"Man I'm so hyped right now! Anything's possible!" Amidst the crying, yelling, and screaming that followed, we were able to distinguish Kevin Garnett above it all. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were not as overly jubulant and we may have been able to make out what they were saying, but let's not fool ourselves: after years of those three superstars wasting away in mediocrity they were able to come together and give one of the greatest single season performances in NBA history. The Boston Celtics were an extremely proud franchise but had not been able to recover from the retiring of Larry Bird. Many experiments followed. The Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker tandem created the most excitment, but who expected Kenny Anderson and Tony Delk to lead this team to the promised land? Soon Walker left and the Celtics relied on Ryan Gomes and Sebastian Telfair (amongst a strange assortment of other players) to be missing pieces alongside Paul Pierce. Needless to say, the losses piled and the Celtics continued to look at mediocrity as a haven for the current state of their franchise. But then the Celtics found a rebuilding Supersonics team and it all changed. What followed was something right out of a fantasy league. Nobody could have imagined a team pitting Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen on the same NBA squad and hardly anyone could have imagined the three being able to mesh so seamlessly and also be able to generate the most out of a questionable supporting cast. But the "Boston Three Party" quickly came together and created a euphoria in Boston that was unimaginable just one year prior.
It's amazing what a couple of deals can do to the face of a franchise: and all of the teams in the Atlantic division can attest to it. They all seemed to mirror the Celtics vision of changing your franchise's outlook and direction with a couple of transactions and an influx of new players. For better or for worse: the Atlantic division teams are all brand new: except for the Celtics. Nobody can blame the Celtics for staying put, especially since the assortment of players performed so well last season and with Kevin Garnett still serving as the anchor for this squad we have no reason to believe that motivation and hunger should be an issue. But all of the other teams made moves, maybe in a panic, to grab that trophy that's currently in the Celtics possession. From the 76ers acquisition of Elton Brand, to the Raptors rolling the dice on Jermaine O'Neal, followed by the "Firesale For LeBron" sweepstakes in New Jersey and the arrival of a new regime in New York.
Yes, change is abundant in the Atlantic but as the old saying goes, "the more things change the more they stay the same." Plenty of big name players and contracts have been added to the other four competitors, but none of the aforementioned squads will be able to test the Celtics on their quest for back to back championships. All of the other teams will prove to be more competition to the Celtics than they were last year, but at the end of the day the team with the experience, talent, coaching and love for defensive play will stand tall above the rest of the teams in the division. Here's the outlook on the Atlantic division.
1) Boston Celtics - After last offseason's wheeling and dealing, the Celtics won a championship and had the luxury of keeping the team intact for this season. Hunger will be the only obstacle facing this team in its quest to capture a second championship trophy. Kevin Garnett is still the MVP of this team and will handle the onseason leadership role while Paul Pierce continues to show that his spot on the Finals MVP trophy is completely deserved. Ray Allen's production will continue to decrease as he settles into the role of a spectacular spot up shooter (but not much else). Rajon Rondo is already the best defensive point guard in the league and the sky is still the limit for this young guard as he figures to be penciled in as a top ten point guard for the next few years. Kendrick Perkins isn't much more than a big body and bruiser but he isn't needed for much more than his presence. Obviously the departure of James Posey hurts this team (and definitely cripples the bench) and will lessen the Celtics chances at a repeat. His production just simply cannot be replaced by Tony Allen, Eddie House, or Darius Miles. Doc Rivers emerged as someone who looks like he can coach after his taking Phil Jackson to school in the NBA finals. Time will tell if this team is as motivated as it was last season. All signs point to yes.
2) Philadelphia 76ers - Trying to capture the Magic that the Celtics obtained last season, the Sixers set out to pick up an inside presence that would allow Reggie Evans to slide back into a better suited bench role. Elton Brand is just what the doctor ordered; or at least it looks like it on paper. Elton Brand is one of five current players to have career averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. He's had a stellar career but has lacked success regardless of his location. Of course, playing with the Bulls post-Jordan and then suiting up for the Clippers for seven years doesn't give you many opportunities to be successful but now is his best opportunity to show that he's not just a player who puts up good numbers on bad teams. If he can't get it done this season, he's nothing more than Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Andre Iguodala had a solid season last year in response to the critics who bashed Iggy for turning down the contract extension he was offered the previous summer. Iguodala still got his big contract but his performance against the Pistons last postseason is enough to make people second guess his ability to lead and deliver in clutch, crucial situations. As far as point guards go in this league, there aren't many as effecient and effective as Andre Miller is. He never misses games, plays good defense and owns one of the best lob passes in the league. Samuel Dalembert continues to improve at the center position and players like Louis Williams, Thaddeus Young and Willie Green help form the identity of what looks like a promising team. As has been pointed out, their lack of three point shooting could hurt them when the playoffs come around but it won't prevent them from reaching the postseason.
3) Toronto Raptors - Last year was a setback in many ways for the Toronto Raptors players, franchise and fans. The arrival of Bryan Colangelo seemed like a match made in heaven and the 2006-2007 Raptors brought Chris Bosh to the spotlight, got Sam Mitchell a coach of the year award and gave big expectations to Andrea Bargnani entering his second year in the league. Sam Mitchell proceeded to mishandle (badly) the point guard situation with T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon. An injury to Chris Bosh midseason derailed the Raptors and they never recovered. And Andrea Bargnani? When he wasn't pulling down 3 rebounds a game he was shooting near 30 percent from the three point line. Because of his horrible sophomore slump last season, the Raptors looked for an inside presence that could put this team into contention for an Eastern Confrence crown. As far as big names are concerned, acquiring Jermaine O'Neal is a big deal (even if it would have looked much better a few years ago). The team had to part ways with T.J. Ford and Rasho Nesterovic but with Jose Calderon poised and ready to step into the starting point guard role and with Jermaine O'Neal replacing Rasho Nesterovic, this team should be better than what they were last season. Still, let's not fool ourselves. This is a team that was outsted from the playoffs in five games. Unless Jermaine O'Neal turns the clock back three years they will suffer, roughly, the same fate this season. O'Neal never lived up to that humongous contract that the Pacers gave him and it's hard to imagine that playing out of position alongside a player who is a better version of what O'Neal used to be is going to revive O'Neal's game and career. Jason Kapono is deadly from three point range but aside from that, the Raptors don't posses that type of wing player who's capable of taking over a game with his playmaking abilities. Anthony Parker is equally effecient from behind the arc but isn't as lethal a shooter or as much of a threat as Kapono is. Their lack of a true center and their lack of effective, effecient wing players will prevent the Raptors from making a huge splash in the postseason.
4) New Jersey Nets - If you entered last year expecting the Nets to make one last run at an Eastern Confrence crown with Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter then don't feel foolish. It seemed like a match made in heaven - Jason Kidd running the court with outstanding leapers Jefferson and Carter by his side. For whatever reason, that "big three" was never able to get past the semifinals and after watching last season's mediocre season unfold, the Nets went into firesale mode. But don't confuse this as rebuilding. This team has nothing to build around; except for the prospect of landing LeBron James in 2010. Gone are Kidd and Jefferson, in come the promising Yi Jianlian and the ever talented but annoyingly inconsistent Devin Harris to help reshape this Nets team. Jianlian faltered greatly down the stretch last year as he did not handle the 82 game season very well. It's hard to imagine playing for China in the Beijing Olympics helped matters but we'll see what steps he took to improve this season. Devin Harris has been on the cusp the past few years, people eager to see him take over and lead a team. He's yet to do so but posted solid numbers after leaving the Mavericks for Jersey last February. Vince Carter is there in contract and in scoring but not much else. He just seems to glide nowadays and is a shadow of the player that he was back in Toronto. Add that to the frontcourt by committee and it's hard to imagine this team being anything more than competitive this season. But look for them to make some progress this season, especially if Carter is traded by midseason.
5) New York Knicks - Oh, the New York Knicks. What's left to be said of this team that hasn't already been said? After five plus years of torture inflicted onto the fickle New York fanbase courtesy of Isiah Thomas, in comes Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni to save the day. Players love playing for D'Antoni's free spirit and light it up type of offense. Add that to the attractive market that is New York and the Knicks could be perceived as a team ready to turn the corner. Unfortunately, Isiah Thomas left this team stuck in the mud. With atrocious contracts being given to Eddy Curry, Jared Jeffries and Jerome James coupled with taking on ridiculous contracts of Stephon Marbury, Zach Randolph, Quentin Richardson, and Malik Rose, this team is in financial hell and God himself couldn't save them for this season or next. D'Antoni has his work cut out for him asking Curry and Randolph to leave the buffet table to run the floor and fit into his offense. If it looked awkward trying to incorporate Shaq into the Suns offense last season, one can imagine the fun of watching Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph running up and down the court and hustling. Good luck with that. Stephon Marbury seems like he would be a good fit for this offense, but didn't he look like a good fit alongside Kevin Garnett in Minnesota? Didn't he look like a good fit as the cornerstone in New Jersey? Didn't he look like a player who could bring the Suns what Jason Kidd couldn't? Looks can be deceiving. Stephon Marbury has underachieved on every team he's played for and aggrevated plenty of teammates and personnel over that period. The Knicks have players that fit the system in Richardson, Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson and David Lee but the reigns of the D'Antoni offense will no longer be handled by Steve Nash, but instead should be headed by Chris Duhon. The only big time free agent acquisition for the Knicks is a low key guy who would be a solid backup on a really good team but hardly is a man to run a complex offense of overpaid crybabies nor is he a candidate to lead them anywhere. His "party boy" tendencies also could be further exposed with the New York media paying close attention to him. Look for New York fans to be extremely patient this year and with this roster as currently constructed, they'll need all that patience and then some.