NBA preview 2011-12: Atlantic Division

December 22, 2011, 5:32 PM

New Faces: Brandon Bass (Trade with Magic), Keyon Dooling (Trade with Bucks), JaJuan Johnson (Draft), E’Twaun Moore (Draft), Chris Wilcox (Signed from Pistons)

New Places: Shaquille O’Neal (Retired), Carlos Arroyo (UFA), Glen Davis (Traded to Magic), Von Wafer (Traded to Magic), Delonte West (Signed by Mavericks)

The Celtics had a solid regular season but a second-round playoff loss at the hands of the Miami Heat left Boston fans with a sour taste in their mouths heading into the offseason. The Heat were just young and skilled enough to beat them. The challenge for the Celtics this season is to find enough young yet experienced pieces to augment the Big 3 of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen who can’t haul the cart the way they did in the past. Yes, Rajon Rondo is still there, but he is more of a facilitator than a player that can put the team on his back at the offensive end.

The championship window is closing on the Celtics and the loss of Jeff Green really hurts their title aspirations. Boston has hopefully bolstered its line-up with the addition of veteran big man Chris Wilcox who can play on the inside and will be looked upon to ease the minutes on the aging Jermaine O’Neal. The other acquisition up front is Brandon Bass who came over in a trade from Orlando for Glen (Big Baby) Davis. Look for Bass to give strong play off the bench again to save some wear and tear on Garnett. Keyon Dooling will be a capable back-up to Rondo and hopefully some of the young players like E’Twaun Moore, JuJuan Johnson and Greg Stiemsma can help in the grind of a short season.

Burning Question: How well can the bench play to allow head coach Doc Rivers to rest his older players and conserve energy for a playoff run? Rivers has worked extensively with the second unit in the shortened training camp. He knows this group will have to win him some games on nights when older players are playing limited minutes.

Prediction: Boston’s experience is unquestioned but will it be neutralized by the compacted schedule that reduces the recovery time for the older players. If there are no injuries they should win the Atlantic Division but with success measured by rings and banners in Boston, the season may not end the right way. (1st in the Atlantic Division, 2nd or 3rd in the Eastern Conference)

New Faces: Shelden Williams (Signed from Knicks), Ime Udoka (UFA), Shawne Williams (Signed from Knicks)

New Places: Travis Outlaw (amnesty), Ben Uzoh (UFA), Mario West (Signed with Tezenis Verona), Dan Gadzuric (Signed with Jiangsu Dragons), Brandan Wright (Signed with Mavericks), Sasha Vujacic (Signed with Anadolu Efes S.K.)

It was an eye-opening experience for former Coach of the Year Avery Johnson last season in New Jersey. He didn’t suddenly forget how to coach but the schemes that worked in Dallas when he led the Mavs to the NBA Finals didn’t have the same success. The Nets finished 24-58, just a couple of games out of the basement, and that may have been a result of two wins over Toronto in London, England.

Unfortunately for Nets fans, some of whom are looking forward to their move to Brooklyn, it may not be a whole lot better this season. There continue to be rumblings about Dwight Howard appearing but until he walks through the door, Deron Williams will be the sole marquee player in the New Jersey line-up. But the pressure is on the Nets to produce. Not only is there a move across the river but Williams has not committed to the team past this year. If there aren’t moves to improve the team, my guess is he walks away at the end of the season.

Brook Lopez had a solid season and Kris Humphries finally accepted the role other NBA teams had been trying to give him. Anthony Morrow and Shawne Williams will help on the perimeter but the Nets need to find other ways to boost an offense that was 28th in both scoring and field goal percentage.

Burning Question: What will the Nets do to improve their offensive output? New Jersey had very little “offence from its defence” last season as they finished last in the NBA in forcing turnovers. There were no major additions to the roster and consistently running half-court offense without easy baskets is one of the main reasons the Nets had issues scoring.

Prediction: New Jersey probably won’t fare much better than last season. Best-case scenario is playing some meaningful games in April. (4th or 5th in the Atlantic 12th or 13th in the Eastern Conference)

New Faces: Mike Bibby (Signed from Heat), Tyson Chandler (Signed from Mavericks), Baron Davis (Signed from Cavaliers), Iman Shumpert (Draft).

New Places: Andy Rautins (Traded to Mavs), Ronny Turiaf (Traded to Wizards), Chauncey Billups (amnesty, claimed by Clippers), Derrick Brown (signed by Bobcats), Anthony Carter (signed with Raptors), Roger Mason Jr. (signed with Wizards).

The Knicks made a splash last season with the acquisition of Amar’e Stoudemire in free agency and then sent waves through the NBA landscape again later in the year by acquiring Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets. It helped make New York relevant again on the NBA landscape, and even though it was a cameo, the Knicks made their first playoff appearance since 2004.

It’s all about defence in New York this season as head coach Mike D’Antoni’s teams have never had an issue scoring. But D’Antoni’s idea of a defensive stop that you trade buckets with the other team until they miss, will not make New York a title team. It looks like New York will try to play defence this season as they went out and acquired Tyson Chandler to anchor the backline. Now, the challenge becomes making defence a priority with the rest of the boys from Gotham.

There will be no issue with the offence thanks to Anthony, Stoudemire, and if he’s healthy enough to contribute, the recently-signed Baron Davis. In the meantime, with Chauncey Billups a casualty of the amnesty provision, Toney Douglas will be running the point and he will have to improve his level of play against front-line point guards.

Burning Question: How much will D’Antoni focus on defence this season? There is an old adage that says “people that are square, don’t die round.” D’Antoni has never been a defensive-minded coach. If the coach isn’t willing to pay more than lip service to defence, then neither will the players.

Prediction: The Knicks are climbing the ladder and will be a playoff team again this season. How far they advance depends on their commitment to the defensive end of the floor (2nd in the Atlantic, 5th or 6th in the Eastern Conference)

New Faces: Nikola Vucevic (Draft)
New Places: Jason Kapono (Signed with Lakers), Antonio Daniels (UFA), Darius Songaila (Signed with Galatasaray Medical Park)
Can we talk about surprises last season in the Eastern Conference? Doug Collins was candid about the struggles his young squad was going to have early in the season. You know what? He was right. After a deplorable 3-13 start, the Sixers turned things around to finish seventh in the east. They put up a respectable showing in the first-round playoff loss to Miami. We’ll see what kind of impact those five playoff contests have this season. Philadelphia fans hope that valuable experience from a few playoff contests has a carryover to this season.

It’s not all youth in Philadelphia as they do have some young veterans in Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young who can all make plays with the ball in their hands. Their experience, as well as Elton Brand’s, will be called upon this season. Brand is undersized up front but his willingness to battle bigger players more than makes up for any deficit in size. But it’s the young backcourt of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner that has to grow and improve with respect to decision-making, (particularly in close games) if Philly is going to be successful

Collins is a terrific motivator and has been around the block enough to understand how to put his players in a position to be successful. They were a playoff team last season but can’t afford to have the same kind of start this season.

Burning Question: Can the Sixers live up to expectations that will undoubtedly be placed on them this season? Many a lower tier playoff team the previous year has failed to live up expectations in the next campaign.

Prediction: They should be a playoff team as they return a number of players from last season’s squad that valued the ball. The Sixers had the fewest turnovers per game and were second in the NBA in assist to turnover ratio. (3rd in the Atlantic Division and 7th or 8th in the Eastern Conference)

New Faces: Rasual Butler (Signed from Clippers), Anthony Carter (Signed from Nuggets), Gary Forbes (Signed from Nuggets), Aaron Gray (Signed from Hornets), Jamaal Magloire (Signed from Heat)

New Places: Joey Dorsey (Signed with Caja Laboral), Reggie Evans (UFA), Sonny Weems (Zalgiris Kaunas)

It was a long season for the Toronto Raptors in 2010-2011. They started out with something to prove and at the quarter pole had the same record as the team that barely missed the playoffs in 2009-2010. But then injuries hit and the focus shifted to the development of young players where DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis were the main beneficiaries. DeRozan improved his scoring average and developed a dependable mid-range jumper. After missing the early part of the season Davis came on strong and probably should have been on one of the All-Rookie squads at the end of the season. Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson also received some of those “developmental” minutes.

New head coach Dwane Casey has put the emphasis on defence and he may be just the right guy at the right time for Andrea Bargnani. The former first-overall draft pick put up good offensive numbers but his rebounding and defence often took a back seat to his scoring. The comparison is always made to a guy that Casey had in Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki, and it remains to be seen if Casey can instill the same type of attitude in Bargnani.

Look for veterans Jamaal Magloire, who will become the first Canadian to play in a regular-season game for the Raptors, Jose Calderon, Aaron Gray, Rasual Butler, Anthony Carter to provide leadership. Amir Johnson will look to improve on last season’s solid output.

Burning Question: How quickly can Casey infuse a true defensive mentality in this team? Toronto finished 26th in opponents scoring, 28th in opponents three point percentage, 29th in opponents field goal percentage, and last opponents points in the paint.

Prediction: It will be a season of improvement in Toronto but they are still in a transitional phase trying to build a viable contender. (4th or 5th in the Atlantic Division and 11th or 12th in the Eastern Conference)

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