As we move beyond the ARC (After the Raptors Championship), attention has swiveled from the North back to the West. Common sense tells us that this makes sense. Afterall the King is out there. So too is the Board Man. So too is the guy who changed basketball by making shooting-range a theoretical concept. And those guys? They all play in the same division.
So, what the heck am I doing saying that the Atlantic might be the best division in the NBA?
First, let’s make it clear what I am and am not talking about. I don’t necessarily think that the Atlantic teams will pile up more wins than the teams in any other division. Though I don’t think that’s impossible.
What I am talking about is more of a holistic 360-degree look at the divisions. What’s happening now. What might happen soon, and what’s definitely not happening — like the Buss family getting together to drink Mai-Tai’s and sing Kumbaya.
I’m judging the divisions based on a 10-point scale in five categories, so the best a team can score is 50. Those categories are:
Current Rosters — How good is the division top to bottom now?
Future Potential — Based on the players on the teams now, how much growth can we expect?
Draft Assets — Does the division have more significant picks coming in or going out?
Management — How smart are the people in charge?
Free Agency Pull — How likely is it that teams in this division can land significant (although not solely star) free agents?
We’ll go from worst to first.
6. Southeast Division
What’s definitely also not happening is any case for the Southeast as the best division. Yes, the Hawks are frisky, but are you willing to bet anything substantial that Trae Young-John Collins-Kevin Hueter-Cam Reddish are even the Coke Zero version of Steph Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green-Andre Iguodala? (We’ll note who I didn’t feel the need to include for the Dubs.)
After that you have an intriguing, but flawed Orlando team, Jimmy Butler’s latest demolition project in Miami, and a couple of lousy franchises in Washington and Charlotte.
The Southeast has a few things going for it that make them more interesting than they seem at first glance. Most of these teams are in decent shape draft asset-wise, save Miami who have a lot of capital that could head out the door, and Atlanta — who have a lot of draft capital that could head in.
Management here is a bit of a wash. Atlanta really seems to know what they’re doing, while Charlotte once turned down multiple first round picks to take Frank Kaminsky. Orlando now has some well-regarded executives in charge, and Washington is finally looking to hire a well-regarded executive?
Talking markets, Miami and to a lesser extent Orlando, have a history of bringing in free agent talent, and it’s not like Washington and Atlanta should be no go zones if and when the teams get good, so the Southeast is actually in pretty good shape there. It’s just not nearly enough.
Current Rosters: 3
Future Potential: 6 (90% of that is in Atlanta or Orlando)
Draft Assets: 6
Free Agency Pull: 6
5. Central Division
The Bucks are great, they’re my safe-money favourite to challenge for the Larry O’B out of the East. Meanwhile, the Pacers might be the best bet on the board for “dark-horse team to make the Finals” if Oladipo gets back quickly and Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis can figure out their on-court fit. As a bonus, Giannis, and the Pacers’ key players are still young enough to expect some additional growth.
Meanwhile, the Bulls are quietly building something. It’s not impossible that a Zach Lavine-Tomas Santoransky-Lauri Markkinen-and the Juniors (Otto Porter and Wendell Carter) starting line-up could be better than average.
Still, Detroit is stuck in a rut unless they do something radical, and the Cavs are a looooong way from relevancy.
Looking at draft assets, the Pacers are down a first to Milwaukee, but basically everyone else has a fairly even number of seconds scheduled to come and go (depending what conveys).
Management-wise, every team here, including now the Cavs, seem to have a sense of what they want to do. I’m not sure I believe Gar-Pax actually know what they’re doing in Chicago, but they somehow haven’t done anything egregiously dumb for almost two seasons, so maybe they’ve figured it out.
Where the Central is hurt is by the fact that you could argue there isn’t a single destination market among the bunch. The Bulls should have the history and the city-size to change that, but the winters are bad in Chicago, and aside from the MJ years, and a brief run with Derrick Rose, the Bulls have generally been losers.
Current Rosters: 6
Future Potential: 5
Draft Assets: 6
Free Agency Pull: 3
4. Northwest Division
The Northwest has two dark-horse title contenders in Denver and Utah, as well as a very good team in Portland, and even Minnesota can put talent on the floor right now. As for Oklahoma City, well, they’re clearly rebuilding — even with Chris Paul and Steven Adams hanging around.
The whole division is still fairly young as well, so it’s not like these teams should age out of contention. Although the situation in Minnesota feels very precarious. Karl-Anthony Towns is signed long term, but we know that doesn’t mean much if he decides he wants out. While Oklahoma City may well soon gut their team further to improve their draft position.
OKC is in arguably the most draft-rich position in league history, but with some of those picks not conveying until 2026 their time-line is so stretched it’s hard to know what the Thunder will be. Especially since most of those picks could be coming at the very end of the first round. Other than that, the rest of the division are all in slight pick deficit positions, although Denver is the only one sending a first out.
It’s always hard to tell what’s going down in front offices, but Minnesota seems to have one of the most dysfunctional in the NBA. In OKC, Sam Presti has acted decisively to pull his team out of the murky middle, but you have to ask why did a team that had Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka end up there in the first place? Denver seems to be nailing the small moves (Jerami Grant) needed to take a good team to great status, while in Portland, Neil Oshley has preached a Raptors-esque faith in continuity, but you have to wonder if he’s going to have to take a Raptors-esque big swing to really make the Blazers something special.
The big problem for this division is that none of these teams is a classic free agency destination, and that means they need to draft a super-star, and put the core around him to keep him there long-term.
Current Rosters: 8
Future Potential: 7
Draft Assets: 7
Free Agency Pull: 4
3. Southwest Division
I had a real battle between where to put the Southwest versus the Northwest. Especially given the argument that the Southwest might not have a true top-tier title contender in it’s roster.
Settle down Rockets fans, I’m not trying to be a troll, but there are a lot of fair questions about the Harden-Westbrook fit, and if Clint Capela can stay on the court against small ball teams, especially the one by the Bay.
The Spurs are a machine as always, as un-sexy as their games are, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldrige deliver (at least in the regular season) and I think Dejounte Murray and Derrick White could be the best defensive back-court in the NBA as soon as this season, but San Antonio lacks a super-star, or an obvious way to get one. [cue Shea Serrano punching his keyboard approximately 15,000 times]
The Pelicans are doing a fantastic job with their rebuild — they have multiple pieces you’d like to have right now, and a passel of future assets. Memphis is a step back, but they still have several players both good enough and young enough to be on their next truly good team. The draft position is not as good though, while they have two firsts coming in, they’ve dealt what may be the best asset in the game — their top-6 protected pick for next year — to Boston.
Weirdly it’s Dallas, with two stars in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, that might be your worst positioned Southwest franchise. Porzingis could be forced off the court by injury or legal issues, and the rest of the supporting cast is solidly in the “good-ish” category. They’re also down a couple of firsts, and despite Mark Cuban trying really hard, they haven’t been able to get any game-breakers to take their money.
That segues nicely into management. Is Dallas still good at building basketball teams? Maybe not. Darryl Morey is still one of the best, though — the Rockets may never win a title, but they’re swinging big every year, trying to maximize Harden’s prime. Both the Grizzlies and Pels have a clear plan, and have enough good players on board now to make that plan more than just “hope we nail every pick.” And the Spurs? Until proven otherwise they’re still the best-run franchise in the NBA.
The big edge here, over the Northwest, is that Houston, and, at least theoretically, Dallas, are the sort of markets that can bring significant talent in via free-agency.
Current Rosters: 6.5
Future Potential: 8
Draft Assets: 6
Free Agency Pull: 6
2. Pacific Division
Welcome to the Star Power Division. Please put on these complementary Space Jam 2 shades before proceeding.
The Clippers and Lakers have power-house duos. The Clippers, especially, have a strong supporting cast as well, but the Lakers 3-10 are better than you might want to admit. Still, the Golden State Warriors may be the best of the lot (I have the Warriors as my favourite to win the title, because Klay Thompson will be back just after Christmas, and fully functional by the playoffs, because Klay Thompson is a basketball playing cyborg).
All three teams are relying on aging cores, and have dealt away varying amounts of draft capital to get, or keep, what they have. In this case, “varying amounts” ranges from: “wow, that’s a lot of picks you don’t have,” to “um, do you need scouts?”
Still, that’s three teams that should be competing for titles until at least 2023. At the bottom of the division the Kings are feisty, and, dare I say it, edging closer to actually being well-run? The Suns, for all their pratfalls, have seven guys on their roster that I think would be rotation guys on pretty much any team in the NBA (seriously, check it out).
There’s also no question that, except for the Kings, this division can recruit big name players. Don’t forget, with their reputation for an amazing training staff, the Suns had a history of landing players when they were good.
At the same time, this division has a real deficit in draft assets — only the Kings are on the right side of the ledger, and all they’re getting are second rounders. Plus, while I do think there is young talent on the Kings and Suns, there isn’t anyone I’d bet my life is going to be the second best player on a title contender, and the big three, with the exception of D’Angelo Rusell, and Anthony Davis, are stacked with in-their prime types.
This brings us to the next issue: Management. I believe in Golden State’s team. I believe in the Clippers team. I… I think I then feel best about the Kings? The Suns keep shooting themselves in the foot, and I have very little faith that if anything happens to the King or A.D., that the Lakers have the front-office juice to keep the Purple and Gold in the title conversation.
Current Rosters: 9.5
Future Potential: 5.5
Draft Assets: 2
Free Agency Pull: 10
*(As we know, whenever situations seem even in the NBA, the tie always goes to LA.)
1. Atlantic Division
Here comes the Atlantic, a division so bad for so long, that the makers of the Titanic felt that they were the ones having their reputations hurt by being associated with each other.
The Sixers are a legit title contender now. The Nets are a 75% healthy Kevin Durant from being one themselves. The Celtics still have a collection of young talent that is the envy of most of the league. The Raptors are highly unlikely to make it back to the Finals, but they’re an OG Anunoby breakthrough from being a spoiler of nightmarish proportions. The Knicks… are not good.
Looking forward, the Sixers, and Celtics, and a chunk of the Nets are all very young, and good, while Durant, Al Horford, Gordon Haywood and Irving aren’t out to pasture yet. The Raps are old, but also, with Pascal Siakam, Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and, dare to dream, a newly consistent Norman Powell, have enough young players with potential that they should be able to stick around competence even without reinforcements. The Knicks… actually have a handful of kids who range from “could be pretty good” to “might be a rotation guy”.
Where this division really shines is in management. Danny Ainge invented the asset hoarding game teams like OKC, Memphis and New Orleans are copying. It hasn’t quite played out like he wanted, but he still has some cards up his sleeve. Maybe Philly hasn’t fully capitalized on the promise of The Process, but Elton Brand made bold moves this off-season that have a real chance of ending in a title. Masai Ujiri is one of the best in the world at his job, and Sean Marks has been really good at his — although the toughest test — going from good to title worthy — is still to come.
And the Knicks… I actually liked the Knicks off-season. I know they struck out, again, in the hunt for free agents, but what Scott Perry did in response was smart. He either brought in young players who’ve been good in flashes (Julius Randle, Bobby Portis) are great role models (Taj Gibson), or players who will either play well and bring in assets, or won’t and will be bought out (Marcus Morris, Elfrid Payton). I don’t think they have their alpha on the roster yet, or perhaps even they’re beta, but they have a plan.
James Dolan is a huge negative for the franchise’s perception, but he hasn’t been a meddler in transactions as of late. [Ed. Note: This said “never” before, which we know is not true in Toronto!] If New York is finally ready to commit to a true rebuild then if this the worst team in your division, a marquee team in the biggest basketball market on the planet, then your division is very scary.
This bleeds into draft assets — the Porzingis deal (which even without a free agency coup was defensible to me), leaves the Knicks up two first round picks, while every other team in the Atlantic — aside from the Raptors — stands to collect way more draft assets than they’re due to give up.
Finally, the Nets have now proven they can be a free agency destination. The Knicks can be, if they either, (a) do a rebuild right, (b) Dolan sells, or (c) both. Boston and Philly have both struggled to land the top-tier free agents, but, they get meetings.
That leaves Toronto, where Masai Ujiri is furiously beating the “people want to come here now” drum — we just don’t know if it’s true. Still, you have to feel that Toronto, with a title in hand, and several years of stable success, has moved into the top half of the league’s “most desirable” locales.
Current Rosters: 8
Future Prospects: 7.5
Draft Assets: 8
Free Agency Pull: 7
There you have it, the Atlantic has the killer combination of talent, youth, draft-picks, management and big markets needed to make it, top to bottom, the NBA’s best division.