Wednesday, March 22 2023

By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer

The days of the East being least are no more. This conference is loaded, especially at the top.

There are eight teams that would be incredibly disappointed if they’re forced to compete in the play-in, which means at least two of them are going to be incredibly disappointed. There’s a bit of a line of demarcation at the top between the legit title contenders and those that would be thrilled with a nice playoff run, but the jockeying for playoff position should still be a blast to watch.

We’ve broken down all the East teams, from those playing for a championship to those just playing out the string for a chance to draft mega-prospect Victor Wembanyama in June’s NBA Draft. We’ll start at the top.


Milwaukee Bucks

Coach: Mike Budenholzer 
2021-22 record: 51-31, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals 
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 52.5 
Key addition: Joe Ingles
Notable losses: None
Most important player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
X-Factor: Brook Lopez

Why to bet the over: Giannis. Also, Giannis. Also, Giannis. Mike Budenholzer’s teams are always a machine in the regular season, too. Also, Giannis.

Why to take the under: The Bucks are at the point where the regular season no longer matters, so it’s possible they don’t exactly go full-throttle out of the gate. There are also some depth questions here — can Wes Matthews, Lopez and Ingles all stay relatively healthy? 

Philadelphia 76ers

Coach: Doc Rivers
2021-22 record: 51-31, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals 
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 50.5 
Key additions: PJ Tucker, DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., Montrezl Harrell
Notable losses: None
Most important player: Joel Embiid
X-Factor: James Harden

Why to bet the over: The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll was statistically the most potent pick-and-roll combination in the league last season. Now the Sixers and Harden — who appears to be back in great physical shape — get a whole offseason to prepare for playing with each other. This is also the deepest team Embiid has ever played with. Harden might be a questionable playoff performer, but he’s a machine in the regular season.

Why to take the under: There’s always a chance Embiid goes down. And Harden, 33 and coming off a couple of injury-plagued seasons, could join him. 

Boston Celtics

Coach: Joe Mazzulla
2021-22 record: 51-31, lost in NBA Finals
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 54.5 
Key addition: Malcolm Brogdon
Notable loss: Ime Udoka (head coach, suspension) 
Most important player: Jayson Tatum
X-Factor: Robert Williams III

Why to bet the over: It took a minute for the Celtics to find their footing last season, but once they did, they were head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. Over the last 32 games of the season they were No. 1 in both offense and defense and outscored their opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions. Everything clicked for them once they moved Marcus Smart to point guard and shifted Williams into a free safety role on defense. With both in those slots for a full season, the Celtics could rampage through the league. 

Why to take the under: Williams, who’s essential to what the Celtics do on the defensive end, is already out after undergoing knee surgery. He’s expected to miss at least a month, if not more, and given that this was his second (albeit minor) operation on his left knee over the past six months, it’s fair to wonder if this issue is chronic. The Celtics also lost Ime Udoka for the year. Internally, the team is confident in Mazzulla’s ability to pick up where Udoka left off, but it’s hard to imagine that Udoka’s absence — and the abrupt manner in which he exited — doesn’t have some sort of on-court impact.

Brooklyn Nets

Coach: Steve Nash 
2021-22 record: 44-38, lost in first round of Eastern Conference playoffs 
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 47.5 
Key additions: Royce O’Neale, TJ Warren 
Notable losses: None
Most important player: Kevin Durant
X-Factor: Ben Simmons 

Why to bet the over: Kyrie Irving is in a contract year. Simmons is back on the floor. Joe Harris is healthy. In other words: No other team has more talent. The addition of O’Neale is also going to add some much-needed size and defense on the wing. 

Why to take the under: Because no team has more internal drama. Does Durant actually still want to be a member of this team? Can Irving be a professional for an entire season? Will Simmons be able to overcome his apparent fear of shooting? And can Nash coach a team whose best player tried to get him fired just a few months ago? 

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Miami Heat

Coach: Erik Spoelstra
2021-22 record: 53-20, lost in Eastern Conference finals
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 48.5 
Key addition: Nikola Jovic
Notable loss: P.J. Tucker
Most important player: Jimmy Butler
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry

Why to bet the over: Because you never bet against Jimmy Butler, or Erik Spoelstra, or the Miami Heat. We know this group is going to play elite defense. Lowry is supposedly entering the season in better shape. And Victor Oladipo looks healthy and like he’s ready to contribute to an already deep bench.

Why to take the under: The Tucker departure hurts. It’s unlikely Butler plays more than 65 games. Lowry, already 36 years old, looked sluggish last season — who’s to say that’s not the new normal? 

Toronto Raptors

Coach: Nick Nurse
2021-22 record: 48-34, lost in first round of Eastern Conference playoffs
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 44.5 
Key addition: Otto Porter Jr. 
Notable losses: None
Most important player: Scottie Barnes
X-Factor: Scottie Barnes

Why to bet the over: This is a group that won 48 games last season and returns every key contributor. Pascal Siakam rediscovered his groove as an All-NBA level offensive player last year — look for that to continue this season. OG Anunoby gets better every year. Nick Nurse is a tactical wizard. And don’t be surprised if Barnes, coming off his Rookie of the Year campaign, takes another major leap in Year 2.  

Why to take the under: The Raptors can be overly reliant on Fred VanVleet‘s creation in the half court. And the East’s depth means they’re going to have to scratch and claw to avoid the play-in.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Coach: J.B. Bickerstaff
2021-22 record: 44-38, lost in play-in tournament
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 46.5 
Key addition: Donovan Mitchell 
Notable losses: Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen
Most important player: Evan Mobley
X-Factor: Evan Mobley

Why to bet the over: You’re taking a team that won 44 games last season and replacing Markkanen with Mitchell. Not a bad upgrade. Mobley was already a star as a rookie. With one NBA season under his belt, don’t be surprised if he emerges as one of the five or so best defenders in the league and a true game-changer. 

Why to take the under: It could take some time for Mitchell and Darius Garland — two players used to playing with the ball in their hands — to jell in the backcourt. This group is also really thin on the wing; right now Isaac Okoro, a career 31.5% 3-point shooter, is likely to start at the small forward spot.  

Atlanta Hawks

Coach: Nate McMillan
2021-22 record: 43-39, lost in first round of Eastern Conference playoffs
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 46.5 
Key addition: Dejounte Murray
Notable loss: Kevin Huerter
Most important player: Trae Young
X-Factor: DeAndre Hunter

Why to bet the over: The Hawks were 26th last season in defense. Murray should make a huge difference there, and he could be the perfect wing defender and secondary ball-handler to play alongside Young. Plus, Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu are each a year older and should be ready to become key contributors on both ends of the floor. 

Why to take the under: The Young-Murray backcourt combination could have some growing pains; playing with Young isn’t easy. And speaking of Young — as great as he is on offense, there is the chance that any team with him as its starting point guard is doomed to be one of the league’s worst defensive units, no matter who surrounds him. 


Chicago Bulls

Coach: Billy Donovan 
2021-22 record: 46-33, lost in first round of Eastern Conference playoffs
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 43.5 
Key additions: None
Notable losses: None
Most important player: DeMar DeRozan
X-Factor: Patrick Williams

Why to bet the over: A bet on the over here is a bet on a breakout season from 2020 No. 4 pick Williams who, through two NBA seasons, has been mostly blah (9.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.9 assists per game). He has flashed a decent deep stroke (41.3%), though on limited attempts (1.9 per game), and, at 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, has good size for a wing. If he can make a leap, the Bulls might just be able to overcome all the issues below. 

Why to take the under: This is a group that went 8-15 after the All-Star break last season and was outscored when its three “stars” — DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic — shared the floor. Lonzo Ball‘s lingering left knee issues place his entire season in jeopardy and wound a Bulls team that has been reliant on his ability to guard on the perimeter, knock down 3s and push the pace. Oh, and the East is loaded.  

New York Knicks

Coach: Tom Thibodeau
2021-22 record: 37-45, 11th place in Eastern Conference
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 39.5 
Key addition: Jalen Brunson
Notable loss: Nerlens Noel
Most important player: Jalen Brunson
X-Factor: R.J. Barrett

Why to bet the over: The Knicks might not have any A-list stars, but they’re as deep as any team in the league, a recipe for regular-season success. Look for Thibodeau to have this group playing defense at a top-10 level (they were 11th last season and fourth the season before). Brunson, plus the return of a healthy Derrick Rose, will help loosen things up on offense. Oh, and the fact that we know the Knicks won’t be tanking over the season’s final few months gives them a leg-up on some of the teams they could be competing against for a play-in spot. 

Why to take the under: Is Julius Randle willing to give full effort? Also, the knives are already starting to come out around MSG. If the Knicks get off to a slow start, internal infighting and finger-pointing could undermine the on-court performance. 


Washington Wizards

Coach: Wes Unseld Jr.
2021-22 record: 35-47, lost 
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 35.5 
Key additions: Johnny Davis, Monte Morris
Notable losses: None
Most important player: Bradley Beal
X-Factor: Kristaps Porzingis 

Why to bet the over: You shouldn’t. But if we have to make a case for the Wizards, it starts with Porzingis, who could be the best running mate Beal has had since the peak John Wall days. This group is also relatively deep, with solid wings like Kyle Kuzma and Deni Avdija, the latter of whom has shown flashes of starting-caliber play in his first two NBA seasons. And of course there’s Beal, who remains one of the league’s top scorers. 

Why to take the under: Because this team has no upside. Is there any reason to believe that Porzingis can stay healthy? Or that any of the young players (Avdija, Rui Hachimura, Corey Kispert, Daniel Gafford) can pop? 

Detroit Pistons 

Coach: Dwane Casey
2021-22 record: 23-59, finished 14th in the Eastern Conference
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 27.5 
Key additions: Bojan Bogdanovic, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel
Notable losses: None
Most important player: Cade Cunningham 
X-Factor: Do they chase the play-in, or the draft lottery?

Why to bet the over: Cunningham has already established himself as a rising star. The 17.4 points and 5.6 assists he averaged per game last season undersell just how good he was as a shot-creator, especially late in games. Cunningham shot only 31.4% from deep last season, but he has a smooth stroke and the ability to drill jumpers off the dribble. The Bogdanovic addition is also going to open up the floor, and Burks and Ivey — selected fifth overall in the draft — should boost an offense that finished 26th last season.

Why to take the under: This team is still very young, and at some point the Pistons are going to have to make a choice: Do they chase a play-in spot, or flip Bogdanovic, Burks and Noel to a contender a few months into the season for draft picks and the chance to boost their lottery odds?

Orlando Magic

Coach: Jamahl Mosley
2021-22 record: 22-60, finished 15th in the Eastern Conference
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 26.5 
Key addition: Paolo Banchero 
Notable losses: None
Most important player: Paolo Banchero 
X-Factor: Franz Wagner

Why to bet the over: You probably missed it (because why would you have paid attention to the Magic last season?) but Wagner, whom Orlando drafted eighth overall last year, is really, really good (14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists). He should be even better in Year 2. And of course there’s Banchero, the No. 1 overall pick, who, despite being just 19 years old, should still be able to have an immediate impact (the Magic were 29th in offense last season). If Jalen Suggs, last year’s fifth overall pick, can find his groove, the Magic could take a step forward. They also have Cole Anthony, who has already proved to be a solid NBA scorer. 

Why to take the under: The Magic are still very, very young, and they’re putting a lot of weight on Banchero’s broad shoulders. This is also a group that was 26th in defense last season, which is an area where rookie big men typically don’t help. 

Charlotte Hornets

Coach: Steve Clifford 
2021-22 record: 43-39, lost in the play-in tournament
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 36.5 
Key addition: Mark Williams
Notable loss: Miles Bridges
Most important player: LaMelo Ball 
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward

Why to bet the over: Don’t. The end. 

Why to take the under: Bridges, the Hornets’ second-best player from last season, is facing felony domestic violence charges and appears to be done in Charlotte and potentially the NBA. Hayward is almost guaranteed to miss at least 20 games. The Hornets didn’t make any significant roster additions over the offseason, either. If they are ready to gamble, they’ll send Terry Rozier and Hayward — and anyone else other than Ball — to contenders for draft capital and a chance to tank for Wembanyama.  

Indiana Pacers

Coach: Rick Carlisle
2021-22 record: 25-57, finished 13th in Eastern Conference 
FOX Bet 2022-23 win total: 23.5 
Key addition: Bennedict Mathurin
Notable losses: None
Most important player: Tyrese Haliburton 
X-Factor: How far are they willing to go to tank? 

Why to bet the over: There’s talent on this roster. Haliburton is excellent. Myles Turner and Buddy Hield are legit NBA starters. T.J. McConnell brings some two-way punch off the bench. 

Why to take the under: It’s very clear the Pacers are planning on chasing Wembanyama. If they eventually flip Turner and Hield, as many assume, then this roster is going to be as thin as any in the league.

Read more NBA preview stories:

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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