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The NBA Story Lines Beneath the Surface: Atlantic Division

Let. Mitchell. Robinson. Cook. With the league still in limbo, we’re digging deep into overlooked in-season developments for the Knicks, Celtics, Nets, Raptors, and Sixers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Basketball is very good. This long hiatus is … not. If there’s a small silver lining, it’s that the break provides time to dig beneath the surface and explore each team’s core identity, whether the games are played in front of cardboard cutouts of fans at Disney World or not. We’ll be looking at the overlooked story line for each team, division by division, over the next few weeks. Here’s the Atlantic:

Toronto Raptors: Something About the Way They Move

Take a bow, Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri. Defending a title and combating a championship hangover is supposed to be hard even without losing the Finals MVP in free agency and having four starters miss a combined 65 games with injuries. Somehow, though, with 18 games left to play, the Raptors have compiled the third-best record in the league.

It’s almost jarring how much harder Toronto plays than everyone else. Down 30 against the Mavericks? Start full-court pressing! Nurse has the buy-in from his players to try just about anything at this point, partially because he hasn’t really missed yet but mainly because of the leadership from Kyle Lowry, now 34 years old but still playing with a competitive fire so intense that it renders him incapable of making business decisions.

The Raptors force the second-most turnovers in the league and sport a gaggle of wings who sprint the rails, two bowling-ball point guards who get downhill, and dangerous above-the-break shooters trailing behind in case nothing materializes initially. Toronto creates more of its offense in transition (21.7 percent) than any team in the league while allowing the lowest points per possession in transition defensively. The Raptors’ transition game is their biggest advantage, and the best example of their sum being greater than their individual parts. Even with that being the case, aside from Jaylen Brown, no one with at least 4.4 transition possessions per game has been more efficient than Pascal Siakam (1.22 PPP) or Norman Powell (1.25 PPP) in that setting—Harden, Westbrook, Giannis, you name it.

Siakam’s improvements have already been acknowledged, and Powell’s might have been too had he not missed 20 games, but there’s almost too much other stuff going on in Toronto: Chris Boucher’s toothpick legs conspiring against him ever sticking the landing after a big dunk or block; Serge Ibaka’s disdain when someone tries to test him at the rim or put him on to scarves; Terence Davis nuking teams off the bench as an undrafted rookie; Marc Gasol still shooting rainbow jumpers from his La-Z-Boy on the block.

The Raptors were supposed to be stuck between rebuilding and contending, but they’ve nailed the in-between phases of roster building and actual basketball better than anyone. It’s almost impossible to beat the high of a championship season, but Toronto has somehow become more fun—even without the Fun Guy.

Philadelphia 76ers: Shake & Rake

The arms race in the Eastern Conference has been a literal arms race. Contenders like Toronto and Milwaukee have stockpiled enough wingspan to make Jay Bilas blush, and it’s hard to argue with the defensive results. The Bucks contest almost eight more shots per game than the next closest team in the league (Grizzlies). It’s good to be long.

The 76ers didn’t need much help in that regard thanks to GM Elton Brand hoarding big men like toilet paper, but they got it all the same in the form of two young guards with 7-foot wingspans: Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle.

At the risk of being hunted down by the Knicks fans who lived it, there’s at least a tiny bit of Linsanity brewing here with Shake. Like Lin before him, Milton barely played his rookie season, but immediately tore it up when pressed into action as a starter in his sophomore campaign.

  • Lin in 25 games as a starter in 2011-12: 18.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 44.5 field goal percentage, 34.3 3-point percentage, 79.6 free throw percentage, 55.1 true shooting, 27.6 usage
  • Milton in 16 games as a starter in 2019-20: 14.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 53.9 field goal percentage, 50.0 3-point percentage, 74.3 free throw percentage, 67.2 true shooting, 18.3 usage

Few players were hotter than Milton was before the season came to a screeching halt. His peak was a 39-point performance over Patrick Beverley and the Clippers.

While Milton has come out of left field, Matisse Thybulle showed everyone during his four years at Washington what was coming. How so many teams talked themselves out of drafting the best collegiate perimeter defender in years remains one of the biggest mysteries of the 2019 draft. In his senior year, Thybulle led the country in steals and tied for 11th in blocked shots, despite being 6-foot-5. Steal rate is one of the most transferable stats from college to the pros, and a decent indicator of future success, and Thybulle’s 6.7 percent steal rate while playing in a major conference was basically unheard of.

The early returns have been incredible. Thybulle is the only player in NBA history to play more than 1,000 minutes and record at least a 3 percent steal rate, 3 percent block rate, and shoot 30 percent from 3.

Things could get complicated once games start back up and the 76ers are back at full strength. There’s no easy candidate to sit after the 76ers acquired Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III at the trade deadline, and coach Brett Brown is already walking a tightrope. Thybulle and Milton may have to take a back seat for now, but the Shake & Rake connection provides hope for a franchise with a long-term vision that seems to get murkier by the day.

Boston Celtics: A Shooter Shy?

A great deal of hand-wringing has been done over Boston’s centers—a natural fallout from having Enes Kanter on your roster. Boston passed on the opportunity to address the position at the trade deadline, which is easy to justify for a team lacking movable salaries. Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward are much likelier to provide a greater return than any center acquired using their matching salary, particularly if the player acquired wasn’t a legitimate floor spacer.

The latter sentiment is the bigger issue for Boston heading into the postseason. Brad Stevens’s offense has taken off with Jayson Tatum making the leap as a shot creator, and even implying that a team with the fifth-best offensive rating is somehow fatally flawed on that end would be foolish. This is a great offensive team, with big-time scorers who can create on their own when necessary.

But if you want to pick nits …

The Celtics do rank in only the 27th percentile on both spot-up shooting opportunities and shots off screens, according to NBA Advanced Stats. The upshot there is that Gordon Hayward (90th percentile) and Jaylen Brown (71st percentile) are both effective options and should be on the receiving end of the majority of spot-up chances, but Boston does lack the kind of proven postseason shooters you usually find somewhere on the bench of a title contender. The core group of Tatum, Brown, Hayward, and Marcus Smart hasn’t lit the world on fire from deep in the past, either:

  • Career regular-season 3-point shooting: 2,172 for 6,073 (35.8 percent)
  • Career postseason 3-point shooting: 193 for 578 (33.4 percent)

Boston is so young off the bench that Lakers guard Danny Green has made almost as many postseason 3s (230) as the entire Celtics roster combined (232). That’s at least a little troubling with teams like Toronto (second in spot-up PPP allowed), Milwaukee (fourth), and Indiana (sixth) being so good at getting late closeout contests. For what it’s worth, Boston has played those three teams and Philadelphia to a 5-6 record this season.

At this point in the game, the improvement will have to be internal. Keep an eye on Grant Williams. After missing his first 25 3s as a pro, Williams has settled in and might be a “kill two birds with one stone” solution: a small-ball 5 in the mold of Draymond Green who defends, creates, and can shoot just enough, but more importantly has the basketball IQ to use the space afforded to him to create opportunities for others.

Brooklyn Nets: The Value of an Average Joe

The last vestiges of the snuffed-out Kenny Atkinson era might not be long for Brooklyn. Jarrett Allen was moved to the bench immediately upon Atkinson’s dismissal, doing little to discredit reports claiming a mutiny from the “new Nets” was sparked by DeAndre Jordan not starting at center. Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie are perennially discussed in trades and should continue to be, as both need the ball in their hands to have a real impact. Meanwhile, Joe Harris, who blossomed into one of the league’s best perimeter shooters under Atkinson’s tutelage, appears to be the best fit to stay with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving moving forward, but is also an unrestricted free agent this offseason (whenever that may be) in an entirely underwhelming class. He will get paid by someone. But then there’s this:

“Collectively, I feel like we have great pieces,” Irving told the New York Daily News. “But it’s pretty glaring we need one more piece or two more pieces that will compliment myself, KD, DJ, GT [Garrett Temple], Spence, Caris, and we’ll see how that evolves.

All right then! Kyrie leaving Harris out isn’t a big deal—he didn’t need to name the whole team—but GM Sean Marks letting Harris walk without a fight definitely would be. Remove Harris’s shooting from the equation this season, and the Nets as a team hit a putrid 32.7 percent from deep. Will teams hesitate doubling off Temple? Is Taurean Prince burning teams for helping? Right.

Irving is correct that the Nets need a few extra pieces, and bringing back an elite 3-point shooter who is a willing defender would be a nice place to start. Brooklyn has Harris’s Bird rights and can go into the luxury tax with a big offer if Harris wants to stay, which he seems plenty amenable to doing.

Something still feels off here. It’s hard to glean much from a season when Irving played in only 20 games, but the optics of just about every personnel decision made since the acquisitions of Durant and Irving have been poor. Seeing how the Nets handle Harris’s free agency is about as good of a litmus test we’ll get in Brooklyn this offseason.

New York Knicks: Mitchell Robinson and the Three True Outcomes

Dunk, rebound, block shots. The life of a dedicated rim runner on a bad team can be awfully monotonous.

Despite that, Mitchell pursues his duties with great vigor and rarely strays from them. An incredible 246 of Mitchell’s 253 field goal makes this season were classified as dunks or layups. He’s also shot five “hook shots.” Here’s one:


But let’s talk about rebounds! Robinson has a higher offensive rebounding percentage than Shaq did in his first two seasons, as well as more win shares per 48 minutes. He blocks a higher percentage of shots than anyone in NBA history not named Manute Bol, too.

But here’s the thing: Shaq and Manute got to do cool shit, like, all the time. Robinson isn’t even allowed to dribble—he puts it on the deck 0.22 times per touch, lowest in the league with more than 1,000 minutes played. He doesn’t get to chuck 3s, or star in movies as a karate genie who transforms bad guys into basketballs and slams them down garbage chutes. Being an awesome young center used to mean something.

What are we even doing here, other Mike Miller? The Knicks should absolutely not want to play out the rest of the season, but if they somehow make it back to the Garden this year, just let Mitchell Robinson do this. Please.

D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.