2020-21 NBA Eastern Conference Preview

Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert, who averaged 18.7 points per game last season, leads an underrated supporting cast in Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

We didn’t have to wait very long. The 2020-21 NBA season tips off on Tuesday tonight, and here are my rankings for the teams in the Eastern Conference, from first to worst.  Stats from last season, key departures, key additions, and an outlook for each squad are included.  You can see how each team’s complete roster is shaping up by checking out Hoops Prospects’ NBA Depth Charts.  

1. Milwaukee Bucks

  • Record last season: 56-17 (1st in East)
  • Offensive Rating: 111.9 (8th) 
  • Defensive Rating:  102.5 (1st)
  • Net Rating: 9.4 (1st)

Key Departures: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Wes Matthews, Kyle Korever, Marvin Williams, Robin Lopez

Key Additions: Jrue Holiday, DJ Augustin, Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig

Draft Picks: Jordan Nwora, Sam Merrill

Outlook: The Milwaukee Bucks don’t have regular season questions; they have playoff questions. It stands to reason that the Bucks will steamroll the Eastern Conference yet again. 

The Bucks mortgaged their future draft equity to acquire Jrue Holiday, a true and proven third option beside Giannas Antetokounmpo and Kris Middleton. The team paid a steep price, but now that Antetokoumpo has signed a max contract extension, it seems to be worth the gamble. 

Torrey Craig, Bryn Forbes and DJ Augstin are underrated signings for the Bucks’ second unit. That is all well and good, but this Milwaukee team has already proven its ability to dominate the regular season, and now it needs to reach the NBA finals. 

2.  Brooklyn Nets 

  • Record last season: 35-37 
  • Offensive Rating: 108.7 (22nd)
  • Defensive Rating: 109.2 (10th)
  • Net Rating: -0.5 (15th)

Key Departures: Jamal Crawford, Dzana Musa, Garrett Temple

Key Additions: Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, Landry Shamet 

Draft Picks: Reggie Perry 

Outlook: Kyrie Ivring only played 20 games last season, and Kevin Durant did not appear in a single game for the Brooklyn Nets. This Nets team won 35 games in a shortened season without arguably the greatest scorer of all-time. There are valid health concerns for Brooklyn’s two stars, and they will be helmed by first-year head coach Steve Nash. Plenty of uncertainties loom. 

But, make no mistake NBA fans, if Durant is at least 90 percent of his former NBA Finals MVP self, this team will be good — very good. Durant is a preternatural NBA superstar of the highest order, capable of instantaneously morphing this Nets’ roster into a NBA finals contender. 

Irving is back in a correctly cast supporting role, as a high-profile second fiddle. Brooklyn has solid supporting cast members in Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris Lavert, and Jarrett Allen.

The NBA fan hive-mind seems to think there will be too much drama and fanfare for this team to compete at the top of the league. I don’t buy it.  Talent wins out in the greatest league on Earth, and Brooklyn has that in spades.  While the Bucks will likely finish with a better regular-season record in the East, I expect the Nets to represent the conference in the 2021 NBA Finals.

3.  Miami Heat

  • Record last season: 44-29 
  • Offensive Rating: 111.9 (7th)
  • Defensive Rating: 109.3 (12th)
  • Net Rating: 2.7 (7th)

Key Departures: Jae Crowder

Key Additions: Avery Bradley, Mo Harkless

Draft Picks: Precious Achiuwa 

Outlook: The Miami Heat are essistantly running things back in 2020-21’, and for good reason: this team are the returning Eastern Conference Champions, and suffered injuries prior to and during the NBA Finals which hindered their ability to truly compete against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro are shining examples of Heat Culture and player development. Bam Adebayo has committed to a max rookie extension, and Jimmy Butler removed all doubt in his standing as a top-10 player in the NBA by guiding this roster to the NBA Finals inside the “Bubble.” Switch out Jae Crowder for Avery Bradley and Mo Harkless, and this is essentially the same club from last season, I expect a very solid showing from Miami in the regular season. 

4.  Boston Celtics 

  • Record last season: 48-24 
  • Offensive Rating: 112.8 (4th)
  • Defensive Rating: 106.5 (4th)
  • Net Rating: 6.7 (3rd)

Key Departures: Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier, Brad Wannamaker, Gordon Hayward

Key Additions: Tristan Thompson, Jeff Teague

Draft Picks: Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, Yam Madar

Outlook: The core foursome of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Kemba Walker were able to carry this Boston Celtic roster to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, losing 2-4 to the Miami Heat. 

Gordon Hayward was rarely available in the “Bubble,” but his departure will hurt in terms of lineup flexibility and depth for Coach Brad Stevens. 

Walker has health concerns as well, but in the Eastern Conference, with the two young stars in Tatum and Brown continuing to improve, I am not super concerned about their ability to continue to host a first-round playoff series. 

Tristan Thompson, in my opinion, is an underrated signing to offer frontcourt depth, and seeing him in a situation that actually matters, once again, could spurn his motor to get running hot again. 

5.  Philadelphia 76ers 

  • Record last season: 43-30 
  • Offensive Rating: 110.7 (14th)
  • Defensive Rating: 108.4 (8th)
  • Net Rating: 2.3 (10th)

Key Departures: Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Zhaire Smith 

Key Additions: Danny Green, Terrance Ferguson, Tony Bradley, Seth Curry, Dwight Howard

Draft Picks: Tyrese Maxey, Paul Reed, Isaiah Joe

Outlook: The fate of the 76ers, per usual, likely hinges on the health of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.  Their off-season is being well received by most of the NBA hive-mind. The roster seems to make more sense: out goes Al Horford, and in comes a historically accurate shooter in Seth Curry and a veteran two-way wing in Danny Green. 

Yet, outside of their two young superstars, there is not a surplus of high-end NBA talent, which is what wins in the playoffs.  I have concerns regarding their perpetual need for a half-court point guard, and a lack of playoff success leaves a sour taste that I cannot shake. 

Philadelphia is really good, but I don’t think they are great. 

6.  Toronto Raptors 

  • Record last season: 43-30 
  • Offensive Rating: 110.8 (13th)
  • Defensive Rating: 104.7 (2nd)
  • Net Rating: 6.1 (4th)

Key Departures: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka 

Key Additions: Aaron Baynes, Deandre Bembry, Alex Len

Draft Picks: Malachi Flynn, Jalen Harris 

Outlook: I’m already regretting predicting the Raptors to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference as I write the words. This is an organization that overpreforms expectations every single year. Why would this year be any different?  I don’t know that it will, but I do believe that losing the two front-court mainstays from their 2019 NBA Championship squad is a bigger deal than most realize.

Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are replaced by Aaron Baynes, and an elevated role for third-year pro Chris Boucher. OG Anunoby is also featured in the Raptors’ front court, and is a young player that has been improving at a rapid rate. 

Kyle Lowry has to slow down at some point, right? The team added an underrated rookie in Malachi Flynn as insurance, but that’s not a policy it wants to use in the short term.  

This is a proud and incredibly competent organization, but a lack of depth plagued the Raptors in the “Bubble,” and I don’t see how those paint points can be immediately resolved. Still a playoff team, but a slight step back for the Raptors this season 

7.  Washington Wizards 

  • Record last season: 25-47 
  • Offensive Rating: 110.2 (16th)
  • Defensive Rating: 114.7 (29th)
  • Net Rating: -4.5 (25th)

Key Departures: John Wall, Shabazz Napier, Jerome Robinson 

Key Additions: Russell Westbrook, Robin Lopez, Raul Neto

Draft Picks: Deni Avdija, Cassius Winston

Outlook: Look for the Wizards to be a newcomer to the top 8. Russell Westbrook is a superstar with glaring flaws, but he’s still a star and was third team All-NBA last season. 

Swapping John Wall for Westbrook is an upgrade for the Wizards in my opinion, and I am not super concerned about Wesbrook “taking the ball out of Bradley Beal’s hands” because Beal is fantastically efficient whether he’s on or off the ball. 

A league average offense last season with Beal shouldering far too much of the playmaking load should see a jump to what I see as a top-12 offense. The Wizards may not be able to guard anyone, but emerging young players, such as Thomas Bryant, Troy Brown Jr. and Davis Bertans gives this team more teeth in regards to depth than may meets the eye. 

I am bullish on the Wizards playoff aspirations, namely on the back of their All-Star backcourt. 

8.  Atlanta Hawks 

  • Record last season: 20-47 
  • Offensive Rating: 107 (25th)
  • Defensive Rating: 114.4 (28th)
  • Net Rating: -7.4 (28th)

Key Departures: Jeff Teague, Treveon Graham, Vince Carter (retired)

Key Additions: Danillo Gallanari, Tony Snell, Kris Dunn, Solomon Hill, Rajon Rondo, Bogdan Bogdanovic

Draft Picks: Onekya Okungwu, Skylar Mays 

Outlook: The Atlanta Hawks had a myriad of issues last season, but the two main culprits for their dismal performance were the offensive production when Trae Young was on the bench, and defense in general. 

Clint Capella returning from injury, Kris Dunn, another year of development from Cam Reddish and drafting Onyeka Okungwu should, in theory, shore up the defensive end of the court for the Hawks. That being said, I still don’t see this team being a top-15 defense by any means. 

Rajon Rondo, Danillo Gallanari, and Bogdan Bogdanovic should help alleviate the scoring and playmaking load on Young, and help keep the offense afloat when he needs to rest. The Hawks may have had the best offseason in the NBA on paper, but the pieces will still have to fit. 

The Hawks must improve in drastic ways on both sides of the ball to reach the playoffs. I give them the nod at the eighth seed, but I don’t think it’s a forgone conclusion, unlike most. 

9.  Indiana Pacers 

  • Record last season: 45-28 
  • Offensive Rating: 109.5 (19th)
  • Defensive Rating: 107.5 (6th)
  • Net Rating: 1.9 (13th)

Key Departures: TJ Leaf

Key Additions: Jalen Lecque 

Draft Picks: Cassius Stanley 

Outlook:  Not a ton to discuss here. The Indiana Pacers are essentially running things back. They fired Nate Mcmillian and hired Nate Bjorkgren. I expect their defense to be a little worse, and their offense to be a little better with that change. 

Victor Oladipo and Jeremy Lamb’s health hang in the balance for another playoff push. My calculus for having the Pacers outside of the top 8 hinges on the uncertainty of Oladipo and the fact that the teams surrounding the Pacers all have generally improved, while they stayed static, at best. 

10.  Charlotte Hornets 

  • Record last season: 23-42
  • Offensive Rating: 105.9 (28th)
  • Defensive Rating: 112.8 (25th)
  • Net Rating: -7.0 (27th)

Key Departures: Nicolas Batum, Dwayne Bacon, Willy Hernangomez

Key Additions: Gordon Hayward

Draft Picks: LaMelo Ball, Vernon Carey Jr., Nick Richards 

Outlook: This was one of the more notable offseasons in Charlotte Hornets’ franchise history, adding LaMelo Ball with the third pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and signing former All-Star Gordon Hayward away from the Boston Celtics caught headlines to say the least. 

Last season, the Hornets punched above their weight in games won compared to their advanced numbers.  One of the glaring issues for Charlotte was it’s offense cratering to horrific efficiency levels anytime Devonte Graham was off the floor. Ball as a backup point guard in the 2nd unit, and Hayward on the wing as a secondary offensive facilitator should help address that problem. This also allows for Terry Rozier, who was deadly from deep last season, to exist off the ball and hunt for shots rather than having to playmake. 

If the Hornets can evolve into a top-15 offense, then they will have some room for expected error on the defensive end of the floor. 

Coach James Borrego has impressed with his ability to get the most out of the roster thus far in Charlotte, and he leads a young talented core with the aforementioned Graham, Miles Bridges, and PJ Washington. 

11.  Orlando Magic 

  • Record last season: 33-40 
  • Offensive Rating: 107.9 (23rd)
  • Defensive Rating: 109.2 (11th)
  • Net Rating: -1.3 (19th)

Key Departures: DJ Augustin, Wesley Iwundu

Key Additions: Dwayne Bacon

Draft Picks: Cole Anthony

Outlook: Coach Steve Clifford will keep this Orlando roster competitive, evidenced by their top-12 defense last season. They will show up and compete every night, sometimes that is enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, but not this year.  

Jonathan Issac is out for the year, which dramatically hinders the Magic’s upside. DJ Augustin is an underrated departure from their second unit, and although Cole Anthony has played well in the preseason, there will be a drop off in consistency from their bench at the point guard position. 

Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Vucevic will do everything in their power to will this team into the playoffs, but despite their best efforts, I don’t see it happening. 

12.  Chicago Bulls

  • Record last season: 22-43 
  • Offensive Rating: 105.8 (29th)
  • Defensive Rating: 108.9 (9th)
  • Net Rating: -3.1 (22nd)

Key Departures: Kris Dunn, Shaquille Harrison 

Key Additions: Garrett Temple

Draft Picks: Patrick Williams, Marko Simonovic 

Outlook: Jim Boylen is out, and Billy Donavan is in. The Chicago Bulls are a frisky team to watch this season, and should be near the top of your League Pass watchlist.

Coby White ended last season on a scoring tear, and Wendell Carter Jr. contains loads of untapped talent that hopefully Coach Donavan can begin to unearth.  Personally, I feel that rookie Patrick Wiliams is a future star, and there are some bright spots on this roster, but Chicago’s time has not yet come. A little more patience and one more year in the lottery for Bulls fans seems like a reasonable outlook. 

13.  New York Knicks 

  • Record last season: 21-45 
  • Offensive Rating: 105.9 (27th)
  • Defensive Rating: 112.4 (23rd)
  • Net Rating: -6.5 (26th)

Key Departures: Mo Harkless, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington 

Key Additions: Alec Burks, Omari Spellman, Austin Rivers, Nerlens Noel

Draft Picks: Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley 

Outlook: A new regime in the New York Knicks’ front office has their fans breathing a sigh of relief. No horrendous contracts to veterans, some shrewd drafting, and a general appetite for some short-term pain seems like the vibe the Knicks have been searching for. This team is not any good, but at least they seem to understand their situation. 

The young core of RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley, and Frank Ntilikina is nothing to scoff at. I personally preached that Quickley was a 1st-round talent for months on NBA Draft Twitter, and maybe Leon Rose and Scott Perry were listening. 

Allow the young guys to play through their inevitable mistakes, develop this young roster, get back into the lottery, and follow your dreams, Knicks fans — things are looking up. 

14.  Detroit Pistons 

  • Record last season: 20-46 
  • Offensive Rating: 108.8 (20th)
  • Defensive Rating: 112.3 (22nd)
  • Net Rating: -3.5 (23th)

Key Departures: Christian Wood, Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, Tony Snell, Thon Maker, Brandon Knight

Key Additions: Wayne Ellington, Josh Jackson, Jerami Grant, Delon Wright, Mason Plumlee

Draft Picks: Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey,  Isaiah Stewart 

Outlook: What a strange offseason for the Detroit Pistons. My calculus for having the Pistons this low is not a true reflection of the talent on this roster, however oddly jammed together it might be. 

If Blake Griffin is healthy, this team could push for the play-in tournament. I am expecting a tear down sooner rather than later, though. There are many pieces on this roster that GM Troy Weaver could move quickly for future assets, namely Griffin and Derrick Rose. 

If the Pistons do tear things down, and turn the reins over to a teenage rookie lead guard in Killian Hayes, they will be bad, really bad. 

That is my thought process. 

15.  Cleveland Cavaliers 

  • Record last season: 19-46 
  • Offensive Rating: 106.9 (26th)
  • Defensive Rating: 114.8 (30th)
  • Net Rating: -7.9 (29th)

Key Departures: Tristan Thompson

Key Additions: JaVale Mcgee, Damyean Dotson

Draft Picks: Issac Okoro

Outlook: The Cavaliers retain their position as last in the Eastern Conference by my measure. They did not do a whole lot in the offseason, and that’s probably a good thing. 

Tristan Thompson is gone, and Kevin Love is the only notable remaining piece from the 2016 NBA Title team. The developing core of Darius Garland, Colin Sexton, Issac Okoro, Kevin Porter Jr, and Dylan Windler is where the future lies for this franchise. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, play the young guards/wings a ton and see what you have in them. 

Love and Andre Drummond could be heading elsewhere at some point during this season, should they have any suitors, and Cleveland will almost assuredly be back at the top of the lottery in the 2021 NBA Draft, where there are a few prizes to be had. 

Also see 2020-21 Western Conference Preview


  • Lee Branscome

    Lee is a former NCAA D2 basketball student-athlete at Chowan University. Following graduation, he was hired as an assistant coach for the program. In four years, he helped rebuild the program, winning 19 games in his final season. Lee now covers sports, co-hosting a sports-centric podcast called "Which Carolina," on Podomatic.net, and he can be followed @WhichCarolina on Twitter.