The Toronto Raptors have been racking up Atlantic Division titles in recent years. During the franchises first nine seasons they were a part of the Central Division where they were unable to win any division crowns. Since entering the Atlantic Division in the 2004-05 season, the Raptors have won more than their fair share of titles. In 16 seasons they have won seven division titles – including six of the last seven, and three in a row. Of course the main goal is to win the NBA Championship, but these are nice little bonuses.
This year it will be difficult to win this division. The Atlantic is easily the best division in the Eastern Conference and arguably the best in the entire NBA. This has not always been the case in recent years. The Boston Celtics are usually very good. Philadelphia has been good for the past three years, but terrible in years prior to that. The Brooklyn Nets haven’t been good for the last six seasons, and the New York Kicks have been one of the worst teams in the entire NBA for a long time. The Nets, Sixers, Celtics, and Raptors all figure to be competitive this season and he Knicks will still be very bad.
The NBA has released a schedule plan that will see these teams play only three intra division games per team this season. They have randomly assigned who gets two home games of the three, as seen on this matrix. Since you play three games versus all teams within your conference, the divisions are essentially meaningless this season. Still, let’s take a brief outlook at each team in the Atlantic Division to see if the Raptors can potentially get a fourth straight division banner. This could all change if they swap the Raptors divisions, which seems unlikely now based on the schedule plans.
The Celtics were the last standing team from the Atlantic Division in last year’s playoffs. In the regular season they finished five games behind the Raptors for second in the division. They have plenty of wing talent headlined by emerging superstar Jayson Tatum. Kemba Walker is one of the better point guards in the NBA, and they have another great young wing in Jaylen Brown. Raptors fans are all too familiar with pesky guard Marcus Smart – who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. Furthermore, Brad Stevens is one of the league’s top coaches. They have plenty of recent first round picks who figure to be bench pieces for the upcoming season.
As much as the Celtics have a lot to like, they do have their flaws. Although Gordon Hayward didn’t factor into the Celtics playoffs success last season, this loss will hurt them. During the regular season, he was an elite shooter, a plus defender, and a good playmaker for the Celtics. Hayward is a borderline all-star when healthy, who was playing in a lesser role. They are likely replacing his minutes with the 14th overall pick Aaron Nesmith, and by using smaller lineups featuring newly acquired point guard Jeff Teague. However, the Celtics made a good pickup by signing Canadian big man Tristan Thompson. He is an elite rebounder, and good switchable centre to go along with the Celtics strong wing and guard play. He and Daniel Theis should be a solid one-two punch for the team this season.
The Celtics are definitely in the mix to win the Atlantic Division. Their young players are still getting better and they have proven the ability to win without Hayward. While their depth isn’t outstanding, coach Stevens will surely put out quality lineups featuring his new additions. It remains to be seen if this group can win a championship, but that upside does exist. The Celtics will likely be the favourites to win the division – at least in the regular season.
The Nets might be the most fascinating team in the NBA right now. In the summer of 2019, they signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving knowing that Durant would be out for the entirety of 2019-20. Irving also battled his fair share of injuries with the Nets in his first season. He was limited to just 20 games before being shut down for the year with a shoulder surgery. They still managed to go 35-37, and finish in the seventh seed in the East. They have revamped their coaching staff after hiring Steve Nash as their head coach alongside Mike D’Antoni and Amar’e Stoudemire as assistants.
This team is eerily similar to the 2019-20 Los Angeles Clippers. They are adding two Superstar players to a team that had previously developed chemistry and established a culture. They have concerns with injuries as well. By all reports Durant is healthy, but an achilles injury can be very difficult to return from. He was arguably the best player in the NBA prior to his injury and his return to form will be the biggest factor to the Nets success this season. Irving has proven to be a controversial figure. How he gets along with his teammates will be interesting to follow all season long.
The Nets could easily be the best team in the Atlantic division. They have superstar talent, depth, and championship pedigree. Injuries and team chemistry will be a concern for them. If they can work through those problems, they are likely to have the best chance to win a championship of any team in the division. However, given they will have a new coaching staff and a new roster it is likely that they won’t win the division in the regular season. They will make the playoffs easily, but will be working out growing pains during the season.
New York Knicks
Other than three moderately successful seasons from 2010-2013, the Knicks have been extremely bad. Not including those seasons, they have missed the playoffs and finished below .500 every year since 2003-04. That season, they made the playoffs with a 39-43 record. They also missed the playoffs three year straight before 03-04. It’s been ugly to say the least. Last season, the Knicks missed out on Durant and Irving and decided to overpay a bunch of centres instead. They finished last in the division, with a 21-45 record and had a lot of drama along the way.
Of course, the common person to blame for the Knicks is owner James Dolan. He purchased the Knicks in 1999, and has been the face of the franchise’s struggles. The most exciting thing for Knicks fans has been the dream of luring Masai Ujuri from the Raptors. However, they recently signed Leon Rose to be the president of basketball operations. Rose did not make any splashes (yet) this offseason, and it might be the best decision made by the Knicks in years. They do have Canadian RJ Barrett, who they drafted third overall in 2019, and a couple of other decent young players – including Mitchell Robinson and 2020 eighth overall pick Obi Toppin.
The Knicks are the clear bottom feeder of the division. They have no all star caliber players, a new coach in Tom Thibodeau, and plenty of front office concerns. Unless the Knicks acquire a player like Russel Westbrook, they will likely be a bottom-five team in the NBA. Even if they add a player it is a safe bet that they will finish last in a loaded Atlantic division. The Knicks are in need of a major rebuild with both talent and culture.
Speaking of teams who have had front office drama, the Sixers have been one of them. Unlike the Knicks, they have addressed these concerns this offseason. The Sixers hired Daryl Morey from the Houston Rocket to advise Elton Brand as the primary decision-maker on roster construction. Additionally, they fired long-time coach Brett Brown and replaced him with Doc Rivers. Morey is not afraid to make trades and has already shaken up a Sixers roster that did not mesh well last season. He has shipped out Al Horford and Josh Richardson, while adding shooting around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
Based on sheer talent, the Sixers might be worse than last season. Horford and Richardson are better than Danny Green, Seth Curry, and Dwight Howard – but the fit is much better now. Heading into last season, the Sixers were expected to compete for a championship. Things didn’t go well. The Horford-Embiid pairing made no sense, and Richardson wasn’t the right player to compliment the Sixers stars. They finished sixth in the East (43-30) before getting swept in the first round by the Celtics. Of course, Ben Simmons was injured prior to the playoffs and didn’t play in that series.
The Sixers are likely the team in the division with the most variance potential. Simmons and Embiid are both elite players with superstar upside who could be the primary players on a contender. It appears unlikely that Simmons will develop a perimeter game, so the addition of more shooters around him could work well for them. I would lean towards caution on high-hopes for the Sixers as they still have plenty of question marks. They will definitely be a good team this season, but are unlikely to figure it all out and win the division.
The Raptors always find a way to accumulate a lot of wins. They are perenial underdogs and have gone over their vegas over/under win total in nine straight seasons. There is no doubt that the centre rotation has taken a hit, but the rest of the roster is still strong. They are deep in the guard positions and have two elite defensive wings in OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. Nice Nurse is still running the ship, now as the reigning NBA coach of the year. Most importantly, they have heart, leadership, and a winning culture. Last season they finished with a record of 53-19 while dealing with a plethora of injuries to important players.
It will be difficult for the Raptors to adjust to playing in Tampa this season. This could be a factor (either negative or positive) on how well they are able to perform. The main things that will determine their success is growth from the young core of Siakam, Anunoby, Norman Powell, and Fred Vanvleet. This, as well as team attention to detail on defense – led by Nurse. Kyle Lowry will have to stay in all star form, and the rotation players will have to prove capable of eating minutes. It seems like a lot, but it is all very feasible given the track record of this franchise.
Can they win the division?
The short answer is yes. They most certainly can win the division if things go well. Boston is likely the safest pick to win it in the regular season given their continuity and blossoming young stars. If the Raptors can build off last season’s growth and championship mentality, it is certainly possible that they could win the division. The Nets probably have the highest ceiling, but they have many things to work out in the regular season. Come playoff time, they may be very dangerous. It’s hard to have faith that the Sixers will put it all together, and the Knicks will surely finish last by a wide margin. The Atlantic will be tightly contested, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see any of the top four teams win the division.