Atlantic Division 2020-21 NBA Season Preview: Raptors face stiff testDecember 21, 2020
The NBA is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 30 teams in the lead-up to tipoff on Tuesday, Dec. 22.
Today, we look at best- and worst-case scenarios for the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2020–21 standings.)
2019–20 finish: 48-24, second in the Atlantic, lost in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Major additions: Jeff Teague, Tristan Thompson.
Major subtractions: Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Brad Wanamaker.
Best-case scenario: The Celtics have all the potential to be a legitimate title contender. Led by their dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston has the right combination of scoring ability and versatile defence to go all the way. Kemba Walker will have to perform better than he did last post-season, but it may not matter if Brown and, especially, Tatum take the kind of steps forward most expect them to.
Worst-case scenario: Barring injury to a key player, of course, we already kind of saw the worst-case scenario for the Celtics play out in their Eastern Conference Finals match-up with the Miami Heat. Walker’s game fell flat against Miami and Boston suffered. Boston can’t afford to let that happen again.
2020–21 season prediction: 42-30, second in the East.
2019–20 finish: 35-37, fourth in the Atlantic, lost in the first round.
Major additions: Jeff Green, new head coach Steve Nash, Landry Shamet.
Major subtractions: Garrett Temple.
Best-case scenario: Though he isn’t technically a new addition for the Nets, Kevin Durant sure feels like one after he missed all of last season. And now that he’s paired up with Kyrie Irving, along with Brooklyn’s cast of high-level role players in Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Joe Harris, the expectation in Brooklyn is to win an NBA title. The talent is all there. All that stands in the Nets’ way is health and chemistry.
Worst-case scenario: And on the topic of chemistry, look no further than what happened with the Los Angeles Clippers last season as an example of what happens when super-team experiments go awry. Talent can take you far, but unless the team is a cohesive unit it won’t get you to a title. And, as history would suggest, Irving has had difficulties keeping team cohesion as the leader of a team. Granted, Durant should take that mantle now that he’s in the mix, but will Irving allow him to do so? Playing second fiddle to another star isn’t something he’s wanted to do since he won a title with LeBron James in Cleveland, after all. In general, there’s a lot of ego on this Nets team extending beyond just Irving and Durant, and it’ll be interesting to see how rookie head coach Nash manages to bring all of these personalities together. If he can’t, then this season could end in spectacular failure for the Nets.
2020–21 season prediction: 41-31, third in the East.
2019–20 finish: 53-19, first in the Atlantic, lost in the second round.
Major additions: Aron Baynes, DeAndre’ Bembry, Malachi Flynn (R), Alex Len.
Major subtractions: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka.
Best-case scenario: The Raptors will be attempting one of the most difficult things to do in pro sports this season as they look to have yet another successful season while keeping the eye on the prize that is this coming off-season’s free agency (even after Giannis’ big extension with Milwaukee). The departures of Gasol and Ibaka hurt the club competitively, but in re-signing Fred VanVleet, bringing in Baynes and drafting Flynn, Toronto looks like it’ll remain a top-tier Eastern Conference club — just maybe not on quite the same level as in years past.
Worst-case scenario: Just because the apparent goal to really go for it seems tied to next season doesn’t mean the Raptors can be complacent this season. Toronto’s never had much of a track record in being able to attract marquee free agents, and though it might be nice to think things have changed it isn’t something you can bank on. The best possible pitch the Raptors can give to any prospective free agent is the team’s culture and dedication to winning. If Toronto looks like it’s doing any less this season, it would be doing itself a great disservice.
2020–21 season prediction: 40-32, fourth in the East.
2019–20 finish: 43-30, third in Atlantic, lost in the first round.
Major additions: Seth Curry, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, new GM Daryl Morey, new head coach Doc Rivers.
Major subtractions: Fired coach Brett Brown, Al Horford, Josh Richardson.
Best-case scenario: The 76ers shook up their leadership in letting go of Brown, bringing in Rivers and also hiring former Rockets president Morey to be the new team GM. If you’re a Sixers fan you have to like the moves that were made — particularly trading away Horford, and adding Curry and Green to address the shooting woes this team has experienced over the past few seasons. Now the goal is simple: Show that the all-star pairing of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can actually work with the right personnel around them. In order to do that, a trip to the conference final will probably be required.
Worst-case scenario: Of course, we’ve never actually seen the Sixers make it work with Embiid and Simmons together. The theory that the team would be better off with just one of the two still holds a lot of water, and if there’s a trade to be had there, Philadelphia should probably look to make it — which leads us to the worst-case scenario for the 76ers this season. Rockets superstar James Harden very clearly wants out of Houston; he reportedly wouldn’t mind a trade to Philly; and the Sixers could easily make a deal for him by trading one of Simmons or Embiid. This sounds like a no-brainer decision for Philly if Houston is willing, but Morey has shot down reports of his team’s willingness to include Simmons. If it comes out that this deal couldn’t happen because the 76ers wanted one more kick at the can with their current star pairing, there may be riots in the streets of Philadelphia.
2020–21 season prediction: 38-34, sixth in the East.
New York Knicks
2019–20 finish: 21-45, fifth in Atlantic, didn’t make the bubble.
Major additions: Alec Burks, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers, new head coach Tom Thibodeau, Obi Toppin (R).
Major subtractions: Ed Davis, Wayne Ellington, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis.
Best-case scenario: Once again the Knicks had cap room to spare — their big target this past off-season was reportedly the Raptors’ VanVleet — and once again they failed to attract anyone. Instead, you see the list of role-player additions above. Sure, this Knicks group might play harder than most in recent years because of the new players they added, and because of Thibodeau’s coaching style, but New York still lacks the necessary talent to compete for much of anything. So, in that case, with the strength of the 2021 draft class, New York should be looking to pull the parachute early on this season try to find a star in the draft.
Worst-case scenario: Despite how bad the Knicks already are, things can always get worse. The club appears to have stability now with Thibodeau in as the squad’s head coach and former high-powered player agent Leon Rose in as president of basketball operations, but job security is a fickle thing with James Dolan as New York’s owner. If things start going south — and they will go south — Dolan might get impatient again and look for another shakeup, something the Knicks don’t need. New York needs continuity, but that’s just something that doesn’t seem possible with this franchise.
2020–21 season prediction: 23-49, 14th in the East.