The Eastern Conference is steadily getting stronger.
When the Sixers lost to the Atlanta Hawks in seven games, it was widely met with frustration and disappointment. While the series loss was bad on its own, most people also saw the bigger picture in the form of the team’s now-vacated path to a possible NBA Finals appearance. By earning the top seed during the regular season, the Sixers had successfully obtained what was arguably their best possible path in the postseason, with series against the Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, and what would have been the Milwaukee Bucks if they had advanced. It’s hard not to wonder what could have been.
In addition to watching that opportunity go to waste, part of what made Philadelphia’s early postseason exit so devastating is the fact that we’ve already seen teams in the East make moves towards strengthening their teams for future seasons to come, and we haven’t even yet come upon the NBA Draft or free agency period.
When looking around the Eastern Conference landscape, it’s easy to tell that numerous clubs have already made huge coaching upgrades with their staff. The Indiana Pacers are arguably the biggest winners of the offseason in this regard, as going from Nate Bjorkgren to one of the league’s best coaches in Rick Carlisle is a considerable upgrade.
Carlisle has proven to be a winner, capturing a title with Dirk Nowitizki back in 2011. He’s known for getting the most out of a roster and he’ll certainly have a great core with the Pacers, who have done a great job in acquiring a lot of good NBA players on great contracts. Assuming their core of Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren, and Myles Turner are healthy, they’ll be one of the biggest sleeper teams in the entire NBA. Expect for them to make a huge jump in the standings.
When talking about the East, it’s nearly impossible not to mention the Celtics, who have actually made a multitude of moves before the conclusion of the 2020-21 season — an oddity to say the least. They recently hired former Sixers/Nets assistant coach Ime Udoka to step in as their new head coach. Udoka was widely regarded as one of the best assistant coaches in the entire league for the past few seasons and will likely do well. The Celtics also traded back for former Sixers fan favorite Al Horford in a deal that shipped out Kemba Walker and their first-round selection this season.
Kemba’s decline has been very sad to see as a NBA fan, and it’s not much of a surprise to see that his Celtics tenure has come to a close. While Al Horford is a good-fitting player on their roster, they mainly did this deal to secure a viable NBA center (something they lacked for most of the season) and to free up cap space next summer — remember: the Sixers gave Horford’s last year on his contract a partial guarantee.
The Celtics will likely be better next season with this move alone, especially if they can manage to find a viable point guard outside of Marcus Smart. However, this was a move with the future in mind and we could see the Celtics returning to glory in a year or two with newfound cap space to help build a roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Apart from coaching hires, there are multiple teams in the East with significant cap space to help better their rosters. Teams like the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, and Miami Heat will have the ability to free up space to help acquire talent within the free agency period.
Many of the teams listed above have new foundations with which to sell free agents. The Knicks, for example, were one of the best storylines in the NBA last season. I’d imagine that free agents have taken notice as the Knicks are starting to finally progress somewhere good. Many won’t remember — due to the Knicks being irrelevant for most of the 2000s — but the Knicks are a real free agent destination and this year might finally be the year where they can utilize some of their cap space.
Even the Detroit Pistons have something with which to market themselves. While Detroit isn’t as glamorous as New York or Miami, they have a legitimate foundation with young talent. Former Sixer Jerami Grant blossomed in a larger role, and they’ll have the first overall pick to pair with him and the likes of their young core of Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. There’s good days ahead for the Pistons.
You could even factor in more teams in which I didn’t go into detail. One thing is for sure: the East will be stronger sooner rather than later. This will present an even bigger challenge to the Sixers, who are now all-in and win now. While they do have some optionality and flexibility, as I detailed in my offseason primer, it won’t be an easy offseason for the Sixers, who have a lot of question marks looming over the franchise. The Sixers’ blown opportunity of an ideal path to the NBA Finals is now a faint memory — and it might stay that way depending on how this offseason shakes out.
Let’s hope Daryl Morey has something up his sleeve to counteract the fast growth within the Eastern Conference.