The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are rebuilding towards relevance, but their Atlantic Division opponents will outpace these two teams.
The division is more or less meaningless in the NBA. Playoff seeding is all predicated on where teams finish in the conference. Not to mention, some around the game are clamoring for a revamping of the playoff format to seed teams regardless of conference. The Western Conference has tipped the scales of the power balance for the better part of this millennium.
But divisions still hold some semblance of meaning. For one, every team is guaranteed to play each team in their division four times. Additionally, there are still regional rivalries that these guaranteed games help to preserve. The New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets are stoking the flames of the rivalry so an extra game or two helps facilitate this competitive animosity. Fostering the interesting dynamics of regional rivalries is necessary for the game.
Although a divisional race can feel hollow and irrelevant, the Atlantic Division should be one of the most intriguing in the NBA. The Toronto Raptors placed their bet on superstar Kawhi Leonard and a new coach. Brad Stevens is finally coaching his team at full-strength. The Philadelphia 76ers are still one of the youngest and most exciting teams in the league. The Brooklyn Nets are coming in with the proverbial chip on their shoulder. And of course, The Knicks are coming in hobbled, yet energized with a new coach and a new attitude.
The huge changes made in the offseason and the return of star players from injury makes the Atlantic Division all the more intriguing.
5. New York Knicks 27-55
A fifth-place finish shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. The Knicks are coming into the season with heaps of uncertainty. When will Kristaps Porzingis return to the lineup? The answer is still unknown at this point. The sooner KP returns, the better the Knicks’ chances are at cracking the 30-win mark.
But without Porzingis in the lineup, this team won’t win many games. There is no bonafide first option on offense without KP. Kevin Knox looks like the real deal, but like every rookie, he’ll have growing pains. Tim Hardaway Jr. can shoulder a greater load in Porzingis’ absence, but he’s wildly streaky. Enes Kanter is a beast on the boards and great in the low post, but he’s limited in what he does. He fits best as a complementary piece that can dominate the offensive boards while someone else draws the attention.
Mitchell Robinson is raw and not ready for consistent action, contrary to popular belief. Trey Burke may not be able to sustain the level of shooting we saw from him last season. Frank Ntilikina still has a lot to prove on the offensive side of the ball.
Long story short, the offense will struggle until KP returns to center stage. The defense should be revamped with David Fizdale patrolling the sidelines, but that side of the ball will suffer in KP’s absence as well — Porzingis led the league in blocks per game at the time of his injury last year and he established himself as one of the premier rim protectors in the game.
To be clear, there are tons of reasons for Knicks fans to be excited about the future. This upcoming season is an opportunity for every player on the team to work on improving. The future is bright, but this season requires tempered expectations.
There isn’t enough talent to challenge the other teams in the division. Eventually, it might be. But not this season.
4. Brooklyn Nets 37-45
The Knicks and the Nets are both rebuilding, but Brooklyn has something their counterparts in Manhattan don’t — continuity. This is Kenny Atkinson’s third year with this squad. They’re bringing back a very similar roster to what they ran with during the 2017-18 season. They made a few key additions (and subtractions) during the offseason in Ed Davis and Kenneth Faried, among others.
The team is familiar with Atkinson’s fast-paced and uptempo style. He has the personnel that fits his preference for a reliance on the pick-and-roll as well as the three-point shot.
D’Angelo Russell is returning healthy after surgery kept him out of much of last season. Russell joins Spencer Dinwiddie in a legitimate backcourt. Jarrett Allen will be another year wiser. Allen Crabbe and Joe Harris showed they can thrive in Atkinson’s system.
Unlike the inhabitants of Madison Square Garden, the Nets are a bit further along in their development. The talent levels between the teams are not too far off — with Porzingis back the Knicks would have the more talented roster. But the Nets are a more mature lineup that’s already transitioned into familiarity. It feels like they are trending in the right direction.
After an eight-win improvement last season, it’s not unlikely that Atkinson’s squad would take another step forward in a diluted Eastern Conference. This team will compete. They will narrowly miss out on the playoffs, but they’ll give it their best shot. Nets fans are in for a competitive and exciting season. Whether that’s enough to lure a big fish in free agency remains to be seen. But in the short-term, the Nets will surprise people.
3. Philadelphia 76ers 50-32
The Sixers are going to be really good this season. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are two transcendent players that will carry them to victory even on nights they don’t deserve to win. They are that good. But unfortunately for the Philly faithful, they are still young with a lot to prove.
This would be a two-win decline from last season, but that’s not to say the Sixers will take a step back. In fact, they could actually be a better team this season. The Sixers finished the 2017-18 season on a 16-game winning streak. A repeat of that type of hot streak is unlikely.
Perhaps Markelle Fultz can live up to his initial hype and help take Philly to the next level. While that’s certainly more likely than another 16-game winning streak, don’t hold your breath for a complete turnaround in a positive direction for Fultz.
The Sixers are probably still the third seed in the East when all is said and done. If nothing else, they’ll have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. But unfortunately the two teams they stare up at are even better this year.
2. Toronto Raptors 57-25
Much like the 76ers, the Raptors will see a decline in their record, but they’ll be a better team when all is said and done. Teams need to adjust anytime there is a coaching change. This is no different for Toronto with Nick Nurse taking over for Dwane Casey.
Of course, Nurse for Casey isn’t even the most significant change to the team. The blockbuster trade for superstar Kawhi Leonard sends Toronto’s franchise player, DeMar DeRozan, to San Antonio. DeRozan’s Raptors teams were a well-oiled machine during the regular season. Last season they secured the top seed in the East and captured the best record in franchise history at 59-23.
The supporting cast is largely the same — and that was the bread and butter for Toronto last season. Guys like Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby were revelations for the Raps and they’ll take another step forward this season.
With turnover at head coach and franchise centerpiece, the Raptors are bound for some struggles and slumps during the regular season. But the team is betting that even if there is a decline in regular season wins, the team is built for a playoff run. Leonard is a player that a coach can lean on in crunch time to will them to victory. DeRozan never proved that in Toronto.
The front office is probably right to take this gamble. They’re swinging for the fences and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the major organizational and personnel changes are why the Raptors land second on our list.
1. Boston Celtics 64-18
Brad Stevens willed this team to a 55-37 record and brought LeBron James to the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals. And Stevens did that without All-Star Gordon Hayward for the entire season or Kyrie Irving starting in early March. Stevens is a phenomenal coach. No bones about it.
With the addition of two All-Stars to this overachieving roster, don’t be surprised when this team dominates the Eastern Conference and proves a worthy foe for anyone out West (save for Golden State in a seven-game series). Irving is one of the most gifted scorers of this generation. Hayward can fill the role of Swiss Army Knife because his game is so well-rounded and balanced. Jayson Tatum is teetering on the precipice of stardom and Al Horford is one of the most underrated players in the league. Jaylen Brown proved his worth in the playoffs last year when he went off for 30 points twice against Milwaukee.
Not to mention, the bench players (the ones who stepped up last season) like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are fully capable in any situation. Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris help solidify the frontcourt.
The Knicks and the Nets are on a different plane from the other three teams in the division. The Celtics already showed that they are far ahead of the Sixers by way of a gentleman’s sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals. They outclassed the Sixers in the playoffs without their two best players. The Raptors will be enthralled in their own feeling out process with their heavy turnover. The only direction for this team to go is up.
There’s a power vacuum in the East without LeBron James. Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics are set to take it.