NBA Preview: Rondo Will Lead the Celtics To the Atlantic Crown

2011–12 Record: 39-27

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: One of the top point guards in the league in Rajon Rondo, who can split defenses with pinpoint passes and lock down opposing guards on the other end of the floor. The Celtics also have two intriguing rookies in forward Jared Sullinger and center Fab Melo.

WHAT THEY NEED: For forward Paul Pierce and center Kevin Garnett to keep defying their ages — Pierce is 35, Garnett, 36 — and play with the intensity that has become the C's trademark.

BOTTOM LINE: With the addition of supersub guard Jason Terry, forward Jeff Green back from heart surgery, Rondo's rise to superstar status, and KG leading a strong defensive effort, the Celtics should be a top three seed going into the playoffs.

[Photo Gallery: NBA stars with new teams]

2011–12 Record: 22–44

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: Guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who can keep up with any backcourt in the NBA. Williams was often asked to do too much last year — he scored a career-best 21 ppg, but his 8.7 apg was his lowest since 2005–06. Johnson's scoring skill (18.8 ppg last season) allows Williams to pass the ball more, and the Nets' offense will benefit.

WHAT THEY NEED: Center Brook Lopez and forward Kris Humphries must establish a physical presence inside to set a defensive tone. Also guard MarShon Brooks needs to be a better scorer off the bench.

BOTTOM LINE: The All-Star guards will give Brooklyn its first playoff appearance since the Dodgers lost the World Series in 1956.

[Video: NBA rookie photo shoot]

jrue holiday3. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
2011–12 Record: 35–31

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: The top big man in the East. Andrew Bynum is healthy, driven, and ready to be a franchise player. With Bynum and a talented core that includes guards Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, Philly hopes to build on last year's surprising playoff run.

The departure of Andre Iguodala means Holiday is now the top dog in Philly's backcourt. He has shown bursts of talent over the past few years, but he will need to raise his level of play for the 76ers to compete with the NBA's elite teams.

The Sixers are young, athletic, and motivated. Another playoff spot is almost certain, but this year Bynum, Holiday, and Co. will have their eyes set on a bigger prize.

2011–12 Record: 36–30

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: A still-potent inside-outside duo in forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. Over the summer, Anthony looked explosive in Team USA's run to Olympic gold, and Stoudemire worked with legend Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post game. The Knicks also have a dominant defensive presence in center Tyson Chandler.

WHAT THEY NEED: A point guard who can handle the ball. The options? Raymond Felton is coming off an inconsistent year in Portland, and Jason Kidd will turn 40 during the season.

BOTTOM LINE: A playoff spot should be in the cards. And if the Knicks reach the second round, New Yorkers may even forget about the whole Jeremy Lin drama.

2011–12 Record: 23–43

WHAT THEY'VE GOT: The supremely underrated forward Andrea Bargnani. Selected first overall in 2006, the seven-footer averaged 19.5 points last season, and his range extends beyond the arc. With the arrival of Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas, Bargnani can now move to his natural position of power forward. Toronto also signed Kyle Lowry, a top budding point guard.

WHAT THEY NEED: A bona fide leader. Toronto has a bunch of exciting talent; the challenge will be finding the right team chemistry.

BOTTOM LINE: The Raptors will make progress, but the playoff picture is crowded. Toronto may be left on the outside looking in.

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