Atlantic Division storylines to watch this season
BOSTON -- On the eve of training camp, the NBA is filled with its usual assortment of storylines, subplots and as always, drama.
And there may not be another division that combines all those elements along with good basketball teams (with one exception), than the Atlantic Division.
This is the home of the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, and one of the early preseason picks to emerge out of the East, the Philadelphia 76ers.
And then there’s Boston and Brooklyn, two teams that are going to certainly keep things interesting because of their offseason moves which were significant not only in terms of talent but also the potential impact on winning.
But the New York Knicks, one of the big losers this summer in terms of attracting big-name free agents, will once again be expected to take up bottom-of-the-conference status even though their roster has more talent than it did a year ago with the addition of solid but not spectacular role players like ex-Celtic Marcus Morris.
Here’s a look at some of the key storylines for each team in the Atlantic, a key player to watch and a realistic outlook for this upcoming season.
Can the Sixers, armed with as much or more talent than any team in the East, take a pivotal step and get to the NBA Finals?
When the Sixers decided to bring back Tobias Harris, it was seen by many as a solid but far-from-spectacular move. But to go out and acquire ex-Celtic Al Horford via free agency, changed the calculus for most when it came to the Sixers.
They already had elite scoring in the post with Joel Embiid. Horford gives them an experience, effective pick-and-pop scorer whose presence can create additional space for Embiid and others.
Adding Horford also bolsters the team’s overall defense which wasn’t nearly as good as some talked it up to be.
Philly had a defensive rating of 109.0 last season which ranked 14th in the NBA. Of the eight teams that won 50 or more games last season, only the defensively-challenged Houston Rockets had a lower defensive rating (110.1) than the Sixers (109.0)
Anything short of getting to the Eastern Conference finals would be seen by most as a disappointment for this group.
While the Celtics took a major hit when it comes to overall talent, they are hoping new faces will breed greater chemistry and with that, as many or more wins as previous years.
Kemba Walker will replace Kyrie Irving (he signed with Brooklyn) in the starting lineup, but this team’s success can not fall upon the shoulders of Walker only.
Gordon Hayward has to return to the form he displayed prior to a gruesome ankle injury he suffered at the start of the 2017-2018 season.
Jayson Tatum has to live up to the hype that he will be an all-star this season or at a minimum, play at a level in which he’s at least in the conversation.
And while Enes Kanter will likely be the team’s starting center, the randomness of Boston’s big man rotation creates a sense of uncertainty about how they will perform.
But the difference-maker in all this has to be coach Brad Stevens. He didn’t handle the internal agendas and egos of his players as well as he needed to, which became one of the many factors contributing to the team’s struggles last season.
The way this roster is constructed seems more in line with the kind of roster that Stevens seems to get the most out of.
Boston isn’t a strong contender to get to the Finals, but they will contend for a playoff berth and with a few breaks here or there, could be in contention to be in the mix for home-court advantage through at least the first round of the playoffs.
The hype train hasn’t been this high for the Nets since Jason Kidd was running the show. Adding Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant via free agency can do that for any franchise, even with Durant’s debut as a Net likely next season following an ACL injury in the NBA Finals last spring against Toronto.
Without him, the Nets are still going to be a playoff-caliber team due to their depth around Irving that includes Spencer Dunwiddie, Caris LaVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen as well as newcomers Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler and of course, the F.O.K. (Friends Of Kevin Durant) of all F.O.K.’s in DeAndre Jordan.
While this is certainly not a throwaway year for the Nets, the foundation for their inevitable title run a year from now begins with what they can accomplish this season which at a minimum should include a return trip to the playoffs.
You won’t find a single soul within the Toronto Raptors that regrets them basically renting out Kawhi Leonard for a year, a deal that paid off handsomely in Toronto claiming the franchise’s first NBA title.
Winning it, that’s one thing.
Completely different kind of challenge, in part because of the bull’s eye they’ll have on them all season. But also because their defense of their crown won’t include the biggest piece in their success, Kawhi Leonard who signed with the Los Angeles Clippers during free agency.
But there are a number of returners who will keep the Raptors from totally off the face of the basketball universe with no one player being as important to that continued success, than Pascal Siakam.
He was a runaway winner for this year’s Most Improved Player award, and will have ample opportunities to build upon his strong season in more of a go-to role for Toronto this season. Whether he does that with a contract extension (if he doesn’t sign one prior to October 21, he becomes a restricted free agent next summer) remains to be seen.
There are still a lot of good players on the Raptors roster from last season, enough talent to where Toronto should once again factor into the playoff picture.
But unlike Atlantic Division foes like Boston and Brooklyn, Toronto did not fill the gaping hole left by their best player taking his talents elsewhere. And while Siakam is a tremendous talent, the Raptors are going to not only miss what Leonard brought to the team in terms of his talent, but the positive domino-effect that his presence on the floor meant to the rest of the Raptors. They will be in the fight for the playoffs as well.
The Knicks have an interesting blend of young talent such as Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox and rookie wing R.J. Barrett, while adding veterans Julius Randle and ex-Celtic Marcus Morris to the mix. New York has a solid stable of role players at multiple positions.
But the void of not having that next-level superstar is painfully obvious, a void they anticipated filling with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant or potentially both.
Both signed with Brooklyn in the offseason, leaving the Knicks with a roster that’s unlikely to compete for a playoff spot which makes it the lone exception in the Atlantic Division this season.