It boasts the defending NBA champions, a quasi-All-Star squad considered favorites to unseat the champs based mostly on their resume and two of the biggest distractions — Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving — in the league. It’s the Eastern Conference, after an offseason arms race in which most of the playoff contenders got better, cockier or both.
The Milwaukee Bucks, who beat Phoenix in six games in The Finals after getting past Miami, Brooklyn and Atlanta, didn’t have much time to savor their championship in what was the quickest turnaround in recent memory. But the Nets and the Heat weren’t about to sit still for that anyway, reinforcing their rosters to make sure Milwaukee’s celebration is a one-off.
There are five or six more teams capable of scaling the heights and pushing the heavyweights around. Even some of the bottom feeders could become NBA League Pass darlings with certain stars in place and long-term rebuilding plans.
Brooklyn Nets: The Nets can win the 2022 NBA championship … or they can head into next summer as the season’s most disappointing team. That’s it. There is no other option, considering the talent on board and the “title-or-bust” imperative that no one in Brooklyn is denying. Frankly, Kevin Durant and James Harden, leading the deep, experienced supporting cast, would be plenty. But if Irving can join them without being a distraction, this team’s potential turns into its destiny.
Milwaukee Bucks: Winning the franchise’s second title ever, to go with the one Kareem and the “Big O” got in 1971, scratched a mighty big itch for the team and its fans. If the confidence gained by Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and the rest can counter the loss of urgency Milwaukee had faced the previous three seasons — and the Deer District has anything to say about it — doing it again could start to look pretty realistic.
Miami Heat: The Heat were stinging from their 2020 loss in The Finals, followed by their sweep out of the postseason against Milwaukee last season. Rather than pout, they added Kyle Lowry to run the offense, re-upped Duncan Robinson’s keen 3-point shot and swiped P.J. Tucker from the Bucks for playoff-intensity defense. Miami knows Bam Adebayo has everybody’s back and will need Jimmy Butler to take over down the stretch, which he’s happy to do.
Other playoff teams
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks have pretty much everything they need on their roster, from Trae Young as a breakout star last spring, to John Collins finally free not to think about his contract, to shooting, to defense, to excellent depth if Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter stay healthy. Now add the swagger they got from beating the Knicks and the Sixers in the playoffs and utmost trust in coach Nate McMillan. That’s a formula for another deep playoff run, especially if they can work from a top-4 berth.
Philadelphia 76ers: It’s on the Sixers — actually, it’s on Simmons — that we really don’t know how this team is likely to perform over 82 games. His refusal to work on his most glaring weakness, to the point of demanding a trade, has been a huge distraction while driving down his trade value. So getting equal value is looking less and less likely. That means Philadelphia, even with Joel Embiid aiming for a Kia MVP season, won’t crack the East’s top tier.
Boston Celtics: Changes from top (Brad Stevens taking over for Danny Ainge) to bottom to everything in between is a tricky way to prepare for championship contention. And at this point, the Celtics probably should just focus on putting last season’s underachievement behind them. The roster tweaks (Dennis Schröder, Josh Richardson, Al Horford) might not get your pulse racing, but new coach Ime Udoka seems ready for his close-up, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are 1 + 1 = 3 as a terrific tandem.
New York Knicks: Lots of people felt that the Knicks raised their bar for 2021-22 too high with their surprisingly successful 41-31 record and taste of the playoffs. Going from 21 victories to, say, 32 or 33 might have seemed like a more realistic bump. But anyone who knows Tom Thibodeau knows the New York coach doesn’t pace himself or his team. Improvement will have to come from within, with roster changes mostly around the margin.
Keep an eye on …
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers missed the postseason for only the second time in 11 seasons, an outcome to be avoided for a smallish-market team that keeps fans happy with .500-plus seasons. Rick Carlisle is back as coach with an emphasis on defense, but some injury concerns — T.J. Warren, Caris LeVert — in the early going.
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls made a splash in the offseason, adding both New Orleans point guard Lonzo Ball and San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan to holdover starters Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and Patrick Williams. Chicago sputtered chasing a Play-In Tournament spot last spring, so that’s the goal again. Anything higher than seventh seems beyond the Bulls’ reach.
Charlotte Hornets: A full season of point guard and Kia Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball, rather than an overdue move into the starting lineup early and a hand injury in midseason, should pay dividends not just for him but for many teammates. Terry Rozier boosted his scoring to a new level and what the heck, Gordon Hayward is due to stay healthy one of these seasons. The bench is legit if the starters don’t go down, and coach James Borrego quietly clicks with his players.
Washington Wizards: Waving goodbye to Russell Westbrook and his signature style of play hurts most in losing his stats — particularly his scoring and assists. We might see a more pure Bradley Beal playing alongside Spencer Dinwiddie or Aaron Holiday, but missing Westbrook’s production will hurt. Thomas Bryant’s return, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s arrival and some growth by Deni Avdija might get Washington back into the Play-In Tournament.
Not this year …
Detroit Pistons: What already was a youth movement in Detroit shifted into overdrive when the Pistons landed the No. 1 pick, Cade Cunningham, in the Draft. There can be pitfalls in having too many young guys still trying to find themselves in the league while games tick by, but Detroit was pleased with how players such as Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes learned and grew last season. It’s win or learn for these Pistons, who mostly will learn.
Toronto Raptors: The Raptors have players, but they don’t have stars, and stars do the serious winning in this league. Kyle Lowry heading to Miami made sense for both parties, but it dings Toronto’s rotation and level of savvy play. Pascal Siakam needs to regain his 2020 All-Star form and budding talents OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher must improve. Rookie Scottie Barnes should be fun to watch, but it’s not fair to heap team expectations on him.
Orlando Magic: Ranking 29th offensively and 26th defensively might seem like a half-empty proposition except for this: There’s plenty of room for improvement. The Magic unloaded their three leading scorers in March — Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier — in a lottery dive, were disappointed to fall to No. 5, then were buoyed when guard Jalen Suggs was on the board for them. Suggs showed two-way play and leadership at NBA Summer League and could attract Rookie of the Year attention. But he’ll have trouble boosting Orlando into playoff contention the way last year’s winner, Ball, did in Charlotte.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Evan Mobley is the talented, two-way big man who’ll be dropped into a crowded crop of bigs, but that’s OK — Mobley is part of the Cavaliers’ future. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland looked last season like they truly can be the long-term answer in the backcourt, same as energetic Jarrett Allen at center. But Isaac Okoro as primary wing won’t have much help, and all of it has to mesh.
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