NBA Preview: Atlantic Division

Tue, 10/21/2008 - 7:54pm

By Jon Pastuszek

(Teams listed in projected order of finish)

Paul Pierce
1. Boston Celtics
Head Coach: Doc Rivers
2007-2008 Record: 66-16 (NBA Champions)
Key Additions: J.R. Giddens (draft) and Bill Walker (draft trade), Patrick O’Bryant (FA from Golden State)
Key Losses: James Posey (FA to New Orleans), P.J. Brown (Retirement)

Quick, other than Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or Ray Allen, who was the most important piece to the Celtics’ championship run?

If you guessed James Posey, you are absolutely 100%... wrong.

The correct answer was (still is)… Celtics’ assistant coach Tom Thibodeau

Tom Thibodeau is all about one thing: defense. Making a name for himself in Houston, Thibodeau joined the Celtics on the bench last year, and was handed the keys to the defense by head coach Doc Rivers. The decision was a very, very good one.

Under his direction, the Celtics defense was not only the best defense (by a long shot) in the NBA, it was one of the best defenses in the modern era. The Celtics were first in almost every major, minor and everything in between defensive category. Opposing field goal percentages, three point percentages, turnover rates, shots per 100 possessions... all were at the top of the league.

The Green’s success and Thibodeau’s gift for defense made him a sought after name in the offseason coaching carrousel, but the Celtics’ prospect of repeating was enough for him to sit next to Doc Rivers on the bench for one more season. That’s excellent news because it was Thibodeau who masterminded, organized and implemented the defense that became the Celtics dominant aspect.

So Celtics fans, please relax and Celtics haters, ease up. Posey’s clutch shooting and shutdown defense will be missed. Without him, the locker room will be a little less interesting, practices a little less physical, and the scorers table a little less crowded before tip-offs… but the team defense that propelled the C’s to a title in 07-08 won’t be lessened at all.

The intangibles that Posey brings to the game are irreplaceable, but there are some players that could do a solid impression while also bringing some new things to the table.

Tony Allen is playing without a brace on his knee for the first time in over a year and a half. The last time he was at full-strength, he was one of the most explosive reserves in the NBA. Bill Walker has had a busy preseason, posterizing Theo Ratliff, arguing with Tracy McGrady, and clubbing LeBron James’ chest. Other than some ridiculous hops, Skywalker looks like he already has the ability to get under the skin of NBA superstars.

With KG, Ray-Ray, the Truth, a solid bench, Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system and Doc Rivers, the Celtics are still the cream of the NBA crop as well as the favorite for the NBA crown. They lost an important role player, but like any championship team (not counting the Miami Heat), they will be able to move on from that an focus on bringing an 18th championship to Boston.

Top Rookie: Bill Walker (Kansas State)
J.R. Giddens was selected by Danny Ainge with the 30th pick and Walker with the 47th, but their performances in practices and pre-season have suggested that the order should have been flipped. Bill Walker was considered an elite NBA prospect entering his freshman year at Kansas State. Two ACL tear’s in one college career changed all that, and he slipped to the second round. Walker has unbelievable athleticism. Even with two major surgeries, Bill has shown that he’s still capable of plays like this. Walker already looks like he will have a career in this league and Danny Ainge looks like he stole another good player in the second round.

Bold Prediction: There’s no NBA Finals hangover from the Celtics.

This is a team that won’t be allowed to bask in its success. Kevin Garnett just won’t allow that. The focus, intensity on defense and emotion will still all be there and KG will be the one spurring it on. The Boston Three Party has tasted their first NBA Championship… now its time to feast on a second one.

Projected Record: 59-23 (1st in Eastern Conference)

2. Philadelphia 76ers
Head Coach: Maurice Cheeks
2007-2008 Record: 40-42 (Lost in 1st Round to Detroit)
Key Additions: Marreese Speights (Draft), Elton Brand (FA from LA Clippers), Kareem Rush (FA from Indiana), Theo Ratliff (FA from Detroit), Donyell Marshall (FA from Oklahoma City), Royal Ivey (FA from Milwaukee)
Key Losses: Rodney Carney (FA to Minnesota)

Last year, the Philadelphia 76ers were expected to go through another rebuilding year and linger towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

The prognostications looked right on the money, until Billy King was suddenly removed from his position of GM. Nets’ GM, Ed Stefanski, made the move over to the Sixers front office, and forced head coach Mo Cheeks to play the young guys so that they could gain experience.

The result was fantastic. The Sixers blitzed into the playoffs by running and gunning their opponents into submission. Point guard Andre Miller got back into the up-tempo game that he thrives in, and he found himself with an arsenal of high-flying, ridiculously fast athletes to dish off too. Andre Igoudala, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams and Willie Green all benefited from the change in play, and once in the playoffs, the Sixers gave the heavily favored Pistons a real scare.

Former GM Billy King deserves props for drafting the young nucleus that is about to blow up on the Eastern Conference scene. But, Stefanski deserves credit too for convincing Cheeks to play his youngsters more, namely Thaddeus Young. Thad was fantastic once he got minutes, and finished the season as the top rated rookie according to John Hollinger’s PER ratings. He’s expected to get starters minutes from opening night.

The Sixers went from being a nice young team with the potential to contend in a year or two, to a team ready to contend right now when they signed Elton Brand away from Clipperland.

The addition of Brand instantly transforms this team into a serious Eastern Conference contender. When healthy, Elton is one of the best low block players on the planet, and he will give the Sixers a dominant offensive player in the half-court – something that Philly was completely without last year.

For the immediate future, the Sixers can’t shoot. Other than Williams, everybody is either incapable and/or very streaky from behind the arc. That could lessen Brand’s impact because defenses will feel completely safe collapsing on him. The Sixers signed Donyell Marshall’s warm-up suit and Kareem Rush hoping that one of them can provide some outside scoring. They came at the veteran’s minimum, so there’s not a whole lot of expectation.

The Sixers are going to be a fun, exciting, young team this year. What’s more, is that they’ll also be pretty darn good. Brand gives them a legit low-post threat when they’re in the half-court, and Miller, Igoudala, Young and Williams will be blazing in the open-court for easy lay-ups and dunks. The Sixers are good enough for fifty wins, and will be a very dangerous playoff team.

Top Rookie: Marreese Speights (Florida)

GM Ed Stefanski took Speights with the 16th overall pick in order to provide some size and depth to the Sixers front line. Speights has a very large wingspan and a 6-10 250 frame, making him a player who could play both power-forward and center. He has nice touch and good hands, but will need to work on sharpening his low post game as well as improving his rebounding. The loss of Jason Smith for the year is going to give the rookie his chances. And if Brand lives up to his reputation as an injury-prone player, Speights could be seeing starters minutes at some points this season.

Bold Prediction: Andre Igoudala finally becomes the official “A.I.” of Philly.

Go around Philly and ask anybody who A.I. is. The answer you’ll get is Allen Iverson. That’s going to change this season. Igoudala, a key cog for this Sixer team, will finally make his name a permanent fixture in Philadelphia. The Sixers are going to be one of the most dynamic teams this year, and their fast, maniacal style of play is going to endear themselves to the Philly faithful. Iverson is now an afterthought. Andre is now the A.I. of the city.

Projected Record: 50-32 (4th in Eastern Conference)

3. Toronto Raptors
Head Coach: Sam Mitchell
2007-2008 Record: 41-41 (Lost in 1st Round to Orlando)
Key Additions: Jermaine O’Neal (traded from Indiana), Roko Ukic (signed from Europe)
Key Losses: T.J. Ford (traded to Indiana), Rasho Nesterovic (traded to Indiana), Carlos Delfino (signed in Europe)

For the past two seasons, GM Bryan Colangelo and head coach Sam Mitchell have been using a platoon strategy at the point guard position. Two talented guards, T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon, would find themselves splitting time almost exactly in half and Toronto would find itself among the Eastern Conference teams trying to elevate itself to contender status.

In the offseason, Toronto decided to trade Ford for a center in the form of Jermaine O’Neal. O’Neal’s arrival gives the team a true center, and moves All-Star Chris Bosh back to his natural position of power-forward. After some recently disappointing, injury filled years in Indiana, Jermaine will attempt to resurrect his career north of the border.

I really liked the deal, for many reasons.

First, it makes Jose Calderon the starting point guard. T.J. Ford is a good player and he’s going to put Indiana back in the playoffs, but he’s no Calderon. Actually, there are few like Calderon. Jose is one of those rare players who can do everything on offense. He’s excellent at both the three point (42%) and the free throw (91%) line. Overall, he shoots 52% from the field. He dishes the rock out (8.5 apg) and doesn’t throw it away (1.5 tpg). The numbers don’t lie. He’s a highly efficient point guard.

When Calderon started without Ford taking way minutes last, Toronto went 18-14. When Ford came back from injury, they finished 13-20. Calderon makes this team better and his jettison to Indiana makes this an addition by subtraction situation.

I also like what they got in return for Ford, which was O’Neal. Even if O’Neal plays 65-70 games for the Raps this season, he’s going to provide the interior defensive presence that they sorely missed last year. He doesn’t need to put up the offensive numbers of years ago. He just needs to rebound, block shots and intimidate opponents.

Finally, Bosh finally gets moved over to power-forward. If he was an All-Star playing out of position at center, imagine what he can do when given the freedom to face up opponents at will. It’s a situation similar to Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix. Shaq moving to the desert allowed for STAT to move to power forward, where he flourished. Expect a nice bump in Bosh’s performance and statistics, too.

The addition by subtraction of T.J. Ford, plus Jermaine O’Neal, plus more playing time for Calderon equals an increased win total. How much of an increase will depend on how much former top pick and third year player, Andrea Bargnani improves, as well as the health of Toronto’s thin backcourt. An increase of six wins compromises between my idealistic excitement for this team, and my conservative realism about the likelihood of injury. In any case, its an intriguing team that is on the way up.

Top Rookie: Roko Leni Ukic (drafted in 2005, one spot after Monta Ellis)

Many felt Ukic would never come over to play in the NBA despite having NBA level talent. His draft day experience really burnt him out on the American game/system after he'd been promised a first round deal. With Toronto's new brass and a commitment to International players, Ukic's mind was changed. Ukic has a lot of ability and could become a starter in the league someday. He's in a great situation backing up Calderon and should provide excellent depth for Toronto.

Nathan Jawai (Australia)Two words. Nathan Jawai. From Australia. Second round. Development League. NBA future? Highly unlikely.

Bold Prediction: Chauncey who? With a stellar season, Jose Calderon earns the distinction of best point guard in the Eastern Conference.

I’ve already gone over why I love Calderon. To summarize, he’s the complete offensive package and he makes no mistakes. Billups is a player who puts up good numbers on a very good Detroit team, but I feel he’s been living off of his Finals MVP for a little too long. It’s time for some new blood atop the Eastern Conference point-guard pyramid. With 35+ minutes a night to show the world his stuff, Calderon is going to shock casual fans and journalists alike when his 08-09 stats look something like 19-10.

Projected Record: 45-37 (6th in Eastern Conference)

4. New York Knicks
Head Coach: Mike D’Antoni
2007-2008 Record: 23-59 (14th in Eastern Conference)
Key Additions: Danilo Gallinari (Draft), Chris Duhon (FA from Chicago)
Key Losses: Renaldo Balkman (traded to Denver)

After countless years in the dark under Isiah Thomas, Knicks fans can wake up and smell the whiff of fresh air. Thomas is gone, and in comes Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni.

Forget the player acquisitions this year. Galinari is years away and Duhon couldn’t put cereal in his bowl, nonetheless a ball in the hoop. The real additions are Walsh and D’Antoni. These two are galaxies apart from Thomas, and they will start the slow process of reminding Knicks fans what its like to hope again by putting a better product on the floor.

What Walsh brings is a record and a reputation (that’s more than Isiah ever had), and his presence in the front office will be a dramatic upgrade over the all-time great formerly known as Isiah Thomas. Walsh was iffy in his last stint with the Pacers, but trust me. He’s a huge upgrade over Thomas.

D’Antoni and his vaunted “seven seconds or less” offense comes to MSG. He doesn’t have the personnel to really run it yet, but there are some interesting players that could thrive. Wilson Chandler and Nate Robinson are guys that have had success in the preseason, as has David Lee and (surprisingly) Zach Randolph.

Obviously, there are issues. There’s no point guard to speak of, and when you look at it, this is still a Knicks team made up of the same bad players from last year.

The players are the same, the style is not. D’Antoni is going to make this a much more visably appealing, exciting and relevant team. The Knicks are going to have their nights where they get blown out, sure. But, there are also going to be nights where they rip off 120+ points and outscore their opponents.

The Walsh-D’Antoni combination is a step in the right direction for this once proud franchise. The Knicks still aren’t a playoff team, but they will at the very least be a fun team that is going to get press for the right reasons, their play on the court.

Top Rookie: Danilo Gallinari (Italy)

Gallinari has missed most of training camp with an injury, which is never good news for a rookie. We at had Gallinari has a bust candidate. For one he’s slow. He struggles moving laterally, which will hurt him on the defensive end. Offensively, he doesn’t get great elevation on his jump shot, which could make it tough to get his own offense. He has average handle and a high dribble, too. Gallinari is appealing to the Knicks because his offensive versatility and height could make him an ideal player in D’Antoni’s system. But, Danilo will need to bulk up and get up to speed on things before he starts to play minutes.

Bold Prediction: Wilson Chandler breaks out as the Knicks most well-rounded player.

Fantasy players, take notes. Wilson Chandler is going to be the one who benefits the most from D’Antoni. He’s looked very sharp in preseason games, and it’s not a coincidence. He’s long, athletic and can defend multiple positions. Remind you of any past D’Antoni players? How about… Shawn Marion? D’Antoni has gone on the record saying that Chandler is similar to the do-it-all Marion, and if that’s the case, Chandler will be filling stat sheets and earning big minutes for New York this season.

Projected Record: 31-51 (12th in Eastern Conference)

5. New Jersey Nets
Head Coach: Lawrence Frank
2007-2008 Record: 34-48 (10th in Eastern Conference
Key Additions: Robin Lopez, Ryan Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts (all drafted), Keyon Dooling (FA from Orlando), Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons (both traded from Milwaukee), Eduardo Najera (FA from Denver), Jarvis Hayes (FA from Detroit)
Key Losses: Richard Jefferson (traded to Milwaukee), Nenad Kristic (signed in Europe), Bostjan Nachbar (signed in Europe), Desagnia Diop (FA to Dallas), Marcus Williams (traded to Golden State)


That’s all anybody who’s wondering about the Nets needs to know.

The Jason Kidd trade last year, the Richard Jefferson salary dump to Milwaukee this past offseason… all is in preparation for the special year of 2010.

2010, of course, is the year when LeBron James, who is best buds with Nets co-owner and rapper/exec, Jay-Z, becomes a free agent. 2010, is also the year that the Nets will try to make their proposed move to Brooklyn.

The economy is going to put the move on hold until 2011, but this is still a team fully committed to clearing cap space by 2010 so that it can offer a max deal to the NBA megastar. There’s no trickery, no hidden meaning… the Nets are making every single move with the hope that LeBron will sign with them in two years.

In the meantime, the Nets are relying on emerging point-guard Devin Harris, and veteran leadership from Vince Carter. Does that mean Brook Lopez is going to learn how to milk an ankle injury for two months, like VC? As it’s going to be impossible for Vince to develop any sort of motivation for this season, it’s also going to be impossible for the Nets to win more than 25 games this season.

This is a team in major transition, going through a major youth movement. The next two years are going to be tough.

So when the Nets amass the league’s worst record this year, just remember it’s all in preparation for that magical year…


Top Rookie: Brook Lopez (Stanford)

The Nets are really excited that Lopez, a player that they had in their top three, slipped into their hands at the 10 slot. Brook was this year’s only true center available in the draft, and thus has some true center abilities. To compliment his great size, he has great touch from around the hoop, especially on his nice turnaround jumper. Brook joins Harris, Yi Jianlian and Shawn Williams in an improving blend of young talent. He would be wise to not upset LBJ when going against him, because it’s that young talent, along with the city of Brooklyn, that will have to lure the King to his team.

Bold Prediction: Devin Harris breaks out into a borderline All-Star.

Everybody is talking about the immediate impact that Jason Kidd for Devin Harris deal is going to have on the Mavericks future (and rightfully so, the Mavs are done), but people should really start talking about the positive immediate and the future impact this trade will have on New Jersey. With the Mavs, Harris’ statistics were diminished by a system that discouraged creativity and fast-breaking. Now, the Nets are going to turn the speedster loose on offense, and the results are going to be very good. After moving east, Harris averaged a tasty 15.4 points, 6.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game. The Nets will play the up-tempo game that suits the point-guard’s blazing speed, and Harris will play his way into the upper echelon of the Eastern conference, granted he's not going up against English streetballers.

Projected Record: 23-59 (15th in Eastern Conference)

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