With the regular season almost here, theScore basketball writers Joseph Casciaro, William Lou, Alex Wong, and Joe Wolfond sat down to chat about the major storylines impacting the Atlantic Division.
Moderator: This is definitely one of the more interesting divisions this year. I'd like for each of you to lay out what each of the big three teams - Boston, Toronto, and Philadelphia - need to do to get to the NBA Finals.
Joseph Casciaro: Starting with Boston ... health is obviously the No. 1 factor. You look at what they did last year, and you add in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward ... I think if they stay healthy, they've got a chance. I don't think there's anything they necessarily have to adjust or do differently than they did last year. It's literally just adding a little more star power and a little more skill. The Raptors, Kawhi's health is a big factor, along with how Nick Nurse can get that team functioning differently. The interesting one to me is Philly because they're the one out of the three that actually needs to improve or even upgrade in certain areas. Their shooting probably needs to get better, and I don't think it's going to happen this year, but preferably one of Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz should learn how to shoot.
William Lou: You're talking about just free throws?
JC: No, I'm talking just in general. I get that they have shooting in other areas, and I get that Simmons can obviously do a lot of different things. But at some point, teams are going to have to respect you. I'm not even saying they have to respect you as a 3-point shooter; they're going to respect the opportunity that you might pull up and take a shot.
Joe Wolfond: The thing with Philly is, they're probably the team out of those three that has ... I don't know if you'd say the least amount of talent, but I think they have the longest shot of coming out of the East.
Alex Wong: The easiest to guard in the playoffs.
JW: But they're the team that can pose the most matchup problems out of those teams. The Celtics aren't actually hard to match up with; they're just talented across the board and have a lot of switchy wing defenders, so they can basically match up with any team - but any other team can match up with them, also. Philly, they're hard to match up with. Ben Simmons is a 6-foot-10 point guard. Joel Embiid is bigger than anybody and can move ridiculously well for a guy that's as big as he is. Who in the East can match up with both Embiid and Simmons?
WL: That's where you have to look at the Sixers and think, "did they take some playoff experience from (last season)?" They were shockingly inept against the Celtics, and I think most of us going into that series were kind of forgetting our history a little bit. The Celtics took seven games to beat a Bucks team that wasn't very good. They were not favored against the 76ers. The Sixers had easily dispatched of the Heat and looked pretty competent against them. The Heat are a very physical, aggressive team, and the Sixers took that well, even with Embiid not healthy for the first two or three games. But against the Celtics, they just couldn't get it done. It was very strange that Al Horford was just completely dominating Embiid.
JW: But that was conditioning, though, right?
WL: That's always a concern with Embiid. He's just too big to stay well-conditioned. He's almost like Shaq in that way. And then the Ben Simmons thing ... they have to figure something out where he either has to develop a post game or become better at free throws or something. Because right now, it is a little bit too easy to stop him from scoring. And if it's just him running around with 10 feet of space around him, not being able to get to the paint, that's actually not a very good offensive player.
JC: And good coaches will scheme for that in the playoffs. I know Joe mentioned the matchup nightmares ... to me, Embiid is the matchup nightmare basically against almost any team in the league. Simmons, even though what he does offensively could be seen as unique as a 6-10 point guard, I still think that if you put one of those rangy wings on him, they can guard him regardless of whether he's playing the point or small forward. One of those guys can guard him, whereas Embiid can be the unguardable guy in a series that just takes over. He doesn't really have enough help.
JW: I think Philly is the team that can force you to make the most adjustments. They can play super big with Simmons at the 1, (Dario) Saric at the 4, Embiid at the 5, even (Robert) Covington at the 3. They can play so large - and I don't think there are many teams that have that kind of size who can also have the same kind of fluidity that Philly's big guys have. I think Embiid is the single biggest matchup problem in the East - except for maybe Giannis (Antetokounmpo).
AW: What about the fact that the Raptors might have the best player in every series in the playoffs? I think that makes a huge difference. They've never had that. I'm not saying it's the same as LeBron and the Cavs. But the Cavs won all those series - especially last year - because they had the best player. Don't the Raptors kind of have the same thing if Kawhi is healthy?
JC: I think it's between Kawhi and Embiid. I guess Giannis, too, but I don't think the Bucks are in the mix.
JW: But it's not the same thing. Yeah, they might have the best player, but he's not the best player in the way that LeBron was the best player.
WL: The main concern with Toronto is still their offense. Even though last year, their offensive rating was pretty strong, I think that had something to do with Washington being a really poor team, and then playing Cleveland, which was not a very good defensive team, either. I'm still a little worried about Toronto's offense in the playoffs. Kyle Lowry's offensive production drops off a little because the playoffs are more physical; teams are scouting a little more. Kyle Lowry is an opportunistic scorer, where he capitalizes on mistakes. And there are generally less mistakes in the playoffs, unless you're the Wizards. So I'm worried about him as a secondary scorer. And then after that, it's probably (Jonas Valanciunas), whom there's a lot of optimism for, but he still has defensive shortcomings where you would have issues playing him all the time in the playoffs. And then, past that, it's just Kawhi, because the rest of that team doesn't really generate shots on their own. They could use someone on the roster to emerge and become a secondary shot creator. In the playoffs, it always helps to have more of those guys.
JC: The thing is, though, if you look at last year's playoffs, the offense did hold up. Numbers-wise, it did hold up. Even Lowry's numbers were good in the playoffs.
AW: Because the Cavs weren't a good defensive team.
WL: Neither were the Wizards.
JC: The Wizards weren't great, either, but it was the Raptors' defense that fell apart. I think John Schumann wrote about it; they were bad all year against top-10 defenses. So they finished with a top-five defense, but if you look at everyone's mark against the top-10 offenses, the Raptors were terrible. Second-worst. And I think that's what shone through in the playoffs. They couldn't stop Washington for a few of those games. And you saw what happened against Cleveland; they had no ... I don't want to say they had no game plan, because obviously, they did, but it looked like they had no game plan. It looked like they didn't know what they wanted to do with LeBron. So I think it was the defense that actually needed to improve - and it did, right? Just automatically by bringing in Kawhi ... even Danny Green, at this stage of his career, is still an upgrade over DeMar DeRozan defensively. And obviously with Nick Nurse, we have to wait and see - but everything everyone has said about this guy is that he's creative on both sides of the ball. He's a creative, outside-the-box thinker that tinkers with different things. And honestly, maybe that's what they need defensively; they probably needed it last year.
AW: That's what they need in the playoffs, right? With Dwane, once an opposing team does something different, it's full panic. There's no counter.
JW: Dwane Casey was very reactive, whereas the hope with Nick Nurse is that he's proactive and be the one forcing opponents to adjust rather the other way around. Dwane Casey would always wait two or three games into a series to make the big adjustment rather than making the adjustment before the series started and recognize where he was going to be exploited.
WL: Can any of these three teams get Jimmy Butler?
JC: I think all three can, based on their assets.
AW: Minnesota isn't trying to trade him. (Tom Thibodeau) is running crazy game over there ... I think Thibs is going to get fired before they trade Jimmy.
JC: He's gonna get fired at some point.
AW: Thibs is hilarious, man.
WL: His stock fell off a lot. He was a defensive genius.
AW: Does he get another coaching job?
JC: This sounds a lot like a Northwest Division preview. (laughs)
Moderator: This seems like a good time to bring us back to the Atlantic Division. What, in your mind, constitutes a successful season for either the Brooklyn Nets or the New York Knicks?
WL: If you're New York, don't trade any of your young guys. Just hold onto your young guys, give them some minutes to develop.
JW: Realistically, if you're New York, a successful season is having the worst record in the league. And it's entirely possible.
WL: They could have that. Once Kristaps (Porzingis) got injured last year, they had pretty much the worst win percentage in the entire league. And by the sounds of it, they aren't going to rush Kristaps back. He should be back around the All-Star Break, but they're just saying "Yeah, you can just take it easy, you can chill out (with) Real Madrid." That's actually kind of interesting, that Kristaps chose to work out with Real Madrid. There was some tension with the Knicks, although it looks like (David) Fizdale resolved that. I think the Knicks are already pretty much done; the year is irrelevant, for the most part.
JW: I think they probably just want to give Kevin Knox a lot of reps, bring him along, and try to bring (Frank) Ntilikina along a little bit at the offensive end, try to get him to be a little more assertive. He was such a bad pick-and-roll player last year, I thought. He never looked for his own offense at all. He's a fine playmaker, but there's no assertiveness in his game whatsoever.
WL: He's the French Emmanuel Mudiay.
JW: No, he's not, man. First of all, Mudiay is not a good defender, whereas Nkilitina is already a really good defender and he's 19 years old. And I feel like Mudiay is too fond of himself as an offensive player. His shot selection is ...
WL: He thinks he's (Russell) Westbrook. It's actually kind of cute.
JW: Let Frank run the offense. Let him have a 30 percent usage rate; who cares? They need to be bad, anyway. I feel like they might as well empower their young guys and see if they can expand their games at all. And if they can't, then at least those are important data points for them to get.
JC: I think if you're Brooklyn, you keep doing what you've been doing very quietly the last couple of years. It's like I've been saying on the podcast ...
JW: Yeah, I know. You love Sean Marks.
AW: They're almost out of that draft pick hell.
JW: They'll have their own pick this year.
JC: If you look at what Sean Marks inherited a couple of years ago, with no picks for several years, not a lot of cap space ... it was the most depressing situation in pro sports, honestly. When you looked the way that team was set up, it was a bad team with no means to get better, and no draft pick for three years. Sean Marks inherited that and did a quietly good job of taking on some not-so-great contracts but getting picks with them, and gambling on some younger players who fell out of favor like D'Angelo Russell, and even adding some of those young players that no one really knew like Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. Given the limited resources he had in every aspect, he's done a good job. And with Kenny Atkinson coaching, they've done a really good job repairing the image of that franchise. And I've said it, too: If a New York franchise has max cap space - and Brooklyn is trendy now, the franchise itself doesn't seem like a laughingstock - at some point, they're going to get somebody. No star is going to be like, "Well, the Nets were horribly run under the last regime." No. It's New York, they've got max cap space, maybe they can play with someone else. I think Sean Marks did all Brooklyn needed him to do that last couple of years, and if they can just keep doing that this year, keep that reputation as this hard-playing young team that is scrappy and stays in games, I just think it's inevitable that something's coming from them.
AW: I think you're right, he did a good job - but man, look at this roster. They literally don't have one blue-chip guy.
JW: Jarrett Allen is maybe the most likely guy to be ...
AW: And people buzz about (Caris) LeVert, right? LeVert's supposed to be good.
WL: Who buzzes about LeVert?
AW: I read it in a Zach Lowe article. It's my only resource.
WL: Zach Lowe says nice things about the Nets.
AW: I agree with Cash - Marks was in a terrible position when he took over. And this is probably the best that he could do.
JW: The fact that they showed up on a superstar's list of potential trade destinations ...
AW: But that's just because they're located in Brooklyn.
JC: But is it? If this was two years ago, is Jimmy Butler putting them on the list?
AW: That's fair.
WL: I feel like they've really positioned themselves well to add Travis Outlaw. Again. (laughs) Brooklyn does this. I mean, New Jersey used to do this, before they moved to Brooklyn. The whole thing is like, "We'll open up all this cap room ..."
AW: "... and then sign whoever will come."
WL: " ... and that's our pitch." But outside of LeBron - and we can talk about LeBron later, but it seems like he went to L.A. just to make Space Jam, which, you know, whatever, it's fine ...
AW: And "Survivor's Remorse."
WL: What is that?
JC: It's a good show.
WL: Is it good?
JC: I watched one episode.
AW: Don't sleep on "Survivor's Remorse."
WL: ... but yeah, free agents don't really go to destinations unless there's someone else coming with them. No one wants to go on their own. So I feel like it would really help them to get that first guy in the door. Once that happens, the rest of it could happen. If you look at the rest of the roster, I feel like everybody ...
AW: They're all role players.
WL: They're all role players, and then they have D'Angelo Russell, who might have a good year. He's clearly kind of talented, but right now he's kind of flashy right now and not that good a player. And then you have the negative reputation with D'Angelo, as well. I don't know, man. I gotta wait and see on Brooklyn, is what I'm saying.
JW: He and Jimmy Butler would not get along.
WL: No! Definitely not! He's the Andrew Wiggins of point guards. That's not good.
JW: So if you were the Nets, would you try and trade for Butler?
AW: Yeah, I would. What on the roster would you not give up?
JW: What on the roster would Thibs be wiling to take back in a trade?
WL: Probably DeMarre Carroll. I'm serious.
JW: Well, we couldn't get Ben Simmons, so we settled for DeMarre Carroll.
WL: Same height.
Moderator: Just two more questions, guys. Which non-superstar is most likely to influence the final Atlantic Division standings?
WL: I'm going to say Markelle Fultz.
AW: I was going to say Fultz, too.
WL: I just think ... look, preseason is up in the air. They're just testing shit out. But they started Markelle Fultz - and that's kind of interesting, right? Because their starting lineup was actually quite good last season. And it was good because it had good balance. Simmons was going to handle the ball most of the time. You have Redick, a really good shooter who doesn't need the ball and maximizes everyone around him. Covington's a really good 3-and-D guy. Saric can do a little bit of everything. And Embiid is their star player. If you throw Markelle Fultz into that situation, unless Fultz is actually back to the guy they thought they were taking with the No. 1 pick, that's not actually an upgrade for them. I really need to see what Markelle Fultz can do. If he's healthy, he can run pick-and-rolls for that team; the 76ers finished dead last in pick-and-roll usage last season, and that could improve the offense. But for the moment, it's not really an upgrade to go from JJ Redick to Markelle Fultz. It's actually a downgrade.
JC: JJ Redick has an elite NBA skill, and we don't really know if Fultz has that yet.
Moderator: Okay, let's finish this off by giving some bold predictions for the Atlantic Division.
JC: Kawhi wins MVP.
AW: The Raptors win 65 games.
JW: The Sixers don't win 50 games.
WL: Gordon Hayward averages less than 15 points per game. Look, man, I'm not seeing any player wearing Antas averaging more than 15 points per game. Go through the Basketball-Reference database, okay? It has never happened before. But no, I just don't think he's gonna get enough shots to average 15.
Other entries in this series: