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Sunday, December 06, 2020

2020-21 Eastern Conference Preview

The 2019-20 NBA season was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and ultimately finished in the Orlando "bubble" with 22 teams invited to play eight seeding games. The Milwaukee Bucks posted the best record in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive season--and for the second consecutive season the Bucks failed to advance to the NBA Finals, this time losing to the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs.

The Bucks traded away Eric Bledsoe and George Hill to acquire Jrue Holiday as a secondary scorer/ playmaker to provide more support for reigning two-time regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. If that does not prove to be enough to significantly improve the Bucks' postseason results then Antetokounmpo may leave Milwaukee when he becomes a free agent after this season.

The Heat did not make any significant additions, but the most surprising team in the East--if not the entire league--from last season looks poised to make another deep playoff run with a balanced roster led by Jimmy Butler.

The Boston Celtics added Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson, but lost Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. The Celtics look like a top four team in the East, but they do not appear to have quite enough to advance to the NBA Finals. 

The Brooklyn Nets are the most intriguing team in the East. They finished seventh in the East last season--albeit with a losing record--and they now add Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the mix, along with rookie Coach Steve Nash. On paper, the Nets have enough talent to win the East, assuming that Durant and Irving are healthy and play as well as they did before getting hurt. However, there are reasons to be concerned about team chemistry, so I don't see this team leaping straight from the bottom of the playoff pack to the NBA Finals in just one year.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, ranked based on their likelihood of advancing to the NBA Finals:

1) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo won his second consecutive regular season MVP, increasing his scoring and rebounding (career-high 29.5 ppg, compared to 27.7 ppg in 2018-19; career-high 13.6 rpg compared to 12.5 rpg in 2018-19) while continuing to post excellent numbers for assists (5.6 apg, just short of his career-high 5.9 apg in 2018-19) and field goal percentage (.553, 13th in the league but a bit lower than his career-high .578 in 2018-19). He accomplished all of this even though his minutes played declined for the second straight season. Antetokounmpo remained productive and efficient during the playoffs (26.7 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 5.7 apg, .559 field goal percentage) but he did not have the same impact on winning, and that has been the pattern for him the past couple years: he led his team to the best record in the East in both seasons, but in the playoffs he was not able to lift his team to contender status. 

This brings up the classic debate about superstars, going back at least as far as Wilt Chamberlain, and then extending through a variety of players up to and including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James: is the failure to win a title primarily the fault of the superstar due to something lacking in his skill set and/or mentality, or is the failure to win a title primarily the fault of the supporting cast not being good enough? Chamberlain eventually won two titles, but in many quarters he is still depicted--unfairly, in my estimation--as a loser, or at least as someone who did not win as often as he supposedly should have won. Six-time NBA champion Jordan is viewed by many as the greatest winner in NBA history, a view that ignores the reality that Bill Russell led his team to 11 titles during his 13 seasons. Bryant "validated" his three titles won alongside Shaquille O'Neal by winning two more titles--and two Finals MVPs--without O'Neal. James is perhaps the most puzzling all-time great player ever: he has won four titles and four Finals MVPs, but he has lost six times in the Finals, and he blatantly quit in multiple playoff series when his team had a shot to win and advance.

It is easy to speculate or to make bold, unfounded predictions, but the reality is that we will not know Antetokounmpo's story for sure until he is done writing it. I believe that Antetokounmpo has what it takes to lead a team to a title, but I think that he needs to adjust how he plays during the playoffs, and I think that he needs a little bit more postseason help than he has received up to this point. I do not think that his game and/or mentality is limited to the extent that he is precluded from being the best player on a championship team; in other words, I would place him above players such as James Harden, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony, All-Stars who even in their prime lacked one or more necessary factors to be the best player on a championship team. 

As a historian and as a basketball fan, I hope that Antetokounmpo spends his entire career in Milwaukee and that he works on building a franchise from the bottom up the way that Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas did during their championship-winning careers; for that to happen, this season probably must be his 1991 Jordan season or his 1989 Thomas season, the season in which he wins a title (or, at the very least, advances to the NBA Finals) after falling short in the playoffs during the previous seasons. I have picked Milwaukee before and been wrong, but I will pick the Bucks at least one more time, because I am impressed by Antetokounmpo's skill set and mentality, and I believe that he and his team are still on an upward trajectory.

2) Miami Heat: No one, other than maybe Jimmy Butler, expected the Heat to advance to the 2020 NBA Finals; if you gave Pat Riley a lie detector test prior to the season, I doubt that even he could honestly say that he expected that to happen.

Butler has established a track record that teams get better after he arrives, and they get worse after he leaves, but last season provided the most dramatic bullet point for his expanding resume, as he led the Heat to the Finals in his first season with the team while his former team, the Philadelphia 76ers, bowed out meekly in the first round of the playoffs. 

The Heat did not make any splashy signings in the offseason, though the acquisition of Avery Bradley adds defense and depth. Several teams in the East have improved, but the Heat have a legitimate opportunity to return to the NBA Finals.

3) Boston Celtics: The Celtics are a very good team, a team that has multiple All-Stars--including one,  Jayson Tatum, who looks like a potential future MVP. They have knocked on the door of the NBA Finals three times in the past four years only to lose in the Eastern Conference Finals (2017-18, 2020). Perhaps they are the 1980s Pistons or 1990s Bulls, poised to make a breakthrough; remember that in the 1980s it was not clear whether Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, or some other team would emerge after Boston declined; only in retrospect can we look at what happened and believe that the rise of the Pistons and then the rise of the Bulls was inevitable. So, while we are focused in the moment on Miami's 2020 Finals run and on what Antetokounmpo's legacy will turn out to be, Boston could end up being the team that gets over the hump.

However, I would say that Boston winning a championship is possible/plausible, but not probable. Yes, the Celtics are very good, but they just don't seem to be quite good enough. The historical parallel for this team would appear to be a team like the 1980s Milwaukee Bucks, a squad that repeatedly went toe to toe with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics--the dominant Eastern Conference teams, winners of the 1981, 1983, 1984, and 1986 NBA titles--only to never make it to the NBA Finals.

4) Brooklyn Nets: The last time Kevin Durant was healthy for a complete season, he led the Golden State Warriors to the second of back to back titles while making a strong case that he, not LeBron James, was the best player in the NBA. He put a scare into Toronto in the 2019 NBA Finals before a season-ending injury forced him out of the series and doomed his Warriors to defeat. If Durant returns to anything approaching that level then the Nets will be legitimate championship contenders, particularly if his buddy Kyrie Irving is also able to return to the form he displayed while winning the 2016 championship alongside LeBron James as a Cleveland Cavalier.

Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure how much, if anything, Durant lost during his extended absence, and the same is true for Irving. Irving is a wondrously talented ball-handler and clutch scorer, but he has never had much team success as the first option (fortunately for Brooklyn, he will not be the first option as long as a healthy Durant is around), and chemistry questions/issues often seem to surround him. Irving just has a knack for saying or doing things that appear to rub some of his teammates the wrong way. Is Irving a champion who has high standards who expects others to hold themselves to high standards as well, or is he a brooding malcontent who is more trouble than he is worth? The truth is probably more complex than the blunt, simple narratives that the media love to portray. If Durant is healthy and productive then any drama associated with Irving will likely be muted, if not eliminated. 

This is a tough team to handicap. The best case scenario is obvious and plausible: advance to the NBA Finals and possibly even win the title. The worst case scenario is equally obvious and plausible: Durant and/or Irving get hurt, chemistry issues erupt, the team either misses the playoffs or else loses in the first round.

My best estimate is that reality will fall somewhere in the middle: a top four seed, a chance to make a deep playoff run if everything breaks right, but most likely a second round loss that will be a stepping stone for possible title contention in the following years.

5) Philadelphia 76ers: Daryl Morey left the Houston Rockets with the stated intention of spending more time with his family, only to quickly sign up to be the Philadelphia 76ers' President of Basketball Operations, which is a de facto demotion for Elton Brand even though Brand retains his position as the franchise's General Manager. It is clear that Morey, not Brand, will be the final decision maker on player personnel and the coaching staff.

Morey proved at least two things in Houston: (1) He does not know how to build a championship team; (2) he is rather skilled at finding undervalued role players and plugging them into his team's rotation without overpaying them. His moves since arriving to Philadelphia fit both molds, as the 76ers got rid of Al Horford and Josh Richardson while acquiring Dwight Howard, Danny Green, Seth Curry, and Terrance Ferguson. Those are not bad moves, but they are also not moves that shake up the balance of power in the East or lift the 76ers very much in the standings.

The 76ers finished sixth in the East last season before being swept by Boston in the first round. The 76ers may move up to fifth in 2021, but they will almost certainly once again be first round fodder.

The 76ers first hired "stat guru" Sam Hinkie and now they are relying on "stat guru" Daryl Morey but, contrary to a recent book title, it is not accurate to say that they were or are "Tanking to the Top." If anything, it could be argued that the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons duo has peaked, and is sliding toward mediocrity. 

6) Toronto Raptors: The Raptors surprised me--and many other people--by finishing with the second best record in the East despite losing the services of 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Toronto lost a tough, seven game second round series to Boston, but the Raptors did nothing substantive to improve their roster during the offseason, and they lost two of the big men who contributed to their championship run, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.

Nick Nurse has proven to be an excellent coach, Pascal Siakam blossomed into an All-Star, and Fred VanVleet--who the Raptors re-signed during the offseason--looks like a future All-Star but losing three key rotation players in two years is tough to overcome. The Raptors are still a playoff team, but they are not a team that will advance past the first round.  

7) Indiana Pacers: The Pacers replaced Coach Nate McMillan with Nate Bjorkgren (an assistant coach for the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors), but they made no significant roster moves. This team has lost in the first round of the playoffs five years in a row, and that trend will almost certainly continue in 2021.

8) Washington Wizards: Acquiring All-NBA guard Russell Westbrook in exchange for John Wall, who has not played an NBA game in more than two years due to various injuries, immediately elevates the Wizards to playoff status. Westbrook, a former regular season MVP (2017), played at an MVP level for about two months last season prior to the league shutting down due to COVID-19. He adjusted pretty quickly to playing alongside James Harden before lifting his game during that two month stretch, but Westbrook's game did not return to an MVP level after he contracted COVID-19 and then suffered a league injury in the "bubble." Assuming that Westbrook is fully healthy now, there is no reason to think that he cannot resume playing at an MVP level; he should be much more comfortable in Washington playing for his former Oklahoma City Coach Scott Brooks than he was playing in Houston as part of the "James Harden Dribble, Dribble, Dribble Show."

The Wizards finished ninth in the Eastern Conference last season, and an MVP caliber player is typically worth at least 15 wins over the course of an 82 game season--or 13 games during a 72 game season--so if all other factors are relatively equal then it is reasonable to expect the Wizards to improve from 25-47 to 38-32, give or take a couple wins.

The rest of the East figures to be rather dismal. The Orlando Magic were one of two East teams to make the playoffs last season with a sub-.500 record, but the other team (Brooklyn) just added Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, while the Magic's main addition is first round pick Cole Anthony. It is not difficult to project Washington moving past the Magic, pushing the Magic out of the playoff picture and into the Draft Lottery. The remaining East teams each had a winning percentage of .354 or worse (equivalent to a 29-53 record in an 82 game season or a 25-47 record in a 72 game season); all of those teams have major weaknesses, and none of them made offseason moves that are likely to have a significant enough impact on winning during the upcoming season to move into the top eight in the standings, but if I had to pick one team from the "Subpar Seven" to be a sleeper I would say to keep an eye on Detroit, a team that moved out a lot of players and pulled off a bit of a surprise by acquiring Jeremi Grant. The Pistons probably did not do enough to jump from 20-46 to playoff contention in one season but if there is one sleeper among these "sleeping" teams they could be it. The Charlotte Hornets signed Gordon Hayward and drafted LaMelo Ball, so they should be better than 23-42 this season but it does not seem likely that those two players are enough to carry the Hornets to the postseason.


I correctly picked seven of the eight 2020 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2019: 6/8
2018: 6/8
2017: 5/8
2016: 5/8
2015: 5/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2020 Total: 90/120 (.750)

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:33 PM



At Monday, December 07, 2020 12:57:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

I really hope Durant comes back at least near his pre-injury form but even if he comes back better than ever I'm not convinced that he and Irving have complementary playing styles. An overlooked aspect of Golden State's success with Durant was Curry's willingness to defer to Durant and fit in to his game. Durant's seamless transition into their system was in large part because of this and I hope something similar happens with the Durant/Irving duo.

I know that Irving wasn't always thrilled to be LeBron's teammate but they did play very well off of each other and many people probably don't realize just how historically rare that duo was at the Finals level in terms of scoring. I think I have this right, they were the first teammates to each average at least 27.0 ppg in the Finals for the winning team (2016), Durant and Curry also did this in 2018, and they are the first teammates to each average at least 29.0 ppg in a Finals since Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in 1963 (2017).

At Monday, December 07, 2020 10:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Durant has thrived while playing with two point guards who have different styles (Westbrook, Curry), so I don't doubt his willingness and ability to mesh with Irving. Irving is a bit harder to read as a player and as a person, but he has already been a major contributor to a championship team so if he has the same mentality that he displayed during that run then he and Durant should form an excellent duo. If Irving chafes at Durant being the number one option then there could be problems, but I think that LeBron kept making the relationship "big brother, little brother" while Durant does not have such a patronizing attitude.


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