Wizards, Hawks, Bulls among NBA teams hoping to make leap in East this season
By Chad Smith
December 28, 2020
7:50 p.m. ET
The 2020-21 NBA season is filled with many uncertainties. The pandemic has forced everyone to be more fluid and accepting to changes made on the fly. When and where will James Harden be dealt? Does the Russell Westbrook experiment keep Bradley Beal in the Nation’s capital? Who benefits without fans in the stands? Heck, we don’t even have the full schedule of games for this odd 72-game season.
Questions surround every organization as they try to navigate their ships through this tropical storm. While many preseason predictions are fairly accurate, this season will be full of surprises. While the top teams in the Eastern Conference are well established, there are a handful of teams that will be vying to join them. Last year the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Pacers, Heat, 76ers, Nets, and Magic reached the postseason. Should a team like Orlando not get back to the playoffs, the door will be open for one of these three teams to get in.
It’s been four years since Atlanta made the playoffs. None of the players from that season are still on the Hawks’ payroll. The darling pick this season will be the revamped Hawks, who have added multiple dynamic players to their already talented roster. Two of their biggest additions were sharpshooters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. One of the objectives for the organization was to surround All-Star point guard Trae Young with elite shooters. Mission accomplished.
With shooters like Bogdan, Gallinari, and Young on the perimeter, the inside will be wide open for the bigs. Look for guys like John Collins and Clint Capela to feast in the paint. Capela is another new addition, after he was unable to play due to injury last season after being acquired from Houston in a four-team trade. He has already built up excellent chemistry with Trae in the preseason, catching lobs at the rim.
The guard rotation in Atlanta also had some major additions, headlined by two-time champion Rajon Rondo, who will be a vital veteran presence for this young roster. Another underrated signing was that of Kris Dunn, who is one of the best defensive guards in the league. Putting him next to Young in the backcourt will bode well for the Hawks as Young ranks as one of the worst defenders in the entire league.
The Hawks also added Onyeka Okongwu with the 6th overall pick in the draft. The strong forward from USC has a lot of potential, but finding him minutes early on could be a challenge. Atlanta already has returning players Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, and De'Andre Hunter who are all starting-caliber players. The roster is loaded, and there could be a log jam at virtually every position. To that end though, this is a deeply talented roster that should make their return to the playoffs this season.
Looking at it on paper, this could be the year that the Bulls take that next step and perhaps compete to reach the postseason. They have an elite offensive player in Zach LaVine, as well as several young pieces that should all be able to make the next progression in their careers. LaVine enters his seventh season after career highs in scoring, rebounding, steals, and blocks. His improvement on the defensive end of the floor is something that should propel this team in the right direction.
All eyes will be on Lauri Markkanen to take that next step and become a reliable second option in the offense. After a down year that saw his scoring, rebounding, free-throw shooting, and three-point shooting percentage drop, a bounce-back season seems highly likely.
Coby White had an outstanding rookie campaign, and should be able to do even more this year. While he is oozing with offensive talent, the All-Rookie point guard is vital in terms of their transition game. Much of Chicago's ceiling this season will depend on if White can avoid the dreaded Sophomore Slump that so many players experience.
The Bulls have a roster filled with their own guys. These are players they drafted, developed in house, and have molded over recent years. Expectations are high for forward Patrick Williams, whom the Bulls selected 4th overall in the NBA Draft. The physical tools are there, and it will be up to new head coach Billy Donovan to bring out the best in him. The arrival of an established and well-respected coach like Donovan should be enough to vault this team into the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Another team that hasn't gotten a taste of the playoffs in the past couple of seasons is the Washington Wizards. After losing John Wall to injury, it was often thought that the franchise would part with their star shooting guard Bradley Beal. In the end, though, it was Wall that was shipped out for a two-time MVP point guard.
Russell Westbrook may not be in his prime any longer, but he is still the same player that is going to give you everything he has on a nightly basis. For the first time in his career, he has an All-Star teammate that has the same mentality, hard work, and dedication that he does. Beal and Westbrook are cut from the same mold, which makes them one of the best backcourts in the league.
Much like the Bulls, the Wizards have been developing their young guys over the last few seasons and have a talented mix of players that should get them back into the playoffs. Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, and Troy Brown Jr are all quality starting-caliber players that are a force on both ends of the floor. Retaining the services of Davis Bertans was a huge deal for the team, keeping an elite shot-maker alongside Westbrook and Beal. Rookie Deni Avdija is also primed to get some valuable playing time this season, and has looked extremely good in the preseason.
It is no secret that Westbrook and Scott Brooks have a great relationship from their time in Oklahoma City. The two have reunited in the Nation's Capital where Brooks coached them to the playoffs in his first two seasons. That connection may be the secret ingredient that allows Westbrook and Beal to thrive in this system.