Autumn has arrived, and with it the return of NBA arguments. Not about trades or player legacies or offseason photos, but actual, honest-to-goodness debates about the standings and championship chances and the players who will take the court for another 82-game season very soon.
But after a long offseason, you might not be in top shape just yet. Bar debaters and Twitter reply guys need training camp, too. We’re here to help you prepare by offering one key stat to know for every team as it enters the 2022-23 season. Check back next week for the West. For now, here is one key fact or figure that will help explain every Eastern Conference team’s prospects this season, for better or worse. Teams are listed in order of their over-under win totals from FanDuel.
Boston Celtics: 15.2
It’s something of a surprise to see the Celtics atop the over/under list, with the best title odds of any team. Coach Ime Udoka is suspended for the season. Robert Williams III is hurt again. Al Horford is 36 years old and coming off a 2,820-minute season.
But Boston was just so dominant over such a large stretch in 2021-22 that it’s hard to doubt its on-court potential this season. From January 23 on, the Celtics outscored their opponents by an unfathomable 15.2 points per 100 possessions, with garbage time removed, per Cleaning the Glass. Over that span, the Celtics led the league in offensive rating (120.6 points per 100 possessions). They led the league in defensive rating (105.4, with no other team below 110). And they led the league in winning percentage (.800, or a 28-7 record).
That’s not just excellence—that’s sustained supremacy for nearly half a season. And with Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum still leading the way, Boston is poised for another impressive season, even accounting for ample regression from the plus-15.2 figure.
Milwaukee Bucks: 29.5
The Bucks’ average age in the playoffs, weighted by minutes played, was 29.5 years old, tied for the highest mark (with the Nets) among all 16 playoff teams. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as older teams are usually better than younger teams; last season, eight of the 10 oldest regular-season teams reached the playoffs, while just three of the 10 youngest did.
But this figure hints at a reason for some urgency with this Bucks squad, which could surround Giannis Antetokounmpo with four starters in their 30s. Top reserve Pat Connaughton will turn 30 in January. And they didn’t get any younger this offseason, as top free-agent acquisition Joe Ingles is in his 30s, too.
As long as Giannis is under contract and healthy, the Bucks will contend for championships. But it’s unclear just how long his supporting cast will remain this good. Brook Lopez, for instance, was injured for most of last season and less effective when healthy. Khris Middleton took a minor step back, too—understandable, given that he’d played through July the previous season and then immediately went to the Olympics—and now he’s hurt. The Bucks are in win-now mode for a reason.
Brooklyn Nets: 19
Lost amid all the drama—about vaccinations, about trade demands, about Ben Simmons—is one simple fact: The Nets are a very good basketball team when Kevin Durant is healthy. Last season, the Nets were 36-19 when Durant played, versus 8-19 when he didn’t—the same number of losses in half as many games.
The Nets ultimately fell to the play-in round and a first-round date with Boston because they couldn’t remain afloat without Durant, but if their winning percentage when he was healthy had persisted over the full season, the Nets would have landed the East’s no. 1 or 2 seed. Imagine how different the narrative around the team would be now, if the Nets had landed a top seed and started their playoff journey against an easier opponent.
That’s not to say the roster is exactly that good now, or that Durant—who hasn’t played more than 55 games in a season since 2018-19—will last this whole season. But the potential remains, and tantalizes.
Philadelphia 76ers: 1.15
The 76ers enjoyed a quietly excellent offseason, adding quality depth pieces in De’Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker. But if they’re going to finally break through to their first conference finals since 2001, the star duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden will have to carry them.
After last season’s trade deadline, the pair quickly put to rest any short-sighted concerns that they couldn’t play together. In the regular season, the 76ers scored 1.15 points per possession when a Harden-Embiid pick led directly to a shot, according to Second Spectrum—the fourth-best mark out of 53 pairings with at least 400 picks. And despite Harden’s well-documented struggles in the playoffs, that figure actually increased to 1.24 points per possession in the postseason. Essentially, as long as Harden and Embiid are on the floor, the 76ers should be able to get buckets whenever they want.
Miami Heat: 90.3
All season long, even as the Heat kept pace for the no. 1 seed amid a slew of injuries, the question hovering over the team was whether it could score enough to beat the best playoff defenses. The answer came in the negative: Miami managed only 90.3 points per 100 half-court plays in the playoffs, per CtG; only the Bulls and Bucks were worse.
Part of the problem was that Boston’s defense against Miami in the conference finals was ferocious (there’s a reason Milwaukee ranked so low, too). But Miami’s roster also had issues: Tyler Herro struggled mightily in the playoffs, Duncan Robinson fell out of the rotation, and Kyle Lowry, dealing with various issues, never looked like himself in his first season in Miami.
Reinforcements didn’t arrive in the offseason, and the core issue with Miami’s roster construction—that its two best players, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, don’t shoot 3s—remains. Barring a breakout season from Herro, it’s unclear how the Heat will fix this fatal flaw in 2022-23.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 60.4
Across the entire NBA last season, players made 65 percent of their shots at the rim, per CtG. But against the Cavaliers, that figure was only 60.4 percent—the stingiest mark for any team. The explanation is obvious: In Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, Cleveland boasts two of the league’s best rim protectors, who also happen to be younger than 25 and ready to bring the Twin Towers look back to the NBA.
Allen (6-foot-10) and Mobley (6-foot-11) have already proved they can play together, and if the latter improves his jump shot in his second season, Cleveland’s two-big lineup will thrive on both ends. As is, the addition of Donovan Mitchell should jump-start an offense that often devolved into Darius Garland isolations down the stretch—and with Allen and Mobley protecting the paint on the other end, any defensive stumbles from the offensively inclined Garland, Mitchell, and Caris LeVert won’t matter.
Toronto Raptors: 95.3
BBall Index tracks a stat called “defensive versatility,” which measures “how often players spend on defense guarding players of different positions.” The scale goes to 100, with 100 representing the most versatile defender possible, who finds an even split defending each position 20 percent of the time.
Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes posted a versatility score of 95.3 out of 100 last season—the highest mark for any player with at least 1,500 minutes. And OG Anunoby wasn’t far behind; Barnes’s teammate—who led the league in this metric in 2020-21—ranked fourth with a defensive versatility score of 88.1. Under head coach Nick Nurse, the Raptors play a unique style, with one of the weirdest, longest rosters in the NBA. Just about everyone can play just about anywhere, at any time.
Atlanta Hawks: 3,729
This giant number is how many on-ball picks Trae Young received last season, per Second Spectrum, which led the league by a wide margin. Luka Doncic (3,357) was the only other player above 3,000. That placement wasn’t new for Young; in fact, the All-Star point guard has led the league in picks received in all four years of his career.
Nobody in the league is involved in more on-ball actions than Young, so it will be fascinating to see how the Hawks incorporate Dejounte Murray into the offense. Young is a better shooter than Murray, so in a vacuum, it might make sense to cede more screens to Murray and use Young to stretch the defense by spotting up. But after spending his entire career to this point playing one way, can Young—no matter the rosy prognostications at media day—adjust when it counts?
Chicago Bulls: 116.8
At their best last season, the new-look Bulls roster was full of players who complemented each other perfectly. DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic could score in the half court, while Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball pushed in transition. Those first three players could focus on offense, while Ball and Alex Caruso paced the defense. The planets all aligned for a short time, as the Bulls ran out to the no. 1 seed in the East.
Then Ball and Caruso suffered injuries, and it all fell apart. Now, eight months after undergoing knee surgery, Ball’s return date is up in the air because he still can’t move without pain and needs another knee surgery. That’s terrible news for the Bulls’ chances in a competitive conference. Last season, the Bulls allowed 108.2 points per 100 possessions with Ball on the court and an ugly 116.8 without him, per CtG. Over the full season, only the Rockets and Trail Blazers were worse than that latter figure.
The Bulls will at least have Caruso, who missed a lot of time as well. But given just how much needed to go right to stay balanced last season, they’re in real danger of falling out of the playoff field if one of their defensive anchors misses much of another season.
New York Knicks: 4,697
The Knicks won’t be good this season. But they will be different. Here’s how: In returning starters Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, and offseason signees Jalen Brunson and Isaiah Hartenstein, the Knicks have four lefties in the rotation. Last season, that quartet combined for 4,697 points. Only one other team has even half as many returning left-handed points.
Sweet-Scoring Southpaw Squads
|Team||2021-22 Points||Top-Scoring Lefties|
|Team||2021-22 Points||Top-Scoring Lefties|
|Knicks||4,697||Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Jalen Brunson|
|Kings||2,670||De'Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis|
|Rockets||1,868||Kevin Porter Jr., Jae'Sean Tate|
|Jazz||1,498||Mike Conley Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt|
|Clippers||1,452||Luke Kennard, Amir Coffey|
Even better, all four Knicks southpaws play different positions, meaning with just one more acquisition, Tom Thibodeau could trot out a realistic five-lefty lineup. So go trade for Mike Conley Jr., Knicks! Go rescue Killian Hayes from Detroit! Go sign Isaiah Thomas! It’s the least you can do to stand out this season.
Charlotte Hornets: 700
The Hornets used a zone defense on 700 possessions last season, per Second Spectrum—the second-highest total in the league, behind only the tanking Trail Blazers’ 749. While some teams use the zone as a strategic weapon, like the third-place Heat, the Hornets did so as a last resort, because their base man-to-man defense was so porous. Surrendering 132 points in a play-in loss was the coup de grace for an abysmal defensive season.
Other than rookie center Mark Williams, Charlotte didn’t add any players in the offseason who might solve this glaring problem—and even Williams might not be able to help, given the difficulties most non-Mobley big men encounter upon first entering the league. New (and old) coach Steve Clifford has his work cut out for him if he wants to improve Charlotte’s balance to help the team take another step forward.
Washington Wizards: 30
The Wizards have more modest goals than the teams above them, so they get a simpler stat, too. But this figure is no less important for the franchise’s long-term success: Last season, Bradley Beal made just 30 percent of his 3-pointers—and then he signed a five-year supermax extension over the summer.
Beal’s slump may well have been a fluke, the product of injuries and a small sample size (he played only 40 games) that also sent his points per game tumbling from the low 30s to 23. But the Wizards had better hope that’s the case, because any slippage from a highly compensated guard could set the franchise’s cap sheet back for years, just as John Wall’s extension did last decade. Forget the development of young players and maybe competing for a play-in spot. The most important story line for the Wizards this season is whether Beal can find his shooting stroke again.
Detroit Pistons: 50.4
Cade Cunningham will probably be an awesome NBA player. At just 20 years old, last year’s no. 1 pick averaged 17 points, six rebounds, and six assists per game and seemed to improve as the season progressed. After adding Bojan Bogdanovic and exciting rookie Jaden Ivey over the summer, the Pistons and Cunningham could be a sneaky play-in contender as soon as this season.
Yet there was one giant warning sign about Cunningham’s rookie year: As an uneven shooter (31 percent on 3-pointers) who rarely got to the free throw line (just 2.6 attempts per game), he was a terribly inefficient scorer. Out of 41 qualified players last season with at least a 25 percent usage rate, Cunningham ranked 40th in true shooting at 50.4 percent. (Only the Clippers’ Reggie Jackson was worse.) And among his fellow high-usage rookies over the last dozen years, sorted by TS%, Cunningham slots a lot closer to the likes of Collin Sexton and Dion Waiters than the actual superstars on the list.
High-Usage Rookies Over the Last 12 Seasons
|Dennis Smith Jr.||47.3%||28.9%|
This one stat doesn’t mean that Cunningham’s career is doomed, and he already boasts supplementary skills that the likes of Waiters never developed. But his sophomore season will go a long way toward demonstrating whether he’s likely to ever be the no. 1 scoring option on a contender.
Orlando Magic: 2012
This number is important for the Magic because 2012 is the last time their offense ranked in the top half of the league in efficiency. That summer, of course, the Magic traded Dwight Howard, and in the decade since, their offensive rating each year has ranked, per CtG: 27th, 29th, 27th, 17th, 28th, 25th, 22nd, 21st, 29th, 30th. Last year’s Magic ranked last—even with a delightful rookie campaign from Franz Wagner—because they didn’t make 3s, didn’t get to the line, and didn’t rebound their own misses; they also turned the ball over at a high rate. Nothing went right for the offense.
But now, no. 1 pick Paolo Banchero arrives, with potential bursting at his jersey’s seams. The Wagner-Banchero–Wendell Carter Jr. frontcourt could be great. At the very least, it shouldn’t rank last on offense again.
Indiana Pacers: 25
The Pacers won only 25 games last season—their worst total since the mid-1980s, soon after Herb Simon bought the franchise. Before last season, they hadn’t won fewer than 32 games in a season since the ’80s. So even though Indiana boasts the lowest over-under in the Eastern Conference and is tied for the second lowest in the NBA, one wonders just how far it’ll go to tank when that has never been the modus operandi.
Even last season, when the Pacers traded Domantas Sabonis, they still acquired in return Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield, who could help the team retain at least a semblance of competitiveness on a nightly basis. But now, the Pacers have two of the top trade targets around in Hield and Myles Turner, who is in a contract year. Will Indiana dive into a total tank, when the return would center around picks that won’t convey for another three to five years? It’s weird to say about a team expected to lose 50-some games again, but the answer could swing the 2022-23 title race.