The Brooklyn Nets' best player, Brook Lopez, is out for the season with a broken foot and the team, despite mortgaging its future to win this season, is 9-17 in the worst division in the history of the NBA. Brooklyn has options in how it replace its All-Star center and how it does so will likely determine the course of the rest of the season.
While Lopez's injury -- another in a string of what seems like a yearly occurrence -- certainly hurts Brooklyn, it doesn't really eliminate its overall playoff chances.
The Atlantic Division is paltry, with the first place Celtics four games under .500 and the 9-20 Sixers just four games back of first place. No one is really sure whether Boston, Philadelphia or Toronto really want to win this year, with the luminous promise of a franchise player awaiting in the lottery of this summer's draft. Brooklyn and New York want to win. They are built to win this year and that simple virtue may be the safety net the Nets and Knicks fall back on.
Let's take a look at the four other teams the Nets need to beat to win the division.
Boston, at 12-16, is led by a determined coach in Brad Stevens, who is getting the undersized, undermanned Celtics to play frugal defense, despite lacking any semblance of rim protection. All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is expected to return in January and it's reasonable to expect an uptick in Boston's offense when he's back on the floor, but no one really knows Boston's plan. Do the Celtics want to win now? Probably not, but that's not really a choice if they choose not to trade Rondo. And if they keep him are they really that much better than the Nets, even without Lopez? One can certainly argue that they aren't.
Toronto is in second place, winning four of its last six games since freeing itself of Rudy Gay's expensive ball-stopping. But are the Raptors in a place to win now? A quick scan of the roster doesn't heed much excitement in a playoff berth. The Raptors instead, as a second-place team, are a product of a tire fire division. General manager Masai Ujiri has shown an innate ability to dust off arduous contracts -- in trading Gay and Andrea Bargnani -- for future flexibility, and it's reasonable to expect that he'll do that once more before the trade deadline. One can imagine a scenario in which Ujiri himself doesn't allow the Raptors to remain competitive this season.
The Sixers, after a strong, surprising start, are back to where they want to be -- at the bottom of the division. Despite being just four games back of first place, even at 9-20, Philadelphia is hardly a competitor to be crowned champion of the Atlantic Division. There's a very real possibility that general manager Sam Hinkie trades any combination of Spencer Hawes, Thad Young and Evan Turner, which would, in turn, make the Sixers even worse in the short term. Philadelphia will win games because it is a scrappy, young team vying to prove it is not tanking, but it won't win enough games to top even the ghastly Atlantic Division.
The New York Knicks may represent the single greatest challenge to the Nets, because the Knicks, like the Nets, want to win this year. New York has given up draft picks and has filled its cap space past the maximum in order to win this season. Despite falling flat on their face, the Knicks came into this season with championship aspirations. Even though its stubborn coach can't seem to get out of his own way, New York is still a competitor in the Atlantic Division simply by wanting to win.
That's what makes the Atlantic Division so ironically mesmerizing. The Knicks and Nets are the two teams who clearly want to win this season -- because there isn't much of a future to look forward to -- yet they have remained cellar dwellers in a division full of teams wanting to lose. By simply wanting to win, the Nets will, at least, remain competitive in the Atlantic Division, even without their All-Star center.