Story to watch: They are the champions, my friends. The Celtics reached the summit in such a strange way, though, that this will be a curious title defense, with any outcome possible. Remember: Very impressive 2007-08 regular season, very impressive focus, then needing a Game 7 in the first round against the 37-45 Hawks and needing a Game 7 in the second round against the Cavaliers, then overwhelming the Lakers in body and mind in the Finals. And now the aging process continues. There is nothing Boston could do this season, from repeat to retreat, that would surprise.
Player to watch: Jermaine O'Neal. It could have been Elton Brand and the expectations that accompanied his big-money cross-country move to Philadelphia. It could have been Ray Allen, so inconsistent in the playoffs that he became an intersection of Celtics hopes, lifting them in the Finals after opening the door to potential elimination in the second round. But O'Neal is the player that can deliver credibility to the Raptors, a team lacking the history of Boston and Philly. Toronto invested a talented young point guard, T.J. Ford, and a first-round pick to acquire O'Neal from Indiana. A healthy O'Neal alongside Chris Bosh brings great hope. Another season of an injured O'Neal with a massive contract becomes a major letdown.
Coach to watch: Mike D'Antoni. The good news: The bar is set very, very, very low. Thirty wins and not getting slapped with a multi-million dollar sexual-harassment lawsuit, he's an improvement for the Knicks. The bad news: Those are still the Knicks he's coaching. D'Antoni's role in the new, non-Isiah Thomas, non-KGB climate of a franchise humiliated into change will be the one told on the court and, therefore, the most obvious. The wins must come eventually. In the meantime, he'll have the Knicks playing hard and playing fast.
Newcomer to watch: Brand is in the spotlight like never before, which is saying something for a guy who played at Duke, joined the NBA as a No. 1 pick and played in Chicago and Los Angeles. Bolting the Clippers when they thought a deal was secure, and doing it for $79.8 million over five years, moved him into a new category of pressure to deliver. Brand with Andre Igoudala, Andre Miller and Samuel Dalembert has Philadelphia lined up for a playoff run. Or else.
Rookie to watch: This is not the place to look for glitz. Two Atlantic teams were in the lottery, New York and New Jersey, and neither took prospects that are exactly moving tickets. The Knicks took Danilo Gallinari, the Nets Brook Lopez. Lopez has the greatest chance for immediate impact, an offensive-minded center who will benefit from the presence of a point guard who can deliver the ball, Devin Harris, and a wing who will keep pressure on defenses, Vince Carter.
By the numbers: The Celtics took the Atlantic by 25 games over second-place Toronto, nearly double the cushion of the next-easiest division win.... With little recognition, Dalembert was ninth in rebounding and fourth in blocks.... Jamal Crawford is the active leader in games without a playoff appearance, 532. It's a pretty firm hold on the top spot, too -- he plays for the Knicks. Another early vacation will move Crawford into fourth place on the all-time list.... How much of an impact can rookies Lopez and Ryan Anderson (Oak Ridge High) have in New Jersey? The Nets finished 26th in shooting and 25th in scoring, and that's their game.... That's the way for a defending champion to run an exhibition schedule: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Allen all started seven of the eight games, but averaged 18.9, 19.6 and 18.7 minutes, respectively.
Predicted order of finish (with 2007-08 record):
- Boston Celtics (66-16)
- Philadelphia 76ers (40-42)
- Toronto Raptors (41-41)
- New York Knicks (23-59)
- New Jersey Nets (34-48)