The 2019-20 NBA season is less than a week away. How does Crucial Baskets see the wide-open Eastern Conference shaking out?
The Eastern Conference is LeBron-less for the second consecutive season after The King reigned over it from the 2003-04 season through 2017-18. New contenders have emerged in his absence, heightening the intrigue for the 2019-20 NBA campaign.
How do I see the East playing out? Here are my predictions for how the teams will rank in the standings at the end of the grueling regular season. Do you agree with my assessment? Which team do you think will finish atop the East by season’s end? Let me know in the comments!
15. Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets‘ roster does not inspire a lot of confidence. Terry Rozier won’t be Kemba 2.0, but he will produce well in his own right as a confident scorer and decent playmaker. A number of young players — namely rookie PJ Washington and sophomore Miles Bridges — will also provide some positive contributions. But unfortunately, this team lacks the production to compete on a nightly basis.
14. Washington Wizards
Like the Hornets, the Wizards do not possess a roster that can consistently win games. However, Bradley Beal is the key difference. He is a dynamic scorer and playmaker that likely won’t be in the nation’s capital much longer, as a trade could be on the horizon. But as long as he is in D.C., his play will elevate the team to an extra win or two that will keep them off of the conference floor.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers are deep in rebuild mode, but they have a roster that shows this team is trending up. Kevin Love is still on the roster, and his leadership and floor-stretching abilities should keep Cleveland fairly competitive. The backcourt duo of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton will need some time to develop, but it should be a lot of fun to watch.
12. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks‘ roster is much more talented than last season’s, with rookie RJ Barrett and a number of veterans entering the fold. Head coach David Fizdale will be challenged with evening out the minutes so that the vets are happy and the young players are able to develop. I’m honestly not sure he can figure that out by season’s end, but this team is good enough to at least not finish the year with the league’s worst record again.
11. Atlanta Hawks
While the Knicks have the more veteran-savvy team, the Hawks have the younger, more athletic team with a clearer vision of the future. The keys for Atlanta this year will be competing consistently and improving defensively. Trae Young, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter will build on strong 2019’s, while DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish will hope to make positive contributions in their rookie seasons.
10. Chicago Bulls
Injuries and coaching upheaval derailed the Bulls‘ 2018-19 season, but I think they will get back on the right track in 2019-20. The duo of Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are already poised for big years, but adding Tomas Satoransky, Thaddeus Young, and rookie Coby White to the fold kicks things up even more. The team’s new offense, spearheaded by assistant coach Chris Fleming, should also put the players in the right places to produce.
9. Miami Heat
Jimmy Butler was a huge get for the Miami Heat this summer, and they have a number of young players (Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow, Derrick Jones, Tyler Herro) that fans should be excited about. However, I don’t think the team is there quite yet. Thanks to the franchise’s culture, this team will be competing for the eighth seed until the last day of the season. Sadly, I think that the teams ahead of them possess one or more key facets that ultimately crowd Miami out of the playoff picture.
8. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic stunned quite a few people in 2019 by making the playoffs for the first time since 2012. That core returns, which will give this framchise some much-needed continuity. On top of that they added solid contributor Al-Farouq Aminu and have a reinvigorated Markelle Fultz entering the fold. That should be enough to get them a seat at the playoff table again this season.
7. Boston Celtics
The Celtics have a talented cast of players despite the losses of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Kemba Walker is a huge get, while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are poised for strong seasons. However, I have my concerns with the depth at the center and backup point guard positions. If the C’s cast of new arrivals (Vincent Poirier, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards) can deliver, and Enes Kanter is consistently adequate on defense, then my fears will be assuaged.
6. Detroit Pistons
Year 2 of the Dwane Casey Era should be a natural progression from last season. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson should develop into a formidable trio, while the rest of the rotation should be solid as well. After a decade of aimlessness, the Pistons are finally heading in the right direction.
5. Indiana Pacers
The question of Victor Oladipo‘s effectiveness once he returns from injury will loom large for much of the year. However, this Indiana Pacers roster as-is is more than capable of holding its own. The acquisitions of Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren, and Jeremy Lamb are huge. The frontcourt duo of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should also come into their own, and Goga Bitadze will be in the All-Rookie First Team discussion. If Oladipo returns and is at least above average, that will make this team all the more dangerous.
4. Brooklyn Nets
The Knicks’ losses are the Nets‘ gains. Kevin Durant will likely be out the entire season, but adding Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan to a team that was already good enough to secure the sixth seed spells trouble for much of the East. As long as Irving has truly learned from his past stops and the drama is kept to the minimum, this team will be well on their way to homecourt advantage in the first round.
3. Toronto Raptors
“We the North” reached the mountaintop last season, and with the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, that’s going to be hard to replicate. However, that doesn’t mean this team is heading to the lottery. Those are two big losses, but what is left in their wake is a roster that is still capable of competing in the East. If Kyle Lowry can still lead, Pascal Siakam remains brilliant, and at least one of their wings (Powell, Hollis-Jefferson, Anunoby, Johnson) can be effective, the possibility of repeating as conference champions could be in the cards.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks look poised to pick up right where they left off last season. Giannis is the reigning MVP, but still has the potential to grow his game. The roster around him — including All-Star Khris Middleton — are also ready to build off of their respective good years. The key will be making up for Malcolm Brogdon’s absence. If Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver can contribute consistently, that could aid the team in making their first Finals since 1971.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers are my pick for the top team in the Eastern Conference. The starting lineup — Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Joel Embiid — is the most stacked in the NBA. That alone puts them above the rest of the East. But to pile on, the bench features sharpshooting four Mike Scott, reliable center Kyle O’Quinn, and rookie defensive gem Matisse Thybulle among other meaningful contributors. If the team produces consistent and remains healthy, the 76ers will complete the 82-game gauntlet with the Eastern Conference’s best record.