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The Balance of Power in the Atlantic Division

It’s funny how a term can so be honored in one place, yet so degraded in another --- within the same sport.

In college basketball, the word “Atlantic” conjures up images of ACC powerhouses such as Duke, Wake Forest, UNC, and the University of Maryland, all perennial Final Four and Top 25 powerhouses. The eastern seaboard along Interstate 95 has come to be associated with pure dominance.

The pros are a different story. Since the NBA realignment two years ago, the Atlantic has become a laughingstock, occasionally referred to as “The Wacklantic” or other invented names. There’s good reason --- the current Atlantic Division leaders, the Boston Celtics, are a very average 29-28, good for a .509 winning percentage. Among the other five division leaders, the lowest winning percentage is .648, presently held by the surging Pistons.

What’s worse is this --- whoever emerges as the Atlantic “champion” draws the three seed in the East, yet might lose home court advantage to the eventual six-seed (probably the Bulls, Wizards, or Cavs). David Stern has gone on record as saying the six-seed will be investigated for possibly going in the tank down the stretch to draw a more favorable first-round match-up.

The Atlantic is a poor complement to torrid play in other divisions this season, but there may be cause for hope. At the trading deadline last Thursday, several division “powerhouses” beefed up their weak lineups, causing us to reconsider the entire balance of power within the Northeast. Hoops Avenue now presents the new “power” rankings for the Atlantic Division:

1) Philadelphia 76ers: AI’s crew nabbed perennial All-Star, 20 and 10 man Chris Webber at the deadline, sending tremors throughout the entire East. Webber does play on a bum knee, but Iverson has never had a sidekick of this magnitude before. Consider this: Iverson, who is the most prolific scorer in the league but regularly suffers from being banged up since he’s the only true option in Philly much of the time, reached the Finals once --- in 2001, with Dikembe Mutombo as his running mate. Not to dismiss Deke, but Webber is an excellent four-man who can drain it from the elbow or ram it inside. The Sixers did fall in Webber’s debut to the Kings (ironic), but the team hadn’t had a chance to jell yet --- and when they do (Iverson is actually awaiting practice), watch out. Philly plays the majority of its remaining games at home, and C-Webb will get it on with inexperienced Mike Sweetney (Knicks) and overhyped Raef LaFrentz (Celtics) as division ball heats up. The Sixers should easily capture the Atlantic behind the AI/C-Webb dynamic alongside a blossoming Samuel Dalembert, and might even serve as a tough draw for the eventual sixth team in the East.

2) Boston Celtics: The Celtics have played good ball this year, and they just re-acquired a do-everything forward in “Employee Number Eighty-Eight,” Antoine Walker. If you’re confused about why Danny Ainge re-acquired ‘Toine after shipping him out two years ago, don’t worry --- so are we. We just figure he’s trying to win the Atlantic this year to bide himself some time and build the Celtics towards prominence again. It’s not a bad plan --- Boston has a solid young crew, including Al Jefferson, Marcus Banks, Tony Allen, and Delonte West. The only problem is, Ainge lost the “big deal at the deadline” award to Philly. Webber means more than ‘Toine, and this young team isn’t prepared for a stretch-run battle in the Atlantic.

3) New Jersey Nets: You would think, logically, that a team anchored by Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson --- all of whom have received MVP whispers in the past four years --- would walk away with this division, right? Not quite. The Nets are as deep as a piece of looseleaf paper, running former Hawks retread Jacque Vaughn behind Kidd, with luminaries such as Rodney Buford, Ron Mercer and Jabari Smith spelling at other positions. To add to the litany of problems for Jer-Zee, their middle is softer than your average Krispy Kreme selection, currently “anchored” by rookie Nenad Krstic.

4) New York Knicks: It’s hard for me to admit how far the Knicks have fallen, considering they were the team of my boyhood. Ewing with those arms outstretched, imploring MSG to explode --- ah, fond memories. Now, the Knicks have a variety of over-priced talent (Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Allan Houston), some decent emerging talent (Mike Sweetney), and virtually no backups at the PG and C slot. For the past three years, the Knicks have essentially run an offensive set of four guards and one power forward, which does very little outside of private high school basketball in the southeast. For sheer talent alone, you have to like the Knicks to not bring up the rear in the Atlantic, but then again, they do have Bruno Sundoy running the paint

5) Toronto Raptors: One problem the Raptors don’t have is the paint, where superstar-in-waiting Chris Bosh plays alongside inferior Arizona product Loren Woods (we’ll bet you weren’t entirely sure he was in the league). Unfortunately for north-of-the-border basketball fans, that’s the only problem the Raptors don’t have. Otherwise, rookie coach Sam Mitchell has lost control of the team while feuding with former street-ball prodigy cum NBA point guard Rafer Alston, Jalen Rose wants out more than a man in Nine West, and fading stars such as Donyell Marshall and Lamond Murray are looking for some final paychecks here (with more tax, mind you). The Raptors are currently fourth in the division, but don’t have the chemistry or the talent to finish anywhere except the cellar.

About the Author

Ted Bauer writes for http://www.hoopsavenue.com

Ted Bauer