For the first time, the Toronto Raptors will open a season as the defending Atlantic Division champions. The Philadelphia 76ers, meanwhile, will start without Allen Iverson on their roster for the first time in 12 years.
Toronto begins its quest to win its second straight title in the much-improved Atlantic, while Philadelphia tries to build off its strong finish to 2006-07 when the teams meet at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday.
The Raptors went 27-55 in 2005-06, but a 47-35 record last season enabled them to win the Atlantic by six games over New Jersey - the division winner in four of the previous five seasons.
Toronto earned the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, but went on to lose to the Nets in six games in the first round - the Raptors' first trip to the postseason since 2001-02.
The team was led by All-Star forward Chris Bosh and point guard T.J. Ford, who played in his first season in Toronto after being acquired from Milwaukee for forward Charlie Villanueva in June 2006.
Bosh set career highs with 22.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game in his fourth season, while Ford posted career bests in games (75), points (14.0) and assists (7.9). Bosh, though, was held to 17.5 points on 39.6 percent shooting in his first trip to the playoffs and Ford averaged just 4.0 assists in the six postseason games.
With that experience under its belt, Toronto expects to have an even better season.
"One of our goals is to win our division again, be one of the best teams in the East, have the best record in the East, get back to the playoffs and get out of the first round, and then we'll take it from there," Ford said.
Standing in the Raptors' way is a Boston team that acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the offseason and is considered the favorite to win the division. New Jersey also is expected to contend, and New York dealt for Zach Randolph in an effort to return to the playoffs. Philadelphia also thinks it can make a run after going 18-11 following the All-Star break last season.
"What's changed? There's no new story. It's the same old thing," Bosh said. "I don't think we're in a position to get upset, because we've been here before, we ought to like just being able to come in and play basketball with no expectations. There's no pressure in that."
Toronto added Jason Kapono and Carlos Delfino in the offseason and with Andrea Bargnani - the top overall pick in the 2006 draft - likely to improve on a strong rookie season, the Raptors think they have enough depth to win another division title.
"A lot of teams, you take away the top two, three options and they have a tough time scoring," Kapono said. "We're 10, 12 deep. It's tough to take away our top 10."
Philadelphia may not be as deep, but it learned how to play without Iverson after he was dealt to Denver last Dec. 19 in a six-player trade that sent Andre Miller to the Sixers.
They were 5-18 at the time of the trade and went 12-18 in their first 30 games after, but finished strong after the break to end with a 35-47 record and a third-place finish in the Atlantic.
Andre Iguodala emerged as Philadelphia's go-to guy, as he set career highs with 18.2 points and 5.7 assists per game. Iguodala, the ninth overall pick in the 2004 draft, averaged 19.6 points after the Iverson trade and Miller posted 13.6 points and 7.3 assists in 57 games with the 76ers.
Coach Maurice Cheeks liked the way Philadelphia ended last season, but wants his team to remember the feeling of starting the season in a horrible slump.
"Right now, what we're trying to do is put them in the position to understand what it takes to play," Cheeks said. "It takes more effort, it takes know-how, but we've got to put them in that position every day. Not beat it into their brain, but put it into habits that they understand the defensive end of the floor, because habit becomes, after you do it time and time again, you have to sustain it.
"This time, we're going to stay on it, be on it, be consistent at it."
Philadelphia drafted 19-year-old forward Thaddeus Young with the 12th overall pick in June's draft and 7-foot forward Jason Smith with the 20th selection to improve its frontcourt. It also acquired forward Reggie Evans from the Nuggets on Sept. 10.
The Sixers also will have center Samuel Dalembert and forward Shavlik Randolph available after both spent the offseason rehabbing injuries. Dalembert had foot surgery after averaging career highs of 10.7 points and 8.9 rebounds last season, while Randolph played in just 13 games because of a broken left ankle.
Copyright 2007 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited