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Saturday, October 02, 2021

2021-22 Eastern Conference Preview

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a "made man" after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the 2021 NBA title, but there is no indication that he will rest on his laurels. Antetokounmpo has established himself as the league's best and most dominant player, and he has a strong supporting cast anchored by Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. If the Bucks stay healthy, they have an excellent chance to win the NBA championship again.

Despite being the reigning champions, the Bucks may fly underneath the radar because a lot of attention will be focused on the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets are the chic pick to at least win the Eastern Conference, and then battle with the chic pick in the Western Conference--the L.A. Lakers--for the crown. I correctly picked the Bucks to beat the Nets in last year's playoffs, and I favor the Bucks over the Nets this season as well.

The Atlanta Hawks made a surprising run to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals. Throughout NBA history, there have been a few teams that sailed through a perfect storm to reach that level one time, and then never returned. Are the Hawks one of those teams, or have they built a foundation for sustained success?

The Ben Simmons drama in Philadelphia has been much discussed, but the 76ers are not winning a championship any time soon with or without Simmons. "Tanking to the Top" is one of the worst and most misleading book titles ever, and it does not in any way describe what the 76ers did or are doing (other than the tanking part--the "to the top" part is pure fantasy).

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: I ranked the Bucks first in the East prior to last season, and I picked them to win the championship prior to the start of the 2021 playoffs, so I have no reason to "demote" them after they met all of my justified expectations.

In my 2020-21 Eastern Conference Preview, I stated that Antetokounmpo may be on the verge of having a championship breakthrough like Isiah Thomas had in 1989 and Michael Jordan had in 1991: "[T]his 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."

Antetokounmpo finished fourth in the 2021 regular season MVP voting after winning consecutive MVPs, but Antetokounmpo's 2020-21 campaign was arguably just as good as his MVP seasons. For the past three seasons, Antetokounmpo has consistently been a high level scorer (27.7 ppg, 29.5 ppg, 28.1 ppg), rebounder (12.5 rpg, 13.6 rpg, 11.0 rpg), passer (5.9 apg, 5.6 apg, 5.9 apg), field goal shooter (.578, .553, .569), and defender (at least one block per game and at least one steal per game in each of the past three seasons). Jokic would have been my choice for 2021 regular season MVP, but that does not take anything away from how well Antetokounmpo played and how remarkable his play has been not just for the past three seasons, but going back the past five seasons, during which time he has finished no lower than seventh in MVP balloting.

The two main reasons that Antetokounmpo did not win his third regular season MVP are (1) "voter fatigue" (which is the same ridiculous reason that Michael Jordan and LeBron James did not win more regular season MVPs during their respective primes), and (2) Nikola Jokic had a fabulous season for a Denver Nuggets team that exceeded expectations after Jamal Murray suffered a season-ending injury, overshadowing Antetokounmpo's excellent work for a Milwaukee team that many media members portrayed as a disappointing squad.

Of course, Antetokounmpo carved his place into basketball immortality during the 2021 playoffs, averaging 30.2 ppg, a league-playoff high 12.8 rpg, and 5.1 apg. It is a testament to his conditioning, his determination, his focus, and his skill set development that he dominated the NBA Finals (35.2 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, including 50 points, 14 rebounds, five blocked shots, and two assists in Milwaukee's game six series clinching win) after suffering what at first looked like a season-ending knee injury in the Eastern Conference Finals.

It is difficult to win back to back championships, and it is understandable why many people are focusing on the Nets and the Lakers, but Antetokounmpo and the Bucks should not be underestimated.

2) Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant has made a complete recovery from his serious injuries, and he can be counted on to deliver an MVP-level season. However, I do not trust his sidekicks Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

Irving is already an NBA champion with generational wealth who has proven that he can make clutch shots on the biggest stage. He may feel like he has nothing left to prove or accomplish in the NBA; his statements and actions suggest that he would be just as happy, if not happier, doing anything other than what is required to stay in the NBA, let alone be a top level NBA performer. His track record of being injury-prone is well documented, but what should be even more disconcerting to Nets' fans is that Irving's mental focus seems to be far away from basketball.

Harden showed up for last season out of shape, whined and begged his way out of Houston, and then was bitten by karma as his lack of conditioning no doubt contributed to the hamstring injury that never quite healed.

If the Nets are healthy and focused, of course they will be tough to beat, but health and focus are major question marks for this team.

3) Miami Heat: The additions of Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker, and Markieff Morris make this a deeper and tougher team than the squad that lost to the L.A. Lakers in the 2020 NBA "bubble" Finals. Jimmy Butler will likely bounce back from a subpar playoff performance during which he shot just .297 from the field (that is not a misprint) as the Bucks swept the Heat in the first round.

Coach Erik Spoelstra did an excellent job managing egos, roles, and strategies as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh led the Heat to two NBA titles while making four straight NBA Finals appearances from 2011-2014, and then Spoelstra led the Heat to the 2020 NBA Finals without having that kind of star power. The injury-riddled Heat slipped to sixth in the East last season, but the Heat look like the best of the rest in the East this season, just a notch below the Bucks and the Nets.

4) Atlanta Hawks: I am not convinced that the Hawks are for real, but they are a young team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals after Nate McMillan replaced Lloyd Pierce as the team's head coach last season. Trae Young is a talented and gutsy player, but I am always skeptical of the championship aspirations of teams led by small players because size matters in the NBA.

The Hawks did not make any significant personnel moves during the offseason, so they are banking on internal stability and growth as the recipe for sustained success. That is not the worst approach to take after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals--why blow up a team that is doing well?--but that approach conveys the assumption that the team as currently constructed is talented enough and deep enough to not only match last season's playoff run but to go further this season. I suspect that last season the Hawks maxed out their current potential, and that they will not match--let alone surpass--reaching the Eastern Conference Finals without adding more talent.

5) Boston Celtics: The Boston Celtics may have peaked when they reached the Eastern Conference Finals three times in a four season span (2017-18, 2020). Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown have continued to develop individually, but the team has regressed and does not look like a serious contender. Obtaining the fourth seed and losing in the second round may be the realistic ceiling for this team this season. Offseason acquisitions Enes Kanter and Dennis Schroder provide some offensive punch. Perhaps if Al Horford--who played very well in his first stint with the Celtics--still has enough left in the tank to be an impact player at both ends of the court then the Celtics can return to the Eastern Conference Finals, but that sounds more like wishful thinking than realistic planning.

6) Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers posted the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, but then lost game seven at home in the second round to the underdog Atlanta Hawks. In that game seven loss, Ben Simmons eschewed an easy dunk attempt to pass the ball to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and split a pair of free throws to pull the 76ers to within one point (88-87) with 3:29 remaining in the fourth quarter. That one highly scrutinized play did not decide the outcome of the game or the series, but it has become emblematic of the disconnect between Simmons, and the front office, the coaching staff, at least some of his teammates, the media, and the Philadelphia fans.

Simmons' refusal to shoot jump shots and his reluctance to attempt any fourth quarter shots because he might be fouled and have to attempt free throws became a huge story, with the end result being that Simmons is unwilling to play for Philadelphia again, demanding a trade to any other team in the league. It is unusual, to say the least, for a player from a top-seeded team to prefer to play for the worst team in the league, if necessary, than for his current squad.

There is plenty of blame that should be shared for the Simmons fiasco. Simmons has always been a low motor player who seems reluctant to work on his game or expand his skill set, so his extreme response to criticism should not be surprising to anyone who has followed his career. Coach Doc Rivers should have answered the infamous post-game press conference question by stating unequivocally that Simmons can be the starting point guard on a championship team. Even if Rivers thought/thinks otherwise, that is a sentiment to be shared with team management behind closed doors. After you ride with Simmons all the way to a game seven loss, you just cannot publicly throw him under the bus, or even offer anything less than 100% support--if for no other reason than this would lower his trade value if you don't believe in him and do plan to trade him.

Daryl Morey, the latest "stat guru" hired by the 76ers to be their front office savior, comes across as tone deaf and clueless on multiple levels. He has never understood team chemistry, and he is not good at evaluating top level players, though he does have a proven talent for knowing how to effectively fill out the bottom portion of a roster. Unfortunately for the 76ers, finding good value for roster spots 7-10 is not going to help this team win a title. Last season, Morey told Simmons that he was not shopping him, but then openly shopped him to try to obtain James Harden, who according to Morey's metrics is just short of divine perfection as a basketball player. After Simmons became fed up with Rivers and the whole organization, Morey proclaimed that he can be comfortable being uncomfortable and that he will not be pressured into accepting less for Simmons than Simmons is worth; two of the many problems with Morey's approach are (1) the 76ers torched Simmons' value by publicly criticizing him, thereby reducing his market value, and (2) if Simmons follows through on his threat to not show up even if he is fined/suspended/loses all of his salary then Morey has no leverage, which means that all of the GMs who are sick of hearing (often from Morey) how smart Morey is have zero incentive to dig Morey out of the huge hole in which he has buried himself.

Joel Embiid is an MVP caliber talent, but can he maintain the necessary health and motivation to lead this team to a title? Embiid is supposed to be the crown jewel grand prize from the 76ers' years of tanking, but I have consistently criticized the 76ers' tanking under "stat guru" Sam Hinkie, and any sensible person can see a direct link between the tanking and the 76ers' current problems, as I explained after the Celtics swept the 76ers in 2020: "The 76ers have talent, but they also have 'issues,' whether or not Embiid is willing to admit it. Tanking does not promote, cultivate, or develop a winning culture, so it is no surprise that a team built by tanking lacks mental toughness; the 76ers are frontrunners who rely on raw talent, but they do not maximize their talent, and they fold when they face adversity. This is a predictable outcome from tanking, and indeed I predicted this from the start, in contrast to the overheated praise many media members heaped on Sam Hinkie, the creator of 'The Process.'" 

I never trusted "The Process," I don't trust it now, and regardless of how the Simmons situation is resolved I expect the 76ers to remain who I predicted them to be and who they have been: a team that comes up short when it matters most because the correct foundation for success was not put in place when this team was built. 

7) New York Knicks: Any team can have a bad two decades, but under the leadership of a competent front office ("Finally!" Knicks fans exclaim) and Coach Tom Thibodeau, this hard-working team maximized its potential during the 2021 regular season before realizing that the top playoff teams find another gear during the postseason.

Julius Randle's emergence as a an All-Star and as a member of the All-NBA Second Team is a tribute to his work ethic, but it does not seem likely that he can be the best player on a championship team. The Knicks could be a better team this season than last season and still finish lower in the standings, because other teams in the Eastern Conference have improved their rosters to a greater extent.

8) Chicago Bulls: After missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season, the Bulls went all-in attempting to win now and inspire Zach LaVine to re-sign with the team. They signed free agents DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso to go along with midseason acquisition Nikola Vucevic. The Bulls will no doubt improve and it would be a massive disappointment if this team does not qualify for the playoffs, but it would also be surprising if the Bulls earn a top four seed. The Bulls have a lot of offensive firepower, but defense and rebounding remain major concerns.

The apparent permanent implementation of the Play-In Tournament means that the teams that finish the regular season in the top eight may not necessarily qualify for the playoffs. The teams ranked seventh through 10th will participate in the Play-In Tournament, just like last season. The above eight teams are the teams that I predict will qualify for the playoffs, regardless of what the final regular season standings are.

Hiring Rick Carlisle should stabilize the Indiana Pacers, but this Pacers team has far less talent than the ones that Carlisle led to the playoffs during his first stint in Indiana. The Pacers look like a squad that will be fighting for one of the Play-In Tournament slots.

The Charlotte Hornets looked like a playoff team for most of last season before they collapsed down the stretch, going 3-7 in the final 10 games. The Hornets went 24-20 when Gordon Hayward played, but just 9-19 in the games that he missed, including 8-16 in the final 24 games after Hayward suffered a season-ending right foot injury. Hopefully Hayward will return to full health--and remain healthy, which has been a challenge for him in recent years--but even if he does the Hornets are not good enough to crack the top eight in the East. They definitely look like a contender for the Play-In Tournament, which of course means they could end up in the top eight if things break right--but I would not count on that happening.

The Toronto Raptors had the second best record in the Eastern Conference in 2019-20 despite losing the services of 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, but reality hit them hard last season, and losing Kyle Lowry in the offseason is another blow. Nick Nurse is an excellent coach, but the Raptors do not have enough talent to crack the top eight in an improved Eastern Conference. The Raptors could claw their way into the Play-In Tournament, and Nurse's coaching may be enough in a one and done scenario to pull off an upset or two, but I expect the Raptors to miss the playoffs.

The "stat gurus" and the numerous media members who consistently belittle and berate Russell Westbrook may have playoff expectations for the Washington Wizards, but history and logic indicate that teams that lose an MVP-caliber player tend to regress, usually significantly. The Washington Wizards fought their way into the Play-In Tournament last season largely because of Westbrook's MVP caliber play down the stretch. Without Westbrook, this team is headed to the Draft Lottery.

Three Eastern Conference teams have no realistic shot of even fighting to qualify for the Play-In Tournament: Cleveland, Detroit, and Orlando. Hopefully, those teams will try to improve and will compete every night, and not follow the tanking path to nowhere.


I correctly picked six of the eight 2021 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2020: 7/8
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

2006-2021 Total: 96/128 (.750)

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:04 PM



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