With approximately 20 games in the books and Thanksgiving in the rear-view mirror, the first checkpoint of the NBA season has officially passed. Over the past few years, mainly due to the futility of the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers, the NBA’s Atlantic Division has become the laughingstock of pro basketball. As the Toronto Raptors have gotten off to a good start this season, it is them and the Boston Celtics that are currently deadlocked for supremacy at the top. Is that going to last?
Maybe, maybe not. But fortunately, for the Brooklyn Nets, Knicks and Sixers, there’s still about 75 percent of the season remaining. Still, through the first 20 games of the season, we are ranking the teams out in the Atlantic.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (0-18)
Believe it or not, there are some things that we like about the Sixers, and although most of them have to do with Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, we will remind you that the Sixers have come remarkably close to winning. Four of their last five losses entering play on December 1 have come by five points or less. We are probably in the minority believing that the Sixers’ plan is working and think that a brighter future lies ahead.
Aside from Okafor and Noel, we continue to see good things from the likes of Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington.
But for now, unfortunately, there is no doubt that the Sixers aren’t only the worst team in the Atlantic Division, they’re one of the worst teams in NBA history.
4. Brooklyn Nets (4-13)
To this point, the highlight of the season for the Nets has been the fact that they were a three-foot tip-in from Brook Lopez away from giving the Golden State Warriors their first loss of the season back on November 14, 107-99. Aside from that, the only thing worth cheering for with Lionel Hollins’ team has been the effort that they play with every so often. As the team has made a concerted effort to get younger, we applaud the infusion of youth and do think that there are some pieces on this team that can give fans at Barclays Center something to cheer for in the coming years, but all we keep thinking of is the fact that the Celtics own the their first-round pick this season.
It’ll be a long, long season in Brooklyn. For the sake of all involved, we hope that it flies by quicker than the first quarter of the season.
3. New York Knicks (8-10)
It’s safe to say that both Kristaps Porzingis and the Knicks are among the early-season surprises. Although the Knicks have seemed to have fallen back to earth a bit over the past week, we will not be too difficult on them considering the difficult strength of schedule they had to play in November. In December, with quite a few matchups against teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs last season, we happen to think that December will either make or break Carmelo Anthony’s chances of helping his team return to the playoffs.
We are impressed with how Arron Afflalo has hit the ground running and the the deep rotation that head coach Derek Fisher has effectively employed of the season’s early goings. Based on what we have seen, we wouldn’t rule out the Knicks ending the season at or near .500, but there is still plenty of work to be done.
2. Boston Celtics (10-8)
When Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder joined forces with Brad Stevens, we are willing to guess that there weren’t many people out there who believed that the Celtics would find themselves being a competitive team, much less one of the top teams in the Atlantic Division. The team enters play on December 1 trailing the Raptors by a single game in the standings in the division, and there’s no question that with their strength in numbers and marriage to Stevens’ effective system, they will have an opportunity to end the streak of the reigning division champs.
The Celtics have already scored some wins over some impressive (and more talented) teams, and that has been a recurring theme since Stevens has taken over. What is especially interesting about the Celtics is the fact that nine different players average at least 15 minutes per game for them. We also believe that they are for real because, entering play on December 1, they rank eighth in the league in points allowed with 97.5.
1. Toronto Raptors (11-7)
The Raptors have quietly gone just 4-4 over their last eight games after beginning the season 7-3. The November 25 win that ended the Cleveland Cavaliers’ three-game winning streak is indicative of what the Raptors are capable of when they are firing on all cylinders. The Raptors entered the season having secured the services of DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph and each has already paid some fairly good dividends North of the Border. After having won back-to-back division titles, the Raptors entered the season as the favorites in the Atlantic. They seem likely to do just that unless the Celtics have something to say about it.
There’s really not much more that you can ask for from Dwane Casey and his team, as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are combining for about 42 points per game while Jonas Valaciunas, at least prior to his injury, was continuing to progress. As the Raptors continue on into the winter and head toward the All-Star break, it is the healthy return of the Lithuanian big man and Carroll that will likely determine whether the Atlantic Division championship remains in Canada or grabs its passport and returns to the Northeastern United States.
Check back with Basketball Insiders on Wednesday, as we discuss the Central Division.
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