BOSTON: (1st in Atlantic, 5th in East, 15th in NBA)
This year’s Celtics team should be interesting. I’m curious to see if Raef LaFrentz is healthy, if Paul Pierce will continue to involve his teammates more, if Gary Payton’s completely done, and if any of their young players are ready contribute in meaningful ways.
The Celtics have the most potential of any team in the Atlantic. This should not be confused with being a good basketball team, merely one likely to make the playoffs in the East.
Pierce should have the ball in his hands a lot less than he did last year. He’s a very fine player but ball handling is not chief among his talents. He showed an increased willingness to trust his teammates last year; that they largely didn’t deserve that trust fuels the lingering doubt that his increased assist numbers had more to do with fatigue and opposing triple-teams than maturity. Pierce should have better options surrounding him this season. Ricky Davis will start a lot of games, but Jiri Welsch will be finishing most of them. Delonte West and Tony Allen should have their nights (though Allen’s not much of a ball handler himself). Walter McCarty should continue to be just useful enough on occasion. I don’t see Marcus Banks contributing much to the team. LaFrentz and Mark Blount form an interesting interior tandem, though I wouldn’t expect to see either of them in the post much on the offensive end of the floor. Pierce is clearly the team’s best player with his back to the basket and Payton’s probably the next best. Blount will be expected to pick up scraps on the offensive glass and guard the opposition’s best big man freeing LaFrentz to provide help-side shot-blocking. Knee willing, LaFrentz will man the high post on offense spreading the defense with both his shooting range and his ability to feed shooters running off baseline screens.
Their backup big men are an intriguing lot. The remains of Tom Gugliotta will likely be forced to play too many minutes as Kendrick Perkins and Al Jefferson develop. By all accounts Perkins used his year on the bench to develop his game and Jefferson has tons of potential. The short term expectations for both should be, however, quite modest.
PHILADELPHIA: (2nd in Atlantic, 6th in East, 16th in NBA)
Jim O’Brien is a good coach who got a lot out of limited talent in Boston. If Allen Iverson stays healthy all year, the Sixers could easily win the Atlantic. Should he suffer a significant injury, this would very quickly become a bad basketball team.
O’Brien may start the year cycling through Willie Green, Aaron McKie, Kevin Ollie, Kyle Korver, and Andre Iguodala according to match-ups but when his options become more limited during Glenn Robinson’s first extended break of the year, someone will have to lay claim to partnering Iverson in the backcourt.
There are options for O’Brien in the frontcourt as well. Kenny Thomas, Samuel Dalembert, Corliss Williamson, Brian Skinner, and Marc Jackson all have their uses but will be rendered largely useless in a first round match-up against the Pacers or Heat. None of the teams in this division have a prayer of winning a play-off series unless they win the division and avoid the conference's two good teams and the one led by its best player.
NEW YORK: (3rd in Atlantic, 8th in East, 20th in NBA)
Isiah Thomas is perhaps the worst recent NBA head coach (the specter of George Karl necessitating the qualifier), but I’m not sure he’s much worse than mediocre as a GM. (I’m positive he’s not better than mediocre). He got the best player in the Jamal Crawford trade, but that says more about the other players involved than it does Crawford who will struggle to find a role amidst Stephon Marbury, Allan Houston, Tim Thomas, and Penny Hardaway. Isiah may have drafted a very good player in Trevor Ariza, but he also willingly re-signed Vin Baker. To play basketball. He also once tried to build an NBA franchise around Damon Stoudamire. Sigh.
The talent on hand is undeniable, but the amalgamation of volume scorers and undersized power forwards seems destined for dysfunction. Isiah’s put in a lot of effort to upgrade the talent level, but to no real purpose. A difficult first half may cost Lenny Wilkens his job, and, should Isiah become a hyphenate, the Knicks (like every other team in this division) will get bad quickly.
TORONTO: (4th in Atlantic, 10th in East, 24th in NBA)
Besides the massive potential of Chris Bosh (and his very real current contributions), the Raptors are a mess. Three of their key guys should be better than they are: Vince Carter, Jalen Rose, and Mo Pete. The rest of the guys as good as they're going to get. Which is fine if you're Donyell Marshall or Skip to My Lou; sad if you're Loren Woods or Rafael Araujo.
It takes a lot (or, depending on your perspective, very, very little) to field a center tandem looked down upon by the other teams in this division, but the Raptors will conspire to make Mark Blount and Nazr Mohammed look good this winter.
Their best case scenario involves a hot start by Vince Carter that provides very few wins, so that they can trade him with minimal p.r. repercussions and truly start over.
NEW JERSEY: (5th in Atlantic, 12th in East, 26th in NBA)
By the time Jason Kidd gets healthy, all could well be lost. And it’s not like the 2005 draft class offers a great prize for a season lost via a star’s injury. There will be bad times in New Jersey. This is not the team for which Alonzo Mourning should risk his life.
Only Richard Jefferson is a legitimately good NBA player. Williamses, Eric and Aaron, would make any good team better, but they’ll struggle to make a bad team mediocre. They might not even start. Brian Scalabrine might get the nod ahead of one of them, or Ron Mercer, who may be the least fun player to watch in the league, could reasonably be adjudged to do less damage playing with the first team. Rodney Buford might get the opportunity fulfill his promise as a great garbage time player.
Until Kidd returns to full strength, Zoran Planinic will play heavy minutes at point guard. His development will be the only item of interest for the remaining few Nets fans.