After years as the inferior conference, there seems to be some optimism that the East may be deeper than the West this season. After a fast and furious summer that included trades, the draft and free agency, the landscape of the league has changed quite a bit in the span of just a couple of months. The three divisions in the Eastern Conference are oozing with storylines, with title contenders in each of them.
While they may have gotten the majority of the spotlight this summer, there lies a sleeper in each division that could very well upset the apple cart over the course of an 82-game season. The Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami HEAT are the favorites for good reason but don’t overlook these three teams that could surprise everyone.
Atlantic Division – Toronto Raptors
The only team in this division to actually win a championship in the last decade is the Raptors. Obviously, the roster looks much different now without Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, but the core is still intact. It was a miserable season last year for the entire organization, playing their “home” games thousands of miles from home and being away from their families. Pascal Siakam looked like the player we saw in the Orlando bubble and the starting center position was about as bad as it could get during the first few months of the season.
The emergence of Chris Boucher and the strong play of Fred VanVleet eventually got things turned around midway through the year. Siakam finally returned to form in the latter stages of the season and OG Anunoby continued his promising development on the offensive side of the floor. The point guard position is still an area of concern, with rumors swirling that Goran Dragic is not long to stay in Toronto, but the Raptors have some new additions that could fill vital roles for them.
“All my sources around the league have told me they expect Goran Dragic to be bought out by the Toronto Raptors and swiftly sign with the Dallas Mavericks.”
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) September 3, 2021
Precious Achiuwa came over as part of the trade for Lowry and the team selected Scottie Barnes with the fourth overall pick in the draft. The core is still young, and they will likely have to go through Brooklyn, but with the uncertainty in Philadelphia with Ben Simmons and the possible regression in Boston and New York, Nick Nurse and the Raptors could find themselves back in the playoffs once again.
Central Division – Indiana Pacers
There are storylines concerning every team within this division, beginning with the defending champions in Milwaukee. They return most of their roster and will be more than capable of defending their title. The Chicago Bulls were the darling of the offseason after their massive moves for Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso. The Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers have the top two picks of the draft in Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Then there is the team sitting quietly in Indiana.
The real sleepers of the East, the Pacers return most of their core and added some solid contributors as well. Chris Duarte looked impressive during Summer League, as did fellow rookie Isaiah Jackson. They are long, athletic pieces that fit in well with the rest of this group. Torrey Craig was a sneaky pickup in free agency and they were able to hold on to TJ McConnell, who led the league in steals (128) last season.
Isaiah Jackson has tied the summer league record with 7 blocks for the #Pacers. Still 8 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
— Zach Pearson (@zapearsonNBA) August 16, 2021
The real upside with this team is the return of their starters, who were injured for the majority of last year. Their projected starting five of Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, TJ Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner played a grand total of zero minutes together last season. If those five remain healthy, that is one of the better starting units in the league. The return of Rick Carlisle was a homerun hire. One of the best coaches in the game returns to Indiana where he has some unfinished business.
Southeast Division – Washington Wizards
This is undoubtedly the biggest turnaround from a division standpoint heading into the season. The inevitable rebuild in Orlando has begun. After years of mediocrity and subpar results, the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets are both poised for breakout seasons. Their rosters are built upon youth and potential, with some serious star power at the point guard position. Miami will certainly be the favorites here after winning the offseason, but they will have some stiff competition.
After Washington traded Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers, all of the focus was on what it means for the team in California. On the opposite side of the country, there was a major roster shakeup in the Nation’s capital. The Wizards acquired some fantastic pieces in that trade, including Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. No longer in small roles, these three should flourish alongside franchise cornerstone Bradley Beal. Washington’s biggest new addition came at the point guard position with Spencer Dinwiddie.
— Quinton Mayo (@RealQuintonMayo) August 31, 2021
Now fully healthy, Dinwiddie is an ideal fit next to Beal and the two close friends should have no issues sharing the ball. Rui Hachimura is a strong breakout candidate this year and the development of their youngsters like Deni Avdija, Aaron Holiday and rookie Corey Kispert make Washington an incredibly deep team. Thomas Bryant is returning from injury after a strong start to last season. If Davis Bertans can get back to performing at a high level, the Wizards will be a serious playoff team this year.