North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

The Titanic Division is back!

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There are all kind of gimmicks in professional sports now that are supposed to create equality between teams. Luxury taxes, salary caps (both hard and soft), revenue sharing, etc and so forth.

These are supposed to even the playing field between teams, since not every sports franchise is the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Yankees. Not every team rakes in excessive amounts of money, liquid gobs of capital.

Hence the gimmicks. They’re supposed to limit (or even boost) the money a team can spend on players – even baseball has their own, where high-rolling teams like the Yankees or Boston Red Sox kick back money to their poorer sisters. This is supposed to create equality. Teams that can stack up against anybody else and have a good shot at winning.

But like all things that sound good on paper, this isn’t quite stacking up in real life – or the NBA’s Atlantic Division.

Last night, the Toronto Raptors played game number 42, putting them in the second half of their 82-game season. Their record of 21 wins and 21 losses sticks them exactly at .500, and in seventh place in the East (a half-game behind Charlotte and one and a half above Chicago).

They are second-place in their division, the Atlantic division. One could call it the Titanic division, since it’s rapidly sinking into a sea of mediocrity: there are just 81 wins between its five teams, the lowest in the league.

A quick look at the Atlantic shows one good team (Boston), two average-for-the-East teams (Toronto, New York) and two lousy teams (Philadelphia and New Jersey). What follows is a a quick look at each team:

  • Boston Celtics (27-12). While I won’t argue that Boston is  good team, it’s worth noting that they have an 8-1 in-division record. In the East, only Chicago has played as many in-division games as the Celtics. Could their beating up on bad teams lead them to look better then they actually are?
  • Toronto Raptors (21-21). Their defensive rating, a measure of how many points the team allows per 100 possessions, is a NBA-worst 112.6. Still, it’s an improvement from earlier, when their rating dipped to nearly 118, around the time they suffered a 146-115 blowout loss to Atlanta. But they’re starting to have offensive problems: In his last five games, Hedo Turkoglu is shooting 14-44 and averaging just under eight points. And their bench scoring is still inconsistent.
  • New York Knicks (17-24). The Knicks both score less and average less then the Raptors and offer the appearance of consistency. Yet, Basketball Reference lists their Simple Rating System (a measure that takes into account strength of schedule and point differential) ranks them ninth in the conference – right near Milwaukee and Chicago. Offensively, they seem a bitchallenged: both their offensive rebounding percentage is 28th in the league.
  • Philadelphia 76ers (13-27). For Philly, their bright spot of the season has to be the play of Samuel Dalembert: this month he’s averaging 12.4 points (on 74 per cent shooting) and 12.6 rebounds per game. His play is a big reason why the 76ers have one of the best offensive rebounding percentages in the NBA (fifth overall). But still, the 76ers are surprisingly short in offense. In part, that’s why they’re scoring only 98 points a game, 21st overall in the NBA. They may allow less then Toronto, New York and New Jersey, but a lack of scoring cripples them.
  • New Jersey Nets (3-37). Their season opened with 18 straight losses. They’ve won just two of their last 20 games. They’ve won just one road game and are the lowest scoring team in the NBA, with just 90 points a game and allow 102 per game. This sends their SRS into the tank at minus 11.37 – fifth worst in NBA history. They’re the first team in a long while to challenge the 1972-73 Sixers for NBA’s record for futility.

This represents a change from the Atlantic of the recent past. In 2006, four teams from the division missed the playoffs and only New Jersey finished above 40 wins. The birth of what one writer called the Titanic division. In the past few years, the Atlantic has picked up slightly and at least two of its teams made the postseason.

But overall, they are only a part of a very lopsided Eastern Conference. Only Cleveland, Orlando, Boston and Atlanta have won 25 games or more. Seven of the conference’s teams are above .500, while in the Western conference, 11 teams have a winning record.

That’s what’s most interesting about the salary cap: how it’s affecting mediocrity in the NBA. Both conferences are fairly even amongst their immediate peers – but not against the other conference. Eastern teams are settling somewhere between 20 and 16 wins, while the West is closer between 25 and 22 wins.

Given how the league operates with a luxury tax, one is tempted to assume that’s because Western teams make (and can thusly spend) more money. But according to Forbes.com’s NBA Team Valuations, three Eastern takes are in the top five in revenue. And four of the top-five valued teams are in the East.

When it comes to spending money, teams in the West have higher payrolls. According to Hoopshype’s list of NBA salaries, three of the top-five highest payrolls are for Western teams. But expand that list to 10, and it’s divided equally between conferences. In fact, two teams in the Atlantic division are among the top three-spending teams.

And yet, this spending isn’t making much of  a difference. The East is still weaker and the Atlantic is still the least of all. Unless you count by money, not wins.

Long live the Titanic Division – where the Celtics pick off weak sisters. Where the Sixers try to score and the Raptors try stop the other team from scoring. Where the Knicks can spend nearly $86 million on a team thats not even .500 and the Nets will struggle to win 10 games.


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Written by Mark

January 20, 2010 at 11:57 pm

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