The Eastern Conference is shaping up to be as competitive at the top as it’s been in over a decade. The reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks set the standard, with perennial MVP candidate Giannis Antetounmpo and a group around him befitting of title status. Alongside the star-studded Brooklyn Nets, odds to determine the next two winners in the East start and stop there.
What is changing is the middle tier of teams in the East. Over the last ten years, the team to sit in the 8-seed position has been above .500 at the playoff time only three times, the 7-seed only six. That dynamic might be changing while several teams in the East have jockeyed for position to include their standing. In obvious ways, that impacts the Celtics, who went .500 last year while securing the 7-seed after a play-in tournament win.
Brooklyn and Milwaukee may appear in a tier of their own, but the Philadelphia 76ers actually held the best record last season out East. Combine them with the Atlanta Hawks, this year’s Eastern Conference runners-up, and half the playoff field feels pretty secure.
Who might be battling closest with the Celtics for a postseason berth? There are several teams making aggressive pushes to improve their odds as the jockeying for playoff position has seemingly already begun.
It was less than a year ago that the Celtics and the Miami Heat were battling in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics have lost two integral members of that group in Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker, though the crux of their success lied in the hands of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Heat have been far more aggressive in retooling around their core guys: All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and sharpshooter Duncan Robinson.
Pat Riley and the Miami front office have been busy. They inked Butler to a max extension and re-signed Robinson on a five-year deal worth $90 million, to go with the max deal Adebayo agreed to prior to the year. To complement this group, one of the opening moves of free agency was a long-rumored sign-and-trade deal to bring in Kyle Lowry. The former Toronto Raptor brings with him an All-Star pedigree, championship experience and perimeter shooting that is necessary around Butler and Bam.
While they lost veteran guard Goran Dragic in the deal, Miami kept important youngster Tyler Herro. They’ve also made some shrewd veteran signings, such as Markieff Morris and PJ Tucker, two forwards who round out their starting group and bring veteran experience. The wild card for Miami is Victor Oladipo, who re-upped on a one-year deal in hopes of rehabilitating his image around the league. The former Indiana Pacers star could be what pushes this team over the top in the East.
It’s clear the Heat are building to win now, hoping to push the Bucks and Nets atop the East. While there have been countless battles over the last decade between Miami and Boston, this year’s figures to be different: Tatum and Brown taking on all comers. The familiar faces to cheer against are still in South Beach, complete with a new point guard and effective yet annoying veterans. If the Heat are to truly vault from 8-seed into the top tier, the East will be a bloodbath for the Celtics.
Speaking of familiar faces, the Knicks were able to snag two guys who played for the Celtics last season: Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Add them into a group that finished 4th in the East and has primarily been kept together and the Knicks are a dangerous, balanced group.
Outside of Julius Randle, who played at an All-Star level in the regular season, it’s hard to know who the top threat is for the Knicks. There are scoring-minded veterans (like Walker, Fournier and former MVP Derrick Rose), intriguing young whippersnappers (such as RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley) and a couple of big men who can protect the rim. Leading the charge is Tom Thibodeau, the brainy coach who transformed the Knicks into a playoff group quickly with his defensive tactics.
Offensively, the Knicks don’t seem to have many weaknesses. They’ve added a good deal of shooting this summer, kept many of their important guys and had a solid draft. While the added talent in the East could bump them lower than their 2021 finish, it’s still hard to envision a team with this much offensive firepower missing the playoffs in the East. Thibodeau-coached teams always do well in the regular season and are hypercompetitive.
The elephant in the room for the Knicks is on the trade market. They’ve maneuvered through the draft and free agency to assemble a roster that has plenty of desirable young players, veterans on salary-matching contracts and future draft picks, the ultimate smorgasbord for a superstar acquisition. Should a name like Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal become available mid-season, the Knicks are in the driver’s seat to offer a competitive package. These Knickerbockers might just be here to stay...
No team from outside the playoff picture has been more aggressive over the six months than the Chicago Bulls. Unhappy with the results of their retooling project the last four years, Chicago brass pulled the trigger on several win-now moves, starting at the trade deadline when they flipped Wendell Carter Jr. and two first-round picks for Nikola Vucevic. They’ve followed that up this summer, getting Lonzo Ball in deal with New Orleans and prying DeMar DeRozan away from other competitors.
The result is as good of a core four as you’ll find outside the top teams in the East: Lonzo and Zach LaVine as complimentary combo guards in the backcourt, Vucevic as the offensive anchor down low and DeRozan as the wily veteran who can do a little bit of everything on the wing.
There are still plenty of moves to be made for the Bulls to fill out this roster. Signing Alex Caruso as a backup guard should steady their rotation, but they’ve mortgaged significant assets in order to acquire Ball, Vucevic and DeRozan. Cap space and future picks are now at a premium.
The questions for the Bulls revolve around how much better they’ve gotten with these audacious moves and whether it clearly vaults them into playoff contention. That said, there’s little confusion about the team’s goals moving forward: they want to win quickly.
Beyond these three franchises, a slew of others wait at the gates of the playoffs, clamoring to get in. The Charlotte Hornets are building around Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball, with solid young talent, 3-point shooting and the burgeoning Miles Bridges. The Indiana Pacers are a dark horse that features All-Star Domantas Sabonis, scoring threats Caris LeVert and TJ Warren and is now lead by NBA Champion head coach Rick Carlisle. The Toronto Raptors could surprise some people as they return to their familiar confines in Canada. Washington Wizards superstar Bradley Beal lost an All-Star but gained a deeper, more flexible, shooting-based cast that could make their offense pop.
The 2020-21 season for the Celtics was one marred by inconsistency. COVID struck their best player, injuries hampered Kemba from playing back-to-backs and a slew of young role players were difficult to rely upon. With age, more clarity and a returning veteran leader in Al Horford, the Celtics have likely gotten better, too. As the competition rises, clearing the bar to return to being a top-four team in the East has become much more difficult.