The NBA is getting set to go quiet. With Summer League over, the league officially hits the snooze button for a little 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 does not ever go quiet. There are still some lingering issues left for the league to resolve. There are a pair of major trade requests still lingering in the ether plus a few restricted free agents to resolve.
The Orlando Magic are fairly settled.
Despite some rumors suggesting the Magic are “monitoring” the Pascal Siakam situation — that was later reported to be “more noise than substance,” the Magic’s roster is set at 15 players with just two two-way slots left to fill. So there is at least a little more to do.
But everything is starting to settle down. The picture in the Eastern Conference is starting to look a little clearer. And now that the offseason goings on are mostly done, we can start to think a little clearer about what the 2024 season is going to look like.
And the Eastern Conference feels like it is in a state of total flux.
The Orlando Magic are hoping to take a significant step forward this year based off 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 it is going through or some instability it is dealing with. It feels like the Eastern Conference is in a state of major flux. And young, up-and-coming teams like the Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers or Indiana Pacers could be poised to take their place among the consistent playoff teams and contenders.
It was certainly an offseason of change within the Eastern Conference, the ladder the Magic are trying to climb ultimately.
The Magic are certainly an optimistic bunch. They had the largest win increase in the 2023 season going from 22 to 34 wins. They spent the last three-quarters of the season playing .500 basketball and they were the last team eliminated from playoff contention.
No one official will say Orlando’s goals for the year. Paolo Banchero declared clearly as he accepted the Rookie of the Year Award in May that he and his teammates felt the 2024 season is Playoffs or bust.
Magic management’s goal since the close of the season has been an extension of Jamahl Mosley’s “level up” charge. They just want to play better basketball next season. By that, they mean cleaner, mistake-free basketball taking the natural next steps and progression.
That is not a call to make the postseason outright. But when you were the last team eliminated from postseason contention, there is only one place to go if you are supposedly getting better.
That sets forth at least the low-pressure way the team is putting stakes on the season.
Of course, climbing the standings is about your competition too. The Magic could get better but if everyone else gets better around them, they may not actually be climbing the ladder.
For that reason, it is important to look at the rest of the conference and the chaos that is engulfing it.
The Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the NBA’s 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 re-upped with Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez for one more run with that same group.
The Boston Celtics finished second and re-arranged their roster. They traded their heart and soul in Marcus Smart and added Kristaps Porzingis. The Celtics are hoping more consistent offensive threats help them finally get over the top. But nobody knows what effect losing Smart will have.
It is hard to say the Celtics got better although they still have their contender status.
The Philadelphia 76ers also mostly stayed the same. They have kept Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris around MVP Joel Embiid. But the biggest issue hanging over their head is whether they will grant James Harden’s trade request. Harden has had rough seasons when he did not get the trade he wanted. But the Sixers remain contenders still.
The Miami Heat were the 8-seed in last year’s Playoffs but they are clear title contenders considering how much of a home they have made in the conference finals at least and reached two of the past three NBA Finals.
The Heat though have a lot hanging over them with Damian Lillard making it clear he would like to be in Miami and nowhere else. That could make it hard for players like Tyler Herro to buy in fully to what the team is doing. That could be a fracture in the Heat culture.
Everyone at the top has some serious questions without a doubt. But they are well entrenched at the top. And that kind of chaos and constant pressure might come part and parcel of contending for a championship.
There are not many teams knocking on the door to penetrate that top group.
Playoff sure bets
The Cleveland Cavaliers might be. They were the surprise team in the conference finishing fourth in the standings. But their youth came to the front in their series loss to the New York Knicks. They have had some questions about their two-big 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 shooting should help them take their next steps.
The New York Knicks certainly benefited from the addition of Jalen Brunson giving them a strong perimeter attacker. But they faded after their last playoff run in 2020. That is a veteran team that has not proven itself able to 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 are not a ton of offensive weapons outside those two guards.
Atlanta is resetting itself a bit while it stays competitive. But it feels like these are the seven teams that will take postseason spots without much argument (although where they end up, especially those last two) is up for debate.
The Brooklyn Nets finished sixth largely behind their fraying star power with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant before it blew up spectacularly. Mikal Bridges had a strong finish to the season but this is a team that feels like it is rebuilding.
Then again, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Ben Simmons might be enough to remain 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 drifting quietly into that good night.
Then you have teams on the 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 that final 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 are not going to do much more than compete in the middle — especially with Lonzo Ball again out for the year.
And the Raptors are still capable too 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.
Teams on the rise
The point of all of this is to say that every Eastern Conference contending team has questions. Really only the Cleveland Cavaliers can be viewed of as a team clearly on the rise.
The Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers are both young teams seemingly eager to grow — the Pacers likely missed the playoffs because of an extended injury from Tyrese Haliburton. They are also clearly on the rise, banking on internal growth and the right veteran addition — Bruce Brown for the Pacers and Joe Ingles for the Magic.
The Magic and Pacers are going to be the teams competing to knock two of the above teams out of the playoff picture next season. It seems like Brooklyn will lose its place. Toronto or Atlanta may be other teams fighting to keep their spot.
But a lot can happen. And ultimately a team has to take care of itself.
Where there is seemingly opportunity then is the Magic are stable. They have continuity and familiarity. Not to mention they have the potential to grow internally. Their best way to improve is their players to get better.
That is what the Magic are betting on in the end.
And if Orlando does have that kind of growth, it is easy to see them being able to break through into the playoff picture. And from there, chaos might reign with how in flux much of the Eastern Conference is.
There is certainly a path for the Magic to break a few tiers very quickly.