The most intriguing player from each team in the Eastern Conference


This isn’t a ranking of the best players on each team, but rather a list of the players whose impact could drastically influence his team’s chances this season. 

We’re going in reverse order of the teams I think are likeliest to contend for the Eastern Conference crown.

Let’s ride!

Indiana Pacers – Bennedict Mathurin

The young backcourt of Tyrese Haliburton and Mathurin are about all that separates the Pacers from complete irrelevance entering the 2022-23 season. The sixth overall pick from Arizona, Mathurin plays with a serious chip on his shoulder and isn’t lacking for confidence. Check out what he told Ben Golliver of The Washington Post before the draft about facing LeBron James for the first time:

“A lot of people say he’s great. I want to see how great he is. I don’t think anybody is better than me. He’s going to have to show me he’s better than me.”

Who knew that a Pacers-Lakers game on Nov. 28 would be must-see TV? I’ll definitely be watching to see how LeBron treats the rook. But other than Haliburton, Mathurin and Timothy John McConnell stealing inbound passes, there won’t be many reasons to watch the Pacers.

Charlotte Hornets – LaMelo Ball

There’s only one answer here. Ball will put up lots of Twitter highlights and the Hornets will lose a ton of games. Outside of LaMelo, few teams in recent years have missed on more draft picks than Charlotte. This is a franchise trending in the wrong direction. 

Orlando Magic – Paolo Banchero

The Magic had a few guys I liked over the last couple of seasons, but now they have A GUY. 

From Day 1, Banchero will be the fulcrum of Orlando’s offense, allowing everyone else to move down a notch in the pecking order. The young frontcourt of Banchero, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. will be a problem, both this season and in the future. 

At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Banchero’s rare combination of physicality, skill and basketball IQ will make him one of the NBA’s most talented young players right away. I also like Jalen Suggs to have a breakout season at the point guard spot if his sprained left knee proves to be a minor injury. There’s a ton to be excited about in Orlando.

Detroit Pistons – Cade Cunningham

Cunningham wasn’t just the best rookie in the NBA after the All-Star break, he was one of the best 20-25 players, period.

Check out his stats after the break: 21.1 PPG, 6.5 APG, 5.7 RPG, 1.25 SPG — those are basically Jimmy Butler numbers.

We saw Cunningham’s second-half surge firsthand when he poured in 27 points to lead the Pistons to a win over the Sixers back on March 31. He used his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame to bully his way to the basket time after time. I love the way he plays at his own pace and probes his way into the paint while also getting his teammates involved.

Cunningham is going to be an All-Star in the very near future. It may come this season.

Washington Wizards – Bradley Beal

Beal is an excellent NBA player, probably one of the top 30 or 35 in the league. The problem is the Wizards are paying him like he’s Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Beal signed a five-year extension for $251 million this offseason, which might make some sense if the Wizards had built a title contender around him. Instead, the Wizards have a play-in contender, which is why it made precisely zero sense to pay Beal $50 million a year.

What’s the absolute upside for a team built around Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma? The six-seed, maybe? Of course, the downside is far, far worse. What if Beal starts to regress and he becomes untradeable at that salary? In my opinion, it made more sense to let Beal walk and start over, like Utah has done by trading Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. The Wizards are playing a very dangerous game and better hope that Beal plays like a superstar this season.

New York Knicks – Jalen Brunson

Playing alongside Luka Doncic in Dallas, Brunson proved that he was a starting-caliber NBA guard. Now, he’s expected to be the steadying presence that lifts the Knicks back into the playoffs. 

No pressure.

It’ll be fascinating to see how Brunson responds in a very different role than he had in Dallas. No longer a secondary playmaker, he’s going to be expected to be the lead ballhandler and facilitator, setting up RJ Barrett and Julius Randle while also creating his own offense.

Brunson is a proven winner, but this will be his toughest task yet. 

Chicago Bulls – Lonzo Ball

The vibes aren’t great right now in Chicago, where Ball is out to begin the season after knee surgery. If he misses significant time, it’s going to be up to Ayo Dosunmu, Coby White and Goran Dragic to hold down the point guard duties. 

Last season, the Bulls were 22-13 when Lonzo played and 25-27 when he didn’t, including a five-game “gentleman’s sweep” by the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The East has only gotten better. If Ball’s injury causes the Bulls to backslide, they may have a mountain to climb when he returns.

Toronto Raptors – Scottie Barnes

What will the reigning Rookie of the Year do for an encore?

Barnes’ multi-dimensional toolkit helped the Raptors thrive without Kyle Lowry, establishing a new era for Raptors basketball. If he stays at the same level, he’ll be an excellent player in Year 2. 

But if he takes a leap from his rookie statistics, we’re talking about a player who could average 18 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, while also guarding anyone and everyone on the opposing team. 

It’s also a potential contract year for Fred VanVleet, who can decline his player option for the 2023-24 season to become a free agent. If Barnes becomes the franchise player moving forward, it will be fascinating to see how Toronto builds around him and if VanVleet is part of the plan.

Atlanta Hawks – Dejounte Murray

After watching Trae Young get punked by the Miami Heat in the playoffs, the Hawks decided to get him some help in the backcourt, acquiring Murray from the Spurs for three future first-round picks and a 2026 pick swap. That’s a hefty price.

But the deal is done and now we’ll get to see how Atlanta plans to deploy their two All-Star guards.

Both Young and Murray played a ton of pick-and-roll on their respective teams last season. Will Young be OK ceding some of those on-ball possessions to Murray? 

The league leader in steals last season, Murray will undoubtedly help on the defensive side of the ball, where he can cover up for some of Young’s obvious deficiencies. The perimeter pairing of Murray and De’Andre Hunter has the potential to be dynamite defensively.

Cleveland Cavaliers – Donovan Mitchell

The Cavaliers rebuild went into overdrive last season with the All-Star ascensions of Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen combined with Evan Mobley’s instant impact as a rookie.

Now the Cavs add Mitchell, who averaged 25.9 PPG last season, adding some serious firepower and a proven playoff scorer. Now freed from his tension-filled partnership with Rudy Gobert, Mitchell gets a new lease on life playing next to a young, dynamic point guard in Garland. 

Mitchell’s defensive effort has been criticized in recent years and not without merit. To change that perception, he has to prove he’s more than just a scorer for a Cleveland team that gave up a ton to get him.

Brooklyn Nets – Ben Simmons

He’s back after missing all of last season and now we get to see if the theoretical fit of Simmons’ defense and playmaking alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving actually leads to on-court success.

Nothing I’ve read or seen tells me that Simmons will be a fundamentally different player than he was at the end of his Sixers tenure: an excellent on-ball defender and transition facilitator whose offensive ability is reduced drastically in half-court offense due to his refusal to shoot jumpers.

Of course, it’s how Simmons, his teammates (Durant in particular) and coaches all deal with his offensive limitations that will be so fascinating to watch.  

And I’ll have my popcorn ready on Nov. 22 when Simmons and the Nets come to town. 

Miami Heat – Kyle Lowry

It’s fair to say that Lowry’s initial season in Miami was underwhelming. 

His 13.4 PPG were his lowest since the 2012-13 season and you have to wonder if he’ll be the playoff difference-maker the Heat were banking on when he signed a three-year, $85 million deal prior to last season. He was largely a non-factor in last season’s playoffs, his effectiveness impacted by a hamstring injury.

After Miami lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Pat Riley said Lowry needs to be in better shape. Not surprisingly, Lowry bristled at those comments.  

Miami nearly made the NBA Finals with a hobbled Lowry. If he’s back to being the playoff performer he was in Toronto, the Heat will be a tough out again. 

Boston Celtics – Malcolm Brogdon

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both took a major leap last season, leading Boston to the NBA Finals.

But in those Finals, ballhandling and playmaking were the twin Achilles’ heels in the loss to the Warriors, as the Golden State defense clamped down and Boston ran out of answers.

Enter Brogdon, who averaged 19.1 points in Indiana last season and gives the Celtics a much-needed backcourt offensive threat alongside Marcus Smart. He’s also a career 37.6% three-point shooter who should see all kinds of open looks playing with Tatum and Brown.

The Celtics no longer have to depend on Smart or Derrick White for scoring, allowing those guys to settle into more natural complementary roles in the offense. 

Philadelphia 76ers – James Harden

The Sixers addressed their lack of depth. They addressed their self-proclaimed lack of toughness. The biggest question mark: What will they get out of James Harden?

It’s hard to forget the fact that Harden had more second-half turnovers than made field goals in the playoff series loss to Miami. He showed signs of brilliance in his brief Sixers tenure, but there were definitely times when he had trouble getting past his defender. 

Perhaps an offseason of continuity will help Harden and his Sixers teammates adjust to each other. We know the numbers will be there. He’ll be among the league leaders in assists. 

But will he be at his best when it really matters? 

The Sixers may never have a better chance to get to the NBA Finals in the Joel Embiid era. But it’s hard to imagine them getting there without Harden playing significantly better than he did in the Miami series last season.

Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo

As long as Giannis is healthy, the Bucks are my favorite to get to the Finals. But with the way Daryl Morey has improved the Sixers roster, it’s only a slight favorite.

Without his injured running mate Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo averaged 31.7 points, 14.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists in the playoffs last season, nearly willing Milwaukee past Boston until Grant Williams inexplicably morphed into Steph Curry in Game 7 to send the Bucks home. 

Like Embiid, Giannis always seems to add something to his game. If his three-point shot improves, he could become completely unguardable. It will be fun to see what he comes back with this season.

Antetokounmpo is the most dominant two-way force in the Eastern Conference, especially come playoff time. Embiid can take that title, but he still has to prove he can go deep in the playoffs. 

An Embiid-Giannis playoff duel with both players at their best? Sign me up right now!

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