The Nets and Bucks will enter the 2021/22 season as the clear favorites to win the Eastern Conference next spring. The betting odds at sites like BetOnline reflect Brooklyn’s and Milwaukee’s standing atop the conference, as does the analysis of experts like ESPN’s Zach Lowe, who places the two teams first and second overall in his rankings of all 30 teams for the ’21/22 season.
As Lowe acknowledges, Kyrie Irving‘s availability – or lack thereof – is a major wild card that could affect the Nets this season, but every non-Irving critique of the club essentially “amounts to nit-picking.” The Bucks, meanwhile, have been the NBA’s best regular season team across the last three seasons and reached new heights in the 2021 postseason. With a healthy roster heading into this season, they look like a safe bet to be one of the East’s top seeds.
After those top two teams, Lowe’s next tier of Eastern clubs includes four talented clubs with some question marks: the Sixers, Heat, Celtics, and Hawks.
The Ben Simmons standoff hangs over Philadelphia’s season — if Simmons’ holdout extends into the regular season and the 76ers still haven’t found a trade they like, they’ll essentially be down an All-Star for the foreseeable future, which will limit their ceiling. The Hawks, the team that eliminated the Sixers from the playoffs in 2021, are deep and should be able to count on continued growth from their young players, but a team’s improvements aren’t always linear. As for the Celtics and Heat, they’ll be looking to bounce back after relatively disappointing 2020/21 seasons that ended with quick postseason exits.
While those four teams may be the favorites on paper to fill out the top six in the East, Lowe expects at least one of them to slip into play-in territory. He identifies the Knicks, Bulls, and Hornets as the next-best bets to crack the East’s top six.
The Knicks, of course, were the No. 4 seed in the East last season and will bring back a very similar group, along with new additions like Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. They outperformed expectations in 2020/21 and may experience some regression, but they’re a deep, well-coached team looking to prove that last season’s breakthrough was no aberration.
The Bulls are one of the East’s most fascinating teams — they could have one of the NBA’s best offenses, but there are concerns about their defense and depth, so a wide range of outcomes are possible. As for the Hornets, Lowe acknowledges there are some red flags, but views young cornerstones LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, and P.J. Washington as good candidates to take another step forward in 2021/22.
The Pacers, Wizards, and Raptors are part of the next tier for Lowe, who consider all three clubs legit contenders to make the play-in tournament. Early-season injuries may hold back Indiana (T.J. Warren, Caris LeVert) and Toronto (Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher), but both clubs were perennial playoff teams up until 2021 and still have plenty of talent on their rosters. Washington lost some star-power by trading away Russell Westbrook, but the team’s depth is stronger than it has been in years.
Lowe places the Cavaliers in a group of their own, noting that executives around the league have wildly varying opinions on Cleveland’s roster. Some people are high on the Cavs’ collection of young talent, while others think they could be the very worst team in the NBA. Although they’re not a clear play-in contender, they could be in that mix if things break right.
After we broke down the Western Conference on Wednesday, I’m curious to get your thoughts today on the Eastern Conference. Do you view the Nets and Bucks as the East’s clear top two finishers? Which clubs will clinch top-six playoff seeds, and which four will end up in the play-in tournament? Of the 12 teams with realistic playoff expectations, which two (or more) will finish outside of play-in range?
Head to the comment section below to weigh in with your thoughts on the Western Conference!