The Atlantic Division—like the rest of the NBA—will take the Boston Celtics as its figurehead going into the start of the upcoming 2008-2009 NBA season.
With the defending champions, and two potential second-round teams, the Atlantic Division may be the best division in the Eastern Conference.
1) Boston Celtics
Even though the Celtics are the defending champions, and even though the trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen is rivaled only by a certain triad in San Antonio, there are still question marks in Boston.
Last season, the Celtics rocketed off to a 29-3 start, as Garnett, Allen, and Pierce were enthralled to be playing with such talented teammates. Garnett and Pierce were especially ecstatic, as KG had been liberated from the perpetually mediocre Timberwolves, and Pierce had suffered through a handful of seasons with teammates barely old enough to drink liquor.
With their basketball spirits fully revitalized, it’s no wonder that the Celtics hit the ground running and never looked back.
But after a long season, a short summer, and a lot of celebrations, will Boston start the season with the same fervent excitement that propelled them last year? And if they do have an ordinary start, how will they rebound? While the Celtics should peak come the second half of the season, don’t expect the same kind of record-setting pace Boston set last season.
Also, Pierce, Allen, and Garnett are all on the plus side of 30, making them vulnerable to chronic injuries and a decline in athleticism. A serious injury to either of the three—especially Pierce—would effectively end Boston’s title defense.
While Leon Powe and Glen Davis can replace P.J. Brown’s loss, the combination of Darius Miles, Bill Walker, and Tony Allen won’t be able to duplicate James Posey’s hostile defense, competitive spirit, and clutch three-point shooting under pressure. Posey was just as important to Boston’s championship last season as any member of the Big Three.
Still, the Celtics’ commitment to defense, their sheer physicality, the brilliance of their All-Stars, the emergence of Rajon Rondo as a playmaker, and the experience gained by last season’s title run all give the Celtics a head up on any competitor.
Barring a major injury, a shocking devolution to selfish ball, or the Big Three losing the battle with Father Time, the Celtics are the best team in basketball, and a safe bet to return to the Finals and win another championship.
2) Philadelphia 76ers
The dark horse in the conference with Elton Brand aboard, the Sixers have a legitimate chance of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Instead of having to rely on Andre Iguodala in early offense, or Andre Miller to create magic out of nothing, the Sixers can now dump the ball in to Brand when their running game stalls, and watch as defenses are forced to break down and double team. In fact, Brand intrinsically makes every other player on the roster better.
With the pressure of carrying the offense now off, Iguodala can revert to being a powerful baseline second option and an athletic and physical defensive stud.
With Brand doubling as an effective post defender, Samuel Dalembert can become a roaming weak-side shot blocker—the position he fills best.
Thaddeus Young can continue to fill whatever role Maurice Cheeks asks of him, while Reggie Evans will go back to the bench, giving him more energy to rampage the backboards.
Outside shooting is still a problem, but perhaps Kareem Rush can put his selfish, defenseless, score-at-the-expense-of-the-team attitude behind him and fill a necessary role.
Plus, Philadelphia’s “always defend” and “always play hard” attitude that allowed them to overachieve last year, gives them the leg up in battles against equally talented opponents.
The youngsters are probably a year away from having the necessary experience to prevail deep in the playoffs, but the Sixers have a bright present, and a brighter future.
3) Toronto Raptors
While dumping T.J. Ford for Jermaine O’Neal was the right idea, it’s hard to envision the Raptors taking a big leap in the East. That’s because O’Neal has had no interest in battling in the low post, no interest in rebounding in crowds, and no interest in playing physical basketball against physical opponents.
Instead of finding a way to shore up a team-wide lack of muscle, the Raptors acquired the brittle, injury-prone Chris Bosh—Version II.
Jose Calderon should excel without having to look over his shoulder at Ford, but now Toronto has a gaping hole at the backup position. Also, while Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker are capable defenders, neither of them are able to reliably get their shots off in a crowd. In fact, Toronto’s roster is littered with defenseless shooters like Andrea Bargnani and Jason Kapono.
If O’Neal is so overjoyed to be out of Indiana that he plays with passion, power, and energy, then perhaps he can team with the ultra-athletic Bosh to provide a dangerous frontcourt duo. Still, when Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, even perhaps Orlando start shoving the Raptors around, will they have what it takes to push back?
4) New York Knicks
While the Isiah Thomas disaster is officially over, the Knicks are still a long way from respectability.
Even though Thomas is gone, his cast of characters still remain. The delusional Stephon Marbury, the self-absorbed Zach Randolph, the landlocked Eddy Curry, the worthless Jerome James. At least, the untamed athleticism of Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford, David Lee, and Wilson Chandler will be set free by new head man Mike D’Antoni—but none of those guys can defend.
Is Chris Duhon as good at running an offense as people say he is? Will Randolph make the extra pass? Will Curry pass out on the court chasing after his teammates? Will Crawford ever be tamed from an athlete into a basketball player? Will Robinson learn the simplest pass is often the correct pass? Can David Lee defend (he can do everything else)? Will Stephon Marbury embarrass himself any more than he already has?
The current Knicks will score and should provide more entertainment to the fans—but they’re light years away from evolving from a circus into a basketball team.
5) New Jersey Nets
It’s the future or never in New Jersey this year. Gone is Jason Kidd. Gone is Richard Jefferson. In their stead, Lawrence Frank will throw a number of young bodies against the wall hoping they stick.
Devin Harris has lightning speed, but can’t defend and can’t run an offense. Yi Jianlian’s body and game are toothpick thin. Josh Boone is smart, tough, but athletically limited, while Sean Williams is explosively athletic, but often out of control. Ryan Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts appear to have game—but as rookies, they’ll no doubt make as many mistakes as they will great plays.
As for the rest of the roster, Jarvis Hayes, Keyon Dooling, and Eduardo Najera will provide defense and energy off the bench. Trent Hassell is a rugged defender with no other skill. Bobby Simmons is ordinary, while Stromile Swift has extraordinarily wasted his considerable athletic gifts.
Vince Carter will be asked to keep the team afloat, but he’s spectacularly inefficient, unclutch, and soft. Plus, as VC increases in dotage, his once-spectacular athleticism that allowed him to compensate for his flaws is degrading away.
The Nets will be relevant again in 2011—the year their bad contracts expire, their youngsters fully develop, and the year they make their bid in the LeBron James Sweepstakes.