1. Brooklyn Nets (3rd in east)
Two years ago I wouldn’t believe that I am about to say this, but I will be surprised if the Nets don’t win the Atlantic. They are by far the most talented and deepest team in the division with both the best starting lineup and the best bench. This team will get over 50 wins and could get close to 60 if injuries aren’t a problem. Unlike last year, this team has both leadership and talent, and that was a team that won 49 games.
2. Manhattan Knicks (6th in east)
Key factor for Nets: Hold Carmelo Anthony to under 45% shooting.
Carmelo Anthony is going to score a lot against the Nets because he is Manhattan’s best player on offense and for some reason he likes playing in Brooklyn even though he is from Baltimore. But I don’t have a problem if he wants to come to Brooklyn and drop 40, as long as he also takes a ton of shots and makes the Knicks one-dimensional. The key for the Nets is forcing him into bad shots, which he shoots plenty of, and hope he is having an off night, which happens more often than you might expect.
Knick fans will complain that I have their team too low, but this really was not a personal attack on this team. I think they are extremely injury-prone, with J.R. Smith coming off knee surgery, Carmelo Anthony avoiding surgery, Andrea Bargnani’s continuous injury problems, and then of course Tyson Chandler’s back and Amare Stoudemire’s knees. I think they lost a leader in Jason Kidd and will not be as disciplined this year. Additionally, there were some games last year where the Knicks couldn’t lose because they just couldn’t miss from 3. The percentages will even out eventually.
3. Toronto Raptors (10th in east)
Key factor for Nets: Don’t led Jonas Valanciunas run wild.
Jonas Valanciunas is the kind of player who can cause problems for Brooklyn. Brook Lopez has show some weakness in defending younger, quicker centers, and Valanciunas could fall into that category. I think he is primed for a breakout year and I can see him having a couple of 20-20 games this year. Lopez is going to need to box him out and not allow offensive rebounds.
Toronto has a new GM and I think that will start yet another semi-rebuilding process for the Raptors. With the top of the eastern conference pretty loaded, the Raptors know that the chances of them getting out of the first round of the playoffs are pretty slim. Therefore, I think they will trade either or both Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan this year and get back young players/draft picks for them. The Raptors will be competitive and will win their share of games, but I don’t think this is the year they get back to the playoffs.
4. Boston Celtics (11th in east)
Key factor for Nets: Don’t let your emotions get the best of you.
Everyone knows that the Nets have the more talented team, but especially in the games the Nets play in Boston, Kevin Garnett, and even more so Paul Pierce, will just need to make sure they keep their emotions in check and just play like every other game. The hype leading up to the first game in Boston this year will be like the Superbowl for Celtics fans. If the Nets just play their game, they will be fine.
The bottom of the east is so bad that even a tanking team like the Celtics won’t finish too close to the bottom. Once Rajon Rondo comes back, Boston will be able to consistently beat teams in the bottom of the conference. The question for the Celtics is how soon they want Rondo to return.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (15th in east)
Key factor for Nets: Don’t forget how to play basketball.
As long as the Nets don’t choose to play 3-on-5 in these games, none of them will be close. The Sixers are trying to lose while the Nets are trying to win. If Jason Kidd wants to give Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett some nights off this year, 4 of them could be against the Sixers. I’m pretty sure the Nets’ third team could beat the Sixers by 15.
I’ll be surprised if Philadelphia wins 15 games this year. They are by far the worst team in the east and will be in a race with Phoenix all year for the most ping pong balls in the lottery.