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N.B.A. Eastern Conference Preview: Will the Nets Reign Supreme?

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Is it already the most wonderful time of year again? With LeBron alley-ooping and referees demanding we be of good cheer? There’ll be dunks used for posting, Kawhi laughs for roasting and trash talking out in the snowwwww.

Yes, the N.B.A. season is upon us, beginning Tuesday, with a much different landscape from any other season. Most arenas won’t have fans in the stands because of the pandemic. At the same time, several top stars who missed most or all of last season will be returning, shifting the balance of power in the N.B.A.

And all eyes are on James Harden to see where he ends up, whether he has to stay in Houston for the season or gets sent to one of his preferred destinations, like Milwaukee, Philadelphia or Miami.

The Eastern Conference is wide open this year. Here’s a look at where it stands.

The Contenders

ImageNow that Kevin Durant, left, and Kyrie Irving are finally able to play together, they should make the Nets the best team in the East.
Now that Kevin Durant, left, and Kyrie Irving are finally able to play together, they should make the Nets the best team in the East.Credit…Kathy Willens/Associated Press

2019-2020 record: 35-37 (No. 7 playoff seed)

Key additions: Jeff Green, Landry Shamet

Key subtractions: Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple

Outlook: On paper, this is the most talented team in the East, if not the league. The only new players this season are key reserves, but the real addition is Kevin Durant, who is ready to play after missing last season with an Achilles’ tendon injury. His friend and fellow perennial All-Star Kyrie Irving also will be returning, from a shoulder injury that limited him to 20 games last season. If they are close to the players they were before their injuries, this team is a threat to win the finals, especially considering its dynamic supporting cast.

The Nets have elite shooting in Shamet and Joe Harris; rebounding and shot-blocking in DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen; quality playmakers in Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie; and bench sparkplugs like Green and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.

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Getting Giannis Antetokounmpo signed to an extension was a victory of its own kind for the Milwaukee Bucks.Credit…Pool photo by Ashley Landis

2019-2020 record: 56-17 (No. 1 seed)

Key additions: Jrue Holiday, D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis, Torrey Craig

Key subtractions: Robin Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, Marvin Williams, Wesley Matthews, Ersan Ilyasova

Outlook: The Bucks enter the season without the cloud of whether Giannis Antetokounmpo will sign an extension hanging over Wisconsin. That’s a huge win in itself. But now the focus will be on whether this team will vie for a championship or disappear early in the playoffs again.

Trading for Holiday, a former All-Star, was a great start. Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Holiday are a fearsome trio. The Bucks also revamped their bench, adding Augustin, a veteran who can shoot the ball, to make up for the loss of players like Matthews and Ilyasova. (Side note: Antetokounmpo has the opportunity to become the first player since Larry Bird in 1985-86 to win the Most Valuable Player Award for a third straight season.)

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Repeating as the Eastern Conference champions could be tough for the Miami Heat.Credit…Kim Klement/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

2019-2020 record: 44-29 (No. 5 seed)

Key additions: Avery Bradley, Maurice Harkless

Key departures: Solomon Hill

Outlook: After last year’s Cinderella run to the finals, the Heat enter this season with the same team more or less, led by Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic. You can expect Tyler Herro, who mostly came off the bench last season and delivered many strong performances in the playoffs, to have a bigger role. You do wonder whether Miami will be able to take teams by surprise again, with many teams in the East making significant moves to get better or having players return from injury.

The Maybes

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The Sixers brought in two elite shooters, but they still need Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to improve to avoid last season’s disappointment.Credit…Matt Slocum/Associated Press

2019-2020 record: 43-30 (No. 6 seed)

Key additions: Seth Curry, Danny Green, Dwight Howard

Key departures: Al Horford, Josh Richardson

Outlook: Daryl Morey, the new team president, already left his mark on the roster, shipping out the ill-fitting Horford for Green, who will provide Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons some much needed spacing, as will Curry. The team is better balanced than the disappointing one last season, but Embiid and Simmons still must elevate their play. (And let’s not forget: The Sixers are in play to trade for Houston’s James Harden.)

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The Celtics are counting on Jayson Tatum’s improvement to go deeper into the playoffs this season.Credit…Matt Slocum/Associated Press

2019-2020 record: 48-24 (No. 3 seed)

Key additions: Jeff Teague, Tristan Thompson

Key departures: Gordon Hayward, Brad Wanamaker

Outlook: This was a bad off-season for the Celtics, who lost Hayward, an All-Star talent, in a free-agency-related trade that netted Boston a record trade exception, which the franchise could use to acquire a solid rotation player. To contend, the Celtics will need Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to make another leap, plus better-than-expected contributions from their stable of young players like Grant Williams, Robert Williams and Romeo Langford, especially given Kemba Walker’s knee troubles.

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The dynamic guard Trae Young and a much-improved roster make the Hawks a must-watch this season.Credit…Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

2019-2020 record: 20-47

Key additions: Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn, Solomon Hill

Key departures: Vince Carter, Evan Turner, Jeff Teague

Outlook: The Hawks are a team primed to make The Leap. Aside from having an elite talent like Trae Young, the team signed several strong veterans to surround a dynamic core that includes John Collins, Clint Capela, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish. Melding so many new faces will be difficult, and this team will probably be poor defensively. But Atlanta will be a must-watch on League Pass.

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Russell Westbrook was a surprise addition to a Wizards team that struggled last season.Credit…Sarah Stier/Getty Images

2019-2020 record: 25-47

Key additions: Russell Westbrook, Robin Lopez, Raul Neto

Key departures: John Wall

Outlook: Both of the team’s stars — Bradley Beal and Westbrook — will be playing this season with chips on their shoulders: Beal, for being snubbed for All-N.B.A. teams despite his stellar last season and Westbrook for the narrative surrounding his campaign in Houston, despite making an All N.B.A. team. Look for Rui Hachimura to be in the conversation for the Most Improved Player Award after a strong rookie season.

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The Indiana Pacers had a quiet off-season, but at least Victor Oladipo is still with them.Credit…David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

2019-2020 record: 45-28 (No. 4 seed)

Key additions: None

Key departures: None

Outlook: The biggest acquisition the Pacers made this off-season was a new coach, Nate Bjorkgren. Aside from that, they’ll have a healthy Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to build around, as well as Malcolm Brogdon and TJ Warren, who had a great run in the Florida bubble. Hard to see this team making any real noise as the season progresses, though.

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Pascal Siakam wasn’t great in the playoffs, but he still has value for the Raptors this season.Credit…Kim Klement/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

2019-2010 record: 53-19 (No. 2 seed)

Key additions: DeAndre’ Bembry, Alex Len, Aron Baynes

Key departures: Serge Ibaka

Outlook: This might be the toughest team in the East to peg. Pascal Siakam’s stock took a dive after his performance in the playoffs, and replacing Ibaka with the combination of Baynes and Len might not be enough. Kyle Lowry turns 35 this season. Toronto was knocked out of the playoffs in the second round and didn’t upgrade much in talent. Even so, the Raptors are never to be counted out.

The Non-Contenders

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The Magic sneaked into the playoffs last season and look to be only so-so again.Credit…Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

2019-2020 record: 33-40 (No. 8 seed)

Key additions: Cole Anthony

Key departures: D.J. Augustin

Outlook: The only reason to watch this team is to see what kind of player Anthony, drafted 15th over all last month, will be. Otherwise, the team is set up to be average again, especially with Jonathan Isaac likely to miss the year with a knee injury. It’s time for this franchise to start over. Building around Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier is just not good enough.

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LaMelo Ball, the Hornets rookie, has already made waves during the preseason with his playmaking skills.Credit…Chris Carlson/Associated Press

2019-2020 record: 23-42

Key additions: LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward

Key departures: Nicolas Batum

Outlook: This team could challenge for the playoffs. Hayward had a great year in Boston last season, and Ball is showing himself to be a talented playmaker during the preseason. Devonte’ Graham (18.2 points a game in his sophomore N.B.A. campaign) is a solid young talent poised for a leap.

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Zach LaVine can put up big numbers for the Bulls, but this season they need him to be consistent.Credit…Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

2019-2020 record: 22-43

Key additions: Garrett Temple, Patrick Williams

Key departures: None

Outlook: The Bulls have a new coach, Billy Donovan, who has a penchant for squeezing production out of less-than-stellar rosters. Zach LaVine put up all All-Star numbers (25.5 points a game) last season, but will need more consistent playmaking to actually become one. If the Bulls want to be competitive, they’ll need Lauri Markkanen to recover from a down year.

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Obi Toppin will give Knicks fans something to cheer about this season.Credit…Raj Mehta/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

2019-2020 record: 21-45

Key additions: Obi Toppin, Alec Burks

Key departures: Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Maurice Harkless

Outlook: The Knicks, aside from hiring Tom Thibodeau as coach, didn’t make any major moves this off-season, which is fine. They sat out a weak free-agent class and kept their flexibility. Barring any major star trades, this is another development year for the franchise. It’s a chance to determine what exactly RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson can do. Separately, Toppin may be the most exciting Knicks draft pick in years.

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Blake Griffin’s future with the Detroit Pistons is uncertain.Credit…Raj Mehta/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

2019-2020 record: 20-46

Key additions: Killian Hayes, Mason Plumlee, Jahlil Okafor, Josh Jackson, Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey

Key departures: Luke Kennard, Christian Wood

Outlook: It was an odd off-season for Detroit, as the team stocked up on big men who can’t shoot, while trading away talented pieces like Kennard and Wood. But Blake Griffin is healthy, and the franchise is hoping Hayes is ready for big minutes. This is probably not a playoff team right now, but players like Hayes offer hope for the future. Will Griffin be on the team come season’s end?

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The Cavaliers were at the bottom of the East last season, and their prospects now don’t look much better.Credit…Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

2019-2020 record: 19-46

Key additions: Isaac Okoro, JaVale McGee

Key departures: Tristan Thompson

Outlook: Collin Sexton, going into his third year, is one of the few guaranteed bright spots on the team. He’s a proven scorer. But Andre Drummond and Kevin Love on the frontline are … an interesting pairing. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Cleveland last in the conference again.

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