By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Nov 30 2011 9:38AM - Updated Dec 2 2011 9:46AM
The Boston Celtics have dominated the Atlantic Division since bringing the Big Three together in 2007. Over the last four seasons, they've won the division by an average of 15 games and by no less than 10.
But the Celtics' stranglehold on the Atlantic may be loosening. Since July of 2010, three All-Stars have made their way from the Western Conference to New York and New Jersey. And three of Boston's divisional opponents improved by more than 10 wins last season.
Three of Boston's four All-Stars are 34 or older, so the Celtics' run of success will come to an end soon, unless Danny Ainge can find a way to quickly retool with a group of younger stars. But the Knicks and Sixers won a grand total of one playoff game last season. And the Celtics, even though we don't know who their starting center is, still have the best lineup in the division, by far.
The Atlantic is still Boston's to lose.
2010-11 record: 56-26
Finish: First in Atlantic Division
Playoffs: Defeated New York in Eastern Conference first round (4-0), lost to Miami in Eastern Conference semifinals (4-1)
Strengths: The Celtics have a veteran core that has been together for four years now and is still very effective. Kendrick Perkins is gone, but Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett remain the best foursome in the league, dominant at both ends when they're on the floor together.
Challenges: With a compressed schedule, the Celtics not only need to get their aging veterans more rest, but they need their bench's minutes to be more productive. Their offensive numbers fell off dramatically when the All-Stars stepped off the floor last season. And in order to have a more productive bench this year, they've got some work to do in free agency. None of the seven players who came off the bench for the Celtics in the 2011 postseason are under contract going forward.
Outlook: Unless they get hit with a significant injury, the Celtics are still the best team in the Atlantic Division. But to compete with the Miami Heat, they'll need to re-sign and get a big season from Jeff Green. The fifth-year forward can provide a lot more than he gave Boston at the end of last season, but it will be up to Doc Rivers to find him the right role and teammates to pair him with.
This could make a difference: According to reports, Danny Ainge is hot on the trail of Chris Paul, who could obviously put the Celtics back on the Heat's level. But even if they stay put and just re-sign their own free agents, they can still improve. In addition to Green, Boston has another pair of reserves who, if re-signed, can play better than they did last season. Dealing with a broken wrist and an ankle injury, Delonte West only logged 24 games last season. Meanwhile, Glen Davis lost his mojo late in the year and was a liability in the playoffs. If the two are back in green, healthy and happy, the Celtics' bench will be stronger.
2010-11 record: 42-40
Finish: Second in Atlantic Division
Playoffs: Lost to Boston in Eastern Conference first round (4-0)
Strengths: In Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, the Knicks have two guys who can dominate a game offensively. They also have a renovated Madison Square Garden and some cap flexibility coming up in 2012, when it will be possible to add some more talent around their two stars.
Challenges: The Knicks' two best players are defensive liabilities. And in his nine seasons as an NBA head coach, the average defensive ranking of Mike D'Antoni's teams has been 20th. The Knicks had some defensive-minded players on the roster last season, but the offense wasn't nearly as potent with them on the floor.
Outlook: In order to preserve their 2012 cap space, the Knicks can't give Anthony and Stoudemire much help this year. So they will still struggle defensively and still be a level below the best teams in the Eastern Conference. They ought to win a playoff game for the first time since 2001, but as presently constituted, they're probably not a team that can knock off Miami, Chicago, Boston or Orlando in a seven-game series.
This could make a difference: If Paul decides to pull a Melo and force his way out of New Orleans, the Knicks could be turned into an instant contender. They wouldn't have much to offer the Hornets beyond Chauncey Billups' expiring contract and a young player like Landry Fields. But the "Melodrama" of last season clearly taught us that the stars can sometimes hold the cards in these situations.
2010-11 record: 41-41
Finish: Third in Atlantic Division
Playoffs: Lost to Miami in Eastern Conference first round (4-1)
Strengths: The Sixers have an abundance of youth and athleticism, as well as a coach that found a way to bring out the best in a group that lacked a go-to scorer or an interior defensive presence. They're a team that will harass you defensively and quickly covert turnovers into easy buckets on the other end of the floor.
Challenges: See above regarding the lack of an anchor on either end of the floor. Without an offensive creator, the Sixers struggle in the half-court and in late-game situations. They need to bring back versatile sixth man (and restricted free agent) Thaddeus Young to maintain their standing as a Top 10 defensive team. They're also stuck financially until Elton Brand's contract runs out in 2013.
Outlook: As long as Young returns, the Sixers should be a bottom-tier playoff team again. With the development of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, there's certainly room for improvement offensively, where Philly ranked 17th last season. But their ceiling is probably the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
This could make a difference: The Sixers actually had the point differential of a 46-win team last season, but they were 7-18 in games decided by five points or less. Some of that is just bad luck, but they can improve in late-game situations if Holiday can take another step forward as a point guard.
2010-11 record: 24-58
Finish: Fourth in Atlantic Division
Strengths: The Nets have won just 36 games over the last two seasons, but they have a lot going for them. They have a Top 10 player, a ton of cap space, and a new arena that will be ready next fall. The potential is there for a major improvement in the next two years if Deron Williams buys in and can find an All-Star friend to join him in Brooklyn.
Challenges: In the next year, the Nets could add a star ... or they could lose one. Williams can choose to become a free agent next summer, putting the pressure on general manager Billy King to improve the roster right away. But if King has his eyes on Dwight Howard in 2012, he has to be careful with how he spends his money this year.
Outlook: The Nets are a wildcard. With all their cap space and the draw of playing with one of the best point guards in the league, they have the potential to undergo some serious upgrades before the season begins. Williams' presence alone should give them 10 more wins than last year. What they do with their cap space will determine the rest.
This could make a difference: If Howard makes it clear to Magic GM Otis Smith that he won't be staying in Orlando beyond this season, the Nets may have the assets (cap relief, Brook Lopez, draft picks) to make a deal. And an All-Star combination of Williams and Howard would make them a Top 3 team in the East.
2010-11 record: 22-60
Finish: Fifth in Atlantic Division
Strengths: The Raptors have two things going for them: youth and financial flexibility. Both Ed Davis and Jonas Valanciunas (who won't arrive until 2012) have a lot to prove, but they just might be a frontline to build around. Toronto will probably add another lottery pick a year from now and has the cap space to bring in the right complementary pieces.
Challenges: The Raptors have been absolutely awful defensively over the last two seasons. New head coach Dwane Casey will certainly help on that end of the floor, but their two highest-paid players, Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon, are both serious defensive liabilities. And though they have cap space, getting free agents to come to Toronto isn't easy.
Outlook: The defense will improve some under Casey, and Davis will get a full season of experience under his belt. But this is still the worst team in the Atlantic Division, below average on both ends of the floor. On the bright side, the 2012 draft will be strong, so it's a good year to be a bad team.
This could make a difference: Enticing free agents to come to Toronto could be difficult, but Bryan Colangelo could use his cap space to upgrade his roster via trade or put a bid on a player that's been waived via the amnesty clause. That would certainly accelerate the rebuilding process.
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