CLEAR TITLE CONTENDERS
It’s these two teams and then a big gap to everyone else. Don’t let the regular season fool you, it’s possible that one of these teams starts slowly as they work out fit and the system (that feels more likely with Boston) or deals with an injury that creates room for an upstart like Cleveland to climb above them in the standings. However, it would be a surprise if we don’t see a Boston vs. Milwaukee Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bucks have the best duo in the league with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, but is the aging and thin rest of the cast up to a title run? The Celtics are deeper and more versatile with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, not to mention Jrue Holiday, but is Kristaps Porzingis ready for this stage (and can he stay healthy)?
FRINGE CONTENDERS (WHAT IS GOING ON?)
Does anyone know how this season will turn out in Philadelphia? A Harden-shaped dark cloud hanging over the franchise makes every prediction murky. The 76ers have the MVP in Joel Embiid and he will be a monster again, Tyrese Maxey looks ready for a breakout, and Nick Nurse’s systems will energize the offense. The pieces are there to be a threat to Boston and Milwaukee if the 76ers end up with more help out of the Harden saga. It’s just hard to predict where this team will land.
PLAYOFFS OR BUST
New York Knicks
After the Celtics and Bucks it’s a crowded East field, and the question becomes who among these teams breaks out.
I am high on the Cavaliers. They won 51 games last season, learned hard lessons in the playoffs they will apply going forward, and had a strong offseason filling a need with Max Strus. This is a team I think can make the jump to a fringe contender but they have to show it — and Evan Mobley making another leap is the key to them taking that step forward. Heat fans may be pissed to see their team listed here and not as a contender, but the loss of Finals starters Strus and Gabe Vincent without a quality replacement knocks this team down a peg, even if nobody wants to see Jimmy Butler in the playoffs.
The Knicks will again be good with Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, but they feel like a team on about the same level and in waiting until the next superstar becomes available. A lot of people are higher on Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks than I tend to be, but if anyone is going to bump this roster up to more of a contender level it’s Quin Snyder as coach. I’m on board the Indiana Pacers bandwagon — look for Tyrese Haliburton to make a leap this season and Bruce Brown gives them the wing defense they need. The Pacers are a playoff team. I have no idea what the long-term plan is in Toronto, but this roster with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes is too good not to make the playoffs.
HOPEFUL PLAY-IN TEAMS
The Bulls believe they are a team that should be up a tier in rankings like this, but without the glue that is Lonzo Ball (and with the core getting older) I just think they are fighting for a play-in spot. The Nets have solid talent on the roster. Mikal Bridges will have an offensive breakout season, but they need Ben Simmons to be close to his vintage self and I do not trust that to happen. There is talent on the Hornets as well, and I am higher on LaMelo Ball as a leader than some pundits, but this is not the 43-win roster of a few years ago and fighting for the play-in feels about right (with Miles Bridges being his own cloud over the team). Orlando looked outstanding the second half of last season, Paolo Banchero should take a step forward, and maybe this team can take a step forward into the playoffs this season, but I’m just skeptical and think they are still more play-in. Detroit probably should be one level down in the lottery category, but I believe Cade Cunningham will be that good this season and Detroit will be in the play-in mix.
Get Jordan Poole on your fantasy team. The Wizards are finally embarking on a rebuild that should have started years ago, and while Kyle Kuzma and others will put up numbers this is not a team that will win much this season.