NEW YORK — The new Atlantic Division is going to take some getting used to.
It’s just a couple of months removed from the Boston Celtics not winning the division for the first time in five years. And now, we have Boston playing a season without Paul Pierce for the first time this century.
In a blockbuster deal that can’t go through until July 10, Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry are coming to Brooklyn in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Reggie Evans, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph and three first-round picks. The deal has to wait until the 10th – the end of the free agency moratorium period – because Bogans has to be signed to a new contract first. (Nets GM Billy King met with the media Thursday night, but when asked about the moves he made, only spoke of draft pick Mason Plumlee.)
After a somewhat disappointing first season in their new home, the Nets are pushing forward and willing to pay a huge luxury tax bill. Their new starting lineup – Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Pierce, Garnett and Brook Lopez – is set to make more than $82 million next season. Mikhail Prokhorov’s bankroll knows no limits and King isn’t afraid to pull the trigger on major deals.
As long as they’re mostly healthy and kept fresh throughout the season, Pierce and Garnett will make the Nets better. Pierce gives them much better spacing and shooting at small forward than Wallace did, and Garnett is obviously a huge defensive upgrade for a team that ranked 19th on that end of the floor last season. Along with new coach Jason Kidd, the old Celtics will give the Nets some much-needed character and toughness.
The Celtics are obviously taking a huge step backward. Danny Ainge has finally hit the reset button on his roster, and rightfully so. Boston was a mediocre squad (and rather dreadful offensively) even before Rajon Rondo tore his ACL in late January. With no guarantee that Rondo will be 100 percent next season, no way to make significant improvements with Pierce’s and Garnett’s salaries still on the payroll, and a strong draft class coming up in 2014, now is the right time to be bad.
The Philadelphia 76ers are clearly ready to be bad, too, sending 24-year-old All-Star Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for the draft rights to Nerlens Noel (the No. 6 pick in Thursday’s draft) and the Hornets’ 2014 first round pick. So, Philly will rebuild with (likely) four Lottery picks in two years, including Michael Carter-Williams, who they selected at No. 11 on Thursday and who replaces Holiday at point guard.
With how bad they’ll be next season, the Sixers will have a decent chance to get the much-hyped Andrew Wiggins with next year’s No. 1 pick. New GM Sam Hinkie was quick to put his imprint on the franchise and is clearly willing to wait to see his plan come to fruition. Just 10 1/2 months after trading for Andrew Bynum, Philly is going in a whole new direction. And it may be the closest any team has come to replicating the method in which the Oklahoma City Thunder built a championship contender.
For now, the Celtics and Sixers will be buried near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, while the Nets and Knicks reside somewhere near the top and the Toronto Raptors hope that a full season of Rudy Gay can get them back to the playoffs.
It will be a very different Atlantic Division come October, but it’s hard to argue with the moves made by the three teams in question. Brooklyn’s success obviously hinges on the health of Pierce and Garnett, but they didn’t give up much in terms of warm bodies to get them, they upgraded at both forward positions, and the picks they gave up will likely be in the 20s. They’re always willing to buy additional picks if they need to.
The Celtics are taking a step backward at the right time. And the Sixers weren’t going far with Holiday and Thaddeus Young as their best players. No one knows how good either team will be three or four years from now, but hitting the floor now gives them higher ceilings down the line.
In one day, the Atlantic Division underwent major changes that will be felt for a long time.