Predicting the 2021-22 Eastern Conference standings, playoffs

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For the first time in a long time, the Eastern Conference no longer looks like the little brother of the West.

The East has quality depth we haven’t seen in it in years, and there will be good teams fighting it out in the play-in tournament. All of which makes predicting the Eastern Conference standings and playoffs a challenge — little things and the inevitable injuries will mean major shakeups in the standings.

Here are the NBC Sports NBA writer predictions for the East this season (the Western Conference and Finals prediction will come tomorrow).

Kurt Helin

Regular Season standings
1. Bucks
2. Nets
3. Heat
4. Hawks
5. Celtics
6. 76ers
7. Knicks
8. Bulls
9. Pacers
10. Wizards

Playoffs first round:
Bucks over Bulls
Nets over Knicks
Heat over 76ers
Celtics over Hawks

Playoff second round:
Bucks over Celtics
Nets over Heat

Eastern Conference Finals:
Nets over Bucks

The Nets and Bucks are the class of the East, on their own tier above everyone (and if Kyrie Irving returns and that situation gets sorted out, the Nets are on their own level above the Bucks). After that, things get harder to predict. I see Miami as a clear third-best playoff team in the East and a threat to the top two if things break right, but Miami may be better built for the playoffs than the marathon of the regular season (meaning, they could finish lower than third).

The 76ers are nearly impossible to predict because of the Ben Simmons situation — I still expect him to get traded mid-season — but they could finish anywhere from third to seventh. Can the Hawks turn that playoff run into regular season magic? I expect a step back from the Hawks and the Knicks (even though New York is better, the East just isn’t going to break for them the same way this season). Boston is poised for a bounce-back season, but can that bounce get them into home court in the first round of the playoffs?

I also may be too low on Toronto; when Pascal Siakam returns, the Raptors could push into the postseason. Same with Charlotte. Chicago looked good in the preseason, but I’m still not sold on the defense.

Dan Feldman

Regular Season standings
1. Bucks
2. Nets
3. Hawks
4. Heat
5. 76ers
6. Celtics
7. Knicks
8. Pacers
9. Bulls
10. Wizards

Playoffs first round:
Bucks over Pacers
Nets over Knicks
Hawks over Celtics
Heat over 76ers

Playoff second round:
Bucks over Heat
Nets over Hawks

Eastern Conference Finals:
Nets over Bucks

The Nets and Bucks are a class of their own. Milwaukee has a stronger identity, especially with Kyrie Irving out. But if Irving returns, Brooklyn’s top-end talent could be overwhelming.

The 76ers are a huge wildcard. How much will Ben Simmons help them? Or will he just disrupt chemistry? What will he return in a trade? When? I have Philadelphia in a tier with the Hawks and Heat.

The Raptors are right with the Bulls and Wizards in jockeying to reach the play-in tournament. Washington will withdraw from the race only if it seems Bradley Beal will leave in unrestricted free agency and gets traded first. Even if competitive, Toronto could choose to step back in pursuit of loftier goals.