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Eastern Conference Preview: Ranking the teams in Tiers

Nobody has seen anything like Victor Wembanyama before. With his combination of skill and size at 7-foot-4, he's really been turning heads during a series of NBA exhibitions and making it tough to draw comparisons.

The Eastern Conference is stacked. And deep.

This may be the best Eastern Conference we have seen in decades, which means not only are good teams going to struggle to make the playoffs, but good rosters will end up missing even the play-in. The East is at least 11 deep with teams dreaming of the playoffs this season.

Let’s break down the Eastern Conference by tiers. To be clear, these tiers are based on said team’s ability to win the title, not simply where they will fall in the regular season standings. For example, the Heat or 76ers could easily grab a top-two seed in the East, they will be good regular season teams, but they have playoff questions to answer.


Milwaukee Bucks
Boston Celtics

Anything short of the Eastern Conference Finals will disappoint these teams. Milwaukee has continuity, strong defense, and the best player in the world in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks just need to stay healthy (they might have returned to the Finals if Khris Middleton hadn’t sprained his knee), but an adjustment on defense to take away a few more 3-pointers wouldn’t hurt. Still, this is the core of a team that won it all in 2021 and could do it again.

Boston has depth, continuity, athleticism, and defense (especially once Robert Williams III gets healthy and returns to the lineup) — everything that led them to the Finals last season. The only question (the thing holding me back from picking them to win it all... but that’s for next Monday) is how they respond to Ime Udoka being out and Joe Mazzulla being in as coach. Maybe the Celtics don’t miss a beat, but Udoka helped them find their identity last season and was fantastic in leading them to the Finals. That’s no small thing to replace.


Philadelphia 76ers
Miami Heat

Both of these teams can not only finish top two in the regular season, but they also have rosters good enough to be serious title contenders — if they can answer questions (there just bigger questions than with the Bucks and Celtics). The 76ers big question is James Harden in the playoff spotlight — he has a history of wilting in big moments and having bad games when his team needs him most. Sixers GM Daryl Morey upgraded the supporting cast this season, it’s good enough, but now the pressure falls to Harden to live up to his potential in the playoffs. Also, Joel Embiid’s streak of unfortunate injuries in the postseason needs to end. Health is one of the concerns with the Heat as well, but the bigger question is at the four, where they will need to fill the steady postseason hand of P.J. Tucker. Is Caleb Martin up for that?


Brooklyn Nets

The Nets have so many big, pressing questions they deserve their own category: Does Ben Simmons accept his role and fit with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? Is Irving fully committed? (It’s a contract year, I expect he will be dialed in.) Is Nic Claxton enough at center? Can this team get stops? However, Durant asked the big question about this team, and it sounds like even he doesn’t know the answer:


Toronto Raptors
Cleveland Cavaliers
Atlanta Hawks

These three teams are likely fighting for the sixth seed and avoiding the play-in, or at the very least getting the seventh or eighth seed so the path out of the play-in to the playoffs is simpler.

For the Cavaliers and Hawks — teams that made bold moves in the offseason — a step forward into the playoffs feels imperative. Atlanta added Dejounte Murray, giving Trae Young an All-Star-level backcourt mate who can both be a disruptive defender and can keep the offense humming when he sits. The Cavaliers traded for Donovan Mitchell to put next to the fast-rising Evan Mobley plus All-Stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. The Cavs may have the best young core in the NBA, but how fast can they come together?

Out of this group, I’ll take Toronto to get the sixth seed. The Raptors have their All-NBA player in Pascal Siakam, a star on the rise in Scottie Barnes, and a deep roster filled with long, switchable, athletic players — guys Nick Nurse uses in an aggressive system unlike any other team in the league. The Raptors are tough to play against, they are my pick to get the fifth or sixth seed, but they don’t feel like a threat to win it all.


Chicago Bulls
New York Knicks
Washington Wizards

These teams have playoff dreams but are likely headed for the play-in — and one could even miss that.

Bulls fans may think they should be up a tier, they played like it when healthy last season, but Chicago starts this season without Lonzo Ball (which hurts their defense and transition), and with questions about whether DeMar DeRozan can replicate a career season at age 33. The Knicks will be better with Jalen Brunson running the point and RJ Barrett taking a step forward, but the rest of the East also got better, and this roster still has holes. The Wizards could break out of this group and make the playoffs, but they need a fully healthy Kriztaps Porzingis to do that, bet on that at your own risk.

One thing to watch with this group: If a team suffers a major injury or gets off to a slow start, will they pivot early to tanking and chase Victor Wembanyama instead of wins?


Detroit Pistons
Indiana Pacers
Charlotte Hornets
Orlando Magic

These teams are thinking more Wembanyama than playoffs. The Magic have some impressive young talent led by No.1 pick Paulo Banchero (he’s the clear favorite to win Rookie of the Year), but they are young and will still learn some hard lessons. The Hornets will miss Miles Bridges, likely for the entire season, and LaMelo Ball for the start of it, and that is too big a hole to climb out of. The Pacers have real talent still on the roster, talent that can win games, which is why everyone around the league expects a Myles Turner and/or Buddy Hield tour sooner rather than later.

If one team is going to break out of this group it’s the Pistons, led by Cade Cunningham and impressive rookie Jaden Ivey, with some promising role players. They are the best of this group, and while it’s a young team learning on the fly they could surprise us all.