Last season, the Atlantic Division was the equivalent of baseball's National League West. Boston was like the Padres – a mediocre team that won the division by process of elimination – and, like San Diego, the Celtics were bounced from the playoffs in the first round.
While the offseason brought a couple of home-run hitters to New York – Larry Brown and Eddy Curry – there wasn't a whole lot of personnel improvement in the division. Still, the Atlantic will be improved because the impact of Vince Carter and Chris Webber will become more apparent with full seasons under their belts in New Jersey and Philadelphia, respectively.
The Nets in particular could be very good, health permitting, and Curry and the Knicks are very intriguing. Here's how I see the Atlantic shaking out.
1. New Jersey Nets
Best-case scenario: The Jason Kidd-Carter-Richard Jefferson trio creates an offensive explosion that transforms the Nets into "Phoenix East." Nenad Kristic continues to develop, Marc Jackson is the enforcer and the front line holds up. New Jersey runs away (literally) with the division.
Worst-case scenario: Injuries hit again. Kidd's knee is a problem, Carter goes down and the Nets never find a groove. They slide down the division standings and the playoffs slip away.
Outlook: Rod Thorn has done a terrific job rebuilding this team since the Kenyon Martin departure, and the pieces should fit together. New Jersey – with a full training camp from the perimeter trio – is the best team in the Atlantic.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Best-case scenario: Chris Webber and Allen Iverson figure out how to play together, Maurice Cheeks returns as the hometown hero and the Sixers defend, compete and win the division.
Worst-case scenario: Webber's knee doesn't allow him to play the up-tempo, defensive-minded style that made the 76ers a good team last season. C-Webb's unhappiness brings the team down and Philly misses the playoffs altogether.
Outlook: Webber and Iverson are not a match made in heaven – they play at two different speeds. The bigger issue is on defense. A year ago, the Sixers played the passing lanes, forced turnovers and created points in transition. Webber is not the man to anchor a defense like that. But Cheeks will keep this team together. The 76ers will learn how to make it work, and they will make the playoffs.
3. New York Knicks
Best-case scenario: Eddy Curry dominates the low block, Stephon Marbury becomes a pass-first point guard, and the Knicks learn how to play defense under Larry Brown. They surprise everyone and win the division.
Worst-case scenario: Marbury, Jamal Crawford and Quentin Richardson cast enough errant three-point bricks to renovate Madison Square Garden and the Knicks continue to play poor defense. Curry is unable to play for health reasons and Brown can't connect with his new team. New York misses the playoffs.
Outlook: Brown will get through to this team – he always does – and the Knicks will defend better. The key is Curry, and there's no telling what will happen with him. This team can make the playoffs whether Curry plays or not, but if he's in the lineup and effective, things could get very interesting at the Garden.
4. Boston Celtics
Best-case scenario: The Celtics' youth develops quickly and Al Jefferson becomes a low-post force. Boston's speed translates to great pressure defense and Doc Rivers' club sneaks into the postseason.
Worst-case scenario: Boston misses the scoring of Antoine Walker, and the Celtics become a one-dimensional team that's too dependent on Paul Pierce. They fall out of the playoff picture and look to the future.
Outlook: The Celtics are too green – pun intended. Their future depends on players like Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Tony Allen and Gerald Green. They're talented guys but just not experienced enough to help the team reach the postseason. Pierce will score a lot, but he can't do it by himself – even though he often tries.
5. Toronto Raptors
Best-case scenario:Chris Bosh becomes an All-Star and gets help on the front line from the two rookies, Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham. The Raptors return to – well, not exactly glory – but respectability.
Worst-case scenario: The team struggles out of the gate, the fans forget about basketball since the Maple Leafs are playing again, and the Raptors drift into obscurity.
Outlook: Mike James was a nice pickup for Toronto, but the Raptors are still very thin in the backcourt. Bosh is terrific, but he doesn't have a whole lot of help. Toronto will struggle to make it out of the Atlantic cellar.