Keytron Jordan/CBS Sports

The 2022-23 NBA season has arrived. The regular season kicks off Tuesday night with a TNT doubleheader: The Philadelphia 76ers at the Boston Celtics, followed by the Los Angeles Lakers visiting the Golden State Warriors on ring night. Below are 50 Eastern Conference storylines to watch as the season gets underway. Don't worry we didn't forget about the Western Conference storylines, but for now let's get into that beast that is the East. 

1. Parity!

You'd need a microscope to differentiate between at least five teams that are honest threats to claim the No. 1 seed and/or win the conference title. The Celtics, Bucks, Sixers, Heat and Nets are title contenders. The Cavaliers might not be far off. The Hawks expect to jump right back in the thick of things. Forget about the Raptors at your own peril. Throw the Bulls in if you'd like. This is pretty much anyone's conference. 

2. James Harden 3.0

First Harden was a rising star. Then he was a superstar. Now, the Sixers just need him to be a regular-old All-Star, which he should be more than capable of being. Even if Harden has lost a step (or three), he still drew a foul on almost 23 percent of his shot attempts in his time with the Sixers, which crests even his Houston rates, and his playmaking remains elite. In 21 games with the Sixers, Harden posted 1.16 points per pick and roll, per Synergy. That ranked in the 94th percentile league-wide, appreciably higher than the likes of Stephen Curry, Trae Young and Chris Paul

3. Nets last dance?

The Lakers are clearly planning to keep enough cap space to go after Kyrie Irving next summer. If Irving goes, particularly without a trade package coming back to Brooklyn, Kevin Durant putting that trade request back on the table becomes a pretty plausible next step. It feels like this could be a 1997-98-Bulls-style last dance for the Durant-Irving duo. 

4. Celtics on shaky ground

I don't believe Ime Udoka's suspension will completely uproot Boston's season. There's too much talent and cohesion on the roster. But it's a razor-thin line between at least six teams that figure to be at the top of the Eastern Conference. A coach making a three- or four-win difference, one way or another, is significant. It's not just the coaching situation Boston is trying to navigate. Robert Williams III, who would've been my DPOY pick if he was healthy, could be sidelined for up to three months, if not more depending on how his recovery goes, after having to undergo yet another surgery on the left knee in which he tore his meniscus last March. 

5. Bucks have a score to settle

You wouldn't blame the Bucks if they quietly believe they were robbed of an honest shot to defend their 2021 title. Brook Lopez only started 11 games last season. Khris Middleton missed all but two playoff games. Still, the Bucks, who were 37-10 last season when Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday were active, and blitzed opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions when those three shared the court, took Boston to seven games in the conference semis and had a chance to end that series at home in six. Milwaukee has every reason to believe it's still the best team in the league at full strength. 

6. Donovan Mitchell in The Land

Mitchell, the engine behind the No. 1 offense in the league last season, brings scoring viability to an offense that ranked 20th league-wide. The flip side is hiding small/bad defenders has become increasingly problematic in the postseason, where the Cavaliers intend to be. Unless Mitchell turns his 6-10 wingspan and top-tier athleticism into the kind of defense he's always been capable of playing, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are going to be doing a lot of covering up for their backcourt and the Cavs could have to choose between offensive and defensive lineups. 

7. Will Knicks make a trade?

New York didn't get Donovan Mitchell, and you can just feel them itching to make a deal. Who knows who will become available, or when, but the Knicks have eight trade-eligible first-round picks, young assets in Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes (was he really worth holding up the Mitchell deal?), plus potential salary fillers in Evan Fournier and, potentially, Julius Randle, though coaxing someone into taking that contract won't be easy. 

8. Joel Embiid takeover

Embiid has finished runner-up to Nikola Jokic in the last two MVP races. Does he get over the hump this season? He'll need to play north of 65 games again. If he does, it's hard to think of five better players in the league. The man shot 37 percent from 3 last season on almost four attempts per game. He got to the free-throw line almost 12 times per game, converting at an 81 percent clip, and led the league with 158 total clutch points while shooting 46 percent from 3 (11-for-24) in five-point games with fewer than five minutes to play. If he stays healthy, he'll be right at the top of the MVP race again. Speaking of ...

9. Tatum enters MVP race

Tatum finished sixth in last year's voting but was never a legitimate threat to win the award. If the Celtics can weather this coaching debacle and finish with a top-three seed, which I believe they'll do, that just might be the adversity narrative that Tatum -- who has upped his usage, points per 100 shot attempts and assist percentage each of the last three years -- needs to start gaining legitimate buzz. 

10. Ben Simmons in a sweet spot

Simmons doesn't have to be a primary scorer or creator in Brooklyn. Instead, he can be a lethal cutter and quick DHO initiator as his defenders sag. If he's finally ready to commit to a secondary role, he should be a virtually indefensible short roller with the shooters Brooklyn can put around the arc and two of the most lethal scorers in history running pick and roll, all while allocating even more of his energy to being an elite defender/pace pusher in the two-way/grab-and-go spirit of Draymond Green

11. Heat still on?

Losing PJ Tucker was a big deal, and Miami didn't replace him. Kyle Lowry might be starting down a steep decline. I'm done doubting Jimmy Butler as a Tier 1 superstar (there aren't many players I'd rather have on my side in a playoff series), but look at the East. It's stacked. The Heat are going to be good, but did they keep pace with the top of the conference as the only one of the bunch that not only didn't add a significant piece to the roster it fielded in last year's playoffs (unless you want to count healthy Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry coming back, which you wouldn't necessarily be wrong to do), but in fact lost one. 

12. LaMelo Ball's finishing

LaMelo Ball, one of just five players to average 19 points, seven assists and six rebounds, was an All-Star in his sophomore season. He was a top-10 assist man and shot 39 percent from 3 on 7.5 attempts per game. Where does the improvement need to happen? Hopefully in the finishing department. Like his brother Lonzo, LaMelo struggles to convert at the rim, where he connected on just 54 percent of his shots last season, per Cleaning The Glass, ranking in the bottom 20 percent among point guards. 

13. Atlanta's backcourt

We know what Trae Young and Dejounte Murray do well. The question is whether they can add up to more than the sum of their deficiencies. Has GM Travis Schlenk done enough to cover for Young's defense with Murray and De'Andre Hunter? With Young running the show, can Murray be a shooting threat that defenses won't abandon? Last season Murray shot just 32 percent on 3-pointers and 34 percent on all catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy. Young will get him good looks. Can he convert?

14. Jaylen Brown All-NBA

For as great as Brown has become, I still think there's another level in him. The ball-handling/air-brained turnovers can clearly get better, and his 35 percent 3-point number can get back closer to the 40 percent he shot in 2020-21. If Brown, who shot the lights out in the preseason, can get to the free-throw line a bit more (4.8 FTAs per game last season) and raise his free-throw conversion rate from 75 percent to 80, both marginal asks, we're looking at a 26-27 point per game scorer and an All-NBA guy. 

15. Cade Cunningham, Year 2

Cunningham's increasingly impressive rookie campaign culminated in a historic March when he joined Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to average at least 22 points, seven assists and five rebounds for an entire month. The next step for Cunningham is to solidify his shooting stroke. Cunningham operates often in the paint and short-midrange, but he only connected at a 37-percent clip from the latter range. Combine that with a 31 percent 3-point clip, and it adds up to a very inefficient 101 points per 100 possessions, per CTG. 

16. Paulo Banchero era begins

If you thought Banchero going No. 1 overall over Jabari Smith and Chet Holmgren was a risky move, his Summer League showing, while brief, did much to alleviate your concerns. Banchero is a pro-ready scorer who's going to put up numbers immediately, which positions him as the Rookie of the Year favorite, but he's more than that. At 6-foot-10, the guy can flat-out play with the ball in his hands -- playmaking, handling, it's all there. Orlando's Banchero-Franz Wagner-Wendell Carter Jr. front-court is one of the more interesting yet under-discussed trios in the league. It should be the foundation of what is starting to look like a promising Magic future. 

17. Cleveland's twin towers

Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are both top-shelf defenders. Mobley, already a terrific help defender, is supremely mobile and athletic and Allen is an elite paint protector; last season opponents made just 41.6 percent of their shots when defended by Allen, the same mark as Rudy Gobert. All told, when Mobley shared the court with Allen last season, the Cavs sported a defensive rating of 105.7. For perspective, the Celtics led the league with a 106.6 D-rating. 

18. Scottie in charge

Toronto plans to buck convention this season and have Scottie Barnes (and fellow wing Pascal Siakam) initiate more offense with traditional point guard Fred VanVleet playing more off-ball. Why? Because Barnes -- who posted a 71st-percentile 1.35 points per possession in the restricted area last season, per Synergy -- puts more pressure on the rim, while VanVleet, who managed just 133 restricted-area shots all of last season, is a top-end catch-and-shoot guy. Barnes can really pass, and the hope is that VanVleet's spacing improves Toronto's half-court offense, which ranked 26th last season, per CTG. 

19. Bulls ripe for regression

The Bulls won 25 clutch games last season, the third-most in the league. According to Inpredictable, DeMar DeRozan led the league with 165 clutch buckets at a remarkable and probably unrepeatable 61-percent clip. It won't take much of a dip in these tight games for a team that actually finished with a negative point differential to plummet. Now factor in Lonzo Ball's absence -- which is open-ended beyond the Bulls saying they're confident he'll play at some point this season -- and Chicago is ripe for regression. Last season, the Bulls defended on par with the No. 2-ranked Warriors when Ball was on the court, and the 28th-ranked Pacers when he wasn't. 

20. Jalen Brunson's solo mission

The Knicks bet big on Brunson: four years, $104 million. Can he be a top option outside the Luka Doncic orbit? For what it's worth, the Mavericks outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions last season with Doncic on the bench and Brunson running the show, per Cleaning the Glass, but Brunson's 3-point shooting, without Doncic there creating open looks for him, dipped by four percent (36 to 32) when he played alone. The Knicks don't have the overall spacing that Dallas had last season. It will be interesting to see how much of his own Brunson, who converted a remarkable 70 percent of his shots at the rim over the past two seasons, can create for himself. 

21. Trae Young's off-ball movement

With Dejounte Murray able to share playmaking responsibilities, Young is out of excuses for not committing to off-ball movement. Last season, he took just 17 shots off screens and just 82 total catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy. He was extremely efficient converting in both cases. More! Young simply being a floor spacer when Murray has the ball will naturally result in more catch and shoots, but if he takes it up a level with ongoing movement and opportunistic relocations, Atlanta's offense will become significantly tougher to defend. 

22. Balance in Brooklyn

With the additions of Ben Simmons and Royce O'Neale, the Nets diversified their roster in a way that won't force them to choose between lopsided offensive and defensive lineups, as they had to do last season, and they're loaded with top-end shooting (Joe Harris, Seth Curry, Patty Mills, T.J. Warren, two guys named Kevin and Kyrie) to hopefully neutralize the Simmons spacing issues. Steve Nash should have a variety of lineup options at his disposal that can play, and win, on both ends of the court. 

23. RJ Barrett's development

Two seasons ago Barrett shot 40 percent from 3. If he gets back to that number, he's going to be even more impossible to keep out of the paint. After the turn of the calendar last season, Barrett averaged 7.7 shots in the restricted area, which ranked fourth in the league, and 7.4 free throw attempts per game, which ranked 11th. His 55-percent conversion rate at the rim needs to improve, but think about this: From Jan. 1 forward, Barrett averaged 23.6 points, six rebounds and 3.5 assists while serving as the Knicks' prime wing defender and playing 37.1 minutes per game. Now imagine that player with just a league-average shooting percentage. That's a star. 

24. Giannis' 3-point balance

Giannis has improved greatly as an intermediate and free-throw shooter, but his consistency from beyond the arc, though the form improvements and confidence is notable, has never meaningfully materialized. Giannis shot 30 percent from 3 over the last two regular seasons, but those numbers dipped to 20 and 24 percent in the last two postseasons, per CTG. Giannis is a maniacal worker, and you're OK with him taking a certain amount of 3s if only to preserve his body and energy, but it's always going to be a very fine line between how many 3s Giannis takes and the situations in which he takes them being that they are so tantalizingly available every time down the court. 

25. Jalen Suggs' redemption

Suggs had a pretty miserable rookie season. He scored under 12 points per game on 36 percent shooting, including 21 percent from 3. His 17.4 turnover percentage, per CTG, was the worst mark among all guards, point or combo, who played at least 400 minutes. Among players who tallied at least 400 drives last season, per NBA.com tracking data, Suggs' 38.4 percent finishing rate was third worst in the league. That said, there were some signs of growth. Assist percentages rose as the season progressed. His turnovers dropped. His defense was a strong point. This is a really talented guy. The Magic are a fun young team. He will get every chance to redeem himself in his sophomore campaign. 

26. Buddy, Myles on the move?

I can't see the Pacers playing out the string with Turner and/or Buddy Hield. I mean, have you seen Victor Wembanyama play? Why in the world would the Pacers keep two guys for whom they can get real return value only to win a few more games that will serve only to leave them in a worse spot to potentially land Wembanyama? Quit messing around. Take the Lakers deal, even if it's only for one future pick, and go all in on the French freak lottery. 

27. Herro ball

Had Herro been healthy, it would've been interesting whether Erik Spoelstra would've closed deciding conference-final games with him or stayed with sounder defensive options. This is the dilemma with Herro, who regards himself among the most elite young players in the game: He can be a lights-out scorer/shot creator but he's a weaker defensive link. Think Jordan Poole or Clarkson. Pat Riley said it: "The next step for [Herro] … if you want to win a championship and you want to be a starter, you have to become a two-way player." He's a starter this season. We'll see if he's worthy, on both ends, of the distinction. 

28. Robert Williams a prime DeAndre Jordan

Williams is an elite lob threat. He only took six shots per game last season, but it's next to impossible to do more with less than the league-leading 149.3 points per 100 attempts he carded, per CTG. Williams is a monster on the offensive glass, and he is dominant defensively. Last season, Williams blocked more shots per game (2.2) than Rudy Gobert, and scorers converted just 40.2 percent of their shots when defended by him, the top mark among centers. A two-way athletic menace, Williams has all the makings of prime DeAndre Jordan, who was a shot-blocking/lob-catching beast in the shadow of glitzier teammates. Now let's just hope Williams is able to get through this latest knee rehab without any more setbacks and return to the court at full strength. 

29. Fultz's resurrection resumes

How much stock do we put in Fultz's 18 games last season? After returning from ACL rehab, he averaged just under 20 points per 75 possessions with career highs in points, assists and steals per 36 minutes. Fultz's efficiency still isn't anything to get excited about, and he's not going to be a 3-point threat; the farther he gets from the basket, the more his mechanical yips are still evident. But in the midrange Fultz can really create his own shot. Here, he still looks like the guy who was regarded as an elite three-level scorer coming out of college. He uses his 6-foot-9 wingspan to get jumpers off over taller defenders, and he's especially partial to putting defenders on their heels with hesitations and crossovers before pulling up. Now let's hope this fractured toe, for which he won't need surgery, is a short-term setback. 

30. Tyrese Maxey star alert

After the turn of the calendar, Maxey was literally the best 3-point shooter in the NBA last season at just under 46 percent. He made 10 of his 18 3s in the preseason. With all the havoc that the Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls are going to create, the opportunities that Maxey will have as a second-side playmaker against shifting defenses will be plentiful. Good luck scrambling to stay in front of a guy with this kind of speed when you have to aggressively close out against him like the knockdown 3-point shooter he's proven to be. 

31. Siakam stock is soaring

Only three non-centers scored more points in the paint than Siakam's 13.1 per game last season (Ja Morant, Giannis and LeBron). Again, this goes back to Nurse's aforementioned plan to use Siakam and Scottie Barnes as Toronto's lead attackers, because they are the ones who put the most pressure on the rim. Last season, Siakam was one of just seven players to average at least 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists, and he was named to an All-NBA team for the second time in the last three years. He said at media day that he wants to be a top-five player in the league. That's a stretch, but we're sure a far cry from the not-too-long-ago days of everyone thinking Siakam had been overhyped and was actually someone the Raptors should and would look to trade. 

32. Khris Middleton's importance

As a deadly spot-up shooter and reliable self-creating jump shooter, Middleton is the key to Milwaukee's half-court offense, which, against prepared and disciplined defenses committed to walling off Giannis' downhill avenues, can get downright ugly without him. Indeed, in the 2021-22 playoffs, in which Middleton played just two games, the Bucks ranked dead last with a shade under 86 points per 100 half-court plays, per CTG. This after ranking sixth during the regular season. Middleton is as vital a No. 2 option as there is in the league.  

33. Philly's Matisse Thybulle conundrum

The Thybulle conundrum isn't neuroscience. His defense is awesome, but his offense? Not so much. The latter doesn't have to be great; it just has to be good enough to allow his defense to move his overall impact into profitable margins. If that doesn't happen, what does Doc Rivers do with him? Philly's defense needs all the perimeter punch it can get in support of James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, but in last year's playoffs, Philly was outscored by over 24 points per 100 possessions with Thybulle on the court, per CTG. 

34. Bradley Beal bounce back?

The Wizards should've traded Bradley Beal a long time ago. But they didn't and now here they are locked and loaded to compete for, wait for it ... a play-in spot with a sub-.500 record for the opportunity to get pulverized in the first round. To have any shot at justifying the $251 million and inexplicable no-trade clause they handed Beal, the Wizards are going to need him to return to the form that had him scoring over 30 points per game from 2019-2021. The 23 points he averaged over 40 games last season, on 30-percent 3-point shooting, won't come close to cutting it. 

35. Butler interceptions

Watching Jimmy Butler jump passing lanes is a joy. If you pay attention to him away from the ball, he's like a big cat stalking until he sees the opening to pounce for a pick-six. What's cool is that Butler can seemingly ramp up his interception-hunting game on call, like a great scorer simply deciding it's time to turn it on. Last season Butler averaged 1.6 steals per game, but in the playoffs he took that number up to 2.1 en route to 6.5 points off turnovers per game. Both those marks were league-wide postseason highs, and his 4.1 fast-break points per game, many of which were self-created off these coast-to-coast interceptions, ranked fourth in the playoffs. 

36. Let Bam be Bam

Bam is a 20-and-10 big. There aren't many of those, and there are even fewer who qualify as a top DPOY candidate, as Adebayo does. In isolation situations, where he logged a top-10 frequency, Adebayo held opponents to under 33 percent shooting last year, the 13th-best mark in the league, with a 35.3 effective-field goal percentage, which ranked 10th. Adebayo is at the core of a Miami defense that allowed a mere 41.3 points in the paint per game last season, per NBA.com tracking, the stingiest mark in the league. You can want him to be a bit more aggressive as a scorer, but don't take all that he does for granted. 

37. Runnin' Raptors

Most defenses strategize to avoid being put into rotation, but the Raptors actually prefer to be in scramble mode. Courtesy of this chaos, nine percent of all Toronto's offensive possessions last season began with a live-ball turnover, second only to Memphis' 10 percent, via Inpredictable. That led to 22.5 transition points per game, the fifth-highest mark in the league. Where the Raps need to improve is when things settle down. As mentioned in the Scottie Barnes section, the Raptors' half-court offense registered among the bottom five teams in the league with 91.3 points per 100 plays. Running can't be their only consistent means of scoring. 

38. Issac Okoro X-factor

Last year the Nets had to choose between offensive lineups that couldn't defend and defensive lineups that couldn't space or score. The Cavs could find themselves in a similar predicament this season. That's what makes Okoro so vital. He can be a top option for defending elite wings, providing much-needed support for the defensively challenged Garland-Mitchell backcourt, but that's largely moot if he can't carry his weight offensively. All Okoro needs to do is space the floor as a reliable shooter and perhaps a little bit of gravy secondary penetration on closeouts. The good news: Okoro hit 45 percent of his 3-pointers, including 44 percent from the corner, after Feb. 1, per CTG. 

39. Jimmy's free-throw parade

It doesn't feel as gimmicky and it's not quite as voluminous, but Jimmy Butler has turned himself into a James Harden light in terms of drawing fouls. Last season Butler drew a foul on 20 percent of his shot attempts, a greater rate than Harden in his Houston prime. Butler is so poised with the ball as he methodically wins downhill angles. From there, his footwork and pump-fake game is sublime. Defenders know he's looking to draw contact, and they still can't help themselves. In each of his three seasons in Miami, Butler has averaged at least eight free throws per game. 

40. The real Kyle Lowry 

Set to turn 37 before the start of the playoffs, who, at this point, is the real Kyle Lowry? Is it the guy who shot 37 percent from 3 and finished top eight among all guards in assists, potential assists and assist points created per game last regular season or the guy who averaged under eight points per game on 24-percent 3-point shooting in the playoffs? Lowry's injured hamstring clearly hampered him in the playoffs. He likely hasn't declined that much. But whether he can still be something closer to the old Kyle Lowry, rather than just the old one, is the biggest swing factor in Miami's championship formula. 

41. The Tyrese Haliburton experience

If you haven't learned by now, don't let Haliburton's funky form fool you; he hit 44 percent of his 3s last season, per CTG, including 40.4 percent of his pull-up 3s, which was fifth-best among 32 players who attempted more than three per game. In 26 games as the Pacers' primary playmaker, Haliburton posted 17.5 points per game on 62.9 percent true shooting. He added almost 10 assists per game for good measure. He's a pretty unorthodox player. That's what makes him fun. Come for the jump passes, stay for the tricky ball fakes and feathery floaters. 

42. Duncan Robinson revival

From 2019-2021, Robinson sunk 45 and 41 percent of his 3-pointers, respectively, but last season that number dipped to 37 percent and he wound up falling out of the consistent rotation in postseason play. If Robinson isn't banging 3s at a voluminous and efficient clip, his defense is too damaging to justify consistent playing time, particularly on a Miami roster loaded with two-way wings. But when Robinson is shooting well, doing the two-man dance with Bam Adebayo, and instilling paranoia in defenses trying to track all his movement, he adds an element to Miami's offense that no other player can replicate. I'd love to see him get back to the level that earned him a $90 million contract. 

43. Philly's Morey-ball defense

Defensively, Daryl Morey has tried to remake his Houston roster, albeit with an older P.J. Tucker. The perimeter versatility that was very nearly Houston's ticket to a championship can be found in Tucker, Mattisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Danuel House and one of this summer's most underrated additions, De'Anthony Melton, a dog at the point of attack. The Sixers have switchable components, even if Thybulle can't be productive enough on offense to stay on the floor, but that Houston team didn't have anything close to the interior presence that Joel Embiid represents. This can be a top-10 unit. 

44. Miami's next hidden gem

Omer Yurtseven, un-drafted in 2020, was forced into Miami's rotation last season when Bam Adebayo missed six weeks of action, and he was something of a revelation over that run. Yurtseven bagged 16 points and 15 rebounds in his first career start, 22 points and 16 rebounds against the Kings, and 22 and 11 against Joel Embiid and the Sixers. For the month of January, Yurtseven tallied eight double-doubles, and all told he ranked in the 98th and 88th percentiles, respectively, as a defensive and offensive rebounder, per CTG. Either as Miami's eventual backup center or in two-big lineups next to Adebayo, I expect Yurtseven to become a regular contributor this season. 

45. Unicorn renaissance?

Kristaps Porzingis quietly played pretty darn well for the Wizards after the trade to Washington, posting per-100-possession career highs in points, rebounds, assists and free throws attempted. All told he averaged better than 22 points and eight boards in just 28 minutes, and he shot north of 36 percent from 3. This only covers a 17-game sample, of course, and it was at the end of a season in which the lottery-bound Wizards were just playing out the string. Still, Wizards fans can at least get their hopes up that the Unicorn, who pairs nicely with Bradley Beal as a floor-stretcher, is still alive.

46. De'Andre Hunter's prove-it year

The Hawks somewhat committed to Hunter on a four-year, $95 million extension, but If he stalls again this year, he could still turn into trade bait. Year two, albeit in just 29 games, was Hunter's most promising campaign as he grew considerably as a self-creator and became a weapon getting to his midrange spots, where he connected at a lights-out 54-percent clip, per Cleaning the Glass. That number declined dramatically last season, but Hunter's 3-point mark did climb to 38 percent. With Trae Young and Dejounte Murray getting into the paint, Hunter's catch-and-shoot efficiency will be pivotal to Atlanta's fortunes, and, perhaps, his own long-term future with the club. 

47. Alex Caruso spotlight

Caruso and Lonzo Ball were a terrorizing defensive tandem last season; this season, Caruso will have to find a new partner in crime (Ayo Dosunmu? Javonte Green?) or do as much as he can himself to keep Chicago's defense afloat until Ball can hopefully return. Last season, Caruso led all Bulls players who logged at least 500 minutes with a plus-8.2 point differential, per CTG, and the Bulls' defense cratered to 27th league-wide when he was out with injuries. He was top-10 in steals and top-five in deflections. The guy is everywhere, and his importance to the Bulls ratchets up, even more, this season. 

48. Less Julius Randle is more

If New York isn't able to trade Randle, which feels unlikely, can he be something closer to the All-Star he was in 2019-20 rather than the inefficient isolationist he was last season? Consistently running the offense through Randle, who monopolizes possessions with his tendency to want to dribble himself into rhythm and who shot under 31 percent from 3 last season, isn't the ticket, but adding Jalen Brunson should negate the need for that kind of usage. If Randle can rediscover the shooting form that saw him connect on catch-and-shoots at an adjusted 59.4 percent clip in 2020-21 (per Synergy), New York's spacing changes dramatically, as does its outlook. 

49. Boston's versatility

Malcolm Brogdon is going to come off the bench, and he adds to a Boston team whose versatility can only be rivaled by the absurdly deep Clippers. At full strength, Boston can go super big with Al Horford and Robert Williams III (when he returns), "small" with Grant Williams at the five and wings all over, and just about anywhere in between. Any of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Brogdon can initiate the offense. Every organization wants as many players as possible who can shoot, pass, dribble and defend multiple positions; the Celtics are loaded with primary and secondary playmakers who fit that two-way bill. 

50. Play-in race

Teams like Charlotte, Orlando and Washington will be fighting to make the play-in, but it's the teams fighting to stay above the cut line that are more interesting. Ten teams see themselves as playoff caliber: Milwaukee, Miami, Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Cleveland, Toronto and Chicago. Only six of them can avoid the play-in. Every game counts, and it's going to be tight.