2021-22 NBA Eastern Conference team-by-team preview capsules

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·29 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Eastern Conference is chock-full of questions to start the season. Can the Milwaukee Bucks repeat as NBA champions? Will new point guard Kyle Lowry help lead the Miami Heat back to the East finals? Can the Atlanta Hawks improve on their surprising playoff success from last season? Did the Chicago Bulls do enough with their roster to make a legitimate run in the East?

Those might be good questions and the answers will come in due time. But the biggest question marks are about Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving and Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons.

When will Irving return to the team after being banned until he gets the COVID-19 vaccine? Will the Sixers find a suitable trade for Simmons? And what if he has to spend the entire season in Philadelphia?

The answer can be found in the Eastern Conference team by team capsules.

Atlanta Hawks

2020-21 record: 41-31 (first place, Southeast Division)

Lost to Bucks in Eastern Conference finals

Coach: Nate McMillan – first full season (27-11)

What’s different? As far as the roster is concerned, not much. Every major contributor from last season is back in the fold, and Delon Wright (10 ppg, 3.6 apg in 27 games last season), who was acquired from the Sacramento Kings, could provide a spark as a backup to Trae Young. The luxury here is that the Hawks can take their time with rookie Jalen Johnson, but if he can get them anything, it just makes an already deep team that much more dangerous.

Forever Young: Any conversation about the Hawks’ success starts and ends with Young, who signed a five-year extension worth $207 million and averaged 28.8 points and 9.5 assists in the playoff run. His deficiencies on defense haven’t slowed his superstar climb, and with Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, plus Clint Capela back to control the boards and the paint, Atlanta should be, at the very least, in prime position to earn home court in the first round.

On the line: Teams would be wise not to foul the Hawks because of their proficient ability, led by Young, to get to the free-throw line. With new rules in place to limit non-basketball moves in drawing fouls, Atlanta’s top 10 ranking in free throws, attempts and percentage (81.2) could be in jeopardy.

How good can they be? There are roadblocks in their way: namely the Bucks, Nets and Sixers. There’s belief they can make noise in the Eastern Conference now that coach Nate McMillan is secured with a long-term deal. Locking up versatile forward John Collins, instant bucket Lou Williams and Young, who has become a league-wide pest, has the Hawks’ future looking bright.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Trae Young (25.3 ppg, 9.4 apg, 3.9 rpg, 43.8 fg%)

SG Bogdan Bogdanović (16.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 47.3 fg%)

SF De’Andre Hunter (15 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.9 apg, 48.4 fg%)

PF John Collins (17.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, 55.6 fg%)

C Clint Capela (15.2 ppg, 14.3 rpg, 0.8 apg, 59.4 fg%)

Boston Celtics

2020-21 record: 36-36 (fourth place, Atlantic Division)

Lost to Nets in Eastern Conference first round

Coach: Ime Udoka – first season

What’s different? There will be a new man on the bench as ex-coach Brad Stevens moved to the front office, taking over basketball operations. Now tasked with the Celtics’ reset is Ime Udoka, a longtime NBA assistant. He set the tone early during the summer with a message for his stars: “They know I’m going to be on their ass. … They want to be pushed.”

Addition by subtraction: Boston wasn’t going to sit back and watch everyone else in the conference get better. It started off by shipping Kemba Walker, a first-round pick and a future second-round pick in a trade for Al Horford and bringing in guard Josh Richardson from the Dallas Mavericks. Shrewd moves to create cap flexibility, extending Marcus Smart and center/forward Robert Williams and signing center Enes Kanter and Dennis Schroder to one-year deals put the Celtics in position to make moves at the trading deadline to acquire another impact player.

Superstardom watch: All eyes will again be on 23-year old Jayson Tatum, who last season set career highs in points, assists and rebounds and is already one of the top 15 players in the game. With a silky smooth game, he continues to be part of a team’s defensive effort that is likely going to improve. All-NBA honors could be coming for the next decade.

How good can they be? Tatum alone makes them a threat in the East, but before last season's first-round exit, Boston had appeared in three of the last four Eastern Conference finals. Even with a top-heavy East, 50 or more wins is more than enough to be the mix come later April.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Dennis Schroder (15.4 pts, 5.8 apg, 3.5 rpg, 43.7 fg%)

SG Marcus Smart (13.1 ppg, 5.7 apg, 3.5 rpg, 39.8fg%)

SF Jaylen Brown (24.7 ppg, 6 rpg, 3.4 apg, 48.4 fg%)

PF Jayson Tatum (26.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 4.3 apg, 45.9 fg%)

*C Al Horford (14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.4 apg, 45% fg%)

*With Thunder

The absence of Kyrie Irving to a COVID-related exile from the Nets is perhaps the biggest early-season storyline.
The absence of Kyrie Irving to a COVID-related exile from the Nets is perhaps the biggest early-season storyline.

Brooklyn Nets

2020-21 record: 48-24 (second place, Atlantic Division)

Lost to Bucks in Eastern Conference semifinals

Coach: Steve Nash – second season (48-24)

What’s different? The Nets made most of their moves via the draft, selecting five players including Cameron Thomas, who was named the Summer League MVP. Brooklyn could have its big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving back, but it depends on if Irving gets vaccinated and rejoins the team. If he does, and if all three remain healthy, watch out. Brooklyn could be as efficient and deadly an offense as we have seen in NBA history.

Solidifying bench: While losing Spencer Dinwiddie and Jeff Green, the Nets should have no shortage of leadership and scoring off the bench. They acquired defensive mind Jevon Carter and Patty Mills, who increased his value by lighting up opponents in the Tokyo Olympics for Team Australia. A rejuvenated Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown (8.8 ppg) further adds scoring punch for a second unit that could be one of the league’s best.

What if? Health is the name of the game, as was evident in the playoffs, when the team was hit with injuries. Whether a different strategy in philosophy or load management is the answer, the Nets have zero room for error when it comes to keeping their stars on the floor. Perhaps Harden knows better than most when he said this to SI.com earlier in the summer: “At full strength, nobody can beat us. I’m just going to leave it at that.”

How good can they be? No need for sugarcoating it. If the Nets don’t at least get to the NBA Finals as long as Durant, Harden and Irving are healthy, it would be a disappointment of monumental proportions. If pundits are concerned about the only perceived weakness, which is defense, that’s fine. Brooklyn will still outscore teams and should coast to the Finals.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG James Harden (24.6 ppg, 10.8 apg, 7.9 rpg, 46.6 fg%),

SG Kyrie Irving (26.9 ppg, 6.0 apg, 4.8 rpg, 50.6 fg%)

SF Joe Harris (14.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, 50.5 fg%)

PF Kevin Durant (26.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 5.6 apg, 53.7 fg%)

C Blake Griffin (11 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3 apg, 42.3 fg%)

Charlotte Hornets

2020-21 record: 33-39 (fourth place, Southeast Division)

Missed playoffs for fifth straight season

Coach: James Borrego ­– fourth season (95-124)

What’s different? The Hornets are going to have to replace Malik Monk and Devonte’ Graham, who combined to score 27 points per game. They can do this with the addition of Kelly Oubre and the continued maturation of rookie of the year LaMelo Ball. Ish Smith, Wes Iwundu and Mason Plumlee have been added to provide depth, and drafting UConn guard James Bouknight and Texas forward Kai Jones could provide a spark off the bench.

On the brink: Signing Terry Rozier to a four-year, $97 million extension was the big offseason move. The guards are solid with Miles Bridges (12.7 ppg, 2.2 apg), Gordon Hayward and Rozier and will do most of the heavy lifting when it comes putting the ball in the basket. The question with Michael Jordan’s team is will that be enough to even make noise or is it headed for an early summer?

Man in the middle: The glaring weakness is inside, whether it’s finding a center who can score, defend and rebound. If the Hornets can stop anyone from scoring at will in the paint, which they didn’t do at all last year, this is a fringe playoff team. Mason Plumlee, Jones and Vernon Carey are tasked with the job of preventing teams from creating their own virtual layup line.

How good can they be? Charlotte can easily worm its way into a playoff seed and break a five-year postseason drought. Even if they do manage to make and win the play-in tournament, getting out of the first round will be a tough ask. Ball is trending toward superstardom, but he needs a teammate to break through and play at an All-Star level.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG LaMelo Ball (15.7 ppg, 6.1 apg, 5.9 rpg, 43.6 fg%)

SG Terry Rozier (20.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 45 fg%

SF Gordon Hayward (19.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, 47.3 fg%)

PF P.J. Washington (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 44 fg%

C Mason Plumlee (10.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.6 apg, 61.4 fg%)

*With Pistons

NBA X-FACTORS: Seven players who could swing the championship race

SAVE THE DATE: Top 20 must-see games on NBA calendar for 2021-22 season

Chicago Bulls

2020-21 record: 31-41 (third place, Central Division)

Missed playoffs for fourth straight season

Coach: Billy Donovan – second season (31-41)

What’s different? The new-look Bulls will have one of the most drastic roster turnovers when the season tips off. Sending Lauri Markkanen to Cleveland in a three-team deal acquiring Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan to pair with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic gives Chicago instant credibility. Getting Illinois product Ayo Dosunmu in the draft and adding Alex Caruso, Derrick Jones Jr. and Tony Bradley punctuated the Bulls’ busy summer.

Bulls are back? While the NBA is not college football, some proclamation annually that certain teams are back to competing for championships, Chicago need not celebrate its productive summer and thinking that will be enough. Yes, the Bulls will be better and the buzz around the team will get fans more engaged.

Ghosts of Michael Jordan: Chicago hasn’t won its division in 10 years and hasn’t been mentioned as title contenders since the heyday of Derrick Rose. Living up to the icon of Jordan is always the standard for this franchise. What it lacks in championship mettle will be replaced by an exciting team and an offense capable of running teams out of the gym.

How good can they be? The many moves in the offseason made Chicago, at least on paper, a player to make significant headway in the upper echelon of the East. Head coach Billy Donovan has a dilemma ahead in doling out minutes to his young team, but the Bulls should be fighting for first-round home-court advantage all season.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Lonzo Ball (14.6 ppg, 5.7 apg, 4.8 rpg, 41.4 fg%)*

SG Zach LaVine (27.4 ppg, 5 rpg, 4.9 apg, 50.7 fg%)

SF DeMar DeRozan (21.6 ppg, 6.9 apg, 4.2 rpg, 49.5 fg%)**

PF Patrick Williams (9.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.4 apg, 48.3 fg%)

C Nikola Vučević (23.4 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 3.8 apg, 47.7 fg%)

*With Pelicans **With Spurs

Cleveland Cavaliers

2020-21 record: 22-50 (fourth place, Central Division)

Missed playoffs for third straight season

Coach: J.B. Bickerstaff – second full season (27-56)

What’s different? Disgruntled forward Lauri Markkanen found his new home, along with a four-year, $67 million deal. He will be paired with rookie Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, who has secured his own $100 million deal. Trading away Larry Nance Jr. will hurt, but acquiring a floor general in Ricky Rubio makes up for it. Rubio has averaged 11 points, 7.6 assists and 1.8 steals over a 10-year NBA career.

Where is the Love? Big man Kevin Love has played only 103 games over the last three years, and keeping him on the floor is paramount, especially since he is owed $60 million on his contract. While Love can provide leadership and spot scoring (18 points per game over a 13-year career), relying on him as a consistent presence isn’t likely. A trade during the season isn’t the craziest idea since he isn’t interested in a buyout.

Legit one-two punch: Having two guards who score and are threats from the 3-point line could pay dividends against teams that have trouble with perimeter defending. Darius Garland (17.4 points, 6.1 assists, 2.4 rebounds) and Collin Sexton (24.3 points 4.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds) give Cleveland legitimate hope for future success for a franchise that’s sorely in need for good news.

How good can they be? Cleveland still could make moves as it has a midlevel exception to help fill out the roster. The Cavs have won 27% of their games since LeBron James went west in 2018, so winning 30 games would be considered more than a success. A play-in tournament berth would really give the team something on which to build.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Darius Garland (17.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 2.4 rpg, 45.1 fg%)

SG Collin Sexton (24.3 ppg, 4.4 apg, 3.1 rpg, 47.5 fg%)

SF Lauri Markkanen (13.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.9 apg, 48 fg%)*

PF Kevin Love (12.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.5 apg, 40.9 fg%)

C Jarrett Allen (12.8 ppg, 10 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 61.8 fg%)

*With Bulls

Detroit Pistons

2020-21 record: 20-52 (fifth place, Central Division)

Missed playoffs for third straight season

Coach: Dwane Casey – Fourth season (81-139)

What’s different? Drafting Cade Cunningham was a no-brainer along with intriguing second-round pick Luka Garza, a 6-foot-10 center who averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds last year at Iowa, and forward Isaiah Livers. All three are potential stars who’ll need to develop. Grabbing veteran forward-center Kelly Olynyk was a good move and re-signing veteran Cory Joseph gives flexibility to a guard unit that could use scoring punch.

Rebuilding in Motown: The Pistons had the worst record in the Eastern Conference, so there is nowhere to look but up. Casey, who led the Raptors to the playoffs five seasons in a row before coming to Detroit, is certainly capable of getting this roster to compete, especially on the defensive end. (The Raptors were a surprising 10th in fewest points allowed and 16th in defensive rating in 2021.) Their problem was scoring, which should be much better with Cunningham and Jerami Grant.

Iron unkind: Speaking of scoring, the Pistons’ problems last season not only came from a lack of talent, but that talent’s inability to hit nylon. Ranking in the bottom third of the league in scoring, effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage is a recipe for disaster in high school basketball, let alone the NBA.

How good can they be? Anything other than last in the conference would be cause for celebration. But hope springs eternal for a team that hasn’t had any in the last few years. With a roster that is one of the youngest, hovering around the bottom of the tough Central is expected.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Killian Hayes (6.8 ppg, 5.3 apg, 2.7 rpg, 35.3 fg%)

SG Cade Cunningham (20.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.5 apg, 43.8 fg%)*

SF Saddiq Bey (12.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 40.4 fg%)

PF Jerami Grant (22.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 42.9 fg%)

C Isaiah Stewart (7.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 55.3 fg%)

*At Oklahoma State

Indiana Pacers

2020-21 record: 34-38 (second place, Central Division)

Missed playoffs for first time in six years

Coach: Rick Carlisle – First season

What’s different? Rick Carlisle is back in the Hoosier State for a second time after Nate Bjorkgren was jettisoned after one year. Carlisle inherits a roster that underachieved, mostly due to injuries, and missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. There wasn’t much change in player movement, with Torrey Craig signing a two-year free agent contract as the only noteworthy deal.

Avoiding the injured list: Perhaps the truest cliché in sports is the best ability is availability. The Pacers had a virtual triage unit last season, with T.J. Warren missing most of the season with a foot ailment, along with Caris LeVert (kidney), Jeremy Lamb (ACL) and Myles Turner (ankle) missing significant time. Even Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon racked up multiple DNPs because of injuries.

Sabonis-Turner overdrive: This talented duo provides the frontcourt stability most teams crave, but Carlisle has said he feels he can stagger their minutes to get the most efficiency out of both. Playing these two together has seldom worked, but the versatility at Indiana’s disposal cannot be ignored. How the Pacers use their versatility could be the biggest storyline to follow in gauging the team’s success.

How good can they be? This is a no-doubt playoff team with the right mix of toughness, timely shooting and defense. Carlisle will get the best out of his players, keeping them in most games. A top-three seed is the ceiling for this team and a spot in the Eastern finals is not that far away if everything comes together. Another disappointing season could led to a roster dump.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Malcolm Brogdon (21.2 ppg, 5.9 apg, 5.3 rpg, 45.3 fg%)

SG Caris LeVert (20.2 ppg, 5.2 apg, 4.6 rpg, 44.1 fg%)

SF T.J. Warren (15.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.3 apg, 52.9 fg%)

PF Domantas Sabonis (20.3 ppg, 12 rpg, 6.7 apg, 53.5 fg%)

C Myles Turner (12.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.4 blocks, 47.7 fg%)

The addition of Kyle Lowry has the Miami Heat believing they can compete for the Eastern Conference title.
The addition of Kyle Lowry has the Miami Heat believing they can compete for the Eastern Conference title.

Miami Heat

2020-21 record: 40-32 (second place, Southeast Division)

Lost to Bucks in Eastern Conference first round

Coach: Erik Spoelstra ­– 14th season (607-424)

What’s different? Miami gave 35-year-old Kyle Lowry a three-year, $85 million deal. He is an instant upgrade from anything they had last season. P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris, 10-year veterans with championship experience, joined a roster that has always prided itself on being mentally tougher and physically stronger than everybody else. The trio should fit in nicely behind Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

Miami vice: Believe it or not, head coach Erik Spoelstra is entering his 14th season with his current team, which is second in the league next to the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich. The Heat have an improved team, so look for the Southeast Division and crucial playoff seeding to come down to the Heat and Hawks for years to come.

Waiting for Oladipo: Signing often-injured Victor Olapido might be seen as a risk, but he did turn down a $45 million extension offer from the Houston Rockets to sign a one-year, minimum deal to stay with Miami. Oladipo, who is already on his fifth NBA team entering his ninth season, won’t start the season after having knee surgery in May, but when he gets back it adds another layer to any already stacked team.

How good can they be? Miami is one of those teams that can be confusing. The Heat have the talent and coaching to make another run to the Finals just as they did in the Orlando bubble. Or they can make an early exit like their first-round exit to the Bucks last season. The right mix of veterans and youth should propel the Heat as a tough out in the playoffs.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Kyle Lowry (17.2 ppg, 7.3 apg, 5.4 rpg, 43.6 fg%)

SG Duncan Robinson (13.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 43.9 fg%

SF Jimmy Butler (21.5 ppg, 7.1 apg, 6.9 rpg, 49.7 fg%)

PF P.J. Tucker (3.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.2 apg, 37.3 fg%)

C Bam Adebayo (18.7 ppg, 9 rpg, 5.4 apg, 57 fg%

Milwaukee Bucks

2020-21 record: 46-26 (first place, Central Division)

Won NBA championship

Coach: Mike Budenholzer – Third season (162-65)

What’s different? The swagger of winning the NBA title can only do wonders for Milwaukee ... and its opponents. The Bucks know they are going to get the best from opponents, especially those who thought the pandemic-shortened season caused many of the league’s superstars to go down with injuries. The loss of forward P.J. Tucker to Miami hurts, but the return of Donte DiVincenzo (foot) adds to a talented roster.

Hitting the three: Milwaukee hit 39% of its 3-pointers during the regular season and plummeted to 32% during its title run. That disparity could be offset because of the dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo and teams’ inability to stop him or the pace of Bucks. Despite a bevy of players who can hit outside shots, the Bucks will have to be more versatile if they have any chance to repeat.

Freak getting freakier: The question is will Antetokounmpo continue to improve on his game. He dominates the paint, rebounds and defends without having a consistently reliable jump shot as a bail out. Another MVP-type season is on the horizon whether that jumper comes to fruition or not. He is that good.

How good can they be? Well, Milwaukee is the defending champion and upgraded its roster, so anything less than an appearance back on the sport’s biggest stage will be looked at as a failure. In fact, the Bucks’ title last season might be questioned. It will be a battle with Brooklyn all season for the No. 1 seed. The Nets certainly remembers how the Bucks knocked them off at home in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Jrue Holiday (17.7 ppg, 6.1 apg, 4.5 rpg, 50.3 fg%)

SG Donte DiVincenzo (10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.1 apg, 42 fg%)

SF Khris Middleton (20.4 ppg, 6 rpg, 5.4 apg, 47.6 fg%)

PF Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.1 ppg, 11 rpg, 5.9 apg, 56.9 fg%)

C Brook Lopez 12.3 ppg, 5 rpg, 0.7 apg, 50.3 fg%)

The continued development of Julius Randle will be a key factor in the Knicks being a serious playoff contender.
The continued development of Julius Randle will be a key factor in the Knicks being a serious playoff contender.

New York Knicks

2020-21 record: 41-31 (third place, Atlantic Division)

Lost to Hawks in Eastern Conference first round

Coach: Tom Thibodeau – Second season (41-31)

What’s different? The signing of local hero Kemba Walker no doubt excited the fan base, but Walker has been injury prone and the inability to land an All-NBA caliber star has been the franchise’s undoing for years. Guard/forward Evan Fournier adds another scorer with the ability to get 20 points a night, and veteran Derrick Rose will continue to provide a spark and leadership off the bench.

Offensively challenged: Getting exposed for their offensive woes during the playoffs, the Knicks upgraded with the Fournier and Walker signings. The league’s best defense in terms of points allowed is anchored by Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel, but they add nothing on the offensive end.

Run into the ground: Most Improved Player Julius Randle (24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game) blossomed into a reliable offensive threat, but he also led the league in minutes played. Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for letting his stars log every minute, but easing some pressure off Randle could be beneficial since he no longer has to worry about scoring every time down the court.

How good can they be? The Knicks reached the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Then they ran into the red-hot Hawks, who reached the Eastern Conference finals. Realistic expectations are the key. Yes, New York will be good defensively, and yes, the Knicks can compete for a top four spot in the East. Consistent play from the offense and staying healthy is paramount to even sniff breaking a five-decade championship drought.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Kemba Walker (19.3 ppg, 4.9 apg, 4 rpg, 42 fg%)*

SG Evan Fournier (17.1 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3 rpg, 45.7 fg%)

SF R.J Barrett (17.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3 apg, 44.1 fg%)

PF Julius Randle (24.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 6 apg, 45.6 fg%)

C Mitchell Robinson (8.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 65.3 fg%)

*with Celtics

Orlando Magic

2020-21 record: 21-51 (fifth place, Southeast Division)

Missed playoffs

Coach: Jamahl Mosley – First season

What’s different? Rebuilding with top draft pick Jalen Suggs and pairing him with Markelle Fultz and forward Jonathan Isaac, who are making their way back from knee injuries, isn’t a bad idea, and adding veteran center Robin Lopez via free agency still isn’t enough to keep the Magic from the Eastern cellar. New coach Jamahl Mosley, an assistant coach for three NBA teams, certainly his hands full, but with potential ample cap space, the team’s fortunes could change.

Scoring drought: Orlando’s top three scorers are gone from a team that was next to last in scoring average and offensive rating and dead last in effective field goal percentage. The beneficiaries should be guards Terrence Ross, Gary Harris (both are prime targets to be traded) and Cole Anthony, who should improve in his second year. Scoring over 100 points will be a nightly struggle.

No national love: Respect from the league usually comes from how many times they get the team in front of the most eyeballs. The Magic will make four appearances on national TV (all on NBA TV). Vegas isn't a fan of Orlando either, as the Magic constantly end up at the bottom of oddsmakers boards.

How good can they be? Orlando will struggle to find consistent scoring, which will land them at the bottom of the standings. With most rebuilds, smart drafting and some luck needs to happen but as long as the front office isn’t pushing for a win-now scenario, taking their time to make sure it is set up for the future is the right play moving forward.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Markelle Fultz (12.9 ppg,

5.4 apg, 3.1 rpg, 39.4 fg%)

SG Jalen Suggs (14.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, 50.3 fg%)*

SF Terrence Ross (15.6 ppg,

3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 41.2 fg%)

PF Chuma Okeke (7.8 ppg, 4 rpg, 2.2 apg, 41.7 fg%)

C Wendell Carter, Jr. (11.2 ppg,

8.2 rpg, 1.9 apg, 50.3 fg%)

*At Gonzaga

The 76ers were able to persuade Ben Simmons to return to the team a week before the start of the season as they work to find a trade partner.
The 76ers were able to persuade Ben Simmons to return to the team a week before the start of the season as they work to find a trade partner.

Philadelphia 76ers

2020-21 record: 49-23 (first place, Atlantic Division)

Lost to Hawks in Eastern Conference semifinals

Coach: Doc Rivers – Second season (49-23)

What’s different? Nothing is going to change for Philadelphia until it does something with Ben Simmons. While the offseason moves did nothing to inch the 76ers closer to the Nets and Bucks, locking up Joel Embiid to a four-year, $196 million max deal shows the franchise will move forward with or without Simmons. Now the task is to find another All-Star caliber player to team up with the league’s dominant big man.

Ben-hurt: The 76ers would be wise to deal with Simmons sooner rather than later, unless they really believe paying someone who won’t shoot and is a liability down the stretch $177 million over the next five years is wise business. But the sudden undoing of Simmons is not only baffling, but also not surprising. A change of scenery might do him some good, but if he doesn’t evolve his game, it will be the next team’s issue to deal with.

Time is money: Danny Green and Furkan Korkmaz are back in the mix, and adding longtime Embiid nemesis Andre Drummond fortifies an already sturdy frontcourt. Championship windows can change from one instant to the next, and Philadelphia’s could slam shut if the right moves are not made to accommodate Embiid.

How good can they be? The 76ers are as talented as any team and have a championship-winning coach in Doc Rivers. But that coach has also let multiple playoff leads slip away in stunning fashion, leading to questions about strategy and overall competence. Having Embiid healthy and playing at an MVP level gets the Sixers closer to hoisting the trophy, but not by much.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Ben Simmons (14.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 6.9 apg, 55.7 fg%)

SG Seth Curry (12.5 ppg, 2.7 apg, 2.4 rpg, 46.7 fg%)

SF Danny Green (9.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.7 apg, 41.2 fg%)

PF Tobias Harris (19.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.5 apg, 51.2 fg%)

C Joel Embiid (28.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 51.3 fg%)

Toronto Raptors

2020-21 record: 27-45 (fifth place, Atlantic Division)

Missed playoffs for first time in eight seasons

Coach: Nick Nurse – Fourth season (128-88)

What’s different? The Raptors will look a lot different without stalwart Kyle Lowry, who was shipped to Miami for an expiring deal in Goran Dragić and Precious Achiuwa. Masai Ujiri, who signed a new deal to became the team’s vice chairman and president, continues to impress, making a shrewd deal in re-signing Gary Trent, giving the Raptors more guard firepower.

Home sweet home: After playing their entire 2020-21 home slate in Tampa, Florida, Toronto returns home to Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 20 to face the Wizards. The team has no plans to play elsewhere, but that could change quickly depending on if the delta variant of COVID-19 gets out of hand again. The Raptors have not played in Toronto since Feb. 28, 2020. That season they were a 53-19 team.

Beaten up on the boards: While Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby will take up a majority of the scoring bulk, improved shooting and rebounding need to be a focus. Toronto let teams feast on the offensive boards, leading to second chances and sloppy defensive resets. It might be a problem moving forward because the Raptors don’t have a player listed over 6-foot-9.

How good can they be? Toronto was unable to snag another superstar during this thin free agent period, but if the Raptors slip to the back of the pack come time for the still unannounced trading deadline, the roster could look entirely different in a hurry. As currently constituted, Toronto is more than good enough to make a playoff appearance, but advancing deep is another story.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Fred VanVleet (19.6 ppg, 6.3 apg, 4.2 rpg, 38.9 fg%)

SG Gary Trent Jr. (15.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.4 apg, 40.8 fg%)

SF OG Anunoby (15.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.2 apg, 48 fg%)

PF Pascal Siakam (21.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 4.5 apg, 45.5 fg%)

C Khem Birch (7.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.3 apg, 49.7 fg%)

Washington Wizards

2020-21 record: 34-38 (third place, Southeast Division)

Lost to 76ers in Eastern Conference first round

Coach: West Unseld Jr. – First season

What’s different? Spencer Dinwiddie should be fully healthy after suffering a partially torn ACL and was able to secure a three-year, $62 million contract and was part of the trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Lakers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell were also part of the deal. Wes Unseld Jr. was tapped to be the new coach and has a monumental task: No Wizards coach has finished above .500 in his tenure in the past two decades. Unseld has spent the past six seasons with the Nuggets, rising to associate head coach.

What the Beal? Bradley Beal’s status will continue to be talked about until he either signs a long-term deal with the Wizards or is traded. He will start his two-year, $71.8 million contract extension this season and there is no reason to believe that teams looking to upgrade their shooting will have their sights set on the 28-year-old.

Ole’ defense: Before taking any step in the progress of a team, job one is to stop the opponent. Washington didn’t come close to doing that last season, giving up a league-high 119 points per game, and still made the playoffs, which is either an indictment on the competition or just pure luck. Unseld’s schemes should make them a better overall defensive team.

How good can they be? The Wizards did a nice job getting serviceable assets in the Westbrook trade and could challenge for a playoff spot in a top-heavy conference. But if rumblings about Beal’s status continue to linger throughout the season, the team could easily contend for being the NBA’s worst team.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG Spencer Dinwiddie (6.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3 apg, 37.5 fg%)*

SG Bradley Beal (31.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, 48.5 fg%)

SF Kyle Kuzma (12.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.9 apg, 44.3 fg%)**

PF Rui Hachimura (13.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 47.8 fg%)

C Montrezl Harrell (13.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.1 apg, 62.2 fg%)

*With Nets **With Lakers

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021-22 NBA Eastern Conference preview capsules