What Each Eliminated East Playoff Team Has To Do To Go Farther Next Season

The Boston Celtics and the Indiana Pacers are currently going head-to-head to figure out which team will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this year. Boston was expected to be in this spot, but Indiana is a bit of a surprise, as their high-flying style of basketball completely wore down a pair of compromised teams in the first two rounds.

Those two teams, the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Knicks, are now at home with a bad taste in their mouths. That’s the case for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, and Miami Heat, as well, as all of these squads made it to the playoffs but couldn’t reach the promised land. And today, we decided to look at all six of those teams and identify what they need to do next year if they want to go deeper in the postseason than they were able to go this time around.

New York Knicks: Be healthy

The Knicks are a pretty easy case. They were the second-best team in the Eastern Conference for some time and got derailed by, quite frankly, a shocking string of injuries. Losing just Julius Randle, or just Bojan Bogdanovic, or just Mitchell Robinson, or just OG Anunoby would have been bad enough. To not have any of the first three against the Indiana Pacers was a major problem, then Anunoby hurt his hamstring in Game 2 and played five minutes over the remaining five games. And then, to top it all off, Jalen Brunson was clearly hobbled for much of the series before leaving Game 7 with a broken hand.

New York has to figure out the futures of a few major contributors — Anunoby and Isaiah Hartenstein are free agents this summer, as are a pair of dudes (Alec Burks, Precious Achiuwa) who gave them good minutes in the playoffs. But above all else, they just need some R+R to heal up on the heels of a brutal stretch of injuries. If they can simply make it to the playoffs next year with the normal bumps and bruises teams have and not a catastrophic injury crisis, they’ll be one of the favorites to make it to the conference finals in 2025.

Milwaukee Bucks: Get healthy and find trustworthy depth

The Bucks are in a similar boat to the Knicks, with the difference being that instead of a bevy of injuries killing them, they just found themselves with no shot due to Giannis Antetokounmpo missing the entire first round and Damian Lillard getting hurt as the series went on. In a bit of analysis you won’t find anywhere else: The Milwaukee Bucks are a better basketball team when those two play. Incredibly insightful, eh?

In all seriousness, the Bucks should take a step forward next year due to the mix of health and Doc Rivers having an offseason to plan and prepare the team. A problem, though, is they’re in a tricky spot from a roster-building perspective — Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, and Jae Crowder are all free agents, but six of their top-8 players in minutes per game last year are slated to be back. Do they look to package a veteran (say, Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton) and the No. 23 pick in the 2024 NBA Draft for immediate help? Do they hope they can get lucky on the vet minimum market? Or do they bank on continuity helping a young guy like Chris Livingston or Andre Jackson Jr. break through?

Cleveland Cavaliers: Pick their core and build a more balanced roster around them

Now that J.B. Bickerstaff is gone, the Cavs face two big questions are:

1. What does the future hold for Donovan Mitchell (and, as a result, Darius Garland)?
2. Can you have Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley on the same team?

The team’s four best players might not be compatible with one another. The Cavs, essentially, have two guards who need the ball and two centers in their starting lineup. Things just always seemed to lack any sort of consistent rhythm when Garland and Mitchell were on the floor together, and there was never enough space when Allen and Mobley were out there at the same time. If Mitchell is willing to sign an extension, it makes sense to start making and taking calls on Garland — an awesome player who had a Murphy’s law year — but if Mitchell makes clear that he wants to test the free agent market, shopping him and trying to recoup as much as possible would be prudent.

No matter what, picking one of Allen or Mobley as your center to build around has to happen, as both are good NBA centers at a time when teams could really stand to have one on the roster. Cleveland has to start building out its team in a way that makes sense. Max Strus is a good player and Isaac Okoro took a nice step forward this year, but the team still needs more on the wing. Creating better floor balance figures to be the top priority no matter which of their core pieces end up on the trade block, and how well they manage to build a more well-rounded roster figures to determine their ability to raise their ceiling.

Orlando Magic: Add some offensive juice in the backcourt

The Magic, which had not won a playoff series since 2010, had the Cavs dead to rights in their own building. A road Game 7 usually causes young teams to wilt, but instead, Orlando led by as many as 18 points in the first half. And then, as was often the case for Orlando, the bottom fell out on their offense. They’d go on to score another 47 points over the remainder of the game, shot 25.6 percent from the field in the second half, and had their year officially end with a whimper. The worst part: This wasn’t a huge surprise, as the Magic’s offense was prone to go through spells where it was absolutely abysmal, and once again, that reared its ugly head at the worst possible time.

The good news for Orlando is that the team is under less pressure to win right now than any other playoff team — this was the first time in franchise history that they won at least 47 games without Shaquille O’Neal or Dwight Howard on the roster. Having said that, the offense is way too prone to cold spells, and they have to figure out how to fend those off. Paolo Banchero continuing to develop and Franz Wagner remembering how to shoot would help, but could the historically conservative Magic take a swing before those dudes are due big extensions and try to get a backcourt star who could help them become a, say, top-15 or so offense? We’ve seen plenty of teams bank on continuity and have it work, but it’s no guarantee that happens. There’s a real path for them to get a top-4 seed in the East next year, and it all revolves around sorting things out on the offensive end of the floor.

Philadelphia 76ers: Build intelligently

Joel Embiid is under contract next year, Paul Reed is on a non-guaranteed deal, and Tyrese Maxey is going to get a lot of money at some point this summer via an extension. Otherwise, the Sixers are a blank slate — they quite literally do not have anyone else under contract. This is Daryl Morey’s dream scenario, as he gets to build a team entirely around a pair of stars.

However, that create a lot of pressure. The team is flush with cap space to add another star on a max contract and/or picks they can use on the trade market, but they also will need to build out a full roster. Striking the balance between gathering high-level talent and creating the depth needed to be a contender is never easy, and the Sixers have to figure out the right answer based on what is available to them this summer.

There is, of course, no guarantee this plan works out. Even if Morey knocks this offseason out of the park, Philly is in a situation where Embiid’s health is the ever-present elephant in the room — the alternative answer to this might be “money that they can give the NBA so Embiid can be on a load management plan that keeps him healthy in the face of fines.” But between the start of free agency and Maxey putting pen to paper on a max extension, Philly has to put together a championship-level roster around its two building blocks. Embiid is in his 30s already, and even though he has a star running mate in Maxey, he’s not likely going to be one of the best players on the planet for too much longer. As such, the Sixers need to nail this offseason — there cannot be another major financial albatross like the Tobias Harris contract — and use it to create a real runway to a championship.

Miami Heat: Swing for the fences

Put a microphone in front of Pat Riley and something is gonna happen. Riley obliged in his postseason media availability where he, uh, said a lot of stuff! Chief among them: Riley made very clear he wants Jimmy Butler (and Tyler Herro) to play more often, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of urgency to come to terms on an extension with his star player, who turns 35 in September and can hit free agency next summer.

Regardless of what happens with Butler, the Heat as presently constructed are just not good enough to go on a run that doesn’t include insane shot making that drives every Celtics fan you know insane. The good news, based on another thing Riley said, is that the lack of a championship over the last few years is surely eating away at him, and if there’s one team you just know will be looking to go for broke this offseason, it’s the Heat. They’re a franchise built around occasionally striking out while swinging for the fences, because they’d rather hit a homer than string together a few singles. They need to add another big time player who can serve as a running mate with Bam Adebayo as Butler starts to age out of stardom. Who that is, however, remains to be seen, but if Miami runs back essentially this same team next year, it’s more than likely that they’ll be a Play-In squad once again.