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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