Simply Ballin’s 2023–24 East Predictions & Rankings

Simply Ballin
12 min readOct 20, 2023

It’s my favorite time of the year before the NBA season starts. And that’s because of all the predictions heading into the new season.

This is the perfect time to get everything out so that once the season is over you can see how well you were right(or wrong) on a whole bunch of things. That’s always pretty fun to me, especially when the predictions are wildly different.

So, for this week, there will be a whole bunch of predictions — conference standings, team tiers based on the playoffs, awards, and any other predictions at the end.

Standing Predictions

First, we have the standings predictions. This isn’t who’s the better team or who’s more likely to win a championship. Regular season success is entirely different to what could be expected in the playoffs. There will be certain teams that may be ranked either much higher or much lower in the regular season but also be viewed differently once the playoffs come around. A team can be ahead of a team but have a lower playoff ceiling and vice versa.

  1. Boston Celtics(1–4 range)
  2. Milwaukee Bucks(1–4)
  3. Cleveland Cavaliers(1–4)
  4. Philadelphia 76ers(1–5)
  5. New York Knicks(4–6)
  6. Miami Heat(4–6)

Top 6

  1. Atlanta Hawks(7–12)
  2. Toronto Raptors(7–12)
  3. Indiana Pacers(7–12)
  4. Chicago Bulls(7–12)

Play-in

  1. Orlando Magic(9–12)
  2. Brooklyn Nets(9–12)
  3. Charlotte Hornets(13–15)
  4. Detroit Pistons(13–15)
  5. Washington Wizards(13–15)

I feel pretty comfortable in the standings for the East, especially when it comes to putting them in some sort of tiers. There are more certainties with the groups of teams that belong together.

The Celtics, Bucks, Cavaliers, and 76ers feel almost like a lock for the top-4 seed. They have all the things that you’d expect from teams that win in the regular season. At least with the first three, I don’t expect them to be any lower unless something huge happens with health.

The 76ers are a weird team to place at the moment because it all depends on who’s even on the team. The whole James Harden situation can change their season, but whatever happens with that, I’m confident in a Joel Embiid team being good in the regular season.

The Heat and Knicks round up the top-6 teams that are locked for the playoffs. I don’t think either team is getting close to the top-3 seed unless something bad happens there. But they also have separated themselves enough to not be much in the mix with the play-in teams

The whole play-in tier is a mess. There are six teams in that mix with the Hawks, Raptors, Pacers, Bulls, Magic, and Nets. I’d put the Hawks and Raptors comfortably at the top of this group, but wouldn’t be surprised if they also dropped. The other four teams, man, pick whatever order you want and that has a good chance of happening.

This whole section will be a very tight race that’s likely to go on until the end of the regular season.

The final three teams are your clear lottery teams — Pistons, Hornets, and Wizards. I don’t see any arguments for this team to be over any other team in the standings.

Tiers

Here are the team tiers. This is a different kind of ranking compared to the standing predictions. This is based on the team’s best-case scenario ceiling and it’s putting more emphasis in the playoffs.

Clear favorites: Bucks

This is a tier dedicated for the best of the best. I think these teams have done enough to separate themselves from the rest and are the clear favorites to win a championship. They pretty much check all the boxes that you’d want from a contender, have the fewest questions, and the biggest margin of error.

The Bucks have a top-3 player in the world. They are capable of having the best defense in the playoffs. They have a great #3 in Khris Middleton. They have one of the best drop-bigs in Brook Lopez. They have played around with making changes in their defense over the years. There’s a new head coach that can change things that will put them over the top. And, oh yeah, they have Damian Lillard now.

They replaced Jrue Holiday with a top-10 offensive player in the league. They combined the best player at generating the easiest look with the second-best shooter of all time. This is a match made in heaven. This also fixes a lot of the offensive issues they had in the playoffs.

With Holiday turning into Eric Bledsoe, their issue has always been a half-court offense. As good as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Middleton are, they’re not those types of ball handlers. Now, all of that is gone.

And any defensive issues likely don’t matter because I don’t see Lillard being so bad that it makes them that much worse. A guard isn’t turning a defense into one of the worst. And whatever drop there is, that offense is going to be something with those two.

With two talents like that, it’s hard not to have them as the favorites, especially when they still have plenty of other guys to go to and aren’t a liability on either end of the floor.

Top tier contenders: Celtics

A slightly lower tier than the favorites. They’re still legitimate contenders and check a lot of the boxes, BUT they have a couple more question marks or concerns. It shouldn’t be a significant issue to drop them lower but that does prevent them from being separated from the rest.

Then, we have the Celtics. Initially, I was a lot lower on them. I don’t think they addressed the issues that prevented them from winning and because of that I can see them being in the lower tier — and honestly, that’s what I’m doing as I’m writing this. Kind of a wild change to do so mid-writing but as I was getting my thoughts out on paper it made more sense.

I feel they have a similar issue to what Philly has with their top-end talent. Their issues come from the top. It starts with both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They have had and currently have a really good team outside of those two. It’s always said they have one of the best all-around teams on paper. And because of that, I think they just lacked something from their best players.

And in the off-season, they made plenty of changes by trading for Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday. That’s a significant change. I don’t think it addresses their main needs and what their issues were, but it’s a change that could pay off. Sometimes, these changes are what move teams over the hump.

It’s these improvements around the edges that make the Celtics a bit different on both ends that can help both Tatum and Brown. But that still leaves them with a bunch of questions. Because it’s new, because it’s different schemes on defense, and because it’s certain players playing in a different role, it means there are more potential questions for them. Out of all the contenders, I feel like they are one the more unknowns that could end up really well or end up pretty bad.

High ceiling, but a lot has to go right: Heat, Cavaliers, 76ers

This is a similar tier except these teams need a lot more to go right. They may have had a deep playoff run in the past or their ceiling is clearly that but there are either more questions needing to still be answered or even in a perfect world, they have a lower margin of error. One thing that also stops them from being in the upper tier is they may go on a deep run but may not entirely have a realistic chance at a title.

This might be too soon to place the Cavaliers here and I wouldn’t be opposed to having them lower until they prove it. The Cavaliers are really in this tier mainly because of the potential ceiling that they could have.

They were one of the best teams in the regular season, but completely fell apart in the playoffs. Their double big wasn’t as effective. Evan Mobely took a major step back compared to his regular season self. Jarrett Allen was severely outplayed by the Knicks bigs. Darius Garland had his debut in the playoffs. And Donovan Mitchell had quite a poor series. So many things went wrong for the Cavaliers.

But I don’t envision to be the case again. Mitchell isn’t that type of performer in the playoffs. I do think this was a massive blip instead of a common trend. He had an amazing season and I fully expect a real bounce-back in the playoffs.

That’s one of the things this hinges on. Then it’s Garland taking a step forward. It’s figuring out who the fifth starter is. It’s making the double big more effective in the playoffs. It’s fixing their offensive issues in the playoffs. It’s Mobley taking a leap or at least not dropping off in the playoffs. It’s him having the ability to play as the lone big in the playoffs.

There are many, many questions, but I also don’t see them be that unrealistic. But it’s the fact that they do have these many questions and need many things to go right is why they’re here.

When it comes to the 76ers, they’re in the tier regardless of what happens with James Harden. Whether he’s here or he gets traded, they’re in this tier. I don’t think this is a team issue. They have a solid team. Tobias Harris is a great #3. De’Anthony Melton is a good role player, and Tyrese Maxey is one of the best secondary ball handlers.

The 76ers’ issues come with both Joel Embiid and Harden. Their ceiling concerns start from the top. Can these guys take over late and not drop off significantly in multiple series in multiple games? There are also health concerns with them, which also lowers their ceiling. But even fully healthy, there are questions about their ability in a playoff setting.

And finally, we have the team that has made two finals in the last four years. It might feel strange then to have them in this tier. But that also comes down to their margin of error and the amount of things that they need to happen to even have a chance.

The Heat are one of those teams where they have a low floor(as seen last year with their shooting disappearing) but at the same time have a very high ceiling. That ceiling is in part because of Jimmy Butler being a top-10 player, having a top-3 defender in the playoffs, and being the best coach in the league. In each run, they did it differently. They can win in multiple ways but even in those ways, they needed so much to go right.

Whether it was last year with Butler playing like Michael Jordan in the first round and the Heat shooting over 40% from 3, and still had each game be competitive. Or the year before where Butler had to carry as much as he could and the defense had to be the best.

That’s a lot of pressure put on the team. There’s zero margin of error on either end and that means they have to compensate elsewhere.

But them doing this three times now matters. And for those reasons, I don’t think it’s unrealistic that they make another run.

Playoffs, but 2nd round at best: Knicks,

This is the first tier I can’t entirely see them making a push to contend for a title. It could be a team being too young, top-end talent needing more help, or not a good enough #1. Some of these teams are just a year too early or need that one piece to give them that jump. But given the implication of a play-in, some of these teams can also miss the playoffs as they battle one another there.

I do like the Knicks team. They were great in the regular season. They found what worked to have an elite offense with their offensive rebounding and elite isolation game from both Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle. I do believe that will still be a thing for the regular season and I can see that same approach and process work but the issues will come around again in the playoffs.

I don’t believe they have the top-end talent or the coaching to elevate them in the playoffs to make a deep run. Their way of making it past the second round also depends entirely on the right matchup.

They are the only team that fits his criteria. Everyone else above is either significantly better and are true contender or has more of a chance to make a deep run because of their top players.

Play-in mix & possibly 1st round: Bulls, Pacers, Raptors, Hawks, Magic, Nets

These are your first round exit teams at best, if they even make the play-in. They’re likely only making the playoffs because of the play-in and are probably just happy to be there. That’s the difference, as technically the upper teams could miss the playoffs because of the play-in their ceiling is higher than these but not good enough to be a playoff lock.

Six different teams in this tier. This is going to be a fun race in the play-in.

None of these teams are going to be as bad as the teams in the lower tier. But they also don’t have the ceiling to be any higher either. They are all just stuck in this middle fighting for the play-in where it could be all separated by a handful of games late in the season.

I would have both the Nets and the Magic at the lower end of this race.

The Nets completely changed their team post-trade deadline and they looked mediocre. They haven’t made any significant changes — it’s almost the exact same team. And because of that, I don’t know much faith I can have in a Mikal Bridges lead team. They should be good on defense but it’s the offense that will hurt any legit chance at competing.

The Magic are a young team but they have proven to be above your usual bad young teams. They were hovering around .500 when healthy. And when you consider the development of both Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero, it’s not wild to see that they could make a push. At the same time, development and growth aren’t linear, especially with young teams. Just because they made a jump last year to be that .500 team, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready for the next jump. And a jump in two players may not mean enough to offset everyone else because this team isn’t that great overall. There are still concerns on offense.

I feel the same about the Pacers and I think they’re almost in the exact place. The only difference is I think with Tyrese Haliburton already taking that big leap and getting better, they have a higher ceiling. Their offense was good already with him. Let’s also not forget that he played only 56 games — they definitely make the play-in with him healthy. And outside of Haliburton, they’re a much more rounded team than the Magic and the Nets.

If there’s any team I feel safe about is the Bulls, assuming they keep this team intact. With DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, and Alex Caruso, they are a good enough core to be constantly winning to be around .500. They have the continuity but this isn’t a team on the rise and getting better. I’d bet they’ll be in the exact place as they were last year.

That leaves us with the two teams at the top of this tier the Hawks and the Raptors.

I expect the Hawks to be better. I can see Trae Young not only having a bounce-back season but also a career year under Quin Snyder. With that happening, that should make the pairing with Dejounte Murray much more effective — the Hawks were better with just Young than with both. Then you combine that with Bogdan Bogdanovic coming back, who is key for them with everyone especially when Young goes to sit. Their offense should be enough to keep them in this mix but their defense will be what holds them back in the playoffs.

And finally, the Raptors. They’re another team that has been good and was better as the season went along after the Jakob Poeltl trade. I am high on Pascal Siakam and that could be better with the roster change. There’s still potential leaps in Scottie Barnes and the addition of Gradey Dick. But I’m also concerned with losing Fred VanVleet and replacing him with Dennis Schroder.

Most likely in the lottery: Wizards, Hornets, Pistons

Right at the bottom, you have the lottery teams. That’s their ceiling and are most likely not good enough to make a play-in push or may not even want to do so.

There’s not much to say about these three teams. They likely don’t have any playoff aspirations and will most likely end in the lottery.

The Wizards finally hit the blow-up button on their build by trading Bradley Beal. So, now instead of floating around mediocrity, they’ll be bad in the lottery. Seeing Jordan Poole drop 41 points in the pre-season, I think we can see what type of season they’re going to have. This is a rebuilding season focusing on Poole, Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija, and Bilal Coulibaly.

That same applies to the Hornets. They’re a young team, without much of a great core. They should be better, though. They will have LaMelo Ball for the whole season and the Hornets are a much better team with him on. But at the same time, there’s only so much Ball can do that will carry this team.

Finally, we have the Pistons who have plenty of young players. They will have their best player in Cade Cunningham and that will make a huge difference — just not a big difference in the actual wins column. The rest of the team is a whole bunch of young guys — Jaden Ivey, Ausar Thompson, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart, Marvin Bagley, and James Wiseman. Even with Cunningham, I can’t see this team winning much. They will be fun, though.

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