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Saturday, October 01, 2022

2022-23 Eastern Conference Preview

Midway through the 2021-22 season, many "experts" questioned if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could play together effectively, but the Boston Celtics ignored the noise and advanced to the NBA Finals before losing to the Golden State Warriors. The Celtics have reached the Eastern Conference Finals four times in the past six seasons, and they are poised to advance at least that far again in 2022-23, even with Coach Ime Udoka being suspended by the team for at least one full season.

However, the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks should be considered the preseason favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Khris Middleton is healthy, and the Bucks added depth by acquiring Joe Ingles, who will miss the start of the season as he recovers from an ACL injury suffered in February 2022 when he played for the Utah Jazz. A playoff rematch of Boston versus Milwaukee would be a great series. 

In the latest edition of "As the Brooklyn Nets Turn," Kevin Durant rescinded his request that the Nets either trade him or fire General Manager Sean Marks and Coach Steve Nash. If "I flexed and nobody budged" were a person, his name would be Kevin Durant; the Nets shrugged at Durant's ultimatum, dangled him in the trade market at a price that no one would likely pay for a 33 year old player who has already had a serious injury, and then waited for Durant to come to his senses: the Nets could be confident that Durant was not going to hold out, and they have all the leverage because he is under contract for a multi-year deal.

Still, even with Durant back in the fold the Nets have more questions than an attorney conducting a cross-examination of a lying witness: How many games will Kyrie Irving play? How many games will Ben Simmons play? Is Durant really content to be in Brooklyn, or is he just patiently plotting his next attempt to flee for what he hopes/perceives to be greener pastures? If the Nets were collectively focused on winning a title, they would be a reasonable choice as the favorites in the East, if not the entire league; if the Nets implode, they might struggle to make the playoffs. Right now, I see them as the East's third best team, and a tough out for Boston in the second round.

With the addition of Donovan Mitchell, the Cleveland Cavaliers have enough offensive talent combined with their defensive mindset to beat any team in a seven game series, but it remains to be seen if the Cavaliers can stay healthy, and if they can consistently play at a high level under playoff pressure.

Yes, I am aware that the Miami Heat had the best record in the East last season, and that they pushed Boston to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. I am also aware that the Heat only finished two games ahead of Boston, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. Boston improved more in the offseason than Miami did. When healthy, Milwaukee has a better team than Miami. I am not sure that Philadelphia will be better than Miami but it will probably be close, and I definitely think that Donovan Mitchell plus improved health will be worth nine games in the standings for Cleveland.

The Philadelphia 76ers have a decent amount of talent, but they have James Harden in a major role, and no team is going to win a title with James Harden in a major role--I've been saying it for a decade, I've been right, and I will keep saying it. Also, Joel Embiid has yet to prove that he can stay healthy enough to lead the 76ers past the second round. 

The Toronto Raptors are very well-coached and they have some good young players, so they can be a spoiler if things break right for them and/or wrong for someone else, but it is difficult to picture a scenario in which they win the East or even reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

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: Khris Middleton's knee injury derailed Milwuakee's bid to repeat as NBA champions. The Bucks pushed the Celtics to seven games in the second round even without Middleton and--while taking nothing away from the Celtics--it is reasonable to say that a healthy Middleton would have been worth one more Milwaukee win in that series.

Giannis Antetokounmpo won the regular season MVP in 2019 and 2020 before capturing the 2021 Finals MVP. Regardless of who wins those individual trophies in a given season, Antetokounmpo has established himself as the league's best player: he is an elite scorer, rebounder, passer, and defender, he does not take nights off, and there is zero drama surrounding him. No other player who is mentioned in the best player conversation checks off every one of those boxes. 

It is fascinating that the Clown (also known as Gilbert Arenas) and the Flailing Flopper (also known as James Harden) have both publicly mocked Antetokounmpo for supposedly lacking all-around basketball skills and work ethic. Arenas and Harden have combined to produce 24 seasons without a championship--and if Harden had not ridden the coattails of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to the 2012 NBA Finals then Arenas and Harden would also have combined for nearly a quarter century of not reaching the NBA Finals without buying a ticket. The concept of staying quiet and letting people just assume that you are a fool as opposed to opening your mouth and removing any doubt sailed over the heads of Arenas and Harden just like their errant shots sailed past the basket during their playoff appearances.

Last season, Antetokounmpo averaged a career-high 29.9 ppg (second in the NBA), 11.6 rpg (sixth), and 5.8 apg while shooting .553 from the field. He led the NBA in playoff scoring (31.7 ppg) while averaging 14.2 rpg and 6.8 apg. He is just 27 years old, so he may not have even reached his peak yet!

If Antetokounmpo stays healthy and has even just a decent supporting cast around him, he will win multiple championships and he will establish himself as the best player of the 2020s.

2) Boston Celtics: The popular notion that the Celtics could not win a title with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as their two best players makes no sense. Tatum and Brown are both versatile two-way players who have superior size, skills, and athleticism. If Tatum is not already an MVP-level player then he is not far behind, and Brown is not far behind him. I did not foresee the Celtics as a championship contender last season not because of their star duo but rather because I was skeptical about the team's supporting cast--but Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams played very well.

The addition of Malcolm Brogdon bolsters an already deep team, but the season-ending injury suffered by new acquisition Danilo Gallinari is unfortunate. 

The Celtics are good enough to return to the NBA Finals, but if the Bucks are healthy then I expect the Bucks to prevail in what should be an electrifying Eastern Conference Finals.

It is too soon to say how the Celtics will be impacted by the elevation of assistant coach Joe Mazzulla to head coach while Ime Udoka serves a suspension of at least one season for violating multiple team rules, but I believe that because Mazzulla was promoted from within the team the transition will be smoother than some "experts" seem to expect; he is familiar with the players, and the players are familiar with him.

3) Brooklyn Nets: It is often difficult to understand what Kevin Durant is thinking or why seems to be perpetually dissatisfied or why he says some of the things he says--but when he steps on the court he is all business and he remains one of the best players in the league. The first round sweep at the hands of a superior Boston team was not one of the highlights of Durant's career, but that was also not a surprising end to a disjointed season during which Durant's co-stars abandoned him for a variety of reasons/excuses.

The Nets went 36-19 during the regular season when Durant played, and he averaged 29.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg, and 6.4 apg with shooting splits of .518/.383/.910. Durant will be 34 when the season begins and he has already recovered from one serious injury, but there is no reason to think that he does not have at least one more MVP-level season left.

Kyrie Irving was brilliant when he played (27.4 ppg, 5.8 apg) but he only played in 29 games. It is not clear if being a great basketball player is the most important thing to him, and there is a decent amount of evidence suggesting that basketball is not his top priority.

Ben Simmons did not play in a single game for the Nets after they acquired him in a trade for overrated malcontent James Harden. Simmons can guard any position, and he is a superior playmaker and rebounder. His limitations as a shooter are well-documented, but if he averages 16-8-8 then he will have more than done his part to put the Nets in position to contend. There are questions about his mental health and about his balky back, but in the context of this preview the hope and assumption is that he will be healthy and productive.

When the Nets are healthy and whole they can be a dynamic offensive team. Their weaknesses are size, defense, and rebounding. Simmons checks off all three of those important boxes. From a talent standpoint, this team at full strength could beat any team in the league in a seven game series--but the intangibles (including coaching, chemistry, mindset) suggest that the Nets will not have quite enough to beat the Bucks or Celtics in a seven game series.

4) Cleveland Cavaliers: Despite numerous injuries, the Cavaliers finished as an elite defensive team (fifth in points allowed, eighth in defensive field goal percentage). They are a pesky, scrappy, and well-coached team. The missing links were health and offensive efficiency. The addition of Donovan Mitchell will boost Cleveland's offense, because Mitchell can create offense for himself and for others. If the Cavaliers are reasonably healthy then they will be very dangerous. The only thing that they lack (other than playoff experience together as a group) is a legit superstar/MVP caliber player. Milwaukee has Antetokounmpo, Boston has Tatum, and Brooklyn has Durant. Star power matters, so it will take a lot for Cleveland to not just knock off one of the top three teams but to beat two of them in a seven game series, which is what it may take to reach the NBA Finals. 

5) Miami Heat: The Heat had a remarkable regular season. Each of their top four players in minutes per game (Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, and Bam Adebayo) missed at least 16 games, but the Heat battled their way to the East's best record. They are not a big team nor do they rebound very well, but they ranked fourth in points allowed and fourth in defensive field goal percentage. They do not attempt a large number of three pointers (ranking 14th in that category), but they led the league in three point field goal percentage (.379)--and they led the league in three point field percentage defense. They are disciplined, they are well-conditioned, and they don't beat themselves.

In short, Erik Spoelstra is a great coach, and Pat Riley is a great organizational leader; Riley is the only executive who did not roll over for LeBron James, and it is not a coincidence that James won more titles (two) in Miami than he has anywhere else despite his Miami stint being shorter than his tenure with Cleveland or L.A.

So why am I listing Miami as the fifth best team in the East? Boston was better last season, and improved more in the offseason. Healthy Milwaukee is better than Miami, as is healthy Brooklyn. I may be reaching a bit with Cleveland, and I would not be shocked if Miami finishes fourth and Cleveland finishes fifth. The point is that Milwaukee, Boston, and Brooklyn are a cut above teams 4-6.

6) Philadelphia 76ers: Somebody already made money with an absurdly titled book about how the 76ers were built--the 76ers most assuredly have not "tanked to the top"-- and in 10 years or less somebody will make money writing about how the Daryl Morey/Joel Embiid/James Harden 76ers "could've/should've" won an NBA title. Maybe Morey will even write the preface to that book and assert that if you look at the "advanced basketball statistics" then not only is Harden a better scorer than Michael Jordan but the 76ers actually had the best team even though they did not win a championship.

Embiid is an MVP-caliber player. Harden is an All-Star caliber player. Tyrese Maxey is developing into a very good player, and Tobias Harris is an underrated player who does not seek the limelight. Doc Rivers is a championship coach.

The parts may seem to be there for a championship run, but the whole is much less than the sum of the parts. Embiid is never in top physical condition, and he lacks something as a leader. Harden is the most overrated player of the past 10 years, and one of the most overrated players in NBA history--yes, when you are an All-Star level player but somehow have a trophy case containing an MVP and a 75th Anniversary Team jacket then you are both good and vastly overrated. Maxey and Harris are good, but the other contenders have third and fourth options who are just as good, if not better.

It is interesting that Morey is filling out the roster by making Philadelphia into Houston East; nothing against P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., but considering Houston's playoff flameouts during the Morey/Harden era I am not sure that bringing that band back together is the way to go. The 76ers need young, energetic two-way players who can step up when Embiid is fatigued/injured and when Harden disappears. Tucker and House Jr. are solid supporting players, but when Embiid and/or Harden inevitably fade they will not be able to make enough of a difference. Brooklyn-Philadelphia could be an interesting first round series in terms of the Harden/Simmons subplots, but if Brooklyn is whole the games themselves will be less competitive than some may expect.

7) Toronto Raptors: If Cleveland-Miami-Philadelphia represent the second tier in the East, then Toronto stands atop the third tier. The Raptors do not have a superstar, but they have several very good two-way players who are interchangeable in terms of size and skill set, plus a pair of small bulldog guards (Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr.) who give no quarter. It will be interesting to see what the ceiling is for Scottie Barnes. If he can develop into an MVP level player then the Raptors could be a contender, but even if that happens it is not likely to happen this season.

The coaching of Nick Nurse is a major advantage for the Raptors. There are few, if any, games in which the Raptors will be outprepared or outschemed. 

This is a team that could put a scare into one of the top teams in the first round before losing in six or seven games.

8) Atlanta Hawks: Before last season, I expressed skepticism that the Hawks are really an elite team even though they reached the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals. Sure enough, the Hawks plummeted back to Earth last season. The addition of Dejounte Murray improves Atlanta's size, talent, and versatility, but has anyone noticed that despite all of his efforts he could not even lift San Antonio to the playoffs for the past three seasons? Yes, the Hawks are better, but so are several other teams in the East. The Hawks were first round fodder in 2022, and they figure to be first round fodder in 2023. They score a lot, but they do not rebound or defend well. This is basically Portland East, with Trae Young playing the role of Damian Lillard. Lillard has reached the Western Conference Finals once in a 10 year career, and Young is on the same trajectory unless/until the Hawks add size, talent, and a defensive mentality.

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. The above eight teams are the teams that I predict will qualify for the playoffs, regardless of what the final regular season standings are. 

The Chicago Bulls earned the sixth seed last season before losing 4-1 to Milwaukee in the first round. The Bulls ranked third in field goal percentage but just 13th in scoring, 16th in points allowed, 26th in defensive field goal percentage, and 28th in rebounding. Offseason additions Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond do not figure to move the needle significantly, and the improvement of several teams will result in Chicago dropping out of the top eight. Bulls' fans might argue that a rash of injuries held the team back, and that good health will lift the Bulls higher in the standings; we shall see if the Bulls can stay healthy, and if that happens then we will see how good this team really is. The recent report that Lonzo Ball will be out indefinitely after knee surgery is bad news for the Bulls.

The New York Knicks took a step backward in the 2022 season after reaching the first round of the 2021 playoffs. The addition of Jalen Brunson should help, but there are good reasons to question if Julius Randle can be the best player on a team that makes much noise in the playoffs. The Bulls and Knicks will likely finish in the top 10 before getting eliminated in the Play-In Tournament.

The Charlotte Hornets went 43-39 with a good offense (fourth in scoring, 11th in field goal percentage) and below average defense (20th in defensive field goal percentage, 25th in points allowed). They did not upgrade their roster in the offseason, and thus they figure to slide down in the standings.

The Detroit Pistons are a young team that does not defend well. That is not a recipe for success.

In my 2021-22 Eastern Conference Preview, I declared, "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."

Sure enough, after getting rid of Westbrook--the media's favorite scapegoat--the Wizards dropped from being a playoff team in 2021 to having the 12th best record in the 15 team Eastern Conference in 2022. They did not add enough talent in the offseason to move up in the standings.

In the first season of Rick Carlisle's second stint as coach of the Indiana Pacers, the Pacers went 25-57, their worst winning percentage (.305) since 1984-85 (22-60, .268). The Pacers traded away Malcolm Brogdon, and they lost T.J. Warren to free agency. Carlisle is the team's fourth coach in the past seven years, and it is fair to say that the Pacers are in full rebuild mode, which hopefully will not devolve into unadulterated tanking.

The Orlando Magic are tanking. I wonder when the tanking teams will take their "advanced basketball statistics" to the natural conclusion, and start shooting at the wrong basket? After all, if losing as many games as possible to get high draft picks is supposedly a brilliant strategy then wouldn't it make sense to score points for the other team to ensure a loss?


I correctly picked six of the eight 2022 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2021: 6/8
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

2006-2022 Total: 102/136 (.750)

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:40 PM



At Sunday, October 09, 2022 5:11:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I think the Nets are ranked too high, and the Sixers too low.

The Nets do not have the size and power to win 55 plus games, nor do they have the health and focus to exceed the sum of their parts.

The Sixers on the other hand, do, and their MVP caliber player is in the middle of his prime - unlike Durant.

At Monday, October 10, 2022 3:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


When Durant and Irving have played together the Nets have been very good for the most part, even though they lack size and power. I suspect that Irving will not miss nearly as many games this season, and that Durant will remain healthy. Simmons is an interesting X factor at both ends of the court.

Embiid has yet to prove that he can stay healthy for long stretches, nor has he proven that he can lead a team past the second round. I also would argue that Harden is a corrosive influence who annually disappears in the playoffs. All of that adds up to second round loss, at best, to me.


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