The NBA’s Eastern Conference is set to be as competitive – at least at the top – as it has been in years.
You have reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo teaming up with Jrue Holiday on the Milwaukee Bucks; you have a returning Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets surrounded by a deep roster; you have the more sensibly built Philadelphia 76ers; you have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown improving annually with the Boston Celtics; and you have the Eastern Conference champs, the Miami Heat, built around Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
And that’s without even mentioning other strong teams like the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards and the up-and-coming Atlanta Hawks. That’s already nine squads we’ve mentioned, meaning one of the well-built teams above will miss the playoffs this season.
Our team of writers recently voted on how they think the Eastern Conference will shape out in 2020-21. Check out the results below.
(Note: Percentage of returning minutes below indicate regular season and playoff minutes combined.)
Record last season: 19-46
Percentage of returning minutes: 75.3 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: JaVale McGee, Isaac Okoro
Kevin Love and Andre Drummond do form a mighty frontcourt, but it remains to be seen if the former will stay healthy for an entire season or whether the latter will remain focused all campaign long.
Plus, even if those two perform at an All-Star level, the team lacks the scoring and experience around them to make much of a push for a playoff spot in the East.
New York Knicks
Record last season: 21-45
Percentage of returning minutes: 63.1 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Obi Toppin, Austin Rivers, Nerlens Noel
The New York Knicks could be headed towards another long season, though one with at least some hope in the form of young pieces RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin, as well as an outrageous amount of cap space for the 2021 offseason.
First-year head coach Tom Thibodeau will have some solid pieces to work with, moreso than his predecessor, like Julius Randle, Alec Burk, Austin Rivers and Nerlens Noel – all cheap veterans who understand their roles and will be positive locker-room influences on the team’s young core.
New York might be feisty this upcoming season, but they still sorely lack the top-end talent to make the playoffs. Maybe the 2021 offseason can change that.
Record last season: 20-46
Percentage of returning minutes: 24.0 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Jerami Grant, Killian Hayes, Mason Plumlee
The Detroit Pistons had one of the most active offseasons of any team, we just don’t think it’ll be all that fruitful as far as immediate success. As such, we have the Pistons finishing 13th in the East in 2020-21.
Detroit could make this prediction look way off if Blake Griffin is able to replicate his 2018-19 form when he received All-Star and 3rd Team All-NBA honors after posting a 24.5/7.5/5.4 stat line, leading the Pistons to the playoffs in the process.
Griffin will have some interesting pieces around him, too, including a reinvigorated Derrick Rose, a bouncy, three-point threat in Jerami Grant, solid role players like Mason Plumlee, Delon Wright and Wayne Ellington and exciting young pieces Killian Hayes and Sekou Doumbouya.
Regardless, it’ll come down to Griffin and his form for the Pistons to make another playoff run, as the rest of the team is solid but needs a star to make them more effective.
Record last season: 23-42
Percentage of returning minutes: 83.7 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball
The Charlotte Hornets may have a much more interesting roster than they did last season, led by the additions of Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball, but we still believe they lack the top-end talent to make a legit playoff push.
Nevertheless, Charlotte could be among those teams fighting for the No. 8 seed in the East, as a rotation including Hayward, Ball, PJ Washington, Devonte Graham, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges and Cody Zeller should win the Hornets some games.
Regardless, their depth is still somewhat lacking and Hayward, for now, looks like their only player with legit All-Star aspirations in 2020-21, so it’s hard to predict they’re a lock to have a winning season.
Record last season: 22-43
Percentage of returning minutes: 88.8 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Patrick Williams, Garrett Temple
Behind a borderline All-Star in Zach LaVine as well as interesting young pieces Wendell Carter, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Patrick Williams, as well as a now-healthy Otto Porter Jr. returning, first-year head coach Billy Donovan will have some interesting players at his disposal.
If Carter, Markkanen and White are able to take leaps playing in an offensive system more reliant on ball movement, and if LaVine can at least maintain the level he was at last season, the Bulls should have a solid rotation, one that could get them in the mix for the No. 8 seed in the West.
Record last season: 33-40
Percentage of returning minutes: 84.2 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke, Dwayne Bacon
The Orlando Magic return most of the roster that made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in 2019-20 with one major exception: Jonathan Isaac, a piece Orlando hasn’t done anything to replace.
Isaac was posting a borderline Defensive Player of the Year campaign last year before going down with injury, and his offensive game was starting to somewhat catch up to his defense, making him a huge loss for his team heading into the new league year.
The veteran experience on the Magic’s roster, led by Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier, will help keep Orlando hovering around the playoff picture, but we expect the loss of defensive dynamo Isaac to be difficult for the team to overcome, as we have them as the last-place team in the play-in tournament.
Record last season: 20-47
Percentage of returning minutes: 61.2 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo
Another extremely active team this past offseason were the Atlanta Hawks, who spent a total of $158.2 million last month.
Their biggest additions were Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, though the pickups of Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn will also help shore up the team’s defensively-lacking backcourt from last season. Those acquisitions to go with Trae Young, Clint Capela and John Collins should be enough to get the team in the playoffs next season, and yet we predict they finish merely ninth in the East in 2020-21.
The reasons for that are twofold: For starters, we have concerns about what their defense will look like. Capela and Dunn should help on that end, but will that be enough to overcome the point-stopping shortcomings of players like Young, Gallinari and Bogdanovic?
Further, the East is much stronger this season; even teams like Washington and Indiana could make it tough for the Hawks to be a playoff lock right off the bat following all those pickups.
Nevertheless, even making the play-in tournament would be a huge step up for an Atlanta squad that finished last year 20-47 and 14th in the East.
Record last season: 45-28
Percentage of returning minutes: 98.2 percent
Along with Victor Oladipo, Indiana has two super reliable studs in Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, as well as the slightly inconsistent but uber-talented Myles Turner, and high-scoring wing TJ Warren, giving the team a well-rounded starting five that we expect to keep the Pacers firmly within the playoff picture this season.
Record last season: 25-47
Percentage of returning minutes: 75.2 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Russell Westbrook, Deni Avdija, Robin Lopez
Following the offseason acquisition of Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards raised their ceiling a good amount, as although Westbrook may have his detractors, there’s no denying the explosive point guard’s productiveness and game-changing impact.
Even last season sharing a lot of the ball with the high-usage James Harden, Westbrook still posted a 27/8/7 stat line, so his addition to Washington’s backcourt alongside Bradley Beal will be huge for the Wizards’ chances to get back into the playoffs.
Outside of the backcourt, Washington has a solid supporting cast as well, headlined by elite outside marksman Davis Bertans, two promising bigs in Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant, exciting rookie Deni Avdija and reliable backups Robin Lopez and Raul Neto.
That’s why we think the Wizards, led by their super backcourt, have enough to get into the postseason picture in Year-1 with Westbrook.
Record last season: 53-19
Percentage of returning minutes: 77.6 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Aron Baynes, Alex Len, Malachi Flynn
Another year where we could very well be guilty of underrating the Toronto Raptors, who almost always manage to exceed preseason expectations under their current regime, one that’s as well-coached as any in the league.
At the same time, it speaks to how loaded the top of the East projects to be this season that we know the Raptors should be great this year yet still predict they finish sixth in 2020-21.
Regardless, with a returning Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby, Toronto boasts a strong rotation ahead of the new league year. The team also did a solid job in replacing the departing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol with Aron Baynes and Alex Len, as well as in adding respectable depth in Malachi Flynn and DeAndre Bembry.
Overall, the Raptors have a super solid squad with three All-Star or borderline All-Star types leading them. We just think other teams in the East have a slight advantage in the talent department.
Record last season: 44-29
Percentage of returning minutes: 81.7 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Avery Bradley, Moe Harkless, Precious Achiuwa
The East will be such a battle at the top that we have the defending Eastern Conference champion Heat finishing fifth, behind two teams they eliminated on the way to the 2020 NBA Finals.
Part of the reason for that is due to some of the teams around them making huge additions this offseason while Miami stood pat in hopes of maintaining cap flexibility for next offseason, making just two cheap (but savvy) signings: Avery Bradley and Moe Harkless.
Regardless, for now, the Heat return an All-NBA piece in Butler, a still-improving All-Star in Adebayo and two sharpshooters in Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Now, the roster might look different if the team pulls off a deal for James Harden, but even if they don’t, they have enough talent on their team and in their elite coaching staff to remain one of the top teams in the East.
It’s just hard to predict they make another Finals run with how stacked the East is at the top.
Record last season: 43-30
Percentage of returning minutes: 61.5 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Danny Green, Dwight Howard, Seth Curry
Another team heavily rumored to be a potential landing spot for Harden, the 76ers will be one of the top teams in the East next season with or without the bearded superstar.
That’s because Philadelphia already has two All-NBA-caliber pieces in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, as well as now, a much more sensible rotation around them. New shot-caller Daryl Morey has done a great job of making subtle but smart changes to the team’s roster, picking up a championship-winning 2-guard, Danny Green, to replace the ill-fitting Al Horford, along with Seth Curry, who has statistically been one of the league’s best shooters for the past few seasons.
Those two additions particularly will help the Sixers out a ton, allowing Tobias Harris to shift back down to playing power forward full time, while two of their other pickups, Dwight Howard and Tyrese Maxey, will immediately provide important bench production for the team.
Overall, under first-year head coach Doc Rivers, Philadelphia has a very talented, well-balanced roster, one that should make some serious nice in the East this season.
Record last season: 48-24
Percentage of returning minutes: 78.0 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Tristan Thompson, Jeff Teague, Payton Pritchard
We might be higher on the Celtics than others, and a lot of that faith has to do with our expectation that Tatum and Brown will continue improving this upcoming season.
Coming off his first All-NBA season last year, Tatum, who’s still just 22, by the way, will have huge expectations on his shoulders in 2020-21, but judging how he’s dealt with that kind of pressure in the past, we don’t expect that to be a problem. Tatum will have every chance to solidify himself as a Top-15 player this upcoming season.
Brown, meanwhile, has maintained steady growth as a player, coming in as an elite defender on the wing, but one who is now capable of dropping 20 points nightly on average.
That’s one heck of a forward combo the Celtics have, one that still has plenty of room to grow.
Add Kemba Walker (who, granted, is still dealing with injury troubles), defensive monster Marcus Smart and the newly acquired Tristan Thompson to that duo, and you have what looks like a top contender in the East.
A lot will fall on the shoulders of Tatum and Brown, however, though they probably don’t mind all that much.
Record last season: 35-37
Percentage of returning minutes: 76.3 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Landry Shamet, Jeff Green, Bruce Brown
Before we start singing their praises, it must be noted that the Nets have some very legitimate concerns heading into a crucial 2020-21 season for the club.
First off, they have a first-year head coach in Steve Nash running things, one with no experience as even an assistant so far in his career. That’s a cause for concern, particularly when we mention Brooklyn’s other big issues: chemistry and injuries.
Will Nash’s voice resonate in the locker room if the former becomes a problem at some point this year?
Irving has threatened to ignore the media whenever he wants this season, and the campaign hasn’t even started yet. Once the Nets lose a couple of games in a row this year and pundits start to question them, how will Brooklyn respond to that?
They also have a lot of very good players (one could argue they boast the deepest roster in the league right now); are they all going to be all right with coming off the bench or accepting smaller roles than they had the past two seasons?
Nonetheless, with all that said, the Nets will be led by Durant, who looked like the best player in the world during his last playoff run with the Golden State Warriors, and Irving, who has proven to be a legitimate star, including in the playoffs.
And on top of that super duo, Brooklyn also has Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan on their roster, and that’s without even mentioning other solid pieces like Landry Shamet, Jeff Green and Taurean Prince.
If they’re able to keep their heads on straight and if they can maintain a semblance of good health in 2020-21, the Nets should absolutely be considered championship contenders.
Those are two big ifs, though.
Record last season: 56-17
Percentage of returning minutes: 50.6 perent
Top offseason acquisitions: Jrue Holiday, DJ Augustin, Bobby Portis
After the enormous news that Antetokounmpo would be signing a max extension with the Bucks, there was really no question who would finish first in these rankings.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are coming off a league year that saw them go 56-17 (that’s a 77 percent win rate, by the way) and boast a net rating of +9.4, the best mark a team had put up in the regular season since the 2016-17 Warriors. And after the way their season ended, getting embarrassingly eliminated by the Heat in five games before even reaching the conference finals, Milwaukee will be hungry for revenge this year.
With the way the team was able to improve their rotation around Antetokounmpo this offseason, adding Holiday, DJ Augustin and Bobby Portis, that’s a scary proposition for the rest of the East in 2020-21.
Antetokounmpo is now surrounded by the best roster he’s played with since becoming a superstar. Will it be enough to get Milwaukee over the hump and into the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974?
Right now, we predict it might be.