8/20/12

An Update On The Atlantic Division

With the NBA Preseason just two months away, today we’re going to look at where things stand in the Atlantic Division. All of the teams, the Raptors included, have made significant additions over the past season and a half, making the formerly weak Atlantic Division quite the powerhouse.

The Raptors acquired Kyle Lowry, John Lucas, and Landry Fields and added draft picks Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, and Quincy Acy. They also let Jerryd Bayless and Sonny Weems go, to the joy of many Raptors fans and the bane of others. The Raptors looked poised to make a run for the playoffs, until a variety of moves in their division strengthened their competition quite dramatically.

Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics, a team that since its inception of the “Big 3” has been labeled too old, has routinely proven its doubters wrong through consistent play on the court. Now, with Rajon Rondo a superstar in his own right, the Celtics are beginning to make the transition from the Big 3 Era to a new, younger squad built around him. They let Ray Allen go, which despite the frequent trade rumors over the years shocked everyone. Also gone are journeymen Mickael Pietrus and Marquis Daniels, along with some young guys that didn’t pan out.

However, the Celtics resigned Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass and signed elite sixth man Jason Terry. While the Celtics are undoubtedly keeping their “old” mantra, they’ve added promising young players like Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger, and Fab Melo. They’re not ready to let their veterans go, but they’re acknowledging that the days of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are almost over.

Historically, the Raptors have struggled mightily against the Celtics. This year, they may be able to sweep them. Read: may. Danny Ainge fully realizes that the Celtics’ run is nearly at its end, and that the team needs to take a step back to take one forward. I would not be surprised if this was the Celtics final push for a championship.

Philadelphia 76ers
Moving west, things get more interesting. The Philadelphia 76ers are the proud owners of a new, angry, and committed Andrew Bynum. They finally shipped out Andre Iguodala to get him in the 4 team trade, and somehow managed to get Jason Richardson in the same deal.

Gone are a bunch of the 76ers young players, including Lou Williams, Nikola Vucevic, and Craig Brackins. They also used their amnesty provision on Elton Brand, who has since found a home in Dallas with the Mavericks. The 76ers are interesting in that they’ve improved quite dramatically but have also taken a step or two back. Prior to the Andrew Bynum trade, I felt the Raptors would have the best frontcourt in the Atlantic Division by the end of the season. No more. Philadelphia is very deep up front.

The Raptors and 76ers produce some interesting match ups at every position. Big point guard versus little point guard, dominant offensive center versus expected-to-be-dominant defensive center, athletic tweener versus skilled big…while both squads pride themselves on being defense first, games between these teams should be very entertaining.

New York Knicks
In New York, it’s a step back. Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler remain the Knicks’ core. The pieces around them, however, are different. They’re loaded with experienced point guards, which was to be expected when the Knicks’ refused to match Jeremy Lin’s offer sheet from Houston. In are Raymond Felton (who played the best basketball of his career in New York a few years ago), Jason Kidd, and the aging, elite Euroleague point Pablo Prigioni.

The Knicks also retained J.R. Smith, and are hoping that Iman Shumpert gets back from injury sooner than later. They also inexplicably signed James White, the dunking machine. The Knicks have what I consider the most athletic group of wings in the Atlantic Division. Something interesting, though? For a coach that demands defense and knows little about offense, it’s intriguing to see the players New York has acquired. They’re all one-sided players, the kind that are a dime a dozen in the NBA. Their only defense lays at the center position with Tyson Chandler and the newly acquired Marcus Camby (excluding the injured Iman Shumpert).

If the Raptors can contain Carmelo Anthony’s scoring ability and Amar’e Stoudemire remains the same player he’s been the last couple of years, they should be able to win the series against the Knicks. That’s a big if, as Melo’s offensive capabilities are very difficult to handle even for the best defensive players in the NBA. Depending on Tyson Chandler and Marcus Camby to anchor the entirety of their defense should leave Andrea Bargnani open a lot for open jumpers. Besides, Bargnani plays his best basketball against New York.

Brooklyn Nets
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the Brooklyn Nets. What can be said about the Nets? They’re finally moving to Brooklyn this year, and their Russian playboy owner has seemingly distanced himself from the team. First, they wanted Lebron James. Then, they wanted Carmelo Anthony. Then, they wanted Dwight Howard. What did they end up with? Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Kris Humphries, Marshon Brooks, and Gerald Wallace. Not a terrible booby prize, but nothing close to what the Nets have hoped for.

The Nets shocked everyone by intentionally acquiring Joe Johnson’s contract, further proving that no contract is untradeable. It didn’t cost them much to do so, but it ties them up financially. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if there wasn’t a salary cap, because their owner has more money than he knows what to do with. But their starting five is expensive and not good enough to win a championship, severely limiting what other players they can sign.

They also acquired C.J. Watson, if that means anything. And the is-he-any-good Bosnian Mirza Teletovic. I’m not sure what the Nets are doing or are trying to do, but they've pretty much become the Atlanta Hawks. A bunch of good-not-great players being paid more than they’re worth, just hoping to make the playoffs. Which they should, but still.

Listen. If the Raptors play the Nets when they’ve had a few days to rest? They should be destroyed. However, if they’re on the second night of a back-to-back, they stand a chance. Everything depends on their starters. If they’re tired or hurt, this team crumbles. If they’re rested and healthy, they’re a handful.

Conclusion
The Atlantic Division is vastly improved this season, and should not be taken lightly. It’s likely that one of these teams won’t make the playoffs despite a good record, just like the Western Conference. The Raptors aren’t the best team in the division, but they’re also not the worst. They should have varying degrees of success again the rest of their division, but it’s very difficult to project it. Regardless, as fans we’re going to be treated to better basketball than we have in many, many years. I’m looking forward to it, are you?

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