Ranking the Boston Celtics' Challengers in NBA Atlantic Division

Matthew SchmidtFeatured ColumnistAugust 30, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 16: Paul Pierce #34 and Kevin Garnett #5 of the Boston Celtics high five during their 107-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on May 16, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
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The Atlantic Division is going to look awfully different this season, as each and every member made moves to upgrade their rosters.

The question is, who is the biggest threat to the Boston Celtics in the Atlantic?

Is it the Carmelo Anthony-led New York Knicks? Is it the new-look Brooklyn Nets? Or is it the Philadelphia 76ers who will now feature Andrew Bynum in their frontcourt?

In this article, I will rank the three main challengers (sorry, Toronto Raptors fans) and explain how concerned the Celtics should truly be about each squad.


3. Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers have become the trendy pick to finish in second place in the division and even give Boston some problems, but I just don't see it.

Of course, Philadelphia acquired Bynum in the four-team mega-deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers, and that was undoubtedly a good move for the Sixers, as they now finally have a low post presence for the first time in what seems like ages.

However, Andre Iguodala went to the Denver Nuggets in that trade. Iguodala took a bit of a bad rap in Philly, a rap that he really didn't deserve. Because he was on a team that really had no go-to scorer, he was looked at as "the guy," and he just isn't that type of player. Iguodala is at his best when he can simply focus on playing lockdown perimeter defense and facilitating offensively, but with the 76ers, he was looked upon to score, and when he didn't put the ball in the basket, fans got on his case.

Well, those same fans may end up pining for Iguodala this coming season.

With his departure, who on the Sixers is going to be able to effectively defend Paul Pierce? Will it be Evan Turner? Dorell Wright? The options are not too appealing, and I can see Pierce having a field day against this team whenever the two clubs match up.

Also, outside of Bynum, Philadelphia's roster isn't all that impressive. Its second-best player is Jrue Holiday, a player who actually regressed this past year in a season where many thought he was going to take a big step forward. If Holiday is your No. 2 option, you're going to run into some trouble, especially against deep teams like the Celtics. To be perfectly honest, the C's have at least two players coming off of their bench who are better than Holiday.

The 76ers will likely be a playoff team, but as far as giving Boston any sort of issues in the hunt for the Atlantic Division crown, I just don't see it. Yes, they have probably the league's second-best center in Bynum, but as a collective unit, they just aren't all that impressive.


2. Brooklyn Nets

The Nets made a plethora of moves this offseason, re-signing Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries and going out and landing Joe Johnson in a deal with the Atlanta Hawks. They also brought Reggie Evans aboard to come off the bench, and I feel I should also mention that they will be getting a healthy Brook Lopez back for the start of the season.

All of that said, I don't see Brooklyn posing too much of a problem for the Celtics. The primary reason for that is its defense, or lack thereof. The Nets have one of the poorer defensive frontcourts in the league in Lopez and Humphries. Although Humphries is a good rebounder, he is not exactly what you would call a defensive stalwart. Not only that, but Johnson is not known for being a good player on that side of the ball, either, and Williams has never been recognized as anything more than a mediocre defender as well.

Brooklyn will also suffer from a lack of depth, as outside of MarShon Brooks, it doesn't have any reliable scorers off the bench. If you want to include C.J. Watson, fine, but then you're looking at the likes of Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Bogans. In Stackhouse's case, it's 2012, not 2002, and Bogans is, well, Bogans.

There will be nights when the Nets' starting five is clicking on all cylinders offensively and they will be able to put 100+ points up on the board, but at some point, you are going to need some production from your bench. You are also going to need to prevent your opposition from dropping 100 on you, and with the way Brooklyn is currently constructed, it is not well-equipped to do either of those two things.

Make no mistake: the Nets will be much-improved this season and will probably finish with something like a fifth seed, but they will not give Boston much of a scare (if any) in the Atlantic.


1. New York Knicks

That brings me to the one and only team I have my eye on: the Knicks.

Yes, I understand New York has been the butt of many jokes over the years, but those jokes should really stop now, as the Knicks look pretty serious on paper.

For years, New York was known for having a lousy defense, Now, with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler and the recently acquired Marcus Camby in the fold, the Knicks look downright intimidating in the paint, not to mention the fact that it has one of the league's up-and-coming premier perimeter defenders in Iman Shumpert (when he recovers from knee surgery, of course) and another fine perimeter defender in his own right in Ronnie Brewer.

Say what you want about New York getting older during this offseason, but the fact of the matter is that it has gotten better, and if Amar'e Stoudemire can simply stay healthy for the entirety of the season (and I understand that is quite a bit to ask for given his injury history), the Knicks are going to be dangerous.

When stacking New York up against the rest of the Eastern Conference, I believe it is the third-most talented team. Notice that I didn't say the Knicks were the third-best team, as the Indiana Pacers might have something to say about that, but they are the third-most talented, and I could easily see them finishing as high as third in the final standings.

New York isn't like the 76ers or the Nets. It can beat you in plenty of ways, and it has an ample amount of depth, as well. The Knicks can shoot the basketball, rebound, defend, and run the floor. The one thing they really don't have is a legitimate go-to guy on the low block, as Anthony is actually their best low post player. That will hurt, but regardless, they are still quite a few notches above Philadelphia and Brooklyn in terms of being a threat to the Celtics.

I'm not saying New York is going to win the Atlantic Division, because I think Boston is essentially a shoo-in to capture that title, but it is the next best thing in the division. By far.