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NBA PM: George Karl Dishes on Carmelo, MVP Race And More

George Karl joined Basketball Insiders to talk about Carmelo Anthony, the MVP race and more.

Lang Greene

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Former head coach George Karl has made headlines over the past month due to his recently released book titled “Furious George,” which chronicles his 40-year journey in the NBA. Karl held nothing back when it came to thoughts regarding his former players and bosses. Being outspoken and raw in this manner typically would leave many to think he’s effectively retired. But at 65 years old, Karl believes he has more to give to the game of basketball.

Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Karl to talk Carmelo Anthony, his future plans, Russell Westbrook, the MVP race and his take on younger players.

Lang Greene: A lot of times, when someone releases a book like this and you’re bearing your soul and just telling it like it is throughout your long journey playing round ball, coaching round ball, would you say you’re effectively retired or would you still like to get out on the sideline or get back in even in a front office capacity?

George Karl: Coaches never retire. Coaches always want to be in the gym, and I’m one of those guys. I’m a lifer. I’ve put over 30 years into coaching, maybe 35 and now I may [try to get to] 40 years being a coach. I was a player for five or six and a coach ever since. I’ve always wanted to be a GM, I’ve always wanted to kind of run the game, and feel the game, and give to the game. But right now I’m 65 years old, so that’s got to be a decision by somebody else in an organization that thinks I can help them. I sure think I can help somebody along the way.

Greene: You talked about being around the game. What are some things you’re doing right now to be around the game? Are you hanging around some high school gyms, are you doing some coaching clinics? What are you doing to stay around the game?

Karl: I’ve visited about three or four college programs. I’ve never studied the college game. I’ve had the opportunity with Ben Howland, Mark Pope and Mike Dunlap, some of my friends in the game of basketball, to spend some time. I go up to the University of Colorado to see Tad Boyle’s team play in the Pac-12. So I’ve got that. I’ve got my son (Coby Karl) who coaches the LA. D-Fenders in the D-League and so his games are on TV, on Facebook, every day and I can watch his games, and we talk quite frequently about what happens in the game. My family’s a basketball family. My daughter is married to a high school basketball coach in Olympia, Washington. He’s a girls’ basketball coach so I get to see them play when I visit my grandchildren up there.

Greene: Let me ask you this because you mentioned the college game, so it’s a perfect segue into the next question. One of your former UNC guys, Larry Brown, went back to the collegiate ranks when he left the NBA. Would that be something you would be interested in? I know you haven’t studied it, but in your book you talk a lot about how the rules and the stringent nature of the NCAA wouldn’t interest you, but, being around the game, being in a situation where you can instill your wisdom on some younger players, would you give it a look?

Karl: I think I’m open to anything right now. I am open to doing front office work, helping out with the personnel on an NBA team. I’m interested in college. I’m interested in helping people. I’m interested in European basketball, would I be interested in going back to European basketball? That’s a possibility. I mean, I’m open to anything, I’m not rushing into anything, [but] I think I’m open to conversations. What if, what if? I’m ready to go.

Greene: You talked about in your book that the guys that really resonated with your heart and your spirit were the guys that really got after it, guys that were real tenacious. You mentioned Kendall Gill who just didn’t, necessarily, visually have that fire in him, that you saw. Now, transitioning to a current player in the game, when you look at a guy like Russell Westbrook and what he’s doing and the way he approaches the game, is that a guy, as a coach, that you look at and say ‘I wish I had a few seasons with him under me?’

Karl: I think Russell Westbrook is a freak. I mean, this man, the way he plays with his energy and his passion every game, is a pretty amazing thing. And I have a lot of admiration for his approach to the game, and there’s no question about that, plus he’s one of the most talented athletes playing the game of basketball today. So that’s a special package and I’ve always looked at Russell Westbrook in that way. He brings to the table what coaches like on the table. Sometimes he makes mental errors, sometimes his basketball isn’t the purest of all, but damn, I would love to coach that. And I think it’s easy to coach because he’s on your team, it would be easy to coach the team. And his leadership by example is pretty obvious every night. I think that’s why OKC, looking into that, they’re great. I think the Westbrook, Harden stories are really good this year. I mean, I never saw James Harden be this type of playmaker, I didn’t see that. [Houston Rockets head coach] Mike D’Antoni saw that more than I did. And I think it’s a marvelous story how giving him the ball has calmed [Houston] down into a very efficient offensive team and a much better defensive team.

Greene: I’m going to put you on the spot since you mentioned them both. Right now, as we approach the All-Star break, who would you give the MVP to out of those two?

Karl: I think like all coaches, I’m going to go with the team that’s winning more games. And I think Harden’s evolution into a point guard, along with D’Antoni’s philosophy of coaching, has turned Houston into a team that might be a contender. I think right now we have Cleveland and Golden State ahead of everybody, and I think Harden and the Houston Rockets have a chance to get there by the end of the year.

Greene: Last thing on Westbrook. Just looking at the situation, I’ve joked around with people and said, from an individual career standpoint and legacy, Kevin Durant going to Golden State might be the best thing for Russell Westbrook, individually, not necessarily as a team, with Oklahoma City because now a lot of the questions around him being ‘maybe you should defer to Kevin Durant?’ or ‘are you the 1B to his 1A?’ Did you see this type of talent? Obviously, we knew he was already an All-Star, already on a great trajectory, but did you see him being able to explode like this before the season started?

Karl: I thought he always had a chance. I think without Kevin Durant there’s around 10 percent or more possessions in his control, maybe even 20 percent more possessions in his control. And I think the NBA is a game of efficient basketball. The coach wants to get the ball to the most efficient player on his team that will create a team game and a successful flow and aggressiveness in their offense. I think when Durant and Westbrook shared it, it was fine, of course, they did a good job of figuring that out. Now I think it’s simple. It’s simple, I think, for OKC to understand their personality right now, and sometimes I think Durant and Westbrook was kind of confusing. At times when one guy maybe wasn’t playing that well, they didn’t know how much the other guy was supposed to take over. So it was always kind of a, ‘Well if you control one, you have a chance to control both of them.’

Greene: I’m going to transition now. Obviously, a lot of the talking points from your book have really resonated from the Carmelo Anthony situation. Kenyon Martin responded, J.R. Smith responded. But I want to ask you, from a different perspective, looking at some of the guys that are leaders of their teams in this day and age, do you get the sense that guys just aren’t ready to handle the expectations that are given to them?

Karl: I think what I’ve seen in the league is that it’s taking longer, for whatever reason, for a college player to come into pro basketball and learn how hard the game is, how difficult the challenge is and how to be a pro every day at a high, high character level. I think that’s what you’re seeing, and before maybe, I look here, a young player would come into the game and it might take two or three years. It seems like it’s taking longer now, it seems like it’s taking three, four, or five years before the maturation of the pro attitude that is necessary to be a great player.

Greene: Do you plan on, ultimately one day, when it’s all said and done, maybe getting together with Carmelo, Kenyon, J.R. and maybe cracking back a brew? You guys did win a lot of games together, will there be phone calls made, at some point, just to talk as men?

Karl: I would hope so. I’d hope so, when the storm calms down and the waves start hitting the shoreline, there might be opportunities in the world of basketball that we can cross, have a coffee or two, or a beer, I’d love those conversations. I think tough conversations make you even smarter. Tough conversations, when you express what’s inside your gut, makes you aware of things and makes you grow.

Greene: Now let me ask you this. Out of all the places that you’ve been, is there one particular stop that you look back and say ‘We left it on the table?’ Whether it’s Seattle with, basically, a prime [Shawn] Kemp and [Gary] Payton, whether it’s the world championships in ‘02, the Denver Nuggets team, Milwaukee really got close to the Finals. Is there a spot that you say ‘This is the squad where I look back and I’m kicking myself because we really left something on the table?’

Karl: I think what comes to mind is the year I came down with cancer in 2010 [with the Denver Nuggets]. I was the All-Star coach that year so we obviously had the best record in the league. And I thought in January, we were playing great basketball. And then I announced my cancer right after the All-Star break, and I tried to coach the rest of the year but I made it only two-to-four weeks. I’m not saying I was the reason we fell apart, but I thought that team, because we were in the Conference Finals the year before, I thought that team was ready to take the challenge past the Western Conference and get to the NBA Finals.

Greene: The squad, personally speaking, I think one of the anomalies that I saw, just witnessing up close was after the Carmelo Anthony trade to New York, you guys, the Denver Nuggets, went on a huge run. I remember asking you a question at the time like ‘Is this one of the most fun environments that you’ve had?’ Those two, three weeks right after [the trade]. You guys were on a winning streak and it just seemed like everyone was getting along great. What was it about that and, as a coach, when you lose, arguably, your best player?

Karl: Well, people forget that we played about 35 games with Melo on our team that year, and every day we had to answer, ‘Is he gonna be traded?’ ‘When is he gonna be traded? ‘Is he gonna be traded?’ I think everybody got tired of that situation, and finally, when the trade was made, I think there was an expectation and opportunity to go out and play. Two or three guys went from being maybe a 20 minute player to now playing 30 minutes a game and having a lot more responsibilities. And because of the way the season went, when the trade happened it was like a celebration for us. There was a challenge for us to show the world that we’re okay. I think that was a compliment to the players, Ty Lawson became our starting point guard at that moment. [Danilo Gallinari], and Wilson Chandler, we got them in and joined the crew. It was pretty interesting how good they were, how young they were, how excited they were. We got Raymond Felton in the trade, and he would go on to play really well. We still had a pretty good basketball team, and I think the combination of us having the excitement showing the world that we’re okay, I think we played at a really high level and it was a lot of fun. I think the last two or three years in Denver after the Melo trade was probably as connected as a team as I ever had.

Greene: I’ve got one last question for you coach and I appreciate the time. This is a different one, right now. You’ve been around the game a long time. Who is the best basketball player, in your eyes, that the masses haven’t heard of? Whether it’s been because of an injury that you’ve seen, whether it’s been from them not taking their craft seriously, is there somebody that you just look back and say ‘This guy had all of the goods but just couldn’t connect all of the dots?’

Karl: Well the guy that comes to mind when you talk that way is Arvydas Sabonis. I mean, Sabonis was an incredible 6’11 athlete, could run the court. Early in his career, he had some injuries, and his injuries turned him into a low post center. But he was an amazing young player, his first six, seven years as a wing player, as a runner. I think 1988 was the year that the Russians beat the USA team for what we felt was the first time fairly. In ’92 we got the Dream Team because the NBA wanted to be involved. I think Sabonis is the one guy not because of attitude, but probably because of injury, never became a great player. But at one time, I think people thought he could be one of the greatest players in the NBA.

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NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?

Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?

Ariel Pacheco

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The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East? 

The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.

The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis. 

Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills. 

Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line —  in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.

RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.

But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.

The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games. 

There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.

Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games. 

That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.

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NBA PM: The Best Remaining Free Agents

With a season of roster shuffling upon us, here are the league’s free agents that could play a pivotal role. Quinn Davis takes a look at five available players who stand out above the rest.

Quinn Davis

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In the NBA’s most recent round of Coronavirus testing, there were no positive tests. In context, somewhere in the range of 500-750 nasal swabs returned a negative result for the virus.

Perhaps it was a stroke of luck, or perhaps a testament to the discipline of the players in this league. Either way, it’s likely unsustainable. The Houston Rockets kicked off the season by having their opener postponed due to multiple player infections. At some point, a virion will find its way into another team locker room as it did at times in the MLB and NFL. 

An outbreak could result in postponed games or it could force teams to scramble to fill rosters for games unable to be moved. In the latter case, teams may be looking to the free agent wire for some last-minute help.

Unfortunately, the early-season free agent pool is a bleak and desolate place. It mostly consists of players who missed the cut in training camp and are now waiting for another opportunity to stick – it is unlikely there will be any needle-moving acquisitions. 

With that said, the NBA is a league where eight minutes from the eighth man could make or break a game. One game could make or break a playoff berth. So, naturally, it is of great import that front offices know who to snag when a live body is needed. 

Luckily for lazy front offices, Basketball Insiders has taken the liberty of ranking the five best available free agents. With apologies to Frank Jackson, Marvin Williams, TJ Leaf and Isaiah Thomas, here are five that should be on the top of many teams’ lists.

Andre Roberson

Roberson is a one-way wing with his area of expertise being on the defensive end. He spent five seasons in Oklahoma City, serving as the starting two-guard for many of the team’s playoff runs in the post-James Harden era. 

Roberson missed nearly two full seasons with injury, which has understandably hurt his appeal. He did return for the bubble, however, and played nicely in his limited minutes. In 182 possessions with Roberson on the court in Orlando, the Thunder sported a defensive rating of 94.0. That number is well below the number that led the league last season, per Cleaning the Glass.

It’s a small sample size to be sure, so take that with a grain a salt – but that kind of defensive impact is a theme of Roberson’s career. The injuries are cause for concern, however, if Roberson can be close to his former self, he is worth a look as a situational defender. He could fit snugly on a contender like the Brooklyn Nets, who have the scoring and ball-handling departments well under control.

Shabazz Napier

The speedy point guard from the University of Connecticut just spent the latter half of his sixth NBA season with the Washington Wizards. In his short time there, Napier put up solid numbers in 24 minutes per game – so he could be a nice, easy scoring band-aid too.

He doesn’t live at the rim, attempting only 24 percent of his shots there, per Cleaning the Glass, but he finished well when he had the opportunity and drew a decent number of shooting fouls. Most of his work comes from behind the three-point line, where he hit a league-average 36 percent of his attempts.

On Mar. 8th, Napier put up 27 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds against the Miami HEAT in 40 minutes. The overmatched Wizards lost the game, but it showcased what Napier can bring at his best.

Realistically, Napier will not consistently provide that kind of production, but he can provide a spark to a team in desperate need of one off the bench. 

Emmanuel Mudiay

Mudiay is another point guard that found spot minutes as a backup throughout his career, most recently with the Utah Jazz. At 6-foot-5, Mudiay has good size for a point guard. Craftily using his frame to get into the paint, Mudiay attempts most of his shots either at the rim or from floater range. 

He is a mediocre finisher, however, converting only 56 percent of those looks at the basket, per Cleaning the Glass

Over his last two seasons, his best work has come in the midrange, where he has hit on 46 percent and then 48 percent of his attempts, respectively. The midrange pull-up was Mudiay’s weapon of choice out of the pick-and-roll as the Jazz scored 0.93 points per possession in that action with Mudiay as the ball handler, per NBA.com. That number is not too far off the numbers of Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson, albeit in a smaller sample size. 

Mudiay has limitations as a passer, defender and floor spacer, but there is still room for a midrange pick-and-roll creator in the present day. As a betting man, look for him to find a home before the end of this season. 

Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova, a member of the Milwaukee Bucks last season, was a casualty of the failed Bojan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade that came apart after the franchise was hit with tampering charges.

The Turkish forward was set to join the Sacramento Kings, but after the deal fell through, the Bucks were forced to release Ilyasova, and he has yet to be signed.

Ilyasova isn’t the most well-rounded player, but he does a few things very well. He can space the floor consistently, shooting about 37 percent from deep over his last five seasons. His height and high release allow him to get those shots off in tight spaces rather easily.

Ilyasova also has a knack for making tough shots in the midrange, where he canned 61 percent of his long two-point attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.

On the defensive side, Ilyasova is slow-footed and ground-bound, so he has his limits. There is one area where he excels though — drawing offensive fouls. He has the awareness and IQ to get in the right position and he combines that with a flair for the dramatic as any good charge-taker would. Just two seasons ago, Ilyasova led the NBA in charges drawn.

As teams look for wing depth, the veteran should find a place to contribute before the season’s end.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

From Philadelphia by way of Arizona, Hollis-Jefferson has carved out a role in his first five seasons by bringing an edge defensively. At a long 6-foot-7, he manned both the power forward and the center position in Brooklyn and Toronto. He was added to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ preseason roster but surprisingly did not make the cut and now awaits another opportunity.

His offensive game leaves much to be desired, and Hollis-Jefferson has yet to develop a consistent jumper, struggling to finish at the rim amongst the trees. He does excel in the hustle stats, however, grabbing offensive boards at a solid rate and drawing fouls. 

Hollis-Jefferson’s value comes on the other end, where his length and athleticism allow him to switch between guarding multiple positions. In almost 2,300 possessions in Toronto last season, the Raptors held opponents to a 107.0 defensive rating with the tweener on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. There is noise there, but it was clear from watching the games that Hollis-Jefferson was making a positive impact on that end of the floor.

Hollis-Jefferson did hit his free throws at a respectable 73 percent clip last season, leaving room for optimism on his offensive game. Even if the jumper never develops, there is usually a roster spot available for a player that is willing to guard and do the dirty work. 

As mentioned at the onset, there are more than just these five who could fill out a team. While these veterans have been contributors in the past or look poised to contribute in the future, there are likely a few diamonds in the rough waiting to be uncovered.

In a season that promises a lot of scrambling, the team fortunate to find one of those diamonds may shine brighter than the rest.

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NBA PM: Early-Season Atlantic Division Rankings

In the next edition of Basketball Insider’s divisional rankings series, newcomer Zach Dupont takes a look at the stacked Atlantic Division.

Zach Dupont

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The NBA season has begun, and it’s time to overreact to the first few games of the year. In the next edition of Basketball Insiders’ inter-conference rankings, we will take a look at the Atlantic Division. In these rankings, we rank each team from worst to first based on their early performances and how we believe they’ll project for the rest of the season.

5. New York Knicks (1-2)

It feels cruel to place the New York Knicks behind the Toronto Raptors after such an impressive 20-point victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, but that’s what we’ve done.

The Knicks will finish last in this Atlantic Division, but there’s plenty to be optimistic about at Madison Square Garden. R.J. Barrett got his rookie season rolling with an impressive 26-point performance against the Pacers where he shot 11-for-15 from the field and 3-for-3 from three-point range. His 10-point, 2-for-15 follow-up in Philadelphia was less impressive – but in two of Barrett’s three games thus far, he has shown clear signs of improvement from last year.

Mitchell Robinson has also shown a leap early in the season. The burgeoning center has started all three games for New York, yet to commit over three fouls in any game while still putting up six total blocked shots. Other youngsters like Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickly showed promise in their single games this season, but both still have a long road to go before being high-level impact NBA players.

Additionally, the Knicks should be pleased with the early play of Julius Randle and Alec Burks. The duo leads the team in scoring, while Randle specifically has had a very strong start to the year, averaging 23.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists on 55.3 percent shooting. With the Knicks unlikely to be a competitive team, look for Randle and Burks to be on the move closer to the trade deadline if their strong play continues.

Despite the big win against the Bucks, the Knicks are unquestionably the worst team in this division. Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are still getting major playing time despite continued subpar performances – plus with so many young pieces in the rotation, it’s unreasonable to expect anything but last for the Knicks this season.

4. Toronto Raptors (0-2)

It’s been a shaky start to the season for the Atlantic’s only winless team, the Tampa Bay/Toronto Raptors. The Raptors dropped their season opener to the New Orleans Pelicans in an uninspiring 113-99 performance, then blew a late lead to the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors own the worst point differential of the division at -9.5 and are only one of four teams in the Eastern Conference without a win.

While Toronto should bounce back from this start, there are many things to be concerned about after these two games. For starters, OG Anunoby has not taken the offensive jump some expected from him after signing a four-year, $72 million extension just before the start of the season. In his first two games, Anunoby has played 72 minutes and only managed to scrape together 18 total points – 10 against the Spurs and eight against the Pelicans – on 44 percent shooting, 20 percent from three and 50.7 percent true shooting.

Worse, the losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka this offseason has been apparent on the defensive end for the Raptors. Gasol and Ibaka were two of the strongest defenders for the Raptors the past few seasons, and replacing their minutes with Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes has brought mixed results. Boucher managed seven blocks against the Spurs, but his thin frame limits his defensive ability, while Baynes’ lack of lateral movement does the same as well.

All of that being said, a core of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and an emerging Boucher won’t finish last in the Atlantic – sorry, Knicks fans – hence why they’ve been ranked fourth. But the early play from the Raptors has raised legitimate concerns about their ability to compete for the Eastern Conference title.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (2-1)

Despite the best winning percentage in the Atlantic, the Philadelphia 76ers land at third on our rankings.

The 76ers have had the easiest schedule thus far in the Atlantic, defeating the winless Washington Wizards, the hapless Knicks and taken a loss to the surprisingly undefeated Cleveland Cavaliers (but without Joel Embiid). So, the 76ers have held steady, but there’s some reason for some concern as they prepare to face off against some of the Eastern Conference’s better competitors.

In his fourth season in the NBA, Ben Simmons appears to have still not taken a leap as a scorer in any meaningful way. Simmons is averaging 15.3 points per game and is shooting 59 percent from the free throw line, both on par with his three past seasons in the NBA. While there’s no doubt Simmons’ defense and passing make him an elite player, his inability to elevate his scoring game could continue to hold Philadelphia back. It’s also disappointing that the 76ers tradition remains constant, with Tobias Harris continuing to look no better than a third banana at-best.

The 76ers also looked lost without Embiid on the court against Cleveland on Sunday night, letting Andre Drummond run wild for 24 points and 14 rebounds. On the other hand, the positive is that Embiid has looked dominant in the two games he has played, tallying 29 and 27 points, respectively. The team surrounding Embiid and Simmons also appears to have been taken a big step forward this year as Seth Curry and Danny Green provide some much-needed shooting on the wings, Dwight Howard was a nice addition off the bench and Tyrese Maxey has shown a lot of promise in his minutes so far.

Shake Milton has been good off the bench and with guys like Matisse Thybulle and Terrance Ferguson hardly playing, the 76ers have plenty of depth to choose from if they deal with injuries.

All in all, it’s been a solid start for Philadelphia, but we have yet to see what they can do against the better teams in the league.

2. Boston Celtics (1-2)

The Boston Celtics may have a losing record, but they have shown a lot of promise to open the season.

Most notably, the duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been very deadly through Boston’s first three games. Brown specifically has taken a jump as a scorer, leading the Celtics in scoring, averaging 26 points per game with Tatum just behind at 25. The pairing flaunted their high-level defense and distribution too, making them a lethal option at nearly all points of the game.

The Celtics’ most considerable concern is what the team looks like outside of Brown and Tatum. Kemba Walker is still out with a knee injury and Boston needs to find scoring from their depth while he’s out of the rotation. The third-highest scorer on the Celtics is Jeff Teague at the moment but he’s averaging just 9.3 points through three games – with Tristan Thompson and Marcus Smart behind at 9.0 points. Without Walker, the Celtics have struggled to find offense outside of Brown and Tatum – so if they want to compete at the top of the Eastern Conference, they’ll need Walker soon.

Boston has also had mixed results at the center position so far. Thompson has been the team’s best offensive option at center, while Robert Williams has shown to be the more reliable defensive option. Daniel Theis has been neither, but the big man was rock solid last year – and he will receive a substantial serving of minutes despite a shaky start to the year.

Despite a 1-2 start Boston has a lot of reason to be optimistic, and if Walker returns soon and stays healthy, they could top the Atlantic.

1. Brooklyn Nets (2-2)

The team to beat in the Atlantic Division is clearly the Brooklyn Nets.

After sitting out the entire 2019-20 season, Kevin Durant is back and looks as dangerous as ever. Durant paired alongside Kyrie Irving gives the Nets the best duo in the Eastern Conference. Irving is averaging 29.3 points per game and Durant is averaging 26.7, and both are doing it on extremely efficient shooting numbers.

The Nets aren’t lacking for depth behind their star duo either. Caris LeVert is a great offensive creator off the bench, Joe Harris is one of the best shooters in the NBA and the Jarrett Allen/DeAndre Jordan combination is a great duo of big men to have at your disposal. While news of Spencer Dinwiddie’s partial ACL tear isn’t great, and Landry Shamet has left a lot to be desired in his first few games with Brooklyn, the Nets have more than enough depth to cover these early-season road bumps.

Staying healthy will be Brooklyn’s most significant question mark this season. Durant and Irving will both miss games this season to “load manage,” with the duo already sitting out the Nets’ Monday night overtime loss to the Grizzlies. If Durant and Irving play three-fourths of their games, the Nets could drop behind Boston in the Atlantic. It’s also far from given that either or Durant or Irving stay completely healthy.

If one of the two gets injured, that changes the Nets’ outlooks dramatically – of course, Durant and Irving have both missed a lot of time in recent seasons.

If the Nets stars stay healthy, they’re the favorites to win the Atlantic Division, and their depth behind them gives the Nets a shot to compete even without Durant and Irving.

The Atlantic Divison is one of the best in the NBA, with potentially four of the best teams in the Eastern Conference… and the Knicks. Brooklyn, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston all have strong teams this year, and they should all be a blast to watch this season. While these rankings seem pretty cut and dry for now, proceedings will surely change a ton throughout the year – so keep your eye on one of the NBA’s sneakiest-best division in 2020-21.

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