NBA 2023 Atlantic Division Preview

Plenty of changes for the Celtics, Nets’ focus going forward, Knicks getting better. Question with Philly & Raptors being stuck

Simply Ballin
15 min readOct 11, 2023

The NBA season is almost here. It’s that time of year when it’s so close that you just can’t wait for it to start because it’s been far too long now without NBA basketball.

So, for the next week or so, here are the division previews. In each preview, I’ll be going through some of the main questions for each team and discussing what’s in store in the upcoming season.

Today, we’re going through the Atlantic division.

Boston Celtics

After making the finals the previous season, they were right back in the mix by making the conference finals. And they almost did it. Despite going down 0–3 to the Miami Heat, they were one game away from being the only team to make such a comeback.

Then unfortunate events happened with Jayson Tatum getting hurt in game seven. With no Tatum, the Celtics were no match to make this a game even in the Garden.

But there’s also a reason why they were down 0–3 in the first place. This team is great but something always felt off about them. There’s something that I don’t think they had that is capable of dragging them over the hump.

A lot of it has to do with their offense, particularly from both Tatum and Jaylen Brown late in games.

And they finally made changes — two big changes. First by trading away the longest-tenured Celtic in Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porzingis, which I wasn’t a fan of. Then followed that trade by moving one of their best defenders in Robert Williams for arguably the best guard defender in Jrue Holiday. I liked that trade better but still not entirely sure how to feel.

Now, they’re left with a very different makeup of the team that could pay off.

  • How will integrating both Porzingis and Holiday look like?
  • What’s their defense in the playoffs?
  • Are some of the offensive struggles fixed with Holiday?
  • Are these changes enough?
  • Will we see another leap from either Brown or Tatum?
  • Is this year they’ll finally get over the hump?

The first main question is how are they going to integrate two key players. This isn’t adding two role players. This is adding two starters that will change a lot of stuff on both ends of the floor.

Holiday compared to Smart is way more ball-dominant:

In each season in the last five years, Holiday has got the ball more in his hands — over 10% more in the last two. He’s definitely involved in the offense way more than Smart ever had.

I don’t think Holiday will be used how Smart was. I expect Holiday to be more in a role similar to what he had with the Milwaukee Bucks. I think that makes more sense, as it allows for more Tatum and Brown to come off the ball.

Holiday is a pretty good player when it comes to passing. Here are his and others' passing grades compared to on-ball players.

This all should help them in the playoffs where they struggled the most(but more on that later).

Another change is getting Porzingis. That’s going to be a huge change for their entire defensive system. They’re not switching seamlessly with him as they did in previous years. And getting Holiday helps with that but that also shows they’re definitely going in that direction.

I’m not sure that’s a great idea. I don’t see the need that Porzingis feels or help them in a way that solves what was wrong with the Celtics. Their issue wasn’t on defense or not having a spacing big that can do more. So, they changed their defensive scheme but haven’t addressed their limitations.

It’s not that Porzingis is a bad player or that he won’t have an impact, I just don’t see this change being the one that takes them over the top.

Plus changing their entire defense and relying on Porzingis and Al Horford is a big risk to take(granted they didn’t exactly have great health with their bigs last year either). But going from switching to drop is going to be a risky move and will have a lot of questions going forward.

I do think Holiday is a bigger change because he does provide additional ball handling and he has proven over the years that he’s a damn good option(even if that is just in the regular season). However, with Holiday, there is a big question because of how badly he drops off in the playoffs. Everything goes down. The shooting disappears, scoring goes down, efficiency drops beyond what you could expect, and the rim pressure has slowly been going down too.

These moves may work out and have provided a better margin of error, but at the end of the day, everything still starts at the top. This team isn’t bad or one that needs big changes around the margins. On paper, this team has been one of the best every single season.

But their ceiling rests on the growth and any potential leaps that both Tatum and Brown can make. There needs to be growth and improvement from both players whether as scorers, decision-makers, passers, or ball-handling(hello, Brown).

Still, it’s going to be one hell of a season for the Celtics. A lot of changes of a high caliber will be fun to watch. It will be fun to see how they do with the rotations. What their defense will look like? The improvement on offense. So, many questions on the court this year.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets had a weird era. It started off with both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signing and this was going to be great with a duo like that. Then came James Harden. More drama, yay! Okay, the big-3 era is over, we have Ben Simmons with our duo, it’s to get to work. Yeah, no.

Let’s trade Irving to Dallas and Durant to Phoenix mid-season(after all the trade rumors in the off-season). There’s no point talking about the first half of the season because it’s completely irrelevant now.

What matters now is the franchise going in a completely different direction.

  • Was the Mikal Bridges show legit?
  • How will a healthy Simmons look like and is that a big difference maker?
  • What even is “this” team for the whole season?
  • Are there moves to be made throughout the season?

After acquiring Bridges, it was kind of unexpected to see him do what he did. Even if you knew he was going to be better than what he’s shown in a lesser role, I doubt this was what you had in mind.

In Brooklyn, he averaged almost 29 points per 75 possessions on almost 61% true shooting. He shot 48% in the short mid-range and 50% in the long mid-range. He was elite at the tough shot-making.

Despite such great efficient numbers, I don’t think he’s there when it comes to having that player as the guy on offense. All of this on-ball responsibility is beyond what he should be doing.

But just because that’s the case, that doesn’t mean they’re in a bad place or they should trade him. He’s the perfect player to pair alongside a star. This does mean, though, that he’s likely not carrying the team. Even with Bridges on, the Nets were barely positive with plus 0.8 in 923 minutes with a 114.8 offense — and were negative in general post-deadline with a losing record.

Outside of Bridges, they do have a bunch of really good players in Spencer Dinwiddie, Nic Claxton, Royce O’Neale, Dorian Finney-Smith, Cam Johnson, and Ben Simmons.

This is a really good collection of players. They’re just missing one or two guys that can bring this roster up — kind of like missing Durant and Irving(I know they got these players for them). But that’s what I see this team for the season. It’s a team filled with great complementary players that is likely not going to be great.

One big question mark is what’s with Simmons. It’s been a real while since we saw a fully healthy Simmons on the court. Not just physically, but mentally too. That’s going to be key for the Nets this season whether he can go back to his All-Star self.

Though, I also wouldn’t be surprised if they do end up blowing this team even more by sending those veterans away and just going with the flow with Bridges, Johnson, Simmons, Claxton, and whoever else they get(perhaps a trade with the Heat for Tyler Herro).

New York Knicks

They had a really good season after missing the playoffs last year. I was wrong about the Knicks when I did my previous season preview. I had only four teams comfortably below them and thought that their ceiling was making the play-in. I really couldn’t have been more wrong.

I thought they were going to get better individually, just wasn’t sure how that would translate.

But with the moves that they made with Jalen Brunson, trading for Josh Hart, Immanuel Quickley, and Quentin Grimes getting better, and just all-around improvements, they set themselves up nicely for the regular season at least.

  • Can Brunson get better even more?
  • What can we expect from RJ Barrett?
  • Can they continue having a top 5 offense?
  • But will there be changes to how their offense looks?
  • Will we see a better Randle in the playoffs?

A big part of that was Brunson. He easily put himself as one of the better players in the league. He’s a full-on All-Star now, and is much closer to the upper tier of guards for me — there are some things that are missing before he gets there, but overall he’s been really good. Over 25 points per 75 poss on 60% TS is elite stuff.

It’s always a question of whether a player can increase his usage and remain highly efficient. That wasn’t the problem for him — casually going up almost 8% and getting better efficiency-wise (though there was a slight dip in 2pt%). Still, he established himself as one of the better scorers.

There’s a reason why the Knicks had a 121.0 offense with him on and that dropped to 114.3 without him. Even without Julius Randle, they were even better! Plus 12.3 with a 125.4 offense! That’s wild.

My question is how much better can he get? The issue comes with his passing and being a bigger 3-point threat. I don’t know if he’s capable of being a lead ball handler with both scoring and passing responsibilities. Felt at times he’s also too ball dominant too.

But the Knicks still were able to have an elite offense despite that and that’s kind of scary. They did rely a lot on their offensive rebounding(which hurt them in the playoffs against the Heat). And I think their approach is too much isolation and taking turns with Brunson and Randle. They were fourth in isolation frequency and also third in the highest average second per touch.

I wonder if there are changes to their offensive philosophy, especially going into the playoffs.

What’s with RJ Barrett too? He has yet to come close to being barely below average efficiency-wise. Last year, he was 5% worse than average. The year before, 5% again. The closest he’s been was just under 4%. That needs to be better. I feel like there are so many things that need to be better with Barrett for the Knicks to be even better.

Another player that needs to be better, especially in the playoffs is Randle. He had a great bounce-back season after a disaster in 2022. A career high in scoring and he did that with average efficiency. However I do have some big questions about his style of play and whether that’s good offense considering such low efficiency for that.

That’s even more apparent in the playoffs where he continues to struggle significantly. Health has played a part but it also doesn’t excuse this kind of drop off to the point where his TS% drops to 48%. That can’t happen, especially if he continues to have such high usage.

Outside of the main three players, I do like this team. Honestly, to get that ceiling higher in the playoffs, I do think if there’s a market for Randle, and ability to get someone else would be for the better.

Overall, at this moment, I think they’re a great regular-season team again but will struggle in the playoffs against the top teams. Could win a series again based on matchups.

Philadelphia 76ers

It must be tiring being a 76ers fan. There seems to be always something going on after just one season. There simply can’t be any continuity without any issues.

Yes, this team did struggle to get out of the second round again. But I don’t think they were that far off. It was also just unfortunate circumstances again with their health(though that is a pattern).

And now they have had a messy, messy off-season dealing with Harden. It’s still pretty unknown what’s going to happen right now with that entire situation.

  • Is Harden even going to play?
  • If traded, what kind of package are they getting?
  • Is Maxey taking that leap?
  • The team will be good in the regular season regardless, but what’s their ceiling in the playoffs?

That’s the first point then. Is Harden even going to be on the team? That kind of matters. Like a lot.

Had this whole thing never happened, I would’ve had a different view on the 76ers. I would still have them as a legitimate contender. They are a good team. They had the fifth-best net rating, per Cleaning the Glass with the third-best offense and a 10th-best defense — one of three teams to have both a top 10 offense and defense.

I would’ve easily taken the chance on this core again. They have the team around their stars enough to be competitive. Everything rests on Embiid and Harden and that’s a good enough bet to take.

In the regular season, they were plus 9.2 with a 123.2 offense with both on. Although that did swing the complete opposite way in the playoffs, especially against the Celtics — minus 12.2 with a 103.4 offense. That’s disgusting.

But at the same time, it’s the best that they could do. Would there be any other moves to have an upgrade? The upgrade would have to come over Harden and not the rest of the team and that would be tough to get.

A big part of them being so bad was injuries but that’s also a big risk with this team. Thinking about it now, they do seem like they are in a tough spot to be in.

And that’s if Harden doesn’t get traded.

But what happens if he does? What is the package for him? What is the best possible package? Is it with the Los Angeles Clippers for Terrence Mann and other pieces? Is it Kyle Lowry?

None of the moves scream wow or anything that will have the 76ers better or even in the same spot they’re in with Harden.

Though that could change with a much improved Maxey, but that could be a long way to go. Amongst on-ball players:

  • B- in rim shot creation
  • C in rim shot making
  • C in finishing talent
  • D+ in isolation PPP
  • B in 1v1 talent
  • B in mid-range talent
  • A+ in 3pt shot making
  • D- in passing creation volume
  • F in passing versatility
  • F in passing creation quality
  • F in playmaking talent

It’s going to take a lot for him to jump into that on-ball role that they would truly need with or without Harden.

What is a good sign is that even without Harden on, Maxey is averaging 27 points per 75 poss on 54% eFG and 59% TS with 30% of his 2s being assisted and 58% of his 3s. He is a scorer, though there are limitations too. He gets to the rim a lot(over 7 attempts per 100 poss) but is shooting 55%. And that’s not going into the passing being nowhere near where it should be.

But that would be the main difference maker in their ceiling regardless of what happens with Harden.

And whatever happens, I don’t envision this team to be bad at all. Joel Embiid is one of the top 13 players in the league. If there’s anything about Embiid is he is one of the best floor-raising players by far.

Even with Embiid on and no Harden, they were plus 8.2 with a 117.8 offense in 801 minutes. In the last three years, with no Harden or Simmons, they were plus 4.9 with a 115.7 offense in 2915 minutes.

Embiid has proven that he can carry a team to be great in the regular season with ease. The issues will come in the playoffs and that’s where their entire season will be judged on.

Overall, it’s tough to predict their season because of the unknown with Harden and what package they’re getting. But I think I’m comfortable saying that regardless of what happens, they’ll be elite in the regular season. And in the playoffs, with Harden, a lot will depend on health and Maxey’s growth. And without Harden, it’s literally Maxey taking a leap or nothing.

Toronto Raptors

There are a few teams that I look at and think what even is their plan or goal. Not just the goal for this season but the goal with the core that they have. Some teams may not have championship aspirations or even play-in aspirations but there’s a clear structure and a valid plan comes out of it.

The Raptors struggled to make the playoffs after losing in the play-in, but the fact alone that they were in the play-in is kind of concerning.

They have made some moves by getting Jakob Poeltl, signing Dennis Schroder, drafting Gradey Dick, losing Fred VanVleet, and getting a new coach.

But none of that changes their overall goals as a franchise going forward. They are still stuck in the same place I had them last year — stuck right in the middle with a bunch of good veterans, a couple of good young players(ready or not ready to take the leap), and no idea which timeline they should go at.

  • How will they look like with a new coach?
  • How much will losing VanVleet change things?
  • What does growth look like for Barnes?
  • Are they happy with this core?
  • What’s the best-case scenario for this team?

The first main change is getting a new coach. That could make a difference. A new system and a different approach could be the difference maker between barely making the play-in and flirting with the top 6.

With Pascal Siakam, Poeltl, and VanVleet on, they were plus 11.2 with a 123.3 offense in 526 minutes. Overall, since acquiring Poeltl they went 15–11 and had a plus 2.8 net — with a 14th-best offense and a ninth-best defense.

That’s solid. That with hopefully a better Scottie Barnes and a different coach could be enough for them to better for the entire season and finish with a much better record.

But how much of the VanVleet loss will change that?

That trio mentioned above, take VanVleet out and they were minus 8.0 with a 99.6 offense in 122 minutes. The Raptors in general without VanVleet were minus 1.2 with a 112.7 offense in 1426 minutes. Even when they went 15–11, without him in that stretch were minus 4.6 with a 107.7 offense in 458 minutes.

This was what they had with VanVleet:

And this is what they have with the replacement in Schroder:

Not a big difference — in fact, that does kind of show they got a lot worse. Schroder isn’t the passer the VanVleet was or the 3-point threat, which is important for the Raptors.

So, they got worse at their guard position.

A lot of it depends on the growth from Barnes, but that feels like a saying that they had last year too. Their ceiling depended on him taking a leap quickly then too.

But even with a “leap” what kind of a leap is that? And would that even be enough? Is a much improved Barnes with Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Schroder doing much in the East?

That’s also not considering that two of their best players aren’t extended. Maybe this is the year that the management will take a different direction with this core.

That’s something I think could be a possibility if they come out with a poor start, which is also likely.

Overall, I don’t think the Raptors are in a much different place than they were a couple of months back and even a season before. They could be better this year, enough to be a first-round exit, but that changes nothing for the team going forward.