The 2021-22 NBA season, the league’s 75th Anniversary season, kicks off on October 19 with a high-profile playoff rematch between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets. Milwaukee, coming off an NBA Championship, and Brooklyn, with the prospect of a healthier Big Three this season, are set to be of two of the league’s top contenders once again, and will jokey for positioning in the Eastern Conference.

Brooklyn and Milwaukee won’t be the only players in a suddenly more competitive Eastern Conference though. Coming off Julius Randle’s All-NBA season, the New York Knicks added Kemba Walker and should be able to improve on their .569 winning percentage from last season. Whether or not Ben Simmons suits up, the Philadelphia 76ers are a perennial contender in the Joel Embiid-era. Likewise, the Boston Celtics are always a threat with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum continuing to improve year-over year.

And that’s without even mentioning Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, a well-rounded Miami Heat squad that made the NBA Finals just two seasons ago, and a Chicago Bulls team that added Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan.

The East hasn’t always been the most intriguing of the league’s two conferences, but there’s plenty of storylines and drama to go around heading in to the 2021-22 NBA season.

2021-22 NBA Season Preview

NBA Finals Contenders

Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images
  1. Milwaukee Bucks (60-22)
  2. Brooklyn Nets (56-26)
  3. Philadelphia 76ers (52-30)
  4. Miami Heat (51-31)

These four teams all have a legitimate shot to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. At the top of the conference, and likely the league for the regular season, is the Milwaukee Bucks once again. Even before their NBA Finals run last season, the Bucks routinely finished at or near the top of the conference standings. Milwaukee did finish in third last season, but had previously topped the East’s regular season standings both of the last two seasons before that. Aside from P.J. Tucker, the Bucks will return almost their entire NBA Championship roster, as well as get Donte DiVincenzo back from injury. Throw in George Hill and Grayson Allen for some backcourt depth, and there’s no reason to think two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks won’t be back at the top of the Eastern Conference this season.

Milwaukee’s biggest threat? A healthy Brooklyn Nets squad. Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving form a dynamic trio that can win basketball games in a multitude of ways. The Nets very well may have outlasted Milwaukee last postseason if the team was at full strength. The only thing in Brooklyn’s way is the health and availability of their star players. Durant, Harden, and Irving shared the court for just 13 games last season (regular and playoffs,) to the tune of a 10-3 record. I project Brooklyn to finish second in the East due to these availability concerns. As long as two of the Nets Big Three play, Brooklyn can win a lot of games. But it may be smart for the Nets to throttle the engine a little and ensure their start players are ready to go come playoff time.

The Philadelphia 76ers have a big question mark on their hands with Ben Simmons, and like him or not, he is a key piece to Philadelphia’s recent run of regular season success. The 76ers want an “All-Star caliber” player in return for Simmons, but with the clock ticking on the season and Simmons remaining steadfast in his desire not to play for Philadelphia, that outcome seems less likely by the day. Though he has availability concerns of his own, I still like the 76ers odds when Joel Embiid is on the floor. Assuming Philadelphia can even get a starting-caliber player in return for Simmons, I would also like the 76ers chances to finish in the top four in the East once again.

The Miami Heat are my sleeper team to make noise and possibly a deep playoff run in the Eastern Conference this year. They’re only two seasons removed from an NBA Finals trip, but it may seem forgettable as Miami wasn’t necessarily the strongest team in the East that season, but rather caught fire at the right time in the NBA’s Orlando bubble. After falling back to the sixth seed in the East last season, the Heat added Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker, and Markieff Morris to a core that includes Jimmy Butler, Bam Abedayo, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. The fourth seed might be playing a little conservative for Miami, who could conceivably leapfrog a Simmons-less 76ers team. But I think the Heat will make real noise in the 2021-22 NBA playoffs, and should be considered among the conference’s title contenders.

Playoff Teams

Photo: The Athletic
  1. Boston Celtics (49-33)
  2. New York Knicks (48-34)
  3. Atlanta Hawks (47-35)
  4. Chicago Bulls (45-37)

The next four teams all seem like near-locks to make the playoffs, but a step below the likes of the Bucks, Nets, 76ers, and Heat.

The Boston Celtics just miss the cut of being contenders, but could make a run if all the pieces fall right. Boston was just 36-36 last season, losing 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs to an overpowering Nets team. Kemba Walker didn’t prove to be the missing piece for the Celtics, and the roster was overhauled accordingly in the offseason. Additions including Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson, as well as the returns of Al Horford and Enes Kanter, should provide nice depth around a core of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart. Boston’s record in last year’s shortened season translates to a 41-41 record, so I’m projecting an eight-win increase for the Celtics this year. It’s lofty, especially in a competitive division, but I do expect a bounceback year in Boston.

Also competing in the Atlantic Division with the Nets, 76ers, and Celtics is a New York Knicks team on the rise. Julius Randle evolved to All-NBA level last season, as New York finished with a 41-31 record and the conference’s fourth seed. That translates to a 47-win season over 82 games, so I’m only foreseeing a slight increase in winning percentage. This may seem unfair, as New York added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier in the offseason, but without these re-enforcements, I think the Knicks would have slid slightly. Teams have to constantly adapt to win in the NBA, and back-to-back playoff seasons is no small accomplishment for the Knicks.

Coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, seventh in the East seems criminally low for Trae Young and a solid Atlanta Hawks team. 47 wins put Atlanta at about the same pace as last season, which may be fair with how much improvement other teams in the East have made. Atlanta didn’t stand pat, adding Delon Wright and Gorgui Dieng, but the Hawks may not have the firepower to achieve a 50-win season and earn a top four seed in the East. The way this prediction stands, Atlanta is only two games behind the fifth-seeded Celtics, so realistically, anywhere from fifth to eighth seems possible for the Hawks. If anything, the Hawks may be able to follow a so-so regular season finish with another impressive playoff run next Spring.

After missing the postseason entirely with the 11th-best record in the East last season, the new-look Chicago Bulls will look to make some noise and qualify for the playoffs in 2021-22. Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan headline an impressive off-season for Chicago. A starting lineup featuring Ball, DeRozan, budding star Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, and Nikola Vucevic could be one of the most offensively talented starting five’s in the NBA. Following a 31-41 season, the Bulls should be one of the most improved team’s in the league this season. Chicago could realistically push even higher than the eighth seed.

Middle of the Pack

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
  1. Indiana Pacers (42-40)
  2. Charlotte Hornets (41-41)
  3. Washington Wizards (39-43)
  4. Toronto Raptors (29-53)

These four teams probably don’t have what it takes to qualify for the traditional top eight-team playoff field in the Eastern Conference. But thanks to the advent of the play-in tournament, the ninth and tenth-seeded teams will have a fighting chance to advance to the eight-team playoff bracket.

The Indiana Pacers starting lineup may not instill immediate fear, but Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LaVert, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner are all solid players. Indiana may be a superstar short in a star-driven league, but with T.J. McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and Justin Holiday rounding out a solid bench, the Pacers should stay competitive in most games, hovering around .500 for the season. Pacers players had the most games lost due to injury last season, so assuming Indiana isn’t as unfortunate again, improving on a 34-38 mark doesn’t seem unreasonable.

The Charlotte Hornets will be better in LaMelo Ball’s second year in the league. With Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, P.J. Washington, and Mason Plumlee round out a balanced starting five. The bench isn’t anything to write home about, but Kelly Oubre, Miles Bridges, and Ish Smith will provide some quality minutes. Some have Charlotte elevating even higher in Ball’s sophomore season, but I have the Hornets finishing with the 10th seed in the East for the second year in a row. The biggest difference? The Hornets jump from a .458 winning percentage to an even .500.

The Washington Wizards case is interesting. In many ways, I think Washington actually won the Russell Westbrook trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Wizards got deeper with the acquisitions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell as well as Spencer Dinwiddie. However, Westbrook is still one of the most impactful players in the game, even if he’s seen better seasons. Losing Westbrook lowered Washington’s ceiling, but with Bradley Beal and a deep roster, there shouldn’t be any steep decline in winning percentage. The Wizards could compete for an 8th-10th seed in the East, but I have them right out of the playoff mix with the 11th-best record in the East.

The Toronto Raptors finished 12th in the Eastern Conference last season with a 27-45 record. While there’s still talent on the roster in the form of Fred Van Vleet, O.J. Anuboy and Pascal Siakim, there’s a steep drop-off in talent after that. Letting Kyle Lowry go signified the end of an era that started with some solid regular season runs, capped off by an NBA Championship in Kawhi Leonard’s brief tenure with the team. Right now, Toronto s rebuilding.

Lottery Teams

Photo: John Raoux/AP
  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (25-57)
  2. Detroit Pistons (23-59)
  3. Orlando Magic (18-64)

Finally, there’s three teams that finished in the bottom of the conference last season and look poised to do so again. The NBA isn’t the hardest league to complete a one-season turnaround, whether it be with the acquisition of a star player, a slew of solid role players, or a promising rookie. But these teams didn’t make significant enough improvements to warrant much higher records this season.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are stacking big men, with Jarrett Allen, Kevin Love, Tacko Fall, and third overall pick Evan Mobley on the roster. Youngsters Colin Sexton and Darius Garland make Cleveland a fun team to watch, but there’s just not enough talent to go around and supplement the loaded frontcourt. The Cavaliers played at a .306 winning percentage over 72 games last season, and finish with an identical win rate this season with 10 more games played.

After finishing with the second-worst record in the NBA last season, the Detroit Pistons won the NBA Draft Lottery and picked stud prospect Cade Cunningham with the first overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. But with Blake Griffin out in Detroit, Cunningham isn’t exactly walking in to a situation where he’ll have much support. I project Detroit finishes the 2021-22 NBA season with just the fourth-worst record in the NBA, so that’s progress at least right?

Do the Orlando Magic have some fun players in Markelle Fultz, Terrence Ross, R.J. Hampton, Mo Bamba, and fifth overall pick Jalen Suggs? Absolutely. Will they be able to win more than 20 games this season? Probably not. Orlando’s medium-term outlook isn’t the worst in the NBA, but this could be another long year for Magic fans. Orlando will be in the running for another high draft pick in 2022.

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