Ben Kuchipudi ‘25
The True Contenders
There are only two teams in the East that I really consider true contenders, and that’s the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Nets have one of the best Big 3’s in history with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving (if he plays), and they did a solid job of building their bench in the offseason. As long as the top dogs stay healthy, the Nets will be the favorites to win the championship. As for the Bucks, they kept most of their roster intact, the only exception being PJ Tucker who signed with the Miami Heat. The Bucks right now seem like the only team that can challenge the Nets in the East, so it will be a de facto NBA Finals if they play in the conference finals.
The Playoff Locks
For once, the East seems like it will be competitive, and there are a number of teams that should be playoff guarantees. The Miami Heat reloaded in the offseason by adding Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker while retaining sharpshooter Duncan Robinson. With a trio of Lowry, Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo, the Heat could be the thorn in the Nets’ and Bucks’ side. The Philadelphia 76ers are currently dealing with the Ben Simmons saga, but even if he gets moved, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris are still good enough to lead Philly to the playoffs, and that’s without knowing if they’ll get a player like D’Angelo Russell or Collin Sexton back for Simmons. The Atlanta Hawks beat the first seeded Sixers and made a Cinderella run to the conference finals behind a villainously good Trae Young. Now they have to prove that they are for real or if their previous playoff run was a fluke. Like the Hawks, the New York Knicks also have something to prove, as they were the fourth seed last season. They improved in a big way this season, replacing Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock with Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. With one of the deepest rosters in the league, the Knicks have the talent to make a deep run in the playoffs. Finally, the Boston Celtics need to adjust quickly under Ime Udoka to compete in the playoffs. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are stars, and they have a deep team, but if the coaching doesn’t work out, Boston could underperform. Nonetheless, they should still be a playoff team.
The Playoff Hopefuls
The Chicago Bulls made a lot of noise in the offseason, signing DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball to large deals, but a weak bench could hurt them, and with the East being competitive for the first time in years, Chicago may have to go through the play-in tournament to make the playoffs. The division rival Indiana Pacers are also very talented on paper with Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris LeVert, but they also may need to make the postseason through the play-in, and if they play the Bulls it will be a glorified playoff game. For the Washington Wizards, this may be their last chance to prove to Bradley Beal that they can compete, because Beal is a free agent next year and the Wizards could lose him for nothing. They unloaded Russell Westbrook for depth pieces which helps, but another disappointing season in the nation’s capital could mark the end of the Bradley Beal era in Washington.
Better Luck Next Year
I wouldn’t consider these teams dumpster fires by any means, but they are just not good enough to make the play-in tournament. The Cleveland Cavaliers still haven’t traded Kevin Love and they have a logjam at big man with Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen, and Tacko Fall. Darius Garland is in for a big season, but that won’t be enough for Cleveland to make noise. The Detroit Pistons have an extremely young roster led by the 1st overall pick Cade Cunningham, and their longest tenured player is actually 2020 lottery pick Killian Hayes, which is telling of how inexperienced this roster is. They have veterans in Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk, but they won’t be enough to lead the Pistons out of the basement. Wrapping up the conference, the Orlando Magic finally blew it up at the 2021 trade deadline, moving Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier. They are now led by Jalen Suggs, Wendell Carter Jr., and Jonathan Isaac. The goal for them is to develop their young guys and tank, it’s as simple as that.