NBA predictions – East: Super-charged Bucks, Celtics stand tall, Heat a danger, 76ers a mess, Simmons faces crunch time


The Eastern Conference is a two-horse race following the roster overhauls in Milwaukee and Boston over the off-season but that’s just the way Miami like it.

After the Bucks boosted their roster with Damian Lillard, who the Heat thought would be headed their way, and the Celtics bolstered their squad with Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, all signs point to a showdown between those sides in the Eastern Conference Finals.

As presently constructed, the Heat are only an outside chance of repeating last season’s effort of going all the way to the Finals after qualifying in eighth spot but they are likely to try some sort of mid-season trade to give Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo much-needed help. 

Philadelphia should be the only other realistic team in with a shot of getting out of the East but poor old MVP centre Joel Embiid’s chances of winning a title are again surrounded by chaos with fading star James Harden doing his usual trick of trying to engineer a trade because he wants yet another change of scenery.

It is hard to think of a more selfish elite player in the NBA who has put his own interests before the team than Harden, who has torched his way out of Houston, Brooklyn and now the 76ers.

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Cleveland, New York and possibly Atlanta have hopes of a top-four spot but the rest of the East is either on the rise like Indiana or Orlando, treading water (looking at you Chicago and Toronto) or sinking – Washington, Charlotte and Detroit. 

From 15-1, here’s how each team is shaping up heading into the new season, which tips off on Wednesday morning with the Nuggets beginning their title defence against the Lakers. 

15. Detroit Pistons

Last year’s record: 17-65

What’s new, what needs to happen: Cade Cunningham’s back after his sophomore season was ruined by a stress fracture in his shin. Monty Williams is inexplicably now the NBA’s highest-paid coach after being convinced to take on the task of rebuilding the Detroit dumpster fire after he was punted by Phoenix.

Prediction: They will again be one of the worst teams going around and apart from Cunningham’s progress, there won’t be much to see in the Motor City.

14. Charlotte Hornets

Last year’s record: 27-55

What’s new, what needs to happen: Miles Bridges looks set to play again this season despite serious, repeated accusations against the forward involving violence towards women. The NBA should be preventing him from being anywhere near a basketball court until he has resolved his fate in the courtroom. 

Prediction: LaMelo Ball being healthy again after an ankle injury limited him to just 36 matches last year means Charlotte should win a few more games. But only a few more. There will be no return to the playoffs or even play-in bracket.

13. Orlando Magic

Last year’s record: 34-48

What’s new, what needs to happen: Even though they have added Boomers legend Joe Ingles to give them direction, they still lack the overall veteran savvy to compete with the big dogs in the East.

But with Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, the Magic have one of the most exciting young duos in the NBA. Throw in centre Wendell Carter jnr and they have the building blocks for a competitive team but lack depth.

Prediction: They will probably rise into the play-in range but the playoffs are a year or two away.

12. Washington Wizards

Last year’s record: 35-47

What’s new, what needs to happen: They’ve finally blown up their underperforming roster, trading away Bradley Beal to Phoenix and Kristaps Porzingis to Boston. Jordan Poole has rolled in from Golden State and will take a ton of shots without being overly productive. 

They need to bottom out to get a high draft pick that can be their cornerstone for the future. 

Prediction: The worst thing they can do is another season of mediocrity around the 35-win ballpark. 

11. Indiana Pacers

Last year’s record: 35-47

What’s new, what needs to happen: The Pacers are still a work in progress revolving around rising star Tyrese Haliburton and lottery picks Bennedict Mathurin, Jarace Walker and Jalen Smith. Buddy Hield is still on the trading block while Bruce Brown’s arrival from Denver gives them a solid all-round defender to reduce the load on centre Myles Turner.

Prediction: Will be hovering around the play-in range but in another year or two they will be playoff material.

We see you Vooch ????@NBCSChicago | @NikolaVucevic

— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) October 20, 2023

10. Chicago Bulls

Last year’s record: 40-42

What’s new, what needs to happen: Unfortunately for long-suffering Bulls supporters there is little new at Chicago and little hope for the franchise to dig its way out of its current malaise.

A rebuild is in order and club execs should be entertaining offers for Zach LaVine, DeNar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Alex Caruso, basically anyone that can help turn this roster into future draft assets.

Prediction: They will not be interesting. Do not watch this team. Put them at the bottom of your League Pass rankings.

9. Toronto Raptors

Last year’s record: 41-41

What’s new, what needs to happen: This is another franchise in the middle without a clear direction. They let Fred VanVleet walk to Houston and replaced him with World Cup MVP Dennis Schroder but his FIBA success is unlikely to translate to the NBA set-up.

Scottie Barnes suffered a sophomore slump after a superb rookie season while OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam look like they’re growing stale north of the border.

Prediction: They could very well exceed expectations but a first-round playoff appearance does little for them long term.

8. Miami Heat

Last year’s record: 44-38

What’s new, what needs to happen: It doesn’t look great from a comings and goings viewpoint with Josh Richardson their only notable new face with crucial role players Max Strus and Gabe Vincent leaving and Damian Lillard ending up in Milwaukee. 

But while Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and coach Erik Spoelstra are standing upright, the Heat cannot be written off.

Prediction: They need to do a deal mid-season otherwise there’s little chance of them finishing in the top four. Butler can’t keep dragging flawed rosters through the playoff bracket forever.

(Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

7. Atlanta Hawks

Last year’s record: 41-41

What’s new, what needs to happen: The first full season under Quin Snyder will likely bump the Hawks up a few rungs on the ladder.

Apart from moves around the edges like giving John Collins to Utah for nothing and adding the great Patty Mills for shooting off the bench, it’s pretty much the same side that was hot and cold all season long.

Prediction: Will end up around fifth in the East but will rely too heavily on Trae Young for points – they desperately need an offensive threat with size. 

6. Brooklyn Nets

Last year’s record: 45-37

What’s new, what needs to happen: Ben Simmons is looking great in pre-season workouts, has been working on his shooting and is ready to get back to his best. Ahhhh, that’s not new. He pretty much says that every year. 

The talented Australian has shown glimpses of his old self in the pre-season but he needs to prove he can be an elite defender and passer when it matters, for weeks, if not months, on end.

Prediction: This is now Mikal Bridges’ team after his stellar performances following the Kevin Durant trade with Phoenix and how Simmons and the merry band of misfits and flawed talent like Cam Johnson, Royce O’Neale, Nic Claxton and Spencer Dinwiddie will dictate whether the Nets can remain in the playoff equation. Likely to slip to play-in range or worse.

count em’ ????@jalenbrunson1

— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) October 20, 2023

5. New York Knicks

Last year’s record: 47-35

What’s new, what needs to happen: The former basket cases of the NBA were downright sane and mundane in the off-season, adding Donte DiVincenzo to boost their backcourt depth, trading away Obi Toppin’s potential to the Pacers and putting their faith in the squad which reached the second round of the playoffs.

Prediction: Jalen Brunson will be an All-Star for the first time, the Knicks could finish as high as third in the regular season but unless they can land a big fish via a mid-season trade, their ceiling is the same as last season’s result.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

Last year’s record: 51-31

What’s new, what needs to happen: Max Strus is an astute signing in free agency from Miami to finally give the Cavs a fifth starter who does not have limitations at either end of the floor.

But there are already whispers suggesting star guard Donovan Mitchell has itchy feet and the bright lights of New York are calling him after he tried to get traded to the Knicks from Utah a year ago.

Prediction: The Cavs will probably do well in the regular season but Mitchell and Garland are too similar on the perimeter while Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are the same kind of player in the paint. They need more diversity, not in the form of an old, old wooden ship used in the Civil War era.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

Last year’s record: 54-28

What’s new, what needs to happen: It’s nowhere near sunny in Philadelphia. The Sixers are unlikely to much of a return for Harden given he’s stated he wants out and is set to miss matches rather than play for his former Houston comrade in head honcho Daryl Morey.

Prediction: Tyrese Maxey will continue to improve, Embiid will put up great stats but they will be no threat to the leading teams unless Morey can conjure up some kind of magic act to turn Harden’s contract into another star (highly unlikely) or a pair of high-level role players (also unlikely).

2. Boston Celtics

Last year’s record: 57-25

What’s new, what needs to happen: The Celts had grown stale even though they were still a relatively young squad so they turfed Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams to bring in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis. 

The gamble for quality over quantity could be a risk with both new recruits having a chequered injury history.

Prediction: With Jayson Tatum ascending to a potential MVP and Jaylen Brown helped by the addition of Holiday at the defensive end and Porzingis to share the scoring load, Boston are the team to beat in the East and can challenge Denver for the crown if second-year coach Joe Mazzulla sharpens up a few of the rough edges that were exposed when he was thrust into the role last year.

Showing off the range ????

— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) October 21, 2023

1. Milwaukee Bucks

Last year’s record: 58-24

What’s new, what needs to happen: They’ve got Damian Lillard to give them the reliable outside shooting presence they’ve lacked in the playoffs. For Lillard it means he finally has a realistic chance at a championship ring after years of playing alongside good but not great teammates in Portland.

His pick-and-roll combination with Giannis Antetokounmpo will have opposition defences rocking and rolling all over the place.  

Prediction: They have the offensive firepower and the defensive muscle to go all the way but if either of their two stars gets injured, there’s a steep drop-off in talent after Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis. 

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