Jersey swamped

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STEVE KERR'S ATLANTIC PREDICTIONS

New Jersey

1. New Jersey Nets – The Nets are clearly the class of the division. The trio of Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter forms an exciting, high-wire act, but overall, this is a defensive-minded club. New Jersey ranked sixth in the NBA in points allowed last season and held opponents to under 44-percent field goal shooting.

Toronto

2. Toronto Raptors – The recent success of international players on the world stage bodes well for Sam Mitchell's club. Chris Bosh will get plenty of help from Spain's Jorge Garbajosa and Jose Calderon, Italy's Andrea Bargnani and former 76er Anthony Parker, who has starred in Europe for many years.

New York

3. New York Knicks – There are a million questions with this team, but the No. 1 issue is this: Can Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis play together? Eddy Curry's development is critical, too. Isiah Thomas gets to try to figure it all out.

Boston

4. Boston Celtics – Danny Ainge paid a steep price to get Sebastian Telfair. Can he take over the point guard duties and run this club, or will he be beaten out by Kentucky rookie Rajon Rondo? Either way, the Celtics will be a young club being led by a young point guard – usually, that's not a good combination.

Philadelphia

5. Philadelphia 76ers – This team has the potential to be decent, but they'll have to figure out who they are. Last season, the Sixers established an up-tempo offensive mentality, but their defense and rebounding was so bad that it didn't matter. They do have some talent, though.

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The Atlantic Division was the worst in the NBA last season. Its teams combined for just 170 wins, the fewest total of any division in the league, and only the New Jersey Nets made the playoffs.

The Nets again figure to dominate the Atlantic as they look to win their fifth division title in six seasons. Predicting the next four teams becomes much trickier – you might as well throw four names into a hat – as the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics all seem to enter the season with similar yet precarious hopes. None made enough dramatic personnel changes to challenge the Nets, so the balance of power should stay in the Meadowlands.

But even with New Jersey likely to run away with the division, there are some intriguing issues to keep an eye on.

In Toronto, the Raptors are making some interesting moves and appear poised to be the surprise team in the Atlantic.

Bryan Colangelo took over the Raptors last February and immediately began a reclamation project. Wanting his team to run, he traded for speedy point guard T.J. Ford. Colangelo also locked up his star, Chris Bosh, to a three-year contract extension, and he went across the Atlantic to bring in several European stars to bolster the roster, including the 2006 draft's No. 1 pick, Andrea Bargnani.

There is hope in Toronto, and the Raptors think they have a shot at the postseason. If there is drama to be found, look no further than New York.

Isiah Thomas takes over as the Knicks' head coach, and he inherits the talented but flawed roster he put together as general manager. He'll try to find the right combination of players to form a rotation that makes sense – something Larry Brown couldn't do last season.

If Thomas fails and the Knicks falter, there's no telling what the future will hold in the Big Apple. Owner James Dolan has put all of his eggs in Isiah's basket, so it's time to see some results. If not, Thomas could be gone.

A couple of other coaches who could be feeling a little heat are Boston's Doc Rivers and Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks. Each presided over teams that had subpar seasons in 2005-06, as both the Celtics and 76ers underachieved, and a playoff appearance this season would go a long way towards providing job security.

Both Rivers and Cheeks are hoping for major strides from a pair of talented wing players to help their respective causes. Gerald Green is a gifted, athletic scorer with loads of potential, and he'll get more playing time for the Celtics in his second NBA season. Paul Pierce enjoyed the best year of his career last season, but if Green emerges, Boston will be much improved.

In Philly, Cheeks needs Andre Iguodala to become a more consistent performer. With the Allen Iverson/Chris Webber combination shaky at best – particularly defensively – Iguodala's athleticism and versatility are critical to helping the Sixers establish a tougher defensive mentality.

Regardless of what happens in Toronto, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, however, the Atlantic is the Nets' division to lose.