Previewing the 2021-22 NBA Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antentokounmpo celebrates after a great play.

Keith Allison

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antentokounmpo celebrates after a great play.

The NBA’s 75th season officially commenced on Tuesday, October 19th, with an Eastern Conference Semifinals rematch between the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, followed by a Western Conference Play-In Rematch between the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. 

It’s safe to say the dynamic of the NBA has changed drastically over the past few years. The 2021 NBA Finals were the first to feature neither Los Angeles’ Lebron James or Golden State’s Steph Curry since 2011. Within these finals, back-to-back MVP and 5 time all star Giannis Antetokounmpo finally reached the NBA’s summit, averaging over 30 points per game, catapulting his Milwaukee Bucks to the Championship. 

Having crowned a notably different champion the past year, the league is once again up for grabs, with no extreme frontrunners. Here’s what to expect from each team in the East.

One of the league’s most formidable divisions, the Atlantic Division, is bound to be competitive once again. In 2021, the Atlantic contained 3 of the Eastern Conference’s top 4 seeds. Bank on this division to be competitive again, with the retooled New York Knicks and All-Stars Kemba Walker and Julius Randle looking to challenge the playoff mainstays that routinely finish ahead of them. The Knicks addressed their issues with guard depth heavily this offseason, and certainly look like a playoff team on paper. 

Two of those aforementioned playoff mainstays, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets, are however facing uncertainty. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Sixers star Ben Simmons does not intend to play another game for the franchise, after a poor postseason. The 76ers look bound to backslide in the standings unless they get an incredible return in a trade for Simmons, in trade negotiations where they have little to no leverage. However, Philadelphia will still likely be a playoff team, but not as high of a seed as years past.

Conversely, the dysfunction in the Nets organization has little to do with basketball. All-Star guard Kyrie Irving’s all but refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19 has thrown a wrench into the Nets’ title hopes. Alongside elite scorers James Harden and Kevin Durant, Irving would complete a lineup with incredible talent across the board. However, due to New York’s vaccine requirement to participate in large indoor events, Irving will not be able to play in Brooklyn or any state with the same rules. 

Many have speculated that this situation will result in a trade, but Irving has proved he’s more than capable of just sitting out games in the past few years. Expect the Nets to be a title contender once again with Harden and Durant at the helm, but in all likelihood, they’ll have to slide a lesser guard into the starting lineup. 

The dysfunction at the top of the Atlantic Division provides a perfect opportunity for one of the remaining teams to slide up.

The Boston Celtics, who notably traded guard Kemba Walker, moved multiple players, and traded for some who never even saw the preseason before being moved elsewhere (i.e. Moses Brown, Kris Dunn). After re-acquiring veteran big man Al Horford and getting a bargain on the serviceable Dennis Schroeder, the Celtics look to improve on their 2021, a season ravaged by injuries and Covid-19 troubles. Boston is likely to improve on their .500 record, and look like a Top 5 seed if stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum remain healthy.

The Toronto Raptors are another team looking to improve on their 2021. Toronto ended up picking fourth in the NBA Draft after a disappointing season. Over the offseason, they swapped guards with Miami, sending out Kyle Lowry and acquiring Gordan Dragic, showing their confidence in the rising Fred VanVleet. The Raptors look like a scrappy team that could snag one of the lower seeds in the Eastern Conference, that being if the young Pascal Siakim and OG Anunoby can remain productive. 

The Central Division looks to be a bit less competitive. The reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks look to be the front runner, returning all of their starters from their championship season. As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday remain healthy and stay out of quarantine, the Bucks should be at the top of the Eastern Conference one again.

The Indiana Pacers finished behind the Bucks and failed to get into the playoffs by way of play-in in 2021. The Pacers have a solid lineup going into the 2021-22 season, but their bench is notably lackluster and could be an issue. Indiana also doesn’t have a distinct star who can take over a close game. The Pacer lineup mostly consists of players who are more known for their potential rather than performance (i.e. Myles Turner, Caris LeVert). In all, the Pacers will be in the running for one of the bottom 3 playoff spots if their lineup and top scoring options mesh together, but have no star power.

The Chicago Bulls are in a similar spot. The Bulls have talent present in their starting lineup, with current and former All-Stars such as Zach Lavine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic. However their lineup after that is not deep at all. The talent following the top 3 consists of so far underwhelming, but young players with potential. Patrick Williams and Lonzo Ball exemplify this designation, both being top 5 picks who haven’t contributed as they were expected to.

The Central also contains the teams that picked #1 and #3 in the past NBA Draft. The #3 selecting Cavs look to be a non-competitive team again in 2021. Fielding a lineup full of developing young players, this year will be a building one for Cleveland. Still, the Cavs get to see how their pieces fit together, and can figure out which combinations work best. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro and Evan Mobley will continue to hone their skills as Cleveland continues to rebuild.

The #1 selecting Pistons are also in the midst of a rebuild. Their oldest starter is 27 year old Jerami Grant. But, this situation does help their #1 pick, Cade Cunningham, secure an opportunity for NBA action. Similar to Cleveland, 2021-22 will be a bridge year for the Pistons as they evaluate their young talent and future implications. 

The Central Division contains some more interesting up and coming teams. The obvious top dog in the Southeast are the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks made an unexpected run to the Conference Finals in the 2020-21 playoffs, and young star Trae Young looks like he can carry the Hawks offense as an elite scorer. The Hawks also have many relatively young players who contribute heavily to their frontcourt, including John Collins, Clint Capela, De’Andre Hunter, and Kevin Huerter. This young talent helps to make the Hawks rotation incredibly deep, with viable options off the bench such as outside scorer Danilo Gallinari and veteran Lou Williams. Expect the Hawks to push for a top 4 playoff seed, as their young talent continues to propel them forward.

The Miami Heat finished one game below the Hawks in 2020-21, and look like a decent playoff team at this point. As previously mentioned, they acquired guard Kyle Lowry and shipped out Goran Dragic. Their two leading scorers from 2020-21, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo return once again. Yet, the Heat’s roster isn’t very deep. Tyler Herro provides perimeter shooting off the bench, and Markieff Morris fills a needed veteran presence at forward, but the talent past those two is negligible. However, the Heat will get some mid-season depth help as former All-Star Victor Oladipo returns from a quadriceps injury. Overall, the Heat look like a fringe top 4 team that could sneak into a 4 seed berth, but their depth looks like a weakness.

Following the Heat in the 2020-21 standings were the Washington Wizards. The Wizards finished 4 games under .500, but no doubt had star power in the form of guards Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. However, their lack of a frontcourt presence proved costly, as Washington was unable to capitalize in their play-in game. Now, with Westbrook shipped out to LA in return for a handful of role players and some draft capital, there’s no reason the Wizards should be a playoff team. With an unimpressive roster of unproven talent besides Beal, expect Washington to be selecting in the lottery once again. 

The Charlotte Hornets finished 1 game behind the Wizards in the Southeast in 2021, but still managed to net a play-in berth. However, their opportunity vs Indiana was quickly squandering, ending their season in an ugly 144-117 loss. Charlotte does however have a lot to look forward to regarding their core. 3rd overall pick LaMelo Ball had a stellar season, picking up Rookie of the Year designation, and fellow guard Terry Rozier had a solid sophomore season for the Hornets. With the veteran Gordon Hayward, and up and comers Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington in tow, the Hornets look like they’ll be fighting for a playoff spot come summer. They’re by no estimate deep enough to be a top 4 seed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they slid right in at the 6-8 seed.

Below the Hornets, one game from the Conference’s worst record, were the 2020-21 Orlando Magic. The Magic were clearly not a competitor, exemplified by their trade of longtime center Nikola Vucevic to Chicago at the trade deadline. With their roster now set for 2021-22, the Magic again don’t look like they’ll do much of anything regarding winning. However, they did net two of the top prospects in the 2021 Draft, selecting Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner, respectively. Paired with incoming second year guard Cole Anthony, Suggs should create an interesting backcourt. Despite this, you can expect the Magic to still experience the growing pains any young team must endure. Orlando does have notable depth in the frontcourt, but unproven talents such as Mo Bamba, Chuma Okeke, and Wendell Carter Jr. are not enough to warrant putting them in the playoff conversation.

In all, the Eastern Conference shapes up to be competitive once again, but with two distinct tiers of contenders, and teams content with playoff berths.