2020-21 NBA Tiers: Eastern Conference

The 2020-21 NBA season is right around the corner (even though we just crowned the LA Lakers as champs). With the draft and free agency zooming by faster than De’Aaron Fox, we here at SLAM PH hope to help you get a hand on what to expect.

To whit: tiers!

Here are our educated guesses as to how the regular season will unfold for the Eastern Conference. We’ve placed the 15 teams into the categories we think they’ll fall in, although take note, they are NOT then ranked within their respective tiers. Also remember, if things were pretty different within the Orlando Bubble, then the 2020-21 season could be uncharted territory. A positive test would place a player on the shelf for at least 3-4 games, and let’s not even consider the possibility of multiple players catching the ‘rona, and necessitating a huge shake-up in the rotation.

With all the caveats aside, here’s how we see the East shaping up:

Finals Contenders

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It’s not even Christmas yet, but the Milwaukee Bucks got everything they wanted. Not only did Giannis Antetokounmpo sign a max extension to stay with them, the league’s tampering investigation over the attempted Bogdan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade resulted in just the loss of their 2022 second-round pick. Now the team can fully turn their attention to on-court matters, and in terms of the regular season, there’s no reason why the Bucks can’t roll to one of the league’s best records anew, especially now with Jrue Holiday in their fold. No, the questions are still reserved for the postseason. Will Holiday draw more defensive attention than Eric Bledsoe? Will the team’s revamped bench (DJ Augustin! Bryn Forbes! Bobby Portis!) contribute? Will Coach Budenholzer come up with a Plan B for his defensive scheme? And will Giannis crack 40 minutes? It’s TBD for those queries, but the Bucks will definitely make the postseason in order for us to ask said questions.

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Some people think the Miami Heat becoming Eastern Conference champions was partly because of the Bubble. Ignore those people. You can actually attribute it to a combination of Goran Dragic becoming healthy (and then…not, in the Finals), Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo making massive strides, and having the personnel to really wreck the Bucks and the Boston Celtics, all of which probably would have occurred too under normal circumstances. Entering this new season, it’s likely that the team will lean on their depth, while letting their veterans ramp up slowly, due to the short break between the Finals and the 2020-21 campaign. That’s actually terrific for this team as Herro and Adebayo will get more burn, and newcomers Avery Bradley and Moe Harkless will be able to integrate better into their patented Heat Culture.

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Once upon a time, the Philadelphia 76ers surrounded Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with shooters and it rocked. However, the team went away from this strategy last season, and the results were unkind. Luckily for them, Daryl Morey, got to work this past offseason, shipping Al Horford and Josh Richardson out, for some bright, shiny shooters and a new coach. Ultimately though, this season is a sort of test for the Embiid-Simmons partnership. The new GM is doing everything possible to maximize the duo’s potential, and based on past results, this should lead to the 76ers vaulting to the top of the East standings. Should the team continue to struggle however, it’s very possible that a phone call will be placed to Houston, to inquire about the availability of one bearded fellow.

Playoff Locks

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The Toronto Raptors surprised many because of how competitive they looked, even without Kawhi Leonard, last season. A big part of their success was their “five players on a string” level of defense, but it may be worth wondering if they can still suffocate opposing sides come 2020-21. Why? The exits of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol leave big holes in their front court. Not only could the two deter shots, their high IQs allowed them to dictate where their teammates should go. Offseason signings Aron Baynes and Alex Len should help Canada’s finest score, but quarterbacking a defense is likely not part of their skill-sets. It may take another Most Improved Player-level leap from Pascal Siakam to get it done, or a shift entirely in Toronto’s style of play, to a more up-tempo, offense-first scheme.

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The Boston Celtics are going to find out just how good the Killer J’s, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, are, as they head into this season without starting point guard Kemba Walker (knee issues have him out until 2021). The duo has grown by leaps and bounds each season, and another similar spurt could put them in MVP consideration, especially for Tatum. On the flip side, they’ll likely need such leveling up, because this is a very thin squad, especially after the exit of Gordon Hayward. Once you move past Marcus Smart, the Celts are populated by limited veterans (offseason adds Jeff Teague, Tristan Thompson) and inexperienced rooks and sophomores. Sure, J and J are oftentimes that good, but in this grind of a season, getting Kemba back healthy ASAP is a definite priority.

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The Brooklyn Nets roster seemingly answers the question, “what if a reality TV casting director filled out a basketball team?” Fans are seemingly awaiting the first major Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant disagreement, the inevitable DeAndre Jordan/Jarrett Allen battle at center, how Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert look without the ball in their hands for long stretches, and Coach Steve Nash’s attempts at getting everyone to stay happy. And yet, the pieces for an extremely explosive offense are all there (the less said about the defense, the better). If Brooklyn has all their guys on the same page, they’re a definite threat. That is, of course, easier said than done, especially since team management has not been shy about the fact that they’re willing to trade some of their longer-tenured guys for a third superstar.

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The bubble was eventful for the Indiana Pacers, with Domantas Sabonis not available, Victor Oladipo looking sub-par, and TJ Warren morphing into a scoring machine. And while they were reportedly eying a Gordon Hayward trade involving Myles Turner, the move failed to materialize, giving Indiana a share of the “quietest offseason” award. They did add a new head coach in Nate Bjorkgren, and his player development skills should come in handy with some of the younger holdovers. Indiana’s always been a competent, if unspectacular, franchise, so penciling them in for the postseason is a safe bet. The shake-up is there if they want it, with Oladipo and Turner available for the right price, but entering the season, steady is this squad’s, er, pace.

Play-in Favorites

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The Orlando Magic seem primed to once again be the deadliest eighth-seed in the East, if by deadly, we mean a lock to take game one, before losing the series. The team’s biggest addition was adding Dwayne Bacon, reuniting him with his former Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, which is a nice story, but not likely to tip the needle either way. If something is to add some alakazam to this team, it’ll have to be one of their young guards. The Magic extended former #1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, and added Cole Anthony in the 2020 Draft, and should either develop in a hurry, it could provide the upside this team so desperately needs. We can’t even cheer on their extension of forward Jonathan Isaac, given that he’s out for the entire season with a torn ACL.

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After a few seasons of building through the draft, the Atlanta Hawks decided to spend their cap space in order to assure themselves of a postseason berth. Whether their adds make a difference, as opposed to continuing to develop their former draft picks, will likely be the storyline to follow this season. The team did make moves to shore up their defense – Clint Capela will finally get to play after coming over prior to the trade deadline last season, and Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo will be the yin to Trae Young’s yang. It’s at the forward spots that you’ll find the most question marks. How do you allocate the minutes between pricey signings Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, and holdovers Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish? Rookie Onyeka Okongwu will also deserve PT, and we can’t forget John Collins too, especially after he failed to receive a rookie contract extension. It might take the entire season for head coach Lloyd Pierce to find the right mix, and that experimentation has the Hawks likely settling for play-in glory.

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Despite plenty of talk of bringing the John Wall-Bradley Beal band back together, the Washington Wizards swapped out Wall for Russell Westbrook, exchanging uber-expensive contracts. It’s actually an intriguing fit because Washington has the shooters (Beal, Davis Bertans, Mo Wagner) and the athletes (Rui Hachimura, rookie Deni Avdija) to pair with the former MVP. The problem is, at his age and stage of his career, teams probably shouldn’t be built around Westbrook, especially not with Beal already in the fold. That push-and-pull between established stars will be fascinating to track, especially with Beal still not fully committed to this franchise (thanks to a 2022 player option). It might not be enough for this team to be a postseason team – it might need to happen with Beal as the centerpiece for the best, long-term result.

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The Jim Boylen era is over, and fans of the Chicago Bulls are rejoicing. Things were just so wrong during his tenure that the newly-installed front office regime has, by and large, opted not to rock the boat, and instead evaluate their roster based on how it performs under new head coach Billy Donovan. But in addition to the coaching upgrade, the Bulls are also looking forward to better health, particularly for big man Wendell Carter Jr., and wing Otto Porter. The team is also very high on rookie Pat Williams, the first real move by Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. As such, there’s a lot of optimism around this team. Last season, there were hopes of snagging one of the lower postseason berths. Given all that’s happened, that seems much more possible heading into 2020-21.

Lottery Bound

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LaMelo Ball is going to dominate social media feeds with his flashy passing, which should get a ton of eyeballs on the Charlotte Hornets. However, unless he knocks down his shots at a better rate (just 26.2% in the preseason) it’s unlikely his team will crack the postseason. Michael Jordan’s squad has some terrific gunners in PJ Washington and Devonte’ Graham, but big offseason signing Gordon Hayward is already injured and could miss the season opener. One wonders if the team could have better spent their money on upgrading their front court (Charlotte was dead-last in DRB% at 74.9%). Set aside the re-signed Bismack Biyombo and holdover Cody Zeller, and all of the new Hornets bigs are rookies.

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The Detroit Pistons are ostensibly rebuilding, but their offseason has been head-scratch inducing. After a busy 2020 draft that saw them stock up on talent, the Pistons allowed some of their younger holdovers to depart for other teams. They then brought on contracts for the express purpose of waiving and stretching them, in order to clear the cap space to sign guys that are perhaps better suited for teams in the Playoffs mix. The team also held on to veterans Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, and the result is a squad in the twilight zone of the NBA. They’re not so bad that they’re going to get a high draft pick, but they’re not so good either that they’re going to qualify for at least the play-in games. The good news, as it were, for Pistons fans is that it’s still not too late for them to course-correct. If Griffin stay healthy and productive, and some of the teams in front of them struggle, then perhaps a battle for #8 is in the books. On the other hand, maybe teams come knocking on their door at the trade deadline for some of their vets. As their squad currently stands though, it seems like another mediocre season for this once proud franchise.

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The shadow of head coach Tom Thibodeau looms large over the New York Knicks. By reputation, Thibodeau loathes playing young guys, and instead runs his veterans into the ground by playing them ridiculous amounts of minutes. And yet, judging by the preseason (not always a precise indicator of things but hey!), that seems like it won’t be the case for the Knickerbockers. Lottery picks RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin got plenty of burn, along with another rookie surprise, Immanuel Quickley. In an ideal world, Thiobdeau realizes that the best thing for this squad is to take their lumps early, giving the kids room to grow, while making mistakes. It may not pay off this season, but the potential is there. Or you know, we could instead see lots of possessions for guys like Julius Randle, Alec Burks and Austin Rivers. Cue the Stephen A. Smith rants!

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The Cleveland Cavaliers feel like a forgotten NBA team, with just not a lot going for them. JB Bickerstaff has taken over as head coach, following the in-season resignation of John Beilein, and the team’s big offseason move actually came at the 2020 trade deadline, when they cashed in some of their assets for Andre Drummond. Rookie Isaac Okoro did make some waves, after canning a buzzer-beater to win a preseason tiff, but his game will need to translate in the regular season for hype to build. After all, the Cavaliers’ two previous top draft picks, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, still haven’t really moved the needle individually, let alone as a combined backcourt. They do have some players who go all-out, see Larry Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, and fan-favorite Matthew Dellavedova, but it’s just hard to picture this team rising above the bottom part of the standings.