The Celtics have won the NBA's Atlantic Division in each season since 2007-08, a string of territorial dominance that's often overlooked given their larger accomplishments. If you're looking for a good trivia question, ask someone which team last won the Atlantic that wasn't the Celtics. In 2006-07, that team was the Toronto Raptors.
That's a fairly clear illustration that competition in the Atlantic, unlike the wife of Brooklyn Nets minority owner Jay Z, hasn't exactly been fierce.
No one is mentioning Toronto this season, but plenty of attention is being paid to the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Tuesday night's Celtics opponent, the Nets. Through various trades and free-agent signings, all three of those teams have taken steps to better contend in the division specifically and the Eastern Conference as a whole this season. For the first time since 2007, the Celtics could have a legitimate challenger in the Atlantic.
The division is a hot topic right now, of course, because division games make up the entirety of Boston's stateside exhibition schedule: Knicks last Saturday, Sixers Monday, Nets Tuesday and Thursday, Knicks again Saturday, and Sixers Sunday. We were deprived of a truly interesting matchup Tuesday night when Brooklyn trotted out a starting lineup of C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans, Josh Childress, Reggie Evans, and Andray Blatche.
Still, the Nets may pose the biggest threat to the Celtics. They added Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace, kept Deron Williams and Kris Humphries, and still have Brook Lopez. That's a fearsome five no matter how you look at it.
"They've had a heck of a summer," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before Tuesday's game. "They've obviously had a lot of game-planning about the summer. They must have had two game plans, the Dwight Howard plan and the secondary plan, which is still a really good plan. They've done it. They've pulled it off. I think the new arena and all [the move to Brooklyn] helped recruit players. I think it helped keep a player. I think Deron Williams, if they stayed in Jersey, probably wouldn't be there."
The Nets certainly think they're contenders. At the team's media day, Johnson said, "I think we have a chance to win the whole thing this year. I’m not just saying it. I honestly believe it."
Said Blatche, a center: “Looking at our roster, the guys that we have, we have a great team. We have a team that’s winning a title.”
Blatche had 23 points and 9 rebounds Tuesday night in a Nets win, so maybe he's onto something.
You really, really shouldn't be worried about the Celtics' 1-4 record to start the preseason. Really. But the Celtics have also faced the Sixers and Knicks and have seen the potential of those two teams first hand. After a knock-down, drag-out playoff series last season, Philadelphia rolled over the Celtics Monday night. The Celtics were without Kevin Garnett, but the Sixers were without newly-acquired big man Andrew Bynum. Does Bynum make the Sixers a contender? Considering how close Philadelphia was to beating the Celtics last season, the addition of Bynum, Jason Richardson, and Kwame Brown to a core of Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and Lavoy Allen is at the very least intriguing.
The Knicks made moves as well in the offseason, skewing older by adding Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace, and 35-year-old rookie point guard Pablo Prigioni. New arrival Raymond Felton said his team was one to be reckoned with after beating the Celtics in Hartford Saturday night.
“Just two rival teams trying to make statements," said Felton. "This ain’t a real game but we’re still letting y’all know, it’s going to be a dogfight. And on both sides, we understand that, we know that.”
Rivers was asked Tuesday if he viewed the Nets as contenders.
"We're looking at everybody that way," said Rivers. "Our division is hard this year, and that's fine. Obviously we prefer it to be the way it's been, that was just terrific. But it's a hard division. It's not just the Nets, it's not just the Knicks, Philadelphia. It's just going to be a tough division."
Brooklyn's Williams made the cover of a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, a cover that celebrates both the team's talent on the court and new-found marketing ability. The last Nets player to make the cover of SI was Kidd in 2003. That was before the Celtics were perennial division winners, when the Atlantic truly was a dogfight. It may be that way again, but until proven otherwise, in the race for the Atlantic, all roads run through Boston.