NBA Eastern Conference Division Previews 2021

By Patrick Hayes   December 8, 2020 

NBA Eastern Conference Division Previews 2021

Southeast Division Preview

Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat shoots the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during Game Six of the NBA Finals on October 11, 2020 in Orlando, Florida at AdventHealth Arena.(Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

Last season, the Southwest Division winner went all the way to the NBA Finals – something not many would’ve predicted the Miami Heat would do before the season started. This season, the Heat won’t sneak up on anyone, and several teams in the division made big changes to close the gap on them. But Miami should still have enough to win the division and stay among the East’s elite teams. Here’s how each team in the division stacks up.

Projected Finish: 1. Heat 2. Hawks 3. Wizards 4. Magic 5. Hornets

Miami Heat
Key Additions: Avery Bradley, Maurice Harkless
Key Losses: Jae Crowder
Outlook: The Heat didn’t make major changes to their roster. They re-signed playoff hero Goran Dragic, and they shuffled their wing rotation a bit – they lost hard-nosed veteran Jae Crowder and replaced him with two players with similar reputations, Avery Bradley and Maurice Harkless.

Instead, Miami will be banking on improvement from within. Bam Adebayo took one leap forward last year and became an All-Star. Tyler Herro emerged in the playoffs with one of the most memorable runs any rookie has had in the playoffs in league history. Adebayo could grow into an MVP candidate this season, and Herro could eventually move into the starting lineup, though he seemed to excel as a microwave scorer off the bench. The team also has two other young players with upside in Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. 

Atlanta Hawks
Key Additions: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Tony Snell, Kris Dunn
Key Losses: None
Outlook: No team was busier than the Hawks in free agency. They seem intent on surrounding Trae Young with snipers on offense – Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danil Gallinari are two of the best three-point shooters in the league, and both will get plenty of open looks from Young as he draws defenders. They’ll also help create space inside for young big man John Collins, who played like an All-Star in the second half of last season.

The team also attempted to improve one of the worst defenses in the league by signing Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn. Rondo also gives the team another player capable of running the offense when Young sits. Clint Capela, who missed most of last season with injury, should also be healthy and help improve the defense. Atlanta may not yet be an elite team in the East, but they should at the very least be a playoff team.

Washington Wizards
Key Additions: Russell Westbrook, Deni Avdija, Cassius Winston
Key Losses: John Wall
Outlook: The Wizards just traded former face of the franchise John Wall for Russell Westbrook, swapping one formerly elite point guard with an expensive contract for another. Westbrook, a former MVP, could help Washington if he’s able to play like he did prior to the bubble for the Houston Rockets. But during the restart, Westbrook struggled with injuries and his shot.

Improved health should also help Washington. All-Star Bradley Beal missed the restart with injury, and Davis Bertans sat out. Both will be back, and their shooting provides an intriguing complement to Westbrook’s ability to attack the basket when healthy. Thomas Bryant also played well when healthy last season and should be back at full strength, and second-year player Rui Hachimura had bright spots here and there as a rookie. Rookie Deni Avdija fell to the Wizards in the lottery after being projected much higher, and the team also may have got a steal in the second round in Cassius Winston, who was one of the most productive point guards in college basketball his junior and senior seasons. Washington narrowly missed the playoffs last season, but should be a much bigger threat to claim a spot this season.

Orlando Magic
Key Additions: Cole Anthony, Dwayne Bacon
Key Losses: D.J. Augustin
Outlook: The Magic claimed the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference last season almost by default – no other teams in the conference seemed to be all that interested in the playoffs. Orlando will have much more competition for that spot this year, and they’ll be doing it with largely the same roster as last season.

The biggest difference will be at point guard. Former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz takes over as the full-time starter. He played both guard spots last year, but the team had veteran security blanket D.J. Augustin around to take the pressure off. Now, Fultz is the starter and rookie first round pick Cole Anthony will be his backup. Fultz seems to have overcome the yips that plagued him early in his career in Philadelphia, and he showed flashes last season of the elite talent that made him the top prospect in his draft class. 

Aaron Gordon is the other player, along with Fultz, who will make or break Orlando’s season. The rest of the Magic rotation is known commodities. Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, and Terrence Ross are nice players but aren’t going to improve more than where they’re all at right now. Fultz and Gordon are occasionally dynamic and both are also prone to disappearing. If one or both finds consistency this season, Orlando should be playoff-bound. If they don’t, the Magic have likely been surpassed by improved teams in the East.

Charlotte Hornets
Key Additions: LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Vernon Carey Jr.
Key Losses: Dwayne Bacon
Outlook: The Hornets have an intriguing collection of young talent, and pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the offseason when they signed free agent Gordon Hayward to a massive contract. 

But the bigger deal for the Hornets was getting LaMelo Ball with the third pick in the draft. Ball, a pure passing point guard, was regarded by many as one the best prospect in the draft. His passing abilities should add an exciting element to a Charlotte lineup that features intriguing talent – Ball finding freakish athlete Miles Bridges for dunks is sure to be a fixture on highlight reels. His arrival does, however, create a somewhat crowded point guard position. Devonte’ Graham played well last season and Terry Rozier was last season’s big free agent acquisition. There won’t be minutes for all of them. And an added layer is that Rozier and Hayward were Celtics teammates during an era in which many of Celtics were not enthused with Hayward’s presence or role on the team. Expect Charlotte to be in trade discussions during the season to clear up its crowded perimeter.

The Hornets aren’t yet a playoff contender, but they could be one of the more fun young teams to watch if you can tolerate some growing pains.

Atlantic Division Preview

Norman Powell #24 of the Toronto Raptors shoots the ball against the Boston Celtics during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on September 11, 2020 in Orlando, Florida at AdventHealth Arena. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Atlantic Division always features intriguing storylines, and this season is no different. The Brooklyn Nets finally get to debut two offseasons worth of major roster moves. The Toronto Raptors aren’t even playing in Toronto this season. The 76ers hired a coach in Doc Rivers who has won a championship with the division-rival Celtics. The Celtics are trying to keep their place among the East’s elite despite not replacing a couple of major contributors. And the Knicks … well, they’re the Knicks. Here’s how the NBA’s Atlantic Division stacks up.

Projected Finish: 1. Raptors 2. Nets 3. 76ers 4. Celtics 5. Knicks

Toronto/Tampa Bay Raptors
Key Additions: Aron Baynes, DeAndre’ Bembry
Key Losses: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka
Outlook: The Toronto Raptors were technically the longest reigning champions in recent memory – the three-month pause during the COVID-19 pandemic prolonged the 2019 champs’ run before they ultimately bowed out in the second round of the NBA Playoffs to the Boston Celtics.

This year, they return largely the same team – which for the Raptors isn’t a problem. Perhaps no team is better at building from within than Toronto. Pascal Siakam became an All-Star and a legitimate go-to scoring options last season. Despite his playoff stumbles, he’s still shown plenty of ability to improve. Fred VanVleet just signed a massive contract extension after building himself into an exceptional starting guard. This season, expect players like OG Anunoby, Terrence Davis, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas, and Paul Watson to all potentially step into bigger roles this season.

The biggest loss for the Raptors is in the middle, where they have to replace veterans Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. One of those spots will be filled by Aron Baynes, a reliable defender and good perimeter shooter. The Raps will hope Boucher’s athleticism can help fill in some of the shot-blocking they’ll miss with Ibaka gone. Steady veterans Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell are still around to fill big roles too.

The Raptors will play home games in Tampa Bay this season due to pandemic-caused restrictions in Canada. There are flashier teams in the East, but bet against the Raptors are your own peril. 

Brooklyn Nets
Key Additions: Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet, Jeff Green
Key Losses: None
Outlook: Technically, the biggest acquisition for the Nets was last offseason, but Kevin Durant has yet to play while recovering from a torn Achilles. Durant, though, should be healthy. Kyrie Irving should also be back healthy, and the Nets will be led by new coach Steve Nash. Brooklyn certainly won’t lack for star power.

How the team looks around its two stars is a bigger question, though. Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen have all played well, particularly when Durant and Irving were out. It remains to be seen how they all fit into the team’s long-term plans, though. Dinwiddie can come off the bench and play both guard spots, but he’s been the subject of trade rumors. Despite being the better player, Allen frequently uses minutes to veteran DeAndre Jordan. LeVert excelled as the team’s No. 1 option, but he’ll have to adjust to being a third option with Durant and Irving.

Brooklyn also re-signed sniper Joe Harris and added some versatility and defense to its perimeter by trading for guards Bruce Grown and Landry Shamet.

This all rides on how impacted Durant is after recovering from his injury. If he returns as one of the league’s five or so best players, Brooklyn is a title contender.

Philadelphia 76ers
Key Additions: Dwight Howard, Danny Green, Seth Curry
Key Losses: Al Horford
Outlook: Rivers’ job in Philadelphia is simple: help a talented but problematic Sixers core take a step forward and become a title contender.

The talent part is easy. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are two of the best in the league at their respective positions, even if both have flaws. Simmons has a non-existent perimeter game, while Embiid’s size makes it hard for him to cover ground on defense and his injury history is always a concern.

Rivers will solve part of that problem by running more pick-and-roll sets between Simmons and Embiid. Embiid likes to operate in the post, but his touches often slowed the offense to a halt. Getting him touches in positions to score quicker should be a net positive for the offense.

The floor-spacing should also be better. The Sixers turned Al Horford, who never fit when he signed as a free agent a year ago, into Danny Green, a reliable perimeter shooter and veteran defensive player. They also signed Rivers’ son-in-law, Seth Curry, who is one of the best shooters in the league. Tobias Harris and Shake Milton should both also help space the floor.

The Sixers also brought in veteran Dwight Howard to back up Embiid. Howard adjusted well to a bench role for the Lakers last season and, by all accounts, was a model teammate. His personality is big, though, so seeing how he fits in with Embiid – another big personality – will be interesting to watch.

Boston Celtics
Key Additions: Jeff Teague, Tristan Thompson
Key Losses: Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter
Outlook: If there was any doubt (there wasn’t) that the Celtics are Jayson Tatum’s team, that all went away when Gordon Hayward left as a free agent.

Hayward’s presence on the Celtics and relationship with teammates often seemed strained or uncomfortable, but his production was important. Now, with Hayward gone and no replacement coming in to take over the offense he provided, it’s even more imperative that Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue their ascension as two of the best young wings in the game. They’re up for it, as last season proved, but what’s left around them is a question.

Point guard Kemba Walker won’t be ready to start the season because of an injury that has lingered since last spring. The team also shopped Walker in the offseason – not the greatest look considering their recent history with point guards who play hurt for them

Veteran Jeff Teague should help with Walker out. He’s not as productive as he was at his peak in Atlanta, but he’s still a competent point guard who can provide scoring and run an offense.

The team could also see some internal improvement. Young players Grant Williams, Daniel Theis, and Robert Williams all had good moments last season, and veteran Tristan Thompson gives the team a better defensive option in the middle than last year’s backup Enes Kanter.

The Celtics still have two of the best players in the East, but several other teams improved this offseason while Boston didn’t bring in much support for Tatum and Brown.

New York Knicks
Key Additions: Obi Toppin, Alec Burks, Austin Rivers, Nerlens Noel
Key Losses: None
Outlook: For the second straight offseason, the Knicks had a pretty quiet offseason. And that’s actually OK news for them.

They didn’t make a panic trade for a star on a major contract after striking out in free agency. They didn’t peddle away their future assets. Instead, they added another good young player in Obi Toppin to a core that includes R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and Kevin Knox. They added a few inexpensive veterans in Austin Rivers, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel.

Was any of it enough to avoid another last place finish? Of course not. But they did maintain future flexibility, and they do all of a sudden have tradeable assets should a franchise player become available on the market. Or, if not, they have veterans on cheap contracts who can be turned into future draft picks at the trade deadline, much like they did with a trade last season that sent Marcus Morris to the Clippers.

The Knicks aren’t good, and it would be a shock if they finished anywhere above last in the division, but the team finally has a front office that seems to have a vision and is building for the future.

Central Division Preview

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks dunks the ball against the Miami Heat during Game Four of the Eastern Conference SemiFinals of the NBA Playoffs on September 6, 2020 at AdventHealth Arena in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The division race won’t much matter for the Milwaukee Bucks, who are focused on championship or bust, but they should easily win what will likely be the worst division in basketball this season. The Pacers should return to the playoffs, but the Pistons, Bulls, and Cavs all seem destined for the lottery again. Here’s a look at the NBA Central.

Projected Finish: 1. Bucks 2. Pacers 3. Pistons 4. Bulls 5. Cavaliers

Milwaukee Bucks
Key Additions: Jrue Holiday, D.J. Augustin, Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig
Key Losses: Eric Bledsoe, Robin Lopez
Outlook: The Bucks actually had a great offseason by one standard – they got one of the best players available on the market in Jrue Holiday in an effort to keep star and impending free agent Giannis Antetokounmpo happy enough to commit to the team long-term. 

But that move is somewhat overshadowed by a blunder. The team seemed close to getting free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic as well – so much so that it was reported by multiple outlets as happening. But the deal fell apart, and Milwaukee looked somewhat amateurish in the process.

Still, the Bucks got Holiday, maybe the best defensive guard in the league and a great perimeter shooter who will be a big upgrade over Eric Bledsoe. A couple of under-the-radar moves should help them too. Former Spur Bryn Forbes is a great three-point shooter who can play either guard spot, and former Nugget Torrey Craig is a tough perimeter defender.

Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Khris Middleton give the Bucks three All-Stars, and the team has even more depth than a season ago, when they were one of the deepest in the league. Milwaukee is clearly a title contender, but they have been the favorites the last two years and we’ve seen what happened. Until they actually break through and make a Finals appearance, they’ll be considered an underachieving team.

Indiana Pacers
Key Additions: None
Key Losses: None
Outlook: The Pacers are banking on a coaching change making a big difference. Nate McMillan was let go after the season and replaced by Nate Bjorkgren. Indiana didn’t really change anything else. They were reportedly in the running to get Celtics free agent Gordon Hayward, but he ultimately signed in Charlotte. 

Instead, they’ll bank on a star who has a serious injury history and also may or may not want out of Indiana in Victor Oladipo returning to form. Oladipo is a former All-Star who has missed much of the last two seasons with injuries. If he can get back close to his All-Star form, Indiana could be among the top four or five teams in the East again.

Domantas Sabonis had an All-Star season a year ago, and T.J. Warren was one of the best – and most surprising – players during the NBA restart in Orlando, including having a 50-point performance. 

Oladipo isn’t the only good player they need to bounce back, though. Malcolm Brogdon had the worst shooting season of his career after signing a big free agent contract with the team last season. And Myles Turner has shown promise in his career, but seems to struggle sharing the court with fellow big man Sabonis.

Indiana has a talented top five and good depth. If Oladipo is healthy and happy, the Pacers could make some noise.

Detroit Pistons
Key Additions: Killian Hayes, Jerami Grant, Delon Wright, Mason Plumlee, Isaiah Stewart, Jahlil Okafor, Josh Jackson
Key Losses: Bruce Brown, Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard, Christian Wood
Outlook: No team was busier this offseason than the Detroit Pistons. New GM Troy Weaver wasted little time remaking the roster, but it’s unclear exactly what he made it into. 

Some of his moves – like trading away productive players Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown for draft picks – seemed to have an eye toward the future. Others, like signing Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee to big free agent contracts, seemed to be “win now” sort of moves. And the fact that veterans Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose are still on the roster also suggests the Pistons may not be as committed to a complete rebuild as they seemed to be last season when they traded away Andre Drummond.

Griffin hasn’t been fully healthy for almost two years. If he is truly healthy, he’s still one of the best offensive power forwards in the league. Grant is still young enough where he could improve, and he’s a good and versatile defensive player. Rose is still a capable scorer, and lottery pick Killian Hayes and second-year forward Sekou Doumbouya are familiar with each other from their days playing together in France. It all depends on Griffins health, but if he plays – and they don’t trade him – Detroit could be in play for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.

Chicago Bulls
Key Additions: Patrick Williams
Key Losses: Kris Dunn
Outlook: The Bulls made one of the more surprising picks in the NBA Draft when they took Patrick Williams fourth overall – some projections had him going outside of the top 10. 

The Bulls didn’t change their roster much. Instead, they’re banking on new coach Billy Donovan being able to get more out of a roster that has young talent, but also seemed to detest last year’s coach Jim Boylan

Improved health will be a big factor for Chicago. Third-year forward Lauri Markkanen had an injury-plagued season last year. Wendell Carter Jr, Otto Porter Jr, and Denzel Valentine also battled injuries all season. 

Guard Zach LaVine has emerged as one of the top scoring guards in the league and Coby White had some impressive shooting games as a rookie. 

Donovan got a lot out of a young roster in Oklahoma City a year ago, so if the Bulls are healthy and play with the sort of effort Donovan’s Thunder team did last year, Chicago could make a run at a playoff spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Key Additions: Isaac Okoro, Thon Maker, JaVale McGee, Matthew Dellavedova
Key Losses: Tristan Thompson
Outlook: The Cavs have a roster that is a strange combination of young perimeter players with upside and veterans who don’t seem to have a future with the team.

The gems of the group are Collin Sexton, who quietly became an efficient shooting scoring guard from January through March last season, and this year’s lottery pick Isaac Okoro. Okoro isn’t yet an offensive threat, but he’s a tenacious defensive player that should pair with the hardworking Sexton to create a strong culture in Cleveland.

The Cavs also have some trade bait that could potentially bring more assets. Andre Drummond is in the last year of his contract, and could be attractive near the trade deadline to playoff teams looking for a big man who can score around the hoop and gobble up rebounds.

Kevin Love is a little trickier to trade because he’s signed to an expensive long-term contract. But if he proves he’s healthy and can still be productive, it’s conceivable a team in need of a big man who can rebound and shoot from the perimeter might have interest.

Cleveland is still in player development mode. They’re likely to be among the league’s worst teams again this season.

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