For years, the Raptors have ruled the roost in the Atlantic. Their dominance has been unquestioned and unparalleled, with an intra-division record of 52-16 over the last five years. The Raptors have happily feasted on their weak Atlantic compatriots, as over the last five years, several of the franchises have been pathetic.
Brooklyn won some games a few years ago with their palliative stars Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. (Doesn’t that feel like a lifetime ago?) However, they traded their soul for those stars, and like Robert Johnson they have been paying the devil (Danny Ainge, I guess, in this comparison) ever since. Philadelphia has been throwing games like the Chicago Black Sox, but without the punishment (unless you count the league-mandated crucifixion of Sam Hinkie). While New York and Boston have been unimpressive during the last five years, their Atlantic records have somehow approached relevance; this is more a statement on the doldrums of the Atlantic itself than on Knicks and Celtics’ recent talent levels.
But things have changed. The Raptors already have as many Atlantic losses (2) this year as they had total in 2016-17 or 2015-16. Every team in the division at least has hope, not to mention actually useful NBA-caliber players. So let’s rank ‘em. We know where the Raptors stand – at the top, until further notice. Furthermore, the Raptors have skillfully managed their cap sheet so that Kyle Lowry’s 33 M, Serge Ibaka’s 23 M, and Jonas Valanciunas’ 17 M expire at the same time in 2019-20. DeRozan has a player option to potentially end his deal in that year as well. When the Raps turn fully to their youth movement in 2019-20, who will steal the Raps’ crown? Are there any Atlantic threats to the Dinos?
5) Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Nets have been a disaster until quite recently. With the ouster of Billy King, they’ve tried to salvage their dignity (and watchability) by playing modern, up-tempo basketball. Without talent – or the hope of talent influx via their own draft picks after losing seasons – the Nets have struggled to win games. Despite these struggles, the Nets have nonsensically managed to compile some impressive NBA players.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a perfect player for the modern NBA. Drafted 23rd overall in 2015, he was traded to the Nets for Mason Plumlee (and the now-relevant Pat Connaughton(!)). With his quick bounce, incredibly long arms, and activity on both sides of the ball, Hollis-Jefferson has turned into a foundation for the Nets. He can play both forwards spots and even a little center.
Spencer Dinwiddie has proven to be equally impressive this season. After injuries to Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell, the ball has practically been forced into Dinwiddie’s hands. He’s responded like Jafar to wishes-come-true. Since Russell’s injury on November 11th, Dinwiddie has averaged 16 points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds, and only 1.3 turnovers. His assist:turnover ratio has been second to only Chris Paul in that time period. He can shoot, play terrific defence, and at 6’6” he has the size to see over the defence and make plays that few points guards can. Plus he’s on my fantasy team. And he retweeted me the other day! Life is good.
The Nets are fun, and they have some fun players. That being said, they don’t look like they have a path forward to being a great team (without their own pick again this year). The Raps should son them at least until 2019-20.
4) New York: Kristaps Porzingis. Respectable NBA writers are… rather high on Porzingis. He is massive – taller than Shaq. He’s 5th in the NBA in scoring, shooting over 40% from range, and 4th in blocked shots. Dude scores more than Kevin Durant and blocks more shots than Anthony Davis. Plus he’s actually winning! He has a positive net rating for the first time in his career, dragging a would-be (read: should-be) tanking team all the way to the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Knicks aren’t a threat to the Raptors in the near future, but the Large Adult Son of Every Writer at The Ringer can at least shoot his team into any game in the world. Good thing the Raptors have two guys who can guard him. I ain’t scared until 2019-20.
3) Boston: Kyrie Irving is finally a star, playing well on both sides of the ball. The Celtics have two young wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who could both become top-20 players in the league. Al Horford is a genius, and Brad Stevens is a better coach than Gene Hackman in Hoosiers. Their defense is intimidating. I still take the Raptors over the Celtics for now, but the Celts will receive a huge boost next year in the form of Gordon Hayward, back from injury. And a seemingly-unlimited trove of picks (with an impressive draft resumé).
The Celtics are a strong team already, but the Raptors aren’t scared; both teams are great and competitive. The Raps lost to the Celtics by one on November 12th despite a horrible game from every one of their starters with the exception of Kyle Lowry. The Raptors should be competitive with the Celtics until 2019-20. KLO3 > Bill Simmons.
2) Philadelphia: I wasn’t bullish on the Sixers coming into this season. I didn’t trust the process – and why would I have? The Sixers have done nothing but lose for practically as long as I can remember. Jrue Holiday, Thad Young, and Spencer Hawes? Who? And then the season started, and Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid started doing their thing, and god damn was I wrong.
Ben Simmons is basically John Wall in Karl Malone’s body (or something like that…). He’s as fast as anyone I’ve seen with the ball, and his size allows him to make passes other point guards wouldn’t attempt even if they were living in Groundhog Day. He can’t shoot – and that’s ok! He’s a defensive terror due to his length and anticipation, and he’s already a net positive on both sides of the ball. And he’s not even the best player on his team.
Joel Embiid – if we’re for some reason putting hall of fame players into other hall of fame players’ bodies – is basically Kevin Garnett in young Shaq’s body. He is perhaps second in the league to Lebron James in total number of plays in which he makes gigantic and strong and determined humans look frail and tiny and pathetic. He can do everything, and he’s even funny and loveable. I pray for his health.
The Sixers have built a young core with more potential star power than even the Raptors’ youth squad. If they develop properly, stay healthy, and are able to sign players the caliber of J.J. Redick in upcoming free agencies, the Sixers could feasibly de-throne the Raptors even before Masai Ujiri’s three-year window closes. I already don’t want the Sixers to play the Raps in a playoff series.
The Atlantic Division has finally become a strong division in the NBA; it has more total wins than any other division in the league! It’s not particularly close, either, as the Atlantic has four more wins than the Northwest (which, bizarrely, has Oklahoma City in last place at the time of this writing). The Raptors may not be leading, but this is a historical outlier (recently) rather than a trend.
When Ujiri’s three-year-plan finishes, the Raps are perfectly positioned to let their youth have the run of the team. The twilight of the Lowry-DeRozan years is perfectly timed to preempt the rise of young studs like Philadelphia’s Simmons and Embiid (hopefully). When other currently-tanking teams like Atlanta, Chicago, and Phoenix begin rising in three years, Ujiri has kept his options open in regards to a difficult decision regarding franchise direction. One thing is certain though: the levels of the Atlantic will only continue to rise.