Grit. Madness. Anarchy. Words that perfectly describe the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association. Make no mistake, this is the side of the league that you most likely weren't allowed to watch as a small child. Just imagine a mother shielding her child's eyes as grown men solved their problems in the NBA with vicious fouls. Names like Jordan, Erving, Bird, Thomas were the foundation for creating this beautiful monster. Now? The Eastern Conference has found itself in the backseat to all of the glam of teams in the West. But don't get discouraged basketball fans, this conference is still an absolute bar fight...and it continues to put a smile on our faces.
During the 2019-20 season, we saw a number of teams toward the top of the conference that developed into serious contenders. While the Eastern Conference might not have the same amount of depth that its counterpart has, there's still plenty of powerhouse teams that should be feared. Below we take a look at each team in this conference and we analyze a couple of questions that teams must face moving forward, as well as a wildcard who could potentially swing the momentum of that team's projection this year.
The Question: Can the new additions gel quickly?
The Atlanta Hawks have been the talk of the offseason in the Eastern Conference after their numerous additions in free agency. This team looks great on paper, but with a limited offseason and training camp...can the Hawks gel quickly? Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Rajon Rondo were all brought in during the offseason in an effort to give the Hawks some serious firepower moving forward with the goal of getting Atlanta back into the playoffs. The Hawks didn't just do some damage in free agency only, as they added USC big man Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall selection in the 2020 NBA Draft. Okongwu will backup Clint Capela, who was acquired during last year's trade deadline, giving the Hawks some promising depth in their frontcourt alongside John Collins. This Hawks team looks impressive on paper, now let's buckle up and see if they can come together quickly and make some early noise in the East.
The Wildcard: De'Andre Hunter
While Trae Young and John Collins will get plenty of spotlight with this Atlanta Hawks roster, I'll have my attention on the second year development of De'Andre Hunter. The Hawks drafted two talented wings in the 2019 Draft in Hunter and Cam Reddish. Hunter will be a potential breakout candidate across the league in my opinion, and I'll be watching closely to see if his offensive game takes another step forward. The former 4th overall selection averaged 12.3 PTS and 4.5 REB as a rookie last year. If Hunter can showcase an improved amount of versatility on the offensive side of the ball, he could take some serious strides forward this year.
The Question: Can Tatum and Brown carry the Celtics early?
This is rapidly becoming a massive storyline to monitor across the NBA. The Celtics have two of the most talented wings in the NBA on their roster. But for the first time ever, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will have to do the HEAVY lifting early on in the year for this Celtics team. With Gordon Hayward taking his talents to Charlotte and Kemba Walker expected to miss the first month of the season recovering from an injury, Boston is going to lean on the combination of Tatum and Brown more than ever. If Brown or Tatum has an off night, where do the Celtics get their offensive punch from instead? That's going to be something to monitor early on in the year. Veteran free-agent addition Jeff Teague has been one of the most impressive players for the Celtics during their brief preseason. Marcus Smart will continue to do his thing but the Celtics are going to need some other pieces to contribute on the fly. Don't be surprised if rookie Payton Pritchard is thrown into the fire early on as well.
The Wildcard: Tristan Thompson
The Boston Celtics needed to get some muscle in their interior and they got it by adding veteran big man Tristan Thompson in free agency. Thompson has yet to play with the Celtics in a preseason game, but his presence should be a massive get for this roster moving forward. Boston has needed to add a defensive presence in the middle who can make a serious impact on the glass and Thompson should be able to offer that. Thompson averaged 12.0 PTS and 10.1 REB last year for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Question: Will the Nets deliver on the hype?
Although there was plenty of beasts at the top of the Eastern Conference last year, a new challenger has approached. All eyes will be on the Brooklyn Nets this year as Kevin Durant makes his official return to the basketball court alongside Kyrie Irving. The Brooklyn Nets are stacked. They have two of the most powerful offensive forces in the entire league that will be sharing the floor at the same time. This Nets team added a couple of intriguing pieces to their depth this offseason as well. Bruce Brown was brought over in a trade with Detroit, as well as Landry Shamet from the Los Angeles Clippers. With Joe Harris re-signing with the Nets during the offseason, this Brooklyn team now has some nice pieces surrounding their two stars. Newly hired head coach Steve Nash will have everyone's attention seeing it's his first time ever coaching...but he should benefit from a strong coaching staff including former Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni.
The Wildcard: Caris LeVert
Yes, we should know what to expect from both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant...but who will be the next piece to provide a punch for the Nets? This could be as big of a year as ever for young wing Caris LeVert. Levert had himself an impressive year last season for Brooklyn, averaging 18.7 PTS, 4.2 REB, and 4.4 AST. The talent and upside have never been in question when it comes to the 26-year-old. The elephant in the room has been LeVert's inability to stay healthy throughout the course of his career. If LeVert can put together a full season with this Nets roster, he could become a valuable third scorer in this starting line-up.
The Question: How long until LaMelo is unleashed?
If you have watched the Hornets at all throughout the preseason, you would realize that this team has had so much energy whenever their shiny new toy has stepped foot on the court. The Hornets looked to have found a good one in this year's 3rd overall selection. LaMelo Ball has wowed with his play throughout the preseason. So how long until James Borrego unleashes LaMelo full-time? The rookie is getting the proper treatment by Borrego and I have to say I respect it. Borrego is making LaMelo earn his starting nod and it will be interesting to see how long that goes. LaMelo hasn't shocked us with his ability to make highlight plays with his passing ability. He's going to be an electric playmaker every time he steps on a basketball court. On the other side of that conversation, it hasn't been much of a surprise to see his inconsistency with his shooting. Until LaMelo gets his shot under control early on, it might be wise if the Hornets continue with their "veteran" backcourt...for now.
The Wildcard: Terry Rozier
While LaMelo Ball has been the talk of the town for Charlotte in the preseason...Terry Rozier has also impressed with his play as of late. Rozier could still become an incredibly valuable asset for this Hornets team moving forward. After the Hornets added Rozier during the offseason last year, he went on to average 18.0 PTS, 4.4 REB, and 4.1 AST for Charlotte during the 2019-20 season.
The Question: Will Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter take a step forward this year?
It's been a thrilling offseason for Chicago Bulls fans and we couldn't be happier. The Bulls find themselves finally with a new man in charge, hiring Artūras Karnišovas away from the Denver Nuggets. His first move? Swooping in and hiring former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan to lead this youthful Chicago team. The Bulls look to finally get their team back on the right track and they have plenty of talent to groom. The burning question is; Can Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter live up to their promising potential? Both players have been solid, but have failed to take that next step forward in their development. It'll be fascinating to see if the two of them can become the promising lottery talents they once looked like. If so, Chicago might have an exciting team on their hands.
The Wildcard: Patrick Williams
Yes, this year's 4th overall selection was a shocker to the Draft fanatics around the world, but the former Florida State freshman has looked fantastic early on in the pre-season. The Bulls took some steam for "reaching" for Patrick Williams early in the draft...but as we always say here "go get your guy." The return has been extremely early, but Williams looks to be a heck of a get for the Bulls. If Williams can contribute consistently earlier than expected...this Chicago team could develop quicker than expected.
The Question: Can Cleveland's backcourt coexist?
While there's a number of storylines that Cavaliers fans might be interested in this year, this one is the most important moving forward. It's going to be the second year in which the Cavs are giving the backcourt combination of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland a chance. While both of the guards are extremely talented, it remains to be seen how effective this combination can be for the long haul. Garland had himself a bit of a roller-coaster rookie season and is one of the top breakout candidates in the NBA this year. While the Cavaliers added an exciting wing in this year's draft in Isaac Okoro, figuring out if this backcourt can work for the longterm is an important focus for this organization.
The Wildcard: Kevin Porter Jr.
It's been an unfortunate offseason for Kevin Porter Jr. Last year's rookie showed some serious potential and looked to be a potential breakout candidate in his second year in the NBA. Porter was arrested earlier this offseason on weapon charges. It's been reported since that the charges have been dropped, but the playing status of the left-handed wing seems a bit up in the air as of now. If everything can get back on the right track, KPJ would be an energetic boost for this Cavaliers rotation.
The Question: What do we expect from the Pistons rebuild?
Heading into this offseason, the Detroit Pistons needed a massive overhaul. New GM Troy Weaver went to work immediately, adding an assortment of talent in free agency and in the draft. This Pistons team is still going to be a work in progress, but Troy Weaver looks to have added some solid pieces to the puzzle so far. Killian Hayes will spotlight the 2020 draft class that also included two other first-rounders including Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. The Pistons also opened some eyes with the addition of Jerami Grant in free agency. A lot of people around the NBA will have their eyes on what the Pistons decide to do with Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose moving forward.
The Wildcard: Sekou Doumbouya
Remember the 2019 NBA Draft's International Man of Mystery? Pistons forward Sekou Doumbouya flashed PLENTY of upside during the NBA season last year, and he's going to be a fascinating second-year player to keep an eye on this year. Doumbouya will still have some growing pains, as expected, but his upside is still sensational for the Pistons moving forward.
The Question: Are we underestimating the Pacers?
It seems as if each and every year we continue to underestimate this Indiana Pacers team. So it only feels right if we do it again this year. There's still some intrigue with this Indiana squad. They have two of the more underrated big men in the NBA in Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Sabonis should be an exciting one to watch after making his first all-star team last year. There are also some underrated pieces to the puzzle here, including TJ Warren who was a monster in the bubble for the Pacers. With Malcolm Brogdon and Aaron Holiday continuing to be solid pieces in the backcourt, there's definitely still some sleeper appeal for Indiana this year. The biggest difference with this team will be the man in charge. Nate Bjorkgren was hired by the Pacers this offseason, so it will be interesting to see what's his vision with the team moving forward.
The Wildcard: Victor Oladipo
I know this seems like a bit of a stretch to be considered a "wildcard" but it's true folks. Victor Oladipo finally returned last year after recovering from his scary previous injury, and you could tell there's still some confidence to be found when it comes to overall comfort on the basketball court. After playing in the bubble, and a brief offseason, what version of Oladipo are the Pacers going to get? The former NBA All-Star is set to become a free agent at the end of the year, so pencil in Oladipo as a potential "contract year" player.
The Question: Can Miami take another step forward?
Yes, I believe the Miami Heat can and WILL. It's always a curious development when a team surprises the NBA out of nowhere and goes on a run as the Miami Heat did during the 2019-20 season. But now, the Heat will be a "target" for the rest of the league. This team is built for long-term success. In a year in which depth is going to be more crucial than ever, this roster is extremely deep. There's a fantastic combination of veterans and young assets to this team. Pat Riley and the Heat front office have done a fantastic job overall putting together this team and finding outstanding talent. The Heat are going to be a wagon if they can stay healthy. It will be exciting to see what the young talent on this team can do when it comes to developing their games.
The Wildcard: Precious Achiuwa/ KZ Okpala
Both of these players deserve a nod in this section. I thought that the Heat got some tremendous value in the draft when they landed Memphis big man Precious Achiuwa with the 21st selection. Achiuwa should provide some fantastic depth and energy in the rotation behind Bam Adebayo. His offensive game will be a work in progress but he should become an energetic presence on the boards off of the bench. KZ Okpala is a name to keep a close eye on. The Heat drafted Okpala out of Stanford in the second round of the 2019 draft and allowed him to develop in the G-League throughout the 2019-20 season. He's impressed in the preseason and has potential as a weapon on the defensive side of the ball.
The Question: Will the Bucks have enough firepower?
Milwaukee fans already won a championship this offseason after superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo decided to re-sign with the Bucks for the long haul. It was the elephant in the room and it's a MASSIVE win for small market franchises across the league. The Bucks went all-in this offseason when they decided to trade numerous first-round selections to acquire All-Star Jrue Holiday away from the New Orleans Pelicans. Jrue will be a massive addition for the Bucks moving forward and he's one of the more underrated point guards in this league, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Milwaukee will be out for revenge this year after coming up short in the playoffs last year. But will it be enough to make a title run?
The Wildcard: Donte DiVincenzo
It was rumored that the savvy combo guard was going to be included in a sign-and-trade move to acquire Bogdan Bogdanovic away from the Kings this offseason, but we all know how that ended up. Now, DiVincenzo looks to be cemented into the starting lineup for the Bucks. If Donte can take another step forward, it could be a massive swing of development for the Bucks. Although this Bucks team acquired Holiday this offseason, they still need another player to take a step forward. DiVincenzo could be a player who is asked to step his game up in a big way.
NEW YORK KNICKS
The Question: Can Thibs get the Knicks back on the right track?
It's been an exciting offseason for the New York Knicks franchise and its fans. Doesn't it just feel right to have the Knicks creating some positive buzz for once? With a new front office in charge, the Knicks had themselves a promising draft, landing college player of the year Obi Toppin with the 8th overall selection. Toppin will draw plenty of attention leaguewide with his offensive firepower and he should be a great addition for this franchise moving forward. There's also a new man in charge for the Knicks, as the organization hired Tom Thibodeau as head coach. Thibs should become a strong presence for this young team moving forward.
The Wildcard: Immanuel Quickley
Here's where things get extremely interesting for the Knicks moving forward. New York added sharpshooting threat Immanuel Quickley at the end of the first round on draft night, and he has opened some eyes around the NBA with his play during the preseason. Quickley, who spent most of the time playing as an off guard at Kentucky, has impressed with his ability as a point guard during the preseason. If Quickley keeps up his play as of late, don't be surprised if he gets the nod as the team's starting point guard. There's some serious potential here for the Knicks to have added two big pieces to the puzzle from the draft which is a MASSIVE win for any team on draft night.
The Question: Will the Magic take a step forward?
Personally, I keep finding myself waiting for the Orlando Magic to explode with the intriguing roster of young talent they have coming together. I love what the Magic did this offseason. As reported by Adrian Wojnarowski yesterday, the Magic came to agreements on extensions with Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac. Both players are intriguing young talents that continue to see their games develop in a positive way every year. Isaac isn't expected to play this year as he recovers from an injury, but he continues to be one of the brightest young talents in the entire league. The Magic also added another dog in their backcourt during the draft, selecting former North Carolina floor general Cole Anthony with the 15th selection overall.
The Wildcard: Chuma Okeke
Remember this name? Well if you don't, you should get familiar with it in a HURRY. The Orlando Magic selected Chuma Okeke in the first round of the 2019 draft, and he was expected to basically "red-shirt" his first season as he recovered from a previous ACL injury suffered during the NCAA tournament. Now, Okeke is healthy and he's been generating some serious buzz throughout camp and the preseason. A former defensive swiss-army-knife, Okeke will be a fantastic player to keep an eye on throughout this year.
The Question: Can Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid coexist?
Let's not make this one too complicated, okay? We all want to see what new head coach Doc Rivers has in mind for these two moving forward. There's no denying that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are two of the most talented players at their positions in the entire league. But given their skillsets, can they work together and give the Sixers a real chance at making some noise in the playoffs? Simmons will draw his fair share of criticism for his inability to stretch the floor with his outside shot, but his playmaking and defensive ability at 6'10" still make him one of the more fascinating talents in the NBA. It will be interesting to see what the duo can do with a new man in charge. I thought the Sixers did a good job adding a couple of nice surrounding pieces this offseason as well, adding Seth Curry via trade and selecting Tyrese Maxey in the first round of the draft. This Sixers team is going to need some outside shooting, and both players should project to move the needle forward.
The Wildcard: Tobias Harris
Sometimes players just need a "fresh" start, and in this case...Doc Rivers could do wonders for helping Tobias Harris get back on the right track. Harris still averaged 19.6 PPG for the Sixers last year, but he finished the year shooting 36.7% from deep. If Harris can put forth a year in which he finds himself back above 40% from deep, it'd be a massive development for the Sixers. Before getting traded from the Clippers during the 2018-19 season, Harris was averaging 20.9 PPG and shooting 43.4% from downtown.
The Question: Who will step up for the Raptors?
We all are going to sleep on the Raptors again this year, aren't we? This Raptors team should be another handful for the rest of the league to deal with. They did a fantastic job this offseason of adding some nice pieces to the puzzle. After losing Serge Ibaka to free agency, the Raptors went on and added Aron Baynes to the puzzle who will be a welcomed addition with his basketball IQ and toughness inside. Re-signing Fred VanVleet was a priority for the Raptors this offseason and they did a great job of bringing him home. Overall, this young Raptors team just gained another year of experience and being together. Adding savvy floor general Malachi Flynn at 29 was a fantastic get as well. Flynn has impressed during the preseason and looks to be another offensive force added to the Raptors rotation.
The Wildcard: OG Anunoby
It was HUGE news yesterday for Raptors fans when it was reported that OG Anunoby and Toronto came to an agreement on an extension. OG continues to be one of the top young talents in this league, and his development will be a massive storyline for Toronto this season. If Anunoby can take another step forward, and become a more consistent threat on a nightly basis, this Raptors team could get a serious boost. Anunoby recently just turned 23-years-old, so there's still plenty of upside remaining in his game.
The Question: Can the Wizards make a run at the Playoffs?
I might be drinking too much of the Wizards kool-aid right now, but I'm intrigued about this team potentially being a "sleeper" candidate to sneak into the playoffs this year. The John Wall for Russell Westbrook trade was simply head-scratching. BUT, it could just be what this Wizards team needs. We all know the energy and passion that Westbrook plays with. Could it be just what the doctor ordered for Wizards fans? This Wizards team is quickly getting some intriguing pieces to the puzzle throughout their "re-build." Bradley Beal will be on the warpath again this year, as expected. The recent news that Rui Hachimura will miss the first three weeks of the season while recovering from an injury was one of the biggest buzzkills of all-time, but the good news is that he will be back "soon".
The Wildcard: Deni Avdija
This is most likely going to be one of the most fascinating developments early on in the year for Washington Wizards fans. If you can take anything away from the preseason it should be this...Deni Avdija can flat out play. The Wizards struck gold when Avdija fell to them 9th overall, and he's going to be a good one. Head coach Scott Brooks has said that he hasn't yet decided on a starting small forward for the team, but it wouldn't surprise me if Avdija gets the starting nod sooner rather than later. The 6'9" forward has impressed with his outside shooting and playmaking throughout the preseason and he would be a nice piece alongside Westbrook and Beal for this Wizards team.