It’s easy to write off the Eastern Conference as a two-team race heading into 2023-24, as the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics both took big swings with the hopes of getting past one another en route to a berth in the NBA Finals. That, of course, is never quite how it works — sure, it’s very possible (if not likely) that the conference finals involves these two teams, but weird things always end up happening over the course of an 82-game regular season.
The NBA seasons started on Tuesday, but in a fun twist, no Eastern Conference teams were part of the festivities. So today, we’re taking a look at the biggest question each team faces, whether they hope to compete for a ring, earn a postseason berth, or get their long-term futures all sorted out this year.
Atlanta Hawks: Will The Young Players Take A Step Forward?
With John Collins gone, the Hawks will lean more on their youngsters, with much of their roster being 25 years old or younger. De’Andre Hunter spent the summer in trade rumors but nothing ever materialized and how he responds to that will be fascinating. Hunter impressed as a rookie, but has somewhat stagnated in terms of development, mostly looking like the same player he was when he entered the league. Part of Quin Snyder’s task is to see if he can coax something more out of Hunter in his fifth year, particularly in the absence of Collins. However, Hunter isn’t alone when it comes to young Hawks who will be relied on heavily.
Onyeka Okongwu could get more run this year both as Clint Capela’s backup (and the expected starting center in waiting whenever Capela is no longer in Atlanta), with the chance to run some big lineups with he and Capela sharing the floor now that Collins is gone. Saddiq Bey was lights out from three in his 25 regular season games in Atlanta, and AJ Griffin, likewise, is among the Hawks best three-point threats. Both of them being positive contributors on the wing is going to be important given Snyder will be asking for Atlanta to get up more threes, but to stay in larger roles they’ll have to provide something on the defensive end as well. Hawks fans are also high on Jalen Johnson, and he figures to get some burn with Collins gone as some power forward depth who can bring some bounce to the frontcourt.
If this team is to take a step forward it figures to be on the backs of internal improvement from their youngsters. Snyder’s task is figuring out which roles and lineup combinations they’re most comfortable in to get the most out of them and provide their stars with the right amount of support
Boston Celtics: How Big Is The Drop-off With The Bench Unit?
The top-6 in Boston is arguably the best in the league, but the rest of the bench is less of a certainty. Boston won’t need its bench unit to be great, but they will need to have enough production to simply not give up the advantage they figure to have most nights with the starting lineup. How Joe Mazzulla staggers his starters will be interesting to watch, as he could completely avoid running out full bench units (or lineups with just one starter), but in doing so there is always the tradeoff of having less time on the floor with your absolute best group. As such, there figure to be plenty of regular season games with a more traditional platoon system that feature lineups that feature some combination of (the newly extended) Payton Pritchard, Luke Kornet, Oshae Brissett, Sam Hauser, Jordan Walsh, and others as the majority.
That’s not the most inspiring list of names, but it’s important to remember the goal here isn’t to have one of the league’s best second units, it’s just simply to not be catastrophically bad. We saw a year ago with the Nuggets how a top-heavy team going from having one of the worst bench units in the league to simply being average can change a team’s trajectory. After years of hilarious on/off splits for Nikola Jokic, Denver was able to basically be a net neutral in the postseason without their star, which made them a buzzsaw overall. Boston has the chance to be the same type of squad if this bench can figure out how to be a fairly average group. If they struggle to do so, Mazzulla will have to do more tinkering with staggering starters and have fewer minutes featuring the full starting group, which takes away some of what makes this team so terrifying on paper.
Brooklyn Nets: How Does Mikal Bridges Fare As A No. 1?
The Nets have built this current team around the idea that Bridges is going to be their No. 1 guy, which is a considerable step up from the role he played in Phoenix. He has shown flashes of having the skillset to do that, but being consistently impactful at the level a top star needs to be for their team to be good in the NBA is a very difficult hurdle to clear. Bridges has steadily evolved from a 3-and-D wing early in his Phoenix career to being a three-level scoring threat with an improved handle. The next step is running a team and keeping the offense rolling by keeping everyone else involved and engaged. Last year, Bridges averaged just 2.7 assists per game in his 27 games in Brooklyn, despite boasting a usage rate of over 30 percent. To be the main offensive hub on a good offense, his playmaking for others is going to have to get better and he will have to open up his court vision and be able to make the right reads even quicker. That is a skill that only comes with reps, and the good news is he should get a ton of opportunity to grow into that as the year goes on. Still, it’s not just as easy as flipping a switch and there will probably be some continued growing pains when teams apply considerable pressure to Bridges as he will be at the top of the scouting report each night.
Charlotte Hornets: What Can Brandon Miller Provide As A Rookie?
The second overall pick figures to be under plenty of scrutiny, particularly given he was taken over Scoot Henderson who figures to get a starring role in Portland. Miller won’t be getting the keys to the franchise handed to him in the same way, and how he slots into whatever role he’s given will be important to the Hornets making a leap back into Play-In contention. The Hornets wing rotation could get a bit cluttered, and dealing with potentially inconsistent minutes as well as adjusting to playing a secondary role will be a hurdle for Miller as he makes the move to the NBA. That said, his skillset is tantalizing on the offensive end and there’s a reason Charlotte wanted him at No. 2 overall. There’s some fun actions they can run with he and LaMelo Ball to take advantage of Ball’s creativity and Miller’s shooting stroke, and if it all clicks, this Hornets team should look a considerably better than last year’s squad. However, rookie seasons are rarely just smooth sailing, particularly when there’s a new role a player has to adapt to, and if Miller struggles to find his groove then it will be very interesting to see how Steve Clifford handles it. This is a team that wants to be competitive, and sometimes that can run counter to letting a young player play through his mistakes.
Chicago Bulls: Can Their Offense Find A Spark?
A strange thing about the Chicago Bulls last season is that despite building their team around DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic — who aren’t exactly considered defensively stout — their defense was far better than their offense. Chicago was fifth in the league in defensive rating and 24th in offensive rating, and this happened despite one of the linchpins of their defensive success in 2021-22 (Ball) not playing a single game.
Regardless of whether Billy Donovan and the Bulls coaching staff can build a stout defense again, the team’s offense needs to be better. Chicago just does not shoot threes (they were 30th in the league in makes and attempts last season), are not an especially good offensive rebounding team (28th in offensive rebounding percentage), and were 24th in free throw attempt rate. They hammer teams inside the arc — DeRozan, LaVine, and Vucevic were all in the top-30 in the league in two-point field goals made per game — but it’s nowhere near enough to offset everything else.
Those 4-5 offensive possessions a game that they’d get off of Ball doing something on defense, getting the ball, looking up, seeing LaVine streaking down the floor, and throwing a picture perfect pass all in the span of 1.5 seconds just were not there last year. His willingness and ability to let fly from three were missed, too. The tricky thing with this version of the Bulls and any potential spark on offense is that they’re still built around those three guys and will need to bank a whole lot on internal development for younger players like Ayo Dosunmu, Dalen Terry, Coby White, and Patrick Williams — their two main free agent signings, Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig, are what they are.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Can They Balance Enough Shooting With An Elite Defense?
The Cavaliers seemed to take joy out of being an absolute chore to play against last season. No team played at a slower pace. No team had a better defensive rating. They were better than anyone else at preventing teams from attempting shots from behind the three-point line. They were very good at defending around the rim. While their offense was not perfect, it was ninth in the league in offensive rating, spearheaded by a pair of guards in Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland who are capable of making magic happen.
And then, they ran into the Knicks. Despite winning 51 games — their most in a season without LeBron James on the roster in 30 years — Cleveland got repeatedly punked by New York in their limp, five-game defeat in the first round. Their defense generally held up outside of a quite frankly shocking inability to grab defensive rebounds, but the biggest problem was their offense, which had the worst offensive rating in the postseason. They struggled mightily from three (32.7 percent) and turned the ball over more than anyone (15.8 turnovers per game).
Their bet appears to be that more floor spacing will add a bit of variety into their offense and give defenses something to keep them honest while Garland, Mitchell, and Evan Mobley all go to work. The team brought in Max Strus and Georges Niang this offseason, both of whom are elite shooters who are eager to let it fly and should be really nice fits in the starting lineup (Strus) or off the bench (Niang). It’d be wise to lean on them heavily to juice the offense, and while neither are horrible defenders — both guys compete on that end of the floor — a guy like Isaac Okoro is more stout on that end of the floor. Maybe it’s possible that Mobley and Jarrett Allen (when he is healthy) are just going to be a top-5 defense no matter what, and if the shooting they brought in can give their offense a boost from “very good” to “elite,” Cleveland is going to win a ton of games.
Detroit Pistons: Can Cade Cunningham Be A Star?
Cade Cunningham’s sophomore campaign came to an end on Nov. 9, 2022. Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, suffered a stress fracture in his shin that required surgery and limited him to only 12 games of action. It was a brutal twist of fate for Cunningham and the Pistons — he was supposed to use this year to build on his rookie campaign and build his chemistry with his potential backcourt mate for the next decade-plus, Jaden Ivey.
There was a silver lining to this cloud, as Ivey came into his own as the season went along and looks like the dynamic, explosive guard he was billed to be coming out of Purdue. But Cunningham is the potential face of the franchise, the sort of jumbo playmaker with scoring chops that every team covets right now. Losing out on a year of development — and, frankly, a year of watching him play basketball — really stinks, even if the Pistons weren’t viewed as a potential playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
The good news for Detroit is that Cunningham is back and healthy. By all accounts, Cunningham was magnificent while playing with the USA Basketball Select Team that helped prepare the senior side ahead of the FIBA Basketball World Cup — “He looked great,” Steve Kerr said, per The Athletic. “The injury is clearly behind him and it’s great to see him healthy. He’s a guy who can really control the game from the point guard spot with his size and physicality.”
There’s an opportunity for Cunningham to take a big step forward under new head coach Monty Williams — remember, Devin Booker made his first All-Star team after he took over in Phoenix. If he can, it’s going to make the Pistons’ rebuild look awfully promising, and turn them into an up-and-coming team to watch as we enter 2024-25.
Indiana Pacers: Can They Get Enough Stops?
The Pacers are going to be fun. Any team with Tyrese Haliburton is going to be a joy to watch on offense, as he’s high on the list of the most instinctive and creative playmakers in the world. He missed 26 games last season and had the fourth-most assists in all of basketball. He led the NBA, by some margin, in potential assists per game in 2022-23. Only Nikola Jokic made more passes per game than him. And on top of all that, Haliburton averaged a team and career-best 20.7 points per game. If you give the keys to him and let him go, Haliburton is going to give you a potent offense.
Add in that he is surrounded by plenty of talent on that end of the floor and the Pacers are going to be a nightmare to guard. Myles Turner had his best season as a pro alongside him, and while Buddy Hield requested a trade, Haliburton knows how to get him good looks from deep. Bennedict Mathurin has plenty of room to grow, but his eagerness to attack is, quite frankly, a little jarring. Obi Toppin and Bruce Brown are a pair of interesting offseason acquisitions who fit well — Toppin’s energy and relentlessness are a great fit, as is Brown’s basketball IQ and willingness to be a connecting piece.
The questions are going to come on the defensive end of the floor. Turner’s a good rim protector and Brown’s malleability are both major assets, Haliburton is great at reading passing lanes, and you can see Mathurin’s length and athleticism leading to him being a good defender as he becomes a more seasoned pro. Guys like Aaron Nesmith and Jordan Nwora are younger, athletic wings, while heady veterans like Daniel Theis and the extremely annoying (this is a compliment) T.J. McConnell are here.
Miami Heat: Can They Get Enough At Point Guard?
Missing out on Damian Lillard wasn’t just an issue of not adding a superstar talent, but because things dragged on all the way until camp, the Heat were unable to shift to a Plan B and bring in some much needed point guard help. Kyle Lowry is the only nominal point guard on the team after the departure of Gabe Vincent, and he’s coming off of a fairly pedestrian season, averaging 11.2 points, 5.1 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game on 40.4 percent shooting from the field. Erik Spoelstra is among the best in the league at adapting to his roster’s strengths and weaknesses, but not having a clear path to 48 minutes of quality ball-handling and initiating is a bit of a concern.
Adebayo and Butler are both good passers for their positions and they’ll surely be used as offensive hubs as always, while Herro will spend time on-ball as well but is not a particularly adept creator for others. Josh Richardson could spend time on the ball in a pinch, but there just aren’t a lot of great options on paper at the moment. The Heat figure to be among the teams active on the trade market (or eventually the buyout market) for a point guard, but until they make an addition they’ll have to get creative to manage a point guard deficit on this roster.
Milwaukee Bucks: Is Upgrading Their Offense With Damian Lillard Worth Downgrading Their Defense?
Milwaukee having to part ways with Holiday was not easy. As a player and as a person, Holiday was a beloved member of the organization, the sort of guy that you root for even if you have no stake in the Bucks. Watching him go to the team’s biggest rival in the Eastern Conference following a pit stop in Portland had to have been a gut punch.
And yet, it’s not hard to see why Milwaukee’s front office made the decision to turn Holiday (along with Grayson Allen and Draft capital) into Lillard. An issue for the Bucks is that their offense is prone to getting stuck in the mud, particularly when the game slows down and they have to play in the halfcourt. This comes with the caveat that Giannis Antetokounmpo was clearly not right as he played through injuries and essentially missed the first three games, but the Bucks’ offense in their first-round loss to the Miami Heat in the playoffs was brutal. Small sample sizes and what not, but in four losses, Milwaukee had an offensive rating of 109.4 with an effective field goal percentage of 53.2 percent. Their true shooting percentage came in at 55.9 percent. While a wonderful player, Holiday’s had some postseason warts over the last few years, namely when it comes to efficiency from the field (38.4 percent on field goals, 30.6 percent from three over 17 playoff games in the last two years).
Offenses do not stall out when Lillard is running the show, and the thought of a two-man game with himself and Antetokounmpo is legitimately one of the most exciting things in the league. The bet that the Bucks made was that all of this is that the gains they’ll make on that end of the floor will offset what losing Holiday — perhaps the most versatile defensive guard in the league — means on the other. While we don’t know what new head coach Adrian Griffin will want his defense to look like, it’s worth mentioning that Milwaukee’s defense in recent years has featured elite rim protection, and with Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez returning, that should remain.
New York Knicks: Can All Their Stars Play Their Best In The Postseason?
The further up the contender ladder you go, the harder it is to reach the next level, and for the Knicks that would mean threatening the Eastern Conference Finals. The advantage they have over the two top teams in the East is depth, as Milwaukee and Boston have gone all-in on creating nightmare starting units. As we all know, depth plays less of a role in playoff success (provided good health) as starting units can play extended minutes and the benefits of having a better bench group is more limited.
That means the Knicks stars have to play as such to keep things closer against other starting units to allow their bench advantage to shine, and last year only Brunson really lived up to the billing. Julius Randle is the biggest playoff concern at the top of New York’s pecking order, as he has struggled mightily in his two postseason appearances with the Knicks. In those 15 playoff games, he’s averaging 17.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, but sees his efficiency drop off a cliff to 34.4 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from three, while having more turnovers (3.9) than assists (3.7). Randle has struggled to find his rhythm as he often takes a lot of tough shots, with more than 60 percent of his attempts last season coming from beyond 10 feet from the rim (with most of his midrange jumpers being self-created). Against the increased pressure applied by defenses in the postseason, his handle has been bothered and he’s struggled to create decent looks for himself. The challenge for Randle and the Knicks is finding ways to get him into a rhythm with easier looks and try and get him away from the isolation attempts that simply have not worked. That’s easier said than done considering his regular season shot diet is also a lot of pretty difficult looks that he just knocks down at a much higher rate, meaning he would have to change his offensive approach considerably.
R.J. Barrett took a step forward last year both in the regular season and the playoffs, but he also could stand to take another step forward in terms of efficiency. He’s terrific going to the basket and his ability to apply rim pressure is needed on this Knicks team. He has steadily improved his shot selection but needs the three-pointer to become a more reliable weapon to open up the floor a bit more for guys like Randle and Brunson. Cramped spacing has long been a concern with this Knicks offense, and when transition opportunities are limited in the postseason, their halfcourt offense can grind to a halt. He doesn’t need to become an elite three-point shooter, but simply raising his level from being a low-30s guy to a mid-30s guy from three would force defenses to think a little longer about sagging off and help New York.
It’s a tall order, but if this group is going to be something more than a mid-seed with a second round ceiling, it comes down to their best players raising their level in the postseason rather than simply maintaining it (like Barrett), much less falling off (like Randle).
Orlando Magic: What’s Next For Paolo Banchero And Franz Wagner?
This is both obvious and also the correct question to ask. For teams on the rise, there is often a point in which it becomes clear that every player is not a “core player” for the future, and that could happen with some of the guards in Orlando. There is a pretty good feeling that Banchero and Wagner are core pieces, however, and Banchero is coming off a Rookie of the Year campaign after being drafted No. 1 overall. That is usually a formula for at least a long, fruitful career at the NBA level, and Wagner’s versatile, effective game makes him the envy of many teams and general managers across the league.
With that out of the way, the big question is whether there is a real, contending-level team to be built around Banchero and Wagner as the top two, or even two of the top three, pieces on the squad. Banchero faced real efficiency issues (52.9 percent true shooting) as a rookie and isn’t a dynamic off-ball threat at this juncture. Wagner has almost no uncertainty as a secondary piece after a season in which he averaged 18.6 points on 58.9 percent true shooting, but can he scale up? Orlando’s supporting cast might be what dictates win-loss success in 2023-24, but in the big picture, it’s all about Banchero and Wagner for the Magic. This season could begin to paint a very, very intriguing picture.
Philadelphia 76ers: How Engaged Is James Harden?/What Do They Get In Return For A Harden Trade?
There really is only one thing that matters right now for the Sixers as it pertains to staying in the contender, and that’s what happens with Harden. If he stays, will he play at the level of last year, when he legitimately won them multiple playoff games with his performance (in spite of his reputation as a postseason player). If he goes, can they come close to replacing what he brings this team. While Harden’s scoring output is nice, it’s really his skills as a passer that would be missed the most by the Sixers. They don’t have anyone on the roster remotely close to him when it comes to passing and court vision, and on a team that revolves around a dominant big man, losing that would compound their issues.
Joel Embiid is a dominant offensive force, but his ability to impact the game to the level he’s capable is dependent on having guards who can get him the ball on time and on his spots. That’s not the strength of Tyrese Maxey, and there is no one on the Clippers (the only suitor for Harden, by all accounts) who could be sent to Philly in return that would help fill that void. That means not only are you losing the production from Harden as a scorer, but you’re likely going to see a dip in Embiid’s efficiency and effectiveness if he’s not able to get the ball when he carves out space inside before defenders can work to move him off his spot. There’s a reason Philly isn’t jumping at the chance to trade a guy who clearly doesn’t want to be there, and is probably what the Clippers are working to find in the form of a third team to add to the deal.
Toronto Raptors: Can They Diversify Their Offense?
The Raptors were a perfectly solid offense last year (11th in offensive rating, per Basketball-Reference) but their biggest issue on that end is their best players want to do a lot of the same things. Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes both want to get on the ball and attack downhill. OG Anunoby has become a very reliable three-point threat, but also would like to see more of the ball to create going towards the basket as well. Now, replacing Fred VanVleet with Dennis Schröder brings in another questionable shooter whose main focus on offense is driving at the rim. There’s only so many opportunities to do that, and if the starting lineup is those four and Jakob Poeltl, the spacing is going to be extremely cramped.
Gary Trent Jr. and Gradey Dick will be their best floor spacers off the bench and can alleviate that issue a bit, but there just isn’t a lot of reason to think this team is going to improve dramatically from being 28th in the league in three-point percentage a year ago (33.5 percent). The challenge for Darko Rajakovic is going to be designing an offense that can maximize the talents of this roster, but how you do that when guys are at their best occupying very similar areas of the floor is a mystery that Nick Nurse’s staff was not fully able to solve.
Washington Wizards: Who Are The Building Blocks Of The Next Great Wizards Team?
At first blush, Washington’s rotation could be quite respectable in 2023-24. The high-end talent isn’t really there for the Wizards, but Washington may field an entire 10-man group on opening night that is filled with real NBA rotation players. The issue is that most of them are probably best suited for reserve roles, with only Kyle Kuzma and maybe Jordan Poole bringing the pedigree associated with highly productive starters. Of course, Washington could also lean into the void during the season, playing young guys more and more in search of information and ping-pong balls, and there are many reasons why the Wizards are projected for the league’s lowest win total.
The big question stemming from that jumbled landscape is, essentially, who “the guys” are for Washington. Kuzma is the team’s best player, but the 28-year-old is likely miscast as one of the top two or three players on a real playoff team, and when he re-signed in Washington, it almost came with an immediate countdown to trade eligibility. Poole was essentially salary dumped by Golden State and, while he likely is better than he showed during a brutal 2022-23 season, the former Michigan guard may be ideally cast as a high-usage sixth man type on a good team, much as he was with the Warriors.
Kuzma and Poole will almost assuredly sit atop the team’s pecking order when it comes to scoring and usage, but this is also an information gathering season. What is former lottery pick Johnny Davis? What about former first-round pick Corey Kispert, who has shown himself capable of a rotation role but may be looking for more? How ’bout Daniel Gafford, who has plenty of highlights and flashes at the center spot? Finally, there should be quite a bit of attention paid to Bilal Coulibaly. For a lot of teams, the 19-year-old probably wouldn’t be ready for a rotation role, but Coulibaly was the No. 7 pick for a rebuilding team and, even if he is clearly a long-term play, Washington will want to see him on the court at some point soon. In the end, it’s all about identification and evaluation because, with all due respect to a bunch of really respectable veterans in Delon Wright, Tyus Jones, Taj Gibson, Mike Muscala, and Landry Shamet, this season isn’t really about them for Washington.