Predicting the Eastern Conference Standings
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
Although once seen as a weak conference dominated by LeBron James, the Eastern Conference has improved significantly, and the battle for playoff seeding is set to be extremely competitive. Here's how I see the regular season standings playing out.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
The defending champs led by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo look primed to make another run at the title. Alongside Antetokounmpo, the Bucks will bring back much of their core from last season's championship team including Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, Donte Divencenzo, and Pat Connaughton. Additionally, the Bucks brought in George Hill, Grayson Allen, Rodney Hood, and Semi Ojeleye, all of whom could be important role players that provide sparks off the bench. Furthermore, Mike Budenholzer has always been a successful regular season coach, and in his three years coaching the Bucks, they have an NBA-best 162-65 regular season record. Milwaukee's combination of talent and continuity should allow them to finish atop the East yet again.
2. Brooklyn Nets
With an All-NBA trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets are undoubtedly one of the favorites to take home the championship this season. Behind their star-studded trio, the Nets have an extremely deep team with LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Joe Harris, Paul Millsap, Patty Mills, Bruce Brown, and Nic Claxton. The Nets are an absolute juggernaut, and if they stay healthy, it's hard to see them losing in a seven-game series to anyone. However, in the regular season, Brooklyn's lack of continuity and frequent injury history could make them slip down the standings a little. With "load management" becoming increasingly common in the NBA, Brooklyn will probably be careful with their stars in the regular season. Ultimately, the Nets have championship aspirations, and their regular season goal will be to just stay healthy, not necessarily capture the one-seed.
3. Miami Heat
The Heat had one of the best offseasons in the NBA, securing Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson to extensions while also acquiring six-time all-star Kyle Lowry. Besides Lowry, the Heat also acquired P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris. Over the years, the Heat built a culture centered around toughness and defense, and their three additions certainly fit the bill. The X-Factor for the Heat will be Tyler Herro. Herro went through a sophomore slump last season, but if he can take a step forward and regain his form from the 2020 playoffs, the Heat could find themselves in title contention yet again. Herro's elite scoring ability provides a necessary spark to a defensive-minded team and elevates the Heat from a great team to a championship-caliber team. It's also important to keep in mind that the Heat re-signed former all-star Victor Oladipo, who is currently injured but could return late in the season.
4. Boston Celtics
Following a disappointing season, the Celtics made major changes in the offseason. After President Danny Ainge stepped down, coach Brad Stevens took over the President role, then hired Ime Udoke to be the next franchise coach. Under Udoka, the Celtics are looking to establish a more tough-nosed, defensive minded identity this season. Alongside the star-duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics extended Marcus Smart and Robert Williams long-term while adding several key players in Dennis Schroder, Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Enes Kanter, and Juancho Hernangomez. Right now, the Celtics are looking like a much deeper and more well-rounded team than last year. With a major shake-up in the front office and more of an emphasis on team basketball and tough-nosed defense, the Celtics appear ready to contend again. If Tatum and Brown continue to improve, the Celtics could be a wild-card to shake up the top of the East.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
After finishing last season as the one-seed, the era of misery and "Trusting the Process" seemed to finally be over. Led by MVP runner-up Joel Embiid, the 76ers appeared to be destined for an Eastern Conference Finals appearance at the very least. However, Trae Young and the Hawks spoiled Philadephia's hopes and upset the top-seed in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Following that series, everything has been falling apart in Philadelphia. Following a disappointing playoff performance, Ben Simmons has received the brunt of Philadelphia's crticism and is now adamant about demading a trade. Nonetheless, the 76ers still have a promising roster led by Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, as well as solid role players such as Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and newly-acquired Andre Drummond. With all the disarray in Philadelphia, it's hard to feel confident about the 76ers heading into this season.
6. Atlanta Hawks
Following a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks will hope to repeat that success with a year of experience under their belts. Led by superstar Trae Young, the Hawks will also return much of their core from last year's team. In the offseason, the Hawks were relatively quiet but productive. They extended both John Collins and Clint Capela, committing to a core of Young, Collins, Capela, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Hawks also extended their coach Nate McMillan, who led the Hawks to a 27-11 regular season record after taking over for Lloyd Pierce. In addition, the Hawks drafted two big-name college prospects in Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper who should make immediate impacts. Regardless, the Hawks have had issues on defense in prior seasons and they didn't do much to address that end of the floor. While their future is bright, the Hawks don't seem ready to compete with the heavyweights of the East.
7. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls made some of the biggest splashes in the NBA this offseason, signing DeMar Derozan and Lonzo Ball to contracts upwards of $80 million, as well as signing fan-favorite Alex Caruso away from the Lakers. Alongside a core of Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, Patrick Williams, and Coby White already in place, the Bulls are now loaded with talent and look to be in contention again after several losing seasons. However, the Bulls lack continuity, and it is unclear whether how their roster will mesh together. Derozan, LaVine, Ball, and White are all primarily ball-dominant players, so they will have to get used to playing off-the-ball more often this year. The new-look Bulls will undoubtedly be one of the most intriguing teams in the NBA this season, and it would be reasonable to see them finishing anywhere between the three seed and the ten seed.
8. New York Knicks
After a promising season ended with the Knicks as the fourth seed in the East, the Knicks fell to the Hawks in the first round. The Knicks had a lot of trouble scoring in the playoffs, averaging just 97.0 points per game on 39.8% shooting from the field and and 34.2% shoot from three. To address these issues, the Knicks brought in Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker, and Alec Burks this offseason. Adding Fournier and Burks certainly addresses their need for three-point shooting, and adding former all-star Kemba Walker will provide a much needed scoring spark. The addition of Walker will also allow Derrick Rose to be the sixth-man again, a role he flourished in last year. The Knicks are led by Julius Randle, who had a phenomenal season last year and was named to the All-NBA second team, but he struggled in the playoffs. Alongside their veteran talent, they will look for youngsters R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Obi Toppin, and Immanuel Quickly to continue making strides this year. The Knicks will be a wild card, but under Tom Thibodeau, they are trending in the right direction.
9 (Play In) Pacers
The Pacers return a solid, experienced team, but a much more competitive Eastern Conference leaves them on the outside of the top-eight seeds. Last season, the Pacers were plagued by injuries and missed T.J. Warren, Myles Turner, and Caris LeVert for extended periods of time throughout the season. Warren, Turner, and LeVert should all be ready to go this year, and alongside the duo of Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, the Pacers could be in for a promising season. The Pacers hired coach Rick Carlisle, an experienced coach who most notably led the Dallas Mavericks to the championship in 2011. Carlisle had a four-year stint as the Pacers head coach from 2003 to 2007, and his team made the playoffs three times while reaching the Conference Finals once. As long as they stay healthy, the Pacers should be a competitive, playoff team again.
10 (Play In) Raptors
After winning the Championship in 2019 and losing Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers, the Raptors haven't been a particularly competitive team. Last year, the Raptors finished an awful 27-45 after five straight 50-win seasons. However, the Raptors should see some success this season, even in a stacked Eastern Conference. Despite losing Kyle Lowry, the Raptors got back Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa from Miami. Dragic shined during the NBA Bubble in 2020, and he should do a fine job filling Lowry's role. The Raptors still have Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby from their championship team, and they are led by one of the best coaches in the NBA in Nick Nurse. Furthermore, the Raptors acquired Gary Trent Jr. last season and extended him in the offseason, and they drafted Scottie Barnes with the #4 pick in the draft. While they may not be what they once were, the Raptors certainly have the depth and experience to make a run at the playoffs.