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For much of the past decade, the NBA’s toughest division has been the Southwest. Made up of the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets, the Southwest has seen all five of their teams compete for playoff spots more years than not, and teams in the division have won four championships since the turn of the century. During that time, each team but one had an iconic franchise player behind the scenes, with Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Yao Ming in Houston, and Chris Paul in New Orleans.

Times marches on, however, and with injuries claiming Yao, age catching up to Duncan, Nowitzki witnessing the dismemberment of his championship team, and Chris Paul now in LA with the Clippers, the Southwest is no longer the most challenging division in the NBA.

The 2012-13 NBA champion is likely going to be a team from the Pacific (the Los Angeles Lakers), the Northwest (the Oklahoma City Thunder), the Central (the Chicago Bulls) or the Southeast (Miami HEAT), but none of those divisions is going to be the toughest to compete against next season, either.

No, the toughest division, in the NBA in 2012-13 is most likely going to be the Atlantic, where all five teams can realistically expect to be in the playoff picture.

Six months ago it looked like the Boston Celtics might be on their way out, with team president Danny Ainge considering blowing up the team at the trade deadline. When the intact Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, it became clear that the team’s core group of veterans still had plenty of fight left in them. All but Ray Allen will be back next season, with a much-improved backcourt rotation featuring Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. The Celtics will be deeper and even younger, making them the odds-on favorite to win the toughest division in the NBA.

The New York Knicks have plenty of star power on their roster, with names like Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and now Jason Kidd leaping off of the game night program, but they still have a lot to prove, especially on the defensive end. Kidd will help that, and reuniting him with fellow Mavericks championship ring bearer Tyson Chandler was a smart move by management, but Kidd doesn’t have much left in the tank and the Knicks need more than two guys committed to playing great defense.

The most expensive team in the NBA next season will be the Brooklyn Nets; there is no question about that. Either “luxury tax” doesn’t translate into Russian or the team’s new owner simply doesn’t care about the cost of winning. Even with all of the money tied up in Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace, do those four stars make the Nets the team to beat in the East? Truthfully, they may not even have home court advantage in the first round. But they will be a playoff team, and they will also be one of the more interesting teams to watch in 2012-13.

A couple of weeks ago, the Philadelphia 76ers looked like they might be headed for the lottery. The plan, as they were saying at the time, was to start Kwame Brown and Spencer Hawes in the front court, and that sounded like a recipe for ping pong balls, for sure. Since then, however, the team has acquired Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson and looks more like a team that could challenge for home court advantage. Some things still have to go right, of course, such as Evan Turner taking a significant step forward next season, but at the very least the Sixers are going to be back in the playoffs behind Andrew Bynum’s projected dominance.

The only team that appears to be on the bubble in the Atlantic is the Toronto Raptors, though by the looks of their roster they should be very much in the mix for the East’s final playoff spot. Kyle Lowry was a brilliant (and highway robbery cheap) addition at point guard, Jonas Valanciunas is expected to have a tremendously positive impact on the team, and a healthy Andrea Bargnani will also be huge for the Raptors. Add to the mix a promising rookie in Terrence Ross, and the NBA’s lone Canadian team looks to be a playoff threat for the foreseeable future.

Again, the likely NBA champions won’t hail from the Atlantic Division, though one could always step up and surprise us. That said, there is no tougher division in the Atlantic, the only NBA division that could potentially see all five team qualify for postseason play.