Way Too Early Eastern Conference Predictions

Writer: Caleb Akpan

After two months of draft picks, trades, and free agent signings shook the league, the NBA appears to have more parity than ever before...at least in the Western Conference. In the East, a slugfest of questionable entertainment value seems destined to occur, with no certainty for how things will shake out outside of the conference’s top seeds. The guessing game to determine where teams will end up by April 2020 is what brings us here today, and with the offseason still not over, let’s put an emphasis on the word “guessing.”

15. Charlotte Hornets 

Terry Rozier will be paid $19 million dollars a year over the next three seasons. That just about sums up the Hornets’ chances to do anything of relevance, as Rozier appears to be the perfect tank commander for a team that lost the one good thing it had going for them after Kemba Walker left to Boston at the start of free agency. Rozier should have some huge games and hopefully return to his 2018 playoff form, which saw him average 16.5 points per game in contests of importance that no Hornets game next season will be able to match. Also look for Miles Bridges to have a strong sophomore season in what should be an expanded role starting over the aging Marvin Williams. Other than that, there’s not much buzzing in Buzz City. 

14. Washington Wizards  

There’s only so much Bradley Beal can do when you surround him with Isaiah Thomas   (44/164 possible regular season appearances the past 2 seasons), Rui Hachimura (potentially great), Davis Bertans (not starting-caliber), and Thomas Bryant (good, but still growing). Washington would probably be best served trading Beal for assets to truly start rebuilding the franchise after John Wall’s ruptured Achilles injury basically guaranteed them a lottery slot.  If Beal stays, look for him to compete for the league’s scoring title and don’t count out Hachimura in the Rookie of the Year race if he continues to perform as he did in Summer League. Isaiah Thomas may also reemerge as a legitimate scoring threat, but even with that Washington’s playoff chances seem low, and most would bet on Thomas getting hurt again before he begins to look good again. 

13. New York Knicks 

Summer 2019 definitely did not go as planned after New York struck out on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency, but that doesn't mean that all hope is lost in the Big Apple. Dennis Smith Jr., Allonzo Trier, R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson are a high-potential young core, but high potential equates to waiting for players to develop, and Knicks fans don’t seem to have much more patience within them. The Knicks went into this offseason thinking they were about to start a championship run, but on paper, the 2020 team looks more like a discount “Trust the Process” team. If New Yorkers are willing to wait, it just might turn into something, just not this season.

12. Cleveland Cavaliers 

Cleveland got off to a terrible 0-6 start last season that saw Kevin Love go down and Tyronn Lue get fired not long afterwards. Now, with John Belein at the helm and Love healthy, Cleveland can attempt to compete while also developing their very young backcourt of Collin Sexton and fifth overall pick Darius Garland. The Cavaliers making the playoffs seems highly unlikely, but where they fall after that will likely come down to how well that backcourt plays together. Both Sexton and Garland are 6’2”, sub-200 lb. point guards, meaning one will have to certainly play out of position. Luckily, in the positionless basketball era we live in today, that should be the least of their problems, and it’s their general chemistry that needs to come together in order for Cleveland to avoid the rock bottom of the conference. 

11. Chicago Bulls 

Chicago is hosting the 2020 NBA All-Star Game! And that’s the one thing that seems guaranteed to be great for the Bulls franchise next year. Their roster on paper leaves actual game results up in the air. On the one hand, Zach Lavine and Lauri Markkanen are scoring threats surrounded by solid young talents in the form of Coby White, Otto Porter, and Wendell Carter. On the other, the Bulls had the second-worst offensive rating in the league last season and the sixth-worst defensive rating. Chicago has the talent to squeeze their way into the Eastern Conference playoffs, but their woes on both ends of the court may stop that talent from fully showcasing itself. 

10. Atlanta Hawks

Trae Young projects to be an absolute star in this league and John Collins deserves to be talked about much more than he his when it comes to young, high-potential players in this league. Don’t be shocked if that duo continues to show flashes of Nash and Stoudemire next season, but also consider that the Hawks are VERY young, drafting Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter and giving themselves the opportunity to put out a Fab Five-like lineup of first and second year players if they chose to. Atlanta will definitely cause problems for great teams, look for them steal games over conference favorites, but at some point, it seems like their average roster age of 23 will have to catch up with them. 

9. Detroit Pistons 

Detroit’s in the worst possible position an NBA franchise could find themselves in. With Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, and Andre Drummond on the roster, they’re more than good enough to avoid the bottom of the conference. With the roster surrounding them, a playoff spot seems possible at best. Sekou Doumbaya is the only young prospect that seems to have a higher potential than role player. They’re barely free of the luxury tax and many suggested they trade for the giant contracts of Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul just to put butts in seats of their newly-built arena. The Pistons are going nowhere fast and their two best offensive players are often on the sidelines instead of on the court due to injuries. A ninth-place finish instead of barely grabbing a playoff spot  would at least give the team an outside shot on a high lottery pick to improve the roster. 

8. Orlando Magic 

Handing out big contracts to key players on a 42-win team seems questionable, but the Magic may not have topped their potential last season and an eighth-place prediction could be selling this team short. With that being said, there’s just not much on paper to ensure confidence in placing the Magic higher than the seven other teams on this list. Nikola Vuecevic is good, but his playoff performance was terrible. Aaron Gordon didn’t really improve last season after looking like he was set to break out and Evan Fournier seems stuck in scoring 15-17 points a game on good, but not great percentages. Markelle Fultz might have figured out his jump shot in the offseason, but none of these things feel likely to have changed. If they do, Orlando will finish better than eighth, but until then, they feel like the NBA team most likely to repeat their history.  

7. Miami Heat 

Jimmy Butler has been given what seems to be his dream scenario with the Miami Heat: be the obvious best player and try to carry a team to the playoffs. In the East, that dream will likely become reality, but where that playoff spot ill land is definitely up for debate. The Goran Dragic-Dion Waiters backcourt is intriguing, but Waiters has spent most of his Heat tenure out with injuries, and Dragic joined him last season with a knee injury. Young players like Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow, and Tyler Herro should all be able to contribute, but we’ve all seen what Jimmy Butler can do to a young core in Minnesota. If their health remains intact and Butler doesn't take on the first stringers with the bottom of the bench, the Heat could end up finishing much higher in what looks to be a messy 3-8 range out East. 

6. Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving automatically make the Nets contenders for the Eastern Conference crown…..next season. In this 2019 gap year, Kyrie Irving could still take the franchise to the top of the conference’s standings, but Brooklyn fans shouldn’t be too worried about where the team falls this season. What does matter is Irving avoiding the drama that saw him leave the Boston Celtics in free agency, even after he promised Celtics fans he would be back before the start of last season. Kyrie is once again entering a young locker room of players that might not know how to win at the top level of the league yet, and this time he must focus on encouraging from within over criticizing on the outside. Irving truly becoming a leader could put the Nets ahead of schedule as they hope for the same with Kevin Durant’s rehab from a ruptured achilles. 

5. Toronto Raptors 

The Raptors definitely got worse after losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and starter Danny Green in free agency, but by exactly how much remains to be seen. Pascal Siakam seems to only be trending up after a Most Improved Player Award and great NBA Finals performance put him on the map of the league’s great players. Fred VanVleet’s playing stretch after welcoming his son into the world could make him one of Toronto’s top scoring options next season. Kyle Lowry’s regular seasons seem to be trending down, but he played well when needed most last season and should be able to fill a re-expanded role. Still, Leonard was the best player in the world over the course of the 2019 playoffs, and losing a player of that caliber has never gone well for the unlucky team in the following season. With no cap space and minimal offseason additions, all Toronto can do is hope that they’re an exception to the rule. 

4. Indiana Pacers

Nate McMillan runs a well-oiled machine in Indiana, one that has already proven they can win even without star Victor Oladipo. Still recovering from a ruptured quad tendon, Oladipo isn’t expected back until December at the earliest, but new additions Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, and T.J. Warren should keep the Pacers’ system running at its regular pace, if not better. Where Indiana may falter is with their bench, as Domantas Sabonis moves into the starting lineup, leaving Doug McDermott and TJ McConnell as the team’s best options off the sideline. Making sure the team always has a five-man lineup on the court fit to compete with some of the deeper teams in the league will be a key task for McMillan, but he’s figured out harder things in the past. Bet on Indiana surpassing expectations before you do so for the team not meeting them. 

3. Boston Celtics 

Replacing the Kyrie Irving we saw last season with Kemba Walker seems like a lateral move at worst for the Celtics. Their major loss in the offseason was Al Horford, who was the key cog in Brad Stevens’ offensive system, keeping them afloat even as all signs pointed to the team imploding last year. There’s no player who can directly replace Horford on Boston’s roster, so Stevens will have to figure out a way for the team as a collective to fill in the big man’s performance. Luckily for them, there’s no clear third best team in the East, so there’s no way to say that they’re definitely worse without Horford, at least in terms of playoff standing. As long as Walker continues to provide his elite scoring and blends with the team better than Irving, Boston still has just as much of a chance at home court advantage in the East this season than they did in the last. 

2. Milwaukee Bucks 

Wesley Matthews is no Malcolm Brogdon and that could be what stops the Bucks from taking the East’s top spot in the upcoming season. Brogdon had a 50/40/90 season last year, while Matthews couldn’t hit forty percent from the field. Brogdon’s player efficiency was 17.8 while Matthews was 10.3, though the latter should be stopped from taking questionable shots on offense with clearly better options ahead of him on the Bucks. Other than the change at the two, Giannis Antetekounmpo is still MVP-caliber and Khris Middleton is still an all-star level player, now making superstar-level money. The Robin Lopez addition is solid and their returning core should be able to keep things similar to 2019, which once again puts the Bucks in title contention. With Toronto seemingly out of the picture, Bucks fans should have expectations set on their team making the Finals for the first time in 45 years. 

1. Philadelphia 76ers 

The 76ers have the best starting lineup in the East and one of the best starting fives in the entire NBA. Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate who no longer has to worry about his greatest defender challenging him in the playoffs, with Al Horord now joining him in the frontcourt. Ben Simmons can’t make a jump shot, but his defense and offensive game inside the restricted area still makes him an all-star. Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson both could get you twenty points on any given night. Where the team falls off is with their bench, as Mike Scott seems to be the only reliable scoring option, but with so many strong starters, staggering lineups shouldn’t be too difficult. Some may question the fit of Horford and Embiid in the frontcourt, but Horford is far from a demanding offensive player and he can facilitate an offense from just about anywhere on the court, as long as Philly can keep scorers on the court, their defense and strong starting lineup give them an excellent chance to return to the league’s biggest stage.