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What the Heck Happened in the Atlantic Division?

Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving supply the drama while Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum supply the hope

Welcome to what is clearly the best division in the Eastern Confernce and perhaps the best division in the NBA. Maybe. The Sixers and Nets came into the season with NBA titles on their minds, but their mercurial stars, Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving, respectively, could have snuffed out hope before it even really began.

But even without Simmons, the Sixers still have MVP candidate Joel Embiid, and even without Irving, the Nets still have MVP candidates Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Add that to the old young heads in Boston, who are somehow completely overlooked, the return to normalcy for the Toronto Raptors and the Broadway-adjacent New York Knicks looking for an encore.

It’s certainly a division living in interesting times.

Philadelphia 76ers

Offseason in 5 Words or Less: Every NBA GM: “Sorry, Daryl, no deal” *click*

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

This entire offseason in Philadelphia can best be summarized by one GIF/image, and it involves beloved(?) former Piston Andre Drummond, now a backup on the Sixers.

Joel Embiid had tortured and clowned Andre Drummond for years as an opponent, and now the two would-be teammates, and sensing the elephant in the room, Sixers PR set up a good old-fashioned meet-cute.

It’s unclear if someone was threatening Embiid or his family off-screen to make sure he stuck around for filming this.

But that picture works for everything Sixers-related this offseason. Reactions to Ben Simmons holdout. Reactions to Daryl Morey’s trade demands. Reactions to Ben Simmons showing up unannounced after ghosting his team for an entire offseason. Reactions to Doc Rivers when he is adamant he didn’t throw his All-Star guard under the bus after Simmons’ brain broke in the playoffs. There’s always an Embiid taking it all in.

As I write this, Simmons is presumably back in the fold, still with no desire to be on the team long term. His teammates also seemingly want nothing to do with him. So everyone’s just going to play out this string until Simmons is gone. But that would require Daryl Morey to back off of his ridiculous trade demands, reportedly a “young star and multiple draft picks” type deal.

Better or Worse?: Worse, but with a chance to get even better post-Simmons

In truth, even without Simmons, they’ll likely be one of the best teams in the NBA. They have an MVP candidate in Embiid (when/if healthy), shooting depth, some solid young pieces to keep the energy up. Certainly enough to fight for a top-4 slot in the East. And come trade deadline they could bolster the team with some Simmons’ replacement parts. As much as it is a complete disaster, as a team they are sitting pretty well. But time is running out on the post-Process contention window, so they definitely can’t screw anything up any more than they already have.

Will they contend for a title?

The East is tougher, they play in the toughest division, they need to rely on the knees of a 7-footer with plenty of injury history, they employ Andre Drummond. This smells like a recipe for a frustrating, quality season that ends in a second-round exit and a lot of questions and finger pointing.

Brooklyn Nets

Offseason in 5 words or Less: “A contrarian without a cause”

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Those words come via Howard Bryant from a “prominent NBAer” to describe Kyrie Irving. Look, a lot has been said about Irving. I’ve said a lot about Irving. I don’t know what else to say that this five-word sentence doesn’t already.

Will Kyrie’s instance that he will not be vaccinated, but not because he’s anti-vax, mind you, tank Brooklyn’s title chances? Unclear. I want to say no because any team with Kevin Durant and James Harden should be a title contender. In the roughly 300 minutes the two played together, they outscored opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions.

And I believe a hell of a lot more in Brooklyn’s bench than I do in the Lakers’ bench. LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap and Jevon Carter are the grizzled, gray-beard vets to keep things in line, Patty Mills is an awesome dude who is impossible to root againt, Blake Griffin continues his rehabilitation tour and title chase and Bruce Brown is a free safety who does all the little things.

Combine that with Harden as the unlikely hero that commands the locker room, Durant is the aloof wunderkind who is the best player on the floor in 97% of the games and Cam Thomas is the kind of hit on draft night who could swing not just a game but maybe an entire playoff series.

I believe in the Nets.

Better or Worse?

Irving is in the middle of torching his third franchise, so let’s say better via addition by subtraction. I don’t care if the numbers don’t back me up. I believe in basketball karma.

Playoff Contender?

Getting through the East will be easy for nobody. But I’d say the Nets are the odds-on favorite to appear in the Finals.

The one thing I have to come to terms with, as the Nets will as well ... if Irving gets vaccinated way late into the season, or if the requirement in New York lifts, will it all be water under the bridge and he’ll be welcomed back with open arms? Or does that make him a disruption that is more trouble than it is worth?

New York Knicks

Offseason in 5 Words: The Knicks are Fool’s Gold

New York Knicks v Washington Wizards Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The New York Knicks shocked the NBA world by being a terrifically competent team last season led by Most Improved Player Julius Randle and former Piston Derrick Rose. Now, they have reinforcements in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier.

I don’t buy it. This team is going to take a step back from last season’s fourth-ranked defense, it’s going to make their shaky offense look even more rickety, and when things start going south on a Tom Thibodeau team, they seem to go south pretty quickly.

I don’t care how loud Thibs yells, or how much fans tease him for getting picked up by the on-court mics, you can’t turn Walker into a quality defender. This team will also miss the two-way play of Reggie Bullock more than they are willing to admit, and Julius Randle is bound to take at least a little bit of a step back from last season.

this team is relying too much on repeat success, praying for perfect health when it rarely occurs, and are much more likely to be fighting for a play-in seed than a top seed in the conference.

Better or Worse?

Worse. As much as I think RJ Barett is ready to take a step forward, that would be counteracted when the rest of the rotation takes even a modest step back.

Playoff Contender?

They will be in the mix all season, but I’m pretty confident that yet another first-round exit awaits them.

Boston Celtics

Offseason in 5 words or less: Under the radar assassins

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

There is something about this team I just can’t shake. They did nothing to make me love them last year, they did nothing particular in the offseason to turn me into a believer, their coach is now their GM and their new coach is lauded but unproven.

And yet, I sit here thinking that is the perfect recipe for a 54-win season.

If you Zoom out, what did they do that isn’t to like? They replaced Tristan Thompson, Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker with Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Dennis Schroder, respectively.

None of the new arrivals blows you away, but when you reflect on what they are replacing? Huge upgrade. They also are built around two stars that somehow never got traded for bonafide superstars. But Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are about to turn 24 and 25, respectively, and they are extremely talent wings.

However, the consensus view seems like the Celtics have been written off as an afterthought. A fake contender that never was. At some point, we might be looking at last season as an outlier for a lot of teams, and the Celtics going from a .500 record to a top-three team would not surprise me one bit.

Better or Worse?: Way better

Call me crazy, but I see tons more depth, growth from the team’s young stars and I will never, ever bet against a coach who was deemed worthy to marry Nia Long.

Playoff Contender?

Please join me on Celtic Island. I think they could give any team in the East a hard-fought series and one misstep by the Bucks, Sixers or Nets could see them in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Toronto Raptors

Offseason in 5 words: Home sweet home

Toronto Raptors v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Speaking of the season from hell, say hello to the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors were forced to play in Tampa Bay last season away from family and friends and with stringent quarantine restrictions.

The Raptors are back home in the friendly confines of Toronto. They have finally moved on from Kyle Lowry, which stings but also provides some clarity around direction and whose team this is going forward.

This likely won’t be a great season for the Raps, but they will at least have a chance to remind folks how good their core of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Scottie Barnes are.

Better or Worse?

The Raptors are much better than the 27 wins they showed last season

Playoff Contender?

If the championship season was the original Jurrasic Park then this season will be Jurrasic World. A bunch of interesting pieces that don’t come together as a whole, but points to perhaps better days ahead.

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