Boston Celtics: The Atlantic Division is one of only two where we all know the winner right now, almost regardless of any injuries that could possibly happen (the other being the Lakers in the Pacific).
Boston is so obviously the best team here, they’ll again be able to rest Kevin Garnett until the playoffs. Their interior wasn’t as strong as the Lakers’ was in the Finals and they lost Rasheed Wallace to retirement, so they went out and signed Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal. Those two vets will more than hold it down until regular center Kendrick Perkins returns from injury, plus they’ll provide phenomenal back-up power depending on what’s needed. Shaq is still able to physically bully Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol for stretches, and they are more than a veteran-enough squad to keep his ego/mouth in line, so his presence will only improve Boston. Rondo is still improving, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen still know how to get it done, and the back-ups are still great, even with the departure of Tony Allen. Of the four teams most likely to win it all this year (Boston, LA, Miami, Orlando), the Celtics have far and away the best balance of team-oriented offense and defense, with guys covering for each other, making the extra pass, and looking to help someone else look good. Vintage Boston.
Could Make the Playoffs (In Order of Likelihood)
Toronto Raptors: I’m not even sure how likely it is the Raptors make the post-season, but the Atlantic is just so bad outside of Boston, I gotta pick someone to finish second. They still have one of the most efficient PG’s in the NBA with Jose Calderon. Andrea Bargnani is starting to look OK. Linas Kleiza was an awesome offseason pick-up who could “find” most of Chris Bosh’s missing points. DeMar DeRozan is entering his second year, which is when most players take a big step up. Rookie big men Ed Davis and Soloman Alabi are know for their defense, which the team sorely needs. They added Leandro Barbosa, which is a good way to get more points in transition. At the same time, this team is kind of randomly assembled, will likely play horrendous defense again, and could end up with the worst record in the East. The bottom 9 teams in the East are an absolute mess to unlock and place correctly; don’t worry, zero of them will make it to the conference semi-finals.
Philadelphia 76ers: Hiring new coach Doug Collins to replace had-to-get-rid-of-him Eddie Jordan was a great move, but there’s still one basic problem with that. This team (outside of Elton Brand) was built to run and is good when it’s running; Collins is yet another coach whose teams have always been slow and content to set everything up in the half-court. Could this result in another 27-win season? Yes. Is Collins so much better at coaching than Jordan that they could win 40? Yes. Young center Marreese Speights should be able to play more minutes after Samuel Dalembert was dealt, which is good, especially since he fits the long-armed, athletic core this team was built around. The major player change this summer was the drafting of Evan Turner, but his game is so much more feel than natural gifts, he may take a while to really help this club. Not only that, where is he going to play and how many minutes? PG Jrue Holiday is improving, but I still feel Louis Williams gives the Sixers the best chance of winning. If the team can solve some of its defensive woes from last year (Jordan’s teams always give up a ton of open 3’s, so at least that should be solved quickly), Philly could find itself in the playoffs, and they’re just feisty and streaky enough to cause some problems if they do so.
New York Knicks: The summer of 2010 came and went, and there’s no LeBron James to show for it, let alone LeBron and another max contract. In fact, a pretty easy argument can be made that the Knicks landed the worst of the six “big name” free agents this offseason (James, Wade, Bosh, Johnson, Boozer). He’s been sporadically good/inconsequential in the preseason and he won’t help improve the lacking defense, but if he and new PG Raymond Felton can play on the same page in Mike D’Antoni’s fast break offense, expect some fireworks and a few stolen wins. Rookie center Timofey Mozgov could be both serviceable and starting. At least one of the additions from Golden State (Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike, and Ronny Turiaf) should work out, which is great if Randolph finally puts his ridiculous talents altogether. There’s no question that NY, which was 29-53 last year, should win more games, but it will need to start with an improved defense and a better ability to rebound the ball offensively (league near-worst .235 Offensive Rebound% last year). 35 wins isn’t a stretch, 40 is.
New Jersey Nets: I want to think they can make the playoffs. I liked just about every offseason move of theirs. I still think Derrick Favors could/should have the best pro career of everyone drafted this summer. Devin Harris is back and ready to start the year strong after missing so many games early last season. There are a few problem, though. For as many injuries as they had last year helping to cause a historically terrible record of 12-70, they only added one player who can help to quickly turn things around in a big way, and that’s Troy Murphy, and he’s currently out with a back injury. They added a lot of other nice pieces that should help (3-pt machine Anthony Morrow, fast and heady Jordan Farmar, Travis Outlaw, a bunch of veterans who are good locker room presences), but they’re going to take a while to gel and play together smoothly. Favors is coming along slowly, so starting him right away while Murphy is hurt (For how long? Just the opener? Most of November? Who knows?) isn’t doing a ton to turn things around now. This squad has some serious New It Team potential down the road (especially if Brook Lopez keeps progressing), like next year even, but they still have some growing pains to work out in 2010-11. 30 wins are a real possibility, which might be enough to win new coach Avery Johnson another Coach of the Year award.
Top 5 Players
C: Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets
F: Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
F: Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
G: Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia 76ers
G: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
Possible Award Candidates
If the Celtics really take off and finish with the best record in the East, Garnett or Rondo could get some mentions for MVP, but it’s unlikely they’d have a chance considering voters are much more swayed by things like scoring 25+ ppg than being the main reason your team went from good to great. Rondo could also get a few mentions for Defensive Player of the Year award if he leads the league in steals again, but it will likely and rightfully go to a center. Avery Johnson could win Coach of the Year with the Nets if they look like they’re in the playoff hunt in March, but Doc Rivers could also have a chance if the C’s take the East’s top spot and show well against Miami during their regular season meetings. I’d like to think #2 selection Evan Turner or #3 selection Derrick Favors could win the Rookie of the Year, but it generally goes to someone who leads their team in scoring, so Blake Griffin or John Wall are just about locked in as the only two candidates voters would look at.