The Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Philadelphia 76ers lost Jimmy Butler, the Boston Celtics lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, and the Milwaukee Bucks lost Malcolm Brogdon.
There is still plenty of talent on the Eastern Conference’s top teams — and there is the looming threat of how great the Nets can become once Kevin Durant returns, most likely next season. But a series of high-profile off-season moves caused enough chaos that it could take all season to figure out which teams best repositioned themselves for the N.B.A.’s most wide-open season in recent memory.
Taking a look, team by team, reveals a conference where there are a few top contenders, a large middle class, and a small group bordering on irrelevance.
Key additions: Al Horford, Josh Richardson
Key subtractions: Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick
Draft: Matisse Thybulle (No. 20), Marial Shayok (No. 54)
Ben Simmons’s hitting a 3-pointer in the preseason set off waves of jubilation in Philadelphia. Al Horford’s signing meant that one of Joel Embiid’s nemeses in the Eastern Conference was now playing alongside him. With Kawhi Leonard out of the East, the Sixers have reason to be optimistic, given how close they came last season to knocking off the eventual champions.
But … Horford showed signs of slowing down last season. And the Sixers are very tall. Is the spacing going to be an issue on the offensive end? And let’s not forget that Philadelphia will be without Butler, although Josh Richardson is a solid replacement. If Simmons starts hitting jumpers, the Sixers will instantly have two top-10 players and will be finals favorites. If Simmons is essentially the same player as last year, Philadelphia won’t advance. The Sixers are not deep. SOPAN DEB
Key additions: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson
Key subtractions: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green
Draft: Dewan Hernandez (No. 59)
No matter what happens this season, the Raptors will be the defending N.B.A. champions until June. It’s hard to argue with a straight face that losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, while adding little to replace them, won’t significantly weaken Toronto, but it’s probably not time to panic, either. Pascal Siakam is already a star and could get even better. Kyle Lowry is still a terrific player. And some vital cogs in the title run (Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka) are still around, making this a strong team in the East.
Key additions: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler
Key subtractions: D’Angelo Russell, Jared Dudley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Ed Davis, Allen Crabbe
Draft: Nicolas Claxton (No. 31), Jaylen Hands (No. 56)
Can a team be the biggest winner of the off-season and not be expected to appreciably improve in the season that follows? The Nets seem to have accomplished just that by signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, while accepting that the costs would be having the injured Durant sit out this season and losing a young All-Star in D’Angelo Russell, as well as a number of solid veterans who were integral to the team’s surprising playoff run last season.
The Nets may already be better this season, but Irving must be engaged and healthy and mesh with Spencer Dinwiddie in the backcourt; Caris LeVert will have to keep improving; and Coach Kenny Atkinson will have to find the right balance of minutes at power forward and center for DeAndre Jordan, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler.
A .500 record would probably get Brooklyn into the playoffs; in a season without Durant, that would probably be the most realistic goal. Anything on top of that is gravy, as the Nets set their sights on dominating in 2020-21.
Key additions: Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier
Key subtractions: Kyrie Irving, Al Horford
Draft: Romeo Langford (No. 14), Grant Williams (No. 22), Carsen Edwards (No. 33), Tremont Waters (No. 51)
Replacing Irving and Horford with Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter is less of a downgrade on offense than it might seem at first, but more of a downgrade on defense than can adequately be explained here. There’s an argument that chemistry will improve with Irving gone, but Coach Brad Stevens has to find the right mix of minutes among three positions for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, Romeo Langford and Grant Williams.
New York Knicks
Key additions: Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis
Key subtractions: Emmanuel Mudiay, Mario Hezonja
Draft: R.J. Barrett (No. 3), Ignas Brazdeikis (No. 47)
For a second consecutive season, the Knicks should focus far less on wins than on development. It’s not that wins should be avoided — The Process is not the only way to build a team — but this season should be judged largely on whether R.J. Barrett thrives, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina figure out what’s gone wrong for them and Mitchell Robinson adds more to his game than blocks and dunks. The elements are there for this team to be fun, and Julius Randle will look like a star — at least on offense — but barring significant development from several players, it’s hard to see the Knicks being good.
Key additions: Robin Lopez, Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews, Dragan Bender
Key subtraction: Malcolm Brogdon
As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo is around, the Bucks will be a top team in the East, but losing Malcolm Brogdon is quite a blow to the team’s offensive versatility. Soaking up Brogdon’s minutes with a combination of Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver is not ideal, but Milwaukee still has one of the deepest rotations in the conference and should be considered a legitimate contender for a finals appearance.
Key additions: Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, Justin Holiday
Key subtractions: Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph, Kyle O’Quinn, Darren Collison
Draft: Goga Bitadze (No. 18)
The Pacers were set to improve just because of Victor Oladipo’s return from an injury, but they scored a potential breakout star in Malcolm Brogdon, who had a 50-40-90 season as a starter for Milwaukee last year. Brogdon, who turns 27 in December, is on the older side for a fourth-year player, but he seems to fit well in Indiana’s culture. With good health, this team should be in for 50 wins and a decent playoff run.
Key additions: Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris
Key subtractions: Ish Smith, Wayne Ellington, Jon Leuer
Draft: Sekou Doumbouya (No. 15)
It was a bit of a triumph for Detroit to make the playoffs last season with a roster that doesn’t seem particularly modern, no matter how many 3-pointers the team attempts. Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin have found ways to work together in the frontcourt, and Reggie Jackson finally found some stability (only for the team to sign Derrick Rose to compete with him). But while the Pistons once again seem capable of a seventh or eighth seed, it is worth questioning the value of maintaining a roster that seems capable of little more than that.
Key additions: Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky, Luke Kornet
Key subtraction: Robin Lopez
Draft: Coby White (No. 7), Daniel Gafford (No. 38)
If they can stay healthy — a big if — both Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine could be All-Star-level players. Kris Dunn is looking like a bust, and expecting Wendell Carter Jr. to stay healthy in long stretches seems rash. But given how Otto Porter Jr. thrived after a midseason trade from Washington, there are reasons for a little optimism in Chicago.
Key departures: Channing Frye, Marquese Chriss
Draft: Darius Garland (No. 5), Dylan Windler (No. 26)
The Cavaliers were a moving target last season, using 27 players over the season, but all of the combinations they tried were bad. Hope for this season depends on better health for Kevin Love, more development from Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman, and a belief that Cleveland snagged something special in Darius Garland. Considered by some to be a Stephen Curry-like game changer in terms of shot selection, accuracy and ball-handling, Garland steps into a confusing backcourt with Sexton just as Curry did alongside Monta Ellis a decade ago.
Key additions: Jimmy Butler, Meyers Leonard
Key subtractions: Josh Richardson, Hassan Whiteside, Dwyane Wade
Draft: Tyler Herro (No. 13)
Jimmy Butler is an upgrade from Josh Richardson, at least in the short term, but is he an upgrade from Richardson, Hassan Whiteside and a first-round draft pick? Miami better hope so as it tries to build into something new in the post-Dwyane Wade era. Beyond Butler’s intensity, Miami should be intriguing based on how the team uses the versatile Justise Winslow, how it maximizes the shooting impact and brash confidence of the rookie Tyler Herro, and how much Bam Adebayo develops in his third season.
Key additions: Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe
Key subtractions: Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince
Draft: DeAndre Hunter (No. 4), Cam Reddish (No. 10), Bruno Fernando (No. 34)
The Hawks already had a promising young core with Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter, and they added to that by trading for the versatile Evan Turner and drafting one of the safer players in this year’s draft (DeAndre Hunter) along with one of its biggest boom-or-bust prospects (Cam Reddish). Things could take some time to come together, but Atlanta has the start of what could be a terrific team for a long time.
Key addition: Al-Farouq Aminu
Draft: Chuma Okeke (No. 16)
It seems clear what to expect from most of Orlando’s roster, with Nikola Vucevic being the best of the bunch while Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier provide versatility and consistency. The thing to watch will be the development of players like Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac, and also of the reclamation project Markelle Fultz, the former No. 1 pick, who has struggled from his first day in the N.B.A. Orlando’s picking up a contract option on Fultz, who has not appeared in a game since Nov. 19 of last year, was a bit of a surprise, but the Magic believe they were handed a lottery ticket in him and seem determined to find out if the numbers hit.
Key additions: Terry Rozier
Key subtractions: Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb
Draft: P.J. Washington (No. 12), Cody Martin (No. 36), Jalen McDaniels (No. 52)
The Hornets tried to justify throwing a king’s ransom at Terry Rozier by insisting that he would be a lottery pick if he were in this year’s draft. Debate that point all you want, but most lottery picks aren’t 24 and they don’t come with a price tag of just under $57 million for three seasons. The choice to not step up and pay Kemba Walker will most likely result in a fourth consecutive year of missing the playoffs in Charlotte, with no real optimism in the near future.
Key additions: Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith, C.J. Miles
Draft: Rui Hachimura (No. 9), Admiral Schofield (No. 42)
Otto Porter Jr. was traded away during the last season, and John Wall is expected to miss all or most of this season with an Achilles’ tendon injury, so Washington will live or die by Bradley Beal. Rui Hachimura is an intriguing prospect to watch, and he should bring plenty of attention Washington’s way as the highest-drafted player ever born in Japan. But the new Wizards front office may take a few years to sort out the mess Ernie Grunfeld left.