|This is one tough division. (Getty Images)|
M-W-F for the next two weeks we'll be previewing the 2012-2013 season division by division. We begin today with the Atlantic Division. Enjoy.
Cream of the Crop: Still Boston. These guys have morphed into some sort of weird version of Matthew McConaughey from "Dazed and Confused." They get older, everyone else stays the same record.
The Celtics were at a crossroads after LeBron James turned out the lights at the Garden and walked away with their pride. Kevin Garnett contemplated retirement. Ray Allen was going to be a free agent. Danny Ainge had talked about blowing the team up for months, and had come close to it. But Doc Rivers was still around, and when Kevin Garnett decided he wanted to give it another go after being just a game shy of the Finals, Ainge bought in again.
So Garnett came back at a pretty big number for a guy his age, even if he was the playoffs MVP for two weeks. Ray Allen took off and that hurt the Celtics, but they replaced him with veteran Jason Terry, who brings perimeter scoring and a ton of swagger. From there, the Celtics got younger, putting Rondo next to a back-from-heart-surgery Jeff Green, rookies Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger, and younger rotation guys like Courtney Lee.
Boston thinks it has the pieces for a title. It's hard to see what they have getting past Miami (none of these additions solve their problems at the rim or in perimeter forward defense, not even Green). But they are very much ahead of the pack for the Division title again.
There's a country for old men, and it's Boston. Wait, that's not a country. I mean... there's a city ... er ... nevermind.
Sitting Pretty: The Knicks, for all the worry and angst about their offseason decisions and roster makeup, will still be very good. That gets lost when people analyze the team, because they're judged on the championship scale, as they should when they talk as they do and cost as much as they do.
But they still have several top 25 players and their bench is deep. Mike Woodson coaches a great defense and they have firepower. They're going to be a good team, even if they aren't elite.
On The Cliff: What if Andrew Bynum's not healthy? That's a game-changer for the Sixers' season? Without Bynum, they could be a poor team on both ends of the floor. Doug Collins has done some impressive things in Philadelphia but everything hinges on Bynum. Bynum is still on pace to start opening night, but the low level of participation he's had and his history raises a lot of flags.
Put simply, the Sixers can't survive Bynum being hurt.
Waiting in the Tall Grass: The Nets have to get the defense to mesh, have to figure out a ton of new parts, have to build a new system in a new arena with new fans. But they have so much potential. If Brook Lopez bounces back at all to anything close to 2009 form, they're going to be dangerous as all get out.
Gerald Wallace gives them a tough versatile defender who can make great plays consistently. Deron Williams isn't just a great passer and offensive general, he's a great defender and superb scorer as well. They have depth and experience, youth and energy. The Nets have every reason to think they can immediately make a statement in the division.
Dead Meat: Toronto's just not good enough. They might be able to hang and could even flirt with a playoff appearance, but the talent just isn't there yet for them to make the next step. Most notably, they continue to have injury flare-ups overshadow the team. They have to stay healthy just to have a chance at the postseason.
They might really be able to make a move if it werent' for the fact they play Boston, New York, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia 16 times.
Division MVP: Rajon Rondo. Predictably, given how tough this division is, handing out one MPV to this division is a nightmare. Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, there are a lot of options here. But Rondo is inescapably the most valuable.
Williams is a better shooter than Rondo, I'm not shocking anyone with that observation. But Rondo's the player more than any other in this division who can simply dominate the game and put his stamp on it in the biggest way. From the ball-fake layup to the no-look touch pass to the way he can draw four defenders and still slide the ball comfortably right where a teammate needs it, Rondo's ball control goes far beyond his handle.
Rondo's maybe the most talented player in the division as well, which says something, especially given his shooting woes. He's been outspoken in how he thinks this team can go the distance and has been more aggressive offensively. There's no reason to think this year will be anything but another stellar one for the mercurial point guard.
Plus, he plays like he hates everyone, and that's just endearing.
Division ROY: Jared Sullinger. Sullinger landed in the perfect place for him, and his athletic and physical weaknesses will be covered somewhat by both the style of the Celtics' play and his ability to never be matched up against the toughest player. He has a natural knack for scoring even with low elevation, and a great work ethic that's already shone through in preseason.
Jonas Valanciunas for Toronto will likely wind up the better player overall, and Arnett Moultrie for the Sixers could surprise some people. But Sullinger's impact might be more noticeable on a high-profile team like Boston and will make for a pretty great story about how he was doubted in the draft (despite the fact he inevitably would have struggled mightily had he been burdened with a lottery team's talent and expectations).
1. Boston Celtics 49-33
2. New York Knicks 47-35
3. Brooklyn Nets 47-35
4. Philadelphia 76ers 47-35
5. Toronto Raptors 35-47