When James Harden was twice scoring 40 points against Boston in last season's playoffs, it was easy to picture a championship in Philadelphia's future.

Now it's hard to picture a future at all between Harden and the 76ers.

The only Atlantic Division team with the look of a champion at this point is the Celtics, who the Sixers had down and nearly out five months ago.

With Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis arriving in Boston to join Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics should easily be the class of the division and maybe even once again the entire Eastern Conference after falling one game shy of the NBA Finals in 2022-23.

The New York Knicks should be back in the playoffs, the Brooklyn Nets could be and the Toronto Raptors, under a new coach, will try to bounce back after missing them.

The question mark is Philadelphia, at least until the saga with Harden has played out.

The 76ers opted not to give him a contract extension after he struggled in the final two games as the Celtics came back to take the East semifinals in seven games. Harden blasted general manager Daryl Morey as a “liar” and wants to be traded.

There is still no deal, so the 2018 NBA MVP has been practicing with the 76ers, though he didn't play in any of their first three preseason games. Neither did MVP Joel Embiid, meaning new coach Nick Nurse would have at most one opportunity to see his top players on the floor before opening the season.

“I don’t know if you’re ever going to feel like you’re ready going into the opener,” said Nurse, who replaced the fired Doc Rivers. “I think you never really know.”

Philadelphia still has plenty of talent around Embiid, the league's scoring champion. But without a focused Harden, who led the league in assists last season, or without moving him for a good package of players, the Sixers can't quite match what the Celtics can put on the floor.

They acquired the 7-foot-3 Porzingis, who averaged a career-high 23.2 points in Washington last season, then traded for All-Star guard Holiday, who had been dealt by Milwaukee to Portland in the Bucks' deal for Damian Lillard.

Adding those two to the duo of Tatum and Brown that took Boston to the 2022 NBA Finals, and to Game 7 of the East finals last season before falling to Miami, has the Celtics neck-and-neck with the Bucks for the best odds to top the East this season.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said those moves have left teams like his realizing their challenge, saying “the obvious would be, when you look at a Boston and a Milwaukee, well, they were already good before any of the trade stuff.”

Now the Celtics appear even better and it's hard to tell what the 76ers are.

A look at each team in the Atlantic Division, in predicted order of finish:


Their defense may suffer a bit after trading former Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and center Robert Williams III. But Holiday joining fellow All-Defensive team selection Derrick White in the backcourt will keep it from slipping too much, and the increased firepower to a team that was fourth in the league with 117.9 points per game last season means it may not matter much, anyway. Especially with Tatum (30.1 ppg) and Brown (26.6) both coming off their best seasons and only figuring to get better.


With Thibodeau’s teams known mostly for defense, it was easy to overlook how good the Knicks were offensively. Julius Randle (25.1 ppg) and Jalen Brunson (24.0) both ranked among the league’s top 20 scorers, and the Knicks were fourth in the league in offensive rating, measuring points scored per 100 possessions. With a solid starting lineup and Immanuel Quickley providing points off the bench, the Knicks have enough to get back to the postseason, though perhaps not enough to get by the very best teams in the East.


Maybe the 76ers, who two years ago had to play half a season short-handed when Ben Simmons wouldn’t suit up for them and was ultimately traded for Harden, are equipped to handle their current distraction. And with Kelly Oubre Jr. and Patrick Beverley added to a roster that still features Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, they won’t lack talent. But whether it’s with Harden or with whatever they get for him, the Sixers look a notch below the East elite.


Mikal Bridges was a star after coming to Brooklyn in the midseason trade for Kevin Durant, averaging 26.1 points in 27 games. Maybe Simmons can be again if the 2016 No. 1 pick’s body and mind are right after playing just half a season since coming from Philadelphia. And with the way both players guard, the Nets believe they can defend even the most explosive lineups in the East. But they probably don’t have quite enough on the other end of the floor to score with them.


Serbian Darko Rajakovic takes over a team that went 41-41 last season, its final one under Nurse. Gone also is guard Fred VanVleet, but the Raptors will be able to replace him if newcomer Dennis Schröder plays like he did while leading Germany to the gold medal in the Basketball World Cup and winning tournament MVP honors. Toronto is already strong on the wings with All-Star Pascal Siakam, NBA steals leader OG Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes.

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