The Boston Celtics. And everybody else.
Indeed, since Boston's acquisitions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, the C's have won the Atlantic each season by an average of 17 games. Toronto came the closest in 2009-10, when Boston won just 50 games — and the Raptors were still 10 back.
That average could take a hit in 2011-12.
There is, for one, the well-documented and overly analyzed age factor; i.e., Boston's Big Three are getting older. Head coach Doc Rivers, as he's done in each of the past two seasons, will essentially forfeit seeding for health. Back-to-backs will become walk-throughs for the veterans, and even the whiff of an injury will result in increased bench-time.
Perhaps more important: Much of the rest of the division is improving.
Philadelphia, now with a promising young center in Nikola Vucevic, should again secure 40-some wins. New Jersey has added college scoring phenom Marshon Brooks to an already electric one-two combo of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. Toronto will still be terrible.
Then there are the Knicks, a team that has already shown promise after its blockbuster trade last winter. Outgoing general manager Donnie Walsh's pick of Iman Shumpert at No. 17 aside (I'll never understand why New York's front office thought giving the reins to a disgruntled general manager was a good idea), this club's ceiling is high.
Likely starting five in 2011-12:
PG: Chauncey Billups
SG: Landry Fields
SF: Carmelo Anthony
PF: Amare Stoudemire
C: Ronny Turiaf
Sure, Ronny Turiaf's not ideal at center, and New York's bench is miserable, but that starting five gave the Celtics a test in the first round of the playoffs, losing Games 1 and 2 on clutch last-minute shots from Allen and KG, respectively.
Keep in mind, that was without Chauncey Billups (strained leg) and with a hobbled Amare Stoudemire (back).
Those injuries floored a unit that had been together just a couple of months. Give Chauncey the summer (and perhaps part of the fall, as well, depending on what happens with the lockout) to build some chemistry, and head coach Mike D'Antoni time to fully teach his offensive system, and New York begins to look like a team capable of taking two or three games off the Celtics in a seven-game set.
Landry Fields, a steal in the second round of the 2010 draft, averaged 10 points on 50 percent shooting, including 40 percent from deep, and 6.4 boards in his rookie campaign. With more minutes coming his way in 2011-12, the heady Stanford guard should be a consistent 15-and-8.
Carmelo Anthony and Amare, moreover, have time to figure out how to more effectively co-exist. 'Melo, for his part, fluctuated between brilliant and pitiful against Boston — scoring 15, 42, 15 and 32 in the four-game series. When Stoudemire asserted himself, Anthony didn't quite know how to complement him. His answer was often to jack up forced jump shots. He did that in Denver, too, but it was more obvious with Amare calling for the ball underneath.
Another 82 games together (again, depending on the labor situation) should clear up some of that confusion.
Even Shumpert, a 6-foot-5 combo guard who can't shoot well, will add some defense to a team that ranked 28th in that category a year ago.
The Knicks, to put this all in perspective, won't overtake Boston in the division. The holes in the bench will cost them too many games over a long season, and there's no guarantee that Billups, who's been plagued by injury of late, will always be available.
But the C's won't be taking their customary cruise through the Atlantic. They'll at last have an opponent worthy of those four guaranteed regular-season matchups. And rest assured, all NBA eyes will be trained on those contests — wondering if the Knicks, perennial failures, can build on a blockbuster deal and finally emerge from the basement.
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