Are the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls the future of the Eastern Conference?

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This season, the Eastern Conference shapes up to be a showdown between Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Joel Embiid. Two long and athletic teams that know how to defend. Both have questions — how will the losses of Jimmy Butler for the Sixers and Malcolm Brogdon for the Bucks impact them? — and there are teams like Boston and Indiana hanging on the fringes trying to get in the conversation, but the East is shaping up as a two-team race at the top.

The other question in the East: Who’s got next?

The Bucks and the Sixers are relatively young, they should be at the top for years, but what young teams are on the rise in the East and look like they could be coming for the Bucks and Sixers in a few years?

Atlanta and Chicago.

There’s a long road still to travel still, and plenty that can derail these teams, but the Hawks and Bulls have the potential to make that elite status. Let’s look at them.

ATLANTA HAWKS

Talent wins in the Association, and for Atlanta it all starts with the potential of Trae Young and John Collins. In our summer rankings series of “The 50 Best Players in Five Years” series, we ranked Collins 24th in the NBA and Young 10th in the summer of 2024. NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh put it this way:

“I made the declaration earlier this summer that Collins and Young ould be this generation’s Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. I stand by that. Collins may not be as strong and polished offensively as Stoudemire, but they play with the same force around the basket. Every time Collins dunks, you wonder what the basket ever did to him to deserve that assault.”

Young plays with a flash and style you just can’t take your eyes off of. He has shooting range out to the parking lot, impressive and improving handles, and the kind of court vision that cannot be taught. He must become a better defender, he’s got to score more efficiently around the rim, and the calls for him to be an All-Star in his second NBA season, at age 21, may be jumping the gun, but Young is poised to be one of the faces of the league.

The chemistry with Young and Collins can be everything for this team, and the foundation of a contender.

Around them they have Kevin Huerter as a potential long-term backcourt mate with Young, they added a solid young center who suddenly could hit threes last season in Alex Len, and on the wing they drafted a couple of guys with potential in DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish, hoping at least one of them develops into the No. 3 guy next to Collins and Young. (A lot of teams were not as high on Hunter as the Hawks heading into the draft, but Reddish could be a steal at No. 10.)

Those young players have landed in one of the best player development systems in the NBA — that’s why Lloyd Pierce was brought in as coach last season, and he delivered. He has found a great balance of letting guys learn and accountability, the kind of tough-but-fair teacher everyone respected in school. The Hawks are building something that feels real and lasting.

Is this the year they make the leap? Last year they had 29 wins, and the usual trajectory would have the Hawks mid-30s this season, which in the East likely keeps them on the fringes of the playoff chase most of the season. But a leap is coming, one up above .500. Maybe this season, more likely the following season, but it’s coming. The potential trajectory for this team looks like a rocket to the moon.

CHICAGO BULLS

Let’s be upfront here: I have less faith the Bulls eventually can reach the upper echelons of the NBA than I am the Hawks, and the primary reason is I don’t trust fully GarPax in the front office. Yes, they have built an impressive young team with potential, but if I told you in four years the front office had screwed up the chances, would anyone really be shocked?

But make no mistake, this team has potential.

That starts along the frontline — Lauri Markkanen is very good at basketball. He averaged 18.9 points a game and nine rebounds a game, shooting 36.1 percent from three, all at age 21. He’s entering his third NBA season and we could see a leap in his game. Next to him is second-year man Wendell Carter, who averaged 10.3 points and seven rebounds a game, and more importantly, was the kind of rim protector any good team needs in the modern NBA. Together, that’s a very good frontcourt of the future, one that fits the modern game.

Scoring on the wing comes in bunches from Zach LaVine, who showed he more than a dunk contest guy. He took more than five threes a game and shot 37.4 percent, he is a good passer who keeps the ball moving, and is at least trying on defense. Next to him is a quality wing in Otto Porter, who averaged 13.9 points per game last season, shot 40 percent from three, and could become a free agent next summer (although don’t bet on him opting out of $28.5 million).

The point of the future will be Coby White, who has a world of potential but it’s going to take a few years of work to get there.

This summer the Bulls made two pickups that — in my mind — will vault them into the playoffs this season. One is point guard Tomas Satoransky, who Washington let walk (one of their confusing moves) and will be the guy that knows how to start plays, hit threes, defend, and just go get a bucket now and again when they need it. He played well for stretches with the Wizards when John Wall was out. The other quality pickup is Thaddeus Young, who was critical to the Pacers’ defense last season, plus he just is a glue guy on the offensive end who can be a backup four and give them quality minutes (don’t be shocked if he closes games for Jim Boylen at times).

The Bulls have a young but reasonably well-rounded roster, and while they won 22 games last season they could be in the high 30s this season and pushing for a playoff spot in the East. It’s a big leap.

Bulls fans hope just one of many.