How will middle of Eastern Conference, seeds No. 3-12, shake out?
The Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are the clear favorites to be the top two seeds in the East, and they very well may be the two best teams in basketball. They will finish No. 1 and 2 in the conference in some order, barring significant injury or a zombie apocalypse.
After that, things are wide open in the East.
Seeds No. 3-12 feel like they could land in nearly any order, and it wouldn’t be a shock. There are some outstanding teams in there, teams that could come out of the East if things break their way, but every team comes with questions. Tough questions.
Myself and Dan Feldman from NBC Sports lay out our predictions for the middle of the East, knowing that this order could change by the end of training camp. Note: we both expect the Cavaliers, Magic, and Pistons to be the 12-15 seeds and a full step below these 12.
Two teams make this seeding exercise a real challenge. The first are the Heat, who won the offseason and I believe are the third-best playoff team in the East, but how good they will be in the regular season is another question. I have them as the third seed, but that is betting on a step forward this season from Tyler Herro and for Duncan Robinson to live up to his contract. The other confounding team is the 76ers, for the obvious reasons surrounding the Ben Simmons saga. Philly could be third, they could be in the play-in, it’s impossible to know.
That said, I think there are some levels here. I expect the Heat, Hawks, Celtics, and 76ers will finish 3-6 in some order, secure playoff spots, and avoid the play-in. However, that four could land in any order and it wouldn’t surprise me.
After that, I have the Knicks, Bulls, and Pacers on a tier fighting for the better play-in spots and seeds 7-9. New York and especially Chicago upgraded their rosters (although I question the Bulls defense), and don’t underestimate what Rick Carlisle will do in Indiana. The Wizards and Raptors could jump into that group, I like those rosters, but a lot of things need to go right. It’s the same with Charlotte, which could make the postseason if things break their way, but that still feels like a roster growing around LaMelo Ball.
The 76ers might be the NBA’s most slept-on team. They had the East’s best and NBA’s third-best record last season. Though Ben Simmons is holding out, he’ll likely provide some value to Philadelphia during the season -- either because he returns or nets better-fitting players in a trade.
I like the Knicks and Celtics to make the postseason. The rest of these teams could be in a dogfight for play-in positioning, though the Bulls have the talent (though not necessarily the defense or fit) to break into the next tier.