As the 2022-23 season begins, the Eastern Conference appears to be deeper than it has been in recent memory, certainly since the 1980s when giants such as Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Sidney Moncrief, Dominique Wilkins, Bernard King, Isiah Thomas and Moses Malone led the way.
Each of the 15 teams this season can make a reasonable case for reaching the Play-In Tournament, if not the official playoffs. Four or five are worthy of title contention. Heck, according to Markelle Fultz, his Orlando Magic have a shot at the No. 4 seed.
The Celtics might have had the edge based on their work in the championship round last spring, only to slide back to the pack of elites in the weeks before training camps opened. Here’s how we see the East sorting itself out, with teams listed alphabetically within each category.
Boston Celtics: A Finals team from June, adding talent to a defensively adept and cohesive crew, should have been a prohibitive favorite to win the East. But veteran pickup Danilo Gallinari was lost for the season with a torn ACL, gimpy big man Robert Williams III needed surgery again after probably pushing too hard in the playoffs and then the Ime Udoka situation blew up in Boston. Malcolm Brogdon is a nice addition. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown seem to have sorted things out. But size up front is a concern and there’s no template for losing such an effective coach so suddenly.
Brooklyn Nets: Just when it seemed the offseason was going to spin completely out of control on the Nets, well, what d’ya know, nothing. If Kevin Durant can settle into the first year of his four-year extension and Kyrie Irving can get serious in his own contract year, that duo might again prove to be unguardable in big doses rather than the small we’ve seen. The X-factor is Ben Simmons, who now has sat out two entire seasons of what should be a six-year career. If he plays, his reluctance to shoot won’t stymie Brooklyn, with plenty of star and role players to let it fly.
Milwaukee Bucks: From championship to honeymoon/hangover to, hmm, maybe championship again? Two years would be better than the 50 it took the Bucks to win again (1971 to 2021), and there’s a stability here that says it can happen. Two-time Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is the first- or second-best player in the league, primed to improve yet again. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, if they can get and/or stay healthy, are ideal running mates ready for a late (if not last) hurrah. The biggest unknown, at both ends, is at shooting guard.
Philadelphia 76ers: We’re not going to lie. There is considerable intrigue in how potent the tandem of a fully healthy Joel Embiid and a newly re-committed James Harden can be. They could rival Shaq-Kobe in offensive impact. They have help too with the additions of tormenter/talisman P.J. Tucker, Montrezl Harrell and De’Anthony Melton, along with holdovers such as Tyrese Maxey (poor man’s Ja Morant?), Matisse Thybulle and Tobias Harris, who should be primed for a pivotal perk-up performance. Plus, freedom from the Simmons melodrama. Best to get busy now, though, because the window won’t stay open forever.
Other Playoff Teams
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks raised their bar so high two seasons ago, reaching the conference finals, that their 43-39 record and first-round exit vs. Miami in 2022 felt not just like disappointments but setbacks. If that inspired the trade for Dejounte Murray, though, it will have been worth it. The All-Star and steals champ joins Trae Young, who went Nate Archibald by leading the NBA both in total points and total assists. Guys up front such as De’Andre Hunter, Clint Capela and John Collins might feel a little neglected at times but the Hawks should be better defensively and even more explosive offensively.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Last season, the Cavaliers committed to and made work a super-sized front line built around center Jarrett Allen and stunning rookie Evan Mobley. This time, it’s twinning a pair of dynamic guards: first-time All-Star Darius Garland and newly acquired Donovan Mitchell. Count on coach J.B. Bickerstaff and his staff making that click too. Juicing their attack without slipping defensively should have Cleveland on pace for the taste it got in 2021-22.
Miami Heat: Pretty under-the-radar summer, with P.J. Tucker’s departure more headline-worthy than any new arrivals. That means rolling it back with a crew that, in key spots, is starting to grey (point guard Kyle Lowry is 36, forward Jimmy Butler is 33). Even if that doesn’t show in their effectiveness, it cuts into their availability, allowing for injuries and rest (think Victor Oladipo here, too). The Heat’s defense and excellent 3-point shooting carried them a long way last season, though, and youth in the form of Tyler Herro, Caleb Martin, Max Strus and yes, Bam Adebayo (he’s still just 25) can pick up slack.
Toronto Raptors: Thinking about Toronto in terms of area code slang (“the 416”) may be out, replaced by something like “The 6-9.” No missing digit — that’s the ideal lineup of the Raptors these days. Or nearly so, with a positionless battalion of lengthy guys such as Pascal Siakam, Kia Rookie of the Year winner Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher and others creating mayhem and mismatches wherever they choose. Coach Nick Nurse will save some minutes in there, of course, for guard Fred VanVleet for his scoring and Gary Trent Jr. for his defense.
Keep An Eye On
Chicago Bulls: Wait, way down here? Looking like it. The acquisitions of 2021 propelled a 20-game improvement, from 10 games under .500 to 10 over. Injuries caught up to the Bulls, though, and will hamper them again now, based on point guard Lonzo Ball’s needed surgery sequel. DeMar DeRozan was a gem last year but he’s 33 now. Nikola Vucevic and Patrick Williams face legit questions about their likely impact. But Zach LaVine, now paid, has to link his individual results with lasting results in the playoffs.
New York Knicks: Twenty years, five playoff appearances, one series victory. That’s a shoddy history more in line with the Kings or the Timberwolves than what ought to be for the once-proud, never-ignored Knicks. The main summer move, signing Jalen Brunson, feels like giving Lasik surgery to a cardiac patient, nice but not addressing the real needs. Watching R.J. Barrett, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and others gel around Brunson, and Julius Randle restore his game and name, is the level of entertainment the “world’s most famous arena” deserves.
Washington Wizards: The Wizards didn’t do much last season but at least they did it with less: only 40 games from Bradley Beal, a near-cameo from Kristaps Porzingis after his midseason arrival from Dallas and zero court time together from this squad’s new foundation. Newcomers Monte Morris and Will Barton should help, and Rui Hachimura is developing nicely. With no fatal flaws but no saviors either, a Play-In Tournament spot and exit seems in order.
Not This Year
Charlotte Hornets: From the league’s top rookie two years ago to an All-Star last February, LaMelo Ball might need to crack the All-NBA ranks and draw Kia MVP votes for Charlotte to match or beat its 43 victories from 2021-22. The Miles Bridges mess — the Hornets’ leading scorer began camp in limbo due to his arrest on domestic violence charges in June — is the last thing any team needs. Terry Rozier is happy to shoot, of course. P.J. Washington could take a step up. And Gordon Hayward maybe, perhaps, will stay healthy. But the silver lining here might be no more trouncings in the Play-In. Can’t happen if you don’t get there.
Detroit Pistons: When a team gets busy assembling its future, sometimes it’s hard to know when the present comes calling. The Pistons need to kick this rebuild into gear while learning which of its wondrous young parts — Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart or rookies Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren — it can lean on in two or three years. Detroit’s fan base shouldn’t get impatient yet, because getting up in the range of 35-38 victories ought to spark the right growth.
Indiana Pacers: These guys appear to have one foot in the rebuild boat, one foot still on the compete dock — always a precarious position. Moving on from Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, T.J. Warren and Malcolm Brogdon signals the former, but Myles Turner and Buddy Hield sticking to help Tyrese Haliburton hardly is a tank job. Pedigree coach Rick Carlisle doesn’t seem the type to go elbows-deep on a reset (with “Victor Wembanyama” as its mantra), until you remember that Gregg Popovich steered the Spurs dismally into Port Tim Duncan.
Orlando Magic: The Magic’s vibe is that of a team one year behind Detroit on the rebuilding timeline. It had the No. 1 pick, taking big man Paolo Banchero the way the Pistons grabbed Cade Cunningham a year earlier. Other young pieces are in place, notably Franz Wagner, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Wendell Carter Jr. and Jonathan Isaac. Now it’s time to sift through that talent, rough out a pecking order and stick with what works. Great fun to watch, even low in the standings.
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