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The 2023-2024 NBA Eastern Conference Primer

The 2023-2024 NBA season is right around the corner, and parity has its grip upon the entire league. Most of the teams in the East have realistic playoff aspirations, with very few coming in expecting to struggle. In addition, there doesn’t seem to be any clear-cut favorite for the East representative in the Finals, even though there are many contenders. With that being said, here are the realistic hopes of each team, along with a player to watch in their 2023-2024 season.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Boston Celtics

Realistic Outlook: The Celtics are squarely in contention for the first seed in the East as well as a championship, with the status as a favorite being attached to them even before the acquisitions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday bolstered their rotation. Losing key contributors from last year’s team such as 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and 2023 Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon in those trades will hurt, but the team hopes that growth from young players getting chances to contribute as well as the massive firepower of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown along with their two new all-stars will get the job done.

Player to Watch: Sam Hauser. With Boston’s wing depth looking dramatically different without Grant Williams, Hauser will be expected to shoulder the load as one of the first forwards off the bench. How he performs with these newfound expectations will likely dictate how much coach Joe Mazzulla can rely on his bench to perform when Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are off the floor.

Brooklyn Nets

Realistic Outlook: While there is a lot of young talent to get excited about, and a playoff berth is certainly in the picture, Brooklyn is likely not capable of keeping up with the big dogs of a deep Eastern Conference. This year should be about continuing to let Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Nik Claxton continue to grow under the mentorship of veterans such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Royce O’Neale. This will also be Brooklyn’s first real assessment of what they have in Ben Simmons, as the once-heralded point forward is finally healthy. Can he return to his prior form and give the Nets value?

Player to Watch: Cam Thomas. In the games he was given a green light, Thomas was a firecracker, at one point scoring 40 or more in three straight games. However, he also had nights where he mysteriously vanished to the end of the Nets rotation. Watch for how coach Jacque Vaughn utilizes him on a roster with limited offensive playmakers.

New York Knicks

Realistic Outlook: Though they will again be good, and receive a top six seed in the East to show for it, it’s tough to see these Knicks competing in a deep playoff run. Their iso-heavy offensive scheme is extremely reliant on Julius Randle and RJ Barrett hitting their shots, and when they aren’t, the entire offense grinds to a standstill. Against the tough defenses of the East, that is a recipe for yet another pre-conference finals exit.

Player to Watch: Josh Hart. Though he is far from the flashiest player in the NBA, he may have the highest motor of anyone in the league. His ability to constantly be in high gear has earned him the reputation as perhaps the best rebounding guard around, and his energy is infectious and a joy to watch. There is a reason the Knicks feel the first round pick they dealt Portland for him was worth it.

Philadelphia 76ers

Realistic Outlook: This may be the hardest team to read in the league. Another fizzle-out in the second round at the hands of the Celtics has led to an offseason of turmoil in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia fired head coach Doc Rivers in favor of Nick Nurse, and star guard James Harden is refusing to play for the team after a fallout with President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey. The return the 76ers get on Harden should he be traded could dictate whether this team is able to compete or not. And if they don’t get the return on Harden they expect, could reigning MVP Joel Embiid look to walk from a non-competitive situation?

Player to Watch: Tyrese Maxey. With Harden likely out of the picture, much of the lead guard duties will be placed on the 22-year-old Maxey. He flashed potential in limited on-ball opportunities last year. A leap in that department for him could lead not only to a Harden trade being easier to swallow, but also could convince Embiid that winning in Philly is still possible.

Toronto Raptors

Realistic Outlook: The Raptors are a team stuck in no-man’s land, with no true superstar to take the helm and lead them to contender status, but enough good pieces to convince themselves contention is possible. With Fred VanVleet now on the Houston Rockets, and a fresh new coach in Darko Rajakovic, this seems to be the year that will determine whether Toronto moves on from Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby and go all-in on a rebuild around 2022 Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes, or shoot for the stars if a superstar becomes available via trade. Either way, change feels inevitable.

Player to Watch: Dennis Schroder. Coming off a bounce-back year with the Lakers and a gold medal with Germany in the FIBA World Cup, Schroder is now in command as the Raptors’ point guard. How he performs in his distributor role could determine how the team will view the future of the roster as currently constructed.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Chicago Bulls

Realistic Outlook: The Bulls are built around a misfit core that is slowing down with age, and it has sentenced them to an expensive mediocrity. DeMar DeRozan is a capable scorer, but is 34 years old, and still passes up too many three point opportunities in favor of long two’s. Zach LaVine is also a gifted scorer, but is ineffective on the defensive end, and lacks the explosiveness of his pre-knee surgery days. Nikola Vucevic, while still a very good stretch five, is seeing his athleticism around the rim decline. Unless drastic changes are made, rather than shuffling deck chairs and hoping Lonzo Ball solves all their problems next season (spoiler: he won’t), this will be another season of middling basketball for Chicago.

Player to Watch: Patrick Williams. Much of Chicago’s hope for improvement centers on Williams taking a leap on offense. Though he is a very solid defender, Williams hasn’t gotten the opportunity to prove he can be more than a spot-up shooter, despite proving to be a very capable one. In order to take that next step, however, some of the offense needs to be ceded from the ball-dominance of DeRozan and LaVine. Watch for how Billy Donavan attempts to put the ball in Williams’s hands, if he does at all.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Realistic Outlook: If there is a dark horse in the Eastern Conference race, it is the Cavaliers. They rode a dominant defense and the stellar playmaking of their two star guards, Donavan Mitchell and Darius Garland, to the fourth-best record in the East last year. However, their lack of wing depth was exploited mercilessly in the playoffs by the Knicks, and Cleveland’s defense wilted in their first-round exit. They attempted to fill in their wing depth with free-agent acquisition Max Strus, but only time will tell if he will be enough for their woes at the position last year.

Player to Watch: Evan Mobley. Mobley has been one of the best defensive players in basketball since he was drafted in 2021. But with Mitchell and Garland controlling much of the offense, he hasn’t been asked to contribute as much on that end. When those two guards were keyed in on in the playoffs, however, it became quickly apparent no one on the roster was equipped to handle being the tertiary scorer. If Mobley can evolve his offensive game to be capable of shouldering even that much (and he has the talent and ability to be much more), the Cavaliers could be very dangerous.

Detroit Pistons

Realistic Outlook: At this point, all Detroit wants to see is progress with their array of young talent that they hope will be able to form a contending core. Seeing some of those young players show signs of progression and allow them to compete in games would be huge for an organization looking for the fruits of a long and arduous rebuild. With Jalen Duren, Marvin Bagley III, Isaiah Stewart and James Wiseman making up a crowded frontcourt, it would be nice to see one or two of them separate themselves from the pack.

Player to Watch: Cade Cunningham. The 2021 No. 1 overall pick sat out most of last year with a surgery on his shin, which was a massive blow to the Pistons’ hopes for progress last year. After returning fully healthy to training camp, Detroit needs their young star to take a step forward, or else the dregs of a rebuild may stick around a lot longer than anticipated.

Indiana Pacers

Realistic Outlook: Optimism abounds in Indy. Tyrese Haliburton took advantage of his first full season as a Pacer and was masterful as the commander of the offense, averaging 20.7 points-per-game and 10.4 assists-per-game which the Pacers would reward handsomely with a massive five-year, $260 million contract. Coupled with free-agent acquisition Bruce Brown, a budding star in Bennedict Mathurin, and the consistent contributions of veterans such as Myles Turner and TJ McConnell, Indiana hopes to continue to rise out of a retooling.

Player to Watch: Obi Toppin. While in New York, Toppin’s lob threat ability was not utilized as much as it could have been due to the isolation nature of their offense. With a point guard as good at finding players in the right spots as Haliburton, however, Toppin’s freakish athleticism around the rim and solid cutting ability could shine.

Milwaukee Bucks

Realistic Outlook: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard make up quite possibly the best 1-2 punch in the entire NBA. The offensive capabilities of those two alone make the Bucks a favorite. Combine them with an aging-but-solid Brook Lopez holding down the interior, and Khris Middleton, who is still a capable iso scorer, and the Bucks top four matches up well with pretty much any other in the league. However, their depth after those four and Bobby Portis off the bench is a little questionable. They will rely heavily on their best players to produce, and with Middleton’s health being a concern as of late, that isn’t guaranteed.

Player to Watch: Pat Connaughton. The second-round pick in 2015 will most likely be getting the starting spot as the guard next to Lillard. His effort on defense, ability to score off cuts and knock down open shots will be crucial to alleviating some of the pressure on the main four. With a lot of unproven depth below him on the depth chart, the Bucks need Connaughton to step into a bigger role.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

Atlanta Hawks

Realistic Outlook: The Hawks are holding out hope that their 2021 Eastern Conference appearance was not a fluke, and are betting on Quin Snyder to unlock that version of Trae Young once again. With John Collins officially out of the picture after years of trade rumors, they are betting on a young wing core of Deandre Hunter, Saddiq Bey, AJ Griffin and Jalen Johnson to hit their shots when Young finds them on the three-point line while providing enough defense to make up for Young’s deficiencies on that end.

Player to Watch: Dejounte Murray. In theory, Young and Murray complement each other’s strengths extremely well. However, neither was efficient enough on offense last year for that combined strength to shine. Entering year two in Atlanta, it will be important for Murray to find a stroke of consistency with his shot in order to completely unlock the potential of the offense.

Charlotte Hornets

Realistic Outlook: The Hornets are in absolute shambles, both as a team and as an organization. Micheal Jordan recently sold his majority stake in the team, and the transition to new ownership is still in progress, and multiple players, including suspended forward Miles Bridges, have serious off-court issues. They handed their lone bright spot Lamelo Ball a massive five-year, $260 million extension, but the flashy point guard has had issues with injuries over the course of his career. Charlotte just can’t seem to break their brutal cycle.

Player to Watch: Brandon Miller. The 2023 No. 2 overall pick has plenty of promise, but also has some dark clouds of off-court issues following him from Alabama. If he plays well and manages to give some glimmers of hope, those issues will at the very least be pushed to the background. If he struggles, however, expect those allegations to linger over Charlotte heavily.

Miami Heat

Realistic Outlook: Another season, another surprise NBA Finals appearance headlined by a massive Jimmy Butler playoff run. Despite the increase in depth and firepower elsewhere in the league, and with multiple key cogs from last year’s run leaving for big paydays, the Heat with Butler and Bam Adebayo leading the way always seem to find themselves in contention. But after missing out on both the Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard sweepstakes in the past calendar year, do they have enough to push them over the hump?

Player to Watch: Tyler Herro. The 2022 Sixth Man of the Year missed the Heat’s most of last year’s playoff run with an injured right hand. Now, with Gabe Vincent gone and Kyle Lowry continuing to decline, Herro will be expected to be the lead guard the Heat desperately need. They trusted him enough to refuse to trade him for Lillard. Will that trust pay off?

Orlando Magic

Realistic Outlook: There is a lot to be excited about in Orlando. 2022 No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero looked the part of a future powerhouse of a player, and Franz Wagner has shown the ability to become a buttery-smooth scorer. However, what is currently holding Orlando back is mediocre guard play in a crowded position room. Markell Fultz, Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony and Gary Harris haven’t provided the playmaking skills the Magic need to allow their young forwards to blossom. Those four, in addition to rookie Anthony Black, need to step up in order for the Magic to take the next step.

Player to Watch: Jonathan Isaac. The power forward seemed destined to become one of the premier defenders in the league before missing all but 11 games the past three years with a torn ACL and adductor muscle. After finally coming into this year healthy, the Magic will see if his defensive prowess remains after both severe leg injuries, or if he will become another unfortunate tale of injuries sapping the potential of a player before they really even get started.

Washington Wizards

Realistic Outlook: The rebuild is officially on in Washington. After failing to build around franchise stalwart Bradley Beal, the Wizards dealt Beal and former all-star forward Kristaps Porzingis for Jordan Poole and Tyus Jones, going all-in on a youth movement. Though the team seems young and feisty, it isn’t likely that it will lead to many wins, and the Wizards clearly have their eyes on the high-lottery-pick prize. In the meantime, fans can enjoy watching Poole and Kyle Kuzma have full reign over an offense for the first time in their careers.

Player to Watch: Corey Kispert. With Beal and Porzingis gone, there will be a lot more opportunities for the 2021 first-round pick to contribute on offense. After two solid years to start his career, Washington will hope his efficiency carries over when given a higher volume of shots, while proving himself as a key cog in the rebuild ahead.


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