Nylon Calculus: 15 season predictions for the Eastern Conference

Joel Embiid, James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid, James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /
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Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports /

With Opening Night hours away, here are 15 NBA season predictions for the Eastern Conference, one for each and every team.

In preparation for tonight’s tip, these are 15 predictions on the upcoming season for the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. The only requirement is that each prediction is measurable so we can all look back and laugh in April. Starting with the Atlantic Division…

Boston Celtics finish in the top five league-wide in offense and defense

This organization can’t do anything the simple way it seems. To reach the NBA Finals a year ago, they had to start the season 17-19. And then, a few weeks before the most anticipated Celtic season in at least a decade, news broke that they had lost their head coach to a full-season suspension.

And maybe this season will be consistent with that theme? On paper, the Celtics should be at least favorites or co-favorites to return to the biggest stage and represent the Eastern Conference — they’ve maintained their championship core and added veteran talent in the form of Danilo Gallinari (tore his ACL shortly thereafter) and Malcolm Brogdon.

Last year, the Celtics were the league’s best defense, allowing a stingy 106 points per 100 possessions. To compliment, they climbed to the league’s 10th-best offense after going nuclear from New Year’s to Easter, a stretch of 46 games in which their offensive rating catapulted to 118.

It would appear that there is no manner to accurately predict where this team will end up, but I’m going to throw all of the off-the-floor extracurriculars aside and look at the fundamentals. The Celtics were both a top-five offense and defense for the majority of last season, they have a 24-year-old certified two-way star at one of the most important positions in basketball, and they also added additional depth to a roster that reached the Finals in June.

Even with Ime Udoka’s suspension and Jaylen Brown rumored to have been included in yet another trade rumor, I’m betting this team doubles down on what it learned during the final stretch of last season.

Brooklyn Nets win less than 50 games in the regular season

It’s nice getting this one out of the way early because trying to project what will happen at the Barclay’s Center over the next eight months has to be among the gutsiest endeavors imaginable for those of us consumed by the point at which math meets the National Basketball Association. There are so many hypothetical-but-real events that have occurred in the past sixth months that the “too long; didn’t read” cliff notes can be summarized as there very much was (and to some degree, still is) a non-zero possibility that not one of the team’s three All-Stars would be in a Nets uniform this year.

And yet, we’ve made it to mid-October and now we get to see what a Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving-Ben Simmons basketball team looks like in practice. To set the stage: I’m as bullish on this team as almost anyone can be in terms of basketball fit and the potential for their chemistry to sing from the opening tip. Of all the ways this rendition may be undone, I believe the most likely is the same that has hurt the Nets’ championship chances during the entire Durant-Irving era: injuries. Of the possible 246 games that this trio could have played last season, they only managed 84 (33 percent).

That’s a spooky statistic.

But one perspective that’s lost in the discourse of this Brooklyn basketball team is just how solid the core around their All-Star trio is. Joe Harris is returning from injury; Seth Curry, Patty Mills, Royce O’Neale, and T.J. Warren each provide a specialty that fits well with the star talent on the roster; and Nic Claxton has had another year to develop as essentially the lone center on this team. In theory, these Nets are built to compete with the league’s best teams. And that’s what I think they’ll do, eventually. Just not during the regular season.

New York Knicks lose at least 50 games in the regular season

Two seasons ago, the Tom Thibodeau Knicks surprised the basketball world by winning 41 games and clinching home-court advantage in their first-round series. While the Knicks lost that series 4-1 it gave the basketball world pause. Was this Knicks team on the right trajectory with a misfit group of players and a defensively-consumed head coach?

The answer came quickly and conclusively a year ago when the Knicks (with largely the same roster) began the season 17-19. Partly, this is due to the resurgence of the East over the last couple of seasons — there are very few “gimme” games. But it mostly has to do with the reality that this roster isn’t NBA-caliber.

Despite the addition of Jalen Brunson and the extension of R.J. Barrett (who is one of the most league’s intriguing young players), I expect this Knicks team to continue to descend into mediocrity. In 2020-21 they won 41 games, and in 2021-22 they won 37 games. I expect they go lower this year.

Philadelphia 76ers are a top-three defense league-wide

Well, here we go Sixer fans. This is the year that most have been waiting for since The Process began over a decade ago. There were some years for optimism, the Jimmy Butler campaign being chief among them, but the Sixers haven’t had this talented and deep of a team since the 1980s.

There’s a lot to like about the Sixers: the roster is switchable (a Daryl Morey staple), they have strengths on both sides of the ball, they’re led by an MVP candidate who’s dominant on both ends of the floor at the league’s most impactful two-way position, and they have a mix of veteran and young talent that should prove valuable if and when they reach the postseason.

Having a proven general manager helps a lot when attempting to make the leap from a playoff lock to a championship contender. Over the offseason, the Sixers added Montreal Harrell as the now-best backup center in the league, and PJ Tucker and Danuel House Jr. as proven two-way wings to round out the Joel Embiid-James Harden-Tyrese Maxey core. As a result, Philadelphia can play different styles depending on their opponent — they can match up against big teams that have an inside presence or play “small ball” stretches against opponents with strong guard play.

Last season, the Sixers were the 11th-best defense with a 111 defensive rating. That number dropped slightly in the second half of the season following the Harden-Simmons swap and lull prior to postseason play, but it commands more attention than just an end-of-season shoulder shrug. Prior to making the moves to add Harrell, Tucker, and House, the 76ers were a little short on defensive talent. Trading Simmons — a Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the remainder of the 2020s — is one factor, but Embiid’s continued workload and injury problems are another. Matisse Thybulle is a certified All-Defense player, but his offense hasn’t gotten to the professional level requisite to play 30-plus minutes a night. These additions make Philadelphia into a defensive juggernaut and are a smart play given Embiid’s unique defensive presence inside.

If the 76ers want to be the East’s best team when things are all said and done, they’ll need to be elite on the defensive end. And that’s what I think they’ll do.

Toronto Raptors are a top-five defense, just behind divisional opponents in Boston and Philadelphia

There’s a very legitimate possibility that four teams from this division escape the play-in tournament as the top six seeds in the conference. That shows how deep the Atlantic is and how seriously opponents should take this Toronto team.

Throwing out the 2020-21 Tampa Bay season (because there still hasn’t been a plausible explanation for that performance), the Raptors have been one of the best franchises in basketball since Nick Nurse took over as coach. Last season, the absences of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam were enough to render the team mediocre.

Now, with both healthy, and a year of confidence under Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes’ belt, Toronto is looking to return to the perch where they had sat in 2019 as NBA Champions. They may not be in the top tier of the conference, but no team wants to face the Raptors at full strength.

This team’s identity has always been defense first. They were the 10th-best group on that side of the floor last season and allowed only 112 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break. Given the difficulties with the move to Tampa two seasons ago and the disruption due to injury last year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Raptors improve upon their already stellar defense. And to be among the best, they’ll need to match their division rivals in Boston and Philadelphia.

(Zooming out, the 2022-23 Atlantic division may be the best collection of defensive talent in the modern era.)