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Are the NBA’s Atlantic Division Blues Ending?

The NBA’s Eastern Conference has been the butt of jokes all season, but the Atlantic Division blues may finally be ending.  Besides, trashing an entire conference’s record because 3 of the teams expected to be good were decimated by injuries early on might have been just a little short-sighted to begin with anyway.

Toronto Raptors 16-16, Last 10 games 7-3

TOR_DeRozan_DeMarIn the Atlantic, the Raptors finally brought some small measure of respectability to the division by winning 5 games in a row and becoming the East’s fourth team to crack the .500 mark this past week.

Toronto has been a different team since the Rudy Gay trade 4 weeks ago with wins over the Thunder in Oklahoma City and the Pacers at the Air Canada Centre.  A franchise that looked to be lottery bound for the sixth consecutive year is now just 1 game out of third place in the East.

The Raptors have played the toughest schedule of any team in their division by far and seem to have found that elusive winning chemistry needed to be a playoff team.

Boston Celtics 13-21, Last 10 games 3-7

Boston Celtics Media DayBoston has been 1 of 2 surprise teams in the Atlantic.  Without All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo to start the season and no way to know when he might be back, the Celtics traded the last of their Big 3 to Brooklyn to begin the rebuild in earnest.  However, off the start, this roster was just too good to be bad.

Things changed for the Celtics in mid-December and they have lost 7 of their last 8 games to fall 8 games below .500 and 5 back in the loss column behind Toronto along with Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

It looks like the Celtics may have solved their short term point guard problems by trading Courtney Lee and his contract that has $11.1 million left on it after this season to the Grizzlies for backup point guard Jerryd Bayless and his expiring $3.1 million deal (according to ESPN).  While Bayless is not having a good season in Memphis, the 25-year-old guard has been chomping at the bit for a starting assignment for years and often plays with a giant chip on his shoulder.  If Bayless can find his career average starting numbers in Boston, the Celtics could turn things around.  They were overloaded at shooting guard in any case.

Brooklyn Nets 12-21, Last 10 games 4-6

BKN_Lopez_BrookWith the highest payroll in the NBA and no draft picks in 2014, the Nets are not about to give up – no matter what.  The Nets owe their 2014 first round draft pick to the Celtics and their second round pick to the 76ers.

This season hasn’t started out the way the Nets had hoped.  Rookie Head Coach Jason Kidd is taking a lot of flak, but his roster has been hard hit by injuries and now starting center Brook Lopez is lost for the season after playing in just 17 games.  Deron Williams had suspect ankles before the season started and he has missed 12 games already.  Andrei Kirilenko has only played in 7 games, finally returning on New Year’s Eve.  It’s been rough.

A glimmer of hope appeared when Kidd was able to lead his Nets to a 95-93 win in Oklahoma City on Thursday with a roster that was about as complete as he is going to have for the rest of this season.  Then the Nets returned to Brooklyn for a 4 game stand and beat the woeful Cavaliers on Saturday.  If they can start a winning streak now, maybe they can still salvage a playoff spot.  The Pistons are only 1.5 games ahead of them in eighth spot.

The Nets only need to win 59.2 percent of their remaining games and they can get back to .500 record this season.  That wouldn’t have seemed like a big stretch in October.

Philadelphia 76ers 12-21, Last 10 games 5-5

PHI_Carter_Williams_MichaelThese guys were supposed to go winless for Wiggins or whoever rose to the top of the draft board, but they started the season 3-0 and just won their last 4 games on a 6 game Western Conference road trip – beating the Trail Blazers 101-99 on Saturday.  Thus proving the adage, players don’t tank games or seasons.

The reason for the 76ers success has been the play of rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams.  Philadelphia is 11-11 in games Williams has played in and 1-10 without him.  In the Eastern Conference, going .500 the rest of the way should keep the 76ers in the hunt and there is every chance Carter-Williams keeps on getting better.

It is hard to believe the 76ers recent good fortune is going to last, however, as expectations are any or all of Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner could be traded for future assets.  Until then, the 76ers will likely continue to exceed expectations with Carter-Williams in the lineup.

New York Knicks 11-22, Last 10 games 4-6

NY Knicks Media Day PortraitsThe Knicks can blame their poor start to the season on injuries as much or more as anyone and like the Nets, the Knicks don’t have a 2014 first round draft pick – owed to the Nuggets.  They also owe their second rounder to the Rockets, but could get either or both of the Thunder and Kings second round picks if the pick protections go their way – small comfort.  The Knicks payroll is $15 million into the luxury tax, so their options are pretty limited.

The Knicks can blame their season on Tyson Chandler’s injuries, but they are only 5-8 with him in the lineup.  Similarly, the Knicks were 6-11 when currently injured starting point guard Raymond Felton was playing.  Backup point guard Pablo Prigioni has played in just 7 wins and 17 losses.  Maybe the Knicks real problems lie elsewhere?

The Knicks glimmer of hope comes from the recent 3 game Western Conference road swing where they beat the Spurs and Mavericks and lost by 2-points to the Rockets on a Knicks all-too-common bonehead play at the end of the game.  Don’t blame just J.R. Smith for the loss, bonehead plays have become a theme for New York.  Still, the Knicks haven’t put a stretch of games like this together all season, so maybe things are about to change.

The Knicks only need to win 61.2 percent of their remaining games and they can get back to .500 record on the season.  Like the Nets, that wouldn’t have seemed like such a big stretch in October either.

Are the NBA’s Atlantic Division blues ending?

The Raptors may have figured things out, but until a couple more Atlantic Division teams can put together more wins than losses over a 10 game stretch, ending the division’s blues is still in the future.  At least there are signs it could be happening.

A new point guard for the Celtics, a 4-game winning streak for the 76ers and signs of life from the Nets and Knicks suggest another team in the division could be ready to help bring some respectability back to the Eastern Conference before it’s all over.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.