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Thursday, October 03, 2019

2019-20 Eastern Conference Preview

The Eastern Conference has been depleted of star power in recent years. LeBron James moved from Cleveland to L.A., Paul George was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City, and this past summer Kawhi Leonard departed Toronto to join forces with Paul George, forming a power duo that makes the L.A. Clippers a legitimate championship contender for the first time in franchise history. Leonard is the first reigning Finals MVP to change teams the year after winning the award.

There is a lot of hype about the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Milwaukee Bucks should be the class of the East now that the Toronto Raptors will be taking a step backwards. Although the 76ers look good on paper and arguably have the best staring lineup in the Eastern Conference, I question the long term chances of a team that relies on the injury-prone Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who has skill set limitations and seems to lack a consistently aggressive mentality.

The Boston Celtics should still be a strong team after essentially swapping Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker, but losing Al Horford to Philadelphia hurts them at both ends of the court while also strengthening a key rival.

The East is wide open from the standpoint that there is not one dominant team, but the reality is that--barring injuries or unforeseen developments--the three above teams will most likely emerge as a cut above the other teams in the conference.

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 has emerged as the heir apparent to LeBron James as the league's best all-around player. Like the young James, however, Antetokounmpo will have to refine and complete his skill set in order to have the same impact in the playoffs that he has in the regular season. Antetokounmpo won the 2019 regular season MVP and earned his first selections to both the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team after posting career-highs in scoring (27.7 ppg, third in the league), rebounding (12.5 rpg, sixth in the league), assists (5.9 apg) and field goal percentage (.578). His averages for blocked shots (1.5 bpg) and steals (1.3 spg) both slightly exceeded his career averages (1.3 and 1.2 respectively).

However, his production and efficiency dropped a bit during the playoffs, as Antetokounmpo proved unable to consistently make jump shots, which affected his ability to attack defenses that sat in the paint and waited to thwart his drives. He averaged 25.5 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 4.9 apg in the playoffs, but his field goal percentage slumped to .492. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA (60-22) and the team's first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2001, yet his game still has room for growth. The good news for Bucks fans is that Antetokounmpo has displayed a relentless work ethic, and thus there is every reason to believe that he will continue to develop as a player.

The Bucks declined to overpay Malcolm Brogdon and instead traded him to the Indiana Pacers. Other than losing Brogdon, the Bucks return intact the key rotation players from a squad that ranked third in field goal percentage, first in points scored, first in defensive field goal percentage and first in rebounds. The Bucks are elite both offensively and defensively, and they have the sport's best individual player. They are clearly the best team in the East; that is not the same as saying that they are the best team by a wide margin, but they are a step above every other team in the East.

2) Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers tanked for four seasons to produce a squad that has lost in the second round of the playoffs each of the past two years. This summer, they lost two starters--Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick--plus rotation player T.J. McConnell, but they acquired Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Trey Burke. The projected starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson is arguably the most talented in the East, but does not include any players with NBA Finals experience, let alone championship experience.

Embiid has playing time restrictions and often misses games due to injury and/or "load management." He is very talented but it is far from certain that he can lead a team to a title. Simmons has seemed to lack a high rev motor dating back to college; the comparison with Magic Johnson is ludicrous, and does Simmons no favors. If he can evolve into an All-NBA player that would be a step up, and still leave him a few steps short of reaching Johnson's level.

Horford will improve the 76ers at both ends of the court, but late game half court execution will likely remain a problem for this team. At least Butler could take--and make--key shots down the stretch. It is not clear who is willing and/or able to do that for the 76ers now.

The ongoing devolution of the East may result in the 76ers reaching the Eastern Conference Finals but this is a flawed team that could be headed toward its third straight second round elimination.

3) Boston Celtics: Last season was disappointing for the Celtics: Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returned from injury to join a young nucleus that had advanced to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, but in 2019 the chemistry was never right and Boston bowed out 4-1 to Milwaukee in the second round.

Irving left Boston to join forces with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, and then the Celtics largely replaced Irving's scoring--but not his playmaking and his playoff experience--by signing Kemba Walker. Enes Kanter is a nice addition as well, though obviously he cannot replace Horford.

This season will tell us a lot about Boston's young nucleus: are the young guys truly stars in the making who just needed for Irving to give them a chance to shine, or were Irving's not so thinly veiled complaints correct? As for Walker, he has played in 11 playoff games during his eight season career and he has not advanced past the first round. Can he be the best player on a contending team, or is he one of Kenny Smith's proverbial "looters in a riot" (players who put up gaudy regular season statistics for mediocre or bad teams but who are not able to carry a good team very far)?

Boston will be in the mix at the top of the conference, and could win the East if things break right--i.e., the Bucks suffer injuries--but most likely the Celtics will lose in the second round of the playoffs.

4) Indiana Pacers: In the past four years, the Pacers have won between 42 and 48 regular season games and lost in the first round of the playoffs four straight times. Victor Oladipo has made the All-Star team in both of his seasons with the Pacers, but he missed the 2019 midseason classic after suffering a season-ending right quad tendon rupture. Oladipo is not expected to be able to play until December or January, and it is uncertain what level his game will be at when he returns. He made the All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive First Team in 2017-18 but he was not playing at quite that level even prior to the injury; his scoring dropped from 23.1 ppg to 18.8 ppg, his field goal percentage slumped from .477 to .423, his free throw percentage declined from .799 to a career-low .730 and his spg average fell from a league-best/career high 2.4 to 1.7. It is not clear that he ever was good enough to be the best player on a championship team, and it is even less clear that he will ever again be as good as he was two seasons ago.

The Pacers lost their second leading scorer (18.0 ppg), Bogdan Bogdanovic, to the Utah Jazz. Wesley Matthews signed with the Bucks and Tyreke Evans was suspended by the NBA. Brogdan and T.J. McConnell will fill the void in the backcourt, while T.J. Warren (acquired from the Phoenix Suns) will bolster the frontcourt.

The net result of all of those moves will probably not be much different from what we have seen the past several years: the Pacers will be a solid team that could possibly advance to the second round, but they will not go any further than that.

5) Brooklyn Nets: Last season, the Nets returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. First-time All-Star D'Angelo Russell led the team in scoring (21.0 ppg) and assists (7.0 apg) but he is with Golden State now in exchange for two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant, who will miss the entire season after rupturing his Achilles. The Nets also signed Kyrie Irving, who will be the focal point of the offense this season. This is at least the fourth distinct stage of Irving's career. He was a "looter in a riot" in Cleveland prior to LeBron James rejoining the team, he was an Andrew Toney-like clutch assassin during Cleveland's four straight Finals trips (including the 2016 title), he was a lightning rod for criticism in Boston last season as the Celtics failed to live up to expectations and now--at least until Durant makes a healthy return--he is the face of a young Brooklyn team. We will learn a lot about Irving this year. Can he parlay his playoff experience from the Cleveland years to lead Brooklyn to the playoffs sans Durant, or is he destined to be remembered as a very good second option who cannot carry a team? My hypothesis is that Irving is better than his worst critics suggest and that the Nets will have a solid season without Durant.

The Nets have a very good coaching staff and a strong organizational culture. The Nets do things the right way and that is why I expect them to be even a little better than last season despite a lot of roster turnover and despite Durant not being available. The Nets will fight for homecourt advantage in the first round, and could advance to the second round, depending on matchups and health.

6) Toronto Raptors: Congratulations, Toronto! You are the first non-American based team to win an NBA title and the first team to watch the reigning Finals MVP leave to play for another squad. Kawhi Leonard came, he "load managed," he saw, he conquered and he moved on to what he expects to be greener, sunnier pastures.

What Leonard left behind is a well-coached team that has a solid nucleus including a five time All-Star guard (Kyle Lowry) and a rising young talent (Pascal Siakam). The Raptors have zero chance of contending for a title as currently constructed without Leonard, but they will play hard and smart and they will be a tough out for someone in the first round of the playoffs. Observers who believe that Toronto's 17-5 regular season record without Leonard foreshadows Toronto being among the top three teams in the East will learn that just because something is true does not mean that it matters; it is true that the Raptors were very good without Leonard last season during a small and skewed sample of games, but that does not tell us much about how the team would fare over 82 games without Leonard.

7) Miami Heat: Pat Riley's teams do not tank and they do not make excuses. The 30-11 run during the second half of the 2016-17 season was a mirage, and it turns out that the Heat were who we thought they were: a team that can win 40-48 games while annually contending for a playoff spot.

Miami has the second highest payroll in the league, and they have not yet received much bang for those considerable bucks. Even in view of the Monopoly money being thrown around to anyone who has a pulse, Goran Dragic's contract has not turned out to be a good value: he has been with the Heat for four and a half seasons, during which time he has made the All-Star team once and the team has advanced past the first round once. Dragic is not the only, or even biggest, mistake that the Heat made but when a one-time All-Star is making over $19 million as the team's second-highest paid player your roster is not constructed to go very far.

The Heat acquired a true All-Star by signing Jimmy Butler. The four-time All-Star, four-time All-Defensive Team member and two-time All-NBA player is by far the best player the Heat have had since the ending of the "Big Three" era. Unfortunately, the Heat lost their leading scorer (Josh Richardson) and their best rebounder/shot blocker (Hassan Whiteside), so the 10-15 wins that Butler is probably worth will just offset the 10-15 wins that those players are worth.

The net result will likely be that the Heat narrowly make the playoffs after missing the cut last season.

8) Detroit Pistons: Under Dwane Casey's leadership, the Pistons made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2016. That was just their second postseason appearance in the past 10 seasons.

Detroit added some interesting pieces--including Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris--to a roster that already included Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. This is not a great team by any stretch of the imagination but it is a well-coached team with a pretty solid starting lineup. If injury-prone players like Griffin, Jackson (who played all 82 games last season for the first time in his career) and Rose stay healthy then the Pistons could finish as high as fourth or fifth, but another eighth seed seems more likely.

As for the rest of the East, the Orlando Magic made no substantive roster changes while several other Eastern Conference teams improved. The Magic will still fight for a playoff berth, and could obtain one if things break just right, but I expect them to fall just short. Atlanta should improve by a few wins, but not enough to make the playoffs. The Charlotte Hornets are in trouble after essentially losing All-NBA guard Kemba Walker for nothing. The Cleveland Cavaliers will improve but not be close to playoff contention.The New York Knicks will again be terrible, but RJ Barrett is a rookie who could make some noise. The Chicago Bulls will remain awful. The Wizards need to reboot.


I correctly picked six of the eight 2018-19 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2019 Total: 83/112 (.741)

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 AM



At Wednesday, October 09, 2019 4:34:00 PM, Blogger Tristan said...

Giannis's per-game numbers appear to be more fitting for his physical stature (6-11, 240) and skill set, similar to the statlines of previous greats (Jabbar, Erving, Olajuwon, David Robinson, to name a few), unlike Lebron's ballpark 27-8-8 line which always seemed contrived to me (micromanaging the offense to get his assists numbers, not rebounding like someone 6-8 / 260 and with his athleticism should).

Injuries or other obstacles aside, the Bucks should make / probably win the Finals this year. Giannis may have several prime years ahead, but the window of opportunity to compete for titles with your current team and/or individual capabilities won't stay open for long.

The Raptors have a puncher's chance of defending their championship, particularly if Siakam can take his skills to the next level.

At Wednesday, October 09, 2019 11:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that Giannis' numbers seem more natural and more in line with his skill set/size than LeBron's numbers do. Some players are more valuable than their statistics suggest, while others are less valuable. LeBron is obviously very valuable, but probably not as valuable as his stats suggest.

The Raptors will be interesting to watch and I definitely expect them to be a playoff team but I will be surprised if they defend their title.


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