NBA’s worst division remains fascinatingly mediocre
By Joe Manganiello
The Atlantic is the worse division in basketball, and there is no guarantee that a single Atlantic team finishes with a winning record. With that said, it remains one of the more intriguing divisional races in years, a battle for who can make the playoffs (apparently) by the slimmest margin. With about two months remaining before the post-season, here is a look at what’s going on along the East Coast.
Toronto has been out in front (by default) for most of the season, but is showing serious signs of “We Have Been Completely Over-Achieving.” They are shooting just 44 percent over their last fourteen games, a dangerous rate while playing at a snail’s pace – the Raptors are averaging 93 possessions per game over that stretch, eighth-worst in the league, per NBA.com – which has led to a 7-7 record. What’s saved them since the Rudy Gay trade has been perimeter play, where the Raptors continue to shoot and make threes at league-high rates. But without much of an interior presence, Toronto is going to have a difficult time scoring and defending well enough to restrain surging Brooklyn from taking over first place.
The Nets couldn’t defend an empty mailbox in the beginning of the year, but 2014 has been a huge turnaround. Sans Brook Lopez, and using hyper-small lineups with Paul Pierce at power forward, Brooklyn has had the sixth-highest defensive efficiency in basketball over their last seventeen games. Brooklyn is outscoring opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions over that stretch – for the record, Toronto’s net efficiency rating is 5.4 – and opponents are managing just 44 percent shooting against them. If Jason Kidd’s Nets can maintain this new identity, one that forces league-high turnover rates and sloppy field goal percentages, they will make the playoffs, and should take over the Atlantic.
Since their five-game winning streak in January, the Knicks are 5-9. What began in the early-goings of the season as a team struggling to perform without key personnel has transformed into a mess of inconsistency. They are scoring and giving up exactly 108 points per 100 possessions over their last fourteen games, and despite arguably being the best three-point shooting team in the league over that stretch (137 makes on 39.3 percent shooting), they are also giving up the third-most three-pointers per game. Opponents get whatever shots they want against New York, in large part because the Knicks are a below-average rebounding team (and, on a personal note, are near-unwatchable on the defensive end because of their ridiculous switching patterns). New York really shouldn’t make the playoffs, although as Bill Simmons pointed out last night on ABC, the fact that they might speaks volumes for how pathetic the East has performed.
Even with Rajon Rondo back, the Celtics are not a good enough team to win games this season. They have fine wins in the new year, and have the worst shooting percentage in basketball (41.4 percent). Boston shares the basement of the Atlantic with Philadelphia, also lottery-bound due in large part to their terrible shooting (42.6 percent). With Philly, it should be noted, they have the lowest offensive efficiency in 2014 at 94.8 points per 100 possessions – well below Boston’s 97.4 (third-worst). These are bad teams who struggle to score points, and get pummeled on the defensive end because they can’t control tempo. Best of luck in the lottery, Boston and Philadelphia.
Joe Manganiello (@joemags32) is a staff writer for PickinSplinters.com. He was published in the 2013-14 USA Today Sports College Basketball Preview. Peace, love, recycle and ball.