Top to bottom, the Atlantic division has a case for being the most interesting in the league. One team, the New York Knicks, made the biggest free agent signing of the summer. Another, the Brooklyn Nets, had their star player publicly demand that the team choose between him and the team’s coach and GM. The Boston Celtics found themselves in the news for all the wrong reasons while the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors are hoping that signings on the margin and internal improvement can help take them to the next level. With the melodrama of the offseason behind us, let’s take a look at each team and how we expect the division to shake out.
Tier 1: The Contenders
Philadelphia 76ers Over/Under 50.5 Wins
Daryl Morey absolutely nailed the offseason. By adding P.J. Tucker, Danuel House, De’Anthony Melton, and Montrezl Harrell, he has surrounded James Harden and Joel Embiid with the type of role players that can help them win a championship. James Harden is no longer the player he was 3 years ago, but with this team, he doesn’t have to be. The Harden/Embiid pick and roll numbers are absurd. If the role players can hit enough open threes and Tyrese Maxey takes another step forward, this could be the year Embiid makes his NBA Finals debut.
Boston Celtics Over/Under 53.5 Wins
We have no idea how Ime Udoka’s suspension and likely dismissal from the team will affect the team on the court. Udoka appeared to be in over his head early in the season but was a huge part of the team’s midseason revival. His in-game adjustments and ability to push the right buttons allowed the Celtics to go from a team on the brink of blowing it all up to one that found itself two wins from a title.
Celtics fans have every right to be disappointed with how the offseason unfolded because the addition of Malcolm Brogdon may have been the piece to get them over the top. Besides being a good defender, Brogdon’s versatility as both a ball handler and credible off-ball threat make him the ideal fit next to Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum. While losing Danilo Gallinari to an ACL injury is less than ideal, he was unlikely to see many minutes in the postseason. For Boston, Robert Williams’ ability to stay on the court could be what decides how far this team ultimately goes.
Tier 2: Trying to Win
Brooklyn Nets Over/Under 50.5
On talent alone, this team should be considered a contender, but does anyone trust them to reach their actual ceiling? How will Kyrie play in what amounts to a contract year? He’s one of the more dynamic guards in the game but will his contract status affect his ability to play within himself? Will Kevin Durant finish the year as a Net or will he sabotage things if he decides the Nets are unlikely to compete for a title?
What is Ben Simmons? Can the Nets survive with Nic Claxton as the starting center? Will T.J. Warren play and, if so, what does he have left in the tank after two years away? Ultimately, there are too many questions that need to be answered before I can commit to calling them a true contender. Then again, a hot start is all they need to make fans forget about the drama of the last 12 months.
Toronto Raptors Over/Under 45.5 Wins
The Raptors are the darling of NBA twitter but there is at least one writer who isn’t sold. Sure, Scottie Barnes looks like a homerun pick but he isn’t close to being the player fans project him to be. O.G. Anunoby appears to be unhappy with his role in Toronto’s system. The Raptors need a franchise cornerstone and I’m not sure Pascal Siakam fits the bill. His supporters will point to the second half of his season while ignoring how truly terrible he was to start the year. If Siakam picks up where he left off, it's possible I am underselling him as a talent. If he has any sort of regression, it limits the team’s ceiling.
To be clear, Toronto is a talented team. Fred Van Vleet and Gary Trent Jr. are really good guards. Otto Porter Jr. will allow Nick Nurse to deploy some new lineups. Ultimately, though, Barnes is the key to the team’s short and long-term outlooks. If he takes a Luka-type leap after his rookie season, all bets are off. Short of that, expect the Raptors to win 50 games in the regular season and lose to a more talented team in the first round of the playoffs.
Tier 3: Playing for the Future
New York Knicks Over/Under 38.5 Wins
The Knicks dropped the ball. Their moves on draft night indicated they were positioning themselves for a blockbuster deal. The entire NBA community knew they were circling around Donovan Mitchell and by trading out of the lottery in exchange for some future draft capital, the trade seemed like a certainty. The Knicks, however, overplayed their hand and allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to swoop in and steal Mitchell out from under them. That is nothing short of a disaster. Unless a trade for a star materializes in-season, the Knicks may have wasted their best opportunity to land an all-star level talent in years.
Jalen Brunson is a good player but he’s unlikely to ever sniff an all-star appearance. With Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle crowding the paint, RJ Barrett needing touches, and there being an overall lack of credible outside shooters, Brunson’s potential impact is likely to be muted. This roster looks closer to a fantasy team than one that can be expected to make any sort of postseason run. They’ll likely make the play-in tournament but will be cannon fodder for whoever they match up against in the first round.
Players to Watch
Scottie Barnes. As we discussed earlier, Barnes's development is the key to Toronto’s season. The sky is the limit for him but it may be premature to assume he can turn his team into a true contender in just his second season in the league.
James Harden. If Harden is in shape and capable of beating defenders off the dribble again, the Sixers will cruise through the regular season. With a monster extension on the horizon, the Sixers are mortgaging their future in their belief that he can regain his form as a star. He’s no longer a lock for 40 points a night but his court vision and passing still make him a dangerous player.
Kyrie Irving. Durant chose him as his running mate and so far the partnership has been nothing short of a disappointment. If he wants the Nets, or anyone for that matter, to commit long-term money to him, he’ll have to prove he can fit in and be trusted on a night-to-night basis.
Harden and Embiid know this is their best chance at a title and I expect them to come out with a point to prove. It’s fair to expect the Celtics will take some time to gel with their new head coach and an early season lull could determine whether they can contend for the division crown. The Raptors are likely a year away while the Nets are a ticking time bomb. The Knicks will continue to be the Knicks.
Division Award Winners
MVP. Joel Embiid will have his best season yet. He should feast in the pick-and-roll and average a career-high in FT attempts.
Defensive Player of the Year. Embiid won’t have to work as hard on the offensive end and that should allow him to lock in on the other end of the floor.
Sixth Man Of The Year. Assuming Tyrese Maxey starts, Malcome Brogdon will have every opportunity to make a major impact in Boston. I expect him to close games alongside Smart, Brown, Tatum, and Horford.
Most Improved Player. The tales of James Harden’s demise were premature. He looks motivated and engaged. I expect him to challenge for the league lead in assists.
Rookie of the Year. None of the teams in the Atlantic Division made a selection in the first round of the 2022 NBA draft. In fact, only Christian Koloko and J.D Davison were chosen. Because I’ve never heard of J.D Davison, I’ll lean toward Koloko being the most impactful rookie.