NBA Eastern Conference Preview: 2023-2024 Season | Inquirer Sports

NBA Eastern Conference Preview: 2023-2024 Season

/ Updated as of: 01:21 PM October 24, 2023

A thorough look at the Eastern Conference teams–from roster changes to expectations–ahead of the new NBA Season which opens on October 25 (Manila time).

East champion Heat try to rekindle that playoff magic

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra talks with guard Tyler Herro (14) during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, in Miami.

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra talks with guard Tyler Herro (14) during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Last season: 44-38, lost to Denver in NBA Finals.


Coach: Erik Spoelstra (16th season, 704-491).

What to expect: The defending Eastern Conference champions know their window for championships — at least with the roster as currently constructed — is now. Kyle Lowry is 37, Kevin Love is 35, and Jimmy Butler turned 34 last month as well.


There are some serious holes to fill as well, particularly in the area of 3-point shooting. Tyler Herro led the team with 203 makes from beyond the arc last season, but the No. 2 and No. 3 Heat players in that department a year ago — Max Strus (197) and Gabe Vincent (117) — now play elsewhere.

And 3-point accuracy was an issue for the Heat throughout the regular season, the team’s 34.4% clip ranked only 27th in the 30-team NBA.

But it is a team filled with players who know how to rise to playoff occasions; Butler was the best player in the league for long stretches of the 2023 postseason.

The question will be how Miami finds a way to bring its playoff success to the regular season.

Don’t forget that the Heat almost didn’t get to the playoffs at all; they lost the first play-in game to Atlanta and trailed Chicago late in an elimination game before Round 1, before beating the Bulls and then ousting Milwaukee, New York and Boston.

Departures: Vincent (Los Angeles Lakers), Strus (Cleveland), Victor Oladipo (traded to Oklahoma City and since traded to Houston).

Additions: Jaime Jaquez Jr. (draft), Thomas Bryant (free agent), Josh Richardson (free agent), Cole Swider (free agent).


Player to watch: Bam Adebayo. First, it’s time for Adebayo to be part of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. He can guard any position, doesn’t hunt blocks to pad stats and the numbers show how much better the defense-minded Heat are at that end of the floor when Adebayo is in the game as opposed to when he isn’t. His scoring has improved in every season; he averaged 6.9 points as a rookie and averaged 20.4 last season. Shooting dipped a bit in 2022-23, likely in part because he was taking more shots than ever before. Adebayo probably won’t be the go-to offensive option at the end of games, not with Butler and Herro in those roles, though that’s not what the Heat need from him. They run offense through him, let him bring the ball up from time to time and quarterback the defense. It’s not a flashy role, and that’s probably why he hasn’t gotten the attention he thinks he deserves.

Season opener: Wednesday at home vs. Detroit.

FanDuel Sportsbook title odds: 30-1.

With tons of youth and almost everybody back, Magic eyeing shot at playoffs

Banchero suggs magic nba

Orlando Magic’s Paolo Banchero (5) and Jalen Suggs celebrate during the first half of the team’s preseason NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Last season: 34-48, missed playoffs.

Coach: Jamahl Mosley (3rd season, 56-108).

What to expect: The Magic basically brought everybody back this season — eight of their top nine scorers in terms of total points — and most everyone who started a game.

A young team took big steps forward last season and now will be asked to do it again.

Expect Orlando to play fast, partly because having so much youth (no expected starter is older than 25) allows it and partly because the team has a ton of guards.

One very underrated move was bringing in veteran Joe Ingles over the summer, because now the young team has an older guy who’s been there and done that. Ingles is already showing his value on and off the court, directing traffic when he’s playing and essentially serving as a volunteer assistant coach when he’s not in games.

The schedule is tough right away, with eight of the first 13 games on the road (two four-game trips in that span) and two matchups against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first six games of the season.

It’s going to be difficult to move up in the East race, for certain, but anything less than a play-in appearance for this team will be a disappointment.

Departures: Bol Bol (signed with Phoenix over the summer), Michael Carter-Williams (team option not exercised), assistant coach Nate Tibbetts (just became coach of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury).

Additions: Joe Ingles (free agent), Anthony Black (draft), Jett Howard (draft).

Player to watch: Paolo Banchero. In fairness, there’s a lot of options here — Franz Wagner had a huge summer with the German national team on its run to the World Cup title — but if the Magic are going to reach the playoffs Banchero will have to be great. The league’s reigning rookie of the year met all expectations and then some last year, plus got high-level experience in the offseason by being part of USA Basketball’s World Cup team. Banchero shot only 29.8% on 3-pointers (take away a 1-for-38 stretch he had from late January to early March, and that number rises to 34%). If he’s better from long range this season, it could go a long way to helping the Magic reach the playoffs.

Season opener: Wednesday at home vs. Houston.

FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 500-1.

After trading Beal and Porzingis, Wizards face tough road back to respectability

Kuzma Poole Wizards NBA

Washington Wizards guard Jordan Poole (13) talks with Kyle Kuzma, left, during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Last season: 35-47, missed playoffs.

Coach: Wes Unseld, Jr. (3rd season, 70-94)

What to expect: Another season outside the playoffs, with possibly one of the worst records in the league.

The Wizards traded Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis in the offseason and overhauled their front office.

They did, however, keep Kyle Kuzma, and they added some interesting players in Jordan Poole and Tyus Jones.

Still, it’s hard to see this team being any better than last season, and there’s a chance the Wizards could be significantly worse.

Departures: Beal, Porzingis, Jordan Goodwin, Monte Morris.

Additions: Poole, Jones, first-round draft pick Bilal Coulibaly, Patrick Baldwin, Ryan Rollins, Jared Butler, Landry Shamet, Michael Foster, Mike Muscala, Danilo Gallinari, Eugene Omoruyi.

Player to watch: Poole seemed to have a bright future when he won a title with Golden State in 2022, but veteran Draymond Green punched him at practice during training camp last season, and although he went on to average 20.4 points, Poole wasn’t very reliable in the postseason as the Warriors went out in the second round. He can expect a significant role and a lot less pressure in Washington.

Season opener: Oct. 25 at Indiana.

FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: +50000

Cavaliers have Mitchell, young core looking to build on promising season ended by playoff failure

Donovan Mitchell Cavaliers NBA

Cleveland Cavaliers’ Donovan Mitchell (45) passes the ball in front of Orlando Magic’s Markelle Fultz (20) during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Last season: 51-31, reached Eastern Conference playoffs, lost to New York Knicks in first round.

Coach: J.B. Bickerstaff (fifth season with Cavaliers, 122-125; ninth season overall, 207-256).

What to expect: All-Star Donovan Mitchell’s arrival accelerated the Cavs’ rebuild and pushed them back into the postseason for the first time since 2018, when LeBron James headed to California.

The good vibes didn’t last, however, as the Cavs were bullied by the Knicks, who exposed Cleveland’s biggest weaknesses — physicality, outside shooting and depth. The Cavs spent the summer stewing over the early exit while making plans to stop it from happening again.

Entering his third season, forward Evan Mobley invested in a home gym and nutrition plan to add some needed muscle to his slender, 6-foot-11 frame. Mobley’s defensive game is on point. What the Cavs need is more offense (Mobley averaged 16.2 points) from the still-improving and still-growing 22-year-old.

Bickerstaff has promised his team will be more physical and play with a faster offensive tempo. That should mean an uptick in 3-point attempts and the Cavs signed Max Strus (37.1% on career 3s) and Georges Niang (40.3% on 3s) as deep threats whose mere presence can open the floor.

With Mitchell around, All-Star guard Darius Garland has had to morph into more of a playmaker than scorer. He’s still figuring out that balance.

Mitchell’s uncertain future with Cleveland will be a storyline until it’s not. Although he’s under contract for two more years with the Cavs, Mitchell has long been linked to his hometown Knicks. His decision not to discuss a contract extension this summer only fueled speculation he’ll eventually leave.

At some point, the Cavs may have to weigh moving Mitchell or risk losing him for nothing. That decision is still far off, but it’s imperative Cleveland starts well to stop the narrative from gaining traction.

Departures: F Kevin Love, F Cedi Osman, C Robin Lopez, F Danny Green, F Dylan Windler, F/G Lamar Stevens.

Additions: F Max Strus, F Georges Niang, F Tristan Thompson, C Damian Jones, G Ty Jerome.

Player to watch: Rookie F Emoni Bates. A tantalizing talent, the 19-year-old was among the most intriguing players in the draft — Cleveland took him at No. 49 — and his stock is rising. Bates has played well during the preseason, reinforcing the Cavs’ belief he can be a future rotational player. He’s signed to a two-way contract and will split the season between Cleveland and the G League Charge.

Season opener: Oct. 25 at Brooklyn before opening at home on Oct. 27 against Oklahoma City.

FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: +2400.

76ers count on MVP Joel Embiid, new coach as season arrives marred by James Harden turmoil

Joel Embiid 76ers NBA

Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during the first quarter against the Atlanta Hawks at the Wells Fargo Center on October 20, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images/AFP

Last season: 54-28, reached Eastern Conference semifinals.

Coach: Nick Nurse (1st season with 76ers; 6th season overall, 277-163).

What to expect: Headaches. The 76ers again reign as Team Turmoil. Only two years removed from watching former No. 1 pick Ben Simmons sit out and cause a roster disruption, the Sixers are at it again with James Harden.

All Harden did in the offseason was pick up a $35.6 million contract option only to then demand a trade.

When the Sixers couldn’t find a suitor, Harden called team president Daryl Morey a liar and vowed he would never again play for a team run by Morey.

Harden did report to the final days of training camp and practiced to meet certain contractual obligations before he skipped practices ahead of the preseason finale.

The 76ers can only hope reigning NBA MVP and two-time scoring champion Joel Embiid and guard Tyrese Maxey can keep them afloat under first-year coach Nick Nurse until the situation is resolved.

Departures: G Shake Milton, G Georges Niang, F Jalen McDaniels.

Additions: C Patrick Beverley, C Mo Bamba, F Danny Green, F Kelly Oubre.

Player to watch: Maxey. Let’s start with the caveat that Embiid is always the player to watch. The season will ultimately rest on which players — if any — they get for Harden and if Embiid can remain at an elite, healthy level. Without Harden, the time is right for Maxey to step into a pivotal scoring role and prove he can become the 2 in the 1-2 scoring punch. The 2020 first-round pick out of Kentucky did have his rookie deal extended so the team can save salary cap space for next season. Nurse said he wanted Maxey to play more as a downhill-aggressor and develop into a 3-point shooter when the looks are there. The 76ers believe Maxey can become an All-Star. Should he play anywhere near that level, the Sixers will have an easier time weathering the Harden storm.

Season opener: At Milwaukee on Oct. 26

Fanduel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 27-1

Knicks, after finally advancing again in the playoffs, bring back a team that can do it again

Jalen Brunson Knicks NBA

New York Knicks’ Jalen Brunson, right, dribbles against Minnesota Timberwolves’ Mike Conley during a preseason NBA basketball game, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Last season: 47-35, reached Eastern Conference semifinals.

Coach: Tom Thibodeau (4th season with Knicks, 125-111; 12th season overall, 477-357).

What to expect: Another playoff appearance, which would make two in a row for a team that hasn’t made consecutive appearances since three straight trips from 2011-13.

The Knicks are confident enough in their roster that they did little more than sign Donte DiVincenzo in the offseason, remaining largely the same as last season’s team that finished fifth in the East before beating Cleveland for New York’s first postseason series victory in a decade.

Like any team coached by Thibodeau, the Knicks will try to outwork their opponents and play tough defense, believing that if they do that, another season together for Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett will give them more than enough scoring.

The Knicks were already fourth in the league last season in offensive rating, measuring points per 100 possessions.

Departures: F Obi Toppin, G Derrick Rose.

Additions: G DiVincenzo

Player to watch: Barrett. Randle, an All-Star last season for the second time in three years, might be the Knicks’ best player. Or it could be Brunson, who was everything they could have hoped after coming from Dallas, even though his first season in New York was his first as a full-time NBA starter. But it’s Barrett’s play that often determines how good the Knicks can be. When the forward isn’t knocking down his 3-pointers or confidently attacking the rim with his left-handed drives, the offense stalls and too often the ball ends up stuck in Randle’s hands until late in the shot clock. The No. 3 pick in the 2019 looks poised for a strong season after helping Canada win the bronze medal in the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

Season opener: Oct. 25 vs. Boston

FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 46-1

Nets leave turbulent times behind, seek playoff spot behind blossoming Bridges and healthy Simmons

Ben Simmons Nets NBA

Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons (10) dribbles the ball up the court as Miami Heat forward Jamal Cain defends during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Last season: 45-37, lost to Philadelphia in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Coach: Jacque Vaughn (3rd season with Nets, 50-35; 6th season overall, 108-193).

What to expect: A lot less noise than last season, when drama was never far away until Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were shipped out just before the trade deadline.

The Nets held on to make the playoffs without them and are still good enough to get back again.

To do so, Mikal Bridges will have to remain the offensive force he was after coming from Phoenix in the Durant trade, averaging 26.1 points in 27 games.

And Ben Simmons will have to look like the player who was a three-time All-Star in Philadelphia, rather than the one who struggled last season while battling knee and back problems before being shut down after playing just half a season.

The Nets don’t have the firepower to simply outscore teams any longer, but believe versatile defenders such as Bridges and Simmons will allow them to capably guard anybody.

Departures: G Seth Curry, F Joe Harris, G Patty Mills, F Yuta Watanabe, G Edmond Sumner

Additions: F Lonnie Walker IV, G Dennis Smith Jr., F Trendon Watford, C Harry Giles III

Player to watch: Simmons. It’s easy to consider the Nets’ superstar era over, except Simmons is still paid like a star and the Nets hope he can still play like one. He never looked comfortable last season after missing the entire 2021-22 season, playing as a forward before falling out of the rotation and eventually not playing at all after the All-Star break. He says he is healthy and has regained his speed and strength, and expects now to regain his old position as a guard, where the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft played in Philadelphia.

Season opener: Oct. 25 vs. Cleveland.

FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 130-1

Pistons hope Cade Cunningham bounces back from injury-stunted season to lead young team to playoffs

Cade Cunningham Pistons NBA

Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham (2) goes to the basket against Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Last season: 17-65, missed playoffs.

Coach: Monty Williams (1st season with Pistons; 10th season overall, 367-336)

What to expect: If Cade Cunningham stays healthy, the three-time NBA champion can challenge for a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2019 to possibly end an embarrassing drought.

The Pistons have lost a league-record 14 straight games in the postseason since 2008.

Cunningham, the No. 1 pick overall two years ago, has not played since Nov. 9, 2022, when he was sidelined by a shin injury that was surgically repaired.

The savvy point guard leads a young team with shooting guard Jaden Ivey and post player Jalen Duren, the No. 5 and No. 13 picks overall in 2022, veteran scorer Bojan Bogdanovic and rookie wing Ausar Thompson.

Team owner Tom Gores made a bold move in a bid to spark a turnaround, hiring Williams, the 2022 NBA Coach of the Year, shortly after he was fired by Pistons season-ticket holder Mat Ishbia, who owns the Phoenix Suns.

Departures: Coach Dwane Casey, G Cory Joseph.

Additions: Williams, Thompson, G/F Joe Harris, G Monte Morris, G Marcus Sasser, the No. 25 pick overall in the draft.

Player to watch: Cunningham. USA Basketball chose Cunningham to join its select team to practice and scrimmage against its World Cup team, and he impressed everyone watching. The former Oklahoma State star was unanimously voted to the NBA All-Rookie first team for the 2021-22 season after averaging averaged 17.4 points along with more than five assists and five rebounds. Cunningham had increased his production during his injury-stunted second season that ended after just 12 games.

Season opener: Oct. 25 at Miami.

Fanduel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 500-1.

Healthy LaMelo Ball, Hornets look to surprise, snap 7-year playoff drought

LaMelo Ball Hornets NBA

LaMelo Ball #1 of the Charlotte Hornets gives a thumbs-up prior to the second half of the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Spectrum Center on October 15, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Matt Kelley/Getty Images/AFP

Last season: 27-55, missed playoffs.

Coach: Steve Clifford (2nd season back with Hornets, 27-55; 10th season overall, 319-400).

What to expect: With 2022 All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball and several other key players returning from injuries and off-the-court issues, the Hornets believe they’re ready to snap a seven-year playoff drought.

Ball is back on the floor after three ankle injuries in 2022-23, including a fracture in February, limited him to 36 starts last season. The Hornets believe he could be ready to take the next step toward becoming an elite NBA player.

Charlotte desperately needs Ball on the floor to have a chance in the improved East. He’s the triggerman for the offense. When Ball played last year he shined, averaging a career-best 23.3 points, 8.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game.

The Hornets averaged 6.8 more points per 100 possessions with Ball on the court — the best mark on the team. He plans to wear ankle braces this season in an effort to prevent more injuries. Ball is expected to start alongside SG Terry Rozier, SF Gordon Hayward, PF P.J. Washington and second-year C Mark Williams.

Coach Steve Clifford said Rozier and Hayward are coming off outstanding summers and could be in for big seasons. Hayward, in particular, should benefit from a summer where he could focus on improving his game rather than rehabbing from an injury as in years past. Rozier might benefit the most from having Ball on the floor, allowing him more opportunities to spot up and shoot the 3.

Washington is coming off his best season, when he averaged 15.7 points per game. He is an underrated defender but needs to improve his rebound numbers (4.9 per game).

Williams, a first-round pick in 2022 out of Duke, had a strong rookie season and has added about 15 pounds of muscle. The 7-footer has the instincts to be a formidable rim protector with 45 blocks in 43 games.

Miles Bridges will begin the season serving a 10-game suspension but is expected to be a major contributor.

Brandon Miller, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, has impressed Clifford with his basketball IQ and will have a role right away.

Cody Martin missed almost all last season with a knee injury, and the team is proceeding cautiously making sure not to rush him back. Martin is the team’s best perimeter defender and a key role player.

One player who may surprise is power forward JT Thor, who has made significant strides in his outside shooting.

Departures: G Kelly Oubre Jr., F/C Kai Jones, SG Svi Mykhailiuk, PG Dennis Smith Jr.

Additions: PF Miles Bridges, SF Brandon Miller, PG Frank Ntilikina.

Player to watch: The big question entering the season surrounds how much the Hornets will get out of Bridges, who missed all last season while dealing with a domestic violence charge. Bridges still has some ongoing legal issues after being booked last week for violating a protection order. It’s unclear if that could lead to further discipline from the league. The Hornets need him on the floor to be a playoff team. Bridges led the Hornets in scoring two years ago, averaging 20.2 points along with 7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. Ball and Bridges displayed remarkable chemistry when they played together two years ago and Charlotte was eighth in the league in offensive rating. The Hornets were last in the NBA in offensive rating last year with Bridges sitting out.

Season opener: Host Atlanta Hawks on Oct. 25.

FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 500 to 1

Celtics embracing title expectations after roster shake-up in busy offseason

Jrue Holiday Celtics NBA

Jrue Holiday #4 of the Boston Celtics dribbles during the second half of the Celtic’s preseason game against the New York Knicks at TD Garden on October 17, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/AFP

Last season: 57-25, lost to Heat in Eastern Conference finals.

Coach: Joe Mazzulla (2nd season with Celtics, 57-25)

What to expect: The Celtics didn’t stand pat after coming up a game short last season of making back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals.

Instead, Boston was one of the busiest teams this offseason.

It started when the team did what was previously unthinkable and shook up its core, trading defensive specialist Marcus Smart, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and big man Robert Williams III in a flurry of activity that netted it 7-footer Kristaps Porzingis and five-time all-defensive selection Jrue Holiday.

It’s created a win-now mentality and a formidable top 6 anchored by All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who inked the richest contract in NBA history in July. They should get plenty of support backed by Holiday, Porzingis, Derrick White and veteran Al Horford.

There’s also been tweaks on the sideline, with sophomore coach Joe Mazzulla adding assistants Charles Lee and Sam Cassell. It all again makes the Celtics one of the favorites to come out of a stacked Eastern Conference.

Departures: G Marcus Smart, G Malcolm Brogdon, F Grant Williams, C Robert Williams III, F Blake Griffin.

Additions: G Jrue Holiday, C Kristaps Porzingis, F Jordan Walsh, F Oshae Brissett.

Player to watch: Tatum. The 25-year-old is coming off a season that included a fourth straight All-Star selection and career averages in points (30.1), rebounds (8.8) and assists (4.6). But it wasn’t enough to help his team get over the hump to capture a championship. He’s added almost 20 pounds in the offseason and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens got him a natural point guard in Holiday who should be able to put the team in better situations late in games. Still, ultimately it will be Tatum who must become the on-court and vocal leader for this group if Boston plans on raising banner No. 18.

Season opener: Oct. 25 at New York Knicks

FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 4-1

Quin Snyder hopes high-scoring Hawks, led by Trae Young, will decide to play defense

Trae Young Atlanta Hawks NBA

FILE – Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks reacts after a three-point basket against the Boston Celtics during the first quarter at State Farm Arena on March 11, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/AFP

Last season: 41-41, lost in six games to Boston in first round of playoffs after beating Miami in play-in tournament.

Coach: Quin Snyder (2nd season with Hawks, 10-11; 10th season overall, 382-275).

What to expect: Snyder’s late-season hiring provided him with an opportunity to learn the roster but no chance to implement his system. This season will be his first opportunity to truly put his mark on the team.

Like other Atlanta coaches before him, Snyder is asking for a stronger commitment on defense.

“It doesn’t matter what the game plan is, defense has to be a decision,” Snyder said.

The players didn’t listen to the message from Nate McMillan, who was fired in February. McMillan couldn’t repeat the winning formula he found in leading the Hawks to the 2021 Eastern Conference final.

Once again, the players’ commitment to defense in Snyder’s first full season appears to be the key to Atlanta being more than an also-ran in the East. The Hawks have a strong collection of shooters, led by Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter.

By trading John Collins to Utah, Hawks GM Landry Fields created room for Onyeka Okongwu, Jalen Johnson, Saddiq Bey and AJ Griffin to play bigger roles.

The Hawks agreed to a $120 million, four-year extension with Murray in July. The deal preserved his role beside Young as the team’s backcourt scoring leaders and keeps Murray on the roster for five years, through the 2027-28 season.

Fields has confirmed the Hawks will remain open to make another move. The trade of Collins created a $25.3 million trade exception which can be used to acquire a player in a future deal within a year.

Departures: Collins, SF Tyrese Martin

Additions: G Patty Mills, G Wesley Matthews, F-C Bruno Fernando, PF Mouhamed Gueye, SG Seth Lundy, PG Kobe Bufkin

Player to watch: Johnson could be the player who emerges at forward as Okongwu will see significant time behind center Clint Capela. The 6-foot-8 Johnson, the No. 20 overall pick in the 2021 draft, has shown flashes of being an explosive scorer, and his potential could have helped convince Fields to trade Collins. “Really, the progression of Jalen gave us a lot of hope,” Fields said at the start of training camp. “We’re excited for his growth this year.”

Season opener: at Charlotte Hornets, Oct. 25.

FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: +13,000

Bucks counting on Lillard’s arrival to assure they avoid another unexpected playoff exit

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, right, high fives Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard (0) before the start of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in Oklahoma City.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, right, high fives Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard (0) before the start of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sarah Phipps)

Last season: 58-24, lost to Miami Heat in first round of Eastern Conference playoffs.

Coach: Adrian Griffin, first season.

What to expect: The Bucks could need some time to adapt to the wholesale changes they made after their stunning first-round playoff loss.

That could make it difficult for the Bucks to post the NBA’s best record again, but they should be one of the league’s top contenders as they chase their second championship in four years.

The acquisition of seven-time all-NBA performer Damian Lillard to pair with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo gives Milwaukee arguably the league’s top duo.

Three-time All-Star Khris Middleton and 7-footer Brook Lopez will join them in the starting lineup after both chose to stay in Milwaukee rather than leaving as free agents. Lopez made the All-Defensive team last season. Middleton played just 33 games due to multiple injuries and underwent knee surgery in the summer.

Candidates for the fifth starting spot include newcomer Malik Beasley, Pat Connaughton and 2022 first-round pick MarJon Beauchamp.

Jae Crowder, who joined the Bucks at last season’s trade deadline is back and could have a bigger role with a new coaching staff. The Bucks fired Mike Budenholzer after their playoff exit and replaced him with Griffin, a first-time head coach who was a Toronto Raptors assistant the last five seasons.

Departures: G Jrue Holiday, G Grayson Allen, PG Jevon Carter, G Goran Dragic, G George Hill, F Joe Ingles, C Meyers Leonard, F Wesley Matthews.

Additions: Lillard, Beasley, G Andre Jackson Jr., C Robin Lopez, G Cameron Payne, G TyTy Washington.

Player to watch: All eyes will be on Lillard as he plays for a different team after spending the last 11 seasons with Portland. The Bucks see him as the piece that can help bring them another title iafter two straight early playoff exits. They’ll need the 33-year-old guard to stay healthy. He played just 29 games due to an abdominal injury in 2021-22 and was limited to 58 games last season while dealing with a calf strain.

Season opener: Oct. 26 vs. Philadelphia 76ers.

FanDuel Sportsbook title odds: Nearly 5-1.

Pacers begin season chasing a playoff berth instead of biding time to rebuild

Indiana Pacers NBA

FILE – Buddy Hield #24, T.J. McConnell #9, and Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Indiana Pacers celebrate in the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on January 06, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Dylan Buell/Getty Images/AFP

Last season: 35-47, missed playoffs

Coach: Rick Carlisle (7th season with Pacers, 241-251; 22nd season overall, 896-793 )

What to expect: All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton took one big step last season and another this summer at the FIBA World Cup. Now, he’s ready to take the Pacers on a new journey — back to the playoffs.

Haliburton realizes the fastest way to end a three-year postseason absence is for the Pacers to improve defensively. And with their deepest, most talented roster in years they just might.

Ten players on the roster were first-round picks. Guard Andrew Nembhard was the first pick in the second round in 2022. Buddy Hield and Obi Toppin, both college national players of the year, are expected to play key roles while Oscar Tshiebwe, the 2021-22 college player of the year, plays primarily in the G-League.

But after spending the past two years near the bottom of the league in scoring defense, the Pacers have gone all-in on a fix. They signed two-time NBA blocks champion Myles Turner to a contract extension last winter and added versatile defender and, NBA champion Bruce Brown in free agency.

They acquired Toppin in a deal with the New York Knicks and spent their first two draft picks on defensive-minded players in forward Jarace Walker and guard Ben Sheppard.

It’s not just quantity. The Pacers have quality depth, too, with veteran point guard T.J. McConnell, first-team all-rookie guard Bennedict Mathurin and Hield, one of the league’s top 3-point specialists. Isaiah Jackson, Aaron Nesmith, Jordan Nwora and Jalen Smith all have shown they can fill useful roles.

Will it be enough to make the playoffs, end a franchise-worst nine-game postseason losing streak and take their first playoff series in a decade? Haliburton believes it is.

Departures: F Oshae Brissett, G Chris Duarte, G George Hill, F James Johnson, F Terry Taylor, G Gabe York.

Additions: G/F Bruce Brown, G Ben Sheppard, F Obi Toppin, F Jarace Walker.

Player to watch: SG Bennedict Mathurin. He came off the bench most of last season but still made it into the rookie of the year conversation. This year, Mathurin has bulked up, spent the summer working on defense and may be the starter from opening day. If he develops the way Indiana believes he will, the Pacers could look like a very different team.

Season opener: Oct. 25 vs. Washington.

Fanduel NBA title odds: 260-1.

Bulls try to rely on improvement from within after keeping core group intact

DeRozan LaVine Bulls NBA

DeMar DeRozan #11 and Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls speak during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on March 20, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images/AFP

Last season: 40-42, reached play-in tournament.

Coach: Billy Donovan (4th season with Bulls, 117-119; 9th season overall, 360-276).

What to expect: The Bulls opted for continuity coming off a disappointing season that ended with a play-in loss to Miami, and kept their core intact rather than start rebuilding. They’re banking on improvement from within to rise in the Eastern Conference.

But it’s a steep climb to the top, with Damian Lillard now teaming with Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and Jrue Holiday going from the Bucks to Boston.

The Bulls stuck with stars Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan rather than trade them and kept Nikola Vucevic off the free-agent market by agreeing to a three-year, $60 million extension.

They also retained guard Coby White (three years, $40 million) and added backcourt depth by signing Milwaukee’s Jevon Carter (three years, $20 million).

The two were competing for the starting point guard spot with Lonzo Ball recuperating from a cartilage transplant on his left knee and out for the second year in a row. Ayo Dosunmu was also in the mix.

White, drafted by Chicago with the No. 7 overall pick in 2019, averaged career lows of 9.7 points while playing 23.4 minutes last season. But he showed improvement in his decision making.

Carter gives the Bulls a tough perimeter defender and outside shooting they sorely lacked. Chicago was last in the NBA in 3-pointers made and attempted. They’ll need more than promising flashes from Patrick Williams in his fourth season.

A jump by Dalen Terry — last year’s first-rounder — would help, too. LaVine came into camp healthy, a change from last season when he was slowed after offseason knee surgery.

Departures: G Patrick Beverley.

Additions: Carter, F Torrey Craig.

Player to watch: Williams. Is this his big leap year? The 6-foot-7 Williams has averaged 9.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in his career. But the flashes he has shown suggest he is capable of more.

Season opener: Host Oklahoma City on Oct. 25.

Fanduel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 130-1.

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