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Tuesday, October 03, 2023

2023-24 Eastern Conference Preview

On paper, the Milwaukee Bucks look like the best team in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NBA: they have perhaps the league's best all-around player (two-time regular season MVP/2021 NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo), a high-scoring guard who is also a good passer (Damian Lillard), an excellent two-way wing player (Khris Middleton), a first-rate center who can score and defend (Brook Lopez), and a deep supporting cast. After losing to the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2023 playoffs, the Bucks hired Adrian Griffin to replace Mike Budenholzer as coach. In 2021, Budenholzer led the Bucks to their first NBA title since 1971, but he also presided over several upset losses in the playoffs. Griffin has no head coaching experience, but he has been an NBA assistant coach for over a decade, and he was a member of Nick Nurse's staff when the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA title.

The Boston Celtics have reached the Eastern Conference Finals five times in the past seven years (2017-18, 2020, 2022-23) and they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals. They had a busy off-season, signing Jaylen Brown to a supermax deal, acquiring Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, and losing Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams III.

The Miami Heat were the surprise team of the 2023 playoffs, reaching the NBA Finals for the second time in four years after narrowing avoiding elimination in the Play-In Tournament. The Heat benefited from a back injury that limited Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round, and from an ankle injury that hobbled Boston's Jayson Tatum in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. Injuries are a factor in sports, and the Heat deserve full credit for making the most of their opportunities. Looking forward, it remains to be seen if the Heat are a legitimate title contender, or if they are a scrappy team that took advantage of unusual circumstances during their NBA Finals runs in 2020 and 2023.

The 2024 Eastern Conference Finals will most likely feature two of the above three teams. 

The Philadelphia 76ers are stuck in a "Can't win with him, can't win without him" trap. We have seen over a decade's worth of evidence from Houston, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia that a team with James Harden in a major role cannot win a championship. Harden has demanded that Philadelphia trade him, but the sad reality for long-suffering 76ers fans is that their team is unlikely to win a title if the 76ers keep Harden, and their team is just as unlikely to win a title with whatever assets Daryl Morey can scrape together for Harden. The 76ers replaced Doc Rivers with Nick Nurse, but that coaching change is not likely to move the needle because coaching is not the team's problem: the team's main problem is Morey's unrequited love affair with Harden, although a problem that looms almost as large is that 2023 regular season MVP Joel Embiid has never been healthy enough, dominant enough, and focused enough to lead the 76ers past the second round of the playoffs. Tanking promotes a losing mentality; the 76ers most assuredly have not "tanked to the top," and I stand by my prediction that the 76ers will not reach the top until they purge their organization of all remnants of the tanking process and the flawed thinking underlying that process: the 76ers are no more likely to win a title with "stat guru" Morey at the helm than they were with "stat guru" Sam Hinkie running the show.

The New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers are both teams on the rise, but neither team is a viable threat to reach the 2024 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: It is interesting to see how often the Bucks are criticized for winning "only" one NBA championship. Since LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018, two Eastern Conference teams have won NBA titles: Toronto in 2019 and Milwaukee in 2021. Toronto's title was a one-off championship run, as Kawhi Leonard had his sights set on returning to the United States. It could be argued that the Bucks "should" have advanced further in the playoffs in seasons other than 2021, but Milwaukee's one championship is one more title than the much-hyped Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Miami Heat have combined to win in the past five years.

Last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo was third in regular season MVP voting--his fifth straight top four finish--and made the All-NBA First Team for the fifth straight time while ranking fifth in the NBA scoring (career-high 31.1 ppg), and third in rebounding (11.8 rpg). He shot .553 from the field, and he ranked second on the team in assists (5.7 apg). Antetokounmpo is perhaps the best all-around player in the league, and he is just entering his prime as a 28 year old veteran of 10 NBA seasons; it could be argued that Nikola Jokic is more dominant offensively as a scorer/passer, but the counterargument is that Antetokounmpo is a much better defender than Jokic.

The offseason acquisition of Damian Lillard for excellent two-way guard Jrue Holiday is considered a blockbuster deal by some, but Holiday was an important player for Milwaukee's 2021 championship team and he made the All-Defensive Team in each of his three Milwaukee seasons. Lillard is a more explosive offensive player than Holiday, but the Bucks will miss Holiday's defense and toughness.

Antetokounmpo has a strong roster built around him--led by Lillard (career-high 32.3 ppg last season for Portland), Brook Lopez (15.9 ppg), and Khris Middleton (15.1 ppg)--and I will stand by what I wrote in last season's Eastern Conference Preview: "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: Even though the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors are the only Eastern Conference teams to win an NBA title since 2016, a strong case can be made that Boston has been the most consistently excellent Eastern Conference team during that time period with five appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals plus one NBA Finals appearance. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have led the way for Boston for the past several years. Last season, Tatum set career highs in scoring (30.1 ppg, sixth in the league and a franchise single-season record), rebounding (8.8 rpg), and assists while earning his first top five finish in regular season MVP voting (fourth). Brown set career highs in scoring and rebounding (26.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) while matching his career high in assists (3.5 apg).

Joe Mazzulla did a credible job as the last-minute replacement for Coach Ime Udoka, though the Celtics slipped from first in the league in both defensive field goal percentage and points allowed in 2021-22 to fifth in each of those categories in 2022-23.

This summer, the Celtics remade their roster, parting ways with several players who had been key contributors: they traded 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart to Memphis, did a sign and trade sending Grant Williams to Dallas, and then shipped Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams III to Portland. Smart and Williams provided a lot of grit, toughness, and defensive intensity, but they are both undersized players. Brogdon had a very good regular season, but he fell off during the playoffs after being injured, and after the season ended he seemed to sour on his role/status with the team. Williams III is an excellent defensive player but he inability to stay healthy makes him expendable.

The Celtics added Kristaps Porzingis, the injury-prone 7-3 power forward whose career averages (19.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.8 bpg) just hint at the potential talent that he could unleash if he stays healthy and is utilized optimally. They received Jrue Holiday for Brogdon and Williams III. Holiday is an All-Star, an All-Defensive Team member, and the starting point guard for Milwaukee's 2021 championship team; he brings a lot of value at both ends of the court, and he is a model teammate.

The changes that the Celtics made added size and versatility at the expense of a bit of depth, but the twin focal points of this team are Tatum and Brown: as long as they continue to play at a high level, the Celtics will continue to be legit title contenders. Boston's top six player rotation--Brown and Tatum flanked by Kristaps Porzingis, Jrue Holiday, Al Horford, and Derrick White--is perhaps the league's best.

3) Miami Heat: The Heat posted the Eastern Conference's best record in 2022 (53-29) before losing to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, but many commentators--including me--expected several of the teams closely bunched behind the Heat in the standings to vault ahead of Miami in 2023. Sure enough, the Heat fell to seventh in the Eastern Conference in 2023 and they barely survived the Play-In Tournament, but then the Heat stormed through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 12-6 record before losing 4-1 to the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals

Is the real Miami team the one that looked mediocre for an 82 game regular season in 2022-23, or the one that went on extended playoff runs in 2022 and 2023?

The Heat made no secret of the fact that they wanted to acquire Lillard while giving up as little as possible, so it is a double blow that Lillard not only landed in Milwaukee but that subsequently Jrue Holiday became a Celtic; the Heat's two main Eastern Conference rivals improved while--at best--the Heat stood pat. Depending on how highly one ranks Gabe Vincent (who signed with the L.A. Lakers) and Max Strus (who became a Cavalier in a sign and trade deal) or how easily one expect the Heat to replace those players, it could be argued that the Heat got worse during the offseason.

If Milwaukee and Boston are healthy, then Miami is no better than the third best team in the East.

4) Philadelphia 76ers: Here are some questions for Daryl Morey:

  1. Do you still believe that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan?
  2. Do you regret staking your reputation on the hope that Harden would outperform his horrific elimination game resume (to which Harden added yet another awful stat line last season)? 
  3. Do you still believe that your application of "advanced basketball statistics" confers a tangible advantage for your team even though the playoff results for your Houston teams were statistically no better than average and your Philadelphia teams have yet to advance past the second round? 

The 76ers' ownership group should ask those questions and pay close attention to the answers, because the harsh reality facing this franchise is that the 76ers cannot win with Harden, nor are they likely to be able to win with whatever assets Morey may acquire in exchange for the disgruntled player with a vastly inflated sense of his current market value.

Joel Embiid achieved his biggest goal--winning the regular season MVP--but he scored 15 points on 5-18 field goal shooting as the 76ers lost game seven at Boston after losing game six at home. Embiid's talent is undeniable, but he has yet to prove that he can be the best player on a team that makes a deep playoff run.

Coach Nick Nurse has the unenviable task of turning this toxic mix into a championship contender. Nurse is a very good coach who may eventually win his second NBA title, but he is not going to win that title in Philadelphia with Morey running the show, Embiid as the face of the franchise, and Harden playing the role of bearded court jester.

5) New York Knicks: Last season, the Knicks posted their best winning percentage (.573) since 2012-13, and they won a playoff series for the first time since that season as well. Coach Tom Thibodeau has led the Knicks to the playoffs twice in three seasons after the team missed the playoffs for seven straight years. He inherited a squad that ranked 17th in defensive field goal percentage and 18th in points allowed in 2019-20; the Knicks ranked third and 13th respectively in those categories last season.

Julius Randle has made the All-Star team in two of Thibodeau's three seasons, and last season Randle set a career high in scoring (25.1 ppg) while leading the team in rebounding (10.0 rpg) and ranking second on the Knicks in assists (4.1 apg). Free agent acquisition Jalen Brunson had an All-Star caliber season (24.1 ppg, team-high 6.2 apg). Brunson lifted his game in the playoffs--averaging 27.8 ppg and 5.6 apg--but Randle slumped to 16.6 ppg and 8.3 rpg. Randle shot just .378 from the field in the playoffs, but that is improvement over his 2021 playoff debut, when he shot .298 from the field (that is not a typo). 

In order for the Knicks to advance past the second round of the 2024 playoffs, Randle must perform up to his capabilities; the Knicks held the Miami Heat to 104.3 ppg on .425 field goal shooting in the second round of the 2023 playoffs, but the Heat won the series in six games because the Knicks' offense was even more anemic, mainly because of Randle's subpar play.

6) Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavaliers had their best record (51-31) of their (second) post-LeBron James era, but a fine season ended on a sour note with a 4-1 first round loss to the upstart Knicks, who took the first game in Cleveland, settled for a road split, and then closed out the series with three straight wins, including a game five triumph in Cleveland. Battling all season to have homecourt advantage in the playoffs only to lose two out of three home playoff games is not what the young but talented Cavaliers had in mind.

In his first season with Cleveland, Donovan Mitchell made the All-NBA Second Team for the first time after setting career highs in scoring (28.3 ppg) and field goal percentage (.484). Mitchell's numbers dropped to 23.2 ppg on .432 field goal shooting in the playoffs, which is part of the reason that the Cavaliers lost to the Knicks. Mitchell ranks eighth in ABA/NBA history with a 28.7 ppg career playoff scoring average, but he has been up and down throughout his postseason career, shooting .321 from the field in the 2019 playoffs and then averaging a league-high 36.3 ppg on .529 field goal shooting in the 2020 playoffs. Mitchell's teams have a 2-6 playoff series record.

Mitchell is an excellent player, but he is an undersized player who is inconsistent offensively and not particularly effective defensively--and that does not fit the profile of a number one option for a championship-contending team. The Cavaliers ranked first in points allowed and seventh in defensive field goal percentage, but to move up in the standings and then advance past the first round of the playoffs with Mitchell as their best player they must become even better defensively while also finding ways to include their big men in the offense to a greater extent. Evan Mobley scored 16.2 ppg while shooting .554 from the field, and Jarret Allen averaged 14.3 ppg on .644 field goal shooting; it should be obvious that neither player can maintain those lofty field goal percentages while attempting more than 20 field goals per game, but last season they only averaged 21.2 field goal attempts per game combined. 

Point guard Darius Garland (21.6 ppg, team-high 7.8 apg) is another undersized player who takes a lot of shots. To be fair, both Mitchell and Garland shot well from the field during the regular season, but when both of them became much less efficient during the playoffs no one on the roster was prepared to assume a larger role in the offense.

During the offseason, the Cavaliers acquired Max Strus, Georges Niang, and Ty Jerome to provide depth and three point shooting, but that will not be enough for the Cavaliers to advance past the first round of the playoffs unless the returning players also improve.

7) Brooklyn Nets: After the Nets broke up the super-team that never was, Kevin Durant's Phoenix Suns lost in the second round, James Harden 's Philadelphia 76ers lost in the second round, and Kyrie Irving's Dallas Mavericks did not even qualify for the Play-In Tournament. Meanwhile, the scrappy Nets finished sixth in the Eastern Conference before being swept in the first round by the 76ers. Mikal Bridges, who the Nets acquired from Phoenix in the Durant trade, averaged 23.5 ppg in the playoffs after scoring 26.1 ppg in 27 regular season games as a Net. Bridges seems like he was teleported to 2023 from the 1980s: he has yet to miss a game in his NBA career, he plays hard at both ends of the court, and he creates no drama. This season, Bridges will probably make the All-Star Team for the first time.

It remains to be seen if Bridges can be the best player on a championship caliber team, but there is no reason to doubt that over the course of an 82 game season he can be the best player on a team that qualifies for the playoffs even without the head start that Brooklyn had last year before shipping out Durant.

8) Indiana Pacers: This selection may be a bit of a reach, but it is also a reflection of the reality that the bottom of the Eastern Conference is loaded with teams that are flawed and inconsistent. If the Pacers do not improve their defense--which ranked 29th in points allowed and 23rd in defensive field goal percentage--then they will be in the Draft Lottery for the fourth straight season. I believe that Coach Rick Carlisle--who guided the Dallas Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title after leading first Detroit (2003) and then Indiana (2004) to the Eastern Conference Finals--will help this young team improve enough defensively to finish with at least a .500 record. 

The Pacers' main rotation players are all 27 or younger except for Buddy Hield, who is 30. Tyrese Haliburton earned the first of what will probably be many All-Star selections as he led the Pacers in scoring (20.7 ppg) and assists (10.4 apg). Myles Turner is a productive big man who set career highs in scoring (18.0 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 rpg); the only question about the two-time NBA blocked shots leader (2019, 2021) is durability, as he has played 62 games or less in each of the past four seasons. In addition to the main rotation players who are returning, the Pacers acquired Obi Toppin from the Knicks; he will provide athleticism and energy.

The teams that finish seventh through 10th in the regular season standings 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 Orlando Magic could be poised to make a jump to playoff status, though I suspect their young roster needs one more season to fully develop. Paolo Banchero won the 2023 Rookie of the Year award, and he looks like a future All-Star after averaging 20.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, and 3.7 apg in his debut campaign. The Magic ranked 26th in scoring and 15th in points allowed, so there are a lot of shortcomings at both ends of the court that need to be addressed before this team is a playoff lock. 

The Atlanta Hawks made a fluky run to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals, but then lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2022 and 2023. Trae Young is an undersized guard who is an inefficient scorer and an indifferent (at best) defensive player. With Young leading the charge, the Hawks ranked third in scoring and 26th in points allowed last season, and there is little reason to think that the team's defense will improve this season. Young has played for four head coaches in five seasons, which could either be interpreted to mean that the franchise lacks stability or that he keeps running off coaches who attempt to help him play more efficiently. The Hawks were one of five Eastern Conference teams that finished with between 40 and 45 wins last season, so it is by no means impossible that they will qualify for the 2024 playoffs--but when sorting through a group of mediocre teams I look first at their team defense and at their star player's impact, and the Hawks do not look very promising in either aspect.

The Chicago Bulls have reached the playoffs once (2022) in the past six seasons. Lonzo Ball missed all of the 2023 season and is expected to miss all of the 2024 season, but the Bulls' other top players--DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucejic--each played in at least 74 games last season, so it is not a good sign that despite the availability of those three key players the team went just 40-42. 

Most of the remnants of Toronto's 2019 championship team are gone, and the Raptors have won just one playoff series since defeating the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals. Losing Fred VanVleet for nothing in free agency is a big blow. The best case scenario for the 2024 season is to stay in that 40-45 win mix and sneak into the playoffs, but I expect the Raptors to fall just short.

The Michael Jordan era in Charlotte ended with a whimper as the Hornets finished 27-55 and missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season. The Hornets have not won a playoff series since 2002. 

The Washington Wizards made the playoffs just twice in the past six seasons with Bradley Beal on the roster, and their chances of returning to postseason play did not improve after they dealt Beal to Phoenix. 

The Detroit Pistons had the NBA's worst record (17-65) last season, they have not made the playoffs since 2019, and they have made the playoffs just twice since 2009. Larry Brown, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, and Rasheed Wallace are not walking through that door, and management has plenty of time to figure out who will represent the franchise at the 2024 Draft Lottery.


I correctly picked seven of the eight 2023 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2022: 6/8
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

2006-2023 Total: 109/144 (.757)

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:45 PM



At Thursday, October 12, 2023 11:04:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...


What do you think of the Celtics giving Brown a supermax? Was he worth
it to you?

I was expecting Boston to make the 2023 finals. The Marcus smart trade didn't really make much sense to me, but they will still be a threat to get back to the finals with the addition of Holiday.

At Thursday, October 12, 2023 11:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


"Worth" is a relative concept because of the NBA's collectively bargained salary structure. Objectively, is Brown worth more than the collective earnings of all of the Hall of Famers from the 1960s and 1970s? Of course not. However, the reality is that there is not only a salary cap but a salary floor, meaning that every team must pay out a minimum amount in salaries each season--and that minimum amount increases in tandem with increases in the NBA's revenues. Thus, the real question is not Brown's objective worth either historically or now, but whether the Celtics could have obtained more value by not paying him and then spending that same amount of money on other player(s). Brown is far from the best player in the NBA, but he is one of the top 15 or 20 players in the league. Could the Celtics have signed a better player instead of paying Brown? That seems unlikely, because the better players are not available. So, if the Celtics refused to pay Brown the max then he would have later left as a free agent because there is undoubtedly at least one team that would pay him the max. What would the Celtics be left with after Brown departed? They would still have to spend the same amount of money, but instead of having a top 15 or 20 player to pair with Tatum they would be stuck with lesser players.

In short, I think that given the market realities the Celtics made the right choice to pay Brown the max and keep together a core group that regularly advances to the ECF.

At Thursday, October 12, 2023 1:29:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

I assume Tatum and Brown will win titles together. But what if they don't win a title in the next five years? Could people then say they should have used that money for quality players?

If I were starting a team from scratch Brown may not be someone that I would have given that contract to like the Celtics did. Max deal, then yeah.

About the bucks 2021 title Gianni's supporting cast not only didn't have a top 20 player in the league, but also didn't have anyone next to him that was a superstar or have a star label really.


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