Five keys for Raptors or Sixers to overtake Celtics
BOSTON -- When you look at all the team awards and accolades the Celtics have compiled during the franchise’s illustrious run, you won’t find a single Atlantic Division banner. That’s because league championships -- not division ones -- are the barometer for success around these parts.
While that mindset remains alive and well to this day, the winner of the Atlantic Division this year will likely advance to the NBA Finals out of the East. Based upon their makeup, along with the success they achieved last season with and without their key players, the C's are the odds-on favorite to be that team.
And behind them you’ll find fellow Atlantic Division foes Philadelphia and Toronto, both with the potential to compete with, or surpass Boston . . . depending on the outcome of the following five factors.
The Raptors gambled on trading for Kawhi Leonard, knowing he's in the last year of his contract and reportedly longs to play in Los Angeles. Paul George came to Oklahoma City via trade last year, and the risk paid off for the Thunder when they signed George to a four-year, $137 million deal this summer. But the Raptors don’t have a no-brainer superstar like Russell Westbrook to pair with Kawhi, as OKC does with George. And as talented as Leonard has been, the quad injury he suffered limited him to just nine games last season. There’s no sense whether he’ll return to the form that made him the best two-way talent in the NBA.
It’s pretty simple: If Leonard is at or close to the level we saw in San Antonio, the Raptors become Boston’s biggest threat. But anything less than that will have Toronto in the “good, but not good enough” category.
BEN SIMMONS THE SHOOTER
It’s not that Ben Simmons is a bad shooter. It's that he doesn’t take shots outside the paint. He took only 11 3-point attempts last season and nine of them were end-of-clock heaves from 35-plus feet. Of Simmons' 989 other shots, only 9.8 percent were from 15 feet or further. That's the fewest of any player who averaged at least 15.8 points and appeared in 81 games, as Simmons did. Simmons' ability to get into the lane off the dribble with a strong, sturdy 6-foot-10 frame makes him a load to deal with, but defenses eventually take away your first option. That's not a problem for the really great players, because they have a series of counters. We haven’t seen that side of Simmons yet. For Philly to get past the Celtics, they are going to need more diversity from his game offensively beyond racking up assists and scoring on lay-ups. He has to show at least an effort to be more of a perimeter scorer.
This is the one area that’s often overlooked when it comes to a team’s success; that is, until it becomes an issue. Boston showed last season the importance of having quality depth. The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward five minutes into the season and would later lose Kyrie Irving for the playoffs. Still, they managed to get all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing in seven games. Philadelphia and Toronto are talented, but the play of their non-starters will be critical. The Raptors’ second unit was among the best in the NBA last season, and their ability to build off that success will be critical to their chances of upending the Celtics. Philadelphia’s depth doesn’t appear to be quite as strong, but the addition of Wilson Chandler provides them a solid scorer with good size (6-9) who is versatile.
All three of these teams were in the NBA’s top 10 when it comes to defense. So it only makes sense that whichever team fares best at that end of the floor will only strengthen its chances of having the kind of deep, meaningful playoff run that all three envision. Boston has all the key guys back from the league’s top-ranked defense. But the Raptors should be able to close that gap significantly if Leonard returns to the lockdown form we’ve seen for years. Meanwhile, the Sixers have Joel Embiid roaming the paint while Robert Covington provides a strong wing defender presence. Rookie Zhaire Smith comes into the league with the potential of being an above-average defender, but it remains to be seen how much playing time he’ll receive this season.
When it comes to knocking off a favorite, there has to be a player or two who emerges with what can only be described as a breakout season. For the Sixers, it's Markelle Fultz. The top overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, he was a non-factor as a rookie in part because of injuries and in part because the team insisted his shooting mechanics be revamped (or overhauled, depending on how you want to look at it). If he can start playing like a top overall pick, the Sixers may have what they need to overtake Boston. For the Raptors, as weird as it is to think of an established All-Star as an X-factor, it's Leonard. No one has a true feel what to expect after he played only nine games last year. Because of that unknown dynamic, Leonard is the biggest X-factor in the NBA for this upcoming season.