Last year, the Toronto Raptors won the Eastern Conference title, making them the first team without LeBron James to win the Conference since 2010. After the departure of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, the Conference is wide open once again. While the West has typically been the stronger of the two conferences, this year’s Eastern Conference will be a competitive battle featuring multiple legitimate title contenders, superstars in new places, and a collection of dark horse teams who could make a deep playoff run.
#1 Seed: Philadelphia 76ers
After two straight 50 win seasons, the 76ers will see a big jump this season, as an important piece joins a continually improving young core. In one of the most underrated moves of the offseason, the 76ers were able to lure veteran big man Al Horford away from the rival Boston Celtics. While Horford may be 33 years old, the wily veteran is still a top notch defender, something that will be important for the 76ers to keep winning games down the stretch if they need to rest fellow big man Joel Embiid due to load management.
Even though they lost Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia received a solid replacement in Josh Richardson who will be another offensive option alongside an already extremely talented cast. In addition, Tobias Harris will have a full offseason to mesh with his teammates, and Ben Simmons is rumored to be developing a jump shot, something that would make the already talented Aussie very, very difficult to stop.
#2 Seed: Milwaukee Bucks
There is really only one thing that needs to be said about the Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo. The reigning MVP will be back with a vengeance after last season’s postseason defeat, hoping to finally lead his team to the NBA Finals. However, it may be tough for Antetokounmpo to replicate last season’s regular season success after spending the summer leading the Greek team at the FIBA World Cup.
Fellow All-Star Khris Middleton will also be coming off a FIBA World Cup with team USA, and the team will sorely miss former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, who signed with the Indiana Pacers during the offseason. However, the Bucks still bring back talented veterans like Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe, and the additions of Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez give the team a solid amount of depth. This team has too much front end talent with Antetokounmpo to falter significantly, but it will be hard for them to replicate last year’s incredible regular season success.
#3 Seed: Boston Celtics
While the Celtics may not have as much talent as last year’s squad after the loss of Kyrie Irving, the team will undoubtedly have more chemistry. After signing Kemba Walker to replace Irving earlier this summer, Walker has spent weeks playing with future teammates Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart on team USA on the FIBA World Cup Squad. While the quartet may start off the season a little slow after a long summer, the chemistry they’ve developed will help the team avoid the long-term issues of last season.
The Celtics also lose veteran Al Horford, but they bring in an apt replacement in Enes Kanter. Draft picks Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, and Carsen Edwards all have the potential to contribute immediately, and all three should add depth to form a solid rotation. After struggling last year while coming back from injury, Gordon Hayward should also improve in year three with the Celtics. The young trio of Brown, Tatum, and Smart, along with the organization’s fresh faces should be enough for the Celtics to earn to solidly earn home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
#4 Seed: Toronto Raptors
Normally, after teams win an NBA title, they suffer from a “championship hangover” at the beginning of the next season. However, the Toronto Raptors have their own reasons to play as one of the most motivated teams in the league next season instead of resting on their laurels. The defending NBA champions have almost zero expectations after losing superstar Kawhi Leonard, but they still bring back a formidable roster next season.
Leading the way will be Pascal Siakam, who will be looking to prove that he can have success without relying on a superstar like Leonard. The Raptors also bring back veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, who has made five straight All-Star appearances and proved he is still in the upper echelon of point guards during last season’s championship run. Finally, the Raptors return the intimidating duo of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, who provide stifling defense in the paint and valuable offensive contributions. Even though they lost their superstar, those who are coming back for the Raptors are more motivated than ever.
#5 Seed: Indiana Pacers
Over the last decade, the Pacers have quietly been one of the most consistent franchises in the NBA, making the playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons. After earning the fifth seed last year, expect the Pacers to comfortably make the postseason once again. Last season, the Pacers were off to a hot start, but Victor Oladipo’s ruptured tendon in mid-January caused serious repercussions, as the team struggled down the stretch without their superstar.
This season, the Pacers might get off to a slower start as Oladipo finishes recovering from his severe injury, but the team should eventually gain steam with the return of their superstar and the continued development of their young core. Big men Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner are both currently representing their countries at the FIBA World Cup, but they should create a powerful interior duo when they return to Indiana. The addition of Malcolm Brogdon will also help the team down the stretch, as the former Buck will combine with Oladipo to create one of the conference’s best backcourts.
#6 Seed: Brooklyn Nets
Out of all the teams in the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets look the most different from last year, yet I still expect them to finish in the same spot in the standings this season. While it’s easy to focus on the players the Nets added this offseason, it’s also important to look at who the Nets lost from last year’s playoff squad. Brooklyn is now without D’Angelo Russell, last year’s unquestioned team leader and an All-Star. The Nets also lose Shabazz Napier, a key spark off the bench last year.
Of course, over the course of the offseason, the Nets also added Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Deandre Jordan. Durant’s ruptured Achilles will keep him out of action next season, but Irving and Jordan both bring veteran experience and All-Star talent to Brooklyn. However, Irving comes to Brooklyn with questions about being the leader of a team after his failures with Boston, and Jordan played with three teams over the last two seasons, struggling to make a key impact.
#7 Seed: Orlando Magic
After a six year playoff absence, the Magic returned to the postseason last year, and they look to build on their momentum and return to the playoffs once again this year. The Magic had a relatively quietly offseason, their most notable moves being the resigning of two of the team’s best players from last year, Terrance Ross and Nikola Vucevic. The only new player the Magic brought in was veteran Al-Farouq Aminu, who should provide an important veteran presence in a youthful locker room.
Much of the Magic’s success this year will be dependent on the development of the team’s young core. Lanky power forward Jonathan Isaac had a solid sophomore season and will hopefully continue to improve in year three, while center Mo Bamba is finally healthy and should put in solid minutes as a backup to Vucevic. It will also be interesting to see how Markelle Fultz looks in a Magic uniform after not playing since early November of last season.
#8 Seed: Miami Heat
For the first time since the LeBron James era, the Heat have a top 15 NBA player on their roster. In the offseason, Miami came out on top in the Jimmy Butler sweepstakes, signing the four time All-Star to a four year, $141 million deal. After a tumultuous season last year where he forced a trade to Philadelphia midway through the season, Butler will be looking to prove that he is still a top tier player in the league, capable of leading a team to the postseason.
While the Heat brought in Butler, they also lost one of the league’s best interior defenders in Hassan Whiteside, last season’s leading scorer in Josh Richardson, and, of course, the franchise’s most important all-time player in Dwayne Wade. In order to replace these three monumental losses, the Heat will rely on young big man Bam Adebayo, who has shown flashes of promise, and solid veterans like Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters. Their shallow rotation may cause problems down the stretch, but I expect the team’s talent to be enough to clinch the final postseason berth.