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Around the NBA: Atlantic Division

The Raptors may be overwhelming favorites in this division, something unthinkable a year ago.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

If there is any division in the NBA that clearly illustrates all facets of the tanking controversy, it is the Atlantic. The Atlantic has two teams that are tanking intentionally, two teams that might be almost as bad despite trying, desperately, to be good, and a favorite that allegedly came thisclose to intentionally tanking last year before finding itself unexpectedly competitive. Be sure to check out John's preview of the 76ers, who will somehow be even worse than last year and should only be worth watching to see Nerlens Noel make 6 GMs look very, very shortsighted. Coming into the 2014-15 season, the Atlantic looks to be the weakest division in the league, with four teams that could struggle to win 30 games. In a word, this division will be...

New York Knicks

Bigs - Samuel Dalembert, Amar'e Stoudemire, Jason Smith, Andrea Bargnani, Cole Aldrich, Quincy Acy

Wings - Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Cleanthony Early, Travis Outlaw

Guards - Jose Calderon, Iman Shumpert, Pablo Prigioni, Tim Hardaway Jr, Shane Larkin

The most intriguing of the weak sisters of the Eastern seaboard is the New York Knicks. Things could go really bad this year. There are only three players on the Knicks who should be expected to be even average defenders at this point in their careers; Sam Dalembert, Iman Shumpert, and Jason Smith. The rest of their regular big man rotation is Stoudemire and Bargnani. Travis Outlaw is somehow involved. And look at that guard rotation. Calderon, Hardaway Jr, and Larkin might be three of the worst ten defenders in the league at any position and you could make an argument that Amar'e and Bargs should occupy two of the other slots on that list. The Knicks could have the worst defense on the league, non-Philadelphia division. Hell, they could be worse than Philly. If you'd like more objective evidence for their upcoming defensive ineptitude, the Knicks finished 24th in defensive rating last year. Then they traded Tyson Chandler for Jose Calderon.

The reason they are intriguing rather than depressing is that things could also break the Knicks way if they can keep their defense from historically awful levels. If Phil Jackson and new head coach Derek Fisher realize the dangers and simply don't play some of these horrific defenders, they could still put together a fantastic offense around Carmelo Anthony. A seven man rotation of Dalembert/Jason Smith/Melo/J.R. Smith/Shumpert/Calderon/Prigioni provides the shooting, finishing, and ballhandling to take advantage of the large amount of attention Carmelo receives from defenses and could conceivably score at a top 5 rate without giving away quite as much on the other end. The problem is that any injuries or fatigue to this core almost inevitably necessitates lineups with 2 or 3 horrific defenders, which is difficult for any team to survive.

Boston Celtics

Bigs - Kelly Olynyk, Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Tyler Zeller, Vitor Faverani, Joel Anthony

Wings - Jeff Green, Marcus Thornton, Gerald Wallace, Evan Turner, James Young

Guards - Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Paul Pressey

Like the 76ers, the only reason I will watch Boston this year, besides their tilts against Minnesota, is their highly touted rookie. Marcus Smart is a big, strong, quick, tenacious defender who flashed better than advertised point guard skills in college and Summer League. The best way I can summarize Smart's game is that he plays defense the way Russell Westbrook plays offense. He doesn't have the same explosiveness as Westbrook, though, and struggled finishing around NBA size in July. If he can become a respectable, relatively efficient scorer, the Celtics could have a very special player on their hands. (Does that sound familiar?) Smart's combination of defense, solid if unspectacular passing, and competitiveness made him my favorite prospect after Embiid's injury issues surfaced and could also make him the rookie with the most immediate positive impact.

The Celtics will need a positive impact from Smart because Rondo is out for two months with a broken hand and the rest of the roster stinks of 60 losses. Unless Olynyk or Sullinger takes another step forward, their top offensive options will be Jeff Green and Marcus Thornton. Another reason they may struggle is that their team is built in a way that is directly opposed to conventional wisdom. Conventional NBA wisdom dictates that big men are more responsible for a team's defense, while the guards are the ones that initiate and control the flow of the offense. The Celtics, in contrast, have bigs that are somewhat promising scorers, but do little to protect the rim, and guards that can defend, but struggle to create their own offense efficiently. Some Celtics players, like Bradley, Bass, Sullinger, and Olynyk, could be very effective bench players for other teams, but they don't have anyone that puts significant pressure on the other team on either side of the ball, with the exception of the times Avery Bradley becomes a one man full court press.

Brooklyn Nets

Bigs - Brook Lopez, Mason Plumlee, Kevin Garnett, Mirza Teletovic, Cory Jefferson

Wings - Joe Johnson, Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Sergey Karasev

Guards - Deron Williams, Jarrett Jack, Markel Brown, Jorge Gutierrez, Marquis Teague

The Nets were two different teams last year. An overpaid, old, creaky, musty disaster for the first two months of the year, they turned into a savvy, funky, sneaky small ball team with big guards that used post-ups to exploit mismatches, played the passing lanes exceptionally well, and clawed their way into the second round of the playoffs. Any hope of being able to build on that success probably left with Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, who finished 2nd and 3rd on the team in minutes, provided savvy defense, and used their low post and passing skills to create the mismatches that keyed Brooklyn's second half run. Instead of playing four players with perimeter skills, this Nets team has the personnel, and coach, to play two bigs at almost all times, which may make the team resemble the disaster from last November.

One reason for this more traditional setup is that the Nets have three centers that need playing time. Brook Lopez will be the hub of the Nets offense and defense, and has shown the kind of growth that could land him on an All-NBA team if he manages to stay healthy. If the Nets make the playoffs, it will be because Lopez turns in a monster season. The Nets also have Mason Plumlee and the likely swan song of Kevin Garnett's career. Garnett was effective as a center in limited minutes last year, but the combination of Garnett and Lopez might be too slow to allow the Nets to function effectively. The ripple effects could continue down the roster, forcing players into positions they should not be playing. For example, Kirilenko would be a fantastic power forward to pair with Lopez, but at small forward he could add to the Nets spacing and speed issues. All that said, if everyone stays healthy, this team still has enough talent to sneak into the playoffs given the weakness of the Eastern Conference. However, the bench is much thinner this year, which means that the likes of Markel Brown, Jorge Gutierrez, and Bojan Bogdanovic will be counted on for important minutes in the case of injury, which is almost a certainty given the age and injury history of the roster. And that may not be a combination that will propel the Nets to their third straight postseason appearance.

Toronto Raptors

Bigs - Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes, Bebe Nogueira

Wings - DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, James Johnson, Bruno Caboclo, Landry Fields

Guards - Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, Will Cherry

In this space last year

Still, if Ujiri can flip one of their overpriced scorers for a couple average players, the team has the makings of a frisky surprise about them.

The Raptors justified this qualified optimism by struggling for two months, swapping out Rudy Gay for Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez, and becoming one of the better teams in the league over the second half of the season. The apparent key to their continued success is their players continuing to play at the career high standards set last year. Lowry and DeRozan were both better than expected in almost 6000 combined minutes and an injury or loss in effectiveness by either one could send the Raptors reeling back towards mediocrity.

I am again optimistic about Toronto, and think that their newly energized ("We the North") fanbase will be given another division championship, as their core is surprisingly young and still has room to grow and benefit from increased continuity. Lowry is the old man at 28, Amir Johnson is somehow only 27, Vasquez is 28 despite entering the league about a decade after Amir, but DeRozan is only 25, Patterson is 25, Ross is 23, and Valanciunas is still only 22. Dramatic improvement from him, possibly heralded by a FIBA World Cup in which he averaged 21 & 12 per 36 minutes on nearly 70% shooting, could offset any minor injuries to their guards. Toronto also fortified its bench, picking up James Johnson and Lou Williams, each of whom should be able to fill in ably for short stretches. Each also has upside and could force their way into the regular rotation, as Williams may regain some of his speed after another year's recovery from an ACL injury and Johnson flashed an improved 3 point shot that would pair synergistically with his defense and tenacity. Should Derrick Rose not reclaim his status as a top tier point guard, it is easy to imagine Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals.