The Philadelphia 76ers were threatening to be an afterthought in the Atlantic Division next season. Sixers fans like myself were discouraged for much of the offseason, as the Boston Celtics kept most of their stars and the Brooklyn Nets gained a few more. This left the Sixers likely to just battle for third place with the New York Knicks while the Celtics and Nets controlled the Atlantic - but landing Andrew Bynum has changed our expectations.
Now that the Sixers have a superstar for the first time in ages, the Atlantic looks like a three-team division again. Still, all Philadelphia may have done is put itself in the race for second place with Brooklyn, instead of the race for first with Boston.
Technically, the Sixers should be encouraged that they got even closer to the Celtics. After all, if Philadelphia could push Boston to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals without Bynum, how much better can it do a year later with him? And given that the Celtics are another year older and don't have Ray Allen anymore, can they really be that untouchable?
Yet the Sixers look different in other ways than last year's overachievers. Without Andre Iguodala or Lou Williams, and with Bynum actually having to lead a team for the first time, Philadelphia is one giant question mark. In that regard, the Sixers are no different than the Nets.
Although Brooklyn built itself up with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace, this new Big Three has never been tested together before. And since the Nets failed to land Dwight Howard - to the relief of both the Sixers and Celtics - there's even greater doubt to how good they can really be. They could easily be a winning team and a playoff sleeper, but they could just as easily be a disappointing underachiever - like the Sixers could be.
The Celtics may be older, but they are a proven commodity and they are guaranteed to stay together for a while longer. And given how close they came to knocking off the eventual world champion Miami Heat, everyone is still expecting the East to go through Miami and Boston. But if the Celtics are further back from the Heat now, it still doesn't change how they've controlled the Atlantic since their 'Big Three' came together - even last year when the Sixers jumped to a big early lead.
If Boston gets off to another slow start, maybe Philadelphia or Brooklyn can take advantage. But until the season starts and some mysteries are solved, it will be easier to put the Sixers on the Nets' level than it is to put them alongside the more powerful Celtics. At least right now it will be.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and 76ers fan.
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