Waiting until the last minute to make some Eastern Conference playoff predictions: procrastination or wanting to gather the most information possible? It’s a bit of both, so with the tip-off for the 2020-21 NBA season, here are my 10 teams, in order, making the playoffs from the East (10 and not 8 because of the play-in games).
Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions
#1. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks got what they wanted before the season begins, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract situation completed. Locking up the two-time reigning MVP is probably the single biggest signing in the history of the Milwaukee Bucks franchise, and gives them a window to go all-in.
Much of last year’s roster is still intact, with the additions of Jrue Holiday and Torrey Craig as well. As a result, the Bucks have a good shot to be the best defensive team in the NBA and with no reason to not surge ahead to another number one seed. They have arguably the best player in the East and a deep bench full of shooters.
I would argue that by acquiring Holiday, the Bucks got better this offseason. But we all know, as nice as a number one seed would be, Milwaukee wants more. They need more too. The Bucks have been the number one seed the last two seasons but got bounced before even reaching the Finals both times.
#2. Brooklyn Nets
Part of me wants to put the Nets lower because I can’t imagine a team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving would be able to stay healthy all 72 games this year. However, after seeing them compete in the Bubble with how little they had, I think the Nets could get on and win games just fine if they were to play missing either star.
The Nets have two primary scorers: Durant and Irving. However, beneath them, they have two secondary scorers who could be primary scorers on a bunch of teams in the league: Spencer Dinwiddieand Caris Levert. Add Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan at the center spot, and snipers Landry Shamet and Joe Harris on the wings, and you have a team with the most offensive firepower in the NBA by a wide margin.
As was seen with the 2018-19 Celtics, Irving’s final stint with the team, there is only one ball. You can have so much talent; so many bucket-getters, but at the end of the day there’s only one ball and only 48 minutes. The constant need to make sure all mouths were fed ultimately led to that Celtics team’s destruction. I would assume Kyrie has learned from that experience and will co-lead a much less toxic locker room to the number two seed.
#3. Boston Celtics
Ah yes, the Celtics. My personal home town team. Given how they just performed in the preseason may be the number three seed is too high. Yet I look at it this way: everyone expected Boston to disappoint after a Celtics-led U.S team finished 7th at the FIBA World Cup last summer, and they finished within two games of the NBA Finals. Not to mention they just played both preseason games while missing their All-Star starting point guard.
Much of the reason I have Boston at number three and not lower is that I project Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will keep ascending, and be able to carry the team to victories over many of the teams ranked below them. An NBA Finals appearance is unlikely unless Tatum ascends to MVP level and Kemba Walker doesn’t have any lingering knee issues once he returns, but I don’t see that happening; not this year at least.
#4. Miami Heat
After a shocking NBA Finals appearance, I take it many people will not agree with me here. The Heat just made the Finals, Bam Adebayo is ascending, Jimmy Butler is a great leader, how could you have Miami at four?!
Just because I have the Heat at four doesn’t mean I think they won’t be great. But let’s be honest, did they really get any better? Much of their offseason was about re-signing their core, like Adebayo, Goran Dragic, Meyers Leonard, Kelly Olynyk. To fill in for losing Jae Crowder, they bring in Avery Bradley…a lateral move in my opinion.
The Heat benefitted from a perfect storm in the Bubble, and I just don’t think lightning strikes twice here. Instead of gambling on whether a young core of 22 to 26-year-olds will ascend (Boston), Miami is the case of gambling on whether a late 20’s-early 30’s core has the same level of elite production they had last year. I just don’t think that’ll be the case. Depending on who they play, Miami feels like a second-round exit to me.
#5. Philadelphia 76ers
I’ll show praise where it is due first; the Sixers will be an incredible defensive team led by one of the league’s best defenders in Simmons. Having Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle defending the wings along with Simmons is a scary rotation to have. Dwight Howard coming in to back up Embiid is an underrated signing too. Yet a problem persists in Philly: they lack shooting.
Seriously, who does Philly have on their roster right now that can shoot consistently other than Seth Curry; Shake Milton? Tobias Harris? Danny Green? The same issues they faced last year looms large again, which is insane given who their new general manager is. Simmons and Embiid are both great, but if last year wasn’t the last time to see if these two mesh, THIS year has to be the last. Philly needs an ultimatum.
#6. Indiana Pacers
What could’ve been this offseason between the Celtics and Pacers. Instead, Indiana will enter the season without Gordon Hayward coming over via trade. They will field a team with a smattering of above-average players with no real star.
I actually really like the makeup of Indiana’s roster, where they have about 6-7 guys who I could reasonably see scoring 20 points or more any given night. T.J Warren and Victor Oladipo on the wings with Jeremy Lamb and Doug McDermott behind them. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner down low. Malcolm Brogdon running point. The pieces are there. But the pieces aren’t…special, and in the NBA you need special to go far.
Again, I’ll give Indiana credit: without having a superstar and while being in a small market, this is just about the best possible team you could construct. There’s balanced scoring, good depth, and a couple of elite defenders in the mix too in Turner and Oladipo (if he returns to his old self). There’s just see a logjam with no clear star though. Put a Giannis type player on this team and they’re title contenders.
Also Indiana: PLEASE stop being a first-round exit, this is getting ridiculous. 15 first-round exits in the last 30 years.
#7. Toronto Raptors (Play-in Seed 1)
As a rising tide of teams in the East emerges this season, the Raptors will be going out to sea a bit. They’re a playoff team, obviously, but their window of being a Finals contender is all but over. The three biggest moves of Toronto’s offseason were being forced to pay Fred VanVleet and losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Not splashy enough for a team hanging on to title ambitions.
The depth at the center spot is gone and Kyle Lowry isn’t getting any younger. I have my doubts about Pascal Siakam‘s ability to be a number one option after the Boston series, and the most they bolstered their bench with was drafting Malachi Flynn (a good pick I might add). The Raptors are good, but nothing about them screams great. There are far more talented teams in the East now, and Toronto will suffer a drop in seeding as a result.
#8. Atlanta Hawks (Play-in Seed 2)
I wish I could put this team higher, and part of me does think I should anyway. The East is just so full of good/great teams, that I’ll hedge on putting an unproven one above many established teams, even if I expect the Hawks to flourish.
Atlanta has all the pieces to make the playoffs. They have young players of varying ability joining forces with solid veterans with years of playoff experience. If Young plays as well as he did last year, I see no reason for the Hawks to miss the playoffs, let alone just making the play-in game. Atlanta is a couple of years away, but their journey to becoming a contender starts this year.
#9. Washington Wizards (Play-in Seed 3)
The only reason I have the Wizards being good enough to make the play-in game is because of the Russell Westbrook trade. The only reason I don’t have them higher than 9th is because of the Russell Westbrook trade.
Westbrook is a vast improvement from John Wall. Westbrook is the better player and hasn’t had any major injury setbacks recently that Wall has dealt with. He and Bradley Beal make for a great stat-sheet-stuffing duo surrounded by young talent. Thomas Bryant, rookie Deni Avdija, and Rui Hachimura
create an alright core, certainly enough to be competitive. Yet didn’t Beal and Wall not look totally compatible with each other before Beal eventually was given the reigns in Wall’s absence? Are we sure Westbrook and Beal are a good fit? Both are very ball-dominant.
To me this feels like Russ’s situation in Houston all over again except the team has a real big man and not a 6’5 center. So maybe they’ll do better than ninth, but I’m not going to jump the gun on it.
#10. Chicago Bulls (Play-in Seed 4)
Deciding who would be the 10th seed, the final team allowed in the play-in games, was actually pretty challenging. The 6 remaining teams after Washington aren’t all that great. After leaving out teams that will almost certianly not make the 10th spot, (Knicks, Cavs, Pistons) the Bulls, Hornets, and Magic were left. I’m going to choose the Bulls.
Taking Patrick Williams 4th overall was surprising, but he’s impressed during Bulls’ training camp and their preseason games. Lauri Markkanen still has untapped potential he for some reason can’t reach, but I do believe he can make strides there now that Chicago seems to have more defined roles for its primary scorers.
It’s the backcourt show: Zach Lavine and Coby White. That is where most of Chicago’s scoring will come from this season, and it’s not a bad place to start. Lavine was having a career year and Coby White was nothing short of fantastic right before Covid ended the Bulls campaign. With Billy Donovan now at the helm, and seeing what he did for the development of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last season for the Thunder, I predict White has a breakout sophomore year, and the Bulls eek their way into the play-in.
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