We’re just about half way through the first half of the NBA season. This time last year, teams were in the middle of a hectic schedule, desperately trying to win every game they could in a shortened season to make the playoffs which were closer than they felt. This year is not much different, but teams that have dug themselves holes, still have some time to climb back up and out. The Atlantic Division has been probably the most intriguing in basketball so far this year. The Knicks have had a hold on first place for some time now, but the Nets are neck-and-neck with them, and the Raptors just acquired Rudy Gay, which could put them into the category of “competitor” in the Atlantic. This is my take on the first half of the year in the Atlantic Division, and what we have to look forward to until the playoffs, broken down team by team.
1) New York Knicks (29-15, 2nd in Eastern Conference)
First Half: Amidst the question marks and age concerns, the Knicks got off to a hot start this year. Even without Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert, they began the season 6-0, hitting seemingly every three-point shot they took, and playing defense that had been absent from the world’s most famous arena for years. Since then, they’ve come back down to Earth a little bit as far as their shooting from behind the arc, but are still 1st in the NBA with 11 three-pointers made per game, achieving that efficiently as they are also 4th in the NBA in 3-point percentage. Their defense hasn’t been near as good as it was at the beginning of the year, but Stoudemire and Shumpert getting comfortable with these defensive schemes should make a big difference moving forward. Carmelo Anthony has been playing MVP caliber basketball all season long, starving for a championship with no signs of slowing, and with guys coming back and contributing, he can rest a little bit more without the entire team on his shoulders every single game.
Second Half Expectations: If the Knicks can get their defense back to where it was at the beginning of the season, and sustain that for the rest of the year, they have a great shot at holding off Brooklyn and winning the Atlantic Division. While those two teams are very close, the Knicks have the advantage in having the greatest player in the Atlantic Division in Carmelo Anthony. A big question mark for the second half is how Amar’e Stoudemire will work with this team that has been more than fine without him, but in his first couple of weeks back, we’ve seen him, Melo, and Tyson Chandler working great together on the floor. Additionally, Amar’e has been showing off his new post game that he learned from Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, and has been nothing short of unstoppable in the paint. Shumpert slowly seems to be working his way into form, although he’s still going to need a little more time. Look for the Knicks to shore up their defense, continue their three-point prowess, and even improve their bench when a couple more guys (Camby, Wallace) get healthy. I see no signs of slowing for this team, especially with Melo more determined than ever to lead his team to the promise land. If Carmelo Anthony stays healthy, the sky is the limit for the Knicks this year.
Prediction: 1st in Atlantic Division, 1st in Eastern Conference
2) Brooklyn Nets (28-19, 4th in Eastern Conference)
First Half: Over the last couple of years, after their announcement that they would be moving the team from New Jersey to Brooklyn, the Nets have been building up a team, which has also led to a much larger fan base. Brook Lopez has been showing why he is one of the best Centers in the NBA (18.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.2 BPG) earning himself a spot on the All-Star team as an injury replacement for Rajon Rondo (although many believe he should have been there anyways). Deron Williams is starting to get back to being one of the best point guards in the NBA, helping not only himself, but Joe Johnson as well, pulling some double-teams away from him. After a mediocre 14-14 start to the season under Coach Avery Johnson, they have gone 14-5 under P.J. Carlesimo, and have really come together as a team. All of this put together has allowed the Nets to hold the 2nd spot in the Atlantic Division, and 4th in the Eastern Conference.
Second Half Expectations: I’m not sure what the reason was, but this team just wouldn’t play for Avery Johnson. They essentially got him fired, got P.J. Carlesimo promoted to the head coaching position, and have been on fire ever since. Their winning ways of late haven’t come from any drastic changes made by Carlesimo, as he has come out himself and said that he hasn’t changed much if anything at all from how Johnson ran the team before his termination. The coaching change, though, has made a huge difference to the guys on the court, and they really seem to be playing with some real passion and desire now. The pieces have always been in place, they just needed to reach their full potential, which is happening right now in the Barclays. As promising as the Nets have been playing, though, their record could be a little deceiving. One statistic that’s pretty alarming is that the Nets are 18-2 against teams that have below .500 records, and just 7-16 against winning teams (3-1 against teams with .500 records). Brooklyn has a tough schedule for the rest of the year, full of games that they have to win some of. They’re going to have to start beating the good teams, especially if they want to do anything at all in the playoffs. If they can do that, they have a real chance to make a serious run.
Prediction: 2nd in Atlantic Division, 5th in Eastern Conference
3) Boston Celtics (23-23, 8th in Eastern Conference)
First Half: The Boston Celtics have been a good team for a long time. They’ve finished with the 4th best record in the Eastern Conference for the past 5 years, won the Atlantic Division each of those years, and won the NBA Championship in 2007-08. They’ve done this with a great core of guys, which has included Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Ray Allen, and one of the best coaches in the history of the league in Doc Rivers. Since joining up, these guys have really found a rhythm together, and play off of each other very well. Although, they’ve slowly been declining over the past couple of years, as guys like Garnett and Pierce are starting to get older, and Ray Allen has decided that he’d rather play for the Miami Heat (which, of course, he now does). This year, they’ve fought their way to a 23-23 record, good for 3rd in the Atlantic Division and 8th in the conference, clinging onto a playoff spot. But now they’ve lost their star player and league-leading assister in Rajon Rondo, and a key guy off the bench in Jared Sullinger (who had been working his way towards a starting job) for the rest of the season. As up and down as this team was healthy, there will probably be more downs than ups for this team without those guys moving forward.
Second Half Expectations: The Celtics had a hard enough time holding onto the final playoff spot with a top-3 point guard in Rajon Rondo, and a great guy off the bench in Sullinger, and without both of those youthful guys for the rest of the year, it will be hard for the older vets to fight their way into the playoffs. There just doesn’t seem to be enough left on this team to win most of their remaining games, and especially to make any noise in a 7-game series if they do hold on and make it into the tournament. Their strength-of-schedule is 15th in the league (.498), so they won’t be killed by it or have an easy time with it, and the opportunity is still there. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Celtics are able to fight through their injuries and make it to the dance, but it will certainly require Garnett, Pierce, and the complimentary guys around them to be on top of their games from here on out. Obviously they have more than proven that they can do that, but as mentioned, they’re getting older, and it may be hard for them to carry the weight for the rest of the way. One thing that they do have on their side is that after the 9th seed (PHI, 20-26), the bottom 6 of the Eastern Conference is filled with some pretty bad teams. If they had been even a top-5 team before losing Rondo and Sullinger I’d say it’s very possible for them to make the playoffs, but only being 8th and having the team break down, I’m only saying that it’s possible.
Prediction: 4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference
4) Philadelphia 76ers (20-26, 9th in Eastern Conference)
First Half: During the offseason, the Sixers made some big moves. They lost their best player in Andre Iguodala, but ended up with a player who could potentially be even better in Andrew Bynum. I would say that he is absolutely better than Iguodala, but he has been too injury plagued throughout his career, and a head case at times, which has been detrimental to his team. While he hasn’t played yet this season, out with knee injuries, the team has managed to play decently without him. Jrue Holiday is having a phenomenal season (19.4 PPG, 8.9 APG, 4.2 RPG), earning himself a trip to the All-Star game, and the bunch of guys around him have been contributing just enough to keep them just one spot out of the playoffs. The thing about this team is that, while they don’t have a group of household names, they play well together. They’ve done what they’ve had to so far this year while waiting for the return (for the first time) of Andrew Bynum, who will soon start shooting drills, and hopefully return to the team shortly after the All-Star break.
Second Half Expectations: The Sixers have a lot in their favor moving forward for the rest of the year. For one, the Boston Celtics just lost two of their best players, and are not that far in front of Philly in the standings. This should cause at least a slight decline in Boston, and a greater opportunity for this team for to grab a playoff spot. Additionally, they are awaiting Andrew Bynum to return from injury and play his first minutes with the team, which seems to be on the horizon, and the big man should improve this already solid team a lot. They haven’t played great all year, but they’ve played good enough, and that’s with Spencer Hawes (9.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.3 BPG) manning the paint. While he’s been pretty much all they could ask for so far, Philadelphia would much prefer having him come off the bench and have Bynum (18.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 1.9 BPG last season) starting every game for them. The Sixers have done all that they could without their star acquisition on the court. With him, they’ll be taken to another level, and can potentially be a big problem for teams in the playoffs if they make it that far.
Prediction: 3rd in Atlantic Division, 7th in Eastern Conference
5) Toronto Raptors (17-30, 11th in Eastern Conference)
First Half: The Toronto Raptors are a team that had somewhat of a tough offseason. They tried desperately to make a splash, offering Steve Nash a 3-year, $36 million contract. While trying to acquire one of the greatest point guards in NBA history in Nash, they offered a 3-year, $19 million contract to Landry Fields, hoping the Knicks would match and that they could prevent New York from signing Nash themselves. What happened was that Nash decided to go to the Lakers, the Knicks decided not to match the Fields offer, and the Raptors are now stuck paying him way too much money for the next few years. So far this year, Fields is averaging 4.9 PPG, 1.0 APG, and 5.0 RPG, while making $6.25 million. The Raptors have been able to do a couple of things right, though, since then. They were able to acquire PG Kyle Lowry from the Houston Rockets for a first-round pick and forward Gary Forbes. Recently, they acquired F Rudy Gay (17.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG) from the Grizzlies, and seem to be headed in the right direction. This team is about right where I thought they’d be after the first half, which is towards the bottom of the conference, at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, and not too close to a playoff spot.
Second Half Expectations: Realistically, the Raptors should be more focused on upcoming years than the second half of this one. Honestly, I still give the Raptors an extremely small chance to make the playoffs. By that I mean, I think it’s possible, but would be absolutely shocked if it happened. The only reason I say this is because of the acquisition of Rudy Gay. I do not think it’s enough to take this team to the next level and make a serious run for the playoffs, but it dramatically improves them, and if they can get a whole lot of bounces to go their way, they could possibly grab the 8th seed. But this will more than likely not happen, and the future is the most important thing for the Raptors. With what they have so far, if they can make a few good moves in the offseason, they can definitely start building a pretty good team for the future. Don’t look for them to make a miracle run this year, but don’t shrug them off for upcoming years. They are starting to build something in Toronto, and can hopefully become at least respectable over the next year or two.
Prediction: 5th in Atlantic Division, 10th in Eastern Conference