BREAKING DOWN THE EAST

2022-09-20 · 5 min read · NBA/Basketball
BREAKING DOWN THE EAST

Source (Background Photo): Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

With the regular season just a month away, it’s time to start thinking about how each team stacks against each other after an offseason with plenty of player movement.
The Eastern Conference in particular seemed to improve from top to bottom this summer. Star guards like Donovan Mitchell, Jalen Brunson and Dejounte Murray will all be added to the conference, as well as number one overall pick Paolo Banchero.
Couple that with some steadily improving young cores, a Boston team coming off a conference title that made a key trade, and the high-ceiling/low-floor potential of the Brooklyn Nets, and you have a cluster of teams hoping to earn a playoff berth.
With that said, I decided to break the East down into what I believe is a five-tier hierarchy.
TIER ONE: THE CONTENDERS
Boston
The C’s are coming off a spirited final run last season, and they should be even better this time around.
The addition of Malcolm Brogdon is exactly what they need, he’ll provide some much-needed help in the scoring and playmaking department, especially when things get tight in the deeper playoff rounds.
Danilo Gallinari’s new knee injury hurts, he was supposed to be Al Horford's regular season insurance so that Horford could be fresher for the playoffs.
Regardless, Boston is a true title contender once again and should finish at the top of the conference.
Milwaukee
What many don’t realize is the Bucks pushed Boston to 7 games in last spring’s playoffs, without their second-best player Khris Middleton.
With Middleton returning to join Jrue Holiday and former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee has as good a big three as anyone in the league.
The return of Brook Lopez, who was hurt for most of last season, should stabilize the defence throughout the year, and the Bucks drafted a few potential scoring threats that could shore up the wing.
I still don’t love the supporting cast, but having Giannis along makes you good enough to be in the thick of the title hunt.
TIER TWO: IF THINGS BREAK RIGHT THEY HAVE A SHOT
The Sixers come into this season with a fair bit of optimism. A full year and training camp with James Harden in the fold should pay dividends for chemistry, and the ever-improving guard Tyrese Maxey is poised for another step.
They also added some much-needed toughness and depth by bringing in PJ Tucker, DeAnthony Melton and Danuel House Jr.
Plus, they have the most dominant player in the league Joel Embiid.
Philly has questions marks; the main ones being if Embiid’s body can stay intact through a full season and four playoff rounds (something that has yet to occur) and if James Harden can return to something close to his 2020 form when he first joined the Nets.
They do have the talent on paper to make a deep playoff run though.
Cleveland
The shocking Donovan Mitchell at the end of the summer certainly shifted the balance of power in the East.
He’ll join a team bursting with young talent, including All-stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, as well as second-year sensation Evan Mobley.
The Cavs also made some moves on the edges that should make the bench potent as well, like bringing back veteran point guard Ricky Rubio.
This team should be really good. They’re probably a year away from being a true contender, but they at least deserve to be in the discussion.
Brooklyn
Some people may find this controversial seeing as they just had probably the most dramatic off-season since the Kobe-Shaq Lakers.
After trade requests from both their superstars, a Kevin Durant ultimatum that turned into nothing, and of course, plenty of cryptic Kyrie Irving social media messages, the Nets are suddenly one big happy family again it seems like.
Whether that will last a full season, or even until Christmas, remains to be seen.
Still, Kevin Durant when healthy is still good enough to keep any team afloat. Irving is in a contract year so he might be on his best behaviour and engaged in actually being a basketball player, and they picked up some solid wing scoring in TJ Warren and Royce O’Neal.
A lot, and I mean a LOT would have to go right for this team to make a run, but it’s still within the realm of possibility given their top-end talent
Atlanta
The Hawks had a disappointing season in 2021-22 after a surprise conference finals run the year prior, but they reshuffled the deck and brought in all-star guard Dejounte Murray, who as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, should be a great fit next to Trae Young
The Hawks still have John Collins and Deandre Hunter, both of them have injury questions but are great athletes when on the court. They also have great depth up front, beginning with Clint Capella, who also dealt with injuries last year.
Atlanta winning a title is a long shot, and this tier placement may be a bit of a stretch.
But I love Murray and they proved they can make a deep run with this core, so who knows?
TIER THREE: COULD BE TAKING A STEP BACK
Toronto
From a big picture perspective, I love what the Raps are doing, building things the right way around their new bright shiny cornerstone Scottie Barnes. This is a core that’s still relatively young and should keep improving. They’re also extremely well-coached.
All that said, it’s tough to imagine them cracking a top 5 spot again in the playoffs this year. That’s not as much of a knock on them but more of a reality check that a bunch of teams around them got significantly better while they stayed the course.
The wild card they have up their sleeve is Barnes. If the reigning rookie of the year improves at a rapid pace, it could drastically speed up Toronto’s timeline and launch them into the top of the conference.
Still, a lot broke right for Toronto to earn that 5th seed last year, and they should fall more into the 7-10 range this time around given how much the rest of the conference improved.
They’ll still be competitive and feisty though, and head coach Nick Nurse regularly has them punching above their weight class.
Miami
If anyone’s poised for a major drop-off, Miami to me is the prime candidate.
On the surface, you could say: well, they’re bringing back most of the same core that came within two wins of the finals last year. Which is technically correct. But looking deeper, it’s easy to see they could be in some trouble here.
Kyle Lowry might be washed. Last year his body couldn’t make it past the second round, and even before he broke down he was pedestrian for most of the season.
Jimmy Butler is a year older, they lost PJ Tucker, who was important to them, and they didn’t really add anything to make them better while the rest of the East’s playoff teams did.
Bam Adebayo is solid, but dare I say overrated a tad, at least in terms of his offensive impact.
This is an old team that will likely be fighting for a play-in spot just a year after being the number one seed.
Chicago
Look, the Bulls were the number one seed through the first two months of the last season until injuries and COVID completely derailed things.
Were they playing over their head? Perhaps, but they do have elite scoring at the wing position.
They’ll also get their best defensive player Patrick Williams back from injury. But Lonzo Ball’s health status is always a question mark, and the Bulls still have issues on the defensive end.
Maybe Nicola Vucevic will emerge from his year and a half slumber since joining this team, which would raise their ceiling.
But the Bulls will be fighting for a playoff spot at best in this crowded east.
COMING SOON….
Tiers 4 and 5
Sports Tree Profile

By: Eddie Huband

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