The Atlantic Division enters the 2023–24 season with three legitimate contenders in the Celtics, Knicks and 76ers, while the Nets and Raptors will begin the season with much more modest expectations. What else should you keep an eye on from these five teams?
Projected Order of Finish
- Boston Celtics (1)
- New York Knicks (4)
- Philadelphia 76ers (5)
- Brooklyn Nets (7)
- Toronto Raptors (14)
Conference seed in parentheses
Scouts’ Anonymous Takes (as told to Chris Mannix)
In Philadelphia, the biggest thing you have to wonder is, what is James Harden’s mindset going to be? Where is he going to be? He’s going to ask for a trade all year. With him there I think they can be really good. They can equal last year, at least. I think Tyrese Maxey is a guy that is ready to take another step offensively. I'm curious to see what they do defensively.
Last year for instance, I felt like they had three power forwards in their lineup defensively: P.J. Tucker, Tobias Harris and Harden because Harden doesn’t really want to guard point guards, so they put him on bigger players. P.J., they put on some of the better wings or power forwards. And then, you had Tobias, who I thought was phenomenal last year and he guarded out of position all year. They had him guard point guards because Tyrese needed to take another step defensively.
With that being said, they were still a top-10 defensive team in the league because when Joel’s engaged, he changes everything.
I think it’s hard for Tyrese to take another step with Harden around. I think it’s hard because I think the biggest problem that they run into is when he just starts dribbling the ball for 20 out of the 24 seconds, and then just throws it to somebody. I always thought James worked best with a rolling big—a Clint Capela. When he has someone rolling to the rim, that is a lob threat to pick and roll; I thought he was always at his best with that.
Joel [Embiid] doesn’t do that. Why? I don’t know. But he doesn’t like to roll. Joel likes to pop and catch the ball at the top of the key, free-throw-line area for his little jump shot, which is good, but when it comes to playoffs and you have four guys sitting there waiting for him to catch the ball there and James, who probably doesn’t get to the rim like he used to and he doesn’t get the foul calls he used to, that makes it hard.
I’m a big Maxey fan. I think there is an All-Star there. I think he shoots the ball really well from three; he gets to the rim. He still needs to finish better around the rim. I feel like sometimes he just goes one speed. And then, there’s another thing that he needs to improve: his passing. But I’m a fan. And I guess you could argue that maybe he is just the second or third option, at best. But he’s a worker.
I thought the Nets defended well after all the trades, but they relied too much on shooting a lot of threes. They struggled offensively, especially in the playoffs, to score. But I do like Mikal Bridges. I do like the pieces they have. I like Spencer Dinwiddie, but I don’t know if he is who fits the best of those two. But he’s another guy, he can get you 30. They need some size. Philadelphia hurt them with their size in the playoffs.
They need reliable half-court scoring. Is Bridges that guy? I think he does have the upside. They’re pretty good in transition, but they need Bridges to become an efficient half-court scorer. Him and even Cam Johnson, those guys are the guys that are able to get a bucket, but they have to be able to get that bucket at a playoff level. Cam Johnson can get to the rim on straight line drives. I think Bridges is pretty good—he can get his shot when he wants. And I think Dinwiddie is a pretty good pick-and-roll player. They do need to get better in the half-court offense.
I like [Nic] Claxton, I think he plays with a lot of energy. He’s a good roller to the rim, offensive rebounder. But when it comes to battling guys like Joel Embiid or Giannis [Antetokounmpo], he’s really the only guy, the big. They need some more size up front.
Losing Fred VanVleet is huge. I think that pushes the Raptors into a rebuild. They have a couple of good pieces at least in [Pascal] Siakam and Scottie Barnes. With those two guys, they’re still two good foundational pieces. How long do they want to wait to get the other pieces around? [OG] Anunoby—those three guys are good. But as a team I think they’re mediocre. I don’t think they can be the worst team in the league, obviously. But I don’t know. Are they a play-in team? Probably, maybe a six-seed, at best.
I think Barnes has got to shoot the ball better. That’s the biggest thing. He can pass; he can get to the basket. I just think it’s taking his shooting to another level. And what position is he? He can really pass the ball and he can get to the rim. Is he a point forward? Is he a point guard? He’s not a good off-the-ball player who could just stand still and shoot the three. I think that’s the biggest issue with him.
I like Anunoby. I think he’s a really good shooter, spot-up shooter, corner shooter, good defender, good size. He’s got a lot of interest out there; a lot of teams are interested in him. I don’t know if they expect too much in return for a trade. I’m a fan, but I think he’s a role player, a very good role player at that. He’s a guy that can get you 18 and grab you nine rebounds and guard the best player on a team.
Siakam was in attack mode last year. Really the last two seasons. He’s really good at getting into the paint. He seems like he has his confidence back. He can score a bunch of different ways. As recently as a few years ago he was just a one-way player.
Jrue Holiday is an upgrade on perimeter defense in Boston. To me, he’s a better defender than [Marcus] Smart, and I don’t think it’s even close. So I like that. I think he fits well with virtually any team he plays with, any players he plays with, so I like that a lot from that standpoint. Losing Robert Williams III hurts. Losing Malcolm Brogdon does not hurt. It’s going to be interesting to see how they utilize Kristaps Porziņģis and Al Horford. To me, it looks like they’re trying to go as much offense and shooting as they possibly can, which is generally speaking a good thing. But at the end of the day, I don’t know how much you can rely on Porziņģis.
If Porziņģis plays like he did last year, which he had a great year, then the [Jayson] Tatum, [Jaylen] Brown, Porziņģis trio could be a nightmare for people. But will Porziņģis be the same guy in Boston? I thought Washington really played through him. He was a big focal point of their offense. He shot the ball well. He could be a matchup problem for people. That won’t happen in Boston. When he was in Dallas, Luka [Dončić] just dominates the ball so much that I don’t think it was a good place for him to be in. With the Celtics, he’ll be No. 3. I think he’ll be fine because Boston does a pretty good job of moving the ball. But it will be an adjustment.
People always nitpick the Jaylen Brown–Jayson Tatum duo. I can think of probably 27 other teams that would want them. I know they both are similar with how they want to score. But just because they haven’t won yet, does that mean it doesn’t work? They’ve been to the Finals and last year obviously they didn’t get to the point where they wanted to. But they had all kinds of things going on with their team last year—with the new coach, the way their season started, with all that stuff. Now they have to make another adjustment with Porziņģis. But I think that those guys, they’re having success; they just haven’t got that ultimate goal yet.
I think Smart especially is a guy that holds some of those other guys accountable when maybe Jaylen is dribbling too much or not moving the ball or Jayson is doing the same thing. He is a guy that can get on them. Or at least he had the clout, the voice to tell them. I think they’ll definitely miss that.
And then, Smart makes all the crazy plays. When they beat Philly in Game 6, on that Tatum three, no one ever talked about how great of a pass it was from Smart. Those types of plays. And they get some of that with Derrick White, I guess, but I don’t think it’s to the same level.
I thought the Knicks were really good last season. I thought that they gave a bunch of teams matchup problems. They were hard to defend. [Jalen] Brunson is one of the premier players in the East. I like that Donte DiVincenzo addition. I think he’s a Tom Thibodeau guy. I would’ve liked to have seen them do a little bit more in free agency, but I do like what they have.
Brunson showed me, one, he is an unbelievable scorer. He can hit threes, get to the basket, make passes. He’s really good at pick-and-roll, clutch shots, makes big shots, relentless, just keeps plugging along no matter how he’s playing, even if he’s having a bad game. His toughness is probably the number-one thing.
I just don’t know if you can win with Julius Randle as your second option. That’s a big question, right? They weren’t the deepest team last year. I don’t know how much that will change this year. I guess they could be a little bit deeper. Thibs is going to play seven, eight guys anyway, regardless who’s on his team. They definitely are a team that needs to take another step. And I think that does come down to how well Randle plays. He’s very dominant to that left hand, and then he goes right, likes to step back right. There’s definitely tendencies that you can definitely sit on with him, for sure.
I like Obi Toppin. He’s versatile, he’s huge, he’s long. The only thing he really lacks is consistent spacing from three, but he’s proved he can make a corner three. I think he has a real chance. Some guys in the Thibodeau system, Brunson is just going to maximum output, and a lot of that’s to do with Brunson, but some of that is that Thibodeau is like, “Give a dog a bone and just ride him,” same with Randle. Then you've got the guys like Toppin who, if they’re going to fit a role, he’s going to put them in a box. Toppin has a chance. Give him some space, maybe we see him develop a little more.
The most interesting thing about the ...
The Celtics took a massive swing this offseason by dealing for Porziņģis and sending out Smart, the team’s heart and soul. A shakeup was warranted after their ECF loss to Miami. But Boston now has a center rotation of Porziņģis and 37-year-old Al Horford. Porziņģis was fantastic last season, but the health of the Celtics’ big men may dictate whether they come out of the East.
When the Knicks fell to Miami in Round 2 of the playoffs last year, the issue was their offense. New York, which had the NBA’s lowest regular-season assist percentage, relies on one-on-one plays more than most teams. Brunson excelled versus the Heat, but a hobbled Randle struggled in the postseason yet again. The Knicks need to better utilize deeper options such as RJ Barrett, Josh Hart and newcomer DiVincenzo.
The Sixers are feeling like a borderline toxic situation. Harden called the team president a liar and said he won’t ever play for him again. Embiid, the reigning MVP who has never made it past the second round of the playoffs, said he wants to win a title in Philly “or anywhere else,” and a second high-profile holdout in three seasons following the Ben Simmons debacle won’t help. And if Harden does return to the team this season, how will it all work?
One of the NBA’s biggest under-the-radar stories last season was what Bridges did for the Nets after he arrived midseason from Phoenix in the Kevin Durant trade. Bridges, 27, was already seen as an ironman and fantastic defender. In Brooklyn he flashed the potential to be a full-on star, averaging 26.1 points. He went one-on-one almost three times more often as a Net, collecting 109 points per 100 iso possessions—up from a rate of 77 points in Phoenix.
For all the talk about the Raptors’ length on defense, Toronto actually scored the fewest points (14.5 per game) in the league off turnovers last season. Those points could be even scarcer with VanVleet, a perennial leader in deflections, gone to Houston. The question this year is: Will Siakam be next to go? The Raptors have reportedly decided against paying him the max. And if he goes, what will Toronto do to support young star Barnes?