5 Burning NBA Questions: The Atlantic Division

By: 02.29.12
Nike Basketball Innovation: Deron Williams

Nike Basketball Innovation: Deron Williams (photo. Nike)

I made a joke this weekend that the Deron Williams who plays in Jersey and rocks a headband is the evil cousin of the one who grew up in Salt Lake City. He shoots WAY more threes (6.6 a game this year. He had never shot more than five a night before.), is turning the ball over at a personal-worst 4.2 times a night and his shooting percentage has withered away to barely 40 percent. While he’s been scoring more often than Van Wilder lately – 25.8 points a night in his last 10 games – Williams is doing what all great players on bad teams do: Get meaningless numbers.

I doubt the Nets have a chance at the playoffs. But if Brook Lopez keeps playing like he did last night (38 points), and Williams eases off on the joystick just a tad, they have a chance. The question is, who else can step up?

At 10-24, even the eventual return of Andrea Bargnani won’t be enough to turn the Raptors into anything more than a 25-win team. But Toronto fans aren’t so concerned with the playoffs as they are with progress. Il Mago has made progress. The team’s defense – despite falling closer to the middle of the pack (No. 16 in defensive efficiency) as the season has gone on – is definitively better than that toll booth D they’ve played for the past few years. Even Jose Calderon (10.9 points, 8.9 rebounds) is playing his best basketball since 2009, the one year he actually mattered in fantasy.

But what happened to DeMar DeRozan? The third-year swingman’s PER is a dismal 11.77, and his numbers have dropped off across the board from last season. Part of that is a willingness to play further away from the rim. He’s shooting three times as many triples (0.6 a game last year to 1.8 this season), and even as his dimes have stayed the same, his usage rate is at a career-high 22.4. Toronto needs him to make the same jump as he did during the final months of 2011. If he does, the team comes back for 2012-13 with a couple of near All-Star talents in DeRozan and Bargnani, hopefully Jonas ValančiÅ«nas and a probable top-10 pick in this summer’s lottery.

You can’t get anymore obvious than this: Working the big names back into the lineup, and how it affects Jeremy Lin is what’ll make the difference between a long ride in the postseason, and another quick exit.

Already since the return of Carmelo Anthony, you’ve seen the good and the bad. Against Miami, the Heat attacked Lin like he was a slab of meat in a piranha pool, and Anthony didn’t have the rhythm to produce more than 19 points on 20 shots. But in a 17-point win over Atlanta the previous night, Lin and Anthony made enough magic that the starters sat out most of the fourth quarter.

At 97.9, they have the worst offensive efficiency of any playoff contender in the league, and even though it’s improved with Lin at the point, the re-integration of Anthony is key.

What are the biggest issues on these teams?

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