NBA Atlantic Division Preview: Can The Boston Celtics Win The Title?
For the last three years, the NBA Atlantic Division has been made up of the Boston Celtics, and four other teams hoping to make the playoffs. This year looks to be much of the same, with the difference that the Celtics are getting old while the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, and New Jersey Nets all look to be much improved.
Only the Toronto Raptors look to be in major trouble this year after losing Chris Bosh to free agency.
5th Place Toronto Raptors: Going Down Fast
The Toronto Raptors are a team that has made personnel mistakes over the last several years. They have overvalued role players while not finding appropriate guys to complement the one star player that the Raps had in Chris Bosh. Now that Bosh has left for the Miami Heat, the Raptors need to be in full rebuilding mode. The question is whether or not management is willing to admit it.
The Raptors are not without talent, but none of their players command a double team. Their best player is Andrea Bargnani who is basically a jump shooter on offense. He is not strong defensively and has virtually no low post game on either offense or defense.
The best hope for the Raptors is for Demar DeRozan to develop into an elite player. Last year, he was an elite athlete trying to put it all together. The problem is that he has a long way to go skills-wise to become a lead scorer. Now, without Bosh, teams will be able to gear their perimeter defenses to stop DeRozan. Therefore I expect that the Raptors will have trouble scoring against good defenses.
On defense, the Raptors are in trouble. They were bad last year and will probably be even worse this year. Their best hope is that Amir Johnson is ready to play starter's minutes and be a defensive force on the baseline. If not, the Raptors might wind up as the worst defensive squad in the NBA.
With all of these problems, the Raptors are in for a very long season. A 16-66 season is in their future.
4th Place New Jersey Nets: Nowhere To Go But Up
The Nets are coming off the worst season in franchise history. A combination of injuries, poor coaching, and poor personnel decisions culminated in a 12 win season.
There is hope for the Nets. They now have a new coach, new players with upside, and new management. Their odds of finishing with 12 wins again are less than those of the Miami Heat winning less than 50 games.
The Nets actually have an outside chance at the playoffs this year if everything breaks right for them in the weak Eastern Conference.
Unlike most bad teams, the Nets actually have two legitimate building blocks--point guard Devin Harris and center Brook Lopez. As long as they are both healthy, the Nets will have the ability to be competitive.
This year, the Nets now have some NBA quality players to go with those two. Their biggest off-season player acquisition was Troy Murphy, a power forward who is an excellent defensive rebounder and can hit three point shots at a high rate of efficiency. His skills should mesh perfectly with Lopez once Murphy gets healthy.
Also, the Nets have Derrick Favors for the future. Favors is an elite athlete with good basketball instincts. However, he lacks NBA strength and skills at age 19. Favors should be able to give the Nets quality minutes backing up Murphy and Lopez.
However, the Nets biggest problem is still on the wing. Terrence Williams looks like he can become a quality player, but his jump shot still needs work. Anthony Morrow is a great shooter, but provides little else. Travis Outlaw is a decent player, but has yet to show the ability to be a starter.
With all of these problems, the Nets are prone to offensive droughts due to missed shots and turnovers. If Avery Johnson can fix these problems quickly then the Nets can contend for the 8th seed.
Since the Nets are already having injury problems with Troy Murphy, a 30-52 season is more likely.
3rd Place Philadelphia 76ers: A Team On The Rise
The Philadelphia 76ers look to rebound after a disaster of a season last year. They hired a new executive in Rod Thorn and a new coach in Doug Collins. They got lucky in the draft and landed Evan Turner. This is a team with hope.
The 76ers have good talent on the perimeter.
Andre Iguodala is a great glue player who helps the team. Unfortunately, he has been miscast as a scorer. He is much better as the 2nd or 3rd option on offense.
The most important development for the 76ers was the development of Jrue Holliday at point guard. Lou Williams is not a point guard, but Holliday is. If Holliday develops into a quality point guard, the 76ers will win a lot more games. With Evan Turner on board, the 76ers can start Holliday, Turner, and Iguodala on the perimeter and have three quality ball handlers who are willing passers. Lou Williams can slot into the 6th man role to which he is best suited.
The problem for the 76ers is the baseline. Elton Brand never regained his leg strength and quickness after an Achilles injury, so he is no longer an elite low post scorer or rebounder. Maurice Speights was outplaying Brand and should probably start, but Speights appears disinterested on defense. If Collins can get Speights to play defense, then the 76ers will be in great shape.
Their big acquisition was to trade away the disappointing Sam Dalembert for the equally disappointing Spencer Hawes. Hawes is bigger physically and a better offensive player, but he is not a good defender and rebounds poorly for a seven footer.
The 76ers have a balanced roster and quality players. They do need an outside shooter and a better power player, but they are looking good for the future. The 76ers should be good for a 39-43 season.
2nd Place New York Knicks: Ready For Prime Time
The New York Knicks have a star player for the first time since they traded away Patrick Ewing in Amar'e Stoudemire. Stat commands double teams and is a decent passer from the post. He has explosive quickness and forces teams to foul him. He is a true 1st option.
The problem for the Knicks is everywhere else. They signed Raymond Felton to be their point guard. He is good, but not great. However, he is a huge improvement over Chris Duhon.
The Knicks are going to start Tim Mozgov of Russia at center. Mozgov is 7'1" and 250 pounds. He is athletic, but very raw. However, for the Knicks, having someone at center (who wants to play) who actually has the size of a center is a big plus.
The Knicks will have four players capable of blocking a shot in Stoudemire, Mozgov, Ronny Turiaf, and Anthony Randolph after not having any last year. This alone should improve their defense.
The biggest issue for the Knicks is who will provide their perimeter scoring. They would love to trade for Carmelo Anthony, but so far that is not an option. Danilo Gallinari is expected to provide perimeter scoring at the small forward position.
Gallinari looked promising last year. He plays hard and likes to take the clutch shot. He plays better defense than most give him credit for as he has excellent footwork which makes up for his lack of quickness. However, he tends to rush his jump shot. When he takes his time, he rarely misses. When he rushes, he rarely makes it. He has no low post game and has trouble taking players off the dribble. Unless he develops those parts of his game, he is basically a 6'11" jump shooter.
Equally problematic for the Knicks is the shooting guard position. Wilson Chandler or Toney Douglas will probably start, but each has holes in their games.
Chandler is a natural small forward, who can defend opposing shooting guards. He drives well and scores in the paint. However, he has been a poor jump shooter. He looked better in pre-season, but until he improves in games that count, it is tough to count on him to space the floor.
Douglas, on the other hand, is a good jump shooter. He is a good ball handler and tough defensively on the ball and in passing lanes. However, he is only 6'2" and is really a scoring point. Big guards will give him fits in the paint.
Right now the Knicks have two main problems: turnovers and rebounds. Despite much improved size, the Knicks have been badly out-rebounded in the pre-season. And, with only four returning players who will likely see playing time, turnovers have been a problem as the team gets to know each other.
In the grand scheme of things, the Knicks will likely get much better with turnovers going forward, but crashing the boards will likely be a problem unless Mozgov develops quickly.
So, the Knicks look like a 42-40 team with likely a seventh or eighth seed.
1st Place Boston Celtics: Ready To Contend Again
The Celtics are a great team fighting father time. In the NBA Finals, the big three for the Celtics, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, all looked old and slow. Yet they would probably have won if Kendrick Perkins did not get hurt.
The Celtics lost to the Lakers because the Lakers were bigger inside. The Celtics signed two big men to solve that problem in Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal. Plus, the Celtics expect to have Perkins back in time for the playoffs.
While Shaq and Jermaine are both past their prime, they are still capable of providing quality post play in limited minutes. Shaq can still score and rebound as well as most centers. If Shaq, Jermaine and Perkins are healthy for the playoffs, the Celtics will be tough to defeat.
The Celtics are blessed with having two more quality big men for the power forward slot in Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis. Garnett is a shell of his former self but still performs at a high level. He needs to keep his minutes down so that he can be fresh for the playoffs. The good news is that Davis is good also. While he is not a defender of Garnett's ability, Davis is a good rebounder and jump shooter. He is smart and does little things that help his team win.
On the perimeter, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are still a dynamic duo. Allen is a great shooter when left open and Pierce has a diverse game that is difficult to contain. Allen slumped in the Finals after hurting his leg, but he is one of the best defenders at shooting guard in the NBA. The biggest weakness of the Celtics is a lack of a bench player at small forward to give Pierce more rest.
The Celtics have an elite point guard in Rajon Rondo. He is probably the best defensive point in the NBA and has become an excellent orchestrator for the offense. If he can hit his free throws, he will be unstoppable on offense.
Fortunately, the Celtics have an instant offense player in Nate Robinson. Nate can flat out score. He has a great jump shot and is faster than almost any other player in the NBA. He is probably the best athlete in the NBA with the jumping ability to block centers. The problem with Nate is that he is not a good passer and often plays out of control. However, he is in the perfect situation with the Celtics and is capable of winning games by himself on offense.
The Celtics have the most balanced roster in the Eastern Conference and maybe the most talented. The only question mark is their health. A 50-32 win season and a long playoff run should be well within their reach, and if they can stay healthy, the Celtics will still be championship contenders.