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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Atlantic Division.

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Basketball Insiders “First Quarter Grades” series continues by examining the Atlantic Division. And while grading teams is challenging given how every team has its own timeline for success and development, it’s a necessary part of evaluating progress.

The division appears to be the Raptors’ to lose. The Celtics have struggled mightily, whereas the 76ers upgraded their roster by trading for Jimmy Butler. Meanwhile, in New York, the Knicks and Nets are both developing their young rosters in hopes of future success.

While a quarter of the season is a relatively small sample size, enough games have been played to impact the playoffs and draw early conclusions. With that said, let’s examine the teams of the Atlantic.

Boston Celtics: D

The Celtics have struggled out the gate. Despite nice wins against the Raptors, Bucks and 76ers, the team has failed to establish themselves as the dominant force they were expected to be.

The Celtics are 11-10 through 21 games. And while their defense is still respectable (second overall in defensive rating), they are 26th in offensive rating scoring 107 points per 100 possessions. Comparatively, they ended last season ranked 18thscoring more per 100 possessions (107.6) in an environment where teams were scoring less per game.

But Boston’s main concern should be its rotation. Gordon Hayward is still struggling to regain his pre-injury form, which also has residual effects on Jaylen Brown (the team was +8.8 per 100 possessions with him on the court last season versus -3.6 per 100 possessions this season).

While their early season struggles are real, the Celtics are in the fortunate situation to have lots of talent on their roster. All should be well in Boston, but increased competition and inconsistent results should be a serious wake-up call.

Brooklyn Nets: B-

Even through just a quarter of the season, the Nets early results are a tale of two halves (or technically two-eighths). Entering play on November 13, the Nets were 6-7 with wins against the Pistons, 76ers and Nuggets. It appeared the future had arrived sooner than expected for the Nets, led by their young core of Caris LeVert-Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie-D’Angelo Russell and Joe Harris. But on November 13, leading scorer LeVert dislocated his right foot in a loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Since LeVert’s injury, the Nets are a measly 2-7, with five of the seven losses coming against sub-.500 teams. The lack of success is not a huge surprise given that they’re missing their best player, but it makes it all the more challenging to grade the team’s successes (or lack thereof).

Considering expectations were relatively low for the Nets, they are mostly right where they were expected to be, even considering the injury. To their credit, they still get after it on the offensive glass (tied for fourth in the league), but everything else they do is mostly average or below. With that being said, the Nets get a big pass considering the injury. They seemed to have a framework for a good team in place and should be even better come this time next year given their cap space this offseason.

New York Knicks: B-

The Knicks are (still) in limbo, but they too appear close to punching their ticket into respectability. We can’t rave too much about their early-season successes because, barring the recent three-game win streak, there aren’t many to speak of. However, the team is exactly on pace for its expected Win-Loss breakdown per basketballreferenece.com (7-16).

But the Knicks 2018-19 season has always been about player development and coaching rather than wins and losses. And the Knicks are seeing lots of progress in those areas: Coach Fizdale’s leadership style seems to be making believers out of the team’s young talent; Emmanuel Muddiay, Trey Burke and Noah Vonleh are all validating their lottery-pick status; Allonzo Trier and (to a lesser degree) Mitchell Robinson look like NBA-ready players despite their late or non-existent draft status; and Tim Hardaway Jr. is scoring a career-high 22.2 points per game. Further, the team’s management is viewed positively for the first time in a long time.

The lone disappointment to the young Knicks 2018-19 season is the lack of progress in Frank Ntilikina’s game. This was another important marker for the season, and he has seemingly taken a step back after showing flashes earlier in the year.

The Knicks are playing as expected this season considering Kristaps Porzingis is still rehabbing a torn ACL; however, they’re getting contributions from players that weren’t expected to play, let along affect the game.

Philadelphia 76ers: B+

Despite the Raptors early-season dominance, the Sixers look poised to make a run at the division crown. They are 15-8 through 22 games and sit 3.5 games behind Toronto. They are currently 6-5 against teams over .500, with wins against the Bucks, Hornets, Pacers, Pistons and Clippers.

What’s more, they are 6-2 since Jimmy Butler debuted for the team. While that transaction left their rotation a bit thinner than they’d like, Butler’s ability to create his own shot looks to be exactly what the team was missing. Need proof? Go track down clips of his game winning-jumpers against Charlotte and Brooklyn.

They are attempting the most free-throws per game of any team in the Association, a stat that will continue to improve with Butler on board. They’re also a great rebounding team. They turn the ball over too often – fourth most in the league – but considering their early successes, that leaves room for improvement for an already top-10 team.

Unfortunately, the Markelle Fultz situation is something of a black eye on the young season. His agent – Raymond Brothers – recently pulled him from basketball activities to seek additional medical opinions. It appears only a matter of time until Fultz and the 76ers part ways.

But on the whole, the 76ers look ready to contend, and they appear better with Butler than they were prior to trading for him.

Toronto Raptors: A

The first-place Raptors have exceeded expectations. They have 18 wins through 22 games, with three of their losses coming in a row between November 12 and 16. They’re second overall in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating. They have five players averaging 12.8 or more points per game, which speaks to the team’s depth. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have acclimated beautifully, improving an already impressive roster. They are taking care of the ball, averaging the fourth fewest turnovers in the league and they are shooting the third best effective field goal percentage. If the Raptors play out the remainder of the season as they’ve started, they should be a shoo-in for number one seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals.

With so much of the season still to come, we can only expect things to continue to heat up in the Atlantic. Trades will definitely play a role in shaping results, as will players returning from injuries (e.g. Kristaps Porzingis and Caris LeVert). The division is home to three teams that feel they are ready to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, so it is sure to be an interesting race to the finish.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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