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Grades at 20 Games: Atlantic Division

After 20 games, is it safe to say that the Atlantic Division is the worst in all of the NBA?

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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.

Grade: A

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.

Grade: C-

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.

Grade: B

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.

Grade: F

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.

Grade: C

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.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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