Sixers Battling for Position in Atlantic Division
The Atlantic Division boasts four teams with winning records, which sets it apart from the entire NBA through approximately a quarter of the regular season. There is only one other division that features more than two squads currently sitting over the .500 mark (San Antonio, Memphis and Dallas carry that distinction in the Southwest Division).
The Philadelphia 76ers are currently locked in a three-way tie in the loss column for second place. The Sixers, Nets and Celtics are chasing a red-hot New York Knicks squad that is off to its strongest start since 1995.
Lagging far behind is Toronto. The Raptors remain one of the league’s most forgettable franchises, stumbling to a 4-18 record.
The Eastern Conference playoff chase remains an enigma, but through six weeks of the NBA season here’s what we know about the Atlantic Division’s five franchises.
New York Knicks (16-5, 4-1 in division)
Playoff picture: Carmelo Anthony and company have spent the entire season among the Eastern Conference frontrunners. Only San Antonio (18-4) and Oklahoma City (17-4) have accumulated more wins than the Knicks. New York currently holds a one-game lead over Miami for the conference’s top spot.
Who's Hot: Carmelo Anthony continues to emerge as an early-season Most Valuable Player candidate. The nine-year veteran is shooting a career-best 45-percent from beyond the three-point arc and his scoring average (27.7) is more than five points higher than last year. Anthony netted a season-high 45 points on Tuesday night, powering the Knicks past Brooklyn.
Who's Not: Mercurial guard J.R. Smith looked like an All-Star candidate early, with three 20-point outputs in the Knicks’ first five contests. Predictably, he has cooled off. Smith is shooting just 30-percent over the past ten games.
Storyline to Follow: New York turned heads when it topped the Heat 104-84 in its season opener. The Knicks reaffirmed fans’ optimism with another convincing victory over the defending champions on Dec. 6 in Miami.
The road victory occurred without Anthony on the court and put the rest of the Eastern Conference on notice. New York is playing with a target on its back for the first time since the Patrick Ewing Era.
Coming Up Next: The Knicks set up shop at Madison Square Garden for the next six games and that bodes well for the division frontrunners. New York is unbeaten on its home court through eight contests. Kobe Bryant and the struggling Lakers come to town Thursday for a nationally televised matchup.
Philadelphia 76ers (12-9, 4-3 in division)
Playoff picture: Despite sporadic play, the Sixers are currently in sole possession of the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia would hold homecourt advantage in the first round if the postseason started today.
Who's Hot: Evan Turner looked hesitant with the ball in his hands during early stages of the season, but he appears to have turned a corner. The second overall pick of the 2010 draft is playing with more confidence, averaging 19 points per contest since Nov. 21. Turner is shooting 46 percent from three-point land, doubling his percentage of last season.
Who's Not: Spencer Hawes heard “M-V-P” chants from the Philly crowd when he registered 16 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in a season-opening victory over Denver. Those numbers remain season highs in each category.
The Sixers are 6-0 when Hawes reaches double digits in scoring but he has surpassed the six-point plateau in just three of the last 11 games.
Storyline to Follow: The crosshairs remain squarely on Andrew Bynum’s knees. He will undergo a pivotal Dec. 20 MRI that should determine whether Philadelphia can expect to see its heralded offseason acquisition anytime soon... or at all.
The Sixers homegrown trio of Turner, Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday have started every game this season and there is reason to believe the franchise can grow with them. A healthy Bynum would boost Philadelphia’s hopes of entering the ranks of Eastern Conference title contenders.
Coming Up Next: After hosting Chicago Wednesday night, the Sixers hit the road for 11 of 13 games. It’s a brutal 23-game stretch that should tell us a lot about the mental state of this squad.
Brooklyn Nets (11-9, 4-2 in division)
Playoff picture: The Nets have fallen back to the pack, locked in a three-way tie for the conference’s fifth seed.
Who's Hot: Andray Blatche spent the first six years of his career stranded in the NBA wasteland known as Washington D.C., where he was often labeled an underachiever. In the absence of franchise cornerstone Brook Lopez (out since Nov. 28 with a foot sprain), Blatche has blossomed.
He is averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds in this month, including three 20-point efforts. Nonetheless, the Nets are winless through five games without Lopez at center.
Who's Not: Brooklyn hasn’t exactly cashed in on the two-year, $24 million dollar deal it doled out to power forward Kris Humphries. The former Mr. Kardashian is averaging eight points per game (down from 13 last year) and Reggie Evans has recently relegated him to a high-priced bench player.
Storyline to Follow: The Nets closed out November with five consecutive wins but have cooled off considerably in December. Brooklyn has dropped five games in a row, including four straight at home. The season opened with plenty of hype after Deron Williams’ decision to re-sign, Jay-Z’s expanding ownership role and the bold move to the big city.
Those positive vibes could quickly turn sour if this team can’t regain its footing on defense.
Coming Up Next: The Nets next two opponents (Detroit and Toronto) are a combined 11-35. Brooklyn must take care off business in order to regain confidence.
Boston Celtics (11-9, 2-4 in division)
Playoff picture: Much like last season, the Celtics have started slow. Boston, a perennial conference power since Kevin Garnett arrived, are among a middling bunch tied for fifth in the east.
Who's Hot: “The Big Three” has evolved into the “Rajon Rondo Show” recently. The 26-year old point guard leads the league in assists per game and tallied his 24th career triple-double during a Dec. 7 loss in Philadelphia (the Celtics are now 13-1 in the regular season when he accomplished that feat).
Who's Not: Jason Terry starred during Dallas’ 2011 championship run so it seemed the guard would fit in seamlessly with a veteran-laden Boston lineup. Instead, he has struggled to carve out a consistent role and is carrying the lowest scoring average (11.8) since his rookie season, which began two decades ago.
Storyline to Follow: Those of you anticipating the downfall of aged wonder Kevin Garnett can just keep on waiting. The 17-year pro is enjoying arguably his best offensive season as a Celtic and continues to play with legendary tenacity.
Garnett has started all 20 games for Boston. If he can stay healthy, the Celtics should still be considered among the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Coming Up Next: Boston battles three consecutive Western Conference playoff contenders. The Celtics host Dallas on Wednesday before heading off to Houston and San Antonio.
Toronto Raptors (4-18, 0-4 in division)
Playoff picture: Toronto is among a handful of teams that should already be investing a plenty of time in 2013 NBA Draft preparation. The Raptors have dropped 12 of 13 contests and are looking down at only Washington in league standings.
Who's Hot: DeMar DeRozan, the team’s 2009 first-round draft pick, is the franchise’s best player. In Toronto, that distinction might as well equate to top trade asset.
The USC alum is averaging nearly 19 points per game, shooting 48 percent this month. On the downside, his two assists per contest leave a lot to be desired for a starting guard.
Who's Not: The easy answer here would be EVERYBODY, but let’s put the spotlight on former No. 1 overall draft pick Andrea Bargnani. The Italian star is shooting under 40 percent, an unacceptable stat for a seven-footer with his offensive arsenal.
Storyline to Follow: Can Toronto “earn” the top pick in an underwhelming 2013 Draft? Will Bargnani become the premier available post player as the NBA trade deadline approaches? Can head coach Dwayne Casey possibly survive his second season at the helm? The NHL lockout isn’t the only reason it’s going to be a long season north of the boarder.
Coming Up Next: Toronto is home for the next three contests and will search for its first division win of the season Wednesday night versus Brooklyn.
Follow Tyler on Twitter @TDsTake.