If all goes as expected, four out of five Atlantic Division teams will make the 2021 NBA Playoffs. But if all went as expected, maybe we’d be out of a pandemic by now.
In any event, the Atlantic has reigned among the NBA’s most intriguing since the league moved to a six-division format before the 2004-05 season. From the latter portion of Allen Iverson’s Philly days, to the chaotic New York Knicks of the Isiah Thomas era, to the Kevin Garnett- and Paul Pierce-led Brooklyn Nets, to the Kyrie Irving-driven Boston Celtics, to the champion outta nowhere Toronto Raptors, it’s been 16 years of theater in the northeast.
The Atlantic has also provided seven NBA Finalists since the Knicks’ miracle run of 1999, with two champions, the 2008 Celtics and 2019 Raptors. This year, they not only spawn four likely playoff teams, but two or three championship contenders, depending on how you feel about the Sixers. There’s also a high probability of shit going south with at least one team in this division, and perhaps as many as four.
For better or worse, this division always brings it, and a worldwide pandemic won’t change that. (Except for the fact that the Canadian representative of the division is in Florida. More on that later.)
COVID Response:Marcus Smart was a prominent NBA COVID-19 contractor during the virus’ spring apex. Smart quickly recovered and recently said he’d been symptom-free of the virus. The C’s and TD Garden are partnering with a Canadian firm named TraceSafe to help combat coronavirus, and why not, because Canada seems to have things figured out before our American dumbasses.
“TD Garden is an iconic venue and an institution in the city of Boston,” shared TraceSafe CEO Wayne Lloyd in a press release repurposed by USA Today’s Celtics Wire. “This is yet another example of a major sports and event venue, placing their trust in the TraceSafe suite of contact tracing and quarantine management solutions.”
Staying Away: The Celtics won’t have fans in the arena as of now, and the aforementioned Smart spoke on the importance of following protocols this season in a recent ESPN story:
“It’s really on the guys to really own up and take care of responsibility and be a professional and try to abide by as much as possible the rules and regulations of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and everything that they have been doing to stay protected and keep yourself and others protected,” he said.
Oh, He’s Here Now? The Celtics are bringing in two first-round picks this year, No. 14 Aaron Nesmith, and No. 26 Payton Prichard, who will become a Celtic fan favorite no matter how much he plays. The 6-foot-6 Nesmith and 6-foot-2 Prichard add depth at each guard spot, as does free agent acquisition Jeff Teague, who will backup Kemba Walker, who is still struggling with a left knee injury that has plagued him since February. The Celtics will need a healthy Walker to truly compete for a title this season. The Celtics marquee signing was Tristan Thompson, a champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who is the walking double-double the Celtics need at center. Whether starting or off the bench, his seamless fit is precisely what Boston needs, and was discussed here recently.
Where’d He Go?Gordon Hayward was famously signed and traded to the Charlotte Hornets for nothing important, outside of a massive $30 million trade exception. His absence, though, has been overplayed, seeing as how he was rarely healthy with Boston, which wasn’t his fault. Enes Kanter is also no longer on the team after being shipped to the Portland Trail Blazers, clearing the way for Thompson, as well as Grant Williams, Robert Williams III, and expected starting center Daniel Theis. (And maybe even Tacko Fall, who returns on a two-way deal.)
What To Expect: The Celtics should be a top-four team in the East this season, building off their Eastern Conference Finals bid one year ago, pushing the Miami Heat to six games. Jayson Tatum will likely return as an All-Star, with Jaylen Brown possibly joining him, as he arguably should’ve last season. Walker’s injury may end his streak of four consecutive All-Star appearances, but if he does return to the form he displayed before his initial injury, the Celtics will find themselves back in championship contention. They could serve as the most significant pain in the ass for both the Nets and the Heat, as well as the 76ers, whom they quickly dispatched in round one of the bubble.
3 / 7
COVID Response: Kevin Durant was one of four Nets who tested positive for COVID in the spring, and the disease also kept Spencer Dinwiddie from entering the bubble entirely. Nets CEO Joe Tsai and his wife Clara Wu were among those who made hefty donations to New York City during the pandemic’s initial apex in the northeast. This included 2.6 million masks and 170,000 goggles.
Staying Away: New York guidelines won’t allow fans in arenas yet. DeAndre Jordan also spoke in the same ESPN story as Smart about those challenges.
“Coming to practice is very strange,” he said. “It’s something that we haven’t had to deal with before in any other season. We get to practice. You take one test. You take another test, then you wait in the car until you’re hopefully negative, and then you can go up with your mask on and do your individual work and lift and shoot and you go home. And you do the same thing again the next day. I think we’ve done a great job of staying as safe as we possibly can and taking this thing as seriously as it needs to be taken.”
Oh, He’s Here Now? Alongside Kyrie Irving, Durant signed in June 2019, but he still hasn’t played his first regular-season game, thus, counting as an acquisition in some respect. Otherwise, Brooklyn acquired Pistons swingman Bruce Brown in exchange for Dzanan Musa before the draft. They added Landry Shamet in a draft night trade, securing a career 40 percent three-point shooter to pair with their polarizing stars. They also signed former Durant rookie teammate and Seattle Sonics O.G. Jeff Green, and brought in 57th overall pick Reggie Perry in the draft. Oh, and there’s also a coaching staff led by Steve Nash in his first year, who also brought in Mike D’Antoni, Amar’e Stoudemire, Ime Udoka, and Royal Ivy.
Where’d He Go?Garrett Temple signed with the Bulls, leaving behind an essential veteran presence from Brooklyn last season. Justin Anderson left for the Sixers, and former head coach Kenny Atkinson is now a Clippers’ top assistant.
What To Expect: Who knows? Between Irving, Durant, Jordan, Nash, D’Antoni, Amar’e, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Tsai, Mr. Whammy, COVID, injury histories, tiring personalities, pawns, rooks, kings, queens, Coogi unis, Malcolm X references, media session preferences, boardrooms, dreams, nightmares, and vaccines: Who fucking knows? They’re pegged as one of the odds-on favorites to make it to the NBA Finals, if not win outright. They might trade for James Harden, but probably shouldn’t. On paper, their talent suggests they should win the East, but paper doesn’t play. A myriad of issues could dramatically swing the Nets season in either direction. Let’s simply say: If they’re healthy, they could win the title, and if they’re not, be it mentally and or physically, they could flop early in the playoffs.
4 / 7
New York Knicks
New York Knicks
COVID Response: James Dolan wanted to hold a benefits concert, with fans tested for COVID antibodies, in a New York Post story he wrotein June. I mean, whatever. The team also had an outbreak at the Westchester County Center in November, closing before they re-opened the following week.
Staying Away: The Knicks won’t have fans in arenas … for now.
Oh, He’s Here Now? Possible Amar’e clone Obi Toppin (No. 8) and college sharpshooter Immanuel Quickley (No. 25) were selected in the draft. The Knicks also signed undrafted rookie Myles Powell and brought in Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers, Omari Spellman, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Burks is currently starting at shooting guard, while Nerlens Noel opens at center, for now. The Knicks also have a new coaching staff, highlighted by head man and former NYK assistant Tom Thibodeau, along with former Knick head coach Mike Woodson, as well as assistant coach and former associate head coach at Kentucky Kenny Payne, among others.
Where’d He Go? What pisses Knick fans the most is still having to watch Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle, who haven’t gone anywhere. Key departures include reliable three-point shooter Damyean Dotson, who joined the Cleveland Cavaliers; Wayne Ellington, who returned to the Pistons; Moe Harkless, who’s a member of the Heat; and Bobby Portis, who will Knuck if you Buck in Milwaukee. Also: former interim head coach Mike Miller is an assistant on the Oklahoma City Thunder staff.
What To Expect: Under new coach Thibodeau, you’ll expect a level of grit passed on those who want it. They won’t be awesome, nor will they win a lot of games — in fact, they’ll probably have one of the worst records in the Eastern Conference — but wins are secondary to development. The Knicks need to see R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and Toppin, in particular, lead the team and show glimpses of what they could provide going forward as franchise cornerstones. The team also can’t bottom out entirely if they wish to attract anyone in the 2021 free agency class, namely, a point guard. The Knicks need to prove they’re a point guard away from being serious, and winning games they shouldn’t would be a start. Plus, if they’re at least better than Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago, they’ll award themselves an outside chance at the 10th seed, which is a shot at the playoffs. This could also swing the other way, and if you’re in that front office, tanking isn’t what you want, even with your first-round pick next season. (Cade Cunninghamis fantastic, though.) Ultimately, you’re probably expecting 20-something wins.
Oh, He’s Here Now? The Sixers dealt Josh Richardson for Seth Curry, Doc Rivers’ son-in-law and an esteemed three-point marksman. They later moved former All-Star Al Horford and stuff for swingmen Danny Green and Terence Ferguson, along with 7-footer Vincent Poirier. Finally, they turned Zhaire Smith into backup 7-footer Tony Bradley from Utah. In the Draft, the Sixers came away with Kentucky combo guard Tyrese Maxey at No. 21, hipster basketball favorite Isaiah Joe at No. 49, and 6-foot-9 Paul Reed at No. 58. Snake bit NBA Champion Dwight Howard signed to the Sixers in free agency. Joining him will be Justin Anderson from Brooklyn.
Where’d He Go? Regarding those aforementioned, Richardson’s with the Dallas Mavericks, Horford’s with Oklahoma City, and Smith is a free agent. Otherwise, Alec Burks is a Knick, Glenn Robinson III is a Sacramento King, and Raul Neto is a Washington Wizard. Former head coach Brett Brown is not on a coaching staff at the moment.
What To Expect: Similar to the Nets, who knows?! Daryl Morey is running the front office. The Doc is back with another head coaching gig, and we still don’t think Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons like one another. If if if Morey, Rivers, Embiid and Simmons make this work, it’ll mean they’re the championship contenders we expected to see ahead of last season, before people realized that it was actually Jimmy Butler who carried the 2018-19 Sixers within one bounce of making the Eastern Conference Finals. (Seriously, Embiid and Simmons were awful that series.)
But more than likely, we could expect a fifth seed at best in the East, meaning they’ll likely face either Brooklyn, Boston, Miami or Milwaukee in round one. Unfortunately, that would indicate they’ll probably be one-and-done again, and the push to separate Embiid and Simmons externally will only grow. But let’s give Rivers and Morey a shot to figure this out. Green, Ferguson, and Curry are intriguing additions next to Embiid and Simmons, Tobias Harris won’t be running into Horford, and Matisse Thybulle should take another step in year two. If the Sixers figure it out, their ceiling is an NBA Finals berth, but the Eastern Conference is stronger than Mitch McConnell’s fourth chin, so don’t bet on it.
Staying Away: In the above statement, Raptors President Masai Ujiri said, “So we’ll be away from our home and our fans for now. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I’m not sure that’s possible for us – we love Toronto and Canada, and we know we have the best fans in the NBA. For now, I’ll ask you to cheer for us from afar, and we’ll look forward to the day we are all together again.”
Oh, He’s Here Now?Aron Baynes, DeAndre Bembry, and Alex Len are the free agent acquisitions coming in to fill the outgoing voids in Tamparonto. The team also drafted guard Malachi Flynn at No. 29, and swingman Jalen Harris at No. 59, who is on a two-way deal.
Where’d He Go? The Raptors lost two integral parts of their 2019 Championship: Serge Ibaka is a Clipper, and Marc Gasol is a Laker. Elsewhere, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is now a Minnesota Timberwolf, reuniting with D’Angelo Russell.
What To Expect: It’s fair to expect a drop-off for the Raptors, who did push the Celtics to Game 7 in the semifinals, but should make a slightly lateral move given the improvements around them. The Nets, Heat, and Bucks should all be better. The Celtics might be given the possible leaps from Tatum and Brown, in particular. And the Indiana Pacers, along with the 76ers, should firmly be playoff teams if nothing else, and are probably in the same tier as the Raptors. Though, the Sixers have the highest playoff ceiling of that group.
Logically, the Raptors should land between 5-7 in the east, with a possible Kyle Lowry trade sometime this season of Flynn comes along quickly due to the long-term commitment to Fred VanVleet. (Lowry is on an expiring contract.) But the Raptors also have one of the league’s best coaches in Nik Nurse, who wouldn’t surprise if he led the team to an overachieving regular season as he did in 2019-20. Maybe VanVleet and Pascal Siakam have other levels to get to, especially Siakam in the playoffs. Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Terence Davis, and Chris Boucher are all ones to watch in Tamparonto as well, because if they are contender level again, this nucleus will be the backbone.