With the NBA's regular season
set to tip-off on Oct.19, let’s take a look at where each team in
the Atlantic Division stands. We'll break down what’s to like and
dislike, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for each team to
finish in the standings.
WHAT TO LIKE: STAR WING TANDEM
Boston, like many other teams,
dealt with its fair share of injuries and COVID-related absences
during an uneven campaign. The brightest spots of the Celtics'
season came from the wings: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continued
their upward trajectory.
Tatum had his own bout with
COVID, but still took a step up as a top option. The shot
creation improved, as did his playmaking chops. Brown took a step
up as a shot-creator in his own right, particularly with his
pull-up shooting. With the league at large clamoring to add as much
wing talent as possible, the Celtics are blessed to have two of the
best wings in the sport. The fact that they're both under 25 years
old is icing on the proverbial cake.
- His offseason was a little
funny to track, but I do like the Dennis Schroder signing at that
price point ($5.9 million). The Celtics needed a boost in rim
pressure to complement the pull-up chops of Tatum and Brown;
Schroder should provide that in spades.
- Quick kudos to the Celtics for
locking up Robert Williams (and Marcus Smart!) for the foreseeable
future. I really like Williams long-term. He's a violent rim runner
and shot-blocker with passing chops that more people should pay
attention to. Boston trusted him a bit more in "Delay" sets above
the break, and he delivered some delicious dimes to
- Speaking of bigs, I love Al Horford
making his return.
- I was loudly wrong about the Payton
Pritchard pick last year. No need to explain it to me like I'm
five. He's a pretty fearless pull-up guy, and I'm curious to see
what a second-year bump looks like for him.
- I hope I don't get proven wrong, but I still believe in Josh
Richardson as a 3ish-and-D wing. Poor fit in Philadelphia,
COVID-ravished season in Dallas. Surrounded by this kind of wing
talent in Boston, I hope he can get back to knocking down spot-ups
and countering with two-dribble pull-up middies like he did in
WHAT TO DISLIKE: PASSING
Ball movement was one of the emphasis points new head coach Ime
Udoka spoke about during his introductory press conference. Numbers
don't always tell the story, but sometimes they tell a good chunk
of it: the Celtics ranked in the bottom-five in assist rate (56.6,
27th), potential assists (41.1, 28th) and hockey assists (2.6,
25th). Even beyond the obvious injury caveats, this wasn't a team
that played with a ton of flow offensively.
The jury is out on the specifics of a Udoka-led offense (and how
that may differ from what Brad Stevens did). But just looking at
the roster: Who's the best passer on the team? Is it Smart, who's
more reactive than proactive in that regard? Is it Horford?
Schroder? Tatum? Heck, how far off is Williams from those guys from
a he-can-make-this-pass perspective?
This doesn't seem to be a super-fluid group. Having Tatum and
Brown as get-it-out-the-mud guys is a nice counter to have, but I
hope they aren't required to do it as much as last
- For a team that doesn't have a ton of natural playmakers (if
any), it would be nice to have some true movement shooting to help
bend the defense and create passing windows. They may be banking on
Aaron Nesmith (good Summer League showing, from my view) to
take a leap and fill that role.
- I had this concern last year,
but I am worried about the frontcourt size within a playoff
context. Making a deep run means they'll likely have to face at
least one of Milwaukee or Philadelphia. Horford/Williams/Enes
Kanter just doesn't seem like enough.
LINEUP TO WATCH:
The challenge is going to be the shooting. Smart has quietly
turned himself into a solid one, and Horford still provides some
value above the break. Neither guy forces "holy crap, we have to
close out on that guy" attention, and that's before getting to
If enough shots fall, though, this is a pretty nice blend of rim
pressure, shot creation and defense. It won't shock me if Udoka
goes to this unit as the closing five.
BEST CASE: No. 3 seed
It's hard not to bank on linear
improvement from Tatum and Brown at this point. A
healthier campaign from the former should lead to more victories.
If the defense is a strong as it looks on paper, a high seed for
the Celtics certainly isn't out of the question.
WORST CASE: No. 6 Seed
The top of the Eastern Conference is pretty strong, and I do
have some concerns about this group in the half-court. Implementing
a new offensive system could come with some growing pains, and
that's before getting into some of the passing issues that could
lead to stagnation.
WHAT TO LIKE: OFFENSIVE STAR POWER
Kevin Durant. James Harden.
Those are three of the, what, 10
best shot creators in the world? Eight? Six? The number ain't big
It almost doesn't matter what
you put around those three guys; you're guaranteed an elite
half-court offense. To that point, the Nets scored 121.6 points per
100 possessions with those three on the court last
- It's not like the Nets were far off from
title contention to begin with, but having the offseason they did
should inspire more confidence. Cam Thomas and Day'Ron Sharpe were
two picks I enjoyed from their draft. Adding Patty Mills, Paul
Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge (please be careful!) were solid
veteran depth moves.
- I'm here for the random
Tuesday night in January where DeAndre' Bembry does a little bit of
- Getting out of DeAndre Jordan's contract and turning it into a Sekou Doumbouya
gamble is pretty nice work. More importantly,
this should open the floor for more Nicolas
Claxton minutes... at least you'd think so.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: DEFENSE
I think it's clear the Nets have leaned into an identity
defensively; they're going to switch a ton. They did so at a top-10
rate last season, per Second Spectrum tracking data, and their
current personnel screams: "THIS TREND WILL CONTINUE."
I am a bit worried about said personnel, though. Though their
offseason was strong, I'm not sure they actually addressed their
biggest issues. Their best options for the Tatums and Butlers and
Middletons and Harrises can't be 6-foot-3 Bruce Brown, or Bembry
(though the Nets have the shooting necessary to mitigate his weak
jumper), or Durant for that matter.
The Millsap/Blake Griffin/James Johnson triumvirate is... let's
just say it's a sub-elite grouping for small-ball-5 units. As much
as I love Claxton, he's much more of a switch answer than a guy you
throw at Embiid and feel comfortable about it in a playoff setting.
Aldridge was a better interior presence than I expected him to be
last season, but he's still pretty limited from a scheme
perspective. The mix-and-matching here is going to be interesting
- More to the interior point, the Nets
were quietly bad at ending possessions last season, ranking 23rd in
defensive-rebound rate. If Jordan couldn't do literally anything
else, he could clean the glass. Who's filling that void?
- Okay, one last thing on the interior: I am
irrationally annoyed at Claxton not having a clear pathway to 28
minutes a night. The young man is good! Play him! We know what the
LINEUP TO WATCH:
Multiple ball-handlers, shooting
everywhere, length and mobility in the frontcourt. Unless you
really have a behemoth, I'm not sure how you slow this unit down
BEST CASE: No. 1 seed
This should be the best offense in the league this year, likely
by a healthy margin if they stay... well, healthy. If they're
average-ish on defense, that could be enough to overwhelm teams in
the regular season.
WORST CASE: No. 4 seed
I’m mostly trying to do these
previews with a built-in “assume everyone is relatively healthy”
caveat, but you just can’t do that with this Nets team. Kyrie is
always worth tracking in this regard. Durant was able to bounce
back from the Achilles injury last year, but he is another year
longer. Harden finally showed signs of not being indestructible. It
wouldn't be a shock if the Nets went the maintenance route with
their Big Three and punted some regular-season games in the
WHAT TO LIKE: JULIUS RANDLE WITH HELP
When doing the previews last year, there was no
team I was more wrong about than the Knicks. Their best case for me
was missing the play-in, but looking like a competent group with a
clearer roster plan post-trade deadline.
The Knicks not only made the
playoffs, but earned home-court advantage. That's my "L" to
Julius Randle figuratively and
literally had his fingerprints all over this team last year,
operating as New York's best interior scorer, primary playmaker
and, oddly, its best off-the-dribble creator.
It's cool that Randle could
handle that role with the efficiency he did; it's even cooler that
he shouldn't have to like he did last year. Kemba
Walker and Evan Fournier add different layers of creation to a
Knicks team that desperately needs it. I'm down to see Randle
beating scrambling defenses instead of having to force the scramble
all the time.
- Walker and Fournier in the fold should help
RJ Barrett, too. Barrett made a leap as a three-point shooter, and
I'm still intrigued by the playmaking chops. His primary reps may
go down some, but he should have a more spaced floor and/or more
bent defenses to attack when he gets those reps. Quality over
quantity, in this case.
- We'll have to see which version of Walker
we'll get, but his pull-up proficiency in pick-and-roll should fill
a pretty sizeable hole. I like Immanuel Quickley, especially moving
forward, but he shouldn't be the best option on a
playoff team in that area. (At least not right now.)
- Speaking of the backcourt, I'm here for more Rose-Quickley
minutes. The inside-out nature of the duo is a tough one for
defenses to deal with.
- Mitchell Robinson is back! The
last time we saw him, he was doing his usual dirt as a lob threat
and shot-blocker. The fun part about the latter was that he did so
without hacking everything in sight. That version of Robinson —
provided he builds on his campaign — is going to make him a lot of
money this summer.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: HALF-COURT CREATION
This is less of a dislike and more of a mild concern: Randle got
busy last year, and mixed dudes up with a combination
of power drives and dribble-jumpers that seemed well above his pay
grade entering last season.
I'm worried about what the Knicks' half-court offense will look
like if he can't replicate that, much less build upon it. Walker
should help, but he's not "top option" good in that regard at this
stage. Even the healthy version of Walker doesn't get to the rim
like he used to; a hampered version could border on "liability"
status against good teams considering what he gives up on the other
- It's a point Knick fans have heard or
read about ad nauseam, but man... as good as the defense was last
year, the shot quality given up was not great. That's scheme stuff,
but a team that gives up as many corner threes as they do
(fifth-highest share) while allowing that low of a percentage
(35.1%, second-lowest) always makes me feel a bit iffy.
- Barrett is likely the Knicks' best perimeter defender. He was
legitimately good from my view last year, but it's kind of the
Royce O'Neale-Utah thing for me where I want to say "The Knicks
have Player X, Player Y, and RJ Barrett to throw at
dudes!" instead of it being Barrett and... whom, exactly?
- Probably a nitpicky thing, but
I really do wish the Knicks had a true stretch option in their
LINEUP TO WATCH:
I would be surprised if we even
got 75 minutes out of this group next season, but it's something
I'd like to see against certain matchups. Barrett and Randle have
to be in the 90th percentile or better in terms of strength at
their position. Let 'em guard up a spot, spread the floor on the
other end. Plenty of rim pressure, spacing and pull-up chops in
this small-ball unit.
BEST CASE: No. 6 seed
I think the Knicks have a more talented roster than they did
last year. I also think teams at the top of the East got better, or
are already better if healthy. A minor slide in the standings
wouldn't be indicative of them actually being worse, to
The offensive talent added should help Randle and Barrett. A
better offense should force teams into more half-court situations,
which should play into the Knicks' hands in an effort to grind
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
There is some regression
potential here. The shooting from Randle; the shooting from
Barrett; the corner-three shooting percentage allowed. If any of
those things swing the other way, the Knicks could see a slide in
the standings. And that's before getting into the health concerns
WHAT TO LIKE: JOEL EMBIID
I mean, he's doing stuff like this now.
Embiid is basically scheme-proof as a scorer at this point. You
must double him, or you'll be taking the ball out of the basket
after a bucket or his second free throw attempt.
That he also doubles as one of the NBA's most fearsome
rim-protectors makes him even more absurd. Giannis Antetokounmpo is
probably the only player in the league that owns the paint, on both
ends, to the degree that Embiid does.
- Twitter isn't always a good
gauge for consensus; one may argue it's typically a bad one. But I
seem to be in the minority in thinking Andre Drummond should be an
upgrade over Dwight Howard in the backup 5 role. This feels like
Year 3,945,837 of trying to fill the non-Embiid minutes with
someone competent; maybe they have something this year.
- Sign me up for Floater Gawd
Tyrese Maxey getting more burn. The Sixers leaned on him some in the postseason
last year; making any sort of jump as a shooter should make the
path to playing time an easier one.
- (Ben Simmons teaming up with
Embiid and Matisse Thybulle on the defensive end could have been
the stuff dreams — or nightmares, for the opposing offense — are
made of, but that's now looking less and less
WHAT TO DISLIKE: THE BEN SIMMONS SITUATION
What a freaking mess that
We have no clue if he's going to
report to training camp (reports are indicating otherwise, to the
degree of "intends to never play another game" for Philadelphia).
We have no clue how long he'll be on the roster. Based on what we
saw from him in the Hawks series, there's no telling what he'll net
in a deal. Daryl Morey is certainly going to push for an All-Star
caliber guy plus other stuff, but he'd have that stuff already if
it was available.
- Regardless of whether Simmons is on the
roster or not, there are half-court creation concerns. You
generally want a better perimeter creator than Tobias Harris as
your top guy in a playoff setting, though the Bucks just won a
title with Khris Middleton as that guy. Middleton is better than
Harris, but not substantially so in that regard.
- Doc Rivers is going to have fun sorting out the guard rotation
- If Simmons is dealt, I will be worried about the transition
attack and overall passing ability of this team. As flawed as
Simmons is, it's important to note that the roles he does fill
won't be easy to replicate.
LINEUP TO WATCH:
In 765 minutes together, regular season and playoffs combined,
this unit had a plus-14 net rating per PBP Stats. In the event that
Morey plays hardball, or teams just don't offer enough, or if
Simmons (and his representation) changes his (their) mind about
things, the Sixers will have this group to look forward to.
BEST CASE: No. 1 seed
Maybe there exists a world in which the Simmons saga is solved,
by trade or reconciliation, and Embiid is so freaking good that he
drives this team to a top seed. The Sixers managed to earn that
last year, and before Embiid went down with injury, were true
contenders. The starting unit should be elite regardless, and the
bench should be a little better between margin moves in free agency
and internal improvement from their young guards.
WORST CASE: No. 6 seed
Locker room awkwardness. Injury woes for Embiid. A weird Danny
Green shooting season could happen; he's shot 36.3%, 45.5%, 36.7%,
and 40.5% from three in his past four seasons. That, combined with
the top of the East getting stronger, could see the Sixers
WHAT TO LIKE: DEFENSIVE VERSATILITY
Losing Kyle Lowry hurts, but
it's hard not to still be excited about what this defense could
Fred VanVleet was snubbed for an
All-Defense team last season, in my humble opinion. He's a menace
at the point of attack, and a mean helper at the "nail" while
operating off-ball. A healthy OG Anunoby is one of the best and
versatile defenders on the planet. Pascal Siakam can fill a
multitude of roles. Rookster Scottie Barnes profiles to be a darn
good defender in his own right.
This could be a fun
- For however long he's on the roster,
Goran Dragic should help fill some of the pick-and-roll void left
by Lowry. The north-south nature of his game has declined some with
age, but he's countered that by becoming a better three-point
shooter. He should help organize things while Malachi Flynn and, to
a lesser extent, VanVleet find their ways as floor generals.
- I already wrote about it, but I'm here for Anunoby getting
more on-ball reps.
- I'm not sure how the Raptors
picked up Svi Mykhailiuk so late in the free agency process, but
that's a solid move for them.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: HALF-COURT CREATION
Lowry obviously meant a ton to the Raptors organization; he's
been dubbed as the greatest player in franchise history for a
reason. But even this version of Lowry meant a ton to the on-court
Dragic will help fill some of the void, but you can't completely
replicate the pick-and-roll chops, off-ball randomness and movement
shooting Lowry brought to the table.
There will be a lot of pressure on Siakam not just to take the
proverbial torch, but to bounce back from an up-and-down 2020-21
campaign. And he'll be tasked with doing that after surgery