We are now over a month into the season and there are likely very few surprises left to be found around the league. In the Atlantic Division we have seen a young team struggle, a veteran team show signs of weakness, an up-and-coming team suffer a huge setback, a brand new franchise explode onto the scene, and a decorated franchise recharged and rejuvenated to make a push as heavy contenders this season. We have witnessed a competitive division with loads of pride get that much stronger.
Even though every team in the division has had to deal with injuries at some point, we are starting to get a clear picture of what the teams in the Atlantic Division are looking to do this year. Some teams are beginning to take full strength, others must wait another month or two, and in the case of the Sixers, they are at risk of missing out on a season where they were supposed to take a step to the next level. With that being said, let’s take a look at the current rankings within the Atlantic.
5. The Toronto Raptors: It is another tough season for the lone squad which resides in Canada. This team continues to make subtle changes to the roster in an effort to get better. The tough thing is that Toronto is not the most marketable location in the league right now. Beyond Drake, who occasionally shows up to the games courtside, there is not a ton of excitement surrounding this team.
Statistically, the Atlantic is the toughest division top to bottom as there are four teams with records above .500. Despite the unfavorable odds stacked against this team, guys like Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani have made this team no cake-walk of an opponent. Lowry, the newest addition to the team, is honestly playing some incredible basketball right now. He is doing a little bit of everything for Toronto averaging 17 points, just under six assists and six rebounds, as well as almost two steals and a block. Individually, he is having the most impressive showing out of anyone in the division. But in the NBA it takes a total team effort to win games. This team will continue to get better and should definitely benefit from another lottery pick this coming summer.
4. The Philadelphia 76ers: There is nothing more disappointing than watching a very promising young team, have to compete without their most important player. This has to be very frustrating for Doug Collins who recently learned that a certain extra-curricular activity (bowling) has contributed to a very serious set-back for his star player Andrew Bynum. But maybe bowling is the wrong hobby for a player coming off of multiple knee surgeries that is looking to show his new team just how great he can be. What he did show his team is that his biggest downfall (lack of maturity) is not something entirely from the past. With new lawsuits pending for this star player and an expiring contract right around the corner, both Andrew Bynum and the Philadelphia franchises find their future’s in jeopardy.
The good news for this team is that they have shown they are still very good without Bynum in the middle. Jrue Holiday is having a most-improved player type of year and Evan Turner continues to develop into a potential sidekick for this team in the long-run. The Sixers have strong depth on the perimeter and are really only missing someone who can command the middle down low. It appears that the vision for this team was dead-on with the acquisition of Bynum. Now we can only wait and see if those visions will materialize, or end up vanishing before there was any opportunity for them to be successful.
3. The Boston Celtics: What a rollercoaster ride this team has gone through. Five years ago, a big-three was formed in Boston with hopes of multiple titles. Their biggest obstacle was finding a point guard that could manage this team at a championship level. Rajon Rondo ended up proving everyone wrong and essentially became as important to this team as any of the big-three within a single season. Boston reached their goal of a championship in 2008 and have been working towards another title ever since. But it is now 2012 and their superstars find themselves holding on for dear life as they ride Rajon Rondo for everything he is worth.
Ray Allen is gone, and veterans Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa are looking to pick up the pieces that have slowly fallen apart over the last six months. This team took the defending champions to seven games just last season and they are not giving up on the dreams of another title. Not just yet. Rajon Rondo has been playing at a hall-of-fame type level as a playmaker and may be at the peak of his career right now.
Honestly, most people probably said this team was done after they lost to the Lakers in the Finals in 2010. But Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce come back every year with a fire built inside of them and take no crap from anyone. You have to give these guys credit for what they’re doing in Boston, keeping that fighting Celtic pride alive. And why do I get the feeling that Doc Rivers has some sort of trick up his sleeve that will have these Celtics peaking at just the right time this season? Doc will also have the chance to show just how great a coach he is this season.
2. The Brooklyn Nets: What an exciting time for fans in Brooklyn: a new stadium in a new city, and a new roster to kick off this journey for a franchise where the sky goes as high as Mikhail Prokhorov’s bankroll. And let me tell you, that’s pretty high. Dwight Howard chose to take his talents elsewhere, but there is no place more appropriate for that headache to land than Los Angeles. Meanwhile, on the east coast, Howard is becoming an afterthought.
I can’t think of a better player to be leading this Brooklyn team than Deron Williams. He is everything you want in a point guard, and exactly the kind of guy that embraces the challenge that comes with putting this Brooklyn franchise on his back. His laid-back personality compliments his hard-nosed demeanor perfectly for a city that can make friends as easily as it can make enemies.
So far he has shown exactly how a player can display a street-ball style of play while remaining entirely under control and extremely effective at the NBA level. At times, Deron has been among the most exciting players to watch this year and when his game is flowing, there is not a better point guard in the world. When you surround him with players veterans like Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson, as well as hard-working big-men like Kris Humphries and Reggie Evans, it is no surprise this team has opened the season as successful as they have. Throw in Brook Lopez who is turning into a premier Center in the NBA and this may be the toughest team in the league.
1. The New York Knicks: New York is off to their best start in recent history and this team is not even at full-strength. Other than the Memphis Grizzlies, there has been no team as impressive as the Knicks. Ignore a couple of games where they shot the ball terribly, and managed to get trampled on the defensive end, and this team looks like legitimate contenders. I’m not saying that they are not legitimate contenders, but this team has a few valid concerns: What will be the health of this team coming down the stretch of the season; and how will their inactive players fare once they get back onto the court?
The biggest positive that must be addressed is the fact that Amar'e Stoudemire appears to be entirely committed to making this team as successful as possible, in any form that is asked of him. He has acknowledged the question of him coming off the bench when he returns and, unselfishly, he has replied by saying that he does not have a problem with that. If everything goes as planned, this team will be right there facing off with the Miami Heat in June (unless Brooklyn has anything to say about that). But, all indications show that Miami will have to go through a New York team in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Carmelo Anthony is pushing for an MVP campaign this year; the Knicks are playing defense; this team is showing a sort of chemistry that is rarely found around the league; and the team possesses a confidence and a belief that they can go out and beat anyone. They showed just that when they handed Miami their first of only a few losses this season, beating them by 20 points in an essential blowout at Madison Square Garden. Unless New York is on some sort of shooting streak that they fail to match later in the season, they are in pretty good shape. But in the famous words of Charles Barkley, “you don’t live by the three, you die by the three.” The Knicks are on a mission to prove him wrong.