Either the Brooklyn Nets or the Toronto Raptors will hoist a divisional championship banner this season. The rest of the Atlantic Division has sunk toward the bottom of the East, leaving the Nets and Raptors in a two-team race down the stretch.
Winning the Atlantic is about more than just bragging rights. The third through sixth seeds in the East are currently all bunched within four games of each other. Therefore, securing the division title could lead to home-court advantage in the first round for the Nets, or allow them to avoid an unfavorable matchup (see: Chicago Bulls).
Here are a trio of key factors that will determine which team, the Nets or Raptors, will emerge victorious in the Atlantic.
The good news? The Nets have an easy remaining schedule. The bad news? The Raptors' is even easier.
In fact, every advantage the Nets would have over the next six weeks is balanced out by the Raptors' equally facile schedule.
The Nets' remaining opponents win 46 percent of their games, per PlayoffStatus.com. The Raptors' remaining opponents win 45 percent of their games.
The Nets only have 11 more road games. So do the Raptors. The Nets are 17-12 against sub-.500 opponents so far and have 15 games remaining against such teams. The Raptors are 23-7 against sub-.500 teams and have 16 more games against that cohort. The Nets have two games in Miami against the Heat left. The Raptors have one.
To make matters worse, the Raptors currently hold the three important tiebreakers over the Nets:
What does all this mean? That either the Nets have to make up an extra game to finish ahead of the Raptors, or that Brooklyn needs to beat Toronto on March 10 and surpass them in the other tiebreakers.
Both the Nets and the Raptors are pretty healthy squads at the moment. Kevin Garnett of the Nets missed the team's last game with back spasms, although head coach Jason Kidd doesn't foresee the injury being a major issue.
"I don’t think it’s long term," Kidd said Sunday via Rob Reischel of The New York Times, "This is his rest day, so we'll get him some proper rest and see how he feels tomorrow."
Terrence Ross, Toronto's starting small forward, was a game-time scratch Sunday against the Golden State Warriors after spraining his ankle against the Washington Wizards on Thursday. However, the Raptors don't play again until Friday, giving Ross time to recover from what is not expected to be a serious setback.
Comparing the two teams' health, then, is more a measurement of potential injuries than current ones. In this regard, the Nets are in a more precarious position.
The Nets are the second oldest team in the league, with an average player age of 29.5 years. Injuries have already had a major impact on their fortunes. Center Brook Lopez is out for the remainder of the season with a broken foot.
Star point guard Deron Williams has sat 16 games with ankle problems, while Andrei Kirilenko, arguably the team's most important player off the bench, missed most of the first two months of the season due to back spasms.
Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York sums up the team's tenuous scenario: "Veteran experience is what many believe gives the Nets a puncher’s chance to contend...But will these veterans be able to make it into the postseason with their health?"
Meanwhile, the majority of the Raptors' core players are quite young and without histories of injury. Ross, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas are all under 25.
If one of these teams breaks down during the remainder of the season, it's more likely to be the aging Nets.
The Nets are probably not satisfied to be several games behind the Raptors. However, the team is actually fortunate to even be that close.
Why? Check out some of these metrics, per ESPN.com:
|Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficiency||Plus-Minus||Expected Winning Percentage|
What these statistics demonstrate is that Lady Luck has kept these two teams from drifting away from each other in the standings. The Raptors could conceivably be running away with the Atlantic. The Nets, meanwhile, are a below-average team masquerading as a contender.
The fact is that the Raptors compete in every game that they play. Since the calendar turned to 2014, they have lost by more than eight points only once, and that was on the road versus the Los Angeles Clippers, an excellent home team.
On the other hand, the Nets lost three games by at least 15 points in February alone. They have had trouble sustaining win streaks as of late due to their tendency to come out flat every couple of games, such as when the Portland Trail Blazers smoked them, 124-80, a week ago.
Another reason the Nets could have trouble stringing together victories as they chase Toronto is that they have two distinct weaknesses: good rebounding teams and back-to-back games.
Brooklyn's last six losses have come against top-10 rebounding teams. Overall, the Nets are 4-15 against such teams, per 82games.com.
The Nets also have trouble playing on consecutive nights, having gone 4-10 in back-to-backs so far. They have six back-to-backs remaining, including four in a treacherous two-week stretch to end the season.
The Nets will not win the Atlantic Division. Brooklyn is definitely improving, and will be a tough out in the postseason.
But the Raptors have too much going in their favor: the current lead, all the tiebreakers, an easy schedule, a young and healthy team and consistency of quality play.
Toronto, not Brooklyn, will raise the Atlantic championship banner for 2013-14.