After a hectic offseason, during which teams from across the league strengthened their rosters, shook up their front offices and hired new head coaches to replace the old, it’s now time to see how things actually stack up on the hardwood.
Here are our picks for the eight playoff places in the Eastern Conference, with the Washington Wizards dropping out from last year after they came through the play-in tournament (which will be returning this season) at the expense of the Charlotte Hornets, who also don’t quite make our cut in a tight East.
Let’s not overthink this. The NBA champions will be back next season with a repeat on their mind. Giannis Antetokounmpo is good enough to drive any team to the playoffs, but especially now he is coming off the back of a historic post-season run that culminated in a 50 point, 14 rebound and five block masterpiece to seal the championship.
The Bucks have kept almost the entirety of their title-winning roster together, with P.J. Tucker the only key player moving on to new pastures.
That means Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton will all be back, while George Hill and Rodney Hood look like smart additions to the backcourt particularly as Donte DiVincenzo continues working his way back from injury.
Make no mistake about it, this is the best regular-season team in the Eastern Conference due to their consistency and availability trumping the franchise below.
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The Kyrie Irving vaccination saga is rumbling on, an unnecessary distraction for Steve Nash heading into only his second season as an NBA head coach but even so, this Brooklyn Nets roster is loaded with talent.
Individually, a healthy Kevin Durant or James Harden pretty much guarantees you a 50-win team. Together, even without Irving, they should be finishing no lower than second in the Eastern Conference.
Expect veterans Paul Millsap and Patty Mills to immediately improve a rotation that looked threadbare at times last season due to injuries and off-court issues (yep, Irving again). In Nic Claxton and Bruce Brown they also have two young guys who play hard, run the floor, and don’t give an inch on the defensive end.
Brooklyn are championship favourites for a very good reason, Kyrie or no Kyrie, and like LeBron James’ Lakers won’t care too much if they don’t lock in the number one seed.
The Atlanta Hawks have seven or eight quality NBA players, depending on how Danilo ‘The Rooster’ Gallinari is feeling on any given night – although he did shoot 40.6 per cent from deep on five attempts per game last season.
Headlined by Trae Young, a cunning, quicksilver point guard with an even quicker trigger, the Hawks shocked everyone last season when they soared to the Eastern Conference Finals before eventually succumbing to the Bucks in six games.
John Collins has been re-signed for $125m over five years, decent value for a player who quite literally took his game to new heights last season, and he forms a formidable frontcourt with the NBA’s premier rebound-gobbler Clint Capela (14.3 per game, 4.7 on the offensive end). Bogdan Bogdanovic, so good they named him twice, can shoot the lights out. Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish could all make a leap this season.
Under Nate McMillan, this is a team to fear. Injuries permitting, there’s no way they fall out of the playoff spots.
According to the 2021-22 GM survey by NBA.com, 47% of the General Managers questioned believed Miami to have had the best offseason – even over the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers.
Here’s why. They added Kyle Lowry, widely considered to be the greatest Toronto Raptor of all time and an immediate improvement over Goran Dragic at the point guard position, even if he is ageing.
Why? He’s still a brick wall of a defender and shot close to 40 per cent from deep last season, which should open things up for his backcourt partner Jimmy Butler, who loves room to drive to the basket.
They added P.J. Tucker, one of the most combative defenders in the NBA (just ask Kevin Durant, or his mother) and an integral part of the Bucks’ championship run last season. They added Markieff Morris and Dewayne Dedmon, solid back-up bigs.
They re-signed Victor Oladipo, on a minimum contract no less, a two-time All-Star and 20 points per game guy who has only played four times for the franchise due to injury.
And that’s on top of Bam Adebayo and Butler, two players who do it all for their team, whether creating, scoring, mopping up rebounds or locking down the opponent’s best players. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro can light it up in a hurry. This is a stacked, experienced team that Erik Spoelstra – one of the sharpest coaches in the league – will be pushing towards a top-four seed and deep playoff run.
In a similar vein, the Chicago Bulls have been one of the prominent movers and shakers during the offseason.
Until the trade deadline last March, All-Star Zach LaVine was hopelessly jacking up shots with only a watered down pool of talent supporting him. Now he can look to Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball to run amok, draw defenders and leave him with better shots to take from the perimeter.
They have overpaid for DeRozan at $27m a year, that much is certain, but he’s still a four-time All-Star who can score for fun from mid-range. He also notched a career high in assists with 6.9 per game in San Antonio last season.
Ultimately the Bulls do project as a playoff team given the scoring talent mentioned above but whether they have enough shooting to progress past the first round of the post-season reminds to be seen.
Also: 2020 NBA champion Alex Caruso in the Windy City, what’s not to like?
New York Knicks
Despite being bounced out of the first round of the playoffs at the hands – or talons – of the Hawks, 2020-21 was a restorative season for the New York Knicks.
NBA Coach of the YearTom Thibodeau, fresh out of the Minnesota wilderness, instilled a sense of pride and identity in a franchise that had been wallowing in the doldrums for far too long. Julius Randle emerged as both an All-Star level player and the new heart and soul of the team. Derrick Rose did Derrick Rose things off the bench under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
Whether they improve or not this season will largely come down to the health of their new starting point guard Kemba Walker, who was hobbled by knee injuries during his time with the Celtics. Evan Fournier adds scoring from the wing, while the youngsters Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and R.J. Barrett will all be hoping for a more minutes from Thibs – and a greater chance to impress this season. Quickley, in particular, is a stud and will be a monumental headache for reserve unit defenses next season.
Hallelujah. The Knicks, at long last, are a solid playoff team again.
Ben Simmons is staying in Philly, at least for now, which means that the Sixers remain one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference even if they are ready to completely unravel at any given moment.
They reached nearly 50 wins (in a 72-game season) last year and earned the first seed in the East, but it’s very difficult to envisage them claiming top spot this time round given the distress the Simmons stand-off has caused in the locker room.
Joel Embiid’s MVP-calibre play powered them to the Conference semi-finals but it wasn’t enough to see off the Hawks, in part due to Simmons shooting an abysmal 33 per cent from the free throw line and attempting just one field goal in the fourth quarter of the final six games.
That being said, Simmons is arguably the best defensive player in the league. For all Rudy Gobert’s shot-blocking ability in the paint, he can’t guard the rest of the court like the Australian. He is not without merit and there is a team out there in which he could thrive. Should the Sixers trade him for pieces that better complement Embiid and Tobias Harris – a solid, fill-in-the-gaps second banana, even if he isn’t quite an All-Star – they’ll have a much better chance of contending this season.
A lot has changed for the Boston Celtics heading into the new season. Brad Stevens has moved into the front office to replace Danny Ainge, who resigned after 13 years at the helm of the franchise, with Ime Udoka taking Stevens’ place as head coach after eight seasons and three Conference Finals appearances.
This is a team dependent on its two star wing players, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Tatum, in particular, looks on the cusp of superstardom after becoming the third youngest player in NBA history to score 50 points in a playoff game and the only player to score 50 or more points more than once in the regular season. That is beyond special.
Brown, who averaged almost 25 a game last season, isn’t too far behind him. They are 23 and 24 respectively, meaning we have yet to see their peaks as a two-way wing duo in the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George mould. Whether that combination can actually work to lead a team to the championship remains to be seen.
The Tatum/Brown/Marcus Smart/Josh Richardson/Robert Williams starting five looks very strong on paper, if a little bit short of competing with the big boys of the Eastern Conference. That being said, Udoka is a smart hire and could have them surpassing early expectations.