ers have the option of running a more traditional offense.  Bynum is developing into one of the best low-post scorers in the game. 

    Add Wright, Richardson and Nick Young and any team that decides to double down on Bynum will be leaving open any number of players who can knock down the corner three.

    Philadelphia also still has the option of playing small and getting out into the open court and running. Iguodala might be gone, but Turner and Young are more than capable of filling the lanes on the fast break.

    Weaknesses

    Defense is going to be an issue for the 76ers.  Outside of Bynum, this is a rather small team.  Thaddeus Young is more of a combo-forward and struggles against more prototypical power forwards.

    As well, even though the addition of Richardson, Wright and Nick Young will help on offense, none of those players are known for their defensive prowess. 

    Sending Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets means losing their most versatile defender, which is problematic when you need to get past the likes of Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to advance in the playoffs.

    Projected Record

    42-40 – 4th in the Atlantic Division

Brooklyn Nets

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    The Nets are set to move to Brooklyn and open their new state-of-the-art arena.  The team hasn’t been relevant since Jason Kidd left town, but that should change this year.

    Billy King made a bold move at the February 2011 trade deadline.  He acquired Deron Williams from the Utah Jazz without any assurances that Williams would sign a contract extension.  The hope was that Williams would ultimately team up with Dwight Howard and transform the Nets into a contender.

    Howard is now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.  However, the future is bright for Brooklyn. 

    This summer they re-signed Williams, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez.  The team acquired Joe Johnson mostly for expiring contracts.  The Nets look to return to the postseason for the first time since the 2006-07 Season.

    Projected Starters

    PG – Deron Williams

    SG – Joe Johnson

    SF – Gerald Wallace

    PF – Kris Humphries

    C – Brook Lopez

    6th Man – MarShon Brooks

    Strengths

    Brooklyn has one of the better starting lineups in the league.  Williams is a top-three point guard. With Derrick Rose out for most of the season, he will likely battle Chris Paul for the unofficial title of top point guard in the NBA.

    Johnson is undeniably overpaid after the Atlanta Hawks gave him a six-year, $119 million contract in 2010.  Despite tha,t he is still one of the top five shooting guards in the league.  And as mentioned earlier, the Nets owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, isn’t afraid to spend.

    Humphries is a double-double guy.  Lopez is one of the better young centers in the league, even if he did take a step back last season.  Finally, Wallace is an athletic slasher, who can fill up the box score.

    Weaknesses

    The biggest concern entering the season should be the bench.  Brooks looked solid as a rookie last season.  The additions of Reggie Evans and C.J. Watson are nice.  However, for the most part, Brooklyn’s reserves remain a question mark.

    If one of the Nets starters gets injured, especially if that is Williams, the season won’t be nearly as productive as expected.

    With that being said, Brooklyn is looking to take the spotlight off Madison Square Garden and the Knicks, and has the foundation to at least attempt it.

    Projected Record

    50-32 – 3rd in the Atlantic Division

New York Knicks

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    On the other side of the East River lies the self-proclaimed mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden, home to the New York Knicks.

    Knicks fans were upset two years ago when they were spurned by LeBron James.  They settled for a consolation prize in Amar’e Stoudemire.

    The team has since added another superstar in Carmelo Anthony and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler.

    It isn’t the star-studded lineup fans were dreaming of when Chris Paul made his now infamous “Big Three” toast at Anthony’s wedding a few years ago.  However, it is the best lineup Knicks fans have seen in years.

    Projected Starters

    PG – Raymond Felton

    SG – J.R. Smith

    SF – Carmelo Anthony

    PF – Amar’e Stoudemire

    C – Tyson Chandler

    6th Man – Jason Kidd

    Strengths

    One of the biggest concerns entering last season was who would control the team?  After using its amnesty clause on Chauncey Billups to create enough cap space to sign Chandler, the team was left without a proven leader.

    There was no one on the team to ensure things ran efficiently.  The offensive simply boiled down to coming down the floor and giving the ball to Anthony or Stoudemire in an isolation situation.

    Things will be very different this year.  The team has brought in Jason Kidd, who is the consummate professional and arguably the greatest point guard of his generation.  At 39 years old, he isn’t the same player he was in Phoenix or New Jersey.  However, everyone in the league respects him and will listen to what he has to say.

    The additions of Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas will also add a veteran presence to the club.  These players have come to win and won’t tolerate the selfish play that occurred last season.

    Weaknesses

    The two major concerns for the Knicks are their age and the team’s backcourt.

    The addition of Kidd, Camby and Thomas make New York one of the oldest teams in the league.  There is no telling whether their bodies will be able to withstand the rigors of an 82-game schedule. 

    Also a concern will be the guard play of the Knicks.  Felton had one of his best seasons in New York, under Mike D’Antoni, but he is coming off his worst statistical season in Portland.

    New York will miss last year’s rookie standout, Iman Shumpert.  He tore his ACL last season and may be out until January.

    Finally, the typically generous James Dolan became frugal this summer and declined to match offer sheets to restricted free agents Jeremy Lin and Landry Fields.  Both players would have helped bolster New York’s backcourt this year.

    Projected Record

    52-30 – 2nd in the Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics

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    Every year the Boston Celtics are said to be too old.  Every year the pundits say it is time to rebuild.  And every year when May and June rolls around the Celtics are right there still playing basketball, while the majority of the league is out golfing.

    Analysts have marvelled at Kevin Garnett’s rebirth.  Doc Rivers had no choice last year but to move Garnett to center.  Injuries had eliminated Boston’s frontcourt depth.  It turned out to be one of the best decisions he’s ever made.  

    While not the Garnett fans remember from his days in Minnesota, he was able to turn back the clock.  He looked much younger than his age and almost 46,000 regular-season minutes would have you believe.

    After their playoff success, Danny Ainge had no choice but to re-sign Garnett for one more title run.  Ray Allen may have fled to Miami.  However, Ainge has filled out the roster nicely.  He added veterans Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, re-signed Brandon Bass and Jeff Green, and drafted Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo.

    Projected Starters

    PG – Rajon Rondo

    SG – Courtney Lee

    SF – Paul Pierce

    PF – Brandon Bass

    C – Kevin Garnett

    6th Man – Jason Terry

    Strengths

    Boston’s biggest strength is its defense and championship experience.  The team was transformed during the 2007-08 season by the addition of Garnett and Allen.  That group went on to win the title that year and come within one victory of a second banner in 2010.

    The loss of Allen will hurt, but even without him this year’s team looks better on paper than it did entering last season.

    Boston’s young big men will learn from Garnett, much the same way Kendricks Perkins and Glen Davis did.

    Terry won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks and will provide much-needed scoring off the bench.

    The team is another year older and no one can outrun Father Time.  However, once again the road to the Atlantic Division crown goes through the Boston Celtics. 

    Weaknesses

    The question remains the same.  When will their age catch up to them?

    Boston took a 3-2 lead over the Miami Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.  At the end of the day, there was nothing they could do to slow down LeBron James.  Not that the Celtics really should be upset about this. James has become so good there is no one in the league that can shut him down.

    With injuries to Derrick Rose, the second spot in the East is up for grabs.  The Celtics will be right there, taking the usual position at the top of the Eastern Conference. 

    Their age just might be too much for them to overcome, though.  As the world is discovering right now in London at the Olympics, stopping LeBron James is an impossible task.  But Boston will have at least one more chance to try this season.

    Projected Record

    54-28 – 1st in the Atlantic Division