By Ben Fisher
Over the next six weeks, Hoops Addict will be trotting out weekly divisional previews as training camps open and the NBA season draws nearer. To start things off, we’ll be looking at an Atlantic division which has seen some turnover, but ultimately still belongs to the Boston Celtics.
After coming within one win of an NBA title last June, the Celtics added some marquee name value while maintaining an aging core that still has another run or two left in it.
With young point guard Rajon Rondo emerging and Ray Allen hitting unrestricted free agency, there were some question as to whether Boston would begin a youth-oriented rebuild to revitalize the team and remain contenders through a transition phase. Instead, GM Danny Ainge signed Allen for another two years and even added a pair of aging O’Neals, Shaquille and Jermaine, to bolster a front court in need of reinforcements thanks to Kendrick Perkins’ knee injury.
With seven players on the team who will be 32 or older at the start of the regular season, this isn’t a team built for the long haul. But they will maintain their place atop the Atlantic for at least one more year and, with a roster stock full of players with winning pedigrees, could even challenge for the Larry O’Brien trophy once more.
Their biggest divisional challenge will likely come from the newly revamped New York Knicks. Sure, the Madison Square Garden residents missed out on the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh free agent motherlode, but the addition of Amar’e Stoudemire isn’t a bad consolation prize. The former Sun doesn’t have a ton of established talent around him, but a core is certainly starting to develop with Danilo Galinari, Wilson Chandler and free agent signee Raymond Felton (not to mention the Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul whispers that will only grow louder as the season progresses).
While Stoudemire has gained the headlines in the Big Apple, the Knicks also appear to have gotten deeper, thanks to a trade with Golden State that saw David Lee head to the Western Conference for a package that included Anthony Randolph and Kelenna Azubuike. Meanwhile, Russian import Timofey Mozgov had been flying under the radar before catching the basketball world’s attention with a tremendous World Championships performance for his native country. On the whole, New York has taken the first step in what will be a multi-year process to return to contention, but the step may have just been big enough to help them sneak into the playoffs come April.
As the Knicks were busy adding an elite big man this off-season, the Raptors found themselves losing one. Bosh, Toronto’s franchise points leader, opted to fly the coop as expected, leaving the club with a gaping hole to fill in the scoring and rebounding department. Bosh’s exit was the chief element of what was a trying off-season for Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo that also saw a nixed trade with the Bobcats that would have netted Boris Diaw and Tyson Chandler while getting rid of Jose Calderon’s burdensome contract and a failed attempt to engineer a sign-and-trade with Orlando for Matt Barnes.
The additions of Leandro Barbosa and Linas Kleiza are nice pick-ups (not to mention the addition-by-subtraction jettisoning of team headache Hedo Turkoglu), but the club just doesn’t have enough talent to off-set the loss of Bosh. It will be a long year in Toronto for a squad that had a losing record last season even with their star power forward in tow, so look for the onus to be placed on the development of a new guard that includes DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems and first-round pick Ed Davis.
Philadelphia also finds itself thinking ahead to the future, especially with No. 2 pick Evan Turner in the fold. Turner will be looked upon as the centerpiece of a solid, young core for the 76’ers that includes Jrue Holliday, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams, Marreese Speights and Spencer Hawes.
It will be interesting to see if these young talents can open some eyes on the coaching staff, including those of new head coach Doug Collins, and push some of the veterans for playing time. Holliday and Williams should already comprise the starting back court, but other youngsters have been held back in favour of veterans with whom the franchise has stagnated in recent years, namely Andre Iguoudala and Elton Brand. Sam Dalembert has already been moved, getting sent to Sacramento early in the summer for Hawes and Andres Nocioni, and it should be interesting to see if that trend continues as the season progresses.
The final team in the division also happens to be the hardest to peg, the New Jersey Nets. These are far from the 12-win Nets of a year ago, with clear and present differences in ownership (Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has purchased the franchise), coaching (Avery Johnson is the new head coach) and team personnel. There is no question that this is an improved team (it’s hard not to be), but just how much better are they?
As Prokhorov indicated a willingness to spend on the ballclub, New Jersey was often mentioned amidst the big-money teams in pursuit of major free agents. No big names panned out, but a slew of capable supporting players has helped round out a roster built around Brook Lopez and Devin Harris. Joining the two young cornerstones will be Troy Murphy, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro and No. 3 pick Derrick Favors. These guys, along with a blossoming Terrence Williams, don’t look like a 12-70 mess of a club, but neither did last year’s team from the outset.