Could the NBA’s 2022-23 season recreate one of the most thrilling Eastern Conference races ever?

Last season, the East bracket was so tightly packed that the Nos. 1 through 10 seeds were separated by just 10 games. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that was the closest for any conference since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77.

And according to the latest edition of ESPN Summer Forecast, we might get something similar — at least near the top.

How many wins does our panel project for the defending conference champion Boston Celtics, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Miami Heat — the four teams that battled for East supremacy all last season?

Where are we placing the Brooklyn Nets, home to the offseason’s biggest drama surrounding the futures of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving?

Are the New York Knicks back in the playoff hunt? Which mid-tier teams will miss out on the play-in tournament? Who’s still rebuilding?

Our expert panel is predicting the win-loss records for all 15 teams in the East.

Note: Our 2022-23 NBA Summer Forecast will continue Tuesday with our Western Conference standings predictions.

Eastern Conference standings

The contenders

1. Boston Celtics: 54-28

2. Milwaukee Bucks: 54-28

3. Miami Heat: 51-31

4. Philadelphia 76ers: 50-32

5. Toronto Raptors: 47-35

6. Atlanta Hawks: 46-36

Note: Boston finished percentage points ahead of Milwaukee in our panel’s projections.

Last season’s Summer Forecast saw two teams that played a knockdown, dragout seven-game series in the East semifinals projected to finish with the best two records in the conference, and to be the favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals. Instead, neither made it past the second round.

Will the same hold true this time around?

The Celtics and Bucks, fresh off Boston edging out Milwaukee in a seven-game thriller in the East semis en route to Boston’s first NBA Finals appearance in 12 years, finished tied atop ESPN’s Summer Forecast with matching projections of 54-28 records.

The forecast broke the top six in the East into three clear tiers: Milwaukee and Boston at the top; Miami and Philadelphia in the middle; and Toronto and Atlanta at the bottom.

Boston, after struggling to score in what became a six-game loss to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, sought to change that this offseason when it landed guard Malcolm Brogdon in a trade with the Indiana Pacers and forward Danilo Gallinari in free agency — all while keeping its top eight players from last year’s postseason run intact.

The Celtics are now arguably the NBA’s deepest team and should have the ability to withstand the rigors of the 82-game season — particularly given stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are only just beginning to enter their respective primes.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, still sports the best player in the universe in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who nearly took out the Celtics with a herculean performance in that second-round series. Milwaukee, already a bit of a top-heavy team behind Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, will now have to spend at least the opening weeks of the season without Middleton after he underwent offseason thumb surgery.

That wasn’t enough, however, to put Miami and Philadelphia in the same tier. The Heat, despite losing P.J. Tucker in free agency (to Philadelphia) were picked to finish third — one game ahead of the much-improved 76ers, who not only retained James Harden but added Tucker, Danuel House and De’Anthony Melton. Tucker and House will provide more shooting around Harden and superstar center Joel Embiid.

For Toronto, it was an offseason of continuity, with Chris Boucher and Thaddeus Young retained in free agency. There is excitement that reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes can take another step forward and that a resurgent Pascal Siakam can do the same after a huge bounceback season last year.

Atlanta, meanwhile, made one of the bigger swings of the summer in sending three first-round picks to the San Antonio Spurs for All-Star guard Dejounte Murray, setting up what could be a potentially devastating backcourt combination of Murray and Trae Young.

— Tim Bontemps

The play-in group

7. Cleveland Cavaliers: 45-37

8. Chicago Bulls: 44-38

9. Brooklyn Nets: 40-42

10. New York Knicks: 39-43

No team in this group — or the league — has more question marks than the Nets right now: What will happen with Kevin Durant? How would Brooklyn handle another year of the Kyrie Irving experience? Can Ben Simmons return to an All-Star level after missing over a year?

On paper, the Nets could be strong once again if Durant and Irving stick around — especially with Joe Harris returning after ankle surgery — but that might be the biggest “if” in the NBA.

Cleveland, meanwhile, took major strides last season behind the rise of Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley — and appears primed for another step. The Cavs almost found a way into the playoffs a year ago and have the talent to make a stronger push this year. This group also should be boosted by Collin Sexton returning after missing a majority of last season because of a torn meniscus.

In Chicago, Zach LaVine got his max deal — but that was about the only major move the Bulls made this summer. Signing veterans Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic will fill out coach Billy Donovan‘s bench, but it won’t get the Bulls any closer to breaking into the top tier of the East. Aside from DeMar DeRozan‘s ability to recreate his magical 2021-22 season, the Bulls face major questions regarding the health of Lonzo Ball‘s knee and young big man Patrick Williams‘ ability to take another step in his career.

Things might be looking up for Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks squad after they landed free agent guard Jalen Brunson, and chatter continues surrounding the prospects of Donovan Mitchell heading to Madison Square Garden via trade.

But it remains to be seen just how much better this team got over the summer. The Knicks hope Julius Randle can regain his All-Star form and that R.J. Barrett and young players, such as Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, continue to develop for a team that had high expectations heading into last season.

— Nick Friedell

The bottom five

11. Charlotte Hornets: 38-44

12. Washington Wizards: 34-48

13. Detroit Pistons: 28-54

14. Orlando Magic: 23-59

15. Indiana Pacers: 23-59

Note: Orlando finished percentage points ahead of Indiana in our panel’s projections.

Missing the playoffs and play-in tournament altogether, would be a massive disappointment for both Washington and Charlotte, but the Eastern Conference continues to get stronger and deeper while neither team made convincing enough offseason moves for our panel to consider them serious play-in contenders.

After losing in the play-in tournament in back-to-back seasons, the Hornets finished just behind the Knicks in our panel’s projections, a projected step back for a franchise still searching for its first playoff berth since 2016. Charlotte appears to be heading into the season without key contributors Montrezl Harrell and Miles Bridges from last year’s team without adding much to replace them.

The Wizards, meanwhile, are hoping the duo of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis will be productive enough to keep them out of this group and give the team some direction after a meandering over past few seasons.

The Pistons and Magic might find their end result similar to last season, but neither team expects to be down here for much longer after reaching critical points in their rebuild this summer. Detroit found its franchise player in 2021 No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham and continued adding to its budding core with 2022 lottery picks Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren.

Even if the Pistons do not make the play-in, they should be a more competitive team that adds to its win total from last year.

Orlando is hoping for the same trajectory. The Magic hope to have found a franchise player, 2022 No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero, to add to a mix of intriguing young players, including Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony and Wendell Carter Jr.

And although the Pacers are fresh off one of their worst seasons since the early ’80s, the bottom might not have completely fallen out in Indiana. They traded guard Malcolm Brogdon in the offseason and appear to be shifting toward a full rebuild, which means more players could be on the way with the Pacers in full asset collection mode.

— Jamal Collier

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