The first game of the 2022-23 NBA regular season will pit a pair of East contenders and division rivals against each other as the 76ers pay a visit to Boston to face the Celtics, fresh off of a Finals appearance.
Those two are the favorites in the division, alongside the mercurial but talented Nets, with the Raptors hoping to factor into the race for homecourt in the East playoffs and the Knicks hoping to return to the postseason this year. In order to reach those goals, each has their own hurdles to clear and here we will highlight the one (non-injury related) question that looms largest as the season gets set to begin.
Boston Celtics: How does Joe Mazzulla handle their center rotation?
The Celtics’ offseason, like a number of others around the league, went from brimming with optimism about this season to a mild disaster with haste once Ime Udoka was suspended for the year for an inappropriate relationship with a staffer. Joe Mazzulla steps up into the lead chair on the bench and while the Celtics have tons of talent and amplified that with the addition of Malcolm Brogdon this offseason, there is one area that will require the most finesse from the coaching staff, and that is at center. With Robert Williams out for a month-plus (at least) due to knee surgery and then likely needing at least some rest spots throughout the year as he works his way back, the Celtics are going to be thin at center.
Al Horford will move into the starting lineup, but at 36, you don’t want to wear him down too much in the regular season, and behind him the only center on the roster is Luke Kornet. So finding ways to go small with Grant Williams, Blake Griffin, and others, and just generally navigating the regular season rotation with some guys who are older and your best defensive presence in the paint working back from injury will be the tallest order for Mazzulla and the staff.
Brooklyn Nets: What will Ben Simmons look like after a year off?
I just kind of stared at this one for five minutes trying to figure out where to even begin with the Nets, but I’ll go to what I think is the biggest on-court question, which is Ben Simmons and what he looks like coming back from sitting out a year. The Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving sagas will be talking points all year, but in their defense, when they play, they’re almost always great — it’s just a matter of keeping them on the floor, which is a bigger issue for Irving than KD. So, from a basketball perspective, I don’t worry too much about how those two play, but Simmons is a much bigger mystery.
In theory, he should be a great connective piece, capable of running a second unit surrounded by shooters if needed. He’s a terrific and versatile defender, an elite transition player, and a very good passer and cutter in the halfcourt. All of those things on paper make a ton of sense on this team, but as is always the case with Simmons, the questions are less about the tangible skillset and more about how he applies that to the court. He showed flashes of brilliance in the preseason, along with some turnover prone outings, and how he plays consistently could very well determine just how much of a threat they are at the top of the East.
New York Knicks: Can Julius Randle get back close to his 2020-21 form?
The big addition in New York is Jalen Brunson, and RJ Barrett was the recipient of a new extension, but for me the Knicks success hinges on the play of Julius Randle, who enjoyed a breakout All-Star campaign in 2020-21 before taking a step back last year (along with the team as a whole). The concern after Randle’s breakout year was always it being an outlier, as he had never shot the ball that well before (41.1 percent from three after being a career 29.5 percent shooter prior) and saw a massive dip in efficiency last year (41.1 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from three).
Brunson should help as Randle and the Knicks have desperately been lacking a point guard who can control the game and setup others, and that should help getting Randle some better looks. Still, Randle is this offense’s hub, even if some of that pressure is alleviated by Barrett’s emergence and Brunson’s addition, and if they’re going to bounce back he has to as well. I don’t expect him to return to All-Star form, but he does need to be closer to that if the Knicks are going to be in the playoff conversation in the East.
Philadelphia 76ers: Can Tyrese Maxey and James Harden be one of the NBA’s elite backcourts?
The Sixers believe they are title contenders and have good reason to be confident, most notably because of the presence of Joel Embiid as a perennial MVP candidate. That said, Embiid’s been playing at an elite level for some time and the problem has been finding the right backcourt opposite his frontcourt dominance. Philly believes they’ve solved that with James Harden and Tyrese Maxey.
A year ago had this been the roster, the question would be about Maxey’s ability to hold up his end of the bargain, but he burst on the scene in a big way last year and looks primed for another step this year into potential stardom. Maxey became not just a terrific slasher and attacker last year, but a tremendous shooter at 42.7 percent from deep. He’s continued to show that range in the preseason and it appears he might just be an all-around star who breaks into that next level this season.
That’s what James Harden once was as well, but he showed signs of slowing down last year and the former MVP now has to prove he is not, as Charles Barkley worries, cooked. Harden had a dismal postseason that followed some regular season struggles with efficiency (40.2/32.6/89.6 shooting splits in 21 games with the Sixers), and has plenty to prove about his ability to still be an elite offensive factor. The good news is with Maxey’s emergence and Embiid’s presence, Harden doesn’t have to be the end-all, be-all for a team anymore, but whether he can evolve into a secondary piece again remains to be seen. How Harden and Maxey play off each other, while keeping the big fella as the focal point, will be decisive in how far this team can go.
Toronto Raptors: Does Scottie Barnes have another leap in him?
The Raptors are mostly the same group coming back this season, which means they’re once again banking on internal development to push them further. The good news is they have a great track record of doing just that and a few candidates for continued growth. Chief among them is Scottie Barnes, as last year’s Rookie of the Year has people around the league believing he’s on the brink of full-blown superstardom. Barnes is an elite defender already, and showed more in his offensive repertoire a year ago than many believed he would coming out of Florida State.
Still, that’s where Barnes’ biggest area of improvement is needed, as he is a terrific finisher but not a particularly good shooter. Barnes shot 30.2 percent from three last year and was under 40 percent from the midrange as well. If the Raptors are to open up their halfcourt offense more, they need more shooting and Barnes is a prime candidate for where that comes from. That’s easier said than done, but given his jump from college to his rookie year offensively, he certainly seems like the type of player who just might be able to fully tap into his immense potential.