Summer Notes: Atlantic Division

Photo Credit: NBAE, Design Credit: Stephanie Genet

This summer HEAT.com is taking a look at the many changes made around the league and taking stock of how they’ll affect each division in 2010-11.

With the domination of the Celtics, the Atlantic has been the NBA’s least competitive division since the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen three years ago. That also means, with the changes made this summer, no other division has the same potential for across the board improvement. The upcoming season marks what could be the beginning of a slow Atlantic shuffle and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the standings flip-flopped in a few years.

Boston Celtics:
2009-10 Record: 50-32
Finished: 1st in Division, Lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers

The Celtics had always resembled the makeup and style of this decade’s San Antonio Spurs, but last season they fully adopted the model, often looking forgettable through the second half of the season before a huge playoff surge had them within a quarter of winning the NBA Championship. Injuries have caught up with them the past two seasons, however, and with Kendrick Perkins still recovering from torn ligaments in his knee and Rasheed Wallace retiring, this offseason was all about reloading the depth chart.

Boston started the free agency period by taking care of the bare necessities: re-signing Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. With that taken care of, they went to the middle, locking up the O’Neal’s, Jermaine and Shaquille. Then, with the departure of Tony Allen to Memphis, the Celtics brought back Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels while adding Von Wafer for some instant offense off the bench. And when assistant coach and defensive architect Tom Thibodeau left to helm the Chicago Bulls, another defensive-minded assistant in Lawrence Frank was hired.

Better yet, few of the new player contracts extend past the next two seasons, when Garnett’s deal will expire. That means Boston will have a ton of financial flexibility for when the time comes to bring in more youth.

But perhaps no other change to the supporting cast could have as great an impact as the return of Delonte West. The Celtics have needed a backup ballhandler for years, and though neither West nor Robinson nor rookie Avery Bradley is a pure point guard, Boston now has a deep backcourt capable of spelling Rondo for ten minutes a game, all at a relatively low cost.

Of course, winning the division again won’t mean much to Boston, where they don’t even hang banners to commemorate such accomplishments. This team was built to win last year, and it was rebuilt this summer to win now.

Toronto Raptors:
2009-10 Record: 40-42
Finished: 2nd in Division, Picked No. 13 in NBA Draft

You can’t talk about Toronto’s summer without mentioning the loss of Chris Bosh. There’s no way to spin that as a win. But on the bright side, the departure also ended the speculation and uncertainty that had followed the team for years.

Now the team knows exactly what it has today and, for all intents and purposes, what assets it will have next year. Now they have Leandro Barbosa, acquired from Phoenix in exchange for Hedo Turkoglu, who never quite fit with the Raptors. Now they have Linas Kleiza and Julian Wright, giving their forward positions a brand new look. And they have first-round pick Ed Davis, a player whose talent likely exceeds that of his draft position and who, fairly or not, becomes the heir apparent to Bosh as the new power forward on the block.

With the team rather hamstrung financially for the next year, Davis, along with talented sophomore swingman DeMar DeRozan, also gets to bear the burden of Toronto’s hopes of improving on 40 wins. Not all rookie seasons are created equal.

New York Knicks:
2009-10 Record: 29-53
Finished: 3rd in Division, Did not draft in first round

Like the Heat, the Knicks had to renounce the rights to most of their roster in June in order to be a major player in the free agency circus. Unlike the Heat, not a single one of those renounced players found their way back to the roster.

In New York’s case, it still worked out pretty well. Regardless of his injury history, Amar’e Stoudemire is an elite forward that has already proven to be a near-perfect fit in Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Getting an upgrade like that for the cost of cap space? That’s a bingo.

We can’t forget, though, that in signing Stoudemire, New York forced its own hand in letting David Lee – master of the dirty work – leave town. If the Knicks are going to feel Lee’s absence in one area, it’s going to be defensive rebounding, where Lee is superior to Stoudemire.

Fortunately, New York got quite the haul in a sign-and-trade for Lee with the Golden State Warriors, extracting Ronny Turiaf, Kelenna Azubuike and Anthony Randolph from California. Turiaf will fill in some of the hole Lee left and Azubuike will slot in nicely as a perimeter scorer, but Randolph could be one of the true steals of the offseason. While still raw, Randolph has the type of potential that would have had his asking price, had he not had an injured and uneven year, much higher.

But it will be up to Raymond Felton, also a new addition, to tie things all together in this offense. As Felton goes, so, too, will New York’s chances – far greater chances than the past few seasons – of making the playoffs.

Philadelphia 76ers:
2009-10 Record: 27-55
Finished: 4th in Division, Picked No. 2 in NBA Draft

While many of the teams picking in this year’s lottery not only changed their team’s direction with their draft choice but by formulating a new roster, the 76ers kept things a little more simple. They got a high draft pick, hired a new head coach and shed a big contract. In any other offseason, those would have been major changes. Not so much this year.

First, the draft pick. Evan Turner, despite an underwhelming summer league, will be, at the very least, a solid NBA player. The safety in that, especially when adding to a roster with existing talent, can be quite valuable. But that’s just the baseline. Turner could also be a perennial All-Star. And it will be new coach Doug Collins guiding him along that wiggle room between good and great.

New Jersey Nets:
2009-10 Record: 12-70
Finished: 5th in Division, Picked No. 3 in 2010 NBA Draft

How can a team that almost set the NBA record for losses in a single season be on the upswing, so much so that they’re a sleeper team to make the playoffs within two seasons? How, when much of its cap space was spent on role players like Travis Outlaw and Jordan Farmar?

It helps if the team, on paper, wasn’t that bad to begin with, not with an All-Star point guard in Devin Harris and franchise center in Brook Lopez. It also helps if they can steal possibly the best pure shooter in the league, Anthony Morrow, for the price of a second-round draft pick. Or get a power forward with major upside – yes, there’s that word, upside, but did you read the “major” part – with the third pick in the draft.

That last one, Derrick Favors, could be Stoudemire good. If he does that, he and Lopez could form the best frontcourt in the league. Not too shabby, even if it’s just potential, for a 12-win team.

But, helping in the immediate future, the Nets also acquired spread-four Troy Murphy from the Pacers in a four-team trade, sending out swingman Courtney Lee. Murphy may be on borrowed time in Jersey with only a year left on his contract, but his shooting will help keep double teams away from Lopez and his mere presence will keep the pressure – and any savior expectations – off Favors. Like we said, not all rookies have it the same.

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