2020-2021 Eastern Conference Preview - Part One
If you love chaos, you're going to love the Eastern Conference in the 2020-2021 season. The Eastern Conference is going to be just as wild and unpredictable this year as it was last year, when the Miami Heat took the East by storm in the bubble en route to the NBA Finals.
For the second year in a row, the regular season belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks, who dominated to the tune of a 56-17 record. However, the playoffs rolled around and the Bucks did not look like the same team in the Orlando bubble. They were bounced again before the NBA Finals, this time to the Miami Heat in 5 games.
This year, the East feels wide open. There's the Bucks, who have re-loaded with Jrue Holiday and most importantly, got Giannis to sign on the dotted line for his five-year max- it's the biggest and best thing to happen to the Milwaukee Bucks since Kareem won a title there in the 70's, and they will now play this season without the cloud of Giannis leaving next Summer over them.
Aside from the Bucks, there are a number of capable contenders to challenge Milwaukee. The Heat are the defending East champs, after all. There's the Celtics, who lost Gordon Hayward but possess two of the most promising young wings in the game in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The Raptors lose a couple of pieces in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, but retained Fred Van Vleet to pair with Kyle Lowry, who have a culture of winning and NBA championship experience.
The list of contenders doesn't stop there- the Philadelphia Sixers are re-tooled and tabbed as one of my winners of the offseason. Daryl Morey added couple of great shooters in Danny Green and Seth Curry to surround Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and was able to move off of Al Horford, who didn't fit in this roster. The team fits together much better this year, they added a championship level coach in Doc Rivers, and I expect them to take a leap forward.
But perhaps the most interesting contender in the East is the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant makes his long awaited return from his achilles tear to pair with Kyrie Irving. They also have their eye on James Harden, who would combine with these two to make the most fearsome trio in the entire league. Either way, they're going to be in the mix if KD is healthy.
Let's take a look at some Overs/Unders and make our predictions on the top 7 teams in the East, according to Vegas. Important Note: this NBA season is only 72 games instead of 82 games this year.
Milwaukee Bucks 49.5
This is around a 56 win pace for Milwaukee, who have added Jrue Holiday to go with Khris Middleton and Giannis as their big three. If they had completed the sign and trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic I would have been even higher on the Bucks, but they remain a clear contender to win the East.
I love Jrue's fit in Milwaukee's backcourt with Khris Middleton and I think he'll be a substantial upgrade over Eric Bledsoe. This team is going to continue to play stifling defense, hit a ton of threes, and have a pretty high floor with Giannis on the roster. They're going to win a boatload of regular season games, but the question remains whether it can translate in the playoffs.
Coach Bud has rightfully faced a lot of criticism with his minutes management and inability to be flexible in the playoffs. It feels like there's a strong plan A for Milwaukee- center the offense around the two-time MVP and surround him with three-point shooting. On defense, play a number of long guards and wings around Giannis to swarm three point shooters and contest every shot, and Giannis is the best rim protector in the game.
I think this team will once again be a terror in the regular season, but I'm going to take the slight under due to the improvement I'm banking on from the rest of the East. 46-48 wins feels about right to me.
Aaron: Slight Under
This iteration of the Bucks have solidified an identity that should be key in carrying them to a top seed for the 3rd consecutive year. They have built their offensive pillars on floor spacing and shooting, and their personnel still allows them to carry out that ethos with the additions of Bobby Portis in the frontcourt, and Bryn Forbes in the backcourt. Defensively, they should still finish as an elite unit with Lopez dropping low in P&Rs and Holiday now available to hawk ball-handlers at the point of attack. Regardless of what position the opposing team boasts an offensive threat, they will go up against stiff resistance from someone on the Bucks roster.
The Greek God that is Giannis all but assures them a top 3 seed, through his sheer dominance in the paint and all-around defensive impact. Let's not forget that last season, he became only the 3rd player in history to win MVP and DPOY during the same campaign. It may sound crazy to mention this, but Giannis almost certainly has another gear to reach. Outside of the paint, he is still inconsistent at best, posting below averages in just about every shooting zone outside of the restricted area. Even the addition of a reliable floater or short mid range game would make him next to impossible to guard on a nightly basis. The fact that he's now locked up for the next five years should ease nerves and allow the whole team to exhale and play free.
All that being said, the bench threats still leave a little something to be desired. Forbes and Augustin will be popular targets on defense, Torrey Craig isn't much of a creator or shooter, although he'll be dangerous on cuts, and Portis could get ancy and get ahead of himself on occasion. He's no post threat, but has a habit of acting as one for spurts. All together, this is still a very cohesive unit with multiple two-way threats that will terrorize other teams each and every game. However, an injury or two could require more one-dimensional players to step up, leaving a few gaps to exploit. All in all, this is a team built for the grind of the regular season, but we'll have to see what this revised roster can do when the demands of the playoffs come calling once again.
Boston Celtics 45.5
The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward in the offseason, which was a missed opportunity to see a max free agent/substantial asset walk out the door for the second consecutive offseason (Kyrie last year). However, in terms of moving forward, Hayward did not have a clear role in this team as a significant option in the offense.
Jayson Tatum will be handed the keys to the car, and the way he ended the season, it's crystal clear he's ready to take his game to the next level- superstardom. Tatum averaged 23.4 PPG/7 RPG/3 APG last year on 45%/40%/81% splits, and I think he takes another jump up this year into the MVP conversation.
Jaylen Brown also took a large step forward last year and has more room for growth as the second banana to Tatum. Tatum and Brown will be joined in the starting lineup by Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Tristan Thompson, the newly acquired center that will give the C's a rim running big they've missed the last few years.
I love the defensive ability and versatility of Boston's roster, who seems to make a little more sense without Hayward. There are clearly defined roles for this young, hungry team that already made the Eastern Finals last year. I think they'll be in the mix to win the East once more- assuming Kemba can get his knee right, give me the over.
Jayson Tatum will determine how far this team can go this season. For the past three years, he has been groomed by established veterans, such as Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Kemba Walker. Now that Irving/Hayward have moved on, and Kemba is laboring with a sore knee, Tatum's time has come to make a full-time run at MVP consideration and a spot on the All-NBA 1st team. Both will be tall tasks, but if he can even approach the impact necessary to be in those conversations, Boston will challenge for one of the top eastern conference seeds. One hold still remains in Tatum's game and that is finishing at close range. He topped out at 63% at the rim in 18-19, but dropped back down below average last season (59%). Clearly, we haven't seen the best of Tatum yet at the tender age of 22.
The Tatum + Brown dynamic duo could be fully operational this season, leading to an abundance of shot creation and defensive versatility. They finished 4th in defensive efficiency last season, even with Kemba at the point. I see no reason why they can't replicate that performance this time around. Tristan Thompson should do wonders for their defensive rebounding situation, which ultimately did them in against Miami in the playoffs this past Fall. He will also keep the team from relying too heavily on Robert Williams, who is still fairly raw going into year 3. Jeff Teague isn't exactly the biggest confidence booster in the backcourt, considering he's lost a couple steps since his Atlanta hayday, but filling in for Brad Wanamaker isn't the biggest hurdle to clear.
As balanced as this team is, there are still question marks that will need to be addressed. The bench could end up being a jumbled mess of youngers trying to find their way and one of them won't even be available for awhile, as Romeo Langford just underwent wrist surgery a couple weeks ago. Kemba's knee problems could flare up again down the road, requiring careful load management. I can see a variety of possible outcomes for this season, ranging from a 6th seed, all the way up to the 3rd seed. It really comes down to how elite Tatum becomes and how much (or little) they'll be able to count on Kemba being available this year.
There is a reason I haven't mentioned Hayward to this point, and it's because they 1) are accustomed to operating without him in the lineup due to injury issues of his own and 2) he's departing a position that is already pretty deep for the team. Tatum/Brown already command a ton of minutes at the wing positions and Grant Williams should be ready to step into an expanded role. Throw in the sharp shooting Aaron Neismith and they should be able to cover for him just fine. I believe in Tatum and his ability to keep this team afloat, despite the concerns.
Brooklyn Nets 45.5
A note: this is a roster that could look completely different depending on if James Harden is dealt to the Nets or if they stand pat. As they are currently constructed, this team contains two genius level scorers in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, surrounded by sharp-shooting Joe Harris, productive guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert, Deandre Jordan and Jarrett Allen controlling the paint, and a couple of intriguing bench options (Landry Shamet, Tyler Johnson, and Jeff Green, who showed signs of life in Houston last year.
They also bring in quite the coaching staff in Steve Nash, Mike D'Antoni, Jacque Vaughn, Amare Stoudemire, and more. They're going to need significant guidance and just the right touch to handle the unique personalities of this roster, but all of the talent is there for this team to win the East and even challenge in the Finals.
It's not without risk, but I'm banking on the health and impact of Kevin Durant, still one of the 2-3 best players in the world. If Harden joins this roster, the 45.5 wins vegas line is a layup over and the Nets become the prohibitive favorite to win the East, if not the NBA Finals.
Brooklyn should be a fascinating drama all season long. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more outspoken and combustible group anywhere else in the association.
The huge, and I mean HUGE draw of this team will be its ability to put up an ungodly amounts of points on any given night. KD and Kyrie are two of the best tough shot makers in the world and they could start Spencer Dinwiddie alongside them to really make opposing defenses sweat. Most likely, Joe Harris will find his way to a lot of minutes alongside those two for maximum floor spacing. He's even improved at attacking closeouts and making some music inside the arc, which brings another layer of offensive creativity to an exciting unit. LeVert might have a tough time finding his way after having the ball in his hands so much over the past few years, but that should be as big of a deal if his minutes are staggered away from the big stars. He should be able to settle into a 2nd or 3rd option role, which is a picture perfect fit for his strengths and weaknesses. Pencil this team in for a top three finish in offensive rating with number one as a definite possibility.
Hopefully, Nash and the rest of the coaching staff don't commit to Deandre Jordan as a full-time starter at the center position, or least stay flexible with who they deploy based on the matchup. Against teams like Houston, Jordan will get absolutely roasted constantly getting drawn away from the rim, so Jarrett Allen makes a ton of sense on nights like those, although I'm sure it's tough paying such a hefty sum for Jordan to come off the bench.
I'm interested to see how Brooklyn goes about hiding their defensive flaws throughout the season. KD should be fine on slower players and around the rim, but will probably struggle in high movement situations in space. Kyrie is...Kyrie. You can count on less than stellar effort more often than not. From there, the only players they'll be able to count on every night on that end are Jarrett Allen and new addition Bruce Brown (underrated pickup by the way).
Overall, I'm a bit worried about how this group will fare long-term due to health concerns and defensive shortcomings. The playoffs could end up being a disaster, but as far as the regular season goes, there's no reason why these guys can't finish with a top 3 seed. They're ridiculously deep at the guard and wing positions, and all over the court, really. I expect an injury or two, which they're well equipped to handle. As long as they can squak out an average defense, they'll coast through the 72 game season.
Philadelphia 76ers 45.5
Sam: Push to Over
I said last week this was one of my winners of the offseason, and I really like everything this team did in the offseason, from the hirings of Daryl Morey in the front office, Doc Rivers on the bench, and trades to supplement this roster with shooting and experience in Danny Green and Seth Curry.
This team makes so much more sense with Simmons and Embiid surrounded by shooting and they replaced Brett Brown with Doc Rivers, who despite his blame in the Clippers collapse, is a significant upgrade at head coach. There will much needed stability in the front office and on the bench, and you can trust Morey to be aggressive to always look to improve the roster. This team will make the necessary deals to improve their weaknesses at the deadline, you can count on that.
Along with Brooklyn, Philly also looks to be the front-runner to acquire the unhappy James Harden, and hold the trump card in any potential package with Ben Simmons, who is a better piece than anyone Brooklyn can offer Houston. If Harden joins this team, they're another easy over. I'm taking their over either way, this team is taking a step forward in 2020-2021 and I like them as a top 4 seed in the East.
Aaron: Slight Under
This team addressed their biggest flaws in the offseason, which were floor-spacing and their salary cap situation. They simultaneously shaved money off their books and brought in better fits for the offense, which is a major win. Simmons now has the dribble handoff threat he's been missing for over a year in Seth Curry and a picture perfect threat to cash out off of kick-outs in Danny Green.
They even had an excellent draft, picking up Tyrese Maxey for more toughness and defense. Bringing in Dwight Howard to give Embiid a breather was perfect, giving them another vertical spacer than proved his comfortable in a lower usage roll, which maintaining his stingy defensive instincts as a rim protector.
Tobias Harris has his old coach back, who is at least partially responsible for the best stretch of his career back in Los Angeles. Expect a bounceback year for him, at least in terms of his overall efficiency. Last season, they leaned to heavily into the "long and strong" defensive philosophy, that cost them greatly on the other end of the floor. They still finished with an above average offensive despite the suboptimal fits, so just imagine what's possible for them now that certain players will be back at their natural positions.
There are rumors that Ben Simmons could be shipped out, but assuming he spends the season on this team, he should be in line for another All-NBA campaign. He is borderline DPOY material, which is just ridiculous once you factor in his playmaking ability. If only he has any kind of jumpshot...well that's a conversation for another day. Embiid's performance will warrant some close attention this season. Will he put his inconsistent, lumbering way behind him, or do we have to come to grips with the reality that he's just not a 82 (72) game player? On top of that he is fairly injury prone. I just don't trust this groups ability to put it all together for the entirety of the season, although they should be a much more complete unit compared to 19-20. Due to some offensive growing pains and some coasting by Embiid mentally and physically, I don't trust this team rising to the absolute top of the conference. I think a 4th seed finish is pretty reasonable for them.
Miami Heat 44.5
Sam: Slight Under
Aaron, don't take this one personally! The Heat are at 44.5 wins, which is nearly a 51 win pace over a normal season. As much as I love this team to make a deep run in the playoffs, I won't be surprised if they are not a dynamic force in the regular season in a re-loaded Eastern Conference.
The Heat took care of their first order of business in signing cornerstone Bam Adebayo to a max deal, a huge win for this franchise. It'll be largely the same roster as last year's Finals team, so you know they're going to be a factor come playoff-time.
You know the squad- it's Jimmy Butler serving as the primary facilitator of the offense along with Goran Dragic, with Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson playing off of them. Bam is your post presence on both ends of the floor, and the bench pieces are all still there. They're going to compete on both ends every single night, because that's just how Jimmy Butler, Spo, and the Heat roll.
My reasoning for the ever so slight under pick is this- nearly every team around them improved: Philly's roster is much better and they'll be much more well-coached. Milwaukee added Jrue Holiday and has a renewed sense of urgency with Giannis' future up in the air. Brooklyn gets a top 3 player in the league back. Boston will keep improving, and Washington, Atlanta, and Charlotte will all be tougher than they were a year ago.
I think Miami is a team that can make another deep playoffs run, but they mostly stood pat this offseason- I'll take the slight regular season regression and the under, just barely. I like them in the 42-44 win range.
Aaron: Slight Over
I am absolutely floored by Sam's comments above. It's an obvious case of disrespect for a team coming off of one of the most incredible runs in recent history. They knocked off the #1 seed in five game for crying out loud!
I'm kidding of course. Miami is a team that didn't make the splashy moves we saw by their competition. They are also facing one of the shortest off seasons in the history of professional sports. There are valid issues that are worth pointing out when it comes to projecting their finish within a hotly contested Eastern Conference.
In the midst of a stretch that will almost certainly test the endurance of each and every player on the roster, it's easy to forget that this is an organization that prides itself on conditioning and toughness. In addition, many of the contributors that will be counted upon to produce are under 25 years of age. Herro, Robinson, Adebayo, and Nunn should have no problem bouncing back from a surprising Finals run just a couple months ago.
Since they are bringing back much of the same roster that cut, screened, and handed off their way to a top ten offense for the first time since the Big 3 era, it's logical to expect them to burn the nets once again with even more confidence from Bam and Herro. The defense was more of a question mark than were accustomed to seeing, but they addressed their weakness at the point of attack with the addition of Avery Bradley. Their pursuit of Giannis may have costed them Jae Crowder, which hurts somewhat, but Moe Harkless is more than capable of replicating some of the offensive spacing and frontcourt defense that was lost.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least give a passing comment on Jimmy Butler, one of the best performers of the Bubble. Even in a low power mode to prepare for the playoffs, he is still in the top 20-25 most impactful players around with his all-around impact. As long as he's around, Miami will have a fighting chance regardless of the matchup.
Continuity and a rock-solid foundation are even more valuable in this unusual season and the Heat have both in spades. Don't forget about depth, which you can find on this team after a quick glance through the roster. They can legitimately go 10 deep with Dragic/Robinson/Jimmy/Harkless/Bam/Nunn/Herro/Bradley/Iguodala/Leonard, and that's before factoring in unknowns like KZ Okpala and Precious Achiuwa. May be a hint of bias here, but I'll predict the Heat finish at the three seed. I'll die on this hill.
Toronto Raptors 41.5
I'm going to come out and say it- the Raptors will dearly miss the frontcourt pairing of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, who both left for different parts of Los Angeles this offseason. I love that stingy backcourt of Fred Van Vleet and Kyle Lowry, who will bring the energy and passion every single night of the regular season.
Beyond the backcourt? I've got some questions. I love OG Anounoby's game, but I don't love his track record with injuries. He'll need to step into a bigger offensive role for this team.
Pascal Siakam continued his rise in 2019-2020 with 22.9 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game. It'll be fascinating to see how Siakam's offensive game grows and matures as he grows as a player. We saw him struggle in the Boston series to create his own shot- he's going to have to shoulder the main offensive responsibilities with FVV and Lowry to a lesser extent if this team is going to compete with the big dogs in the East.
This team will need to find a way to make up for the experience and size lost this offseason, and I'm not sure they did enough to replace Ibaka and Gasol's impact. With all the respect in the world for Nick Nurse, I'm going to have to take the slight under.
I won't be surprised if I end up eating my words here, but I expect the Raptors to take a step back this season, even if a small one. Lowry is one year older and it's unlikely he continues to defy father time like LeBron. Gasol and Ibaka rarely ended up on top ten reels, but they were extremely smart veterans that played within themselves and gave the Raptors an infusion of energy on both ends. Baynes should be a comparable force on defense and in Pick&Pop scenarios, but he doesn't have the ability to create for others with elite court vision. Alex Len is an extremely 'meh' signing. He'll have his moments, but doesn't move the needle too much in either direction.
The rest of the roster is extremely solid. I've been an OG Anunoby stan since his rookie year and expect another marginal step forward for him. If he can continue to wreak havoc on his drives and generally provide more value as an on ball creator, it will improve the teams' fortunes quite a bit. The player development staff continues to impress and ensures the team always has one or two players coming through the pipeline to prevent any significant regression. Terrance Davis and Matt Thomas should be fixtures in the rotation and they are as deep sleepers as you'll find coming out of school.
Last season may have been a glimpse at what happens when the team relies a bit too heavily on the exploits of Pascal Siakam. He clearly wore down as the season progressed and finished off his 19-20 journey with an underwhelming performance overall. He is about as great of a second option as you can put in place for a team with championship aspirations, but he doesn't have the playmaking abilities to be a true number one and single-handedly drag a team to the highest tier. Not to get too low on him, he just limits their ceiling a bit.
Of course, we can't forget about the coaching genius of Nick Nurse. There are very few better tacticians in the league. He might as flexible and creative as they come, never hesitating to break out a full-court press or 2-3 zone to catch offenses off-guard. He will not allow the team to rest on their laurels or get sloppy in their execution. This is a unit that often punches above its weight, but it will be tough for them to outperform teams with more firepower, even if they have less continuity or cohesiveness.
Indiana Pacers 39.5
This is admittedly a weird team that I don't feel I have a great sense of. It was also a strange offseason for Indiana, who reportedly almost traded a package centered around Myles Turner for Gordon Hayward. That fell through and Hayward signed with Charlotte.
There was also rumblings of a Victor Oladipo trade for months, who has only one year left on his deal. This also didn't come to pass, and Oladipo has sense re-iterated his focus is on Indiana for this year. So, after a whole lot of talking... it's largely the same team as last year.
What I like- Domantas Sabonis' continued development into an all-star level big has been exciting to watch. Myler Turner remains a talented young center. TJ Warren was the story of the bubble for a few weeks with his scoring displays at the end of last season. Victor Oladipo, if healthy, will provide a huge boost for this team. Lastly, Malcolm Brogdon, if healthy, is a steadying force running point for the Pacers.
The keys will once again be health and chemistry. If I knew Oladipo and Brogdon were going to play the whole season injury-free, I'd tell you to take the over on Indiana. Unfortunately, I can't bank on that. With the moves forward their Eastern peers, I'm taking the under for Indiana.
In the midst of all the upgrades made by Indiana's conference rivals, it's easy to be underwhelmed by this roster. Off the rip, multiple players are dealing with injuries. Jeremy Lamb is still on the shelf after an ACL tear and T.J. Warren is dealing with plantar fasciitis. T.J. Warren is as valuable as any player on that team from an offensive perspective. He is a legitimate three-level scorer who can get his anytime and any location.
There is appeal in the team though. Players like Sabonis, Brogdon, and McConnell are definitions of blue collar players who will give their all at all times. There is some things to like about this roster overall, such as their defensive impact and low post options. Not to mention, former most improved player, Victor Oladipo.
Look, I won't sugarcoat things...this season will be an uphill battle for this team that is disciplined, has a plethora of solid players, but lacks high end punch. Oladipo used to be that guy, but we don't know if that version of him is gone for good. Brogdon is a guard with great size that can get a lot done on the court, but he just can't seem to stay healthy.
Any Myles Turner fans out there? He's still around after being thrown into seemingly endless trade rumors and entering his sixth year already. His skills creates a unique frontcourt problem where the Center can't bang and the Power Forward can't stretch the floor. They may not be the most seamless combination, but they are talented nonetheless. If T.J. and Brogdon can stay healthy, there is a universe in where this team hits the 5th seed. Otherwise, it will probably be a heated battle to earn a playoff berth through the play-in tournament.