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What’s Next for James Harden and the 76ers?

For the last two years, James Harden has grown tired of being James Harden. In Houston, he didn’t merely drive the bus; he was the bus. With the ball in his hands, he practically turned basketball into an individual sport, distilling all the ball and body movement that you would ordinarily expect into a single one-on-one matchup against his defender. Despite all the mewling that he was a flopping eyesore, he was great at this—his 2015-2021 stretch ranks as one of the single greatest offensive runs in basketball history. Sizing up his guy for eight seconds, watching the help defenders gird themselves to help at the rim, somehow creating a coherent offensive attack from nothing more than his own savvy and talent like Zeus sprouting Athena from his forehead: James Harden is so sick of that shit. 

Since his radical micro-ball Rockets team was bounced from the Bubble, basketball’s preeminent soloist has been in search of a band. Once spend-thrift owner Tilman Fertita axed just about every smart person in the organization to raid the franchise’s coffers to pay off his Rainforest Cafe debts, Harden strong-armed his way into a trade to Brooklyn. There, he imagined, he’d be able to play a less taxing style of basketball alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He was right, kind of: during Harden’s 16 games alongside Durant and Irving, the Nets went 13-3 and scored 129.1 points per possession. And then Kyrie Irving did his own research. And then Kevin Durant got hurt. Once again, Harden was tasked with single-handedly hauling a threadbare supporting cast towards respectability and demanded a trade to Philadelphia, where MVP candidate Joel Embiid would presumably allow Harden to kick his feet up a little.

Now, Embiid is hurt and Harden is the begrudging lodestar for the Sixers. This is objectively funny—Harden has morphed into basketball’s Karl Havoc, gleefully creating situations for himself only to later realize he doesn’t want to be around anymore. Still, the problem isn’t so much that Harden has to temporarily revert to a previous super ball-dominant version of himself; it’s that he can’t. 

Whereas Harden was a bursty, untamable ball-handler as recently as last season, he now moves with the urgency and speed of a dad playing Marco Polo with his kids. He can’t beat defenders off the dribble; he can’t jump high or far enough to earn clean looks at the rim. The thing that made Harden such a singularly dominant scorer wasn’t just that he was a tricky player who could outsmart refs and defenses alike, but that he was able to combine that guile with the strength and athleticism of a more traditional two-guard. In this sense, Harden has reached the current-day Rudy Giuliani stage of his career, having lost the power that made people care about him in the first place; there’s nothing left for him besides the grift. 

To be sure, Harden is still a great player. He exists within that special stratosphere of stars where averaging 20ish points and 10ish assists per game is disappointing. In Game One against the Miami Heat, Harden was completely unable to assert himself, putting up a quiet 16 points and five assists. Worse, Harden managed a meager four points and two assists in the second half, thoroughly stumped by the Heat’s army of long, physical wings.

He couldn’t glide backwards into a step–back three because his defender was sitting on that move and denying him a clean release; he couldn’t punish overaggressive perimeter defense by exploding to the rim because his legs don’t work that way anymore.  A basketball genius, Harden consistently made the right play in response to Miami’s defensive tactics; it was just that the right play was often to passively cycle the ball to a teammate rather than do stuff himself.

The playoffs have always been cruel and revealing for Harden, but his struggles feel distinctly different than his previous flameouts. Previously, Harden has lost in the playoffs because he’s unable to seize on the same marginal advantages that he could reap in the regular season—the defenders contest his jumpers just a little more tightly, the refs become ever more reluctant to give Harden a friendly whistle. Now, though, it feels like the end—or, alternately, the beginning—of something.

The defining tension of his next few years will be how gracefully he handles the transition from being the guy to simply being a guy. As part of a larger constellation of talent, Harden is the kind of passer who can have a multiplicative effect on the talents of his teammates; despite his individual shortcomings as a scorer, Harden still boosts Philly’s offense by more than 12 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. In particular, he’s empowered Joel Embiid to become a serious pick-and-roll threat for the first time in his career. 

There’s no doubt that Harden will continue to be a very good player for a long time, but there’s uncertainty of what shape or valence that goodness will assume. It’s not possible anymore for him to Norman Bombardini his way through games, consuming so many possessions that he eventually transforms into an offensive universe unto himself. But it’s also probably a waste for him to recede into the background and take a backseat to Tobias Harris. Philly won’t lose their series because of Harden’s awkward fit—they’ll probably lose no matter what if Embiid is out. But the fate of the franchise and all the outsized narrative importance that accompanies it will be determined by James Harden’s ability to reconcile no longer being James Harden.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From November 22nd-28th

Even amidst unusual change, there’s a tendency for things to return to normal; the chaos of the day-to-day of the NBA season eventually smooths away with time. The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, last year’s NBA Finals matchup, appear to be on an early track for a Finals rematch. Joel Embiid made his return to action and picked up where he left off. And lastly, we witnessed another example of how arrogant fans can be. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action!

The Suns’ winning streak is now at 16!
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While pundits and fans may harp on aesthetics and style points, true contenders are content to win by any means necessary. The Phoenix Suns are a proud member of the latter group, given the wide variety of recent victories that comprised ongoing 16-game winning streak.

Whether it’s blowing out teams (Knicks) or winning in the last minutes (Spurs and Nets), the Suns aren’t apologizing for how they win and are more focused on what’s ahead of them: a huge primetime matchup against the 18-2 Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.

Anthony Edwards is on track to become a superstar
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Although most fans would expect a No. 1 overall pick to have the potential to become a superstar, it doesn’t make it less exciting when their potential is producing at a high level. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Edwards, is becoming a nightly highlight reel for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Alongside averaging 22 points, six rebounds, and nearly four assists per game in his second NBA season, Edwards offers energy and gamesmanship, which have helped drive the Timberwolves’ improvement this season. And besides his magnificent dunks, Edwards provides valuable intangibles—such as his leadership and clutchness—that were overlooked before he arrived in the league.

Joel Embiid’s absence didn’t bother him during his return
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Before missing nine games because he tested positive for COVID-19, Joel Embiid was beginning to find his rhythm as he lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a 7-2 record to start this season. And while a three-week absence would harm most players, last season’s MVP runner-up didn’t miss a beat in his return to action last Saturday night.

Despite the 76ers’ double-overtime loss to the Timberwolves, Embiid posted 42 points and 14 rebounds, reminding the league just how dominant he can be. Even at Embiid’s level of stardom, few players possess his combination of impact and production that can vault their team into contention.

Once again, fans cross the line for no other reason than being selfish
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Even though most interactions between players and fans aren’t harmful, there are times where a line gets crossed. Last Wednesday, during the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers game, LeBron James asked for two fans to be removed from their courtside seats due to offensive comments they made towards him.

And while there hasn’t been confirmation of what the fans said to James, the fact they got removed (and almost received a lifetime ban from attending NBA games) proves the need to improve fan behavior further. Regardless of who you are and the location of your seats, fans must remember they have to abide by the high standard that’s in place for spectators at these events. It’s an embarrassment to everyone involved when situations like this happen.

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Sports Strength

Tyrese Maxey Is Putting The NBA On Notice

Amid the Ben Simmons saga, combo guard Tyrese Maxey has rightfully earned the starting point guard job for the Philadelphia 76ers. The speedy guard from Kentucky is averaging 17.6 points, 4.6 assists, and 3.6 rebounds throughout the early parts of the 2021-2022 season.

Maxey has not only increased his scoring output by nine points per game from his rookie season so far, but his efficiency has skyrocketed too; in just his second year, Maxey is knocking on the door of the fabled 50/40/90 club.

He’s also played in every single game, averaging 35 minutes per tilt, and has tallied four games of 40 minutes or more. Numbers aside, Maxey looks comfortable, confident, and everything like the scoring guard the Sixers needed when they selected him 21st overall in the 2020 NBA Draft.

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Even though the Sixers have lost four straight, it’s been no fault of Maxey, a player proving capable of running point guard on a winning NBA squad. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Maxey is an exceptional talent who gained experience wearing a number of different hats during his amateur career.

At Kentucky, Maxey played with Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans, two ball dominant guards. There were times when Maxey brought the ball up and ran the offense, and times when he had to play off the ball and hit shots off of the catch. This is one of the many reasons that he’s confident doing the likes of both things for the Sixers.

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Additionally, his ability to make three-pointers off the dribble this season is a large reason why his scoring has increased. Last year, he only shot 30 percent from three, and hardly took shots off the bounce. Now, he’s shooting 41 percent from deep on a high degree of difficulty—this year, 42 percent of Maxey’s threes are unassisted, compared to only about 20 percent of them last year. By adding pull-up attempts to his game, Maxey opens up more driving lanes for himself. It’s safe to say that part of his progress this year can be attributed to his insane work ethic.

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After back-to-back 30 point games and a 24-point outing against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday, Maxey joined elite Sixers company by scoring at least 88 points during a three-game span—Jrue Holiday, Jerry Stackhouse and Allen Iverson are the only others to do so. While he certainly has a long way to go before he can be in the same sentence as someone like Bubba Chuck, Tyrese Maxey has certainly been a bundle of joy for the Sixers so far this season.

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Sports Strength

These 5 Sixers Players Must Improve In These Areas

The time has come to focus on simply basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers. The off-seasons distractions and prima donna bullshit will take a back seat when the Sixers visit New Orleans for their season opener against the Pelicans tonight.

The Sixers went 2-2 during the pre-season, as Doc Rivers and company likely got a feel for where minutes will be allocated amid Ben Simmons’ absence. More likely than not, we’re going to see a variety of line-ups from the Sixers this season. Whether that’ll mean starting Tyrese Maxey at point guard one night, Furkan Korkmaz (yes, Furkan Korkmaz) or Shake Milton at the one another night, or even Simmons, it’s safe to say that we won’t be seeing the same look night-in and night-out from this team.

Rather than discussing who should start, I think it makes more sense to go over the most important players on the 76ers, and what they need to improve on for the team to be where they want to be.

Joel Embiid – Limiting Turnovers & Leadership
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Embiid enters the 2020-2021 season in a prime position to author an encore to his MVP caliber campaign last year. The Sixers star big-man is coming off of his best season, posting career highs in points, shooting percentages across the board, as well as steals. With the best record in the East to show for it, the Sixers need to center the offense around Embiid and his dominant skill-set night in and night out. Expect the Sixers to call plays for Embiid on the low block and high post, while involving him in many pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops as well, in what should be another MVP type season from the 27 year-old superstar.

To become truly unstoppable, Embiid needs to be better at limiting turnovers, especially while being double-teamed. Even though he has improved at doing so, he must continue to make the right decisions when teams throw double teams at him. Embiid averaged a career low in turnovers during the regular season, but averaged a career high in turnovers during the playoffs.

As the best player, Embiid needs to become more of a vocal leader. When things were going poorly against the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs, every Sixer seemed to have their head down. There was no one rallying the troops, or screaming in timeouts when necessary. You see that type of leader on all of the championship teams: Giannis, Steph, LeBron, etc. Embiid needs to emulate them for the Sixers to reach their potential.

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Tobias Harris – Dirty Work & Leadership
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Tobias Harris is one of the most scrutinized players on the Sixers, with many people believing he hasn’t lived up to the $180 million contract he signed in 2019. Amidst all that scrutiny, though, he actually posted the best season of his Philly tenure last year by significantly upping his true shooting percentage from 55.6 percent to 59.7 percent. Still, Harris has a tendency to shrink in the biggest moments, notable shooting horribly during Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks, and disappearing entirely during their Game 5 defeat as well.

Now more than ever, the Sixers need Harris to score 20 points a game, and he’s proven to be good for it. And while Harris has never had problems getting buckets, he has a hard time impacting games in other ways. As such, to fill the likely Ben Simmons-sized hole in the lineup, Harris needs to play with more energy and effort, particularly on the defensive end.

Seth Curry – Leadership & Defense
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As a UNC fan, I was kind of irked by the Sixers signing a former Dookie Blue Devil before the 2020-2021 season; now, it’s no secret that Philly needs the sharpshooting of Seth Curry in their offense. Last postseason, Curry shot like a man possessed, averaging 18.4 points per game while maintaining an incredible clip of 50% from three-point range. Since the Sixers have enough options to handle playmaking duties, Curry can continue to do what he does best: move without the ball and make shots. While he’s adept at working his own mid-range game, he’s best used when spacing the floor our playmakers and big men.

As a key contributor to their limited playoff success last season, Curry should assume more of a vocalized leadership role this year as well. As someone who stepped up when it mattered most last year, he’s won the respect of those in the locker room and should take advantage of that for the sake of a team that doesn’t really have a one at the moment.

Additionally, while Curry will never be an elite perimeter defender, there’s no reason he should get torched by Kevin Huerter like he was in the playoffs. Since Curry is such an integral part of the Sixers’ offense, he must do everything in his power to hold his own on defense, and make opposing players uncomfortable.

Matisse Thybulle – Discipline & Shooting
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The stock of Matisse Thybulle is rising. Thybulle, a third-year swingman, made the All-NBA 2nd defensive team last season, and lead the Olympics in steals this past summer while playing a key role for Australia. His action during the pre-season was limited due to shoulder soreness, but he’s expected to play a big role for the Sixers this season as a lockdown defender. Thybulle is long, athletic and has great instincts on that end of the floor, even if he can be reckless at times.

For Thybulle to take the next step in evolving into an elite defender in this league, he needs to find the right balance between discipline and aggressiveness; his instincts are what make him one of the most disruptive defenders in the NBA, but he needs to understand how to operate within the structure of the team while not get pulled out of position and into foul trouble. If he can maintain what makes him such a special talent while reining in his rashness, he will earn more minutes and could easily make First Team All-Defense.

Offensively, Thybulle regressed in his three-point percentage during his sophomore season, so becoming reliable from beyond the arc will also allow him to have more playing this season.

Tyrese Maxey – Defense & Shooting
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Many thought that Tyrese Maxey slid too far in the 2020 NBA Draft. After watching his rookie season, it’s hard to disagree. Maxey, along with Thybulle, will vie to be the top option off the bench for the Sixers this year, thanks to his ability to score and penetrate the lane relatively well. Doc Rivers also trusted the 21 year-old guard out of Kentucky to play vital minutes during Philly’s win in Game 6 of the Atlanta Hawks series. His energy and charisma have also made Maxey a fan favorite in the city of Brotherly Love.

Maxey will be asked to shoulder a larger load this season as he becomes more comfortable as a facilitator. In that case, he’ll have improve at keeping ball-handlers in front of him on defense, while improving his consistency from three-point range as well.

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Sports Strength

Unpacking the Ben Simmons News: It Isn’t His Fault

Ben Simmons, the NBA’s enfant terrible, has been suspended by the Philadelphia 76ers for the season opener for “conduct detrimental to the team.” Since returning from his extended hold-out last week, Simmons has been noticeably apathetic in practice. A quick recap of this week’s Ben Simmons news: yesterday, he loafed through a drill with his phone in his pocket, proof that, ironically, he isn’t exactly dialed in for this season; today he was dismissed from practice after refusing to participate in a defensive drill.

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“At the end of the day,” Joel Embiid said to reporters after practice, “our job is not to babysit somebody.”

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I wonder who he’s talking about.

This outcome—Ben Simmons openly not giving a shit and everybody getting super mad at him—is unsurprising; Simmons has warned the Sixers that he would be insolent and difficult if they don’t trade him and now he’s being insolent and difficult. It’s understandable to criticize Simmons for demanding a trade in such a disruptive way, but Simmons and his agent Rich Paul are hardly breaking precedent by doing so; Simmons isn’t the first superstar to request a trade and he won’t be the last. Last winter, James Harden skipped training camp to go to strip clubs with Lil Baby and loafed through regular season games; in 2018, Jimmy Butler bullied his way out of Minnesota

Moreover, it’s unreasonable to get furious at Simmons because he’s sad and unhappy; he’s allowed to be sad and unhappy. 

In this sense, the ongoing disaster in Philly is simply a result of the Sixers’ refusal to trade Simmons, let alone engage in good faith negotiations with other teams. The only impediment to ending the stand-off is the ego of Darryl Morey, the Sixers’ general manager. Nobody wants Simmons to continue to be a Sixer—and yet he is and he will be for the foreseeable future because Morey can’t stomach the idea that he might trade away a player with a higher EPM than the ones he gets in return. 

The strangest thing about the ordeal is that there’s no reason this should’ve become so toxic in the first place. When Simmons is on the floor, the Sixers are obviously better than when he’s not. Even if the fit seems aesthetically clunky at times, Embiid and Simmons are one of the best duos in the NBA; in their 1,479 minutes together last season, they posted a net rating of +16.44 points per 100 possessions, per PBP Stats. As such, the main motivating force behind Simmons’ trade demand is the Sixers’ utter self-sabotage. Somehow, the team has alienated Simmons so thoroughly that years of toiling in Sacramento or Minneapolis suddenly seem more appealing than contending for a championship.

The whole thing is such a nonsensical clown show that it’s almost stopped being funny. 

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Sports Strength

The 10 Best Win Total Bets For The 2021-2022 NBA Season

There’s no better time of year for sports degenerates than October. MLB playoffs are in full swing, contenders are separating from the pretenders in the NFL, the NHL season is beginning and, most important, basketball is back. After a flurry of off-season moves, the NBA hierarchy has been restructured. Here are five teams that will exceed expectations—and five teams that will bust.

Busts 

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Philadelphia 76ers: 

Key additions: Andre Drummond, Georges Niang 

Key losses: Ben Simmons (???), George Hill

Win Totals Over/Under: 50.5

No team in the NBA had a more painful off-season than the 76ers. In a protracted saga that felt like watching a toddler argue with their parents, Ben Simmons completely ghosted the franchise before returning this week without telling anybody. With the status of their all-star guard in flux, the Sixers may struggle to start the year. This team is still good enough to make the playoffs, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to reach the same level that made them the East’s top seed last year. Unless—until?—a trade suitor comes for Ben Simmons, it will be a long season in Philadelphia.

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Dallas Mavericks: 

Key additions: Reggie Bullock, Sterling Brown 

Key losses: Jason Richardson 

Win Totals Over/Under: 48.5

Boasting a borderline MVP candidate in Luka Doncic, the expectations for the Mavericks get higher and higher every off-season. The problem with the Mavericks’ off-season moves is that they stayed too complacent. Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis’s relationship seems to be degenerating by the day. Worse, Dallas hired Jason Kidd as head coach. Granted, Kidd played a major role in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s development, but his coaching style has been described as “psychological warfare” and his ultra-aggressive defensive scheme in Milwaukee has fallen out of style. In a deep Western Conference, the Mavs could struggle to avoid the play-in tournament.

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Phoenix Suns: 

Key additions: JaVale McGee, Elfrid Payton, Chandler Hutchinson 

Key losses: Torrey Craig, Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway 

Win Totals Over/Under: 51.5

The Suns’ NBA Finals run last postseason was electric—despite the fortunate fact that they didn’t play one fully healthy Western Conference team. In the Finals, though, their fatal smallness was exposed by a huge and physical Milwaukee Bucks team. Although the Suns bulked up their frontcourt by adding Javale McGee, their 51.5 over/under win total is overly ambitious, now that the rest of West have had time to heal.

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Charlotte Hornets:

Key additions: Kelly Oubre Jr, Ish Smith, Mason Plumlee, James Bouknight 

Key losses: Devonte’ Graham, Malik Monk, Cody Zeller, Caleb Martin, Grant Riller 

Win Totals Over/Under: 38.5

The Hornets made a splash last season by almost making the playoffs but ultimately lost in a play-in game. LaMelo Ball has taken the league by storm and the rest of the team’s young core will continue to improve alongside him; the problem is that the East has, as a whole, significantly improved, too. As such, the Hornets should occupy a position similar to last year and get into the play-in tournament.

New Orleans Pelicans: 

Key additions: Jonas Valanciunas, Devonte Graham 

Key losses: Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams 

Win Totals Over/Under: 39.5

The Pelicans have struggled mightily since the departure of Anthony Davis. Losing key rotational guards in Bledsoe and Ball, the Pelicans will be hard-pressed to run the fast break as effectively as they have in the past. New Orleans is doing everything it can to keep Zion with them, but it feels like they’re making all the wrong moves. If another disappointing season is in store, expect Zion to be on the move in a short time. 

Boom

Chicago Bulls: 

Key additions: Demar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Derrick Jones Jr., Tony Bradley, Troy Brown Jr. 

Key losses: Thadeus Young, Tomas Satoransky, Lauri Markkanen, Daniel Theis, Garrett Temple 

Win Totals Over/Under: 42.5

The Chicago Bulls have completely revamped their roster. Since taking over in 2020, Arturas Karnisovas has almost completely erased the mistakes of a Gar/Pax front office. This team is stacked with incredible wing defenders, great shooters and some of the highest flyers in the 

league. At their best, this Bulls team could contend for home-court advantage in the playoffs. The future is bright in Chicago.

Los Angeles Clippers: 

Key additions: Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Harry Giles 

Key losses: Patrick Beverly, Rajon Rondo 

Win Totals Over/Under: 45.5

The Clippers will be without their superstar forward Kawhi Leonard and many people have counted them out as a result. Still, the Clippers were able to reach the Western Conference Finals without Kawhi, behind a rejiggered five-out offense that should also help them generate regular season wins. LA has great wings and continuity, which will enable them to maintain their contender-status.

Toronto Raptors: 

Key additions: Goran Dragic, Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa 

Key losses: Kyle Lowry 

Win Totals Over/Under: 35.5

At first glance, the Toronto Raptors would seem to be entering the first year of an extended rebuild. Despite trading franchise legend Kyle Lowry, the Raptors are in a good position to return to the playoffs after last year’s listless, mediocre campaign in Tampa. This team is poised to be a top 10 defense in the league, a common recipe for regular season success. Hopefully Pascal Siakam will bounce back from a disappointing season and the Raptors can make some noise this season. 

Boston Celtics: 

Key additions: Dennis Schroder, Enes Kanter, Josh Richardson, Al Horford

Key losses: Kemba Walker, Tristan Thompson, Evan Fournier, Tacko Fall 

Win Totals Over/Under: 46.5

The conversation in the East is centered around the Bucks and the Nets, and that’s about it. As a result, a promising Celtics team has been lost in the shuffle. Jayson Tatum has shown constant improvement, and Jaylen Brown is really coming into his own as a scorer. With a chip on its shoulder after last year’s disappointing season, Boston has an intriguing combination of talent and motivation. Moreover, with Al Horford back in the fold, the team’s chemistry should be A1 from day one.

Atlanta Hawks: 

Key additions: Delon Wright, Gorgui Deng, Jalen Johnson 

Key losses: Kris Dunn, Tony Snell 

Win Totals Over/Under: 46.5

Despite a slow start to the season, the Hawks surged late in the year to make the Eastern Conference Finals, showing they can handle the pressure in the biggest moments, even in enemy territory. Buoyed by last year’s run, they’re poised, once again, to win the Southeastern Division. If Trae Young can insert himself in the MVP conversation, Atlanta will finish even higher.