Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, NBA, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors

The most interesting players in the NBA’s Atlantic Division

With the 2019-20 NBA season less than a month away, we’re exploring the most interesting players for each team in the Atlantic Division.

We’re now less than a month away from the start of the 2019-20 NBA season. Coming off one of the most interesting offseasons in recent memory, it feels like an appropriate time to dig into the situations surrounding some of the most interesting players in the league.

With that in mind, over the next few days, we’re going division by division and spotlighting the most interesting player on each team. Note that some teams will have more than one player if the situations are similar enough, but they’ll all get their appropriate shine.

Below, we begin with the Atlantic Division.

Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics

Two Septembers ago, the Celtics looked set up to contend for the next half-decade behind a Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward core, with a plethora of young lottery picks supporting them. Hayward’s injury just five minutes into his Celtics career changed all that, and Kyrie blew it all out of the water last season. Now, Hayward is the only one of that trio still in town.

Does he have it in him to give Kemba Walker the co-star he needs? Will the Celtics even count on him to be that type of player? There were murmurs last year that some of the younger Celtics were not thrilled that Hayward was being force-fed minutes and touches at their expense. With Irving and Horford out of town, the youngins presumably (and rightly) think they deserve more of the ball-handling, shot-creating, and clutch time responsibility this season than they had a year ago.

If they get it, what role does Hayward even have on that type of team? And is there any justification for prioritizing his future over that of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and anyone else the Celtics might have high hopes for?

Looming over all of the on-court stuff is the possibility that Hayward, in the final guaranteed year of his contract, could become a key trade piece for the Celtics. (Hayward is almost surely going to pick up his $34.2 million player option for next season, but this is the final guaranteed year.) His $32.7 million salary is tailor-made to be traded along with a low-salary prospect and picks for an actual star to help Walker and Tatum and/or Brown, and that’s definitely something to watch as we approach the February trade deadline.

Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets

Remember how unhappy Tatum, Brown, Terry Rozier, and every other non-Al Horford Celtic was playing second fiddle to Kyrie all of last season? Well, these guys are the new Young Celtics.

There were times last season when each of them looked like the Nets’ best player and a potential All-Star. LeVert was balling out of his mind early in the season before suffering what looked in the moment like a scary season-ending injury but ended up keeping him out for just three months. Dinwiddie picked up the slack in his absence, only for him to also get hurt and see D’Angelo Russell emerge as the driving force of the team while both of these guys were sidelined.

Now, Russell is gone, but Irving is in his place. The Russell-LeVert-Dinwiddie trio appeared in only 27 games together, with the Nets getting outscored by 36 points in 123 minutes. That’s not great. Irving is a better player than Russell and neither LeVert nor Dinwiddie was 100 percent for a bunch of those 123 minutes, but the fit between the three guys is just not all that clean.

Working in Brooklyn’s favor is that unlike Tatum and Brown, LeVert and Dinwiddie were not top-three picks and they did not lead a conference finals run last season. LeVert was a late first-rounder with injury concerns, and he’s been both inconsistent and injured for much of his NBA career. But he’s also not yet shown much utility as an off-ball weapon, which could make him an awkward fit with either Irving or Dinwiddie, let alone both. Dinwiddie was a second-round pick who was cast aside by multiple teams before breaking through in Brooklyn and should be comfortable as a secondary option. He also was a key recruiter of both Irving and Kevin Durant. But he, too, had a lot of success with the ball in his hands and will be in for some changes playing with Irving.

Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr., New York Knicks

Is any of these guys going to turn into an above-average NBA player? Have the Knicks already moved on in their hearts and minds from one or more of them? Does anything that has to do with the Knicks matter? Is this one of those “if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it” situations?

Knox was arguably the single worst rotation player in the league last season. Now, a lot of that was not his fault. He was a 19-year old score-first combo forward playing on the worst team in the league, in atrocious spacing with terrible point guard play. There was absolutely nothing that was made easy for him. When that happens, you’re going to stink. Most rookies stink anyway, even in good circumstances. But Knox clearly has a ways to go before he’s usable on a good team, and the Knicks added several players who can take minutes away from him, including No. 3 overall pick R.J. Barrett, who should clearly be prioritized over Knox at this point.

Nearly everybody thought the Knicks were going to trade Ntilikina during the draft. He was reportedly not the preferred selection of Steve Mills, and Scott Perry came on board after Frank was already on the team. He was a disaster offensively as a rookie and a sophomore, and the defensive feistiness he showed during his debut season was not there for much of last season. And that was when he wasn’t injured. He showed out for France in the FIBA World Cup and reminded people why he was a lottery pick in the first place, but the Knicks may or may not have a place in their future for him. Their decision on his fourth-year option needs to come early in the season, and it’s a fascinating one to watch given the relatively high salary that comes with it.

Smith was kind of a key piece in the Kristaps Porzingis trade, but he looked in New York to be much like the same player he did in Dallas, only with a higher usage rate and worse shooting numbers. The Knicks brought in Elfrid Payton this offseason, which is not exactly a vote of confidence in Smith’s ‘Point Guard of the Future’ status. He also has a fourth-year option decision coming up, and it may be even more interesting to watch than Ntilikina’s, given the wealth of point guard talent available in next year’s draft.

Josh Richardson, Philadelphia 76ers

Richardson has the unenviable task of essentially replacing both J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler. He’s going to guard the best perimeter player on the opposing team and he’s going to be inserted in a whole lot of dribble handoff action with Joel Embiid. He’s going to run the occasional pick-and-roll when Ben Simmons is off the floor and he’s going to be counted on to space things out when Simmons has the ball in his hands.

The Sixers should be pretty incredible defensively due to the presence of Embiid, Simmons, Richardson, and especially Al Horford; but things are going to be a bit awkward at times just due to all the size they have. Simmons tends to struggle with shifty jitterbug point guard types. Neither Embiid nor Horford should ideally be guarding on the perimeter instead of near the rim. Tobias Harris is generally a defensive minus.

Richardson is going to have to carry a big burden, guarding all types of players depending on with whom he is sharing the floor. He should prove up to the challenge. He was a bit miscast for some of last season as an offensive initiator in Miami, but playing with a bunch of stars — two of whom are passing savants — should suit him quite nicely. We’re going to get to the playoffs and a wider national audience is going to fall in love with this guy’s game.

OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

This time last year, “OG Anunoby is the Raptors’ best young prospect” was a totally reasonable opinion to have, and it was an extremely popular one around the league. Pascal Siakam‘s glow-up blew that idea out of the water, while Anunoby himself had a bit of a lost season, even as the Raps marched to their first title.

Anunoby’s father passed away early in the season, and he was pretty open about his play having been affected in the weeks after he returned to the lineup. That’s a tragedy that was completely uncontrollable, and it’s entirely understandable that there was a spill-over effect on the court.

Still, he eventually regained his footing as a solid rotation player, working as a backup combo forward behind Siakam and Kawhi Leonard. And then he had to get an emergency appendectomy the day before the Raptors’ first playoff game. He was inactive until Game 2 of the Finals, and he didn’t appear in any of the five games for which he suited up.

Next: Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25

Anunoby was not a regular in Nick Nurse’s starting lineup the way he was in Dwane Casey’s as a rookie, but perhaps that will change now that Leonard is with the Clippers. He’s still a very strong defender who can handle himself across multiple positions. He can still knock down catch-and-shoot 3s, especially from the corners. He’s still a smart cutter and someone willing and able to get out on the break and make things happen. Those skills don’t just go away after one challenging season.

The Raptors seem unlikely to lean hard into a tank-job unless they’re either besieged by injuries or extremely unsuccessful out of the gates, given that they are defending their first-ever title. If they’re going to make a run back to the playoffs, Anunoby will presumably be a big part of it.

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