If there is one thing to be said about the NBA’s Atlantic Division it’s this: it has become the NBA’s modern version of a pillow fight. Easily the worst division in the league last year, the Atlantic, as a whole, hasn’t shown much in the way of improvement this season.
Entering play on December 11 the Atlantic Division is the only division in the entire league that has two teams with as many as 19 losses and just one of two that has four teams below the .500 mark.
There isn’t much to say about the league’s worst division other than the fact that there is one team that is clearly head and shoulders above the rest.
And yes, clearly, this is the type of report card you would hide from your parents.
1. Toronto Raptors (16-6)
To say that the Toronto Raptors have maximized their talent, at least to this point of the season, would be quite an understatement. With the re-signed Kyle Lowry capably leading the team with 20.1 points and 7.5 assists per game, he is almost certain to earn the All-Star nod this year as the NBA’s midseason classic heads to New York City.
The team has sputtered since losing DeMar DeRozan to an adductor longs tendon tear sustained against the Dallas Mavericks on November 28, though. To that point, the Raptors were 13-2 but have since gone just 3-3.
Still, with a seven-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets in the Atlantic Division, continuity, an identity and a head coach who has found a way to reach his team and tap into their collective talents, things are looking up for the Raptors, especially with the contribution that Lou Williams has provided.
Williams has long been regarded as one of the league’s top sixth men, and thus far this season, he hasn’t disappointed. He has provided the Raptors with 13.9 points per game off the bench; their success correlating with his productivity comes as no surprise to us.
With DeRozan expected out for the next few weeks, the Raptors will continue to toil in his stead and be the top team in the NBA’s worst division. Once he returns? They clearly hope to be much more.
Whether they can be remains to be seen, but thus far, you couldn’t have asked for anything more than what Dwane Casey’s team has delivered.
2. Brooklyn Nets (8-12)
With Lionel Hollins assuming the helm in Brooklyn, he is the fourth man to coach the team within the past two calendar years. The departure of Jason Kidd and installation of Hollins was supposed to give the team a tougher, grittier persona, but that certainly has not been the case.
Hollins has taken his team to task and has held his players accountable for their shortcomings, but it hasn’t made much of a difference on the court. The Nets are still underachieving to the point where the franchise has, reportedly, become open to the idea of trading Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez.
If there is a bright spot in Brooklyn, it is with the development of some of the team’s younger players. Mirza Teletovic and Bojan Bogdanovic have both, in spurts, shown that they have the capability to be prolific scorers in the NBA. Jerome Jordan, while still adjusting to the pace of playing with Williams, has performed admirably. Mason Plumlee continues to show the potential that everyone became enamored with over the course of last season.
The Nets are a bit of an enigma, though. They lose games they should win and win some they should lose. It is the hallmark of veteran-laden team, but one would have expected the addition of a few younger bodies and a new coach to have injected a little more life into this team. Williams, who leads the team with 17.1 points per game has looked as healthy as we have seen in quite some time and the same can be said of Kevin Garnett.
In the end, we are still trying to figure out the Nets and we think they are trying to figure themselves out, too. To this point, they have been mediocre, at best, which is a tad bit disappointing.
3. Boston Celtics (7-13)
Perhaps we should be a tad bit surprised at the fact that Rajon Rondo’s 10.8 assists per game has him enter play on December 11 as the league leader, but we aren’t. We have long known that while offensively challenged in some regards, Rondo is among the best floor generals in the entire league.
Jeff Green has impressed quite a few with his play this season. With a $9.2 million player option for next season, his impressive play and career-best 19.8 points per game has helped the Celtics fare a tad better than most expected before the season began. The same can certainly be said of Jared Sullinger and the 15.4 points and 8.6 rebounds he chips in on a nightly basis.
To their credit, six of the team’s 12 losses this season have come in games decided by five points or less, meaning that the Celtics find themselves in games late, but often have trouble finishing. That comes as no surprise when a team is being coached by a second-year head coach and one who is still getting acclimated to the pro game. Still, we commend Brad Stevens for the job he has done thus far, all things considered.
The current crops of Celtics are not old enough to be considered “washed up” or to necessarily have Danny Ainge desperate to make a move, but they also aren’t spring chickens. We entered the season with all eyes on Rondo and Green and will continue to monitor their situations, especially as December 15 rolls and players who signed contracts last July become trade eligible.
Those are not easy circumstances for any player or coach to find themselves in, yet all we continue to hear coming from Boston is how focused and unified their group is. That, and the fact that they play hard is enough to warrant our respect, even if those traits don’t necessarily always add up to wins.
4. New York Knicks (4-20)
Along with the Detroit Pistons and the Charlotte Hornets, the New York Knicks are one of the most disappointing teams in the NBA. With Wednesday night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, they have earned the dubious distinction of being the league’s first team to 20 losses. The 4-20 start is also the worst start in franchise history.
It’s safe to say that Tyson Chandler wasn’t the problem.
With a platoon of new faces that includes Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin and Jason Smith, the Knicks were hoping for a return to the NBA Playoffs this year, but already, a trip to the draft lottery is looking much more likely.
Quietly, Iman Shumpert and Amar’e Stoudemire have both impressed, in spurts, over the first 20 games of the season, but the Knicks are still struggling to put it all together and have found themselves 2-18 since beginning the season 2-1. Newly installed rookie head coach Derek Fisher has maintained a calm, positive demeanor, but even he has to know that teams rarely dig themselves out of a 16 game hole, and that’s how many games below .500 the Knicks find themselves.
If there is a silver lining to all of this, it would be that the Knicks do own their 2015 first round pick, but Anthony thriving in the triangle and finding some synergy with Stoudemire was supposed to be the story for Knicks fans after 20 games, not the impressions that the likes of Jahlil Okafor and Emanuel Mudiay are making on the basketball world.
Although the team has some salary cap flexibility, the Knicks do not own their second round pick in the 2015 nor their first or second round picks in 2016. The crop the team currently has clearly isn’t setting the conference on fire, and Phil Jackson is grimly staring at the prospect of attempting to build his team through free agency. With New York’s bright lights and marketing opportunities, that may entice a nice player or two, but that won’t help these Knicks this year.
Thus far, this season, the Knicks have put forth an awful product and some awful efforts. Like the Nets, they are still attempting to figure a few things out, but after 20 games, it is fair to say that we both expected more and are losing faith that it will actually be delivered.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (2-19)
Realistically speaking, what did you expect from the Philadelphia 76ers this season? They were 19-63 last season and then drafted Joel Embiid and turned the 12th pick into Dario Saric. Some felt that was a good haul in last June’s draft, but the basketball world knew that neither Embiid nor Saric would be able to help the Sixers this season, even if they are both tantalizing prospects.
While we love both Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel, it is Tony Wroten and his team-leading 17.9 points per game that has most caught our attention. There is something to like about rookie K.J. McDaniels, as well. Fully embracing rebuilding with youngsters and through the draft, the franchise has seemed to make little attempt to field a competitive roster this season, instead focusing on the future.
Whether you think that’s intelligent or asinine probably depends on how often you are forced to watch the Sixers play.
The bright side of all of this is that the team has used its ability to absorb bad contracts into its salary cap space to acquire truckloads of draft picks over the next four years.
In terms of on the court, the Sixers appear to play hard but are often unable to overcome their talent deficit. That may be frustrating for Brett Brown and his players to witness and experience, but we see the plan here and it is being executed quite well.
The Sixers are at the bottom of the Atlantic, but we expect that the front office is exactly where they expected to be. We respect staying true to the vision.
As the season continues, the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knick may find themselves. The Boston Celtics may trade Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green and the Philadelphia 76ers may actually string together a few wins.
Still, there is no denying that the Toronto Raptors rule the league’s worst division, just like there is no denying that the Atlantic Division report card is one that would likely get your grounded if you brought it home to your parents.
Fortunately, for these five teams, there is still plenty of time left to turn things around.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.