Milwaukee Bucks (58-24)
The Bucks are coming off a season where they won a league high 60 games in the regular season before getting eliminated in 6 games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into a league MVP under Mike Buldenhozer, the Bucks still have room for improvement. Unfortunately, the team lost Malcolm Brogdon, their third best player, leaving them without a reliable ball handler (yes Eric Bledsoe, I’m looking at you) as well as Nikola Mirotic. Regardless, they added knockdown shooters in Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews. Plus, Giannis is only at “60%” of his potential, a truly scary thought.
Philadelphia 76ers (54-28)
The 76ers had a very weird offseason. They resigned Tobias Harris but lost Jimmy Butler. In the Butler trade, they got back Josh Richardson, but JJ Redick signed with the New Orleans Pelicans. And they signed Al Horford, but lost TJ McConnell. So, what do they have? Probably the tallest starting 5 in NBA history (don’t fact check me on that). What else? Not a whole lot of shooting. This team has the potential to be somewhat like last year’s Boston Celtics: extremely talented but might struggle to mesh. However, I believe both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will improve considerably (Embiid with his health & conditioning, Simmons with his shooting and off-ball abilities). Also, they will be an elite defensive team with all the size and length they possess.
Indiana Pacers (49-33)
After the top two, the East gets pretty murky. Many would put the Celtics as the conference’s third best team, but I have more faith in the Indiana Pacers. The core of this team (sans Bogan Bogdonovic) remains and they added some very solid pieces in Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren, and Jeremy Lamb to name a few. Though this is a trend, I believe this will be the year Myles Turner takes a step offensively and ups his aggression. Finally, Victor Oladipo should play more games than he misses, which is more than can be said for last year. Even if he doesn’t exactly return to “Most Improved Player” form, he’s an amazing all-around player who can lead this team to a top four seed.
Boston Celtics (47-35)
It’s funny; you’d think without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics would be a much less confusing team. However, I’d argue there are more questions than ever surrounding the squad, starting with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Is this the year we see them jump to NBA stardom? There’s no longer the excuse that Kyrie was in the way – though Kemba Walker is pretty similar –, and considering all the superstars Danny Ainge could have traded the pair for, they need to prove they were worth keeping. There’s also the center situation with Enes Kanter “replacing” Al Horford which is completely laughable. Sure, he might put up better counting numbers, but Boston will be worse off with Kanter in the middle. Lastly, will Gordon Hayward get closer to his pre-injury form? So many questions; how will they be answered?
Brooklyn Nets (47-35)
The Nets were last year’s feel good team. They came out of nowhere to win 42 games and make the playoffs, mostly behind the rise of D’Angelo Russell. Well, D-Lo is gone, but Kyrie Irving has replaced him and brought some friends along with him in the form of DeAndre Jordan and of course, Kevin Durant. While we won’t see Durant this season due to his Achilles injury, this should actually be beneficial to Kyrie and the rest of the Nets squad. It’ll give Kyrie the chance to prove he’s not a basket case and I believe he’ll have a career year. I also think Caris LeVert will continue to grow, potentially becoming a 20+ points per game scorer. Add in solid players in Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and Joe Harris, and this team has the culture and eventually, the chemistry to make some noise in the East.
Toronto Raptors (46-36)
Similar to the Warriors out west, I was tempted to leave the Raptors off this list entirely, but I couldn’t think of eight better teams in the East. Yes, they lost Kawhi Leonard. Yes, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka are a year older (and likely a year worse). Additionally, I’m not totally convinced Pascal Siakam is set to be the league’s next star. However, the Raptors were a good team when Kawhi didn’t play last year and at the very least, they should be one of the better defensive teams in the league. Nick Nurse also showed he’s a creative offensive mind so the team should get by on that end. And if it doesn’t, just blow everything up at the trade deadline.
Miami Heat (44-38)
The Heat are in an interesting situation. They acquired Jimmy Butler from the 76ers, but lost Josh Richardson in the process. They also traded away Hassan Whiteside, but now Bam Adebayo can become the team’s starting center. This team is similar to the Raptors as it’s hard to see where they’ll get offense outside of Jimmy. One could advocate for Justice Winslow, but his impact will be lessened with Goran Dragic coming back. Regardless, the Heat will be a good defensive team. While that won’t give them a high seed, it should allow their younger players to develop in a winning environment, which is beneficial in the long run.
Orlando Magic (43-39)
For the eighth seed, I had to decide between the Magic and the Detroit Pistons. I ultimately went with the Magic because they have a more cohesive unit. Though Aaron Gordon “regressed” last year, he still had a solid year and I expect him to up his stats a bit more in his sixth season. If healthy, Jonathan Isaac can continue to show flashes that had him drafted so high two years ago. Nikola Vucevic also has a chance to repeat as an All-Star. While their point guard situation might have a bit of a hitch – no shade, Markelle Fultz – this team will play hard, especially on defense, and should get just enough offense out of its frontcourt to be the eighth seed.