NBA Team-by-Team Report Cards: Atlantic Division

By: Kevin LaFrancis

(Editor’s note: Over the next six days, Kevin will be breaking down every team in the NBA, division by division. This is part one of that series).

The Atlantic Division is the deepest of the three divisions in the Eastern conference. It is possible that half of the teams that make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference will be from this division. However, early observations indicate that all of these teams have massive improvements to make in order to win the conference come early June. From the bright lights of New York to the unseen lights in Toronto, here’s my take on the Atlantic division.

 Boston Celtics (Current Record: 6-5) 

Rajon Rondo has put together a ridiculous streak of 34 straight games with at least 10 assists. (AP Photo)

The Celtics have the most consistent distributor on the floor every night in Rajon Rondo, who has put together a remarkable streak of 34 straight games with double digit assists and averages a league high 13.1 helpers per game. Early in his career, Rondo took too many shots and limited his potential to make things happen in the flow of the offense. Coach Doc Rivers impacted Rondo, who now creates great plays like Shakespeare, by helping him become more unselfish with the basketball.  Because he had constantly played alongside three future Hall-of-Famers (Pierce, Allen, and Garnett), Rondo never needed to create much offense. However, times have changed. Ray Allen has left and Garnett’s legs are gone, too.

Rondo should be the team’s second option offensively behind Paul Pierce. (He’s shooting over 53% from the field, but taking less than 11 shots per game). He needs to get into the paint more if the Celtics hope to go far in the playoffs. On the other end, Garnett’s defense has become subpar; he looks like someone trying to catch up with a P90x workout. Still, the main issue with the Boston Celtics is their lack of a true post presence. Garnett and Brandon Bass both play more like power forwards, often scoring with their mid-range game. Ever since trading Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics have longed for an effective center. Boston does not get enough points in the paint or offensive rebounds, ranking 3rd to last and last in the league respectively. Despite Garnett’s woes, Doc continues to produce solid team results at the defense end. However, the limited second chances on the offensive end will prevent the team from winning games against top competition.

*Before Season Grade: B+
*Current Grade: B-
Early End of Regular Season Projection: 2nd in division, 3rd in conference


Brooklyn Nets (Current Record: 6-2)

A struggling Joe Johnson needs to start passing the rock a little more. (Getty Images)

The Nets have a fantastic presence in the paint. Center Brook Lopez commands the glass, leading the Nets to the best rebounding frontcourt in the division (33.5 rebounds per game). However, the Brooklyn backcourt ranks second-to-last in the league in the same category. Some of this can be attributed to the presence of effective big men and a conservative style of play. However, the Nets have attempted the fourth-most 3-pointers in the NBA, leading to a lot of long rebound opportunities that the guards are not capitalizing on. In addition, Joe Johnson is known as a deadly shooter, but he is only shooting 36% from the field. It’s early in the season, but taking over 14 shots a game demands consistent success. Simply put, Johnson has been less efficient than my 1996 Ford Taurus. He needs to get the ball to his teammates.

On the other hand, Lopez and Deron Williams have picked up the slack. Williams, who is averaging 18 points per game and 8 rebounds per game, commands the Nets offense. He gets the ball inside to the big men proficiently. Because defenses collapse on Lopez and power forward Kris Humphries, cutting lanes and open shots for guards become available. Off the bench, Providence alum MarShon Brooks has provided an excellent spark for the team as well. He had 14 points in 12 minutes against Sacramento. Andray Blatche and Mirza Teletovic provide fantastic assistance to Humphries and Lopez down low. Their bench efficiency is 2nd best in the division. Their team defense is 6th best in the league. Questions still linger about their defense in late game scenarios and their team shooting, but this team looks promising in the near future.

*Before Season Grade: B-
*Current Grade: B
Early End of Regular Season Projection: 3rd in division, 5th in Conference


New York Knicks (Current Record: 7-1)

The Knicks' D, led by Chandler, has been a main reason why they have raced out to a 7-1 mark. (AP)

The Knicks have put on a Broadway show thus far this season. Their defense is wreaking havoc, causing on average the fourth-most turnovers (17.1) and giving up the least points per game (90.0) in the league this season. New York does a great job at establishing a shell, limiting opposing teams from breaching the gaps and getting into the paint. Forcing opposing teams to take outside shots has been the formula for success. Tyson Chandler has been his usual self inside, making every basket in the paint hard-earned. Ronnie Brewer has been an absolute menace on both ends of the floor. The superb pickup has given the Knicks 8.5 points and 5 rebounds per game. J.R. Smith has provided suffocating perimeter defense as well. And then there’s Carmelo. Ever since being traded to the Big Apple, nobody has appreciated the fruits of his labor. He has been ridiculed for not winning on a team laden with individuals who didn’t mesh. The man has begun to silence his toughest critics, scoring the basketball at will while leading a cohesive unit on the defensive end. His 23.6 points per game ranks him 5th in the NBA in scoring.

Despite the fantastic start, the Knicks do need to make drastic improvements to their team rebounding, as they rank 24th in the league. New York is simply not finishing possessions, and they carelessly give opposing teams second chance opportunities. To create an analogy, it’s like finishing an essay and not turning it in to the professor. No matter how good a defense is during a possession, if the team gives up an offensive rebound their hard work means nothing.  This is the difference between a championship caliber team and a team that loses in the second round of the playoffs. These players are capable of fixing this problem if they commit themselves to boxing out and attacking the ball as it descends from the backboard.

*Before Season Grade: B
*Current Grade: A-

Early End of Season Projection: 1st in Division, 2nd in Conference


Philadelphia 76ers (Current Record: 6-4)

Jrue has made it Holiday season in Philly. (Getty Images)

I’m not calling it the Holliday season just because it’s late November. Without scrappy point guard Jrue Holliday, the 76ers would be near the bottom of the league. Holliday’s massive contributions (18.6 ppg and 8.6 apg) have led to the team’s decent 6-4 record, but still the Sixers have not been immensely successful thus far this season. One of the main reasons for their mediocrity comes from their lack of offensive movement. The Sixers do a good job at moving the basketball, but their off-ball movement is atrocious. Nick Young and Dorell Wright have difficulty creating space without assistance, and Jason Richardson’s ankle injury has hampered his agility. Due to his teammates’ inability to create off the dribble, Holliday most often works a screen and roll action with teammate Thaddeus Young while others stand around waiting for an open shot. Although pick and rolls are effective when combined with other offensive sets, the 76ers rely on them too heavily. As a result, opposing teams limit the success by compensating. Teams have one of their off-ball defenders keep a foot in the paint to prevent a pass to Thaddeus Young.

In spite of opponents’ adjustments, Holliday continues to make the offense work. Another contributor to their success has been the team’s dedication at the defensive end. The quality of the teams in the Atlantic division are a direct result of a collective focus on team defense. The Sixers hold their opponents to just 90.1 points per game, which ranks tied for second in the NBA behind the Knicks. In addition, they outrebound the Knicks by over two boards per game, demonstrating their ability to finish possessions. Philadelphia will reach the playoffs if it continues to devote itself to defense and rebounding, even if its offense is slightly below average. Unfortunately, maintaining this type of defensive intensity for the entire season seems unlikely.

*Before Season Grade: C+
Current Grade: C+
Early End of Season Projection: 4th in Division, 9th in Conference


Toronto Raptors (Current Record: 3-7)

Raptors fans anxiously await the return of point guard Kyle Lowry. (Getty Images)

The  Raptors are the worst team in the division, but they still have a fathomable chance to make the playoffs. Everything has gone wrong for the team from up north thus far. They are colder than their city’s climate from the field, shooting under 42%. They do not have a true vocal and emotional leader. For Raptors fans, optimism lies in the return of emerging point guard Kyle Lowry. Before an ankle injury sidelined him, Lowry was averaging over 18 points, over 6 rebounds, and a shade under 6 assists in four games. He is one of the few triple threat players in today’s game. While Lowry has been recovering, Jose Calderon has taken the starter’s role, and has given the Raptors 10.9 points per game. Demar Derozan has held down the 2-guard.

There are signs that this team will have more success as the season progresses. For starters, the Raptors are incredibly smart with the basketball. They do not force their offense, and rank second in the league in fewest turnovers per game (12.6).  Toronto has bench players, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, who are skilled at rebounding the basketball. Even with these strengths, the team still has many physical and emotional hurdles to overcome before contending for the playoffs. Coach Dwayne Casey is on the hot seat. He must get his players to buy into the concept of team defense, because they are allowing a whopping 99.8 points per game. Once the Raptors start making shots and Lowry returns to the lineup, this team will likely come together.

*Before Season Grade: C+
*Current Grade: C
End of Regular Season Projection: 5th in Division, 12th in Conference


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