The Changing Of The Guard In The NBA Atlantic Division

A lot of people, including myself, have been surprised that the Boston Celtics have opted to keep their Big Three of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce together these last two seasons. After the Celts lost a seven-game series to the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals, I figured GM Danny Ainge would start the rebuilding process. Instead, Ainge has brought all three back not just once, but twice, opting only for minor tweaks around the edges.

So far this season, it’s not looking too good and all indications are that a changing of the guard is at hand in the Atlantic Division. It hasn’t been the expected team of the New York Knicks though. With the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony last February, this was supposed to be the time for New York to stand up. Instead it’s Philadelphia who’s off and running in the division. Today the Notebook breaks down the Sixers, Knicks and Celtics to see what might lie ahead. Please note that the rank beside each team below is their position in the Eastern Conference, not just the division and the top eight teams make the playoffs.

Philadelphia (10-3, T2nd): The 76ers do everything well on both sides of the floor, but they thing they do best of all is play defense, something that surely has Dr. J turning over in his grave (granted, he’s not dead, but you get the point). Philadelphia is the best in the league at defensive efficiency, which measures performance on a per-possession basis, not just overall points, thus adjusting for tempo. Doug Collins makes great use of his roster with eight players getting quality minutes. Philly gets scoring on the perimeter from two-guard Lou Williams, the best threat from three-point range. Evan Turner, a 6’7” off-guard creates matchup problems for opposing defenses and while he isn’t a threat from downtown, he’s still a solid scorer. Running the show is Jrue Holiday, the 21-year old point guard out of UCLA. Holiday is playing well, but I think we have to be red-flag a point guard this young, at least in terms of the 76ers ability to compete with Chicago or Miami.

The balanced depth continues up front, with Andre Igudola, probably the team’s best player, averaging 14 points/6 rebounds, although no one really rises above the rest on this team. Elton Brand gives a veteran presence down low, while young Spence Hawes and Thaddeus Young each score  in double-digits and rebound. The combination of the young point guard and lack of clear go-to player are the liabilities the Sixers face in big games, but their ability to put together solid sustained stretches of basketball can’t be doubted. They are going to be very tough to catch in this division, and will surely have homecourt advantage for the first round.

New York (6-7, 8th): Because the Knicks run the floor at a fast pace, they can look like a good offensive team, but the efficiency numbers suggest otherwise. When it comes to getting a basket when they really need it, New York is a below-average team. The positive side to that is the defense isn’t quite as mediocre as raw point totals make it look. What New York doesn’t have is quality depth, with only five players even averaging 24 minutes a game. Even if we give them Toney Douglas, who’s over 20 minutes, that’s still a thin rotation to survive a long season with.

Unsurprisingly, Carmelo Anthony is the go-to player on offense, with 26 ppg, but he’s not a big-time rebounder, nor does he distribute very well. It’s fair to wonder if he really makes those around him better and the team’s record only adds fuel to the fire. Amare Stoudamire and Tyson Chandler comprise a tough duo down low, both scoring and rebounding, and Chandler is a solid defensive force. The Knicks’ real problems are in the backcourt, where Iman Shumpert can chip in some offense, but doesn’t do well in playmaking. Landry Fields and Toney Douglas are both shooting the ball poorly. The Knicks’ season is entirely in the hands of the frontline, and while that can keep them on the playoff borderline and make them a good draw, it’s not going to make them a threat to win the Atlantic or get in the top four for homecourt advantage in the first playoff series. Which, in the NBA, likely means another early exit.

Boston (4-8, 9th): We can tell you how old the Celtics are—and the fact they have four regular players over 30 years old, while the Knicks and Sixers have one combined (Brand). But you’re a sports junkie and you already know that. What are the practical effects of the aging process? The first is that Boston’s trademark defense is in decline. This is another team where it takes the efficiency adjustment to tell the story. In points allowed, the C’s are a little above average. But throw in the tempo factor and they become below average. Even Boston’s best teams in this era weren’t offensive machines, so this is a major problem. The offense also becomes worse when you adjust stats for tempo.

Rajon Rondo is the best player on the team, and has become a good shooter. He’s not going to drain the three-ball, but at 50 percent from the floor you can no longer just pack everything back and give him an open 12-foot look. Allen is still having a solid offensive year and his 57% shooting from behind the arc remains astonishing. Pierce and Garnett are still pretty good players, while Brandon Bass can chip in some help off the bench. But there’s no real star up front right now, and with the overall lack of team defense, it’s tough to see the Celtics turning this thing around. I know the mantra in Boston is to just save the legs for the playoffs. But the NBA playoffs are not the NCAA Tournament. Even if you get in, that’s still a long two-month run to go if you want to win big. Boston’s not winning big and even making the playoffs has to be seen as a 50/50 call right now. As a Celts fan, I’m trying to take the positive outlook—this means the games being played now are meaningful, so I can pay attention to the C’s now and then move the focus to the Bruins come springtime and the NHL playoffs.