By the midpoint of last season, Nets coach Lawrence Frank had heard it all.
Titanic Division. Tragic Division. Sub-Atlantic.
The five teams who make up the NBA's Atlantic Division ended the first week of February with a combined record of 87-146. Only the Raptors owned a winning record, and they were all of two games above .500.
The group's putrid play had spawned a slew of unflattering nicknames, and Frank, like most of his division peers, had ceased taking offense. With good reason.
"Regardless of what the jokes are," Frank said at the time, "they're justified."
The Atlantic Five don't figure to be in quite as many punch lines this season. The arrival of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Zach Randolph has given the division four legitimate playoff contenders, while Boston's new triumvirate of K.G., Allen and Paul Pierce has Celtics fans – who endured a franchise-record 15-game losing streak a year ago – dreaming of a trip to the NBA finals.
Here's the Atlantic's projected order of finish:
Is that confetti in your hair? Is it any surprise that an Emerson grad and childhood Celtics fan did more to revive Boston's NBA franchise than any player since the Original Big Three? New Seattle general manager Sam Presti has the Sonics set up for the future (regardless of where they might be playing), but by trading Allen to Boston, he also paved the way for Garnett's arrival. K.G., Allen and Pierce might need a half-season to jell, but if they live up to their potential, the Celtics will be NBA finals contenders.
How's Cancun in June? There's a reason Doc Rivers' heart skipped a beat when Pierce recently hit the court hard in practice. The Celts have no bench. Or at least not much of one. James Posey was a good low-cost investment, but Boston will also need quality minutes from House and Tony Allen.
In the crosshairs: Garnett finally has the help he's long sought. Now it's on him to prove he can do something with it. One playoff run past the first round doesn't stand out on the Hall of Fame résumé.
Dearly departed: Morris Peterson.
Is that confetti in your hair? The reigning Atlantic Division champs should benefit from the experience they gained during last season's one-and-done trip to the playoffs. And if coach Sam Mitchell finds the toughness he always seems to be searching for in his roster, the Raptors should be poised to make a longer postseason run.
How's Cancun in June? Bosh was slowed by a left-knee injury last season and already has tweaked it again this preseason. Add the sore foot that kept him from playing for Team USA this summer and the Raptors have reason to fret about their star big man's health.
In the crosshairs: Andrea Bargnani, Toronto's sweet-shooting 7-footer, already had become a difficult matchup for opponents by the end of last season. If the 2006 No. 1 pick makes similar progress in an expanded role, the Raptors could have another star in the making.
Is that confetti in your hair? Jason Kidd proved during last season's playoffs (and again this summer while helping pilot the United States to an Olympic berth) why he remains one of the game's best point guards. If center Nenad Krstic fully recovers from ACL surgery and Richard Jefferson stays healthy, the Nets won't be any opponent's favorite draw in the postseason.
How's Cancun in June? The Nets beefed up their front line by signing Magloire and Allen, but those transactions barely registered in a division that now counts K.G. among its newcomers. Keeping Kidd healthy is vital, but New Jersey will have a tough time reducing his workload until second-year point guard Marcus Williams recovers from his own injury and proves he can be a dependable backup.
In the crosshairs: After being sidelined for a good chunk of last season with a balky ankle, Jefferson spent the summer reading about himself in various trade reports. Though he now appears healthy, the trade speculation figures to pick up again as soon as the Nets weather their first extended losing streak.
Is that confetti in your hair? Landing Randolph was big. He can score inside and out, and he usually is good for a double-double each night. If Isiah Thomas can get these guys to play together – and that's an extremely big "if" – they'll be thick in the hunt for a playoff berth.
How's Cancun in June? For all their talent, the Knicks still don't do two things well: defend and share the ball. Eddy Curry's shoulder injury also means he and Randolph will need that much longer to develop any on-court chemistry.
In the crosshairs: If the Knicks are going to shed their selfish, me-first image, their ball-dominating point guard needs to be the first player to undergo a makeover. And considering Stephon Marbury's wacky summer, that figures to be a long process.
Is that confetti in your hair? The 76ers have a steady, blue-collar point guard in Andre Miller and an exciting high-flying potential All-Star in Andre Iguodala. If the Sixers can build off last season's gritty finish, they'll win back part of their disenchanted fan base.
How's Cancun in June? With Allen Iverson now residing in Denver, it's not too hard to decipher Philly's new mantra. Click over to the team's Web site and you'll learn that "A Job Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Together." Unfortunately for the Sixers, they can't cover up all their poor personnel decisions with cute slogans. For now, this club looks ticketed for another trip to Secaucus, N.J.
In the crosshairs: No longer sharing the stage with A.I., Iguodala must now prove he's worthy of being the franchise's new cornerstone.