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2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Atlantic Division

2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Atlantic Division

With the 2022-23 NBA regular season set to tip off on Oct.18, let’s take a look at where each team in the Atlantic Division stands. We'll break down what there is to like and be concerned about, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for each team to finish in the standings.

For deeper thoughts, you can listen to the Atlantic Division preview episode of The Dunker Spot.

Boston Celtics

WHAT TO LIKE: STAR WING TANDEM

This team will go as far as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown take them.

If the second half of 2022 was any indication, the top-10 version of Tatum is firmly here. He's a filthy shot creator with budding playmaking and driving chops. The defense is strong, particularly when he's locked in off the ball. I'm excited to see how he bounces back from an up-and-down Finals series, where the champion Golden State Warriors threw a little bit of everything at him — on and off the ball.

While Tatum went through some postseason growing pains, Brown took a mini leap of his own. The handle tightened, drives grew more plentiful and relentless, and, more importantly, the decision-making perked up. The decisive version of Brown we saw through large stretches of the postseason is a bona fide All-Star. There isn't a wing tandem in the NBA with more upside than this one; by the end of the season, it may be fair to say there isn't one better, period.

OTHER LIKES

- I love the Malcolm Brogdon acquisition for Boston. Health will always be the big concern, but he'll help the spacing (career 41.8% on catch-and-shoot threes, per Second Spectrum) more than Marcus Smart (32.9%) or Derrick White (34.8%) when he's out there. It's also worth noting the Celtics had the NBA's ninth-best offense (second-best from Jan. 1 onward) despite ranking 21st in rim rate (percentage of shots that came at the rim). Brogdon, who ranked fourth in the league with 18.3 drives per game should help that problem too.

- Speaking of Smart, I'm here for more ball-screens involving him. The Celtics generated 0.992 points per possession (PPP) on trips featuring a Smart-led ball-screen — a mark that ranked 22nd among 62 high-volume pick-and-roll players (min. 1,000 picks), and one that placed him ahead of names like Darius Garland (0.987), Damian Lillard (0.978) and Ja Morant (0.972). Those ball-screens were more dangerous when Smart set the pick (1.04 PPP), a top-10 mark in the NBA.

There's potential to experiment with some fun three-guard lineups; I need to see Smart-White-Brogdon together at some point.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: FRONTCOURT DEPTH

Robert Williams III and Al Horford are tremendous talents; Williams III is currently recovering from knee surgery, and I'm worried about what that could mean for Horford. 

Boston will miss Timelord's utility on both ends. Rob's their most violent rim-runner — and one of the best in the league when given a runway. Defensively, he patrols the paint with bad intentions. The decision to slot him onto non-spacing wings/bigs so he can act as a free safety played a large part in Boston having the NBA's best defense last season.

Horford carried quite the load last season, logging 2,820 minutes (regular season and postseason) while being tasked with defending all over the place. Only three players — Bam Adebayo (790), Isaiah Stewart (543), and teammate Grant Williams (533) — switched more ball-screens than Horford (524) did last season, per Second Spectrum.

File this under the "duh" category, but Boston's title hopes will depend on the health of those two. Timelord already being out isn't ideal; Horford having to carry a big load defensively throughout the regular season, and hoping he hits the level he did last postseason, doesn't seem like a fair bet to make.

Behind those guys, the Celtics have... Luke Kornet? Grant Williams when he slides down? Mfiondu Kabengele (I'm intrigued, but the track record isn't there) as a diver? We were ready to pencil in Danilo Gallinari for some backup 4/5 minutes during the regular season, but he'll likely miss the year with a torn ACL. Even if you don't want to call the depth bad, it's certainly unproven now. Someone has to pop.

OTHER CONCERNS

- The obvious issue is whatever the heck the last five days have been for the Celtics. Ime Udoka being suspended for a year wasn't on anyone's bingo card. How the players deal with and rally in spite of that will loom over their season. The early returns from Media Day didn't seem ideal.

- I like the unrepentant gunning that Payton Pritchard provides; it's a shame that he could eventually be lost in the fold because of the pieces ahead of him. He remains one of, if not their most, dynamic pull-up shooters.

- Quiet as kept, Boston ranked 24th in pace and 21st in seconds per possession last season. Those numbers didn't get much better after their New Year explosion (25th and 24th respectively from Jan.1 onward). I'd like for a real commitment to be made to getting into their offense earlier and giving themselves options.

- WILL TATUM FINALLY ADD A FLOATER TO HIS REPERTOIRE???

LINEUP TO WATCH: Smart-Brogdon-Brown-Tatum-Horford

This will likely be Boston's closing lineup. The Smart-Brown-Tatum-Horford quartet blitzed teams last season, outscoring opponents by nearly 17 points per 100 possessions in the 660 minutes they shared the floor. Adding Brogdon to the mix gives them more shooting and size than, say, White in that spot. 

The latter will be important. While Brogdon isn't the screen navigator that White is, he may be better equipped to deal with the type of mismatch hunting White (and Pritchard, when he was out there) saw in the postseason.

BEST CASE: No. 1 Seed

This is a more talented roster than last year's version. If they're able to pull together and overcome the early absence of Timelord, the infrastructure is there for them to finish with the East's best record. Another leap from Tatum or Brown will certainly give them a runway.

WORST CASE: No. 6 Seed

I don't see them falling out of the sure-fire playoff spot range. The top of the East is talented, though, which could make their questionable frontcourt depth play more of a factor in the regular season. I could see them going with a more conservative plan with Horford, sacrificing some regular season wins for a postseason ramp-up.

Of course, there's also the possibility that some of the "meh" habits from last season, particularly the early season ball movement and shot selection woes, could resurface under "new" leadership.

Brooklyn Nets

WHAT TO LIKE: OFFENSIVE STAR POWER 

You can put it in pencil: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are back and ready to roll.

The duo combined for just 84 regular season meetings last season due to injury and vaccine avoidance, but Durant and Irving were darn-near unguardable when they shared the floor. Take these stats, if you will:

  • The Nets posted a 125.3 Offensive Rating in their 523 minutes together.
  • On trips featuring a KD-Kyrie inverted ball-screen, the Nets scored nearly 1.4 PPP.

I'm really curious to see how teams deal with that two-man game this year.

OTHER LIKES

BEN SIMMONS IS BACK. You know, the 6-foot-10 All-NBA talent that doubles as one of the five best defenders on the planet when he's upright? That guy. More importantly, he seems to be in a much better place mentally. Here's to hoping he has a great season.

- On the defense front, I'm still cracking up at how random the Royce O'Neale acquisition was, but I do like the move. He's a little bulkier and better equipped to deal with big wings than Bruce Brown was. Also, thank goodness O'Neale is on a roster where he doesn't have to be his team's best perimeter defender.

- There is so much shooting on this roster, man. Seth Curry, Patty Mills and a healthy Joe Harris make up a wild trio before getting into KD or Kyrie.

- The pathway is there for Nic Claxton to stake his claim as the center of the future.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: FRONTCOURT SIZE

I'm always going to root for Clax, but it's worth noting his struggles against bulkier centers. He'll have to prove sturdy, because the depth behind him is more unproven (Day'Ron Sharpe) or doesn't help from a size standpoint (Markieff Morris).

The Nets' best lineup will likely have Simmons and Durant as the 4 and 5 — in whichever order the matchup dictates. Simmons isn't someone you want to throw on bigs for extended stretches, and Durant is more effective as a weak-side roamer. I wish I had a clearer answer on how they plan to deal with Philadelphia or Milwaukee in particular.

OTHER CONCERNS

I like what the Nets have added to their wing and forward room — keep an eye on TJ Warren — but I'm not a fan of what it means for their young guys. Cam Thomas and Kessler Edwards showed interesting flashes last year; I wish they had more of a runway.

It's just hard to trust the health — maybe availability is the more accurate way to describe it — of this group. Durant's had to do a lot the last couple of seasons. The Kyrie and Simmons stuff is well documented. Warren's working his way back from a two-year absence... it's worth keeping an eye on.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Irving-Harris-Durant-O'Neale-Simmons

The Nets have blitzed teams with the KD-Kyrie-Harris triumvirate on the floor in its time together. Having defenders like O'Neale and Simmons surrounding the three sets the table for a killer small-ball unit.

BEST CASE: No. 4 Seed

If the Nets are able to get at least 60 games apiece from their Big Three, I'd be shocked if they aren't battling for home-court advantage. The offense should be electric, and I'm really excited about what the O'Neale-Simmons pairing can do on the other end. 

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

An argument can be made that this is the most volatile team in the East from a projection standpoint. The talent is obvious; it's everything else — health concerns and off-court shenanigans — that could put this season at risk.

New York Knicks

WHAT TO LIKE: YOUNG TALENT

It starts with RJ Barrett, who landed a nice chunk of change (a four-year, $120 million contract to be exact) via his rookie extension a few weeks ago.

Barrett took a notable step last season, averaging 20.0 points (.408/.342/.714 shooting splits), 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest. He took off after the All-Star break, scoring nearly 25 points per game behind a relentless driving game and a spike in his free-throw attempt average (8.3). 

Off the bench, it's hard not to be excited about the young guys. Immanuel Quickley is a pull-up artist who quietly grew as a playmaker during the second half of the season. Obi Toppin doubles as a transition menace and dynamic roll threat. Quentin Grimes was almost, maybe, possibly the centerpiece of a Donovan Mitchell deal because of the way he profiles as a two-way talent. 

(Don't get me started on Jericho Sims, who might be my favorite roll man to watch in the league.)

OTHER LIKES

Adding Jalen Brunson should give the Knicks some much-needed stability at point guard; lord knows the Knicks have been searching for that for years.

- Hey, Brunson and Barrett as ball-handlers should mean less of a load for Julius Randle to carry this season. That should be a good thing! Randle was a bit overtasked last season; add in the jumper falling off a cliff back to earth, and it shouldn't be a shock that his efficiency tanked.

I can't say enough good things about Isaiah Hartenstein. He's one of the best big-man passers in the league, and should add a funky dynamic to the Knicks' offense. It's easy to see how he and Quickley can pair together.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: OFFENSIVE DIRECTION

Similar to last year, this is more of a concern than a dislike. This team had a real tempo issue. Some of that is Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau; he wants games to be a grind, and doesn't mind winning games in the mud. Some of that is the personnel; Randle in particular likes to set up shop, survey the court, then go to work.

Part of the reason New York's (young) second unit had so much success was that it played with more pace and purpose. In Brunson, Barret, and Randle, the Knicks have three different options that can generate a paint touch at a moment's notice. I hope they're able to blend those talents together, and do so in a manner that doesn't involve bleeding the clock.

OTHER CONCERNS 

The rationale for starting Evan Fournier makes sense — his (movement) shooting is a nice complement to the drivers the Knicks are projected to have in the starting lineup — but I worry a little about the backcourt defense because of it. I would give Grimes the spot. but Thibs is smarter than I am.

- Rolling this over from last year, I still wish the Knicks had a true stretch option in their center room. Hartenstein will be able to invert the offense with his passing chops, but a stretch big would open up the floor for the Knicks' drivers in a more natural way.

- Speaking of the center room, I'd love to see Sims build on the second half of the year, but I don't think the pathway to playing time will be there. (Not with the main roster, at least.)

- And speaking of pathways to playing time, what the heck is the plan for Cam Reddish? How do you make that trade price make sense?

LINEUP TO WATCH: Quickley-Grimes-Barrett-Toppin-Hartenstein

I'm not sure how much we'll see it, especially with Derrick Rose healthy, but this is a unit that intrigues me. The quartet of Quickley-Grimes-Barrett-Toppin played just 77 minutes together last year, but had a positive Net Rating (plus-4.1) despite not shooting well from deep. It's easy to see Hartenstein fitting in with this grouping due to his screening and playmaking.

Grimes and Barrett are solid defenders; if you get some activity from Hartenstein at the level, you may be able to get the defense to work well enough for this unit to pop.

BEST CASE: No. 6 Seed

The Knicks can go 10, maybe even 11 deep depending on how confident you are in some of their young pieces. A more organized offense should be in the cards. If more scores lead to more half-court defense reps — the Knicks were quietly not far off from a top-10 mark, per Cleaning The Glass — could put themselves in position to rack up regular-season wins. 

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

There are enough question marks from a flow and shooting standpoint that could lead to an underwhelming product offensively. If that doesn't come together, the Knicks are going to be in some dogfights. Considering the talent in the conference, it wouldn't be a shock to see them fighting for their playoff lives.

Philadelphia 76ers

WHAT TO LIKE: JAMES HARDEN-JOEL EMBIID TWO-MAN GAME

We'll start with a couple of stats.

  • The Sixers generated 1.19 PPP on possessions featuring an Embiid-to-Harden handoff, the third-best mark among 72 duos with at least 80 handoffs.

  • The Sixers generated 1.13 PPP on possessions featuring a Harden-Embiid ball-screen, the best mark among 39 high-volume pairings (at least 500 picks).

That was the success of the Harden-Embiid partnership in limited time together.

With Harden trying to find his way, from a chemistry and health standpoint.

With Embiid trying to gather himself after dealing with an orbital fracture and concussion in the early portion of the postseason.

There's room for this pairing to be even more dominant — a terrifying thought for the rest of the league.

OTHER LIKES

- Tyrese Maxey has some of the best vibes in the league. It also helps that he's one of the most electrifying guards in the sport. His intersection of downhill juice and pull-up shooting is nasty. 

- Kudos to the Sixers for attempting to address their perimeter defense. PJ Tucker will bring some much-needed toughness, and proved last year that he still has enough in the tank to bother elite scorers. I'm not sure you'll find a bigger fan of De'Anthony Melton in the media space. Danuel House Jr. is a nice gamble at that price point, though he's more 3-and-D in theory than in practice. But the benefit of adding those guys means it doesn't have to be Matisse Thybulle or bust.

- I'm here for the Tobias Harris we saw post-Harden trade who fought like heck defensively and was decisive as heck offensively. If the latter continues — he's too good of a shooter to pass up some of the looks he's gotten — the Sixers are going to be a top-six offense. Conservatively.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: LINEUP BALANCE

The Sixers added depth in the wing/forward room, but the challenge will be balancing some of those units to maximize the stars. Guys like Tucker and House add size on the perimeter, but opposing defenses will treat them as help-off points. Melton adds a little more dynamism, but I'd worry about the size with him, Maxey and Harden on the floor together if that's the setup.

OTHER CONCERNS

More of a question mark than a dislike, but I'd keep an eye on the shooting in general. The Melton-House-Tucker trio will need to shoot well, but I'm also curious to see where Maxey lands as a shooter. A 45% clip on spot-ups and 40% mark on pull-ups is elite-of-the-elite stuff; do defenses treat him differently if he's a mid-30s guy on pull-ups?

- Montrezl Harrell is going to provide regular-season value, and it's pretty wild the Sixers were able to pick him up this late in the free agency cycle. But man, I wish the Sixers would've just cleared the way for more Paul Reed reps. 

- (Hey, what is Jaden Springer's portion on this team now?)

LINEUP TO WATCH: Maxey-Harden-Harris-Tucker-Embiid

These are Philly's projected starters, and likely the projected closing unit too. This unit, with Thybulle in place of the newly-signed Tucker, outscored opponents by 20.2 points per 100 possessions last season. Tucker's shooting — and his utility as a post or handoff hub if the Sixers pull from the Miami Heat's script from last year — should give the offense a higher ceiling than Thybulle would.

Expect this to be one of the best units in basketball.

BEST CASE: No. 1 Seed

This is arguably the most talented roster the Sixers have had during the Doc Rivers era. A healthier Harden, dominant Embiid and different lineups to play with could bode well for their regular-season success.

WORST CASE: No. 5 Seed

Embiid is coming off the healthiest campaign of his career, and that still included him missing 14 games. The Sixers went 5-9 in those contests. Any sort of extended stretch could knock the Sixers out of the running for home court. I don't foresee them falling too far; even if Harden doesn't return to early Brooklyn form, there's enough creation on the roster to hold down the fort.

Toronto Raptors

WHAT TO LIKE: DEFENSIVE VERSATILITY

The Raptors have an abundance of 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-9 players — and also Fred VanVleet — that switch all over the place or blow stuff up as help defenders. Add in the scheme versatility that Nick Nurse entrusts his group with, and there may not be in the team more fun to watch on the defensive end.

OTHER LIKES

I don't know about the top-five goal, but Pascal Siakam is really freaking good. He's one of the best inside-the-arc creators in the NBA, a quality playmaker and a rangy defender... What's not to like?

- I mentioned Maxey as a good vibes guy; Scottie Barnes certainly falls under that description. I'm excited to see what he adds to the offensive toolkit this season.

- The Precious Achiuwa Experience is a volatile one, but he has the makings of a special defender. If the post-All-Star break three-point shooting holds at all (39.2% on 3.9 attempts per game), he's going to be a dark-horse Most Improved Player candidate.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: POINT GUARD DEPTH

This may only matter to a point (I'm sorry) if Barnes is taking on more playmaking duties. It would be nice if one of the backups, either Malachi Flynn or Dalano Banton, is able to grab the backup spot and help take some of the load off of VanVleet.

It feels like the past three seasons have followed a similar script for the 28-year-old.

  • Part I: VanVleet displays growth in one key area offensively while putting together an All-Defense campaign as a point-of-attack defender and helper from the nail.
  • Part II: Some sort of lower body ailment is suffered.
  • Part III: After missing comically little or no time, VanVleet plays through his ailment while seeing a notable drop-off in effectiveness.

VanVleet has seen an increase in floor time in every season of his career, logging a career-high 37.9 minutes per contest last year. That can't continue if they want him to be upright for a postseason run.

OTHER CONCERNS

- Rolling this one over from last year, I'd still like to see more offensive creativity from Nurse. Personnel dictates quite a bit, and I do think pressing the "smash these dudes on the offensive glass" button in the face of the shooting woes last year was a smart move. There's more to be done from a design standpoint, though.

- They make up for it with the size/length they can throw out 2-through-4, but there still doesn't seem to be a great option for true centers. A better option than Khem Birch would be a nice thing to address this season on the margins.

- More of a plea than anything: Can we please, please get 60-plus games of OG Anunoby? I'm not running the MIP pick back this year, but he's a uniquely versatile talent who can help unlock the best version of this team.

LINEUP TO WATCH: VanVleet-Anunoby-Barnes-Siakam-Achiuwa

This was the lineup choice from last season, but these five only logged 51 minutes together. If healthier, this group should get more burn for obvious reasons. The switchability 2-through-5 is insane, and it's not like VanVleet can't punch above his weight. If the shooting from Achiuwa holds, that's a decent amount of spacing for Barnes and Siakam to work with.

BEST CASE: No. 3 Seed

The Raptors won 48 games despite one starter (Barnes) eclipsing 70 games. Better health and internal improvement for the young guys could absolutely lead to a top-three finish during the regular season.

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

The health concerns are obvious, but it's worth keeping an eye on the offense as a whole. Any sort of shot-making regression from Siakam could be problematic for an offense that had to grind out a lot of possessions. There's also a pretty high variance risk in terms of opponent three-point shooting with their aggressive help principles. Those factors, plus the strength of the conference could have them in the 7-9 range. 

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