NBA Preview: Atlantic

NBA Preview: Atlantic
by Steve Kerr, Yahoo Sports
October 28, 2004

Steve Kerr
Yahoo Sports
Jim O'Brien resigned from his job with the Celtics less than a year ago, and next week he'll make his debut as the head coach of the 76ers. That's not quite the equivalent of Joe Torre managing the Red Sox, but it's close.

Boston and Philadelphia are age-old NBA rivals, and it will be strange watching O'Brien man the sidelines for his old adversaries. Still, O'Brien looks like the right guy for the job.

The Sixers missed Larry Brown's discipline last season after he left for Detroit, and they lost the identity they had forged as a tough, defensive-minded club. O'Brien is making his mark right away, already demoting Glenn Robinson and Samuel Dalembert from the starting lineup and inserting Andre Iguodala and Marc Jackson in their places.

O'Brien is precise and demanding, and his aim is to get the Sixers back to the playoffs. He'll have a chance in a very weak Atlantic Division, but ultimately he must forge a bond with Allen Iverson, who will play the point guard position for the first time since early in his career.

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    1. New York
    This is a very tenuous selection. The Knicks are loaded with offensive talent but lack the balance that most good clubs have. Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford will have to share the ball in the backcourt and find a way to keep Tim Thomas, Vin Baker, Allan Houston and Kurt Thomas happy.

    Defense and rebounding will be major question marks, as will team chemistry. New York has a very difficult early schedule and could start slowly. Why am I picking the Knicks first in the Atlantic? Process of elimination. This is the worst division in the NBA.

    2. Toronto Raptors
    The Raptors will be excited to play in Sam Mitchell's up-tempo offense. It's a big change after grinding it out for Kevin O'Neill last season.

    Rafer Alston will get his first chance to run an NBA club as a starter, and he is better than a lot of people give him credit for. He's a solid three-point shooter and a more steady point guard than his "And1 Streetball" stardom would suggest.

    Chris Bosh should be even better after a stellar rookie season, and veterans Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall can fill up the stat sheets. Still, the Raptors' success hinges on how well Vince Carter plays. He has been an exciting player during his career, but can he be a leader, a defender and a tough-minded competitor?

    3. Philadelphia 76ers
    One of the reasons O'Brien will bring Robinson off the bench is that the rookie Iguodala can play a sort of Scottie Pippen-like point forward position, allowing Iverson to play off the ball. The Big Dog could be a potent sixth man, so if he accepts his role, the Sixers could have a nice mix.

    Dalembert is an excellent shot blocker but is still a work in progress. With Eric Snow gone, Iverson needs to show leadership. He had a very disappointing season a year ago and wants to bounce back strongly.

    4. New Jersey Nets
    The most consistent team in the East the past three seasons has been the Nets, but they appear headed in the wrong direction. Kenyon Martin, Lucious Harris and Kerry Kittles are all gone, leaving the Nets in the hands of Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson.

    Kidd's knee injury will sideline him for at least the early part of the season, so the Nets will struggle out of the gate. Jefferson will have to carry the team, and he'll get some help from veterans Eric Williams and Jacque Vaughn. But if things go badly early, this team could go in the tank quickly.

    5. Boston Celtics
    The Celtics took a step backward last year in Danny Ainge's first full season as executive director of basketball operations. But Ainge was insistent that his controversial moves were made for the good of the future. I was skeptical at first, but I'm beginning to believe him.

    His three rookies – Al Jefferson, Tony Allen and Delonte West – all played well in the preseason and could contribute to this team soon. Paul Pierce is one of the best scorers in the league, and Gary Payton will join him in the backcourt. Mark Blount had an excellent season at center a year ago, and Raef LaFrentz returns from a knee injury to help on the frontline. They could move up the ladder in this division in a hurry.

    Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

    Updated on Friday, Oct 29, 2004 11:10 am, EDT

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