Earlier this week, I began a two-part “Maybe too soon Eastern Conference Preview”. You can read Part One here.
That first part was only the potatoes of this tasty meal of a series. None of the teams in part one represent any particular threat to the Philadelphia 76ers making it to the Eastern Conference Finals this year.
Part two brings in the real deals (except maybe Washington and Miami, because I’m not worried about the Wizards or Heat at all). The rest of this crop worries me in one way or another.
Washington Wizards (43-39)
ADDITIONS: Troy Brown, Jr., Issuf Sanon (draft); Austin Rivers (trade); Dwight Howard (FA)
SUBTRACTIONS: Marcin Gortat
No team has been more underwhelming than the Wizards -- much to the delight of us who love an unhappy Andrew Sharp. LeBron James has been the bane of many teams in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards (the John Wall Wizards, anyway) have never faced James in the playoffs, though. They lost to the Pacers in 2014, the Hawks in 2015, the Celtics two years ago, and the Raptors last year.
Washington has no excuse, and their window to reach the Finals is likely closed. The East is so much better now than it was back in 2014 when the Wizards were growing into themselves.
There are positives. As it turns out, Otto Porter, Jr. might be a decent basketball player. He might not be a fluke after his breakout 2016-2017 season. Bradley Beal played in 82 games for the first time in his career. That’s a plus for a guy who has missed 32 games in two years.
This year’s Wizards squad presents two questions. After John Wall was injured, the Wizards started playing more cohesively. They were only 14-12 without Wall, but that didn’t stop “Are the Wizards better without John Wall?” talk. Are the Wizards better without John Wall? Short answer: no.
Question number two regarding the Wizards: Are we sure Scott Brooks is a good coach? During the first year of Brooks’s coaching, the Wizards were 7th in the NBA in ORtg and 20th in DRtg. Last year, they were 14th and 15th, respectively. How much of that is Wall’s injury? How much of that is Brooks maybe not being good? How much is that the fault of General Manager Ernie Grunfeld not providing a decent backup point guard?
Oh, speaking of Grunfeld, he thought it was a good idea to bring Dwight Howard in, and chose Troy Brown, Jr. while Zhaire Smith and Lonnie Walker IV were still on the board. I felt the need to point all of that out before I concluded.
Milwaukee Bucks (44-38)
ADDITIONS: Donte DiVincenzo (draft); Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez (FA)
SUBTRACTIONS: Jabari Parker
Throughout this offseason, one thing went through my mind. If the Bucks hire a legitimate, professional NBA coach, that scares the absolute bejesus out of me.
Mike Budenholzer has reached an agreement to become the Milwaukee Bucks coach, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) May 16, 2018
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has never had a good head coach. He started with Jason Kidd (first time coach) and then had Joe Prunty (first time head coach after being Kidd’s assistant). Now, the Greek Freak has a coach in Budz who studied under Popovich and had the most unlikely 60-win team of the last decade. (Seriously. How the hell did Atlanta win 60 games in 2015?)
Antetokounmpo scored a career high 26.2 ppg and 10.0 rpg while only shooting two three-pointers a game. For all the talk of should Giannis be a better jump shooter, does it even matter? He already scores damn-near 30 a game without one. If he ever got to the point where he shoots 35% or better from three … *GULP*.
The Bucks lost Jabari Parker to the Bulls -- which may actually be an addition by subtraction. Milwaukee had difficulty getting Parker involved, as evidenced by his 12.6 ppg and 24.4% USG (behind Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe).
Middleton and Bledsoe are the more important options for the Bucks, and we’ll have to see if that’s enough, or if they need to make a trade for another scorer, somehow. Their bench consists of Brogdon, Dellavedova, and the newly signed Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez.
If the Bucks are going to make any serious run at an NBA Finals appearance, it’ll be because Antetokounmpo somehow evolves once again, offensively. (That’s possible under Budenholzer, so again … be afraid.)
Miami Heat (44-38)
SUBTRACTIONS: less than nothing
The conversation about the Miami Heat will be short.
Not having a first round pick really hurt Miami in terms of some kind of young talent/help. The first rounder Miami would have had was #16 -- which was some kid named Zhaire Smith. Even if that wasn’t the pick, here are some names that could’ve helped the Heat:
- Donte DiVincenzo (taken #17)
- Lonnie Walker IV (taken #18)
- Kevin Huerter (taken #19)
- Robert Williams III (taken #27)
The Heat didn’t add anyone via free agency or trade, so they’re running it back with the same group from last year. Miami gets Dion Waiters back from a January surgery that ended his season, so they’ll look a little different, I guess.
Even with Waiters back, is there another level for the group of Waiters, Whiteside, and Goran Dragić? If there is, it must come from Justise Winslow. In game three of their first round matchup with the Sixers, Winslow had 19 points and hit four three-pointers in that loss. He went 3-9 the rest of the series, but that’s where the next level would ideally come for this Heat team.
It’s either that or the Heat will be (and perhaps should be) in “blow it up” mode. If that occurs, it’s a matter of when. December? The trade deadline?
Indiana Pacers (48-34)
ADDITIONS: Aaron Holiday, Alize Johnson (draft); Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, Kyle O’Quinn (free agency)
SUBTRACTIONS: Lance Stephenson
Next to the Sixers, the most surprising team in the Eastern Conference was the Indiana Pacers.
After trading Paul George to Oklahoma City, no one thought the Pacers would sniff the playoffs, let alone win almost 50 games. I guess Victor Oladipo is good. He got better after leaving OKC and Russell Westbrook. (This is a thing that exists. Players apparently get better, statistically, when they leave Westbrook’s giant shadow.)
Oladipo 2016-2017 w/ Oklahoma City:
15.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, 44% FG, 36% 3pt (5.3 attempts), .085 WS/48
Oladipo 2017-2018 w/ Indiana:
23.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.3 apg, 48% FG, 37% 3pt (5.8 attempts), .155 WS/48
Oladipo also led the league in steals (2.4). Is THIS the real Victor Oladipo?
Indiana certainly thinks so, because they added Tyreke Evans and Kyle O’Quinn (both players whom Sixers fans wanted) and Doug McDermott (whom only I wanted the Sixers to add). The Pacers could be as good as they were last year, and they could be better depending on how those pieces fit.
Can the Pacers get anything from Myles Turner this year? Two years ago, he was a guy that was getting attention as one of the next wave of bigs in the East, but he was a bit of an afterthought last year after missing 17 games.
The Pacers might need another scorer (be it Turner or someone else) ,because if Darren Collison is the starting point guard, I’m not sure it’s enough. Maybe it’s enough that he’s a threat to bang home a three when Oladipo drives since Collison did lead the league in three-point shooting last year (46.8%). Yes. Darren Collison led the league in three-point percentage. Darren. Collison.
Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32)
ADDITIONS: Collin Sexton (draft)
SUBTRACTIONS: Some guy named Lebron
LeBron is gone. Again.
Cleveland has to reboot. Again.
At least the cupboard isn’t TOTALLY bare. Some perishable goods were actually left behind this time around. For better or worse, this is Kevin Love’s team. The Cavaliers made that clear with the four-year, $120 million extension they gave him.
Some people don’t believe Love can revert back to being “Minnesota Kevin Love”. I’m not one of those people. Sure, he’s older, but he’s not a broken-down 38-year-old center. Love played in 55 games last year, and only played 28 minutes per game in those games. He’ll be fine. Unlike the 2013-2014 Timberwolves, where he averaged 36.3 minutes in 77 games because he was all Minnesota had, Love isn’t doing a solo mission.
The players left on the Cavaliers roster aren’t all All-Stars, but they’re not 12 other “Joe Dudes”, either. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, J.R. Smith, Sexton, George Hill, and Jordan Clarkson are all decent players. Larry Nance, Jr. and Cedi Osman (who I like) likely also get more minutes.
Let me just save Tyronn Lue the trouble. Give Collin Sexton the keys. Just do it. Don’t mess around with starting Hill or Clarkson at point guard. Give the youngster the keys, and let him drive.
The Cavaliers aren’t a title contender at all, but they’re not hot, flaming garbage, either.
Boston Celtics (55-27)
ADDITIONS: Robert Williams III (draft)
The Boston Celtics did nothing in free agency or trades. Why would they need to?
Just getting their injured players back is plenty. Gordon Hayward returns. Kyrie Irving returns (for now). (Enjoy him while you can, Celtics fans. He’ll be a Knick next season.) Even without those two guys, the Celtics still won 55 games.
Well, Irving played in the beginning of the season, but we all know the story. Apparently, Jayson Tatum is the second coming of Paul Pierce. (Damnit.) Tatum’s rookie year was fantastic. He scored 13.9 ppg, had shooting percentages of 47/43/83%, 23.3 USG%, and a .116 WS/48.
As bitter as I am about Tatum’s rookie year, I’m even more bitter about Jaylen Brown’s second season considering I left him for dead after his rookie campaign.
Boston traded away NEITHER of those guys to get Kawhi Leonard, and they get Hayward back. Eff you, Danny Ainge. Eff you and your coiffed hair.
Because of all that (and Marcus Smart returning with Terry Rozier), the Celtics are the favorites in the East. I don’t want to say it. It pains my soul to say so, but I have to be objective. The Celtics get Hayward and Irving back from injury, they have a full bench they can rely on, and Brad Stevens is their head coach.
They’re the favorites. Stone me verbally on Twitter if you must, but I’m just being honest.
Toronto Raptors (59-23)
ADDITIONS: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green (trade)
SUBTRACTIONS: Demar DeRozan (trade)
I left out one subtraction: LeBron James from the Eastern Conference.
Remember when I talked about LeBron being the bane of every East team’s existence. It is no truer than with the Raptors. In the last three seasons, Toronto has lost to Lebron once in the Conference Finals and twice in the Conference Semifinals.
LeBron didn’t just own the Raptors. He owned their team, and the land that the Scotiabank Arena, formerly the Air Canada Centre, resides on.
LeBron is gone now, but the Raptors have to deal with an improved Eastern Conference as a whole. The Celtics, Sixers, Bucks, and Pacers are all good, and the Raptors are starting this season with a new coach in Nick Nurse.
Nurse picks up where Dwayne Casey left off, but with a different roster. As much as I respect DeRozan for being the ambassador for the Raptors all those years, Kawhi Leonard is an improvement. He’s a better defender and a better three-point shooter (two areas where Toronto needed improvements).
This whole year is going to be a campaign to convince Kawhi to stay in Toronto. (Hot news flash: He’s not, no matter what.) Even if the Raptors won the NBA Title, Kawhi is taking that title and going to Los Angeles. (If that happens, I doubt Raptors fans will take umbrage.)
Remember Kyle Lowry? He’s the guy who was DeRozan’s tag-team partner. What’s next for him? Two years ago, Lowry had a TS% of .623 and a 7.1 OBPM. Last year, those numbers dropped: .598 and 5.4. Don’t get me wrong. I still like Lowry, but what does it say about him if those numbers drop AND his ppg average dropped (22.4 to 16.2).
The rest of the roster is as bland as a rice cake. There is no flavor to the rest of that team. Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Valanciunas. I know Nurse was the architect behind Toronto’s new offense that was 4th in ppg and 2nd in ORtg last year, but with these new pieces (Kawhi/Danny Green), how does it fit?
That wraps this series up. The Sixers will absolutely be one of the top four teams in the conference this year, and for the first time in a LONG time, there might not be a consensus pick to reach the NBA Finals. Boston is/should be the favorite, but there are at least five teams in the conference this year (including our Sixers) that can get there.