The Battle of the NBA's Atlantic Division
The Atlantic Division is bad. Historically bad. Like, playing at a rate that would make it the worst division in the history of sports bad.
Let’s put the standings to date on front street and collectively try to hold down our lunch:
There are countless fun facts that come from comparing this division to the rest of the NBA these days. Here are some of my favorites:
The division “leading” Boston Celtics actually have a worse record than 7 teams in the Eastern Conference and 13 in the Western Conference. Thirteen!
The Atlantic Division does not have one single team that has a winning record on the road. The Sixers are the only team with a winning home record at 6-5. The Celtics are the only team with a winning record against opponents within their conference at 7-6 (a conference that isn’t exactly stacked, considering it has two teams with records over .500).
Speaking of which, those two teams, the Pacers and the Heat, have combined for 31 wins, while the entire Atlantic Division has combined for 29.
The Celtics currently have a win percentage of .400. The lowest winning percentage to ever win the Atlantic Division title was the 2004-2005 Celtics, who finished with a record of 45-37 and a winning percentage of .549.
To match that mark, the Celtics would have to go 37-25 (.597), the Sixers 38-25 (.603), the Raptors 39-26 (.600), the Nets 40-24 (.625), or the Knicks 42-24 (.636). Basically, for either of these teams to come away as a division winner and not be the worst one in history, they would need to win over 60 percent of their remaining games.
Our current team nERD ratings (an evolving stat that predicts a team’s final record based on a myriad of factors, regressions, simulations, etc.) suggest that the eventual winner is unlikely to escape the fate of being named the worst in the history of the division
The team ranking is on a scale from 0-100, with 50 as the league average. This ranking is predictive of the team's ultimate winning percentage. Put simply, the Raptors’ division-leading ranking of 45.1 suggests that they will ultimately win 45.1% of their games this year. Thus, that would put their final record at 37-45.
Wow, those records look even uglier together when projected over a full season.
While a historically bad outcome seems likely, these teams still have something to fight for. Based on the current NBA rules for playoff seeding, the winner of any division is guaranteed to be no lower than the fourth seed in the playoffs, regardless of record. In which case, even if these five teams continue to be inept at professional basketball, the one that is slightly less inept than the rest will get a playoff birth, a cozy seed that would likely save them from the Heat or Pacers in the first round, and a divisional banner that they would probably be too ashamed to hang in their gym.
So, who has the best chance of emerging with this (dis)honor and who is destined to stay in the basement? Who will be the cream of the crap and who will continue to be...well, you know...
Why are they bad?
Lack of talent. Their offensive rating of 97.8 has them at 26th in the league. They are last in the league in assist percentage at 49.4 and in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.08. They give up the second most second chance points in the league at 14.8, while giving up 11.6 offensive rebounds per game (seventh most in the league) by only grabbing 72.8% of their defensive rebound chances (sixth worst in the league).
Their poor assist and rebounding numbers come from having a lot of in-between players and not a lot of healthy and effective options at the PG and PF/C positions. With Rajon Rondo recovering from an ACL repair, Jordan Crawford and Avery Bradley (both natural SGs) have been handling PG duties. Crawford has been a pleasant surprise, but he’s still out of position and his 30.0 assist percentage makes him the only guard on the team over 8.8.
As for the bigs, the only true Cs on the roster are raw rookies Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani. Olynyk is currently listed as out indefinitely with a sprained right ankle and Faverani drifts in and out of relevance, posting season averages of 5.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 16.2 minutes per game. Jared Sullinger has been showing some positive development, but his conditioning is often a concern. The big rotation is only further muddied by Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries, who trade off decent games with terrible ones.
Can they be better?
Better question: Do they want to be?
When GM Danny Ainge traded franchise cornerstones Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and gave away the rights to one of the league’s best coaches in Doc Rivers this past offseason, they got a head start on the “Riggin’ for Wiggins” campaign. They can swear they aren’t tanking until they’re blue in the face, but the move is undeniable.
That’s not saying that rebuilding a franchise after giving it a good run with some aging veterans is anything to be ashamed of. With Rajon Rondo eventually coming back (as a player or trade chip), a talented young coach in place in Brad Stevens, and a good collection of financial flexibility and draft picks, the future is plenty bright for the Celtics.
If anything, their current lead in the division is a step backwards for the franchise. That’s fine, they’re not likely to hold on to it for long. Their current nERD rating of 37.0 puts them at 24th on our NBA Team Rankings. As other teams in the division get better, expect that Celtics to get worse.
Rondo still hasn’t been fully cleared for practice, so the Celts will continue to run with Jeff Green (a perennial third or fourth option) as their lead man, while giving heavy minutes to inefficient guys like Avery Bradley (PER of 10.6), Kelly Olynyk (9.3), and Gerald Wallace (9.3). That’s a recipe for cooking a draft pick, not a fourth seed in the playoffs.
Why are they bad?
Well, given the circumstances, maybe we shouldn’t consider the Sixers “bad”. Granted, they’re not exactly “good” either, but they’re definitely better than expected.
Much like the Celtics, the Sixers gave a clear indication this past offseason that they were building for later and not now. They traded all-star PG Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans for rookie Nerlens Noel (who might not play this year) and a top-five protected pick in next year’s draft. Vegas gave them an over/under win total of 16.5, a number they’re on pace to almost double.
So, why are they bad by traditional standards? Well, they have the 24th-ranked offense (offensive rating of 99.0) and the 27th-ranked defense (defensive rating of 105.0) in the league. They give up a league-worst 19.7 points off turnovers and 18.1 fast break points per game. True, that’s a natural extension of leading the league in pace at 102.07 possessions per 48 minutes, but it’s certainly not a good thing (as evidenced by the low net rating of -6.0).
Can they be better?
Much like the Celtics, the Sixers organization probably doesn’t want to be. This is a team that’s clearly built for the future, but the scary thing about their early success (relatively speaking) is that they are probably going to get even better with time.
Of all the players that have stepped on the floor for the Sixers this season, not a single one is over 25 years old. Three of their best players, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, and Spencer Hawes, are all 25 years old and likely have yet to reach their full potential.
Rookie PG Michael-Carter Williams has been thrust into a huge role (36.7 minutes per game and a usage rate of 24.7) and has been putting up numbers that have him currently leading the discussion for Rookie of the Year honors. In 15 games, he has averaged 17.7 points (rookie leader), 5.8 rebounds (rookie leader, which is impressive given his position, and league leader among PGs), 7.3 assists (rookie leader), and 3.1 steals (league leader).
Their rookie coach Brett Brown was handed lemons and has been making semi-sweet lemonade. He doesn’t have the personnel to contend, but there are good signs emerging for the team moving forward. They lead the league in average field goal attempts within five feet (36.3 per game) and from 25-29 feet (14.9), while coming second last in attempts from 15-19 feet (10.6 per game) and last in attempts from 20-24 (9.6). Essentially, Brown seems to have forbidden the inefficient mid-range game, while encouraging his team to shoot more effective shots like those around the basket and the ones worth more points (three is still more than two, right?).
Once Noel comes back, potentially with two other lottery picks in a very deep 2014 draft, this Sixers team could start making some serious noise as early as next year. Don’t rule out the possibility of trades for picks and flexibility between now and then too. This year, they will likely continue at their current pace and probably exceed initial expectations in the process. Regardless of management’s plans, it’s not like you can tell young players and a rookie coach not to give it their all as they fight to prove that they belong in this league. They’re still not a playoff team and are not likely to win this division, but a little earlier-than-planned success is nothing to get upset about.
Why are they bad?
Ball movement, or lack thereof. The Raps are 28th in the league in assist percentage (how many of the team’s field goals are assisted) at 50.1% and 27th in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.16. A large cause of this problem is the iso-ball being played by Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan.
The two are averaging a combined 36.6 field goal attempts per game of their team’s 82.9 (that’s 44% of the team’s shots), but are only shooting a combined .413 from the field. Gay, in particular, is not making the most of his 18.8 averaged attempts. He’s currently sporting a true shooting percentage of .466 and an effective field goal percentage of .420 as the player with the team’s highest usage rating at 30.7 (which ranks fifth in the whole league).
Can they be better?
This year, there are three types of teams in the league: those playing for a championship, those playing to make the playoffs, and those playing to win the draft lottery (or not playing to win, depending on how you look at it). The Raptors are stuck squarely in the middle; a fringe playoff team that has little chance of contending, but is probably not bad enough to get the highest lottery pick (remember, there are some bad teams in the East). It’s a discouraging zone, where teams get mired in mediocrity for years, occasionally making the playoffs to be swept in the first round or barely missing the playoffs and getting the lowest lottery pick in the draft. So, do they really want to be better or should they shoot to be worse?
The Raptors currently sport the 8th best defensive rating in the league at 100.4. That offsets their 20th ranked offensive rating of 100.7 and gives them a serviceable net rating of 0.2, good enough for a spot in the middle at 14th in the league. A change in offensive philosophy could probably go a long way in making the Raptors a contender to win the division and give its fan base their first playoff birth since 2008.
Trading Gay and/or DeRozan would pave the way for a more efficient inside-out approach featuring promising big man, Jonas Valanciunas. This situation would likely be a win-win-win for Toronto GM Masai Ujiri. He would develop his young big man, add future flexibility by shedding the salaries of one to two of his highest (over)paid players, and probably even put a team on the floor with a better chance of winning this year. Getting rid of Gay, in particular, would be a major addition-by-subtraction scenario, considering he currently sports a nERD rating of -8.5, putting him at 144 on our NBA Player Rankings.
Or, they could do absolutely nothing, continue at their current middle-of-the-pack pace, miss out on the playoffs by a couple games and get another late lottery pick. My guess is that Ujiri won’t let that happen.
Why are they bad?
Where does one begin?
Is it the 21 combined games that their Big Five of Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Joe Johnson have missed due to injury (not to mention an additional 14 by their offseason signing and projected sixth man, Andrei Kirilenko)?
Maybe it’s the fact that their rookie head coach, Jason Kidd, has been making headlines for things like suspensions due to DUIs, fines for intentionally spilling drinks on the court, or having assistant coach Lawrence Frank “reassigned” by the team for disagreeing with him.
How about the fact that they flat out stink on both ends of the floor? They have a 27th-ranked net rating of -8.0 as a result of their 22nd-ranked offensive rating (99.5) and 30th-ranked defensive rating (107.5). They are 23rd in the league in total rebound percentage (48.6) and 23rd in effective field goal percentage (.472). Basically, the only thing they do well is wear black jerseys (which are still awesome, for what it’s worth).
Can they be better?
Considering they have the highest payroll in the league (roughly $103.1 million, which is $44.4 million over the salary cap), one would hope so. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has deep pockets, but all the luxury tax payments he’s forking out weren’t meant to be for a team with a .278 winning percentage. Something’s got to give.
The recent return of Brook Lopez from an ankle injury should help, but the team is still indefinitely without Deron Williams (ankle), Kirilenko (back), and Jason Terry (knee), while Paul Pierce is set to miss two to four weeks with a broken shooting hand. Throw in the fact that Kevin Garnett is 37 years old, only plays one game out of every back-to-back set, and has the worst defensive rating he’s had since 1998 (103) to go along with career lows in minutes (22.7), points (6.5), field goal percentage (.363), and…well, pretty much everything. Basically, a turnaround isn’t imminent.
That’s not to say the Nets won’t get better. This roster is undeniably talented and we’re not long removed from when Vegas placed their over/under for wins on the season at 52.5. That total is becoming increasingly more unattainable by the loss, but that’s not to say that they can’t win the hapless Atlantic Division. If the team can get healthy and Jason Kidd can figure out what coaching is (or better yet, someone else can do so in his place), then a turnaround is not out of the question.
The old super team has not had much championship success in the past ( see the 1996-97 Rockets, 2003-04 Lakers, 2012-13 Lakers), so perhaps we were too quick to anoint the 2013-14 Nets as contenders. On the other hand, players like Garnett and Pierce have far too much pride to let such a dismal season continue like this. They might not belong in the same conversation as the Heat and Pacers as contenders in the East, but they should at least expect to be the best team in a division with such lackluster competition.
New York Knicks
Why are they bad?
I could spare you the 200-plus words and just say “because they are”, but where would be the fun in that? Be warned though, these stats are not for the faint of heart.
The Knicks are the 24th-ranked NBA team in offensive rating (99.0), 28th in defensive rating (105.4), and 26th in net rating (-6.3). They rank 25th in effective field goal percentage (.469) and 27th in true shooting percentage (.503). They shoot .421 as a team from the field (27th in the league) and .322 from deep (28th). Despite the low efficiency from deep, they still chuck up the fourth most attempts per game at 25.3.They are last in the league in fast break points (7.9 per game), while giving up the tenth most (13.7 per game). A pathetic 37.3 percent of their points are assisted (27th in the league) and they only grab 48.6 percent of available rebounds (23rd in the league).
Their star player, Carmelo Anthony, is only ranked 78th on our NBA Player Rankings with a nERD of 0.0, despite being paid and treated like franchise players LeBron James (21.2), Kevin Durant (17.0), etc. ‘Melo is chucking up a league-leading 22.2 shots per game and only hitting at a rate of .423. He’s also hitting an unsightly .277 of his 4.1 attempts per game from three-point range. He’s talking about not having fun playing right now and we’re not having that much fun watching him.
Can they be better?
The Knicks of the last few years have lived and died by their offense. This year, they’re clearly dying by it. That presents a big problem, considering that powerful offense is what used to make up for their porous defense. The team employs noted defensive sieves like Melo and what’s left of Amar’e Stoudemire and they didn’t do much in the offseason to address the issue.
The team’s big acquisitions from this past summer were Andrea Bargnani (career defensive rating of 111) and a washed up Metta World Peace. They didn’t even hold the customary press conference to welcome those two to town, to give you an idea of how excited they are about it. They’re missing their best defensive frontcourt player, former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, due to a broken right fibula and they’re desperately shopping their best defensive guard, Iman Shumpert.
Alright, so a defensive improvement is probably out. Can they improve their offense? Well, shooting percentages might rise, but the Knicks rely far too heavily on iso-ball with Melo and J.R. Smith (much like the Raps with Gay/DeRozan). With neither of those two likely to be moved or for their playing style to change, it’s possible we’re seeing exactly what we’re going to get from this Knicks team.
The days when we once considered them a top-tier Eastern Conference team that could contend with the Heat, Pacers, Bulls, etc. are probably over for this current iteration. Instead, they’ll probably spend this season trying to prove they’re just good enough to win one of the worst divisions of all time.
On Thursday night, the Battle of the Atlantic rolls on as the Knicks visit the Nets in Brooklyn. What was recently considered a compelling rivalry between two contenders is now interesting for all the wrong reasons. Which team is actually as bad as their early season record suggests? Which one will panic and make changes first? Do either of them have a shot at eventually winning this miserable division or will they both lose to rebuilding franchises like the Celts or Sixers? At least in this case, one of them has to win the game, right?
It’s probably safe to assume that whichever team wins the division will make some kind of history. Whether that’s as the worst winner in the division’s history or the worst division winner in the history of sports remains to be seen. One has to assume that they can’t all stay this bad all season.
If the Nets get healthy or make a coaching change, they could creep back up into relevance. If the Raptors make a move or two, they could potentially have a shot at the playoffs. If the Knicks start dropping shots and winning important games, we could start taking them seriously again. If the Sixers or Celtics keep developing their young players at this rate, maybe one of them will accidentally win this division and screw themselves out of a high draft pick. Maybe the league will be ashamed of putting a 30-win team in playoffs as a fourth seed and will abolish divisions mid-season (Zach Lowe is probably onto something).
No matter what happens, the race to be the least mediocre will be fun to watch. The viewing public loves a good train wreck.