#3 Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies' young core put the team in the 2021 NBA Playoffs after a solid regular season and two big wins in the Play-In tournament, including one over the Golden State Warriors on the road.
A 38-34 record in the 2020-21 NBA regular season was a great accomplishment for the side. But the most important thing is that the future of the Memphis Grizzlies, behind Ja Morant's prowess, is looking bright.
The Grizzlies have made some changes to their roster with a three-team trade that mainly sent Jonas Valanciunas to the New Orleans Pelicans for Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe. While Adams and Bledsoe might have big contracts, they are serviceable veterans who could help the young core.
Memphis had a middle-of-the-pack offense last season, but the defense ranked sixth in the NBA. Continuing to perform on that end of the floor while improving their offense will markedly benefit the team.
#2 New York Knicks
The New York Knicks made the NBA Playoffs in 2021 for the first time since 2013 and had a great regular season under Tom Thibodeau. They put up a 41-31 record and took the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
The team's 2021 offseason has not drastically improved their squad, but they could remain in playoff positions in the East for the 2021-22 NBA season. The additions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier have the potential to make the team marginally better.
New York fell out of the 2021 NBA Playoffs early after a first-round loss against the Atlanta Hawks in five games. The series was heated, and that kind of playoff intensity will always go with the Knicks in any series, possibly giving them an edge over rivals that are simply better teams.
#1 Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks have looked like a good team ever since the front office went out in the 2020 offseason and put together solid players around Trae Young and John Collins. Resultantly, the Hawks enjoyed an excellent run in the 2020-21 NBA season.
In the 2021 offseason, signing Collins to a big contract was a priority, and they managed to do so. Nate McMillan has also returned to Atlanta after leading the team to a 27-11 record to finish the regular season and enter the 2021 NBA Playoffs with confidence.
Starting every series with road wins, the Hawks managed to reach the 2021 Eastern Conference after beating the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers in five and seven games, respectively.
They were two wins away from the 2021 NBA Finals, but Trae Young's injury and the Milwaukee Bucks' brilliance prevented them from reaching the ultimate stage. For the 2021-22 NBA season, Young and Collins should have a different kind of confidence in their game after a solid postseason run. The Hawks' overall team should also be better, which is good news for the talented duo.
Though the Eastern Conference will be stacked with talent and huge teams, Atlanta will definitely be a strong, worthy rival to any of the top teams in the conference. The Brooklyn Nets and reigning champions Milwaukee Bucks remain firm favorites heading into the 2021-22 season, but the Atlanta Hawks could pose a stiff challenge to both sides.