Atlantic takes aim at Raps

T.J. Ford believes he can be an East all-star in 2008. (SUN MEDIA FILE/Ernest Doroszuk)

T.J. Ford believes he can be an East all-star in 2008. (SUN MEDIA FILE/Ernest Doroszuk)

STEVE BUFFERY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 3:18 PM ET

The Raptors will discover this year that defending is much more difficult than winning.

Toronto's NBA franchise surprised everyone last season, improving by 20 games and winning the Atlantic Division.

An argument can be made that general manager Bryan Colangelo upgraded his lineup during the off-season by adding a couple of talented small forwards, free agent Jason Kapono, the reigning NBA three-point king from the Miami Heat, and the under-utilized Carlos Delfino from the Detroit Pistons. Gone is Morris Peterson.

Kapono, Anthony Parker and Andrea Bargnani give the Raptors perhaps the best long-range shooting trio in the NBA. At the very least, the addition of Kapono should firmly establish the Raps as one of the highest-scoring teams in the East, and the denizens of the Air Canada Centre also expect to improve based on the fact that their three young standouts -- Chris Bosh, Bargnani and T.J. Ford -- have one more NBA season under their belts.

DEPTH A STRENGTH

"I think our depth is one of our strengths," second-year guard Parker says. "Coach always says: It's not going to be your night 82 games out of the year. And we have guys that can come in and fill the void and really not drop off at all. I think that's a great luxury to have."

One major reason for the 20-game improvement last year was the Raptors' improved defence -- down to 98.5 points allowed per game from 104.0 the year before. But they will need continue to improve in that area if they expect to top their 47 wins of last season.

But unlike last year, the Raptors will take no one by surprise. Winning the division title is all well and good, but that only means that clubs in the much-improved Atlantic will be gunning for the Raptors this year.

"Our division has gotten better, no question," Parker says. "But, in our mind, it's going to be another tough year. We're not coming in cocky and we're not coming in arrogant. We know we're going to have to gut it out."

As to which teams win the Atlantic and the Eastern Conference, it could come down to injuries.

The Boston Celtics are the consensus team to beat in the Atlantic. However, a substantial injury to any of their Big Three -- Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen or Paul Pierce -- means the Celtics would fall to the nether regions of the NBA East.

The same could be said for Bosh and the Raptors. If Bosh's sore left knee forces him to miss games and practices -- as his plantar faciitis did last season -- the Raps are in trouble.

The talk of the NBA this year is the once sad-sack Celtics. Danny Ainge, Boston's executive director of basketball operations, made a pair of bold moves in the off-season, trading a slew of players for superstar Garnett.

TOP TRIO

He also signed Allen and, along with Pierce, the Celtics have arguably the best starting three since the Chicago Bulls trio of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. No wonder they are the pick of almost every publication and/or website to win the division and, in some forecasts, the conference.

"They have the all-stars, the names, and they're a good team," Parker says of the Celtics. "New Jersey is also a good team, New York has improved. I don't think we're the consensus team to beat in our division."

For whatever reason, the New Jersey Nets, who defeated the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs last season in six games, haven't received much respect from the pundits, despite the fact that they have a threesome almost as dangerous as the Boston trio. Any team with Jason Kidd running the offence is dangerous. Throw in Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, and there is no reason why the Nets shouldn't be in every game. Also, Nenad Krstic is back after missing 56 games last year with a torn ACL in his left knee. He is considered one of the best young big men in the NBA. Add in Toronto native Jamaal Magloire, who signed a one-year deal in the off-season, and the Nets are perfectly capable of winning the Atlantic.

The Detroit Pistons, despite being swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games in the Eastern final, are still a quality team and could push for the East title.

They are aging and don't rebound well, but still have some all-star calibre players in Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace.

The Bulls are a hard-driving squad that plays excellent defence for coach Scott Skiles. They have a balanced attack, featuring forward Luol Deng, one of the most improved players in the NBA, as well as splendid sixth man Ben Gordon and defensive stalwart Ben Wallace.

The Cavs will be hard-pressed to repeat as East champions with two key players holding out, in Anderson Varajao and Sasha Pavlovic. The other question is how much does centre Zydrunas Ilgauskas have left in the tank and how long can James carry the team?

And, finally, the one other team that could make some noise in the East is the Miami Heat, even though all-star guard Dwyane Wade will miss the start of the season recovering from shoulder surgery.

Shaquille O'Neal is the most dominating big man in the NBA and can still come up with monster games. At the very least, he draws double-teams and opens up the court for his teammates.

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PREDICTIONS

STEVE BUFFERY

NBA champ: San Antonio

Finalist: Detroit

Atlantic champ: Toronto

Raptors wins: 47

MVP: Kevin Garnett

Rookie: Kevin Durant SEA

STEVE SIMMONS

NBA champ: Phoenix

Finalist: Detroit

Atlantic champ: New Jersey

Raptors wins: 44

MVP: Kobe Bryant

Rookie: Luis Scola HOU

MIKE GANTER

NBA champ: Phoenix

Finalist: Chicago

Atlanta champs: Toronto

Raptors wins: 48

MVP: Steve Nash

Rookie: Mike Conley Jr. MEM


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