Summer Forecast: Addition in division?

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
6:35
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AP Photo/Alex BrandonCeltics coach Doc Rivers doesn't want to see confetti in Philadelphia again next season.
We tip off the third (and final) week of our Celtics Summer Forecast series by examining whether the Atlantic Division has truly beefed up this offseason and which team might (finally) knock Boston from its comfy throne.

For the first time since the start of the Big Three era, the Atlantic isn't quite the point-and-laugh spectacle that it's typically been. You can make the case that four of the five division teams should be playoff contenders (Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Brooklyn), while even Toronto made moves that could help it take a step forward.

That means Boston's 16-game division slate will feature an increased degree of difficulty next season. The question for our summer panel is whether the Celtics' offseason moves were enough to stay ahead of the pack.

Our thoughts? The Celtics maintain an overall edge on the field because of their core chemistry. If Boston can avoid injuries and play to the level its capable of, this team has potential to compete for much loftier goals than the division title (which is typically just a byproduct of overall success).

But we also know the Celtics have struggled to transverse the regular season in recent seasons. This team simply hasn't been able to show up and beat teams, and, more than ever this season, it must be committed to the process. That's no easy task when your team's ultimate goal cannot be achieved over the first 82 games.

Who should the Celtics be most concerned about? Philadelphia had a somewhat curious offseason (at least before landing Andrew Bynum, even at the cost of Andre Iguodala). Philadelphia essentially swapped out Elton Brand and Lou Williams with Nick Young and Kwame Brown. In our mind, the 76ers are still Boston's biggest threat, though it remains to be seen how quickly Philadelphia can put it together and, more importantly, whether it can reach the level it was at when it pushed Boston to seven games in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last season.

For the Knicks, the usual question is whether chemistry will interfere with the pure talent on the roster. If New York can stay out of its own way, it has an excellent chance to push the Celtics. Brooklyn's got enough individual talent that it has potential to make the biggest leap in the league next season.

But here's one thing to keep in mind: A division title means virtually nothing in the NBA (particularly to teams with 17 NBA championships). Yes, a division crown ensures a team a spot among the conference's top four playoff seeds, but that alone is no great prize (as the Celtics proved last season when they opened the postseason on the road against a lower-seeded team).

Division competition is a good thing for Boston. Just last season, the opportunity to catch the stumbling 76ers didn't hurt Boston's second-half surge. More consistent play from the rest of the division next season will only bring out more consistent play from the Celtics and help the team maintain a stronger regular-season focus. Others might challenge, but Boston is still wearing the division crown in April.

Read on for our panel projections.



Greg Payne, ESPN Boston


The Celtics haven't had much of a problem winning the Atlantic Division -- the laughing stock of the NBA for a prolonged period of time -- since Kevin Garnett's been in Boston, but making it six straight seasons on top will be considerably more difficult in 2013. The Nets, Knicks, and 76ers all made significant improvements, and while the Raptors are still the bottom-feeder, they're arguably a better team than they were last season, having brought in quality additions like Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields. The Nets probably made the most significant moves this offseason, but I still feel like the Knicks are the scariest team. It hasn't been a matter of talent in New York since Carmelo Anthony came to town, but an issue of team chemistry, order, and direction. Mike Woodson's back as head coach and, with Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, and Marcus Camby all in the mix now, I really believe New York will emerge as the thorn in Boston's Atlantic Division paw. Having said that, the C's will still win the division, mainly because of Rajon Rondo and some serious depth.



Brendan Jackson, CelticsHub


I really think this is the year the Raptors will finally take control of the Atlantic Division. And by "take control," I mean "take control of last place". Andrew Bynum, Jason Kidd, and Joe Johnson have all relocated north and aim to give the Celtics their toughest competition for divisional supremacy since Kevin Garnett arrived back in 2007. It's easy to look up and down the New York rosters and wonder how the Celtics will deal with some of their new opponents. It's comforting, however, when you remember the fact that these newly fashioned powerhouses-in-waiting will surely undergo some growing pains implementing new offensive and defensive schemes with new teammates. With that said, I believe that it'll be the Philadelphia 76ers that will find themselves in familiar territory at the end of next season as they battle the Celtics in the playoffs. While it's true that the Sixers traded away their defensive anchor and the face of their franchise in Andre Iguodala, they received a player in Andrew Bynum that is totally ready (at least from a talent perspective) to take hold of that place on the team. Besides, an elite center like Bynum is far harder to replace than an athletic wing stopper with some offensive capabilities. With veteran coach Doug Collins at the helm, I think the Sixers have enough pieces in place to maintain their defensive prowess while introducing a 7-foot tall wrinkle to their offense that the Celtics won't be able to guard.



Tommy King, Celtics Town


For all the hype surrounding the Brooklyn Nets and -- after the trade for Andrew Bynum -- the Philadelphia 76ers, it is the New York Knicks who will push the Boston Celtics in the Atlantic Division. The Nets will surely improve somewhat with Joe Johnson and a (hopefully) committed Deron Williams in the fold, but the core of a team that allowed 106.9 points per 100 possessions (only the Bobcats allowed more) returns. Johnson and Gerald Wallace are more than capable wing defenders, but, in the NBA, pick-and-roll defense is the name of the game -- and Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez are deplorable defenders. Philadelphia, meanwhile, must undergo a stylistic makeover to accommodate Bynum’s skill set, but they don’t appear to have the personnel to pull off the feat. Last season, the 76ers were dangerous because of their flexibility and depth, both of which took a major hit during the offseason. On the other hand, Knicks GM Glen Grunwald has put together a veteran roster that should be certain of their roles and the team's overarching philosophy. With the volume turned all the way up on the Raymond Felton-over-Jeremy-Lin decision, Grunwald quietly solidified his bench with defensive-minded veterans Ronnie Brewer and Marcus Camby, as well as future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd. The Knicks most likely starting lineup (Ray Felton, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler) will have an average experience of nine seasons each, with no player having been in the league fewer than seven seasons.



Jeff Clark, CelticsBlog


The Atlantic Division is certainly going to have its share of teams crowded at the top of the standings. The Knicks have enough pure talent to make things interesting; the Sixers have one of the best centers in the game and are making changes for the better (for them at least); but the team that seems the most concerning is the one that was bought with many millions of rubles. The Brooklyn Nets will, at the very least, be entertaining and probably very dangerous on the court. Much like the Knicks, they are overpaid and lack on the defensive side of the court, but that doesn't mean they can't win a lot of games with pure offensive firepower.



Your turn: Will another Atlantic Division team challenge the Celtics this season? Sound off in the comments.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Jeff Green
PTS AST STL MIN
18.7 1.6 0.9 33.7
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Sullinger 7.9
AssistsJ. Nelson 7.0
StealsJ. Nelson 2.5
BlocksK. Olynyk 0.8