It wasn't too long ago that the Atlantic Division was inaffectionately dubbed the Titanic, a collection of sad-sack teams that couldn't out of their own ways. The Boston Celtics changed that, and it looks like another franchise will finally join them in superlative excellence.
And no, sorry. I'm not talking about the Toronto Raptors.
NBA Festivus: Pacific
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The New York Knicks had perhaps the most stunning offseason, excepting that whole Chris Paul saga. Coming in, everyone seemed convinced that the Knicks would replay 2009 and preserve future cap space at all costs to make a run at CP3 in July. Instead, the Knicks moved quickly to clear the cap space needed to grab Tyson Chandler, one of the top three defensive centers in the NBA (behind Dwight Howard and on par with Andrew Bogut). With Chandler, the Knicks filled the team's biggest hole: interior defense.
Of course, the way the Knicks opened up that cap space is something out of a Benny Hill flick. Back in June, when Donnie Walsh was still the team's president, the Knicks elected to keep Chauncey Billups on the roster. The team could have waived Billups and been on the hook for just $3.7 million of his salary, but he was by far the team's best guard and better than any PG slated to be a 2011 free agent. (Added bonus: his salary would fully expire in 2012.) But needing the cap space to sign Chandler, the Knicks had to waive Billups under the amnesty provision. If he'd be waived in June, the Knicks would have paid him $3.7 million to go away. Instead, he was waived in December, and the Knicks paid him $11 million to go away. (The L.A. Clippers picked up $2 million of his salary.) So the Knicks set more than $7 million on fire due to not really having a clear plan. Fiscal insanity reigns.
The Boston Celtics, New York's chief rival for top of the division honors, have actually expressed relative fiscal sanity in the offseason. But the team has tripped into it. The C's had worked out a deal to land David West, but stunningly the NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets didn't want Jermaine O'Neal back. (No!) A few days later, when West went elsewhere, the Celtics tossed a one-year, $9 million deal at Jeff Green. But heart surgery for Uncle Jeff left the deal voided. That means that Boston's big offseason move ended up being ... uh ... err ... yikes.
The New Jersey Nets were supposed to have a crazy offseason, with the Dwight Howard chase front and center. Because the Howard deal has been such a priority, and because Otis Smith's mind has changed with the weather, and because, frankly, the Nets' offer isn't great, New Jersey has actually done pretty close to nothing in the offseason. Oh wait, I'm sorry: the Nets jacked Shawne Williams for the Knicks to replace the waived Travis Outlaw. Sorry, but I miss "acquire Shawne Williams" when I last looked over the "Blueprint for Greatness." The Nets will probably add two of the top remaining free agents (Kris Humphries and Andrei Kirilenko), hopefully by February. (I wish that were a joke.)
The Philadelphia 76ers kept the status quo, and are banking on internal growth. Philly ended up keeping Thaddeus Young on a fair deal, and took a one-year flyer on starting center Spencer Hawes. The wing logjam that has Evan Turner deep on the bench remains unresolved, but it's a nice problem to have, and between Young and Turner, the Sixers could have one of the better young scoring benches in the league. The frontcourt is a problem until and unless Hawes develops, but Elton Brand was solid last season and Nikola Vucevic could be one of the more productive rookie big men.
The Toronto Raptors, one of the league's worst teams last season, spent their No. 5 overall draft pick on Jonas Valanciunas, who remains in Lithuania. So yes, Raps fans, your patience is requested. Enjoy another season of Jose Calderon! Dwane Casey is the big upgrade in T-Dot, replacing Jay Triano on the bench. Casey will legitimately impart some defensive confidence in the team ... until the roster collectively realizes that Andrea Bargnani is the team's starting center, and that there is no point.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
Back in the 1990s, the Raptors got out of the gate much more quickly than did the Vancouver Grizzlies. But since that quick burst, everything the Raptors do is so ... slow. They seem slow to recognize deficiencies, slow to fix that which doesn't work, slow to embrace a true rebuild, slow to understand that throwing money at mediocre veterans to soak up minutes is bad news. I see you, Jamaal Magloire, Rasual Butler and Anthony Carter.
The Sixers, under new ownership, see something in Hawes that everyone else must be blind to. If Philly wants to win a playoff series -- the next logical step after making the 2011 playoffs with this crew -- how is it going to happen with Hawes starting at center? He's a nifty passer and a decent shooter, but there's not one skill he has that makes him a suitable starter, especially against opponents like Dwight, Chandler, Al Horford and Brook Lopez. At least back-up Tony Battie can defend, despite being 54 years old.
If the Nets lose Kris Humphries -- an unrestricted free agent -- and Andrei Kirilenko, they will have essentially conceded the season in the Elysian quest for Dwight. When Jay-Z rapped about the Nets going 0-for-82, who knew he was actually predicting the future? Remember: even with Deron Williams, the Nets stunk last season. With Williams and Lopez alone, they should knock on .500's door. But that assumes health and hardly lives up to the expectations that the franchise has set.
The Celtics must be stunned after losing out on West and then Green. Boston expected to play Green with Kevin Garnett in an undersized frontcourt much of the time; now, that idea is doomed and we'll end up seeing Brandon Bass get the bulk of back-up power forward minutes. Despite Marquis Daniels' return, tons of minutes will be heaped on Paul Pierce and KG, and during a season with decreased rest and improved opponents in the East. It should be a blast of a season.
The Knicks continue to have a marked lack of shooters around mid-range and in scorers Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. But hey, if you look at Baron Davis' 15 games in Cleveland (41.5 percent on threes) and ignore his previous 781 games (32 percent on threes), he could really help the cause!
It will be miraculous if ...
Kevin Garnett plays
66 65 64 63 62 61 60 games.
A team featuring Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and the Baron Davis/Mike Bibby platoon finishes top 10 in defense, Tyson Chandler or not.
Anyone writes, "man, the Nets really scored with Shawne Williams."
Anyone writes, "man, where would the Sixers be without Tony Battie?"
Anyone misses Glen Davis.
The Raptors finish in the top 20 of any set of power rankings in any week.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Projected order of finish (asterisks indicate playoff berths):
1. New York Knicks*
2. Boston Celtics*
3. Philadelphia 76ers*
4. New Jersey Nets
5. Toronto Raptors
Division MVP: Carmelo Anthony
Division ROY: I refuse to type in Iman Shumpert, so ... uh ... Iman Shumpert.
Division DPOY: Kevin Garnett.
All-Stars: Melo, Amar'e, Paul Pierce, KG, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams.
The Hook runs Monday through Friday. This week is Festivus Week: the Northwest and Central divisions will land on Wednesday, the Southwest on Thursday and the Southeast on Friday. See the archives.