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Less than a decade ago, the Atlantic Division appeared to be steamrolling to NBA dominance. In 2002, the division had just come off sending back-to-back teams to the Finals (76ers, Nets) and had witnessed the emergence of a Nets-Celtics rivalry in the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. Allen Iverson was considered to be one of, if not the best guard in the league, Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce were thought to be the second best duo this side of Shaq-Kobe, and Jason Kidd was brought into Jersey to corral a talented bunch fronted by Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn and young wingman Richard Jefferson.
Fast forward four years, and we suddenly had the “Titanic Division” on our hands. What happened? We saw an Allen Iverson trade, a disinterested Vince Carter, and Raef Lafrentz, Mark Blount, Ricky Davis, and Marcus Banks join and leave the Celtics roster.
Things have improved for us beantowners since 2007, but the rest of the division remains much of a mystery if not a complete disaster. There are some things we know for sure about the Atlantic Division in 2009-10, so let’s start there.
OK, so the season hasn’t even started yet so this isn’t a certainty, but barring major injury to, not one, but all of the Big Three, its safe to pencil the Celtics in as the ’09-10 Atlantic Division Champs. Even if, God forbid, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett went down for a majority of the season, picking a Celtics team led by Rajon Rondo, Eddie House, Marquis Daniels, Rasheed Walllace, and Kendrick Perkins to win more games than Toronto or Philadelphia would still be a reasonable bet.
Philly will be competitive again, and Toronto will be scary on nights when shots are falling, but the Celts are the complete package. Boston’s much improved bench pretty much seals the deal, regardless of any possible injuries.
The Knicks and Raptors tanked in ‘06, the Celtics tanked in ‘07, and the Knicks tanked again in ‘08. I hope John Wall wasn’t expecting to go to New York, because in ‘10 there will not be any tanking in the Atlantic Division. The Celtics have their sights aimed on Banner No. 18, Sixers management needs to prove to Sixers ownership that they didn’t trash $120 million on a washed up Elton Brand, the Raptors need to convince Chris Bosh not to permanently vacation to south beach, and the Knicks and Nets will claw it out to convince King James that they are worthy of his royal company.
The 2010 free agency bonanza will make the league a lot more competitive up until the end of the regular season this year. Instead of throwing games, teams are going to try and collect wins so that they can tell Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh: “Look, we were only nine games out of the playoffs while the Bucks were 16 games out. You can more than make up 9 games, hell you could even get the Bucks in the playoffs. Too bad Milwaukee’s over the salary cap.”
The GM behind the “seven seconds or less” Suns is back at it again. After a miserable 08-09 campaign that was supposed to be about superior post play, Brian Colangelo completely revamped Toronto roster to feature a bunch of gunners and runners. The addition of Jarret Jack and Hedo Turkaglu to the offensive minded trio of Jose Calderon-Bosh-Andrea Barnagni ensures that the Raps will try to put up 120 a night while trying to hold their opponents to 119.
I’m excited at this prospect. The Eastern Conference has yet to have a true run and gun team in the mold of Dallas, Phoenix or Golden State in the current era, and Toronto is going to attempt to be just that…but just don’t expect them to crash the glass.
The Knicks’ competent mediocrity for a portion of last season was unfortunately their ceiling. Donnie Walsh’s inability to complete the deal for Ramon Sessions or add any other semi-functional point guard to the Knicks roster left him with Plan D, sign combo guard castoffs Gabe Pruitt and Sun Yue and hope for the best. Sessions was just the player the Knicks needed to finally start righting the ship at MSG. Instead, Knicks management put all their eggs in one basket, and that basket is starting to get pretty stale. If the Knicks aren’t planning to lock up David Lee and Nate Robinson long-term, who do they possibly have to convince LeBron to sign with the NBA’s most dysfunctional franchise. Danilo Gallinari? Wilson Chandler? Chris Duhon?
Ride a bridge into Jersey, and things aren’t looking any better in the short term, but at least the Nets have some talent going forward. Devin Harris will once again put up ridiculous numbers as one of the Eastern Conference’s elite point guards. The Rondo-Derrick Rose-Harris-Jameer Nelson foursome is one that will be electric for the next 10 years. Along with Harris, if Brook Lopez improves on his rookie year numbers, he will quickly assert himself as one of the dominant centers in the Eastern conference, even if that list is limited to Dwight Howard, Shaq, and Kendrick Perkins on a good night. Add the potential of Courtney Lee, Yi Jianlian, Terrence Williams, and Chris Douglas-Roberts to the mix, and the Nets have a solid young core to plug LeBron into. This is an aside from the fact that New Jersey’s new Russian mogul owner can promise riches and the possible allure of Brooklyn to James.
The short answer is no. Louis Williams is not a point guard. There are questions as to whether or not Jrue Holiday is a point guard. Royal Ivey? Now we’re really stretching it. This is a question that is being raised about a team that thrived the last two years when their general, Andre Miller, was given complete control of the reigns. Miller is a savvy veteran guard, who behind Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, may be the third most consistent player of the last decade at the point guard position. You can’t replace his production and leadership with two combo guards.
Louis Williams could pan out the way Delonte West did two years ago for Cleveland, but LeBron James is much more capable of controlling a game than Elton Brand is. Elton Brand’s career years are undermined by the fact that Sam Cassel was having career years in alongside him. Elton Brand plays best when he has a star point guard to feed him the ball, and this year he won’t have that.
4th? 7th? 12th? This team will remain a mystery for much of the season. They will have ups, and they most certainly will have downs. Halfway through the season, once they work out the kinks, the Raptors are going to be electric. They are the type of team that is capable of going on a 12-game win streak during which time they shoot 65%.
While I like their major moves this season, their smaller moves are why I think they will be successful. The Raptors quietly added much needed front court depth this offseason, as well as adding shooters. The Raps acquired Rasho Nesterovic, Reggie Evans, and Amir Johnson, three big bodies that each bring a different set of skills to the table. Their roster is built to cause match-up problems for the East’s elite in the playoffs. The trouble is…they have to make the playoffs first.
The list is short: Toronto or Philadelphia. The Sixers have kept most of their core (*cough* Andre Miller *cough*) in tact and addressed their 3 point shooting needs by adding Jason Kapono. If Elton Brand is healthy, they should be able to beat up on the bottom of the league and ride their way to 40-45 wins, but if Brand goes down, I’m not sure Andre Iguodala has enough in his arsenal to carry this team on his own. If they start to slip in the standings, expect full-blown rebuilding mode. It wouldn’t surprise me if midway through the season a struggling Philadelphia tried to trade Iggy and Brand in an attempt to build around Thaddeus Young and Maresse Speights.
Then, there’s Toronto, whose questions also abound. Will Hedo Turkaglu’s numbers continue to decline? Will Andrea Bargnani’s numbers continue to inmprove? Can Jose Calderon stay healthy for a full season? Will Chris Bosh’s impending free agency be a distraction? Can Demar Derozen develop fast enough to become a defensive stopper on the wings? Will they get any second chance points?
With two bad teams, two mediocre teams, and one contender, the “Titantic” Division has become the “Anticlimactic” Division.