Atlantic Division Preview: Nets remain title contender despite Irving drama

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) high-fives forward Kevin Durant during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, May 15, 2021, in New York. The Nets won 105-91. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

The NBA is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 30 teams in the lead-up to tipoff on Tuesday, Oct. 19.

Today, we look at best- and worst-case scenarios for the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021–22 standings.)

Brooklyn Nets

2020–21 finish: 48-24, second in the Atlantic, lost in the second round.

Major additions: DeAndre’ Bembry, James Johnson, Patty Mills, Paul Millsap.

Major subtractions: Jeff Green, Mike James.

Best-case scenario: Don’t let the Kyrie Irving drama distract you from the fact that the Nets should be an elite title contender. Even if Irving doesn’t play this season – choosing to sit out on his ill-intentioned anti-vaccine stance – the Nets should still be alright because this is a team that still features James Harden and probably the best player in the world today Kevin Durant, along with a star-studded supporting cast including Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, plus sharpshooters Joe Harris and newcomer Patty Mills. So even without Irving, the Nets should be considered a legitimate contender and their goal of a championship shouldn’t change.

Worst-case scenario: The talent is there, and hopefully so will the health to allow this team to make a playoff run proper. But outside bad injury luck, the worst thing that could happen to this Nets team is if Irving proves to be too much of a distraction this season and it begins to impact his teammates on the floor. For as talented as Irving is, he doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a great locker room presence and there’s bound to be a time when the constant questions about him will grate on his teammates. How the Nets themselves deal with it will be interesting to witness.

2021–22 season prediction: 56-26, first in the East.

Philadelphia 76ers

2020–21 finish: 49-23, first in the Atlantic, lost in the second round.

Major additions: Andre Drummond.

Major subtractions: George Hill.

Best-case scenario: The best thing that the 76ers can do for themselves is to find an amicable end to this saga they’ve had going with Ben Simmons dating back to the off-season. Even if it means that the Sixers will need to get pennies on the dollar for Simmons he can’t be with the team anymore. Philly is a legitimate power in the Eastern Conference with realistic championship expectations that can’t be met if Simmons remains with the team.

Worst-case scenario: It feels like the Sixers are going to try to re-integrate Simmons back into the team, which, on one hand does kind of make sense given his talents, but to do so feels like a major mistake and will result in tempers eventually boiling over later in the season that could de-rail everything for the 76ers.

2021–22 season prediction: 49-33, third in the East.

Boston Celtics

2020–21 finish: 36-36, fourth in the Atlantic, lost in the first round.

Major additions: Al Horford, Enes Kanter, Josh Richardson, Dennis Schroder, new head coach Ime Udoka.

Major subtractions: Evan Fournier, Tristan Thompson, Kemba Walker.

Best-case scenario: The Celtics shook up their front office with Brad Stevens succeeding Danny Ainge as the president of basketball operations and then removing himself as head coach, opting to hire long-time NBA assistant Ime Udoka as the new bench boss. Under Udoka, the Celtics are going to want to play a more modern, ball-movement-focused offence which could prove beneficial for the team’s two stars of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Boston looks like good team, but compared to the likes of Brooklyn and Milwaukee it feels like there’s still some more left to be desired, even given how good Tatum and Brown are.

Worst-case scenario: The Celtics need to keep their house in order. During the pre-season both Brown and Al Horford have been forced into health and safety protocols. Given the fact the season is just getting underway this won’t impact Boston all that much, but it can’t be allowed to happen again.

2021–22 season prediction: 44-38, sixth in the East.

New York Knicks

2020–21 finish: 41-31, third in the Atlantic, lost in the first round.

Major additions: Kemba Walker.

Major subtractions: Reggie Bullock, Frank Ntilikina, Elfrid Payton.

Best-case scenario: The Knicks finally returned to the playoffs last season, and it wasn’t by fluke. The addition of Tom Thibodeau as head coach, the emergence of Julius Randle becoming an all-star and the step forward that R.J. Barrett took, not to mention the steady play of Derrick Rose coming off the bench all played significant factors in a good 2020-21 campaign for New York and now with the addition of Kemba Walker, who has had many memorable moments in Madison Square Garden dating back to his time in college, the Knicks added another dangerous offensive weapon to the mix. They didn’t get much better, but they also didn’t get much worse, either, meaning they should have a very similar season to their last one.

Worst-case scenario: The end of Walker’s tenure in Boston wasn’t the greatest as injuries robbed him of his signature quickness, plus his fit with Tatum and Brown wasn’t the best as all three needed the ball in their hands to be most effective. A similar situation could shape up in New York with Walker sharing the ball with Randle and Barrett. Hopefully, Walker will take a bit of a step back to let the Knicks’ true stars take over, but that’s not a guarantee.

2021–22 season prediction: 43-39, seventh in the East.

Toronto Raptors

2020–21 finish: 27-45, fifth in the Atlantic, didn’t qualify for the post-season.

Major additions: Precious Achiuwa, Dalano Banton (R), Scottie Barnes (R), Goran Dragic.

Major subtractions: Aron Baynes, DeAndre’ Bembry, Kyle Lowry.

Best-case scenario: The Raptors are, perhaps, the hardest team to figure out this season. They appear to be a club that’s trying to thread the needle by simultaneously keeping a small competitive window open while also trying to re-tool and shoot back up to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Given the championship-calibre talent on the roster, it’s feasible to think they’ll be able to do it, and No. 4 overall pick Scottie Barnes looks like the kind of high-ceiling talent who’ll be able to help push the Raptors towards that inevitable goal. For this season, if Toronto can reach the play-in tournament and even the post-season, proper it’ll be a successful season.

Worst-case scenario: Unfortunately, what the Raptors appear to be attempting is incredibly difficult and for all the optimism you can point to in regards to the roster, you can also find some worrying flaws and difficulties, such as how this team will score consistently – particularly with Pascal Siakam not expected to be in the lineup until closer to U.S. Thanksgiving – and whether this experiment of going all-in on “position-less” basketball will actually work. If things go awry it could lead to Toronto stuck in a no-man’s land position where they won’t be good enough to compete for a post-season spot, but not bad enough to get a high draft pick again – that is, unless Lady Luck decides to smile on them once again.

2021–22 season prediction: 38-44, 11th in the East.

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