Brooklyn Nets: With the re-signing of Deron Williams, addition of Joe Johnson, and a healthy Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez, the Nets gain the favor to win the Atlantic Division over the aging Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. Williams’ return to the Nets holds a large amount of sway in picking Brooklyn to win the division, especially after last season’s averages of 21 ppg and 9 apg. DWill's assist totals should only get better with a talented, sharp-shooting guard on his wing this year in Joe Johnson. Although Johnson receives a great deal of flak—and deservedly so—as a result of his six-year, $119 million contract he signed in 2010 with Atlanta, the trade sending him to Brooklyn should rejuvenate his career as he begins his 12th season in the league. Last year Johnson averaged 19 ppg for Atlanta as the primary offensive option, and with Williams not only feeding him but also drawing defenders away from him, opposing defenses will no longer be able to key in on Johnson as heavily as they used to. Also on the perimeter, Gerald Wallace—although old—brings athleticism, defense, and a solid three-point stroke to complement Johnson and Williams. Down low, Brook Lopez seems to be healthy after playing in only five games in the 2011-12 campaign. He will bring career averages of 17 ppg and 8 rpg into this season and at only 24-years old, Lopez still has room to grow into one of the league’s better centers. Paired with Lopez will be Kris Humphries, who averaged 14 ppg and 11 rpg last season—his second-consecutive year averaging a double-double. But the largest concern for this Nets team is their defensive capability. Right now, it seems their best plan of attack is to simply outscore everyone by as much as possible—which they are capable of, with their offensive firepower—but that will not work all the time, as we have seen in the past with teams like the Knicks and Suns. Additionally, the Nets also need to figure out who will be playing for them off the bench. MarShon Brooks, who scored 13 ppg in only 29 mpg last year, will certainly see minutes this year at the two, but after him, every other back-up position is in question.
Overall, with their offensive firepower, the Nets can likely win this division and have a chance to advance to the second round of the postseason. But, once they run into some of the more complete teams in the conference at that point—likely Miami, Indiana, or Chicago—their season should figure to end.
Could Make the Playoffs (in order of likelihood)
Boston Celtics: If things don’t go as planned in Brooklyn, then the Celtics will be right there at the end of the year to swoop in and pick up the division title as they did last year when Boston became red-hot and rallied to take the Atlantic in the final month of the season. But, if Brooklyn plays as expected (at least by their owner and now rabid fans), the C’s should still make the playoffs. Coach Doc Rivers has arguably the Association’s best point guard in Rajon Rondo—who apparently worked extensively on his three-point shot this summer, which would make him absolutely lethal in combination with his ability to penetrate, finish, and set teammates up. Alongside Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are still in the fold although it remains to be seen what those guys still have in the tanks. Pierce put up 19 ppg last season, but also shot the ball at his worst rate since 2007, hitting at a 44% mark.
Garnett also had a solid season, but really turned up his level of play in the postseason by averaging 19 ppg and 10 rpg. And although Boston lost Ray Allen, the signing of Jason Terry in free agency and the return of Jeff Green—who missed all of last season due to a heart condition—will more than make up for the loss of Allen. The addition of Courtney Lee also helps to offset Allen, with Lee’s abilities as a three-point shooter and defender. The return of Avery Bradley will also help, after he suffered an injury in last year’s playoffs. In the post, the Celtics will have a great amount of depth with the return of Brandon Bass—who had a breakout year last year, putting up 13 ppg and 6 rpg in 59 starts—and the additions of Darko Milicic in free agency and Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo in the Draft.
Even if the Celtics do not win the Division, expect Boston to get into the playoffs with a No. 5 or 6 seed at worst, and they could make some noise as they did last year if they catch the right match-ups in the first and second rounds.
Philadelphia 76ers: With the lack of depth in the Eastern Conference overall, the 76ers should find a way to get in to the playoffs again this year. For most of last season, Philadelphia led the Atlantic Division until the Sixers collapsed after the All-Star break. Philly made headlines this summer with the acquisition of center Andrew Bynum in the blockbuster, four-team deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers. In the process, however, they also lost Andre Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets as part of the deal, and received veteran swingman Jason Richardson from the Orlando Magic. With Bynum in the fold—who is likely the Eastern Conference’s best center—the Sixers will have an advantage in the paint most nights. Paired with Bynum will be Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, and Kwame Brown. On the perimeter, point guard Jrue Holiday will pair with Bynum in what could become one of the league’s most lethal pick-and-roll combos. And, with Bynum at the five, expect Holiday to improve on his 14 ppg and 4 apg this year with a bona fide superstar on the roster. The Sixers lost their leading scorer last year, Lou Williams, to the Atlanta Hawks in free agency, but brought in Nick Young who could conceivably start for Philadelphia. Also on the perimeter, Evan Turner should make a jump in production after improving last year over his rookie campaign, scoring 9 ppg and pulling in 6 rpg. Free agent addition Dorell Wright will pair with Thaddeus Young to take most of the available minutes at the small forward position.
This season, Philadelphia definitely has the potential to make the playoffs especially if Doug Collins’ defensive schemes carry over into this new season. But right now, it does not seem the 76ers possess either the talent or depth to beat out the Nets or Celtics for the Atlantic Division.
New York Knicks: Quite frankly, the Knicks could be in the category below this one as easily as they are in the one above. This offseason was an absolute trainwreck for the team, and that will not bode well for New York’s on-court performance this year. The only reason keeping the Knicks as a possible playoff team is the presence of Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler. Beyond that, the Knicks have really nothing. Don’t get me wrong, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and Steve Novak are good players. But their effectiveness is rather marginalized and effectively negated by the presence of Anthony and Stoudemire on the team and their ball-hogging ways as evidence by Anthony’s Usage Rate of 32% and Stoudemire’s 25% mark. And, in a league that is placing a premium on the acquisition of young talent, New York’s front office did the exact opposite by acquiring a number of washed-up, past-their-prime players in center Marcus Camby (38-years old), forwards Kurt Thomas (40) and Rasheed Wallace (38), and guard Jason Kidd (39). In addition, New York also traded for Raymond Felton, who only made news as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers as a result of the 20-plus pounds he gained while in Portland.
All in all, things don’t look good for the Knicks this year, especially with the expected resurgence of the Nets this year. The only reason they are on this list is because Anthony and Stoudemire have the ability to put up 80 points between the two of them on any given night, which will usually keep the Knicks involved in any game. But don’t take that as a good sign—this team’s playoff chances sit in the “slim-to-none” sector.
Toronto Raptors: For yet another year, don’t expect the Raptors to be in the postseason. But, this is a young team with the pieces finally in place to start preparing for success in the future. The additions of Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields in free agency will add depth and talent to the backcourt, especially in Lowry’s case after his 14 ppg and 6 apg season last year as the Rockets’ full-time floor general made him a hot commodity in this year’s free agent market. In the draft, GM Bryan Colangelo picked up Terrence Ross out of Washington, who could be an immediate contributor off the bench at either guard spot. DeMarr DeRozen is the rising youngster holding down the SF spot; his numbers in 2011-12 were slightly down from the previous year, but entering his fourth year he should be primed to make a jump in production and performance especially with more talent around him and as his game continues to develop. The key players for this Raptor team are still Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani led the team in scoring at 20 ppg and pulled in 6 rpg, while Calderon had another solid year with 11 ppg and 9 apg. Last but certainly not least, Jonas Valanciunas (the 5th overall pick in 2011) is finally joining the Raptors and will immediately bolster the frontline. He should be the starting center from day one.
Again, don’t expect the Raptors to make the playoffs, although they certainly have some pieces to make it possible. With their young talent, and depending on its development, Toronto could be playing basketball after the regular season for the first time in 5 years. It’s a stretch, but with the weakness in the Eastern Conference, the Nos. 6-8 seeds are up for grabs to just about anyone in the conference after the Heat, Bulls, Nets, Pacers, and Celtics.
Top 5 Players:
C: Andrew Bynum, Philadelphia 76ers
F/C: Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors
F: Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
G: Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets
G: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics