The Eastern Conference is a mess the Orlando Magic can take advantage of

The NBA is going quiet. With Summer League over, the league officially hits the snooze button for a while until the schedule comes out in mid-August, the World Cup in late August and the start of training camps in early October.

OK, the NBA will never be quiet. There are still some lingering issues left for the league to address. There are a couple of big trade requests still lingering in the ether plus a couple of restricted free agents that need to be addressed.

The Orlando Magic are pretty settled.

Despite some rumors suggesting the Magic are “monitoring” the Pascal Siakam situation — which was later reported to be “more noise than substance,” The Magic’s roster is set at 15 players with only two two-way spots left to fill. So at least there is a little more to do.

But everything is starting to fall into place. The picture in the Eastern Conference is starting to look a little clearer. And now that the offseason is mostly done, we can start thinking a little more clearly about what the 2024 season will look like.

And the Eastern Conference feels like it’s in a state of total flux.

The Orlando Magic hope to take a significant step forward this year based on their stability and internal growth. In a volatile Eastern Conference, that could help them climb the ranks quickly.

It feels like every team at the top has some crisis that they’re going through or some instability that they’re dealing with. It feels like the Eastern Conference is in a state of great flux. And young, up-and-coming teams like the Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers or Indiana Pacers could be ready to take their place among the consistent playoff teams and challengers.

It was certainly an off-season of change within the Eastern Conference, the ladder the Magic are ultimately trying to climb.

The Magic are certainly an optimistic bunch. They had the biggest increase in wins in the 2023 season from 22 to 34 wins. They spent the last three quarters of the season playing .500 basketball and were the last team to be eliminated from the playoffs.

No official will say Orlando’s goals for the year. Paolo Banchero made it clear when he accepted the Rookie of the Year award in May that he and his teammates felt the 2024 season was playoff or bust.

Magic management’s goal since the end of the season has been an extension of Jamahl Mosley’s “level up” offense. They just want to play better basketball next season. By that they mean cleaner, flawless basketball that takes the natural next steps and progression.

It’s not a call to make the postseason outright. But since you were the last team eliminated from the postseason, there’s only one place to go if you’re supposedly getting better.

At the very least, it indicates the low-pressure way the team is putting effort into the season.

Of course, climbing the rankings is also about your competitors. Magic could get better, but if everyone else gets better around them, they might not climb the ladder.

For that reason, it is important to look at the rest of the conference and the chaos that engulfs it.

The challengers

The Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the NBA regular season, but flamed out in the playoffs when Giannis Antetokounmpo hurt his back in Game 1 and had to miss time. The Bucks really showed their age, but resumed with Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez for another run with the same group.

The Boston Celtics finished second and rearranged their roster. They traded their heart and soul for Marcus Smart and added Kristaps Porzingis. The Celtics hope more consistent offensive threats help them finally get over the top. But no one knows what effect losing Smart will have.

It’s hard to say the Celtics got better, even though they still have their contender status.

The Philadelphia 76ers also remained mostly the same. They have kept Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris around MVP Joel Embiid. But the biggest question hanging over their heads is whether they will grant James Harden’s trade request. Harden has had rough seasons where he didn’t get the trade he wanted. But the Sixers are still contenders.

The Miami Heat were the 8 seed in last year’s playoffs, but they are clear title contenders given how much they’ve done in the conference finals at least, reaching two of the past three NBA Finals.

However, the Heat have a lot going for them with Damian Lillard making it clear that he wants to be in Miami and nowhere else. That can make it difficult for players like Tyler Herro to fully buy into what the team is doing. It could be a break in the heat culture.

Everyone at the top has some serious questions no doubt. But they are well anchored at the top. And that kind of chaos and constant pressure can be part of the fight for a championship.

There aren’t many teams knocking on the door to break into that top group.

Playoff safe bets

The Cleveland Cavaliers might be. They were the surprise team in the conference, finishing fourth. But their youth came to the fore in their series loss to the New York Knicks. They’ve had some questions about their two-pronged approach.

But they were a young team in their first playoff series, Cleveland ultimately made the right call to let them grow. And the addition of Max Strus for more shots should help them take their next step.

Beyond them?

The New York Knicks certainly benefited from the addition of Jalen Brunson, giving them a strong perimeter forward. But they faded after their last playoff run in 2020. It’s a veteran team that hasn’t proven it can advance in the postseason.

The Atlanta Hawks still have Trae Young and Dejounte Murray. But they traded John Collins and still have questions about what they will do with Clint Capela. This team could run its two bigs in Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu together. But there aren’t a ton of offensive weapons outside of the two guards.

Atlanta is resetting itself a bit while remaining competitive. But it feels like it’s the seven teams that will take postseason spots without much argument (although where they finish, especially the bottom two) is up for debate.

The Brooklyn Nets finished sixth largely on their frayed star power of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant before spectacularly blowing up. Mikal Bridges had a strong finish to the season, but this is a team that feels like it’s rebuilding.

Then again, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Ben Simmons could be enough to stay competitive for a play-in spot if Simmons can stay healthy. They still have a lot of veterans, and so this is not a team that quietly slips into the good night.

Then you have teams in decline like the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls still have plenty of star power in Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. They still claimed the last play-in spot last year, nearly defeating the Miami Heat to sneak into the postseason with a road win. This is still a capable team, even if they’re not going to do much more than compete up the middle — especially with Lonzo Ball out for the year again.

And the Raptors are also still capable with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby leading the way. Even though they lost Fred VanVleet (replaced with Dennis Schroder), the Raptors still have enough to compete if they stay healthy.

Keep moving forward

The point of all this is to say that every Eastern Conference team has questions. In fact, only the Cleveland Cavaliers can be seen as a team that is clearly on the rise.

The Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers are both young teams seemingly eager to grow — the Pacers likely missed the playoffs due to a lingering injury to Tyrese Haliburton. They are also clearly on the rise, betting on internal growth and the right veteran addition – Bruce Brown for the Pacers and Joe Ingles for the Magic.

The Magic and Pacers will be the teams competing to knock two of the above teams out of the playoffs next season. It looks like Brooklyn will lose its spot. Toronto or Atlanta could be other teams fighting to keep their spot.

But a lot can happen. And at the end of the day, a team has to look after itself.

Where there seems to be opportunity, Magic is stable. They have continuity and familiarity. Not to mention they have the potential to grow internally. Their best way to improve is for their players to improve.

That’s what the Magic are betting on in the end.

And if Orlando has that kind of growth, it’s easy to see them being able to break through in the playoffs. And from there, chaos can reign with how much of the Eastern Conference is in flux.

There is definitely a way for Magic to break a few levels very quickly.

  • Published on 18/07/2023 at 20:29
  • Last updated on 18/07/2023 at 20:29

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