The Bucks are primed to be kings of the East…if they can avoid having the throne usurped this season.
Welcome to the Brew Hoop Neighborhood Watch. The NBA is a vibrant community, and while the Milwaukee Bucks are our preferred resident, we still want to be in touch with our neighbors around the league. After all, that’s what good neighbors are for. Today, we take a look around at the newest version of the Eastern Conference and ask if there is anybody who might challenge the Bucks in their quest for a trip to the NBA Finals.
The premise of this article might be familiar to you. Back in February, in one of last season’s installments of the Neighborhood Watch, I wrote:
But with the team performing at the level they’re at today, how can it be argued that continuity is not the optimal path forward? There might be better individual talents out there in the league, but are they going to fit so seamlessly together (both with Giannis and with the system)? It might not be easy, but the current starters might even be able to stick together while staying under the luxury tax, and with the rest of the contributors on the roster also under contract…running it back might be the key to short AND long term success.
So that’s where the Bucks are, and they could easily stay there. What about the rest of the league? Who presents a real and present danger to Milwaukee’s dominance of the Eastern Conference, not just now, but going forward?
If this summer is any indication, general manager Jon Horst might be an avid Brew Hoop reader, given that he built the roster to retain most of the Bucks’ top contributors. Nikola Mirotic is a notable exception, but it’s hard to penalize Horst for last season’s trade deadline rental up and leaving the NBA entirely. A more notable exception is Malcolm Brogdon, the new darling of the Indiana Pacers and focus of much Bucks fans’ consternation. Still, “continuity” and “fit” were prevalent themes during the offseason, and they make Milwaukee stand out in a field of Eastern Conference contenders that are very much finding their footing this preseason. So who’s a threat, and who’s just posturing? Let’s take a ride around the neighborhood.
Philly came just one bounce short of forcing overtime and (perhaps) toppling the Raptors and making the Eastern Conference Finals last postseason. They responded to this disappointment by fundamentally altering their roster makeup; its not just that they lost JJ Redick and traded away Jimmy Butler, but they’ve significantly overturned a massive portion of the team that logged minutes last season. Of the 19,805 total minutes played for Philly last season, the only returning players who logged 900+ minutes in Philly in 2018-19 are Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons. Year over year, they’re replacing over 55% of the minutes played by last year’s roster!
Josh Richardson and Al Horford, as talented as they are, will need time to fully integrate into the holdover trio in the starting lineup. Richardson will help because of his shooting ability; he’s not Redick, but he’s good. Horford’s shooting ability should also help provide spacing if he’s playing power forward, but historically his three-point attempt rate hasn’t been high enough to actually make that difference. Whether that’s changing or not remains to be seen, but if Horford’s willingness to shoots rises, this Philly team becomes much more dangerous.
But despite that obvious first string talent, Philly’s depth looks like an Achilles heel; outside of Mike Scott (when he’s not scrapping with Eagles fans) and…James Ennis, I guess, there’s not a lot of proven players serving backup roles on this Sixers squad. Raul Neto and Trey Burke don’t inspire the most confidence in the backcourt, ditto for Kyle O’Quinn in the front court. Rookie Matisse Thybulle definitely looks interesting…but he’s still a rookie.
No, this team will live and die by their stars. The trouble is that Simmons and Embiid themselves are a bit of a strange fit together, given that they both need the ball to be at their best and they play their best basketball in markedly different ways; Simmons is a fast-break fiend, whereas Embiid is a lumbering half-court behemoth. Tobias Harris is flexible enough to play in a number of different roles, but if any of those three doesn’t carry their weight…
All that said, Philadelphia is still the only Eastern team mentioned in the same sentence as Milwaukee as likely conference finalists. They should be, their talent is good enough. And even with that, their regular season over/unders are lower than the Bucks’ due to some of these concerns, and there’s enough uncertainty to make the “under” a reasonable bet! From the Philly perspective, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Sixers know they’re playing for a shot at a title this year, and that Milwaukee is likely their main rival for that goal. To get where they want to be, they really just need to keep their guys healthy through April, meaning lots of load management for Philly’s vaunted starters…when the real games begin.
Last season, our Indiana-based SB Nation brethren made the case for Indy seeking superstar support for Victor Oladipo, who continues to work towards a return from a knee injury. The Pacers answered that call…by bringing in Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, and T.J. McConnell (while losing Bojan Bogdanovic). As Bucks fans are aware, it’s tough to contend with a collection of second- and third-tier talent when you lack a first-tier guy. Oladipo, for all of his development and improvement, might be that first-tier guy…but maybe he isn’t. So who is?
Brogdon is going to get his chance; once Oladipo returns, those two are going to dominate the Pacers’ offensive possessions. It’s entirely possible that one of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner takes a leap and becomes a star-level player. Either one is possible…and at least one of them knows it.
It’s difficult to look at the Pacers and see a bad team…but it’s not much easier to look and see a team capable of knocking off either of the East’s prospective top two squads. They have a ton of talented players, but most of them feel individually like they have a lower ceiling overall. Even if he is “The Guy,” Oladipo won’t be available for some time, and if he is the Pacers’ Giannis…who’s the Indiana Middleton?
It’s also possible that they don’t need one. Nate McMillan turned last year’s roster into a solid squad, and he’s continuing to improve and adapt as a coach himself. Perhaps the Pacers can ride the value of “playing few bad players” to a surprising regular season, and leverage their consistent talent and depth into a high playoff seed. But like with the Bucks, Indiana faces a tougher task in the postseason when rotations tighten up and the top-end talent simply matters more. Will their roster look different in May, when the second round of the playoffs is getting heated up? Time will tell.
Losing a superstar is never a good thing, and the Celtics also lost Kyrie Irving. Terry Rozier jokes aside, while Kemba Walker might be a reasonable facsimile of Uncle Drew, the relief in Boston in the post-Kyrie era is palpable. Then again, so is the anticipation of opponents when they see Walker and Enes Kanter defending a 1-5 pick and roll.
This year’s Boston team will be a fascinating study of how much personalities do (or don’t) affect a team’s title chances. This season has been described as a “referendum” on Brad Stevens, and much of that will also fall on the shoulders of Gordon Hayward, who could be the East’s most important wild card. Jaylen Brown (who did not get an extension to his rookie contract) and Jayson Tatum both ooze talent but have to prove that they can use it consistently. Marcus Smart is the player every other team’s fans hate (but would love if they were on your team), and that hatred will increase exponentially if he actually fixes his jumper.
Still, there is a certain edge lacking on this Celtics team. Al Horford, Aron Baynes, and Marcus Morris brought a certain physicality that the current roster might lack. Robert Williams is a major lob threat on the dive, and Tacko Fall is an experience, but the team’s overall defense feels like it took a major step back, and it’s tough to envision that not hurting Boston as the season marches ahead.
Kawhi Leonard went ahead and delivered Toronto a championship as a one-year rental. GM Masai Ujiri would re-do that trade 100 times out of 100, and his task now is to rebuild on the fly with a cast of characters that would fit awfully nice around a superstar. Is Pascal Siakam that guy? He was last season’s Most Improved Player, but is he capable of entering the MVP discussion?
Siakam is also the team’s youngest major contributor, by a long shot. Marc Gasol (34) and Serge Ibaka (30) don’t have that many years left in the league, ditto for the recently-extended Kyle Lowry (33). Behind them are guys like OG Anunoby, Norm Powell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and noted Bucks kryptonite Fred Van Vleet.
Nick Nurse put together a championship-level system last year, and regardless of the luck that played into Toronto’s first ring, recreating those results is a tall order simply because the fulcrum of that system now resides in Los Angeles. Watch what Toronto decides to do if they get off to a slow start; they are nothing if not a bold franchise, and have demonstrated they’re willing to do what it takes to win. For now, though, the Raptors look like they’ve lost a fair amount of their bite.
Last season, Brooklyn was a plucky underdog that won games thanks to its system, its depth, and its grit. The infusion of talent assuredly makes the Nets better, but does it make them good enough? The jury is out, at least for this season. Maybe they look like a powerhouse in the future once KD comes back, but that’s not gonna help them in the short-term. What will help them is a healthy Caris LeVert and his continued growth into his considerable potential. For now, the Nets are a team that shouldn’t threaten the conference’s top teams, but they’re not to be overlooked either.
You gotta take your hat off to Pat Riley; that dude just won’t quit. After finding the franchise at the gates of Salary Cap Hell, Riles went out and made moves to bring in Jimmy Butler (a bona fide star) in his attempts to whip the roster back into shape. Seriously, just ask James Johnson.
There’s a lot of interesting talent on this team. Jimmy Buckets has his wake-up alarm set for most players’ bedtimes. Out is Hassan Whiteside, in is Meyers Leonard (joining Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk). Justise Winslow is a 6’7” wing who will play point guard with Goran Dragic. Dion Waiters! Tyler Herro! Derrick Jones Jr! Somehow, Udonis Haslem is still around!
There’s a ton of excitement around this team, and expectations are…heating up (I’m so sorry…). Erik Spoelstra is going to be around for the long haul, giving him the freedom he needs to turn the Heat from a middling squad into a contender (again). Do they have the type of talent to make a run at a top-4 seed? Probably. Top-2 feels less likely, but it wouldn’t be a shocker to see the Heat hold home-court advantage for the first round of a playoff series.
After going through a basic overview of each of the mentioned teams, I don’t feel any differently than I did before I started. The Bucks’ main competition is the 76ers, and the rest of the field seems just a step behind each of them. So who do you think, as of today, will represent the East in the NBA Finals? Vote below, and discuss in the comments why your choice will bear out in June!