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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Division preview: Atlantic

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After the Celtics' Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the NBA Finals, I spotted Doc Rivers heading toward the Staples Center loading ramp, taking the first few steps on a long journey toward the uncertainty ahead. On his way out, some degenerate Lakers fan who had managed to penetrate league security confronted Rivers and launched into a profanity-laced diatribe as they gloated over L.A.'s 16th title.

True to form, Rivers didn't justify this outburst with a response. (After all, it was the first time the Lakers had ever triumphed over Boston in a Game 7.) Rivers paused momentarily, shook his head, and kept walking -- kept trudging toward the unknown.

Moments earlier, Rivers had revealed that Rasheed Wallace was probably going to retire. ('Sheed, at that very moment in fact, was waiting outside the referees' locker room to inform them of the same news -- or better yet, maybe to curse them out.) But Wallace wasn't the only question mark for Rivers and the Celtics as they sifted through the wreckage of a surprising but ultimately disappointing run to the Finals. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, two-thirds of the Big Three, were free agents. Rivers himself was contemplating leaving the bench to watch his kids play basketball after years of coaching somebody else's.

Rivers told me that night that he honestly didn't know what he was going to do, and he was telling the truth. It took a few weeks, but Rivers decided to come back and take at least one more crack at a championship. To no one's surprise, Allen and Pierce followed suit. Soon, Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal were on board, and Rivers felt a little better about combating the talent that had been assembled in South Florida -- and yes, elsewhere.

"I'm thinking about the East, but I'm thinking about the whole," Rivers said. "And there's no doubt you think about the Lakers. We would love to get back to them, but it's going to be hard to get back to them. We've got to figure out a way of doing that."

On paper -- paper other than their birth certificates, that is -- the Celtics are better than they were a year ago. One of the O'Neals will replace Kendrick Perkins at the start of the season, and the other one will replace Wallace. Once Perkins is back, the Celtics will be deeper and bigger than the team that fell short against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the Finals.

Kevin Garnett has looked healthier in preseason than at any time last season -- "night and day," Rivers said -- and Rajon Rondo leads a brigade of agitators that might just have the right personality to mess up the premature coronation in Miami.

The only obstacle for the Celtics is the age and health of their core; Rivers just got it out of the way and predicted during training camp that there will be injuries to overcome. Last week, the perpetually hoarse Rivers had surgery on his vocal chords and thankfully received a positive result after a biopsy. It was the first challenge of many, the first step on a new journey toward the unknown.

Predicted order of finish (2009-10 records):

1. Celtics (50-32)
2. Knicks (29-53)
3. 76ers (27-55)
4. Raptors (40-42)
5. Nets (12-70)

Boston Celtics

Jermaine O'Neal is an old 32. Is is still effective? i (Getty Images)  
Jermaine O'Neal is an old 32. Is is still effective? i (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: It's pretty simple: Keep age and injury at bay. With short- and long-term cost, the Celtics reloaded with precisely the antidote necessary to challenge Miami and Orlando: size and depth. Shaq will fit into the Celtics' culture just fine, and the other O'Neal, Jermaine, is a serviceable replacement until Perkins comes back. Barring injury, the team you have to evaluate is one that has Perkins starting alongside Garnett with Shaq, J.O. and Glen Davis coming off the bench. That's a lot of bodies, fouls, size and experience. The best part for Rivers, however, is that having all those bodies will allow him to keep Garnett fresh for the playoffs. The Celtics can't expect to flip the switch the way they did last spring, but this is a team built for the postseason, not the regular season. An underrated acquisition was Delonte West; if he's on board emotionally, he should be able to make up for the defensive loss of Tony Allen and give Boston more offense than Allen did.

What could go wrong: Um, age and injuries. Eighty percent of the starting lineup on opening night will be 32 or older -- and Jermaine O'Neal, who like Garnett came into the league as an 18-year-old high-schooler, is an old 32. Another potential pitfall: Whenever Shaq is on the floor, opponents will go straight after him on pick-and-rolls, putting immense pressure on the Celtics' guards. By the time the Big Shamrock makes it to the foul line and back, someone will have a layup. One of Rivers' biggest challenges will be to maintain the defensive principles installed by former assistant Tom Thibodeau and tweak them to account for O'Neal's lack of mobility.

X-factor: Avery Bradley. The Celtics' first-round pick has been limited all preseason because of an ankle injury. If he can get healthy, Rivers will need his pressure defense on the second unit as he tries to divvy up Tony Allen's duties by committee.

New York Knicks

Raymond Felton is serviceable enough point man to get the Knicks to postseason play. (Getty Images)  
Raymond Felton is serviceable enough point man to get the Knicks to postseason play. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: I'm higher on the Knicks than most, which leads some to speculate that I'm simply, um, high. But the Knicks will begin the season with instant credibility in Amar'e Stoudemire, a legitimate (though serviceable at best) point guard to get him the ball in Raymond Felton, and dreams of attracting any number of Plan B stars after their failed bid to land LeBron James. But forget about Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Tony Parker for a moment: Even without them, the Knicks are a playoff team. I repeat, the Knicks are a playoff team. How will this happen? Mike D'Antoni's offense will flow through Stoudemire in ways that MDA has only dreamed of since arriving for what has been a rocky ride in New York. The biggest question was center, but D'Antoni has found an intriguing one in Russian rookie Timofey Mozgov, who we won't see much down the stretch of games but will make for a serviceable starter. Now the big question is perimeter shot-making, which D'Antoni's system needs to work optimally. Other than Danilo Gallinari, the only healthy shot-maker starting the season is Roger Mason Jr., who seemed to be uncomfortably searching for his niche during preseason. But when Mason finds his way, Toney Douglas gains confidence and Kelenna Azubuike returns from a serious knee injury, this Knicks team will have a chance to get better as the season goes on instead of fading into oblivion as usual. In the unlikely event Donnie Walsh pulls off a coup and pries Anthony from the Nuggets, Madison Square Garden will be back on the map as a legit basketball showplace instead of the decaying relic it has been for years.

What could go wrong: Oh, plenty. Measured by opponent field-goal percentage, the Knicks were the worst defensive team in the NBA last season and haven't added any players who are likely to change that. They subbed out David Lee, one of the league's best rebounders, for Stoudemire, who inch-for-inch may be the league's worst. Other than Stoudemire, there's no obvious option when a basket is needed late in the clock, quarter or game. So despite my optimism, things could turn ugly in rather spectacular fashion unless the Knicks find another shooter -– either on their roster or someone else's.

X-factor: Anthony Randolph. All hail the Warriors for including Randolph in the Lee sign-and-trade, because he'll finally get a chance to blossom. But D'Antoni has limited patience with players who possess raw talent and make poor decisions, so there will be some growing pains.

Philadelphia 76ers

There is considerable concern that Elton Brand is not the Elton Brand of old. (Getty Images)  
There is considerable concern that Elton Brand is not the Elton Brand of old. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: 'Tis the season for optimism. Elton Brand lost weight, looks great, and is ready to return to an All-Star level. Sound familiar? I'll believe it when I see it. At only 31, Brand's decline has been startling, especially in the rebounding area. (In 30 minutes per game last season, Brand managed only 3.7 defensive rebounds.) He simply may never be the same, which means the best the Sixers can hope for is to be in the mix for one of those "I'll take your problem if you take mine" kind of trades at the deadline. But unless Brand shows significant progress, his contract is virtually unmovable. On the bright side, new coach Doug Collins has a potentially brilliant shooting guard to develop in No. 2 pick Evan Turner. It's going to take a while, as Turner's 31 percent shooting in his first seven preseason games attests. The Sixers have a versatile backcourt, but no primary scorer -– unless Turner develops faster than seems possible. Philly had no business being as bad defensively as they were last season, and though they'll miss Samuel Dalembert's shot-blocking, that improvement alone is reason to expect significant jump from a 27-win season that didn't do justice to the talent on the roster.

What could go wrong: With an undersized frontcourt, the Sixers could get mauled around the basket. This weakness will mute the improved shooting they'll get from frontcourt floor-spacers Spencer Hawes and rookie Craig Brackins. With no go-to perimeter scorer and no low-post game, the Sixers will struggle to get consistent production in their halfcourt offense. They have to hope they're athletic and aggressive enough to attack the basket, get to the foul line and remain competitive while Turner goes through his anticipated growing pains.

X-factor: If he surprises and makes strides in the Rookie of the Year chase, Turner could transform the Sixers from a mismatched collection of athletes into a borderline playoff team.

Toronto Raptors

Linas Kleiza will have plenty of opportunities to jack it up in Toronto. (Getty Images)  
Linas Kleiza will have plenty of opportunities to jack it up in Toronto. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Once again, the Raptors will be a team that tries to outshoot, outscore and outpace the opponent, because they'll once again be one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. Without Chris Bosh, Toronto will be an even more perimeter-oriented team, meaning big opportunities for Linas Kleiza and Jarrett Jack to launch from long range. If the Raptors had been able to complete the botched sign-and-trade attempt to acquire Matt Barnes from Orlando (he eventually went to the Lakers), and/or if the Bobcats hadn't pulled out of a one-sided Tyson Chandler trade (he was later dealt to the Mavericks), there would be a lot more reason for optimism. The best the Raps can hope for is breakout seasons from DeMar DeRozan and Julian Wright, a surprising payoff from Amir Johnson on his bloated $34 million contract over five years and some semblance of defensive improvement from 7-foot softy Andrea Bargnani. But hey, they did replace Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu with younger players, including high-octane guard Leandro Barbosa, and they have payroll flexibility and a $14 million trade exception from Bosh's departure.

What could go wrong: Is it possible that the Raptors could be even worse defensively after recording the worst defensive efficiency rating in the league last season? Without Bosh, the answer is yes. Johnson is a willing defender, but is too frail to match up with more hefty power forwards. Same goes for first-round pick Ed Davis.

X-factor: The Raptors hope this player isn't on the roster yet. With numerous movable contracts and the Bosh exception, Toronto will be in the mix as we get into December and closer to the trade deadline for a star they can begin building around again. And since free agents don't want to go to Toronto, that's their best chance of getting back on track.

New Jersey Nets

When unproven and unprepared rookie Derrick Favors is your X-factor you're in trouble. (Getty Images)  
When unproven and unprepared rookie Derrick Favors is your X-factor you're in trouble. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: If the roster remains intact, Avery Johnson will be counting on the continued progress of the Devin Harris-Brook Lopez duo and unrealistic contributions from offseason acquisitions Travis Outlaw, Johan Petro and Anthony Morrow. Troy Murphy, acquired in the four-team trade that sent Trevor Ariza from the Rockets to New Orleans, should complement Lopez nicely. Rookie Derrick Favors doesn't look ready yet, but if he speeds up the learning curve he could make a significant impact. If the Nets don't trade him first.

What could go wrong: The Nets are good at coming up with pithy slogans and they have to be considering they're beginning a two-year layover in Newark after years of suffering at the Meadowlands. This year's slogan should be, "Is Carmelo here yet?" Anthony would change everything if the Nets were able to push their pursuit of the Nuggets' disgruntled star to the finish line. But in his absence, this looks like a team capable of no better than a 10-15 game improvement over last year's 12-win train wreck. And considering how much tougher the East will be, that may be an optimistic assessment. Get ready for a lot of incredulous tweets from @AverysVoice.

X-factor: Dare we say Anthony? No, let's go with Favors. Has tremendous upside, but it's going to take some time.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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