NBA Atlantic Division Preview: Can the dark horse Raptors take another leap?

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse discusses the atmosphere at Scotiabank Arena after the Raptors were voted number one for having the best home-court advantage in the league.

The Atlantic Division is among the very best in the NBA, with four teams that are expected to reach the playoffs this season and three with championship aspirations.

The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers look to be legitimate title contenders once again this season, while the Brooklyn Nets are a wild card where you could make strong arguments for them to go all the way or completely implode on themselves.

In Toronto, the Raptors seem to be a dark horse team, banking on internal improvement after a pleasant surprise of a season last season.

Meanwhile, the New York Knicks may want to consider bottoming out this season, what with the prize to be had down the line in the 2023 draft.

Here’s what to expect from the Atlantic this season.

Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum. (John Minchillo/AP)

Last season’s results: 51-31 record, first in Atlantic Division, second in Eastern Conference, lost in NBA Finals.

2022-23 season betting odds: +432 to win it all, according to Sports Interaction.

Projected starting five: Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford.
Noteworthy arrivals: Malcolm Brogdon, Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin.
Noteworthy departures: Daniel Theis.

Team outlook: The Celtics should have one of the brightest outlooks coming into the season – the operative word there being “should.”

After coming just two wins away from winning it all last season, the Celtics are returning with virtually the same roster as before, just with more playoff experience under its belt and the additions of Malcolm Brogdon, Danilo Gallinari (who's out with a torn ACL) and Blake Griffin. Boston is loaded and looks primed to make another run to the Finals this season.

However, it’s not that simple anymore after head coach Ime Udoka got suspended the entire season due to an improper intimate relationship with a female staff member. The scandal has rocked the Celtics to begin the season as they now adjust to assistant Joe Mazzulla stepping in as the interim head coach for this season.

For a team with championship aspirations like the Celtics, a change in leadership right as things are getting started looks to be quite inauspicious.

Best-case scenario: If Boston can get over the off-court drama with its now-suspended head coach and play the way it showed it could last season, then there’s no reason to think this team can’t end in the same place.

The Celtics have tremendous top-end talent, and play tenacious, swarming defence. The addition of Brogdon as a defensively tough, shot-making backup point guard only makes the Celtics that much more dangerous. This team is loaded and has the potential to win it all this season.

Worst-case scenario: There’s a lot of pressure on Mazzulla, a gentleman who’s only ever held a head coaching position once in his career, from 2017-2019 for Division II club Fairmont State. This is a club with very real championship aspirations and for a rookie head coach without much experience in that role previously, he could end up costing Boston some games in both the regular and post-season while he learns on the job.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, left, and James Harden. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Last season’s results: 51-31 record, second in Atlantic Division, fourth in Eastern Conference, lost in second round.

2022-23 season betting odds: Over/under 50.5 total wins this season and +954 odds to win it all, according to Sports Interaction.

Projected starting five: Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker, Joel Embiid.
Noteworthy arrivals: Montrezl Harrell, Danuel House, De’Anthony Melton, P.J. Tucker.
Noteworthy departures: Danny Green, DeAndre Jordan.

Team outlook: Another team in the division with realistic championship aspirations, it’s hard to not buy into the hype of the Sixers, at least a little bit.

Joel Embiid is coming off an MVP-calibre season that saw him win a scoring title as he established himself as, perhaps, the most unstoppable force in the game today – look no further than his game-winning fadeaway three-pointer in Game 3 of the first round last season for appropriate evidence.

And though he may not be the 60-point triple-double machine he once was, a full season of James Harden should help the 76ers greatly, to say nothing of what could be next in store for rising star Tyrese Maxey.

Even depth-wise, Philly looks good with the addition of P.J. Tucker in free agency, providing defensive toughness and a deadly corner three-point threat. Better yet, the acquisition of De’Anthony Melton should be massive for the Sixers, he's a reliable backup guard who competes hard and figures to shoot the three far better than Danny Green ever did in Philadelphia.

Best-case scenario: With that bright outlook on the Sixers this season, the best-case scenario is for them to finally break through. This is a team with a top-five player in the world, a guy who you can still make the case for being a top-10 player, a dynamic young point guard and a group of role players who should be able to knock down open threes and defend. These are all ingredients for a Finals-bound team.

Worst-case scenario: Unfortunately, when it comes to the Sixers, injuries are a real concern. For all his brilliance, Embiid is always an injury risk at any time of the season. Philadelphia has rightfully attempted to build around Embiid’s immense, gravitational talents, but the problem with doing that is if he goes down then the whole operation will go out of orbit – something that seems to happen every single season.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) and teammate Scottie Barnes (4). (Frank Gunn/CP)

Last season’s results: 48-34 record, third in Atlantic Division, fifth in Eastern Conference, lost in first round.

2022-23 season betting odds: Over/under 46.5 total wins this season and +2447 odds to win it all, according to Sports Interaction.

Projected starting five: Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., O.G. Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam.
Noteworthy arrivals: Juancho Hernangomez, Christian Koloko, Otto Porter Jr.
Noteworthy departures: Svi Mykhailiuk, Yuta Watanabe.

Team outlook: Vision 6-9 remains in full effect for the Raptors, and after a surprisingly successful 2021-22 campaign last season using the apparent strategy in what was supposed to be a down year, there’s no reason why Toronto wouldn’t come back with what was working before.

On paper, the Raptors look better than last season with the addition of veteran three-and-D man Otto Porter Jr., fresh off helping the Golden State Warriors win it all.

Additionally, Juancho Hernangomez, A.K.A. Bo Cruz from Netflix film Hustle, should also provide some much-needed shooting that the Raptors have lacked for a little while now. And because of the guaranteed money on his contract, he likely has the inside track to claim the Raptors’ last roster spot.

Rookie Christian Koloko is also an interesting new addition for Toronto as he’s, at last, a legitimate seven-foot rim protector that the club’s needed for a while now as well.

These new faces, along with the fact Pascal Siakam is coming into the season fully healthy, expected growth from rookie of the year Scottie Barnes and potentially a lighter workload for Fred VanVleet make for much optimism around the Raptors to perform at least as well as they did last season.

Best-case scenario: Barnes is, by far, Toronto’s most interesting player to watch this season. He deservedly captured rookie of the year because of how reliable and consistent he was, regardless of the situation, on both ends of the floor. If he can take that next leap into becoming a legitimate star then the sky will feel like the limit for the Raptors.

This will require Barnes to look to be even more aggressive than before and improve as a shooter, but with chances at point guard coming his way this season he should get a fair shot to prove himself.

Worst-case scenario: For all the benefits all this versatility provides the Raptors – switchability on defence, athleticism at all five positions, etc. – a lack of role definition and a more traditional positional depth chart can lead to real problems.

An egalitarian approach to offence looks great, but a player like Siakam still needs to be fed for the offence to run at its best. And to this point, as much as they attempted to address it, the Raptors still have a dearth of shooting as most of the team is made up of multi-positional athletes that are better as slashers and distributors. Half-court offence could remain a problem unless some of these athletes really begin stroking it.

Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn Nets stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Last season’s results: 44-38 record, fourth in the Atlantic Division, seventh in the Eastern Conference, lost in first round.

2022-23 season betting odds: Over/under 51.5 total wins this season and +492 odds to win it all, according to Sports Interaction.

Projected starting five: Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, Nic Claxton.
Noteworthy arrivals: Markieff Morris, T.J. Warren.
Noteworthy departures: Andre Drummond, Bruce Brown, Goran Dragic, Blake Griffin.

Team outlook: If you were playing franchise mode in NBA 2K and managed to put together the starting five the Nets have you’d probably think the title is in the bag.

Unfortunately for the Nets, however, this is real life and even though they said everything was hunky dory, Kevin Durant still made a real-life trade demand shortly after the man who’s supposed to be his friend, Kyrie Irving, decided to opt into the final year of his contract. It doesn’t matter what the organization may be saying publicly, that’s had to have created a rift of some sort between Durant and the rest of the team.

And the icing on top of all of this is Ben Simmons, who will be returning to play basketball after not playing all of last season. First by holding out with the Sixers until the Harden blockbuster happened, and then because of a nagging back injury.

What kind of player the Nets are getting in Simmons this year is a question no one really has the answer to, which, coincidentally, is also the answer to what kind of year we can expect from Brooklyn this season.

Best-case scenario: If all the stars align and there really is no extra flak from Durant’s trade request this summer then this team should be a juggernaut. The trio of Durant, Irving and Simmons could very well be the best in the entire NBA with a blend of outrageous scoring and shot-making from Durant and Irving, creative playmaking from Irving and Simmons and shutdown defence from Durant and Simmons.

As crazy as it might sound given all the drama around this team, championship aspirations are still on the table.

Worst-case scenario: You already know what the worst-case scenarios look like: Durant reiterates his trade request and is dealt at the deadline, Irving decides he doesn’t want to play basketball for a few weeks or months, Simmons still can’t/refuses to shoot. Take your pick, there’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re smoking on top of a pile of dynamite.

New York Knicks

New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett. (John Minchillo/AP)

Last season’s results: 37-45 record, fifth in the Atlantic Division, 11th in the Eastern Conference, failed to reach post-season.

2022-23 season betting odds: Over/under 39.5 total wins this season and +7150 odds to win it all, according to Sports Interaction.

Projected starting five: Jalen Brunson, Evan Fournier, R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson.
Noteworthy arrivals: Jalen Brunson.
Noteworthy departures: Alec Burks, Taj Gibson, Nerlens Noel, Kemba Walker.

Team outlook: Compared to the other four teams in the division, let alone other squads around the Eastern Conference, it’s looking like yet another grim Knicks season.

New York did manage to land a good player in Jalen Brunson in free agency, but it looked to overpay for him at four years, $104 million. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but its hot pursuit of Donovan Mitchell via trade ended in Mitchell heading to a young, exciting Cleveland team, with the Knicks reportedly not willing to include young guard Quentin Grimes in packages for the three-time all-star.

The Knicks appear to be in no man’s land. They have some pretty good players in Brunson, Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett, but none of them are stars. Just being OK is paramount to being dead in the NBA, and that’s where New York appears to find itself.

Best-case scenario: Not even the arrogant Knicks management team can have ignored the games between G League Ignite and Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92, right?

The show that Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson – the projected Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the 2023 draft – made the entire basketball world stop and stare in amazement. So, if you’re the Knicks and all you can hope to do, really, is fight for a play-in spot that you may or may not get, why not just let the tank roll through Madison Square Garden and try for a legitimate franchise-changing star?

Worst-case scenario: Unless they’re in a position to reach the playoffs, there’s no good reason for New York to try to do anything but improve its lottery odds for Wembanyama or Henderson. Brunson is the best free agent the Knicks have been able to acquire for years and he’s not a top-end guy. If MSG is going to have a star playing within its hallowed halls again, then the organization’s going to have to draft him.

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