But do the Nets have a realistic chance at winning the division this year?
"'I think it's the strongest division top to bottom,'' said Johnson as he stood in the hallway outside Rivers' office before the game Tuesday. 'Even some of the teams like us that are coming up from the bottom -- we've improved our roster. Boston has been the example in this division for a long time, and what they've done has just been great. Philadelphia, they've had a good run -- and obviously we're going to have to wait and see what happens with Bynum. And New York, they've kind of turned around their team for the last year or two. It's going to be a tough division every night.'
It could grow to resemble the Atlantic of the early '80s, when the Celtics, 76ers and Knicks were contenders averaging around 50 wins a season. The Northeast is not only the birthplace of basketball but also its spiritual home. In recent years it had threatened to become a kind of no-go area for NBA stars who preferred warmer weather, lower taxes and less demanding audiences. But Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have restored and maintained the Celtic identity. Bynum has welcomed his move from laid-back Los Angeles to confrontational Philadelphia. Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony chose to leave the West and become Knicks, and Deron Williams turned down a chance to move home to Dallas in order to follow the Nets to their new home in Brooklyn."