The Eastern Conference will look very different in 2021. What has been long described as the “weaker conference” of the two is now on the come up. The top of the East is truly a battle of the titans, with a handful of teams having a fighter’s chance at securing a top seed. This offseason saw some shuffling around the league that will have a ringing impact at the top of the standings. That being said, let’s make our way-too-early 2021 Eastern Conference Predictions.
To see the 2021 Western Conference Playoff Standings Predictions, click here.
Way-Too-Early 2021 Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions
1. Milwaukee Bucks
The future of the Milwaukee Bucks looks very uncertain, but general manager Jon Horst took a shot in the dark this offseason by sacrificing the team’s future assets for Jrue Holiday. This move was executed in order to give Giannis Antetokounmpo some needed help as the team has the entire season to convince him to re-sign long term. Bringing in Holiday bolsters the team’s already elite defense while also adding a capable facilitator who plays at an All-Star level.
Milwaukee’s biggest issues have not arisen in the regular season, but rather the playoffs. The team is a force to be reckoned with on any given night, as they finished with the league’s best record last season at 56-17. However, the playoffs in the bubble told another story. While the Bucks made quick work of the Orlando Magic in five games, the team struggled mightily against the reigning Eastern Conference Champion Miami Heat, going down in six games.
Giannis sat out the last couple of games with an ankle injury, and that blow took too much of a toll on the rest of the roster. This was the second consecutive postseason where the Bucks came up short despite being among the favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. If the Bucks fail again, having bet their entire future on the reigning MVP, will they lose on their franchise superstar next offseason?
2. Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics were a few unforced errors (and one Gordon Hayward) away from reaching the NBA Finals and competing with an unprecedented banner 18. However, that wasn’t to be, and Boston went back to the drawing board. While the start of free agency did not go as originally planned, as Gordon Hayward walked away for $120 million, Danny Ainge recovered nicely, bringing in some veteran reinforcement in Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson. The Celtics also addressed other needs in the draft as they selected sharpshooter Aaron Nesmith from Villanova and Payton Pritchard from Oregon.
Without Hayward, the Celtics will have some touches available to disperse. Playing without the former All-Star should not come as a grand challenge, as the franchise should be used to missing Hayward due to a handful of absences from injuries. It should also pave way for budding stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to take another leap as the two look to take the franchise into the next five-plus years.
While they lost a little star power in Hayward, the Celtics have always been a scrappy, competitive bunch, and that should translate to a strong 2021 season and a top seed in the Eastern Conference Standings.
3. Brooklyn Nets
Over a year after signing on the dotted line, Kevin Durant will finally suit up for the Brooklyn Nets this season. He will play with Kyrie Irving for the first time and maybe James Harden? Trade talks that were once red-hot prior to the draft and free agency have seemingly cooled for the time being, but there is still time for the two to make a deal.
But, assuming there is no trade, the Nets will still be a powerhouse on both ends of the floor. While the roster may be talented enough for a one or two seed, there are a few factors to take into account. The NBA regular season is a grind, and the physical toll it can have on players can last for future seasons down the road. For a team with players like Durant and Irving, who are coming back from injuries themselves, it may be a slow start to the season for them.
Take into account that this is the shortest offseason in league history. With the start date of December 22 right around the corner, players are not getting the amount of time off they are used to in order to rest their bodies. Durant is coming off a torn Achilles, and Irving likes to take of Mondays, so there will be some overlap throughout the year. Despite whatever the team’s final record is, they will surely be among the favorites come playoff time.
4. Miami Heat
The reigning Eastern Conference Champions put the entire league on notice that they are ready to compete now. A surprise emergence in the bubble, the Miami Heat reminded the entire NBA what the value of team basketball holds in 2020. While many believed the Heat may have overachieved last season, the team revamped their roster for a strong 2021 push.
Pat Riley worked his magic by bringing in Avery Bradley to add to the team’s depth in the backcourt and provide elite defense. They also resigned Goran Dragic to help with the offensive load. While the Heat’s run in the postseason provided fans with a free face at the top of the scene, one has to wonder what kind of toll it took on the team.
The season is less than a month away, and training camp is two weeks. The Heat played their last game just over a month ago. The amount of rest for these players has not been as long as they are accustomed to. We just saw Jimmy Butler work to the nub in the Finals, but it wasn’t enough. Was that run the peak of what this Miami team will accomplish, or is it the start of the rise of the next top team in the Eastern Conference in 2021?
5. Philadelphia 76ers
As someone who actively roots against the Philadelphia 76ers, I have to tip my cap to Daryl Morey for what he managed to pull on draft night. He erased all the 76ers poor choices over the past year in one night. He dealt Al Horford and his contract to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Danny Green, traded Josh Richardson to the Dallas Mavericks for Seth Curry, and drafted Tyrese Maxey out of Kentucky. In one night, Morey fixed the stagnant play style of Philadelphia by adding shooters around stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The team also added some insurance off the bench in Dwight Howard in a surprise decision. How will he mesh with the front office, new head coach Doc Rivers, or especially Embiid?
Overall, an impressive offseason by Philly in a shortened window of time. While the duo of Embiid and Simmons is star-powered, it has grown redundant and predictable. Is the team’s new identity enough to break that trend? The next step towards progression has to be growing Simmons’ game around the three-point line in order to make him more of a posing threat to opponents.
6. Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors run at the top may be very short-lived. They fell to the Boston Celtics in the second round in what took a few strokes of luck to force seven games, but they were thoroughly outplayed at every turn. The team also lost its too big men Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol to Los Angeles, both the Clippers and Lakers respectively. But the Raptors resigned workhorse Fred VanVleet to a 4 year contract worth over $20 million a year.
That being said, the team is primarily running it back next season. They swapped out the two bigs for Aron Baynes while also creating room for young prospect Chris Boucher to breakout into a larger role. Other than that, a core of Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and company is enough to land a seed in the playoff standings, but what is this team’s ceiling now?
Despite his aging, Lowry played the best basketball of his career in the NBA bubble. If he keeps playing at that level next season, is it enough to secure home court advantage in a crowded Eastern Conference?
7. Atlanta Hawks
One team that has perhaps the best case for winning the offseason was the Atlanta Hawks. A lottery-striken team in recent memory bolster its roster that may be ready to compete now, despite its star Trae Young only being in his third season in 2021. The Hawks added some much needed veteran presence in Rajon Rondo, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and Kris Dunn, while also drafting the highly sought after Onyeka Okungwu out of USC.
The team filled holes in just about every department with their new addition, and with their newfound combination of youth and experience, they may be ready to make some noise in the Eastern Conference in 2021. At the very least, they are now a team that makes opponents have to compete now, something that they have not been able to say for the past few years.
8. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers were supposed to be major sellers this offseason, but a single deal has yet to be made to this point. A handful of rumors swirled that Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo were looking for a new place to call home, but the team was not able to strike a deal anywhere. Has this created irreparable dissension in the locker room?
The Pacers as constructed are a playoff bound team. They have too much talent not to be competitive night-in and night-out. Unless the Pacers strike a deal before the 2021 season, they are coming back with the same roster that got swept in four games against the Miami Heat in the first round. What does the future hold in Indiana? That much will be told in 2021.
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