The Atlanta Hawks are the only other team in the East with a record above .500 and that’s not going to last much longer with Al Horford now out indefinitely. That leaves the likes of the Charlotte Bobcats, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards to compete for the coveted third seed.
Yeah, that’s what you thought going into this season, right? Not the loaded Brooklyn Nets or the staunch defense of the Chicago Bulls or even the Carmelo Anthony-led New York Knicks, but the Bobcats, Raptors and Wizards, all of which will possess below average records while contending for the spot.
By comparison, the Nets were the three-seed last year after winning 49 games. Only the eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks had a losing record going into the playoffs, while the Boston Celtics came close with a 41-40 record.
There may be as many as four teams going into the Eastern Conference Playoffs with a losing record. Not only that, but there may be a team with a losing record to win the Atlantic Division, currently led by the 13-15 Toronto Raptors.
While the rest of the conference struggles, the Heat and Pacers flourish, with Miami holding a 6.5-game division lead over Atlanta and Indiana holding an 11.5-game lead over 14-18 Detroit, the current seventh seed.
There are still four teams that have yet to win ten games. The Milwaukee Bucks, the league’s worst team, are not even close with their 6-24 record.
But there’s hope. The East may be decrepit, but there are a few teams with rosters laden with young talent that just require professional experience, as well as finding a chemistry, in order to begin making serious playoff runs as soon as next year.
The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers may deserve a best-of-21 series to decide who is the best team out East, but even that may change as soon as next year, especially for Miami. Outside of Norris Cole, every player on the roster will become a free agent, assuming each member of the Big Three opts out.
It’s impossible to predict how that pans out, but it shows the layout of the NBA could change as soon as next year.
For now we analyze the five teams out East that are average or below-average this year, but have the talent that could lead to success in the near future.
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At 13-15, the Toronto Raptors are your current Atlantic Division leaders, holding a one-game advantage over the second-place 13-17 Boston Celtics.
That was difficult to write. It’s unnatural in two ways. One, 13-15 should never be enough to lead a division. That’s good enough for the 12th-best record out West. Two, and most surprisingly, the Toronto Raptors are winning the division.
As we all expected, the Raptors are a better team without Rudy Gay, who was traded to Sacramento in a deal that brought in Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons. The deal was more of a salary dump of Gay’s ridiculous and inflated contract, but it’s also helping the Raptors on the court, as well as with their financial situation.
Since trading Gay following their December 6 loss to Phoenix, the Raptors are 7-4, with two of those losses coming at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. However, a few of those wins are of quality, especially the six-point road win to snap the Oklahoma City Thunder’s winning streak. Toronto also beat the Chicago Bulls by 22 and most recently, the New York Knicks by 12.
With Gay no longer taking his 19 shots per game, it’s left room for guys with more potential to begin stepping forward and taking those shots. As a result, we’re getting career-bests from the likes of the 24-year-old DeMar DeRozan, currently averaging 21 points and shooting a career-best 31 percent from beyond the arc, and Jonas Valanciunas, averaging 10.3 points on 50 percent shooting.
DeRozan’s PER of 16.4 annihilates the previous career-high he set last year at 14.7.
Any coincidence that Valanciunas had gone for double-digit scoring in eight straight contests after having only eight games as such the entire season beforehand?
The best to come out of the Rudy Gay trade may just be the coaching staff finally giving some more attention on the offensive end to Jonas, who ranks 39th in points per possession on post-ups, per Synergy, as well as 67th when utilized as the pick-and-roll man.
I’m not a coach, but the 21-year-old with a post-game should be taking more than 8.5 shots per contest on a team whose current best player may well be DeMar DeRozan.
He’s also among the league-leaders in contested rebounding percentage, grabbing 45 percent of rebounds labeled as contested. Among players who garner at least 15 rebound chances per game, Jonas ranks eighth in contested rebounding percentage.
Valanciunas isn’t the only Raptor big currently having a career-best year, though, as Amir Johnson is also giving reason to why he was signed to a five-year, $30 million deal following the departure of Chris Bosh.
The 26-year-old Johnson is currently averaging a career-high 11.5 points on a near-NBA best 60 percent shooting, while also grabbing 7.2 rebounds and 2.5 offensive rebounds per contest. Like Valanciunas, he, too, ranks among the league’s best contested rebounders, grabbing 48 percent of contested tries.
Also worth noting about this team is the surprising defense they have been playing. Allowing only 101.5 points per 100 possessions, the Raptors rank ninth in the league in defensive efficiency.
There are ten players on this Raptors team with five years of experience or less, including high-potential guys in Valanciunas and DeRozan, and only one with at least ten years. With a borderline All-Star no longer taking too many shots, it’s giving Toronto the room to allow younger guys to take on larger roles and make up for the absence of wayward midrange shots.