As the 2023-24 NBA season draws near, this article unravels the dynamics at play within the conference, highlighting marquee player acquisitions, roster reshuffles, and the strategic shifts that could redefine the competitive landscape within the Eastern Conference. Here is where the teams in the east stand, giving a glimpse into what fans can expect as the battle for Eastern Conference supremacy unfolds in the coming season.
2023-24 Eastern Conference Predictions
1. The Boston Celtics
The Celtics are still anchored by their star forwards, with Jaylen Brown securing a record-high NBA contract, ensuring their presence for the foreseeable future. However, the supporting cast around Brown and Jayson Tatum has seen significant changes, with notable departures like Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams III. Their places have been filled by Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis.
Despite being statistically the best team in the league over the last four seasons, the Celtics have struggled to secure a championship. With the departure of Smart, the leadership role now rests firmly on Tatum and Brown.
The key to the Celtics’ success is Kristaps Porzingis, who showcased a career-best season with the Wizards, demonstrating growth as a scorer while maintaining elite rim protection. Durability remains a concern for Porzingis, but if he can stay on the court consistently, he has the potential to be the catalyst for transforming the Celtics from contenders to champions.
In the Eastern Conference, Milwaukee and Boston are viewed as co-favorites. Despite potential depth concerns, if the Celtics maintain good health and secure solid contributions from one or two players beyond their top six, they could outperform and become the stronger team in a playoff series. Their ultimate goal is a championship, and the potential to achieve it is within reach.
2. The Milwaukee Bucks
Teaming Giannis Antetokounmpo with Damian Lillard creates an offensive powerhouse that will dominate the Eastern Conference. Defenses will struggle to contain a pick-and-roll featuring the two. If they try to trap Lillard, Antetokounmpo becomes an open threat on the roll. It leaves Lillard with an open pull-up shot if they drop to defend against lobs to Antetokounmpo.
Even if, somehow, the duo is contained, they can kick the ball out to Khris Middleton or Brook Lopez for open shots against a rotating defense. Rookie head coach Adrian Griffin has all the tools to create nightmares for opposing defenses. However, despite the offensive prowess, the Lillard trade may weaken the Bucks’ defense, especially given the shift from Jrue Holiday to Lillard.
Despite this, the Bucks are driven to move past their early exit in the playoffs against Miami last season and reestablish themselves as NBA Finals contenders. Nonetheless, the Bucks have flaws such as depth, quickness, and youth, which may require Lillard and Antetokounmpo to shoulder more responsibility and lead in various aspects of the game, potentially sacrificing some scoring for a more balanced team approach.
3. The Cleveland Cavaliers
The acquisition of Donovan Mitchell last season elevated both the Cavaliers’ potential and the expectations of their fan base. Now, the challenge lies in harnessing Mitchell’s abilities to synergize with his teammates effectively and make a significant impact in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The additions of Max Strus from Miami and Georges Niang from Philadelphia bring much-needed three-point shooting, enhanced player movement, and versatility to the Cavaliers’ offensive arsenal, albeit potentially compromising their defensive solidity. However, the Cavaliers’ ultimate potential hinges on Evan Mobley‘s development. The team faces challenges in winning with two small guards and two bigs who lack consistent shooting, as seen with Mobley and Jarrett Allen last season.
If Mobley can be a reliable spot-up shooter or a more versatile perimeter shooter, it could significantly open up the floor for the entire team. Cleveland was the No. 4 seed last year. If Mitchell and Darius Garland continue to average 20+ points per game, there is no reason why the Cavaliers don’t make another leap this season now that they have some playoff experience under their belt.
4. The Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers should be poised to have a great season. They have the reigning MVP, they had the league’s third-best record last season, and they’re one of two teams that have reached the conference semifinals in each of the last three years.
But the 76ers face uncertainty due to James Harden‘s desire to leave just 20 months after his arrival. Trading him now may not fetch equal value, potentially impacting their title contention. The hiring of Nick Nurse as head coach and the promising youth of Tyrese Maxey provide room for improvement. If Harden stays and finds contentment, the Sixers could remain title contenders. However, the Harden situation is critical to gauge the team’s true potential.
Whether James Harden opts to stay, bolstering the potent offensive duo alongside Joel Embiid, or demands a mid-season departure will significantly influence the Sixers’ trajectory.
5. The New York Knicks
After winning its first playoff series for the first time in a decade, the New York Knicks are primed for another run with a familiar lineup. Jalen Brunson solidified his status as the franchise cornerstone through an outstanding regular season and pivotal playoff performances.
While the Knicks are a piece or two away from genuine title contention, they remain a strong playoff contender, holding the potential to acquire another star if one becomes available next season.
The Knicks added Donte DiVincenzo, which bolsters their wing depth. DiVincenzo’s ability to shoot nearly 40% from beyond the arc and contribute defensively adds a valuable dimension to the team. Despite RJ Barrett‘s relatively underwhelming first four seasons since being chosen as the No. 3 pick in the 2019 Draft, the Knicks don’t need him to be a star.
However, they do require him to evolve into a more efficient secondary scorer. The Knicks are well-positioned to have a successful season with a well-rounded roster boasting a blend of rim protection, versatility, and shot creation.
6. The Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks parted ways with Nate McMillan and decided to hire a new coach midway through the year. The decision to bring in someone of Quin Snyder’s caliber was smart for Atlanta, as Snyder’s impact on the Hawks was nearly immediate. With more time for Snyder to instill his famous motion principles, Atlanta is poised to regain its status as one of the league’s premier offensive teams.
The departure of John Collins, while seemingly impacting the offensive end, provides the team with increased lineup flexibility. This change alleviates congestion on the court, mainly when Collins shared the floor with Clint Capela. Regarding Young and Murray, Snyder is tasked with optimizing their pairing, as their on-court production was only partially realized last year. Young’s comfort on the ball contrasted with Murray’s role in alleviating pressure from the two-time All-Star. Young struggled with shooting percentages last year, so seeing what Snyder does to address that will be interesting.
For the Hawks to achieve more in the Eastern Conference, they need players like Jalen Johnson, De’Andre Hunter, and AJ Griffin to make substantial improvements. Additionally, the immediate contribution of Kobe Bufkin, with his versatile play style complementing Bogdan Bogdanovic, could be a noteworthy asset.
7. The Indiana Pacers
Tyrese Haliburton took a giant leap last season, averaging an impressive 20.7 points and 10.4 assists. However, his scoring potential remains largely untapped, and it’s time he gets more shot opportunities. Unlocking his scoring abilities could significantly elevate the Pacers, especially given the talented supporting cast of big men, promising young players, and seasoned veterans surrounding him.
The acquisition of the versatile Bruce Brown from the championship-winning Denver Nuggets was a significant win for Indiana, enhancing their roster with a dependable two-way player. Moreover, the selection of Jarace Walker in the draft and the acquisition of Obi Toppin provide the Pacers with strong contenders to fill the power forward position, a previously glaring need for the team.
Bennedict Mathurin is poised for a substantial leap this season; his remarkable year last season, securing a first-team All-Rookie status and finishing fourth in the ROY balloting, sets the stage for an even more impressive showing this year. Notably, Mathurin made a significant impact in an unconventional role as Indiana’s sixth man, thriving against opponents’ secondary lineups. The Pacers’ future looks promising with these key additions and the potential growth of their young talent.
8. The Miami Heat
Well, Miami had one of the worst offseason across the NBA, letting Gabe Vincent and Max Strus walk in free agency and failing trade negotiations to acquire Damian Lillard. They now rely on Caleb Martin, Josh Richardson, and untested young prospects to fill the gaps.
While Caleb Martin could improve on his postseason success last year and become a genuine third option for the Heat, Richardson could rekindle his previous Miami success, and young talents could shine; it’s a risky move for a team that is coming off an NBA Finals appearance.
The past season demonstrated the Heat’s ability to make a significant playoff run despite being the No. 8 seed, showcasing their unpredictable nature and determination. In the world of the Miami Heat, surprises are the norm. So don’t be surprised if the Heat tune out all the noise and make a run in the playoffs again this season.
9. The Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets find themselves in a post-superstar era, returning with a familiar core that produced modest results following the departure of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to the Western Conference in February.
Anticipations for postseason success have dwindled, replaced by a cloud of uncertainty regarding the team’s future trajectory. But the Nets possess a treasure trove of picks obtained from the Irving and Durant trades, positioning them to pursue another star player in the future should the opportunity arise.
For immediate improvements, the team pins its hopes on a potential resurgence from Ben Simmons, provided he can maintain good health and fit in alongside the players acquired in the Irving and Durant deals. Mikal Bridges excelled last season as he became an electric scorer, but the team needs a primary playmaker to set up plays for the ensemble. Despite a limited number of games played in the last two years, Ben Simmons has the potential to fill this crucial playmaking role.
The team’s outlook brightens significantly if Bridges and Nic Claxton continue to build upon their solid performances from the past seasons and Simmons returns to his All-Star form. In such a scenario, the Nets could aim for a spot in the play-in tournament and even harbor hope for a playoff berth.
10. The Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic have been meticulously crafting their path to success, heavily emphasizing cultivating their young talent through the Draft. This approach has shown promise, with Paolo Banchero being crowned the Rookie of the Year last year and Franz Wagner emerging as a potential star.
As the team continues to accumulate assets, a critical juncture awaits where they must decide which players to retain and which to part ways with. The upcoming season will likely play a significant role in making these determinations. Adding to their promising roster, the Magic secured a duo of first-round selections in Anthony Black and Jett Howard, enhancing the team’s depth.
Additionally, the acquisition of Joe Ingles in free agency adds perimeter shooting. But most notably, Jonathan Isaac, who has been plagued by injuries in recent years, finally returns to the court, presenting an opportunity to showcase his true value. Isaac’s length and defensive abilities are pivotal elements that could propel the Magic toward their aspiration of becoming a playoff-contending team.
11. The Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors are in a transitional phase, caught between short-term competitiveness and long-term planning. Holding onto two key players from their 2019 championship-winning core, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, the Raptors strive to maintain a competitive edge. However, losing Fred VanVleet in free agency without gaining compensation has left a void that needs addressing.
Scottie Barnes represents the bridge to the future, and the pace of his development will significantly influence the Raptors’ trajectory. Dennis Schroder steps in to replace VanVleet in the lineup, but Barnes is anticipated to take on an expanded playmaking role. Although Barnes showcased glimpses of a potential all-around star during his rookie season, he faced some challenges in replicating that level of performance in the subsequent season. Barnes must make a substantial leap in his performance this season for the Raptors to achieve competitiveness.
The addition of Gradey Dick, the No. 13 overall pick, is expected to bolster their depth, offering a scoring threat from the wing with versatility across multiple levels.
12. The Chicago Bulls
The Bulls remained relatively inactive in improving their roster during the offseason. The core trio of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic is set to return, and unfortunately, the outlook appears less than promising.
The absence of Lonzo Ball, slated to miss the entire upcoming season due to three surgeries on his left knee, further compounds the team’s offensive challenges. Ball’s defensive prowess and playmaking skills were vital in igniting the Bulls’ offense during the initial three months of the 2021-22 season, making his absence deeply felt. Attempting to replicate Ball’s impact with existing backups on the roster does little to instill confidence in Chicago’s ability to elevate their performance this season.
The combination of LaVine, DeRozan, Vucevic, and the supporting role players is less than exciting. And seeing as though the Bulls went from a promising playoff run in 2021 to a Play-In elimination in 2022, at best, this Bulls team remains hopeful for a spot in the play-in tournament, falling short of the expectations for significant title contention.
13.The Detroit Pistons
Under the guidance of newly appointed Head Coach Monty Williams, the Pistons find themselves in a crucial development phase this year. Several players showed flashes last season but are now poised to take a significant leap forward in their growth. Cade Cunningham, who only had a limited appearance of 12 games last season, is expected to use his third season as a litmus test to determine whether he can be the cornerstone and face of the franchise that the Pistons eagerly seek.
Should Cunningham rise to the occasion, the Pistons could surpass expectations, benefiting from the leadership of a win-now head coach at the helm. The addition of Ausar Thompson, the No. 5 overall pick, alongside promising young guards such as Jaden Ivey and Killian Hayes, creates a promising foundation, along with the presence of formidable frontcourt players like Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart.
Additionally, the team benefits from the experience and expertise of seasoned veterans like Bojan Bogdanovic, Alec Burks, Joe Harris, and Monte Morris, rounding out a competent and well-rounded rotation. However, for this team to truly ascend and compete at a higher level, the emergence of a bona fide star is imperative.
14. The Washington Wizards
The Wizards have firmly embarked on their rebuilding journey, marked by significant trades involving star players like Kristaps Porzingis and Bradley Beal during the offseason. In the wake of these transactions, a slew of promising young talents was acquired. Most notably, Jordan Poole has an ideal opportunity to step into a more prominent role beyond the confines of the Golden State Warriors system.
Both Deni Avdija and Johnny Davis showcased glimpses of their potential last season, but the upcoming season presents a platform for them to carve out more consistent performances. This season serves as an experimental phase in Washington, and the outcomes will shape the course of the Wizards’ future. It will dictate whether this young core is worth building around or if the Wizards need to restart from the ground up in the rebuilding process.
15. The Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets find themselves amidst an ongoing rebuilding phase, with this season presenting another opportunity for their young talents to blossom. While LaMelo Ball is a pivotal player, the team requires additional firepower to be competitive. The acquisition of Brandon Miller at the second overall draft pick is anticipated to elevate the team’s offensive dynamics by providing elite shooting beyond the arc. P.J. Washington, who recently signed a lucrative three-year, $48 million extension, needs more offensive consistency to justify this substantial investment.
Mark Williams, the 2022 No. 15 overall pick, proved instrumental in bolstering the Hornets’ defense, catalyzing a significant leap from 25th to the seventh-best defensive rating post-All-Star break last season. Charlotte looks to him as their defensive anchor. Although the Hornets have a lot more to prove to contend for a title, the foundation is there, and it’s promising in Charlotte.