The Philadelphia 76ers were very lucky to be in the Atlantic Division last season. Sixers fans like myself knew that in any other division, they would have been knocked from first place a lot sooner than they ultimately were. But since the Sixers were grouped with the lowly New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors, the underachieving New York Knicks and the slow starting Boston Celtics, things were easy for a while.
However, the Atlantic Division will look a lot different going into next season. In fact, now that the Sixers have brought Andrew Bynum on board, it may be the final push that makes the Atlantic one of the NBA's best divisions instead of the worst.
Before then, the Celtics and the now-Brooklyn Nets did their part in the offseason. Not only did the Celtics stave off their demise last season, they managed to keep everyone but Ray Allen for next year and even got Jason Terry to replace him. Instead of fading away at long last, Boston bought itself a few more years of contention and may still be the biggest challenger to the Miami Heat in the East.
But Brooklyn also bought its way into relevancy by signing Deron Williams for the long term, bringing on Joe Johnson to help, and coming all too close to landing Dwight Howard. Even without Howard, the Nets look likely to at least escape the Atlantic cellar and start posing a challenge to the Celtics. In fact, they looked safe as the Atlantic's No. 2 team until the Sixers blindsided everyone with the Bynum trade.
Now instead of fading into the shadows of the Celtics and Nets, the Sixers have a real shot to keep contending. They are still heavy underdogs to the Celtics, given that they lost to them in the playoffs and couldn't stay ahead of them when they slumped in the regular season. Yet Philadelphia should now be in a dogfight with Brooklyn to be Boston's biggest challenger.
With three likely playoff teams that have gotten much stronger in the offseason, the Atlantic Division suddenly looks a lot more stacked than it did last season. It already made itself look better last postseason, when the Sixers nearly went to the Eastern Conference Finals and the Celtics almost made the NBA Finals.
Now that Boston isn't going away, Brooklyn has emerged, Philadelphia actually has a superstar and New York will make headlines no matter what, the Atlantic Division could be the most crowded in the East - if not the whole NBA. In fact, only the Raptors look hopeless and overmatched, although every division needs one bottom feeder. But it is better than having two, three or even four back when the Atlantic had the Celtics to brag about and nothing else.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and 76ers fan.
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