It’s the case every season now – the NBA looks completely different now than it did at this time last year. The defending champions are minus an MVP candidate. The Brooklyn Nets have re-branded. So have the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. The Philadelphia 76ers lost one star but added another. There might not be a clear favourite to come out of the East which makes it compelling to see how it all unfolds. With the new season tipping-off Tuesday night and plenty up for grabs, TSN.ca takes a close look at the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
With Kawhi Leonard gone and Kevin Durant set to miss the season, analysts and oddsmakers generally agree the top favourites for the Eastern Conference crown are the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics. Here is how each team could earn the top seed:
2018-19 record: 60-22 Result: Lost Eastern Conference Final
For years, it was thought of as only a matter of time before the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo took off. Last season, they showed everyone what they were capable of. Milwaukee won a league-high 60 games and Antetokounmpo captured his first of what could be many MVP awards as the Bucks cruised to their best season in franchise history. With most of the core pieces back and Antetokounmpo taking another step forward like he has every other year of his career, who’s to say the Bucks can’t be even better this season?
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On the other hand, the Bucks lost Malcolm Brogdon to the division-rival Indiana Pacers in free agency. One of the league’s most efficient players from an offensive standpoint, Brogdon shot 50.5 per cent from the field, 42.6 from deep and 92.8 from the free-throw line to become just the eighth player ever to reach the ‘50/40/90’ club since the NBA introduced the three-point shot in 1979-80.
Sure, his loss might hurt. But they also brought back Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, George Hill and added Robin Lopez, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews. Not bad. If Antetokounmpo was telling the truth about only reaching 60 per cent of his potential so far, the Bucks could be the scariest team in the East – if not the whole league.
2018-19 record: 51-31 Result: Lost Eastern Conference Semis
Buzzer. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Swish.
That’s what it took to stop the 76ers last season and for a while it looked like they would be the ones moving on and not the Toronto Raptors. Lucky for them, they won’t have to worry about Kawhi Leonard anymore on their journey to the Finals.
The 76ers were a middle-of-the-road defensive team last season. According to Second Spectrum, they were 15th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions (109.9) but that could improve with the arrival of five-time All-Star Al Horford from Boston. The 33-year-old is an elite defender who made the All-Defensive team two seasons ago and averaged 2.1 blocks per game last season. Combine that with Joel Embiid’s 2.7 blocks per game and that gives Philadelphia elite rim protection.
While they were able to keep Tobias Harris on a long-term deal, the 76ers’ perimeter got weaker as they lost both J.J. Redick to the Pelicans and Jimmy Butler to Miami, though they did receive Josh Richardson from the Heat via sign-and-trade. He’s no All-Star like Butler and can’t shoot quite like Redick, but he’s increased his points per game average significantly on a year-to-year basis and led the Heat at 16.6 a night last year.
If Horford is able to beef up their defence and Richardson can replace some of the shooting they lost, it might take more than Kawhi Leonard to knock them off this time around.
2018-19 Record: 49-33 Result: Lost Eastern Conference Semis
With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward healthy, expectations were sky-high for the Celtics heading into last season. Many have theories on what went wrong, but Boston didn’t come close to reaching their potential and were swept by the Bucks in the second round. Major changes were expected – and sure enough, they came.
Despite telling fans last October he would re-sign “if you guys will have me,” Irving bolted to the Brooklyn Nets on the first day of free agency. Al Horford did the same for Philly. In came Kemba Walker fresh off an All-NBA third team nomination and 6-foot-11 centre Enes Kanter.
Getting elite production from the new guys might not be as important as in-house improvements from several players. Jayson Tatum (21 years old) and Jaylen Brown (22) had incredible starts to their young careers but both took a step back from an efficiency standpoint last season. Gordon Hayward’s 11.5 points per game were the lowest since his rookie season in 2010-11 and it was clear he was still dealing with the effects of a devastating leg injury suffered on opening night two seasons ago. Improvement from one – or all three – of these players could go a long way
The combined 11 All-Star appearances lost between Irving and Horford are nearly impossible to replace from a talent standpoint, but head coach Brad Stevens and Co. are hoping the new group is able to play with a level of chemistry last year’s team never seemed to find.
Hey, anything can happen. The Toronto Raptors proved that last year when they brought in Kawhi Leonard and then a championship 10 months later. No, these teams may not win the conference, but that doesn’t mean they can’t go deep in the playoffs. Here’s how each of them could break through:
2018-19 Record: 58-24 Result: NBA Champions
Once Leonard left Toronto for the Clippers in the middle of the night on July 6, the Raptors were in an odd spot – do they keep the rest of the core together and take another shot at being competitive or do they get what they can for their veteran pieces and go into rebuilding mode just weeks after winning a title?
Perhaps his hands were tied given the timing of Leonard’s decision (and Danny Green’s minutes after), but Masai Ujiri and the Raptors held tight and are bringing back the same group outside of minor adjustments to the edges of the roster.
The Raptors were top-10 in both three-point percentage and three-pointers made last season but won’t have Leonard and Green, two of their top three marksmen from beyond the arc. The arrival of sharpshooter Matt Thomas from Europe and Pascal Siakam’s steady improvement from deep should help, although there’s only so much a team can do minus a player like Leonard to make up for his absence.
The last time a Finals MVP left his team the following year was Michael Jordan in 1998. The result wasn’t pretty as Chicago went just 13-37 in a lockout-shortened season and didn’t return to the playoffs until 2005. But the Raptors proved last season they could win without their leading-man, going 17-5 when Leonard missed games due to injury or “load management.” And, for what it's worth, until the Larry O’Brien Trophy changes hands, it still resides north of the border.
2018-19 Record: 42-40 Result: Lost Eastern Conference first round
Outside of maybe the Los Angeles Clippers, no team ‘won the off-season’ more than the Brooklyn Nets. After an average of just 23 wins from 2015 to 2018, Brooklyn won 42 games last year and bet big on this summer’s free agent class. It paid off handsomely.
Adding Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan to an up-and-coming roster that has shown considerable improvement in each of the last two seasons is scary for the rest of the league and it will get even scarier when Kevin Durant returns in 2020. While D’Angelo Russell (now in Golden State) is coming off the best season of his career, Irving is a clear upgrade and should benefit from the clean slate he didn’t have last year in Boston.
It’s not fair to expect a ring out of Brooklyn without Durant and the question lingers what type of player he’ll be when he recovers from his Achilles tear. But just as they have the last two seasons, the Nets should improve once again. Time will tell how much.
2018-19 Record: 39-43 Result: Missed playoffs
Since the end of the Big Three era, the Miami Heat have been stuck in the middle – not good enough to make a deep playoff run and not bad enough to be gifted an immediate game-changer in the draft. The Heat have a combined record of 209-204, two playoff appearances and one series win since the departure of LeBron James. In four of those five seasons they’ve been better than most teams on the defensive end but below league-average on offence. Enter Jimmy Butler. The fiery star forced his way from Minnesota to the 76ers but didn’t stay long and is now in South Beach on a four-year deal.
The Heat had eight players average 10 points or more last season. Butler’s arrival gives Miami a clear No. 1 option on offence who is a lot closer to Dwyane Wade in his prime than the farewell-tour version Miami got last season. The Heat also shipped centre Hassan Whiteside to Portland which should clear the way for Bam Adebayo to be the “heart” of the team Butler labelled to him as.
2018-19 Record: 48-34 Result: Lost Eastern Conference first round
It was a tale of two seasons for the Pacers last year. Indiana was 32-15 prior to Victor Oladipo’s season-ending knee injury on Jan. 24 and just 16-19 after en route to four-game sweep at the hands of the Celtics in the first round. For the whole season, they were 25-11 with him and 23-23 without him.
The trouble is he’s going to be out for the first couple months and even when he returns he might need some time to get up to speed. The Pacers brought in 2016-17 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and scorer T.J. Warren who could fit nice with a young core featuring the recently-extended Domantas Sabonis and shot-blocker Myles Turner.
Brogdon, as mentioned earlier, is one of the league’s most efficient players on offence and a pest on the defensive end. If he can take the lead on both ends of the floor that could help tide the Pacers over until Oladipo’s return. If not, Indiana could be headed toward their fifth consecutive first-round loss.
Assuming these seven get in – and that’s no guarantee given the unpredictability of an 82-game season – that leaves one spot for eight remaining teams. With Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin under contract long-term for big money, there has to be pressure on Dwane Casey and the Detroit Pistons to build off their first-round sweep by the Bucks. Free agent signee Derrick Rose is coming off his best season in years and appears to have added a three-pointer to his repertoire, shooting 37 per cent in 2018-19.
The Orlando Magic finished above .500 for the first time since the Dwight Howard days last year but were no match for the Raptors in the opening round of the playoffs outside of a surprising Game 1 victory. The Magic could surprise more people if they get improvement from some of their young veterans or if former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz figures things out with a fresh start.
What about the New York Knicks, who didn’t come close to getting the summer free agent haul many were expecting? Unless RJ Barrett becomes one right away, New York doesn’t have a star on their roster and will probably have to sell ‘the process’ to their fan base for at least another season. With Trae Young and John Collins leading the way, the Atlanta Hawks look like they could contend for a spot. So do the Chicago Bulls with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.
Really, who knows? It depends on so many things, particularly injuries to rotation players and the development of young talent. As is the case with most things in sports, time will tell. The East might have a lower ceiling than it did last year, but it likely has a higher floor. Five of the six worst records in the league belong to Eastern Conference teams last year. So while the race for the top seed figures to be tight at the top, the push for the remaining playoff spots at the bottom could be just as entertaining.