Watching the Knicks take a loss 110-101 to the KG-less Celtics certainly provides some perspective on the gap between the two teams, despite their current close proximity in the standings. But it also draws into focus how improved the Atlantic Division is from top to bottom.
For over a decade now, the Western Conference has been regarded as the best conference in the NBA. Maybe since Tim Duncan came in the league and became the gold standard player for the gold standard franchise. Duncan, Shaq, Yao, Nowitzki, all the dominant big men played out west.
But one of the themes-du-jour for the current NBA season has been how that tide has clearly turned. Duncan, while still dominant, looks like a grandpa out there now, and many of the old guard have faded. Meanwhile the rise of Eastern Conference superstars like LeBron, Wade, and Dwight Howard have clearly balanced the talent ledger; for any stud you name out West, the East can match you.
Already home to of the world champion Celtics (sporting a 1-2 punch in Garnett and Pierce that should keep them in primary contender to the title status for at least a couple more years ), the Atlantic added Elton Brand to the Sixers, giving them a roster stuffed with more talent than a Philly steak-and-cheese. As well as Jermaine O'Neal to team with Chris Bosh in Toronto.
And finally, the Knicks and Nets are not nearly the weak pushover squads they were a year ago. Both teams are still a work in progress; but the Knicks now have the ability to out-system teams for wins, and are currently second in the division. While the Nets have successfully transitioned out of the Jason Kidd era with young talent and future cap flexibility.
Neither team is currently a legit contender for the division title, but that's in part due to the division being so much better. And a loss to the Celts is easier to swallow when you know they're the best. Both New York and New Jersey are rebuilding, and in that mode there's nothing wrong with taking a little pride from the company you keep.