NBA Eastern Conference preview, predictions: What is Celtics' ceiling?


The past two NBA seasons have been full of unexpected developments. You can extend that streak to three seasons.

The Brooklyn Nets' announcement that Kyrie Irving won't play with the team unless he complies with New York's COVID-19 vaccination guidelines is quite the plot twist. As of now, the projected Eastern Conference favorite will begin the 2021-22 season without one of its three best players.

Irving's absence could have a ripple effect in the East, where there may be a fierce battle for playoff position below the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.

Can the Philadelphia 76ers put the Ben Simmons drama behind them and make a deep playoff run? Can Ime Udoka and the new-look Boston Celtics join the East elite? What the heck will happen to the Nets?

Forsberg: If the Celtics overachieve, these will be the reasons why

With the NBA season right around the corner, we're breaking down all 15 teams in the East, from major additions and departures to what will make or break their season to projected final records. 

1. Milwaukee Bucks

Major offseason additions: George Hill, Rodney Hood, Grayson Allen, Semi Ojeleye

Major offseason departures: P.J. Tucker, Bryn Forbes, Jeff Teague

The Bucks' season hinges on... The health of their stars. The Bucks finally found a winning combination in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, and their championship core remains largely intact.

As long as no member of Milwaukee's "Big Three" misses significant time, this team should have no trouble winning over 70 percent of its games and may practice some load management down the stretch if there's some cushion in the standings.


NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 8/1

Projected record: 60-22

2. Brooklyn Nets

Major offseason additions: Paul Millsap, Patty Mills, DeAndre' Bembry

Major offseason departures: Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Landry Shamet, Jeff Green

The Nets' season hinges on... Availability.

Kevin Durant, Harden and Irving shared the court for just eight regular season games in 2020-21 and about one minute of their second-round playoff loss to the Bucks.

When this group is together, it's unstoppable. But Durant and Harden are both on the wrong side of 30 and Irving basically isn't a member of the team until further notice. While Brooklyn earns this spot based on sheer potential, there's plenty of room for error.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 15/1

Projected record: 53-29

3. Philadelphia 76ers

Major offseason additions: Andre Drummond, Georges Niang

Major offseason departures: George Hill, Anthony Tolliver

The 76ers' season hinges on... The Ben Simmons dynamic.

Things could get awkward in Philly, where the franchise player who was hell-bent on leaving is back in the fold (for now).

The rest of the core remains intact, so if Simmons somehow mends fences with the organization and sticks around, the Sixers should be a top-three team in the East. But an in-season trade seems like a very real possibility, and how Doc Rivers' club handles the departure of its second-best player is anyone's guess.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 18/1

Projected record: 51-31

4. Boston Celtics

Major offseason additions: Ime Udoka (coach), Al Horford, Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, Enes Kanter, Juancho Hernangomez

Major offseason departures: Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Tristan Thompson

The Celtics' season hinges on... The supporting cast.

Simply put, the Celtics didn't have enough firepower outside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown last season. So, new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens went out and assembled an interesting mix of role players like the veteran Horford and the motivated Schroder.

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If Robert Williams can improve offensively and Marcus Smart cuts back on the missed threes, this is a deeper Boston squad than last year that appears energized by new head coach Ime Udoka. There's little time for growing pains in the top-heavy East, though.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 34/1

Projected record: 47-35

5. Atlanta Hawks

Major offseason additions: Gorgui Deng, Delon Wright, Jalen Johnson (draft)

Major offseason departures: Kris Dunn, Tony Snell

The Hawks' season hinges on... Experience.

Atlanta is no longer the plucky underdog, as Trae Young's team will have a target on its back as a legitimate East contender.


All of the major pieces are in place from last season's run to the East finals. The East finals seems like their ceiling, though -- unless the Hawks can translate their postseason experience into more magic this season.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 33/1

Projected record: 44-38

6. Miami Heat

Major offseason additions: Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris

Major offseason departures: Goran Dragic, Precious Achiuwa

The Heat's season hinges on... The second unit.

Lowry will join Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and fellow newcomer Tucker to form a versatile, gritty starting five. But Miami reached the 2020 NBA Finals on the strength of its entire roster.

If Victor Oladipo comes close to his 2018-19 form and Tyler Herro bounces back from his sophomore slump, the Heat should have enough offense to complement their ferocious defense. If the bench struggles to get buckets, though, expect some low-scoring losses and a slide in the standings.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 26/1

Projected record: 43-39

7. New York Knicks

Major offseason additions: Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Dwayne Bacon

Major offseason departures: Reggie Bullock, Frank Ntilikina, Elfrid Payton

The Knicks' season hinges on... Offensive punch.

Defense shouldn't be an issue for Tom Thibodeau's squad, which allowed the fewest points per game last season. But this team needs to score points if it wants to get back to the postseason.

Can Walker and Fournier provide that boost? Both are capable of scoring 20 points per game, but Walker's knee issues are well-documented, and Fournier will need to acclimate to his third team in seven months.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 80/1

Projected record: 43-39

8. Chicago Bulls

Major offseason additions: Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso, Derrick Jones Jr.

Major offseason departures: Tomas Satoransky, Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu

The Bulls' season hinges on... The newcomers.

Chicago's overhauled starting five of Ball, Zach LaVine, DeRozan, Patrick Williams and Nikola Vucevic is legit on paper. Ball should be a great facilitator for LaVine and DeRozan, and the expectation is the team's first playoff berth since 2017.

Three of those five players weren't here last winter, though, and there's not much depth behind the newly-acquired stars. So, the pressure is on the starting unit to justify the front office's offseason splurge.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 70/1

Projected record: 39-43

9. Charlotte Hornets

Major offseason additions: Kelly Oubre Jr., Ish Smith, Mason Plumlee, James Bouknight (draft)

Major offseason departures: Devonte' Graham, Cody Zeller, Malik Monk

The Hornets' season hinges on... The development of the young core.

The Hornets surprised a lot of people last season. Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball exceeded expectations, ex-Celtics Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier handled the scoring load and Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington were productive role players.


If Charlotte wants to make the playoffs, though, Ball will need to be brilliant again, and Oubre well need to shoot better than 31.6 percent from beyond the arc. The Hornets might make the leap eventually, but last season feels like their ceiling.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 100/1

Projected record: 37-45

10. Toronto Raptors

Major offseason additions: Scottie Barnes, Goran Dragic, Precious Achiuwa

Major offseason departures: Kyle Lowry

The Raptors' season hinges on... Leadership.

Kyle Lowry was the Raptors for the better part of a decade, even when Kawhi Leonard was in town. Can Fred VanVleet assume that role? More importantly, can Pascal Siakam get back onto the All-Star path he was on two seasons ago?

A return to Toronto should help, and Nick Nurse should keep them somewhat competitive. But it might be a while until the Raptors return to their relevance of the Lowry era.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 100/1

Projected record: 35-47

11. Indiana Pacers

Major offseason additions: Chris Duarte (draft), Isaiah Jackson (draft), Torrey Craig

Major offseason departures: Doug McDermott

The Pacers' season hinges on... Health and defense.

While Caris LeVert is making progress in his return from a back injury, Justin Holiday now will miss the start of the season due to an ankle ailment. The Pacers need their full complement of playmakers if they want to crack the top eight in the East.

They also need to improve their defense. Rick Carlisle inherits a club that allowed 115.3 points per game last season (25th in the NBA), and Indiana doesn't have enough offensive firepower to keep that pace.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 100/1

Projected record: 33-49

12. Washington Wizards

Major offseason additions: Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Corey Kispert (draft)

Major offseason departures: Russell Westbrook

The Wizards' season hinges on... Chemistry.

Bradley Beal's running mate is out the door, and in comes a new head coach (Wes Unseld Jr.) and an eclectic cast of veterans. This could go one of two ways: The new group bonds under their new head coach and makes an underdog run at a playoff spot, or the wheels fall off and the Beal trade rumors kick back into high gear.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 100/1

Projected record: 30-52

13. Orlando Magic

Major offseason additions: Jalen Suggs (draft), Franz Wagner (draft)

Major offseason departures: None

The Magic's season hinges on... The kids.

The Magic have one of the NBA's youngest rosters, with two lottery picks joining the likes of Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz and returning big man Jonathan Isaac.

Orlando is going to lose a lot of games again, but there's a lot of upside on this roster, so the development of the young players will be front and center.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 300/1


Projected record: 25-57

14. Cleveland Cavaliers

Major offseason additions: Evan Mobley (draft), Lauri Markkanen

Major offseason departures: Larry Nance Jr.

The Cavs' season hinges on... Frontcourt development.

Cleveland has a bright future in the backcourt with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland running the show. The next step is to bring the bigs along.

Mobley has a pair of veteran mentors in Kevin Love and Jarrett Allen, while Markkanen should provide a scoring boost. If Mobley emerges as a legitimate starter with All-Star upside, the season is a win.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 300/1

Projected record: 20-62

15. Detroit Pistons

Major offseason additions: Cade Cunningham (draft), Kelly Olynyk

Major offseason departures: Mason Plumlee, Sekou Doumbouya

The Pistons' season hinges on... Cunningham's potential.

The Pistons drafted Cunningham to be the next face of the franchise, plain and simple.

Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey showed promise as rookies last season, but this year is all about Cunningham, and whether he can develop the tools to lead Detroit out of the dark ages.

NBA title odds (via PointsBet): 300/1

Projected record: 18-64