After a topsy-turvy season that saw an in-season head coaching change, Atlanta finished with the eighth best record in the Eastern Conference at 41-41. Much was made about the perfectly average path they took to get there, but a Play-In Tournament win and a largely competitive first-round exit helped provide some optimism heading into the first full season of head coach Quin Snyder’s tenure with the franchise.
But after dealing John Collins, extending Dejounte Murray, and filling out almost a completely new coaching staff, does Atlanta have the pieces to take a step forward next season within the Eastern Conference? There are still dominoes to fall, especially given the many trade rumors surrounding All-Stars who could be on the move around the NBA. But now is a good a time as any to take a snapshot of the projected Eastern Conference in 2023-24.
There were rumors and wide speculation that the Bucks could lose a couple of their key pieces from their 2021 championship team — namely Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, who were being courted by other teams in free agency. But both re-signed with Milwaukee on multi-year deals, reuniting with Jrue Holiday and former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Their one big loss was head coach Mike Budenholzer, who has since been replaced with Adrian Griffin — father of Atlanta’s AJ — after a first-round series loss to the Miami Heat. Although the core of the team is aging, their championship window should remain open for the next couple of years behind their star power.
Atlanta’s foe in the first round of the 2023 Playoffs once again fell short of a championship this past postseason. As a result, they decided to make a bold trade to restructure their roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, sending Marcus Smart out for Kristaps Porzingis with other parts mixed in. Brown was also recently rewarded with a record-breaking contract extension, keeping him under Boston’s control until 2029.
Like Atlanta, Boston was finally able to bring in assistant coaches to fit Joe Mazzulla’s coaching style this offseason. The Celtics will likely deploy a different scheme in an effort to get them over the hump, and as such they may stumble some early in the season. But make no mistake — this is still clearly one of the two most talented teams in the conference.
The Cavs had their best season since their last of four consecutive Finals appearances in 2018. After rebuilding following the departure of LeBron James for the second time, they shelled out a load of assets to acquire Donovan Mitchell last summer. Their fantastic regular season — one that saw them finish with the second-best net rating in the entire NBA (+5.5) — was soured by a short postseason run. This result spurred them into signing Max Strus and Georges Niang for added shooting around the post duo of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Regardless, this is still a team on an upwards trajectory.
The Heat remain the Heat — that is until an almost inevitable Damian Lillard trade. Should that trade be executed before or during the season, the trio of Lillard, Butler and Adebayo would place this team in the ‘Surefire Contenders’ tier —regardless of how the supporting cast comes together.
As it currently stands, however, the regular season barely seems to matter when it comes to their recent Finals runs — first in 2019-20 as a five-seed and most recently as an eight-seed this summer. I have no reason to believe they won’t keep plucking valuable role players from out of the ether even after the losses of Strus and Gabe Vincent.
After a trade request from James Harden, the Sixers as a franchise are in a holding pattern until the resolution of this situation. Reigning MVP, Joel Embiid, isn’t going anywhere soon, and so their floor can only fall so low.
New York Knicks:
Last season, the Knicks made it to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the 1999-00 season. Other than shipping Obi Toppin off to Indiana for two future second-round picks, the team is largely running it back. But with their current personnel, I don’t think they’ll be able to manage another top-3 offensive rating this upcoming season like they did in 2022-23. And as a result, I think there’s a good chance they find themselves in Play-In Tournament territory.
Toronto and Atlanta have been linked by the many Pascal Siakam rumors as of late. Even if the Raptors wind up keeping him for the last year of his contract, replacing Fred VanVleet with Dennis Schröder while asking on their glut of forwards to do almost everything on the court doesn’t inspire confidence in me in their ability to land in the top-6 in the conference.
Another team seemingly spinning the wheels of mediocrity, the Bulls can only fall so far with a duo of Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan taking turns getting buckets. In addition, re-signing the 32-year-old Nikola Vucevic to a three-year, $60 million deal signals they have little intention of rebuilding anytime soon.
Adding Bruce Brown on a two-year deal with a team option in 2024 is a brilliant stroke to use Brown’s tough defense and complementary play to accentuate first-time All-Star Tyrese Haliburton’s game going forward. Indy has a championship caliber head coach and a number of recent intriguing draft picks in Bennedict Mathurin, Isaiah Jackson, and Jarace Walker among others. I’m calling it now: the small market Pacers will surprise some people this season.
Orlando is my pick to rocket up the conference in 2023-24 despite largely relying on young players in their projected rotation. Paolo Banchero was a runaway Rookie of the Year in 2022-23 despite his shooting tailing off in the season half of the season, and Franz Wagner combines scoring, efficiency, size and positional versatility as his sidekick. With improved point guard play, Orlando could net a .500 record if everything breaks right.
It’s been a meteoric rise and fall for the Nets franchise since Kevin Durant stepped onto the floor for them first in late 2020. But gone are ‘KD’, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving as the team tries to put pieces around former Phoenix Sun Mikal Bridges. Still, Brooklyn largely looks like a collection of high-end role players rather than a team with star power, so I think they slide out of playoff range in 2023-24.
Maybe in 2024...or 2025...or 2026...
The Hornets have been a fledgling franchise ever since the Hawks sent them home in the 9-versus-10 matchup in the 2022 Play-In Tournament. Their pick of Brandon Miller at no. 2 in the 2023 NBA Draft was widely panned, and the presence of Miles Bridges and James Bouknight on their projected roster add off-court controversy to an already unstable team.
Detroit is still trying to find their way. Even after sliding to an NBA-worst 17-65 record in 2022-23, the Pistons tumbled in the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery as far as mathematically possible. They then spent their no. 5 pick on high-energy wing Ausar Thompson, but their success will largely depend on a healthy bounce back season from Cade Cunningham.
In moving Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis, the Wizards dealt two 23-point-per-game scorers in a matter of weeks and are now looking to develop within. Jordan Poole arrives from Golden State to pair with a re-signed Kyle Kuzma, but they will take their lumps in this youth movement in the years ahead.
Atlanta Hawks Prediction:
With a full offseason for Quin Snyder and staff to implement new tactics, I believe the Hawks can push toward 48 wins in 2023-24. The Eastern Conference still looks significantly weaker than the West, and as such I would place the Hawks alongside the Knicks at the bottom of the ‘Dark Horses’ tier going into next season.