Dec 19, 2023; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Dario Saric (20) defends Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the second half at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Updated NBA Eastern Conference Power Rankings

From the frontrunners vying for the top spot to the bottom feeders facing seemingly insurmountable struggles and the teams somewhere in between, teams have begun to cement their positions of where they belong as 2023 has almost come to a close. There is still a lot of basketball left to be played, but this is what the landscape of the Eastern Conference looks like right now.

Updated NBA Eastern Conference Power Rankings

1. Boston Celtics (20-6)

The Boston Celtics have consistently been one of the top teams in the league this year. With the recent additions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday to an already formidable lineup led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are poised to maintain their elite status into the new year.

Boston has been dominant, boasting a potent offense supported by a top-three defense. This winning combination positions them as strong contenders to once again make a deep playoff run and contend for a spot in the finals.

The Celtics most recent intense clash with the Golden State Warriors, resulting in an overtime loss fueled by remarkable performances from Stephen Curry, underscored the significance of the Boston’s pursuit of Kristaps Porzingis last summer. Porzingis, currently sidelined due to a calf injury, was acquired to offer an alternative strategy for late-game offensive maneuvers.

In his absence on Tuesday, the Celtics relied heavily on jump shots, evidenced by a staggering 41 missed 3-pointers, even though many of these attempts, particularly in the closing moments, were clean looks that unfortunately didn’t find the mark. This late-game dynamic will be closely monitored once Porzingis returns to the court.

2. Milwaukee Bucks (20-7)

Following a surprising first-round exit from the 2023 NBA playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks underwent significant changes, including a coaching switch and a blockbuster trade for superstar guard Damian Lillard. The anticipated pairing of Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo is showing signs of becoming a dynamic force, overcoming early challenges to gel effectively.

Damian Lillard is currently on a hot streak. Despite a slow start to the season, Lillard seems to have hit his stride, evidenced by consecutive 30-point performances over the weekend and a season-high 40 points against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday. Guiding the Bucks to five consecutive victories with scores surpassing 125 points each time, Lillard has been on fire since the beginning of December, averaging 26.3 points and 7.7 assists on 46.3% shooting (44.3% from 3).

Before concluding their homestand against the Magic on Thursday, Milwaukee is gearing up for a weeklong stint in New York, featuring a Christmas Day showdown with the New York Knicks. While they didn’t secure victory in the In-Season Tournament, the Lillard and Antetokounmpo duo is currently in peak form, dominating opponents, accumulating wins and ascending in the rankings.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (18-8)

The Philadelphia 76ers made a pivotal move by parting ways with the discontented future Hall-of-Famer James Harden. Although they didn’t acquire a star in return, the trade bolstered their roster depth and created opportunities for significant future transactions.

Under the leadership of reigning league MVP Joel Embiid and newly appointed head coach Nick Nurse, the Sixers have showcased impressive performances this season. Notably, Tyrese Maxey has stepped up to a superstar level, filling the void left by Harden. The team boasts one of the league’s top offenses, complemented by a stout defense.

Philadelphia may have had their home winning streak halted by the Chicago Bulls on Monday, but this doesn’t diminish Joel Embiid’s exceptional performance throughout the month. The current MVP favorite is posting staggering numbers in December, averaging 40 points, 13 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 2 blocks per game. His shooting percentages are off the charts at 60/39/92 from the field. Despite this, a challenging stretch awaits Embiid and the Sixers, starting with a faceoff against the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, followed by a Christmas Day clash with Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat.

4. Orlando Magic (16-9)

The Orlando Magic pleasantly surprised most people last year. Although they didn’t finish with a positive record, Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero showcased impressive performances, making the Magic more competitive than expected against NBA elites. With much of last year’s team returning and a bench boost anticipated from top pick Anthony Black in the 2023-2024 season, Orlando has built onto their foundation.

As we step into the new year, the Magic emerge as one of the league’s most surprising teams. While Banchero continues his strong performance, teammate Franz Wagner has emerged as the breakout star, leading the team in scoring. A recent nine-game winning streak, including victories against notable teams like the Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers, serves as a testament to the legitimacy of this squad.

A key factor behind Orlando’s success this season lies in the development of Jalen Suggs. In his initial two seasons, the 2021 first-round pick faced challenges, with a combined shooting percentage of 38.7% from the field and 27.1% from beyond the arc. This included a rookie season where he shot a mere 21.4% from deep on 4.1 attempts per game.

However, Suggs has undergone a transformation, currently averaging 12.5 points while boasting an impressive 46.7% overall shooting and a 38.2% success rate from 3-point range on 4.4 attempts per night. Notably, Suggs is also tied for third in the league in steals per game (1.7), contributing significantly to the Magic’s top-five-ranked defense this season.

5. New York Knicks (15-11)

Jalen Brunson has been showcasing his prowess, establishing himself as one of the league’s emerging superstars and elevating the New York Knicks’ threat level. Despite a relatively quiet offseason without major moves, the team retained key players from the previous year’s roster, setting the stage for a potential return to the postseason in 2023-24.

While the Knicks faced early-season challenges, notably linked to inconsistent performances from Julius Randle, the two-time All-Star has improved recently. The team’s ascent in the standings can be attributed to their formidable defense. Despite this progress, they still fall short of being considered serious title contenders.

The absence of Mitchell Robinson due to a left ankle injury is a setback for New York, but Isaiah Hartenstein stepped up and demonstrated why he’s recognized as one of the NBA’s premier backup centers. This was evident in his outstanding performance against Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, where he secured an impressive 17 rebounds in 39 minutes. With Jericho Sims now also dealing with an injury, Hartenstein’s role becomes even more pivotal as the Knicks aim to remain competitive in the fiercely contested Eastern Conference playoff race.

6. Miami Heat (15-12)

During the summer, there was anticipation and optimism that the Heat would secure the superstar they needed, with hopes centered around Damian Lillard. However, the team they eliminated in the postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks, managed to acquire the seven-time All-Star. Additionally, Miami experienced losses in NBA free agency with the departures of Max Strus and Gabe Vincent.

These departures, coupled with the absence of a clear second star, posed challenges early on. Nevertheless, Tyler Herro has emerged as a significant contributor and has been having a breakout year. While the Heat may not boast the same level of flashiness as some other teams, their potency should not be underestimated when Jimmy Butler is on the court and head coach Erik Spoelstra is guiding them from the sideline.

Despite Miami’s four-point loss to the Timberwolves on Monday, the significance of the game extended beyond the result—it marked the return of a fully recovered Bam Adebayo and Herro. Adebayo had been sidelined for seven games due to a left hip contusion, while Herro had been absent since November 8 due to a right ankle sprain. In their absence, Jimmy Butler took charge, leading the team in scoring with an average of 21.5 points per game. With Adebayo, Herro and Butler all healthy and back in action, the team is poised to make a strong push in the Eastern Conference standings.

7. Indiana Pacers (13-12)

Last season, the Pacers experienced a rollercoaster of results, initially appearing poised for a postseason return, only to be derailed by injuries and inconsistent play. Much of last year’s roster returned with added experience and improved chemistry and the addition of top pick and big man Jarace Walker provided the rebounding and tenacity lacking in the frontcourt last year.

Indiana has pleasantly surprised many in the current season, with their notable run to the finals of the NBA In-Season Tournament standing as proof. Although they didn’t secure the tournament trophy, they sent a clear message to the Eastern Conference that Tyrese Haliburton and the offense pose a legitimate threat every night as they head into 2024.

The Pacers find themselves on a challenging path, having dropped four consecutive games and facing the risk of slipping below a .500 win-loss record despite boasting the NBA’s best offense at 121.9 points per 100 possessions. Evidently, the defensive struggles of the Pacers are catching up with them, as they are currently tied at the bottom of the league, allowing 121.4 points per 100 possessions. Their recent loss on Monday, marking the fifth time they scored over 125 points in a game and still lost the game, ties them with the Washington Wizards for the most occurrences in the league.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers (15-12)

The Cleveland Cavaliers emerged as one of the premier teams in the Eastern Conference last year. The addition of superstar guard Donovan Mitchell seamlessly integrated into the team, complemented by a robust defense. However, the focus this season goes beyond simply being good; the goal is to determine whether they can contend in the Finals.

While Mitchell has once again started the season impressively, Darius Garland faced early struggles. Nevertheless, Garland’s recent improved performance is evident in the team’s results, securing wins against some of the NBA’s top contenders.

The Cavaliers’ starting lineup encountered a significant setback last week with a double blow. Point guard Darius Garland is set to be sidelined for at least a month due to a fractured jaw resulting from a collision with Boston center Kristaps Porzingis. Additionally, big man Evan Mobley is facing a six to eight-week absence following surgery on his left knee. Despite these challenges, Cleveland demonstrated resilience with back-to-back victories against the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets.

9. Brooklyn Nets (13-13)

The Brooklyn Nets are hopeful that Ben Simmons will make a return, Nic Claxton can maintain court presence and their defensive rating will improve, placing them in the top six in the Eastern Conference. Although the Nets did not acquire a star in the summer, this season promises a departure from the drama and volatility of the past. With lower expectations, observing Jacque Vaughn‘s impact in his first full year with Spencer Dinwiddie, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson will be intriguing.

While not dominating the conference, Brooklyn stands as a solid group with a genuinely formidable one-two punch. Bridges made significant strides last season and as we enter January 2023-24, Cam Thomas has taken his game to new heights. Returning to New York to face their crosstown rival on Wednesday, the Nets find themselves at a .500 record for the season.

The anticipation for Simmons’s return to the court continues and there’s uncertainty about the team’s potential beyond its current performance level. Offensively, the Nets rank slightly above average (11th) and defensively slightly below average (21st) and they are still exploring the capabilities of Thomas, who currently leads the team in scoring with an impressive 24 points per game.

10. Atlanta Hawks (11-15)

Apart from the trade of John Collins, the Hawks’ roster from the previous season remains unchanged in the new year. Despite the prospect of a turnaround in the 2023-24 season following a full training camp under head coach Quinn Snyder, the likelihood of the Hawks becoming a playoff-caliber squad appears doubtful at this point.

While Dejounte Murray and Trae Young have performed well, making the Hawks one of the league’s better-scoring teams, their defensive struggles have thwarted any chances of success this season.

After breaking a five-game losing streak with a victory in Toronto on Friday, Atlanta faced another setback, losing a game in Cleveland the following night. Despite a 130-124 win against the Detroit Pistons on Monday, the Hawks allowed Detroit to score a season-high 124 points. This marked the 15th instance this season in which the Hawks, possessing the 27th-ranked defense, conceded at least 120 points — the fifth-highest frequency in the NBA. Nonetheless, Atlanta’s fourth-ranked offense has come to the rescue on multiple occasions; the Hawks have secured five wins when allowing 120 or more points, a feat surpassed only by Milwaukee (nine), Indiana (six) and Sacramento (six).

11. Toronto Raptors (11-15)

Despite persistent offseason speculation about potential major moves, the Toronto Raptors mostly retained the same roster as in the previous couple of seasons. A significant change for the 2023-2024 season is the absence of star guard Fred VanVleet, who opted for a lucrative move to Houston in the summer.

The team’s performance has suffered without the presence of this standout player. While Scottie Barnes has assumed an increased role as a key contributor, the Raptors have again fallen short of expectations this season. Amidst these developments, the focal point will likely be the impending OG Anunoby sweepstakes.

Toronto is currently tied with Atlanta for the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference, but the risk of losing ground to teams above them looms large. Challenging matchups against the defending champion Nuggets and the surging 76ers this week could further complicate matters. However, a more favorable schedule awaits, featuring games against the Utah Jazz, Wizards and Pistons, providing the Raptors an opportunity to maintain their position at least as they approach the new year, provided they capitalize on these opportunities.

12. Chicago Bulls (11-17)

Lonzo Ball is confirmed to miss the entire year and the team couldn’t secure a replacement with a similar impact at point guard during the summer. Moreover, ongoing issues with discontented star Zach LaVine have posed another significant challenge, as he’s been in ongoing trade rumors.

Despite strong starts from LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, the persistent absence of a solid point guard remains a notable weakness for a team boasting considerable talent and the potential to be a force in the East. As the new year approaches, reports suggest this roster might undergo significant changes after the February trade deadline, as DeRozan and Alex Caruso trade talks have also emerged.

Concluding a challenging road trip in Miami and Philadelphia with a 2-1 record, the Chicago Bulls have managed to secure six victories in its last nine games despite the absence of LaVine due to left foot inflammation. A significant contributor to this success has been Coby White, who, during this stretch, has averaged an impressive 25.4 points on 49.7% shooting (48% from 3 on 9.4 attempts). White’s performance has propelled the Bulls to possess the 12th-ranked offense, averaging 119.1 points per 100 possessions.

13. Charlotte Hornets (7-18)

The Charlotte Hornets experienced an unexpected downturn last season following promising developments two seasons ago. The absence of Miles Bridges, stemming from off-the-court issues, became a more significant problem than anticipated. With Bridges back from suspension, the team has shown increased competitiveness, yet they continue to struggle as one of the league’s bottom-tier teams this season. While LaMelo Ball has returned to his 2021-22 form, the team’s persistent defensive issues have hindered their performance throughout the season.

Adding to the Hornets’ woes, Miles Bridges faced a setback on Monday as he was denied entry into Canada due to past legal issues. This unfortunate incident occurred as the team traveled to Toronto. The Hornets were already dealing with the absence of Ball (ankle) and Mark Williams (back) and Gordon Hayward was also unavailable due to illness.

However, amidst the challenges, there is a silver lining—more opportunities for Brandon Miller, Charlotte’s No. 2 overall pick. Miller has showcased consistent performance, scoring in double figures in 11 consecutive games and averaging 14.8 points while shooting at a rate of 37.8% from 3 in 32.2 minutes per game. Miller’s ongoing progress becomes crucial for the Hornets as they patiently await Ball’s return.

14. Washington Wizards (4-22)

Despite possessing considerable talent last season, Washington fell short of expectations and missed the playoffs in 2022-2023. With a reimagined front office, the hope was that head coach Wes Unseld Jr. could elevate the team’s performance with an adjusted roster led by Jordan Poole, Tyus Jones and the returning star Kyle Kuzma in the new season. However, the results thus far have been nothing short of disastrous.

As they approach the new year, the Wizards have only secured four wins and are heading toward one of the worst seasons in franchise history. If not for the struggles of the Pistons, Washington would likely find themselves at the bottom of the rankings.

Jordan Poole appears to be on the upswing as he approaches his much-anticipated return to Golden State on Friday. Poole recently delivered two standout shooting performances in the last three games, going 12-of-18 and scoring 30 points along with eight assists in a victory over Indiana. Additionally, he shot 10-of-18, including eight 3-pointers, contributing 28 points in a game against Sacramento, despite the team’s loss. Although he experienced a less efficient shooting night (5-for-17) in the middle of these two games, Poole has an opportunity to build momentum leading up to Christmas, especially with all eyes on him during his return to San Francisco.

15. Detroit Pistons (2-25)

Following a bottom-of-the-standings performance in the 2022-2023 season, the Detroit Pistons have not experienced significant improvement in the new season. Despite winning two of their first three games, the team has spiraled into a substantial downturn, enduring 24 consecutive losses.

The situation has deteriorated to the extent that head coach Monty Williams finds himself on the hot seat in just the first year with the Pistons after receiving a substantial contract this summer.

The Pistons continue to struggle, unable to halt the ongoing challenges. Detroit’s losing streak extended to 24 games with their recent defeat to the Hawks on Monday, despite Cade Cunningham‘s notable career-high performance of 43 points. The Sixers currently hold the record for the most consecutive losses in a single season (26), the longest losing streak overall (28) and the Pistons are now dangerously close to surpassing both records.

Main Image: © John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

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