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The ugliest division

NBA's Atlantic an embarrassment to sports world

Posted: Monday December 18, 2006 5:12PM; Updated: Tuesday December 19, 2006 10:22AM
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In Wally's World, the pain of an injury is only matched by the pain of having to play in the Atlantic.
In Wally's World, the pain of an injury is only matched by the pain of having to play in the Atlantic.

The NBA has another embarrassment on its hands ... and no, I'm not talking about Saturday's Nuggets-Knicks throwdown at the Garden.

But this particular black eye does include the Knicks, as well as the Celtics, Raptors, Nets and Sixers. Collectively, you know them as the Atlantic Division.

The Celtics enter this week in first place with a healthy 10-13 record. Actually, that record is about as healthy as Fidel Castro. A 10-13 mark should not be the record of a first-place basketball team. There are football teams with more wins than the Celtics.

What's worse is that the Celtics had to heat up to manage a 10-13 record, having reeled off five straight wins.

The Atlantic Division is a collective 43-76. That's a .361 winning percentage (or, if you prefer, a .639 losing percentage). Just two teams in the rest of the league have a percentage worse than .361. How bad is it? The Atlantic would be a better division if it could just add the Atlanta Hawks.

And don't be impressed by that Celtics streak, since three of the five wins came against other Atlantic teams. Take out the 11 times Atlantic teams have played each other and the division is 32-65. If you're a gambler, take anyone to beat any team in the Atlantic on any given day.

But the Celtics may be hard-pressed to keep the streak alive now that star forward Wally Szczerbiak (as if anyone who plays in the Atlantic could be called a star) is injured. Szczerbiak sprained his right ankle, balancing the left ankle sprain that kept him out of five games earlier this year. Szczerbiak must be constantly injuring himself while tripping over the spelling of his own last name.

Toronto is in second place and currently rides a three-game win streak. Of course, one of those three teams plays in the Atlantic. After dominating in the preseason, Toronto imploded when the real season began, starting out 2-8. And Chris Bosh is out, Fred Jones can't score, and one of its best players is Jorge Garbajosa. Apt that the Raptors would be led by someone with "garbaj" in his name.

Then there's the third-place Nets -- you know, the ones who were supposed to compete for the NBA championship. Vince Carter is healthy, Jason Kidd is healthy, Richard Jefferson is healthy. So what's keeping them from winning? Their bench is weaker than Nicole Richie's forearm. As a Knicks fan, at least I can take solace that the Nets stink, too.

Speaking of the Knicks and a bench, that's who'll be starting for them the next few weeks. After a brawl that made their infamous Miami melee look like a game of patty cake, the Knicks must now deal with the suspensions of Mardy Collins, Nate Robinson, Jared Jeffries and Jerome James. Maybe this is the ammo the Knicks' GM needs to fire coach Isiah Thomas. Oh, that's right -- he's the GM, too. No wonder things are going so well at the Garden.

Which brings us to the 76ers, losers of 11 straight and Allen Iverson's services. Iverson was sent home a la Keyshawn Johnson last week, a brilliant move if the Sixers wanted to lower his trade value. Now that the rest of the league knows how little the Sixers think of A.I., why would anybody offer anything good? Maybe the Knicks can get Iverson. At least that will prevent the rest of the team from shooting. I hear Mardy Collins is available.

The Atlantic may finish this season as the worst division in the history of professional sports. They're already the worst in recent memory. Worse than baseball's 2005 NL West, a division that sent the 82-80 Padres to the playoffs. Worse than hockey's 2000-2001 Southeast, whose third-place team won just 22 games. Even worse than this season's NFC North, which features the Chicago Bears and the crappy teams they get to beat up on.

But one of the five Atlantic teams has to go to the postseason. What if it's the Nets? How would they fare in a playoff series? New Jersey has already dropped two games to four different teams this season -- including 10-13 Miami, 10-14 Seattle, and 11-14 Portland. In fairness, any one of those teams would be in first place in the Atlantic. Maybe the playoff system needs to be rethought, because no team in the Atlantic deserves a chance to get knocked out in the first round. Speaking of knocked out, what's Mardy Collins up to?

Perhaps I'm being too hard on the Atlantic. Maybe a division where the Knicks are less than three games back isn't that bad. Maybe a division where the best team was 5-13 just last week isn't unsalvageable. Maybe a division whose best team would be fighting for 14th place in the West is just going through a rough slide. Maybe we shouldn't even consider replacing the Atlantic Division with the ACC.

Maybe it's not even the players' fault. Maybe it's the new ball.

Steve Hofstetter is a nationally touring comedian whose column appears every Monday on SI.com. Tell him how you could be in first place in the Atlantic Division at myspace.com/comedy.