Due to the events that transpired this offseason, to the average fan the NBA has evolved into a dichotomy: the forces of evil (Miami) versus the forces of lesser evil (everyone else), with the Celtics and Lakers operating in the hazy limbo space between each region.
However, despite all the big names changing zip codes, the composition of the Atlantic Division remains relatively unchanged. The Celtics are a potential title contender and perhaps the East’s best bet to quash the title hopes of Miami’s unholy trio. The rest of the division ranges from the mediocre to the downright deplorable—the same way it’s been in the Atlantic for three years.
1) Boston Celtics
The Celtics beefed up their frontcourt as they make perhaps one final run for a ring, but this season’s edition appears to be the worst of the Boston Three Party era.
Sure, word on the street is that Kevin Garnett is looking as fluid as he was before blowing out his knee in 2009, but an explosive Garnett isn’t Boston’s main priority. After all, a slightly limited Garnett still played belligerent and intelligent defense during last season’s playoff run, and Garnett’s passive nature and disinclination to attack with the game on the line won’t metamorphosize due to a return to better health.
If Kevin Garnett habitually failed in key stretches of playoff games when he was in his prime, then the revitalization of his knee won’t turn him into the prime-time end-game scorer the Celtics will need if they want to capture a ring.
No, this Celtics edition is worse because Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are worse.
Allen’s always primarily been best as a spot-up shooter, but he’s also been underrated at using the threat of the jumper to get to the rim and score. Watching him struggle to finish at the rim last season, particularly against the Lakers, indicates just how far Allen has dropped. His shooting will still come and go, but he’s increasingly one-dimensional.
Pierce has also lost at least a step. He’s still strong enough and smart enough to dissect poor defensive opponents, but might-sized defenders can hang with Pierce and keep him from bulling his way to the paint. Without the threat of the drive, his step-back jumpers from the top of the key aren’t nearly as effective. Look at how much Pierce struggled last postseason against LeBron James and Ron Artest. Unfortunately for Boston, those two play for Boston’s toughest competition this season.
Rajon Rondo is amazingly nimble, has terrific court vision and is a falcon on loose balls, but he still can’t shoot which makes it easier for defenses to stymie Boston’s screen/roll game. He still struggles with making metagame decisions (like constantly walking the ball up against the Lakers when Boston’s offense stagnated and transition opportunities presented themselves). On play-making ability alone, Rondo is a top-five point guard, but these minute blemishes add up against opponents with the talent to match Boston’s and the coaching to take advantage of that.
With Kendrick Perkins injured to start the season, Boston will use Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal in the interim. Shaq is still a load to handle in the low post and can still bang around post scorers near the basket. But his inability to defend in space or make adequate and alert defensive rotations goes against Boston’s defensive mantra.
Jermaine O’Neal has much more range on defense, can knock down mid-range jumpers and is still able to face and go, but he’s too frail, can’t rebound and has been dreadful in the postseason over the course of his career. As separate entities, each O’Neal is worse than Rasheed Wallace.
Over time, Kendrick Perkins should return and provide exceptional interior defense, but he’s only an average rebounder and will certainly be hindered by the lingering effects of his torn ACL.
Off the bench, Glen Davis can hit mid-range jumpers and finish using his wide body, and he’s surprisingly fleet on defense, but his lack of size, hops and focus prevent him from being a consistent producer.
Nate Robinson hasn’t been completely tamed and is a wild card that can shoot the Celtics into wins as often as his unchecked recklessness will drive the Celtics into losses.
When Delonte West is right, he’s a gutsy defender, who can drive, shoot, post up, rebound and make good decisions. But he hasn’t been right since his 2009 gun incident and admittance of Bipolar disorder.
Von Wafer can sometimes score in a pinch, but he has no concept of team offense.
Marquise Daniels hasn’t been the defender he was brought aboard to be.
That, perhaps, is Boston’s biggest downgrade. With Tony Allen’s exceptional defensive skills now employed by the Memphis Grizzlies, the Celtics don’t have any defensive stopper, especially as Paul Pierce has to shoulder much of the end-game load as Boston’s most creative and dependable offensive scorer. The defensive drop off from Allen to Daniels is steep, and Daniels and Wafer aren’t good enough scorers to compensate.
Still, despite the criticisms, it isn’t all doom and gloom for the Celtics.
Among Boston’s strengths
- They have a disciplined, creative, and balanced offensive approach which plays to the collective talent of the roster.
- They play extremely physical and well-coordinated defense.
- Overall, Boston’s collective basketball intelligence is off the charts.
- The Celtics play completely unselfish basketball, another testament to their basketball IQ.
- The Celtics are well-coached, with creative game planning that can neutralize an opponent over a long series.
- With the big four healthy, Boston has the offensive firepower to overwhelm most teams on sheer talent alone.
But in the high-stakes world of the Conference Finals and NBA Finals, every minor weakness is a chance for an opponent to leave a team in tatters. Right now, like last season, the Celtics' holes are a bit more glaring than the Lakers', plus the Celtics at their peak don’t project to have more talent than Miami at their peak.
At least we know the Celtics are a proven playoff winner, while the Heat’s moxie will be a mystery until late May.
2) New York Knicks
The New York Knicks won’t be any kind of championship contender, but their solid mediocrity might be cause for a tickertape parade for relevance-starved Knicks’ fans.
Amare Stoudemire is a dynamic scorer and roll man in screen/roll situations, though he no longer has Steve Nash to feed him the cookies. Still, Stoudemire is a load to handle, especially with the sheer number of sad-sack defenses that inhabit the Eastern Conference. Defense and rebounding have never been Stoudemire’s forte.
Danilo Gallinari is a solid two-way player and an excellent shooter. Anthony Randolph is a sprightly athlete, with no strength, defensive skills or basketball IQ. Wilson Chandler can do a little bit of everything but isn’t an iso scorer.
The most important player on the Knicks will be Raymond Felton, though. The Knicks' most crippling weakness last season was Chris Duhon’s three-point shooting. When he was going well, teams would have to respect his jump shot and defend him on ball screens. When he wasn’t doing well, defenses would go under Knicks’ ball-screens and the offense would stagnate.
If Felton can keep defenses honest with his shooting, it will only increase the rolling lanes and spacing for Amare Stoudemire to attack defenses. If Felton isn’t shooting well, defenses will sag off him, crippling New York’s screen/roll game and limiting the Knicks’ interior driving lanes.
Off the bench, Ronny Turiaf is low on skill but big on effort and foul trouble, Roger Mason Jr. is a shooter coming off a disastrous season with the Spurs, Bill Walker is a high flyer still learning the game, while Toney Douglas is an attacking point guard, not a play-making one.
The Knicks have the pieces to play an effective full-throttle game plan, and Stoudemire alone could give the Knicks a ticket to the playoffs. However, the Knicks are still short on defenders, rebounders, and wing talent to make an impact postseason run.
3) Philadelphia 76ers
Another year without a top notch point guard will mean another fruitless season for the Sixers. Jrue Holliday can someday be that caliber point guard, but he’s still extremely young and learning on the job. Lou Williams is quick and athletic, but he’s more of a change-of-pace backup than a reliable, decision-making starter.
Getting rid of Samuel Dalembert will open up a logjam in the frontcourt. Elton Brand can still score from the high post, but his days of being a dominant low post scorer and rebounder are over. Marreese Speights has the talent to dominate on both sides of the court but doesn’t put the work in. As such, his hints of stardom appear in glimpses and glimmers, while observers are still searching for his hints of defense.
Thaddeus Young can run the floor with anybody, is an explosive finisher on the break or the baseline and is an active, energetic defender. He’s too lean to play power forward without a sturdy low-post defender and rebounder at center, and he doesn’t shoot well enough to play the three without a pair of sharp-shooting guards. Because of Philadelphia’s roster limitations, he’s best off as the first forward off the bench.
Spencer Hawes lacks the talent to be a game-changer and is strictly a backup, while Darius Songaila is a hustling, working scrapper who’d be better off on a more veteran team.
At the wing, Andre Iguodala can do everything except create his own jump shot, which keeps him off the first tier of elite wings. Jason Kapono is a one-dimensional shooting backup, while Andres Noccioni will play with abandon and knock down an occasional three but is on the wrong side of his career.
Because of Philadelphia’s unbalanced roster, Evan Turner better be able to create for himself, shoot and pass, but there have been concerns about his handle and athleticism.
In a deeper Eastern Conference, the Sixers won’t be able to take the next step until/unless Holliday and Turner reach their potential, or Brand’s dead-weight contract comes off the books.
4) New Jersey Nets
The Nets made wholesale roster changes, but in the grand scheme of things, none of their new additions will matter.
Devin Harris flat out quit last season, plus he still can’t shoot, play focused defense or make good decisions with the ball. Jordan Farmar is a decent backup who can make plays in a broken field but tends to be out of control and undisciplined.
Terrence Williams is completely raw, but he oozes play-making talent. Still, he’s several seasons away from completely harnessing his natural abilities. Travis Outlaw has perfected a step-back jumper going left, but he only wants to shoot. Anthony Morrow is a one-dimensional three-point shooter. None of the trio play much defense.
Troy Murphy will help the Nets on the boards, a major weakness last season. He can also shoot the three, which will help provide spacing, particularly on Devin Harris screen/fades, or on weak-side combo screens. Kris Humphries is another solid rebounder with surprising athleticism.
Brook Lopez’s big body and soft touch make him a legit weapon down in the low block, but he’s too slow to consistently overwhelm opponents or beat double teams. He and Murphy also form one of the slowest interior defense tandems in professional basketball.
The Nets should get enough rebounding to fuel a decent fast break and early transition game, but their defense won’t get enough stops to consistently get out and go. The Nets also lack players who can create their own shot while making good decisions for others. As a result, the Nets won’t quite be as bad as last year but should still be one of the league’s dregs.
5) Toronto Raptors
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With Chris Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu no longer around, the Raptors look like one of the league’s two or three worst teams.
Andrea Bargnani will find the going tough as the focal point of opposing defenses, and he has neither the strength nor the smarts to adapt. Amir Johnson is a solid defensive forward with no offensive game. Also, neither player is an adequate defensive rebounder , so teams will simply carve the Raptors up on the offensive boards.
Off the bench, Reggie Evans will be pressed into duty for his rebounding and ruggedness, but he’s always in foul trouble and can’t score in a video game. The other backup big, David Andersen, is strictly a long-range shooter.
DeMarr Derozan is a mistake player at one wing, while Leandro Barbosa plays with zero court vision at the other wing and can only succeed in a full-throttle system. Too bad the Raptors won’t get enough stops to fuel any kind of effective running game. Julian Wright is lost in space, while Sonny Weems is extremely unpolished.
In fact, Linas Kleiza is the Raptors’ best wing. He’s athletic enough to score in an open field or on isolations, and he’s a good finisher because of his wide body. Plus he triples as an excellent range shooter.
Jose Calderon makes good decisions and can hit mid-range jumpers but lacks imagination, creativity and defense. Jarrett Jack plays with smarts and heart, but there’s only one of him on the roster.
The Raptors lack talent, toughness and an identity. They won’t lack a early draft pick next June.