As it sits right now, the top-ranked Milwaukee Bucks (39-6) have an eight-game lead over the second-ranked Miami Heat (30-13) in the Eastern Conference, followed by the Toronto Raptors (29-14) then the Boston Celtics (28-14).
Boston and Toronto are two other strong teams in the East that can make a very serious case as potential contenders, but the question is, who is the more legitimate title threat between the two?
These teams have played each other twice this season with the Celtics taking both games.
The Raptors, of course, are defending champions and the Celtics are looking to hang banner No. 18 in the rafters of TD Garden. Which of them though is actually legit though? Let’s take a look.
Advantage: Toronto Raptors
The Celtics made one of the biggest splashes in the 2019 offseason, by essentially swapping Kyrie Irving out for another superstar point guard in Kemba Walker.
— NBA (@NBA) December 25, 2019
Meanwhile, in Toronto, they lost their best player to free agency in Kawhi Leonard.
Point Guard: Edge – Boston Celtics
Here we see Walker go toe-to-toe with longtime veteran Kyle Lowry. Walker has a slight edge over Lowry offensively, averaging 2.0 more PPG as well as shooting 3.8% better from the field and 4.5% higher from three-point land.
The Celtics got a huge step up with Walker from Irving, who essentially burned all his bridges in Boston on his way to Brooklyn. Walker is the leader they need and the player that fits better with the Celtics’ younger core.
Shooting guard: Edge – Toronto Raptors
This might be the toughest position to decide on because on one side you have the much improved Jaylen Brown for the Celtics and then you have the tough and emerging Fred VanVleet for Toronto. Much like the Lowry and Walker match-up, Brown is the better offensive player with a 1.6 edge in PPG and an offensive rating that’s 4.6 points higher than FVV.
On the other end of the floor, VanVleet has been a straight-up thief averaging 2.0 SPG, which is ranked third in the entire NBA. The offensive comparison isn’t as heavily lopsided as it may seem, and once you factor how important VanVleet’s play is directly related to the success of the Raptors, it’s hard not to give him the nod.
Small forward: Edge – Boston Celtics
When looking at these two teams, small forward appears to be the weak spot for both. The Raptors have thrust OG Anunoby into the spot that was once filled by Leonard. Anunoby has taken that opportunity and ran with it, averaging a career-high 11.0 PPG in his third NBA season.
For the Celtics, they rotate this position based on who is healthy but with the Celtics’ at full strength, Gordon Hayward is the designated starter. Hayward has played and started in 26 games this season and is averaging 16.3 PPG.
Hayward battled back from a fractured hand, and in his time off Marcus Smart cracked the starting line-up and while not known for his scoring, his defensive presence remains menacing.
With Hayward, the Celtics have the edge. Without, the edge goes to Anunoby and the Raptors. Luckily, Hayward is back and playing for Brad Stevens and the Celtics.
Power Forward: Edge – Toronto Raptors
At the other forward slot, Pascal Siakam is one of the best small forwards in the league and while Jayson Tatum is close to getting to that next level, he is not there just yet.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has been experimenting with starting Ibaka and Marc Gasol together in the front-court and doing so puts Siakam at small forward and slides Anunoby into the shooting guard slot. Talk about a big lineup.
Center: Edge – Toronto Raptors
Much like the small forward position, these teams do not get much out of their centers.
Toronto starts Gasol who recently returned after missing 12 games with a pulled hamstring. Gasol is averaging 7.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 3.5 APG so far this season.
He does, however, rank third in the league in plus-minus amongst all centers. Gasol’s impact goes beyond the stat sheet as his IQ on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball is crucial to the Raptors’ success.
Oh yeah, the Celtics start Daniel Theis. Even Celtics fans will tell you they would rather have Gasol.
Neither of these teams can write home about their bench scoring. Both rank near the bottom of the league in that category with the Raptors’ second unit ranking 28th and the Celtics’ reserves 22nd.
However, the Celtics and Raptors’ benches boast net ratings that are more favorable in terms of their ranking league-wide.
What net rating proves is how effective the given team/player is both offensively and defensively. The Celtics’ bench has the fifth-best net rating and the Raptors are right behind them at sixth.
The Celtics have a deep bench and Stevens has no problem using it, even if it doesn’t equate to big-time scoring.
Toronto may not be as deep but they get the needed production from the select few that Nurse entrusts. These players include Norman Powell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who combine to score 23.9 PPG off the bench a night, which is almost higher than the entire Celtics bench as they only average 29.1 PPG.
The main players coming off the bench for the Celtics are bigs Enes Kanter, Semi Ojeleye and then the scrappy Smart. The rest of the scoring is chipped in from several other bench players. This Celtics bench was atrocious when Hayward was out. Now that he is back, Smart will return to the bench, giving them a much-needed scoring boost.
Edge – Toronto Raptors
Nick Nurse just came off of winning an NBA championship. One can say that the championship was all due to Kawhi, but if you look at how Nurse managed his players last season it truly goes underappreciated.
Last season, Nurse had to handle Leonard’s minutes along with incorporating a new piece in Gasol and getting him comfortable into the offense and then deciding to stick with VanVleet through his early playoff struggles when all of the basketball universe was calling for his head. All tough decisions.
This year, Nurse has had to regroup and change his offense slightly to replace the production of Leonard. Despite the departure of Leonard, the Raptors tout a 5.9 Net Rating compared to the 5.8 Net Rating they had last season. Impressive considering the mega-talent that Leonard is.
Nurse is one of the best coaches out there, but that is not meant to take anything away from the genius of Stevens. Stevens is a great “X’s and O’s” coach and shows his brilliance getting easy baskets off of offensive sets and out of timeouts. One other coaching factor that Stevens does not get credit for is how seamlessly he has managed the switch from Irving to Walker.
Edge – Boston Celtics
The match-up between Nurse and Stevens might be one of the best head-to-head coaching battles in the NBA. Both have navigated their respective teams through relevant injuries so far this season, never suffering a super significant drop-off in the process.
With the players and the experience that make up both the Celtics and Raptors squads, the overall edge has to go to Toronto.
A lot can change. Trades can be made mid-season, injuries to significant players, guys can be added via free agency or the buyout market, but as it sits right now the Raptors seem to have the edge in all the necessary categories.