Grading the NBA’s Atlantic Division
There’s an ongoing debate over whether or not the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets have a rivalry. But regardless of whether the season’s first two matchups — an overtime Nets’ win and a 3-point victory for the Knicks on Tuesday — are indicative of future impassioned battles isn’t really important.
The truth is, the Atlantic is already a more competitive — and violent — division. Not only did the Knicks, Nets and 76ers make dramatic offseason moves, there’s already been a major scuffle between the Nets and the Boston Celtics. Knicks and Nets fans are shouting over each other at Barclays Center and the 76ers remain a viable threat for a playoff spot.
Before last season the Atlantic Division hadn’t really been competitive since 2006-2007, when the Raptors topped the Nets by six games. But times change and the Atlantic is finally entertaining again.
Here are HOOPSWORLD’s Atlantic Division grades:
Boston Celtics (11-9) – C+
The offseason moves were intriguing. President Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers felt comfortable keeping Kevin Garnett at center, which meant the biggest need was a replacement for Ray Allen (they found three in Leandro Barbosa, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry). They failed to add a true point guard behind Rajon Rondo, but they did re-sign Jeff Green and that turned out to be one of the smarter decisions of the offseason.
Green’s Player Efficiency Rating still hovers under the league average, but he’s evolved into one of the Celtics’ best defenders and the main weapon against Eastern Conference forwards like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
Unfortunately the Celtics’ team defense hasn’t been what it was in the past. Unlike previous seasons, when Boston ranked among the league leaders in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), Rivers’ squad currently sits at 11th in that category. And seeing as they’re just 14th in offensive efficiency and 29th in rebounding rate (percentage of missed shots rebounded), their mediocre record is definitely reflecting mediocre play.
The Celtics still have a positive point differential (which isn’t all that meaningful at this early stage of the season) but their overall numbers have been disappointing.
Conclusion: Even more than previous years, the Celtics need time to learn to play together. Terry is an awkward fit at first in any offense and Paul Pierce is destined to improve upon his overall field goal percentage (41.5 percent) and 3-point percentage (34.8 percent). The Celtics will have their late-season surge, but this time it will have to come in a much tougher division.
Brooklyn Nets (11-9) – B-
Brooklyn is an impressive 4-1 in the Atlantic after Tuesday’s narrow loss to the Knicks, but not every game can be played in the division.
As expected, the defense hasn’t been great (just 18th in defensive efficiency), but things have been even worse in the six games without center Brook Lopez as the Nets have yielded at least 97 points in five of six matchups and are just 1-5 over that span.
The defense has been passable when Lopez has played. As coach Avery Johnson said on Tuesday, when the Nets score, they can set up their halfcourt defense properly. The issue is they haven’t been scoring as well without Lopez in the lineup.
The good news is that Lopez’s foot isn’t going to keep him out long (Johnson put his concern over Lopez’s foot at 2 out of 10) and when he does return, Brooklyn will once again have one of the better offenses in the NBA.
You can’t expect Jerry Stackhouse to continue to shoot like this (42.9 percent from 3-point range), but Andray Blatche should be able to sustain his offensive production (11.2 points, 6.6 rebounds per game) because he fits in on offense and he’s in the best shape of his career.
As for the major offseason purchases, general manager Billy King has been justified for the most part. Deron Williams (16.8 points, 8.7 assists per game), Joe Johnson (16 points, 3.6 assists per game) and Lopez (18.5 points, 6.8) have all produced on offense while Gerald Wallace has been defended the league’s best forwards (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony).
Conclusion: This team can get better. When Lopez returns to health and if Mirza Teletovic — the recipient of the team’s bi-annual exception — finds a role on offense, this will be one of the toughest teams in the league to defend.
New York Knicks (16-5) – A
Mike Woodson’s club is second in the league in offensive efficiency, fifth in true shooting percentage and has hit a remarkable 11.9 3-pointers per game this season (over two more per game than the Rockets, who rank second).
The veterans have been impressive for the most part. Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd have formed a very efficient backcourt while Iman Shumpert recovers from offseason knee surgery and Rasheed Wallace has provided some energy off the bench.
But the real story has been Carmelo Anthony, who is finally starting to play like an elite player should.
“He’s an MVP guy,” Woodson said after Tuesday’s win in which Anthony scored 45 points. “He’s playing at such a high level. He got double-teamed and he sacrificed the ball when that happened. To me, it says a lot because he’s got to do that. He trusts the guys around him to make the shots. What can you say?”
But there are issues with the Knicks. We all know about the ongoing dilemma of what to do when Amar’e Stoudemire returns from his knee injury (does he start or come off the bench?), the defense isn’t what it was last season and the rebounding has been atrocious (New York ranks 27th in rebounding rate).
Conclusion: Saying “things will even out” for the Knicks doesn’t show much of a sense of history, but their winning percentage should level off somewhat before the end of the season. That’s not to say things will “even out.” The Knicks are a perpetual circus and if they’re not going undefeated at home, they’re losing two of three on the road. Bottom line: Whatever happens will be entertaining.
Philadelphia 76ers (12-9) – B
Meet the Atlantic Division’s streakiest team.
The 76ers have had back-to-back losses four times already this season, but in spite of Andrew Bynum’s absence, they’ve remained competitive.
To be fair, there are two reasons Philadelphia is over .500. The first is that Doug Collins is a tremendous defensive coach (76ers rank 10th in defensive efficiency despite the absence of Bynum) and the second is that Jrue Holiday is finally living up to his potential (18.0 points, 8.9 assists per game).
Considering that Holiday hasn’t had many offensive weapons to pass to (Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner each average 15 ppg and Jason Richardson has a 12.5 ppg average) the 76ers could really take off if and when Bynum returns.
If that doesn’t happen or if Bynum’s knee limits him when he gets back, the 76ers won’t really be a factor. But if Bynum can get healthy, then a domino effect can take place in which the defense tightens up, the offense gets more chances in transition and shooters like Richardson and (sigh) Nick Young would have more space in the half court.
Conclusion: It’s all up to Bynum’s body. If the knees are good, this team has as much depth as the Knicks (seriously, that’s not an overstatement), but if not, they’re looking at an eighth seed or worse.
Toronto Raptors (4-18) – F
If we were grading the Raptors on long-term goals, they’d be in decent shape. They have their point guard in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan is finally starting to become a scorer and — most importantly — Jonas Valanciunas has shown occasional flashes of being a legitimate NBA center.
But the fact is, they’re not much of a threat right now. Outside of Jose Calderon and Mickael Pietrus, nobody is hitting 3-pointers, they’re 26th in rebounding rate, 23rd in offensive efficiency and 26th in defensive efficiency.
Toronto would do best to swap veterans for future assets, but the longer they play, the less valuable their current roster will seem to the rest of the league.
Conclusion: Best case: The Toronto Raptors have a lottery pick. Worst case: It goes to the Oklahoma City Thunder via the Lowry and James Harden deals. Yuck.
This is the second in a five part series from HOOPSWORLD grading each division in the NBA. Check out Monday’s Central Division analysis from senior NBA Writer Joel Brigham here and Derek Page’s Southwest Division analysis here.