The Atlantic Divison
For my money, this is the least compelling division in the league. Hedo's addition to the Raptors makes them an interesting watch, and the clusterfuck of perimeter players in New York could (continue to?) progress under Mike D'Antoni. Or it could devolve into a nightly contest between Larry Hughes and Al Harrington for who can miss the most shots. I'd love to see Elton Brand get healthy and win over the hearts of Philly fans, but at this point, I'm not expecting much mobility out of him, and with Dre gone, they're not about to take the next step. I'm excited about the Nets, and pretty sure that no matter how broken KG looks, the Celtics will wrap up the division with very little drama.
1. Boston Celtics, 55-27
By January, I think we'll hear an onslaught of stories of how great an addition Sheed has been for the Celtics. We've seen him join a great team before, and Sheed was a perfect role player for the '04 Pistons. He's older now - a lot older - but he's still long and agile. He recognizes what Boston has going and he'll do everything he can on the court to contribute to their system.
Nonetheless, I think Boston takes a step backward this year. Kevin Garnett isn't healthy, and it's foreboding that he has taken so long to heal from an injury that did not require surgery. Which is why I think he's going either miss a significant amount of time this season, or play worse. I'm expecting a big step forward out of Rajon Rondo, but we saw what Boston looks like with a depleted defensive unit in the playoffs last season. For every brilliant scoring performance Ray Allen had, or every triple-double Rondo put up, the Bulls made them look old, unathletic and slow defensively, and the Magic outmanned them (I should note that Paul Pierce's miserable postseason doesn't signify any decline in his game, to me). The Celtics are still a great team, and a postseason threat, but I think that over 82 games, they're due for a few more losses at this point.
2. Toronto Raptors, 38-44
The Raptors are here almost by default after a terrible offseason. What area of weakness does Hedo's addition address? This team still can't defend or rebound. I like the idea of an uptempo offense with a healthy Calderon, and a progressing Bargnani, but Bosh is a pure half-court player, and unfortunately was reduced to mostly being a jump-shooter last year. Hedo's skills are also best served in a half-court set. He's a stellar one-on-one player and a great passer, but he can't run.
At the end of the day, even if Bosh and Calderon return to form, and Bargnani becomes a great scorer, the Raptors have no depth and below average defenders at every position. Their idea to play Bargnani at the 5 sums up what I think is the flaw in their philosophy. They want to have a unique offense,and they have a wonderfully skilled starting unit, but there's a difference between being interesting and being good. The Raptors have designed an interesting team, one with no hope of defending or rebounding well, and one destined to flounder if one of their starters goes down.
3. Philadelphia 76ers, 37-45
The Sixers have an athletic, deep group of guards, but a group of declining bigs and no true point guard on their roster. I think Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young are two spectacular wings who can play inside and out, and are a great duo on both side of the court. I really see star potential in Young, and Iguodala is all but there.
But Elton Brand hasn't played at full strength for two seasons, Samuel Dalembert is disgruntled, and Andre Miller is gone. Jrue Holliday isn't ready to play point guard (he won't ever be), and Lou Williams and Willie Greene are a couple of nice combo guards that are pretty poor at making plays for their teammates. Between Iggy, Greene, Holliday and Williams, they may have serviceable ballhandling (see: someone to bring the ball up), but I'm expecting their offense to be pretty stagnant with Dre's playmaking ability.
4. New York Knicks, 34-48
No. They will not take any significant steps forward this year. This team, man for man, excluding Wilson Chandler (and eventually Toney Douglass), is inept defensively. Larry Hughes, at this point talentless, will waste minutes and possessions for them all year long. Al Harrington is anything but efficient. Chris Duhon is a sound PG, and very capable in the pick-and-roll, but he has no durability and is asked to do too much.
As far as the Knicks' youth goes, I like Wilson Chandler. I think he will step up more consistently this year. He is developing his drive and has become a good shooter. He can defend and rebound against most small forwards. I like Danilo Gallinari. I think he has a lot of offensive potential and could someday be an average defender. But he's a project. I look for him to average double-digits this year, but I think his impact will mostly be based on if he's hot certain nights. David Lee is a very smart offensive player and a great rebounder, but he's a miserable defender and has shown the Knicks his best basketball. Same for Nate Robinson - he's a talented, limited, and known quantity. Jordan Hill has done nothing to earn minutes, and Toney Douglass will be a nice backup point guard very soon.
They're more than capable of struggling no matter how well Lee and Robinson play. This is a team with a lot of offensive potential, a lot of bodies that deserve rotation minutes, but the parts don't add up to a playoff team by any means. And they will continue to lose until they pluck Chris Bosh or Amar'e.
5. New Jersey Nets, 27-55
I want to back this team. Devin Harris is becoming an elite point guard in this league. He is one of the few talented defensive point guards left in basketball, and his jump shot is now as dangerous as his drive. He needs to be more of a playmaker for his teammates, but isn't exactly surrounded by offense in New Jersey. However, the Nets do have some very talent young pieces.
Brook Lopez developed a lot in the second half of last season. He became more confident in his jump shot, and set better screens, but needs to be a better defender and work harder for rebounds, but he's one of the most talented young big men in the game. The Nets' swingmen are just as promising. I think Courtney Lee is going to be an elite shooting guard if he becomes more aggressive. Chris-Douglas Roberts is a scorer, no matter how unimpressive his first step or how awkward his release is. I love Terrence Williams' versatility and size.
The foundation is there for a very good young team. But the Nets are struggling their way through the preseason. Their offense has no continuity, Harris is hurt, and Yi is at this point a forgettable piece, but seems in prime position to clog minutes and shot attempts. They are very, very weak upfront, and are one of the rawest teams in the league. I'll give the Nets 27 wins, which is a lot more than I've heard anyone else forecast for them, because I'm not impressed by their division opponents and I think their wings will surprise. Most importantly, though, check out this nugget from Brook Lopez:
“Usually I have no clue what they’re talking about: I recognize words like ‘If’ and ‘The,’ and that’s about it,” center Brook Lopez said. (NJ.com)