The 2021-22 NBA regular season is set to tip-off on Oct. 19 and in the weeks leading up to Opening Night, we’re previewing each division in the NBA.
Here, you can find projected win totals, predictions on the best player and best rookie, under-the-radar storylines to follow and a bold prediction among the five teams.
Today, the focus shifts to the Atlantic Division.
2021-22 NBA season preview: Atlantic Division
Projected win totals
Over/under win totals provided by Action Network.
Best player: Kevin Durant
There’s no shortage of star power in the Atlantic Division.
The Nets alone have three active All-Stars on their roster in Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The 76ers have two in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons (for now, at least), as do the Celtics in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Knicks have one in Julius Randle, and the Raptors are only a season removed from Pascal Siakam earning both All-Star starter and All-NBA Second Team honors.
Even so, it’s hard to go against Durant for the best player in the division.
Durant appeared in only 35 games during the 2020-21 regular season but played at an MVP level when healthy, posting averages of 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists on .537/.450/.882 shooting splits. He then took his game to another stratosphere in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. In Brooklyn’s first-round win over the Celtics, Durant averaged 32.6 points per game. Though the Nets fell to the Bucks in seven games in the second round, he did everything he could to punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals with an average of 35.4 points per game.
That included a 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in Game 5 to give the Nets a 3-2 series lead.
It also included a 48-point performance in Brooklyn’s Game 7 loss, in which Durant came inches away from ending the series in dramatic fashion.
With the way he closed last season — not to mention the way he led Team USA to gold at the Tokyo Olympics — it’s no wonder why ESPN, Sports Illustrated and NBA Global each had Durant as the league’s best player heading into the 2021-22 season.
Best rookie: Scottie Barnes
The No. 4 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Barnes is one of the more unique players in his class.
Barnes started in only seven of the 24 games he appeared in at Florida State last season, but he was named ACC Sixth Man of the Year and ACC Freshman of the Year, in addition to making All-ACC Third Team. He proved to be a jack of all trades on both ends of the court — a point guard in a power forward’s body and the type of multipositional defender every team in today’s NBA is looking for.
While everything that happens in preseason should be taken with a grain of salt, Barnes sure looked good in his “unofficial debut.”
He might not rack up numbers in the way Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs and Jalen Green will this season, but Barnes is set to play an important role on a Raptors team that will be without their leading scorer to start the season and is looking to bounce back from the mess that was last season.
For the purpose of this exercise, it helps that Toronto was the only team in the Atlantic Division to have a lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, but there still aren’t many rookies primed to make the sort of impact Barnes is from the get-go.
Under the radar storyline: Celtics add much-needed depth
The Celtics are coming off of a messy season themselves.
Following a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2020, the Celtics finished the 2020-21 season with a 36-36 record. They had to win a Play-In Game against the Washington Wizards to make the playoffs and ended up losing to the Nets in five games in the opening round.
There were a number of reasons last season didn’t go as planned for the Celtics — one being that few teams were impacted as much as they were by COVID-19 health and safety protocols — but depth was near the top of the list.
The Celtics addressed their depth issues in the offseason and enter the 2021-22 season much more well-rounded. At guard, Boston now has Dennis Schroder, Marcus Smart, Payton Pritchard and Josh Richardson. At forward, Tatum, Brown, Aaron Nesmith, Grant Williams and Juancho Hernangomez. And the Celtics go three deep at center with Robert Williams III, Enes Kanter and Al Horford, though Horford could see some minutes at the four as well.
That gives head coach Ime Udoka a lot to figure out — there’s still a question as to who will start and at least a couple of the aforementioned players will be on the outside looking in on the rotation — but it’s a good problem to have.
Bold prediction: Raptors will have a top-five defense
Two seasons ago, the Raptors were one of the most feared defensive teams in the league.
Last season? Not so much.
After finishing second in defensive efficiency in 2019-20, the Raptors slipped all the way down to 15th in 2020-21 despite having mostly the same personnel. They struggled to end possessions, spent more than half of the season figuring out their center rotation and didn’t look nearly as in-sync as they did the season prior.
This season, the Raptors are primed to shut teams down again. It starts with Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Siakam, each of whom are All-Defensive caliber of players, but the Raptors have put together one of the most interesting teams in the league by loading up on players between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 who have massive wingspans and can defend multiple positions. Barnes adds to their versatility, as does Precious Achiuwa.
Head coach Nick Nurse said at Media Day that he plans to use more zone this season to make the most of their size and length. It also sounds like the Raptors will do more switching.
“We believe in ball pressure,” Nurse said. “We believe in trying to get into the basketball and we think that letting people handle the ball with freedom and ease is not something we want to do. We want to try to be disruptive. I think all the same sized guys a lot of the time gives you a lot more switching to do… And I also think that all the length should enable us to play a lot more zone.”
Cracking the top five in defensive efficiency is an admittedly difficult task, but if everything goes to plan, the Raptors should be in the mix. And who knows, it could be Toronto’s key back into playoff contention.
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