In 2020-21, the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA Finals after finishing the regular season as the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference. Last season’s Eastern Conference was stronger than it’s been in recent years, and many teams improved even more over the offseason. Many of the top teams have lost talent, but some non-playoff teams acquired talent to try and end their rebuilds.
15. Orlando Magic, 20-62
The Orlando Magic entered the 2020-21 season as a playoff hopeful but traded away their franchise player, Nikola Vucevic, at the trade deadline. They kept their young players Jonathan Isaac, Cole Anthony, and Markelle Fultz while adding Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner through the draft. It’s a developmental year for the Magic, who are just entering their rebuild. Their youth could show out, but with Isaac out with an injury, it’s tough to see Orlando winning much more than 20-25 games this season.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers, 24-58
The 2020-21 Cleveland Cavaliers finished 13th in the East with a record of 22-50, landing them the 3rd pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. With that pick, they selected Evan Mobley, then they added Lauri Markkanen in a three-team trade. The Cavs have a full lineup of young talent, with Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen. They also have solid veterans on their roster, and the leadership of Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love will be huge for the development of the youth. Although Cleveland improved this offseason, so did the teams around them, which is why they’ll be bottom feeders once again in 2021-22.
13. Detroit Pistons, 27-55
The Detroit Pistons are progressing nicely through their rebuild, which was pushed forward by landing the #1 overall pick in the draft, which was used on Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham. Cunningham will be the starter from day one, alongside most-improved candidate Jerami Grant, and other young pieces like Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes, and Saddiq Bey. The Pistons definitely have the potential to be a surprise team in 2021-22, but for now, they look like a 25-30 win team.
12. Washington Wizards, 32-50
Although the Wizards made the playoffs last season, they rode their star backcourt the entire way. Bradley Beal‘s season will be incredibly tough to replicate, and Russell Westbrook was traded to the Lakers for Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and draft compensation. Although the addition of those role players will help the team, they don’t quite have the star power to keep up with the rest of the league.
11. Charlotte Hornets, 35-47
The Charlotte Hornets haven’t made the playoffs since 2015-16 when they were defeated in the first round. They’re now in the final steps of their rebuild and are starting to see results. LaMelo Ball is exceeding his lofty expectations, winning the Rookie of the Year Award after averaging 15.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG, and 6.1 APG with a 53.9% TS%. They added Gordon Hayward last offseason, but he’s always an injury risk, which is worrisome as the team’s second best player. The continuing development of their youth will help them win games, but they didn’t plug their hole at center this offseason and still lack the bench depth to stack up with the East’s top ten teams.
10. Toronto Raptors, 36-46
One of those top 10 teams is the new-look Toronto Raptors, who will be without Kyle Lowry for the first time in 10 years. Both 2010s franchise icons, Lowry and Demar DeRozan have moved on to new teams. In place of them are the faces of their future, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. They’ll be surrounded by a cast of role players including Fred VanVleet, Goran Dragic, and Gary Trent Jr. The Raptors have opted to rebuild, but they still have talent on their roster, and adding Scottie Barnes should only speed up the process.
9. Indiana Pacers, 40-42
The Pacers are bringing back all their key players from last season when injuries killed any chances of a successful run. They replaced head coach Nate Bjorkgren with NBA Finals winning coach Rick Carlisle, after bowing out in the play-in tournament in 2020-21. With Caris Levert and TJ Warren healthy, the Pacers should be better than they were in 2020-21, but the rest of the East got better over the offseason.
8. Boston Celtics, 44-38
The 2020-21 Celtics had a disappointing season and endured plenty of changes over the offseason. Danny Ainge stepped down as GM, so the Celtics promoted head coach Brad Stevens and hired Ime Udoka in his place. Their roster also saw changes, as Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker both moved on to New York, while Dennis Schroder was brought in to man the point. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown still give them a premier all-star duo, but this transitional year for the Celtics might be another disappointing one. The teams from 3-8 in the Eastern Conference are relatively interchangeable, and I have them all finishing within 6 games.
7. Chicago Bulls, 45-37
The Chicago Bulls made as many moves as anyone this offseason, and expectations are lofty. They brought in Lonzo Ball, Demar Derozan, and Alex Caruso while shipping away Lauri Markkanen and Thaddeus Young. The up-and-coming Ball has improved each year of his career, and will finally get an opportunity to show his talents on a team with playoff expectations. The Bulls’ success will come down to how their pieces fit, as they have plenty of talent on the roster. They strengthened their defense through the addition of Demar Derozan, but with Nikola Vucevic at center and Zach LaVine at shooting guard, it may still be a weakness.
6. Atlanta Hawks, 47-35
The Atlanta Hawks made a surprise run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2020-21, but they fell short to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games. They went 41-31 and finished 5th in the Eastern Conference, but they didn’t make many moves to improve this offseason. They roll into 2021-22 with the exact same starting five as last season, and their rotational bench pieces are mostly the same too. Superstar point guard Trae Young showed what he could do last season, but their other pieces John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic will need to step up if the Hawks want to make a run at the Eastern Conference once again.
5. Miami Heat, 48-34
Coming off of an Eastern Conference title in 2019-20, the Heat completely folded in their four-game sweep by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020-21. Despite their cap issues, they were able to bring back Duncan Robinson on a five-year deal. Their major additions this offseason were 35-year-old point guard Kyle Lowry and 36-year-old forward P.J. Tucker, two guys who will play a major role in the Heat’s success in 2021-22. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have proven that they can succeed together, and their supporting cast is even better than it was when they won the East two years ago. The Heat cruised through the regular season last year, and they may again, but don’t expect the same type of collapse in the playoffs.
4. Philadelphia 76ers, 48-34
The 76ers have been the center of a lot of turmoil so far this offseason as it begins to look more and more like “the Process” has failed. One of their franchise cornerstones, Ben Simmons, didn’t play in the preseason because he refused to report to training camp, while the other, Joel Embiid, will need to put up another MVP-caliber season in order for the Sixers to keep up in the East.
Talent-wise, their roster has everything needed to compete for a championship, especially given the emergence of Seth Curry as a legitimate scoring threat. They’ve paired a superstar center with an all-star point guard, added a 20 PPG scorer in Tobias Harris, surrounded them with excellent role players like Curry, Danny Green, and Matisse Thybulle, but nothing has come to fruition just yet.
3. New York Knicks, 50-32
It’s been an incredible transformation for New York, who went from perennial bottom feeders to home-court advantage in just one year, behind the leadership of Leon Rose and Tom Thibodeau. Julius Randle has become one of the best power forwards in basketball, and RJ Barrett is quickly developing into a great two-way wing. They finished 41-31 and 4th in the Eastern Conference last year, but it was clear that they needed more scoring options when they were dismantled by Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs.
They addressed their one clear need, by bringing in Evan Fournier, who averaged 17.1 PPG last season, and Kemba Walker, who averaged 19.3 PPG despite a terrible first half. Walker still has an injury issue, but he showed he can still be the Kemba Walker of old in the 2nd half last season. Despite this, arguably the best move of their offseason was the subtraction of Elfrid Payton, whose lack of spacing made life miserable for New York on the offensive end. The Knicks also have some of the best depth in basketball, with a bench including Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, and Alec Burks.
2. Brooklyn Nets, 56-26
The Brooklyn Nets should be the best team in basketball, but they’re missing one of their three stars, Kyrie Irving, due to New York’s current guidelines regarding his vaccination status. Even without Irving, the Nets still have two of the league’s top-5 players in Kevin Durant and James Harden. They have Joe Harris, Bruce Brown, and LaMarcus Aldridge to round out their starting lineup, while Patty Mills and Paul Millsap were added to their bench.
Durant and Harden will need to carry most of the weight but they’ve struggled with injuries over the past couple of seasons. Durant returned from an Achilles tear and averaged 26.9 PPG in 35 games in 2020-21, but he’ll need to play more than half of the Nets’ games in 2021-22 if they’re gonna live up to their historically high expectations.
1. Milwaukee Bucks, 60-22
The 2020-21 NBA Champions are the most balanced team in the Eastern Conference once again in 2021-22, placing them atop the Eastern Conference in the regular season. Their big three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton are all back, as are Donte DiVincenzo and Brook Lopez to round out the starting five. The Bucks may have some championship hangover, but they are still the best team in the Eastern Conference, especially with minimal losses from their championship roster.
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