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NBA PM: Most Important Player – Atlantic Division

With the regular season right around the corner, here are the Atlantic Division’s most important players.

Ben Nadeau profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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Following a crazy offseason, basketball has finally returned to television sets around the country. As of today, all 30 teams sit with an unscathed record – at least for a few more weeks, anyway. Until then, Basketball Insiders has another division-by-division breakdown in preparation for the 2017-18 campaign.

This series will take a look at the most vital player for every team and how those players will make an impact over the upcoming year. Today, the Central Division kicked things off – but now it’s time to travel up north to the Atlantic.

Boston Celtics – Kyrie Irving

Although Kyrie Irving hasn’t played a single game yet for the Boston Celtics, there’s little argument against him already being the team’s most important asset. After all, the Celtics traded away the beloved Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round draft pick just to acquire Irving – but if his stellar track record is any indication, he’ll be up for the new challenge.

With Boston, Irving will be the franchise’s top option offensively, a desire that motivated his surprise trade demand earlier this summer. He’ll need to replace Thomas’ 28.9 points per game, the third-highest average in 2016-17, but Irving’s advanced scoring abilities should thrive under head coach Brad Stevens. Irving can create his own shot or fire away from three-point range – he hit 40.1 percent from downtown last season – and that makes him a dangerous weapon from any spot on the court.

Last year, Irving averaged 25.9 points, 5.3 assists and 2.4 three-pointers per game during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ run to a third consecutive NBA Finals appearance. If Irving can put up similar statistics, the Celtics will become a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference throne next spring.

Philadelphia 76ers – Joel Embiid

Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Philadelphia 76ers own one of the NBA’s most exciting rosters but, undoubtedly, their success falls squarely on the shoulders on Joel Embiid. Last season, Embiid averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks per game at a 46.6 percent clip from the floor, starring both as a defensive anchor and an ideal three-point shooting big. He was the runaway leader for Rookie of the Year honors before an injury cut the season short after just 31 games and the 76ers quickly plummeted back down into the conference basement.

Now flanked by the No. 1 overall pick in back-to-back drafts – Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, the latter of which missed the entirety of the 2016-17 campaign – and sharp-shooter J.J. Redick, Embiid’s hybrid blend of skills have made Philadelphia a trendy underdog selection in the weakened Eastern Conference. However, it’s always difficult to discuss Embiid’s inherent influence on the court without also noting his extensive injury history as well. If Embiid avoids the trainer’s table, the sky’s the limit for Philadelphia; but if he gets hurt again, it could be back to square one.

Brooklyn Nets – D’Angelo Russell

D’Angelo Russell arrived in Brooklyn this summer with a chip on his shoulder and the keys to a new franchise. For the Los Angeles Lakers last season, Russell averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per game and he’s an obvious piece for the Nets to build their roster around moving forward. Alongside a slew of talented veterans like Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker and DeMarre Carroll, Russell should have plenty of opportunities to bloom in one of the league’s fastest offenses.

In fact, his dynamic backcourt pairing with Lin may just be Brooklyn’s most intriguing storyline headed into the 2017-18 campaign, but the two crafty guards should complement each other immensely. Additionally, Russell averaged 2.1 three-pointers per game last year at a 35.2 percent clip, an area in which the Nets desperately needed to improve. Ultimately, Russell could reward the Nets’ tortured fan base with some much-needed hope for the future, no matter how unlikely a playoff berth is this season for Brooklyn.

New York Knicks – Kristaps Porzingis

After outlasting both Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony this summer, Kristaps Porzingis enters 2017-18 as the Knicks’ No. 1 scoring option at long last. Simply put, Porzingis is an explosive athlete with a skill set that few other players possess, well deserving of his rare unicorn type label. Even at the age at 22, Porzingis can be an absolute nightmare to match up with and he was eager to hoist away from three-point range (35.7 percent) or take slower defenders off the dribble last season.

As a result, Porzingis finished his sophomore year campaign with an improved average of 18.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Of course, Porzingis missed 16 total games last season, so injuries are still somewhat of a concern, but the 7-foot-3 Latvian is a perfect fit for the modern NBA. Only four other players finished with more blocks per game in 2016-17 – Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Myles Turner – and none of them exhibit the same range that Porzingis does.

With the summer distractions now far behind him, it’s Porzingis’ time to shine in New York.

Toronto Raptors – DeMar DeRozan

For a player that averaged a career-high 27.3 points per game and was selected to his third All-Star appearance in four years, it sure seems like DeMar DeRozan continues to fly under the radar. DeRozan was less than impressed with his offseason player ranks this summer, a topic that spread like wildfire across the NBA community last month, and it’s not hard to see why.

Toronto set a franchise record for wins in back-to-back-to-back seasons from 2013-16, a feat that only emerged once DeRozan began scoring 20 or more points per game. Although the Raptors haven’t, much like the Celtics, toppled James and Cavaliers quite yet, that doesn’t make their attempts any less impressive.

Despite his status as one of the NBA’s purest scorers, DeRozan has always been a subpar three-point shooter and he sports a poor 28.1 percent career mark from deep. So, naturally, that’s what the star shooting guard spent his entire offseason working on. If DeRozan can push his numbers from three-point range somewhere closer to the league average of 35 percent, Toronto will have an even harder star to stop.

Whether or not DeRozan has actually improved as a three-point shooter may ultimately decide how high the ceiling is for this talented Raptors roster – that alone makes his importance inherently clear.

All five Atlantic Division teams likely have different expectations headed into the 2017-18 season, but their most important player will have a large say in where they ultimately end up. For Irving and DeRozan, they’ll hope to lead their franchises back to the heights they reached last season, while Embiid, Russell and Porzingis carry the weight for teams that are slowly on the rise. Should the Celtics, Raptors, 76ers, Nets or Knicks find success this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to find these names as the biggest reason why – so stay tuned!

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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