Crystal Ballin': Atlantic Division

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Mirror, Mirror, on the wall:
Who has the highest point differential of them all?

That would be the Celtics at a ridiculous 10.3, shocker shocker.

So you might sorta, kinda say the Celtics are good. We might as well start there with our predictions. The Celtics may not be the odds-on favorite in Vegas, but if you ask any scribe, odds-maker, or fan in the land, they're going to tell you that the road to the title goes through Boston, and if you want it, you had better bring the biggest guns you have.

The Celtics lost exactly one significant piece over the summer, James Posey. And while Posey certainly hit some big shots for them late in the playoffs, they're pretty solid at the "savvy veteran perimeter player" position. They bring back Kevin Garnett who has now tasted the wine from the cup and wants more, and Paul Pierce now has even more confidence, if that's somehow possible. And, though I can't believe I'm about to say this, Doc Rivers is perfectly matched to coach this team. When you simply have more talent than most teams, and that talent is dedicated to defense and willing to do whatever it takes to win on a team level, you've got an edge. And the Celtics have a huge edge.

Of course, they face a stiffer challenge from the Sixers with Elton Brand, a developing Dwight Howard, and an East that's tougher overall. They also will likely face severe competition from Detroit who has young players stepping into a level of impact. They'll also likely either face the Hornets or a Lakers team that did push them to six games, features an improved frontcourt with Andrew Bynum, and of course, Kobe Bryant.

I asked Celtics fans across the globe for their response to these challengers. Here's their response.


So what about the Sixers? They've added Elton Brand which is expected to make a huge impact. Thaddeus Young has been solidified as the starting small forward, which gives them a huge advantage at that position with physical play and explosiveness. They get to use Andre Miller and Iguodala to rotate around Brand. By providing them a legit low-post scorer, Brand opens up a world of opportunities for the rest of the team. This team played lights out defense last year and was dangerous even against the Pistons. What are they capable of now that they've added Brand? I asked Jon Burkett from Passion and Pride.

The Sixers ceiling this year is somewhere around the mid-to-lower 50s in terms of regular season wins and getting to the Eastern Conference Finals. How close they come to that benchmark largely depends on the continued development of Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young. They will pose an athletic duo on the wings that should enable the Sixers to build upon the success they had late last season.

While the knee jerk reaction of Sixers fans to the Elton Brand signing was that it put the team in contention, the reality is that it gives them a shot to contend. Again, that shot is going to depend a lot upon Iguodala and Young. Andre Miller also needs to have a repeat performance of his career year last year, which is important for him being in a contract year. In his one season with Brand in L.A., Miller really struggled and the Clips only won 27 games.

Give Iguodala and Young another season under their belts and should this team advance deeper in the playoffs and have a successful year based on current expectations, then look for them to be contenders next year. Brand's boost gets them closer to their goals, but it will still take a collective effort and time to get there.

So the Sixers are pumped, if still reasonable We'll have to get into the season to see how this team can work together, but if it works out, the sky's the limit for the 76ers.

The Raptors, likewise, also made a big move over the summer, trading for Jermaine O'Neal. The question is, does this move, combined with the strides Jose Calderon took last season and the continued gelling of the roster mean that the Dinos are ready to join the Eastern's elite? I asked Scott from Raptor Blog. Here's what he had to say:

"I think it depends on what you mean by "elite". A healthy Jermaine O'Neal (along with a healthy Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon) could certainly make the Raptors a top-four team in the East, but I'm skeptical that they have the depth or talent to finish better than third in the East even in a best-case scenario. The Celtics and Pistons are likely to maintain their stranglehold on the top two seeds and I'm afraid that Philly's superior young talent give them an edge over Toronto.

So far this pre-season, it looks like JO has too much mileage on him to put up 20 and 10 anymore. He should upgrade the Toronto's defense, but the losses of T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and Carlos Delfino mean that the Raptors need everything to fall into place -- including perfect health -- for them to be remotely considered a threat beyond the second round of the playoffs."

And that'll just about wrap up our playoff contenders. From there, who do we have? Ah, yes.

The Knicks.

Okay, the storm has passed. Isiah Thomas is gone and Knicks fans have hope again. After being subjected to one of the worst managerial regimes in league history, how are the Knicks feeling about where this team is headed? Seth from Posting and Toasting was more than...ahem... happy to let me know.

"I've heard people say that we shouldn't expect the Knicks to improve since, after all, they didn't do much to purge deadweight or add talent to last year's 23-59 roster. Players win games, they say, and not much has changed in that respect.

Well I'll do them haters one better and offer that happy players, in fact, win games. You can't say much for the happiness quotient of the '07-'08 squad. Things were tense in New York- from the court, to the locker room, to the stands, to these very internets. But now things appear to be taking a turn for the better. We've got a bubbly new coach and a venerable new GM who (and this is not to be underestimated) has full control over the team's media policy. I expect these improvements in managerial competence and media friendliness to cast a warmer glow on anything Knick-related. Good fortune, be it the blossoming of a single player or a nice streak of wins, might be looked upon more as marked improvement rather than the playful whim of the basketball gods.

I think that we- and I'm speaking for fans and writers alike- are feeling a little sunnier about the direction of the organization, and I expect that to carry over onto the court. What's that good for? I say about 10-15 more wins and a healthy head of steam for 2010. Why? Because a happy city makes for happy players...and happy players win games. "

Well. That's ... happy. You have to feel good for them, even if it won't mean anything more than 35 wins.

The Nets are the worst team in the division. They are probably the worst team in the conference. They might be the worst team in the league. It's not all bad, though. I asked the guys from Nets Daily about this season.


It's just nice that the Nets are turning the page and moving in a definitive direction. Last season was probably the most painful to watch for Nets fans. The team had been enjoying a long run of (relative) success and still had three star players to carry them to contention. But then Jason Kidd quit on the team and the Nets underachieved. In short, they lost to the Knicks three times and finished two games ahead of the Bobcats.

This year, there are no expectations, other than watching the kids develop. And the Nets have one of the best and deepest groups of young players in the league. The collective group of Devin Harris, Yi Jianlian, Sean Williams, Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts has ridiculous upside. And as long as they play hard, we'll be satisfied."

It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.

Okay, so how does this all shakeout? Pretty simply.

1. Boston
2. Philadelphia
3. Toronto
4. New York
5. New Jersey

It's possible Boston could slip and become mortal, as they seemingly were from mid-April through mid-May. But it's also possible they could come out and kick everyone down the stairwell like they did the rest of the time. The rest of the playoff teams may be improved, but they're still mortal, and New York and New Jersey are essentially in "wait for the glory of 2010 to reap them unheard of riches not yet known" mode. While not the most dynamic division in the NBA, it's clear that a lot of the league's focus will run through this division as major markets rebuild (and wait to move to Brooklyn as soon as the economy stops bleeding profusely), and the road to the title goes through Philadelphia and Boston.


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