NBA Eastern Conference Preview
The NBA is back! After a manic offseason, with trade drama and one of the deepest drafts in years, the Eastern Conference is looking stronger than ever, with a number of teams looking to dethrone Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
The Boston Celtics fell agonisingly short of a first championship in 13 years when they were downed by the Warriors in the Finals last year, they are one of many teams in the Eastern Conference that look well-placed to make a run this year.
Let’s take a look at how the teams are looking this year, and what chances they have to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy.
After a disappointing season last time out, finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference and losing easily in the first round to the Jimmy Butler-led Miami Heat, the Atlanta Hawks were at a bit of a crossroads at the end of last season. Do they make major moves in the trade market to try and better the team at the expense of their future, or do they allow a young core led by All-Star point guard Trey Young to keep growing?
Well, the Hawks chose a bit of both in the end. They traded for All-Star guard Dejounte Murray, sending the San Antonio Spurs back quite a few draft picks for the next few years, but apart from that they mostly kept quiet on the trade front as they seek to develop their young players for another attempt to get to the Eastern Conference Finals after their incredible 2021 run. Not challengers this year, but expect to see a better performance than last year’s disappointment.
After a bitterly disappointing loss to the Golden State Warriors after reaching their first Finals appearance in 13 years, the Boston Celtics had every reason to be down in the days following their 4-2 defeat. However, everyone quickly realised how fantastic their run from January onwards had been, and how promising Boston’s future looked considering the age of their superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (24 and 25 respectively), and the depth of their roster in general. The Celtics almost did it, and a good off-season would leave them ready to go again, and maybe go one step further this time.
Boston did not disappoint in the trade market, trading for Malcom Brogdon from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Daniel Theis, some role players, and a couple of picks. This huge acquisition bolsters their already talented roster, and following Golden State’s disappointing off-season, it’s no surprise that Boston are favored by oddsmakers to win the championship this season.
It has truly been a turbulent time at the Brooklyn Nets since the huge 2019 free agent signings of superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. While Brooklyn initially thought that this was their ticket to the championship - even more so after they traded for all-time talent James Harden from the Houston Rockets - that hasn’t quite worked out yet. Last year, the Nets had massive issues with Irving not playing for large chunks of the season due to his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine, Durant having injury problems, and Harden asking for, and getting, a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Nets eventually played the number two seeded Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, and were unceremoniously swept.
Fast forward to this off-season and both Irving and Durant were on the verge of being traded, and the Nets looked like they were about to go through a rebuild and leave this era in the past. However, those trades never materialized, and with Ben Simmons looking like he’s ready to play after arriving as part of the Harden trade, Brooklyn still have a very talented team on paper. Whether they can get past their personal issues and build a winning culture remains to be seen, but on sheer talent alone, they should be considered as a threat to anyone.
After they drafted star point guard LaMelo Ball at number three in the 2020 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Hornets’ fortunes seem to have taken a turn for the better. Power forward Miles Bridges’ excellent form, along with Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier’s undeniable talent, makes this the Charlotte Hornets’ most talented team in a good few years. Last year, they finished 10th in the Eastern Conference and snuck into the last play-in spot, but they were handily defeated by a rampant Atlanta Hawks team.
However, the future looks bright for Charlotte, with the continuing development of Kelly Oubre Jr. giving them another scoring option. They have not many any major moves this off-season, but expect to see a young, talented team continue to progress this season.
The Chicago Bulls didn’t quite live up to their early-season promise last time out, eventually finishing as the sixth seed when they started the season in first place for a good chunk of the first two months. They were handily defeated by the rampant Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, but they weren’t helped by frequent injuries to key players such as Lonzo Ball throughout the season.
This summer has been a quietly successful one for Chicago, with the signings of centers Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond being particularly notable, along with tying All-Star Zach LaVine down to a long-term contract. The Bulls have potential to make some noise in the Eastern Conference, but they are long shots for the title this year.
After finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers thought they had the perfect opportunity to reach the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James’ move to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018. Alas, following chastening losses to the Brooklyn Nets and the Atlanta Hawks in the play-in tournament, the Cavaliers didn’t achieve their goal, and were sent home early.
However, the emergence of exciting point guard Darius Garland, along with the blockbuster trade of former Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, shows that the Cavaliers are trending in the right direction, and with some other promising players on the roster, this year could be the year where they get back into the playoffs, and maybe make a run.
The Detroit Pistons have been treading water for a few years at this point, and their 14th place finish in the Eastern Conference last year was only better than the Orlando Magic. However, with point guards Kemba Walker and Cade Cunningham, they show some signs of talent, with a few more pieces being needed in order to create a solid roster capable of challenging for the playoffs again.
The summer was an odd one for Detroit, with another point guard, Jaden Ivey, being taken at number five in this year’s NBA Draft. Not many notable trades were made, and with a point guard being taken so highly in the Draft, one can question the long-term future of Kemba Walker at the Pistons. We’ll see what happens there, but for now Detroit are not going to be challenging anytime soon.
Long gone are the relative glory days of the Paul George-led Indiana Pacers days, where they perennially challenged the big names in the Eastern Conference and had their sights set on LeBron James’ Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers juggernauts. Now, the Indiana Pacers are in a long rebuild, and their 13th place in last year’s Eastern Conference shows no signs of being improved upon this year.
Drafting forward Bennedict Mathurin at number six in this year’s NBA Draft is a good start, and with Tyrese Haliburton and Myles Turner on the team, the Pacers do have some talent. However, trading Malcom Brogdon to the Boston Celtics for some role players and a couple of draft picks doesn’t make Indiana seem like a team that is looking up - for now.
After a thrilling run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and even taking a strong Boston Celtics team to seven games, the Miami Heat with Jimmy Butler are in a strong position to challenge again. Their core players are extremely talented, tough, and versatile, with Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo finding that spark that led them to the 2020 NBA Finals again, and the Heat just falling short against.
This summer, Miami haven’t made any major moves in the trade market, but they have resigned the rejuvenated Victor Oladipo, and the development of their young players should continue this year, giving them more than a slim chance to challenge the juggernauts in the Eastern Conference. There are stronger teams than the Heat on paper, but they are a dark horse that should not be taken lightly.
After the glorious championship run of 2021, capped by a phenomenal Finals performance by the already-legendary Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks were hoping for a repeat performance last year, or at least somewhere closer than the Eastern Conference Semifinals. However, they ran into an excellent Boston Celtics team, and, despite taking them to seven games, they lost and were sent home early. The absence of All-Star guard Khris Middleton due to injury didn’t help, and this is part of the reason why Bucks fans remain hopeful of their chances this upcoming season.
Resigning Serge Ibaka and Pat Connaughton has been the bulk of their work this summer, but Milwaukee have an all-time great in Antetokounmpo on their side and in his prime. With Middleton returning from injury and Ibaka getting more time to familiarize himself with the Bucks’ system, Milwaukee should be right there challenging for the title yet again.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks have certainly had an interesting few years. They suffered the disappointment of losing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to their neighbors and fierce rivals the Brooklyn Nets in 2019, when they decided to pick their less illustrious neighbors over the Knicks in free agency. But then Julius Randle’s emergence as a force in the NBA, along with the continuing development of exciting small forward RJ Barrett, gave them hope as they made the playoffs in 2021. And then they crashed back down to earth and missed the playoffs last year, finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference.
This has all been pretty turbulent, and has left the Knicks’ management unsure as to which direction to take. Go all out on young players and wait a few years, or try and sign stars now to take advantage of the talent they currently have? Well, they signed guard Jalen Brunson in free agency and resigned Barrett, but apart from that they have remained relatively quiet this off-season, with the senior management perhaps biding their time for a better opportunity to sign stars next off-season. Whatever happens in the future, we can be sure that the Knicks are not challenging this time around.
The Orlando Magic have not had a very fun couple of years. After making the playoffs and losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020, they have been going through a rebuild and have finished 14th and 15th in the last two seasons respectively in the Eastern Conference. We can expect a similar performance from the Magic this year, even accounting for the mercurial talents of Markelle Fultz and Franz Wagner.
Orlando have drafted exciting power forward Paolo Banchero as the number one pick in this year’s NBA Draft, and with more lottery picks coming up in the next few years, alongside the popular summer acquisition of 7’2” center Bol Bol, the future could be promising for the Magic if they draft well. This year is not going to be one to remember, however.
After trading Ben Simmons and Seth Curry to the Brooklyn Nets for James Harden last season, the Philadelphia 76ers must have thought that the combination of Harden and MVP-candidate Joel Embiid would have taken them closer to the title that they have so craved over the last few years. However, after being defeated 4-2 by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and Harden having more than a few injury problems during the season, the 76ers must have started to worry about how far their new star could take them.
Philadelphia resigning Harden on a lower salary, alongside the signing of former Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, has been some excellent business this off-season. With Harden also coming back in visibly better shape than he has done the last couple of seasons, the 76ers are confident that their new star has bought into the system and is ready to help the team challenge for that coveted Larry O’Brien trophy. With Embiid in the form of his life, Philadelphia are absolutely in the mix the season.
It has been a quiet few years for the Toronto Raptors since their legendary championship run in 2019, with Kawhi Leonard leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers after producing one of the most spectacular playoff runs in recent memory, and the Raptors never coming close to those heady heights since then. Last year, the Raptors finished as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, but were easily beaten by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.
This summer, Toronto has signed forward Otto Porter Jr. after his excellent season with the Golden State Warriors, helping them to a championship with disciplined and clutch performances both in the regular season and the postseason from the bench. Adding him to the already talented core of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet is a start to challenging again, but more pieces are needed in order to really be seen as a threat to the sharks in the East.
After trading Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Montrezl Harrell in 2021, the Washington Wizards slumped a little from their run to the playoffs in the same year. Last year, the Wizards finished 12th in the Eastern Conference, and star shooting guard Bradley Beal didn’t perform as well as he had done with Westbrook alongside him.
This summer has been a quiet one for Washington, with guard Johnny Davis being taken at number 10 in the NBA Draft in the only notable move from the team. However, the talent that remains on the team is still undeniable, and if young prospects Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija can continue developing, the Wizards could push for the play-in spots this year, and maybe even higher. Definitely not title contenders though.
As you can see, the Eastern Conference is more competitive than ever, with a range of teams looking to challenge for the championship, and arguably the biggest threats to Golden State’s crown coming from the East. It will be exciting to see what happens this season, and it promises to be a rollercoaster of a year.