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Celtics, Sixers, and an Examination of the East’s Hierarchy: Part 2

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Aside from the Raptors, who else can contend with the Celtics and Sixers in this 5-year window?

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

To continue the collaboration week between Liberty Ballers and Celtics Blog, @Me_Low76 and @SamSheehan discussed the off seasons of the two young teams, what to expect for this year, and which eastern conference foes are the threats to each team’s dominance short-term and long-term. To read the first part of the dialogue, you can find it on the Celtics Blog here.

Who are the threats this year?

SS: Some of our compatriots will be tackling the obvious divisional threat of Toronto, so I’ll start with a threat that I don’t think is getting enough respect. As a Celtics writer, I still have the fear of god placed in me from Khris Middleton last year, and think the Milwaukee Bucks could be a surprise 50-win team. While I don’t think that Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova are moving the needle too much for the Bucks, I do think the team that showed up in the playoffs was definitely different from the one we saw slog through the regular season, and I expect Budenholzer to at least make the Bucks competently coached. Am I crazy?

GM: I’m right there with you. Milwaukee has something that none of the other bottom four seeds in the East from last year had: a top-10 player in the league not even in his prime. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been on the cusp of breaking into the MVP conversation for the past couple of seasons, and although his supporting cast has been OK - I LOVE Khris Middleton and think that the Bucks would be insane not to re-sign him next year - I think the coaching around him in Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty has been lackluster. Budenholzer will come in and keep the floor spacing and ball movement consistent for Giannis, and he should also be able to maximize underutilized talents in Tony Snell, Thon Maker, Malcolm Brogdon, and Sterling Brown. Let’s not forget what Coach Bud did in Atlanta with the talent of that 2014-2015 roster.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I’d also like to throw my hat into the ring for the perpetually underrated Indiana Pacers. Although I think right now they lack the star talent to make a deep run in the playoffs, they did push LeBron James to 7 games in the first round. Oladipo will be fighting a regression to the mean this year after his surprise breakout campaign, but they added notable pieces in Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott (whom I’m lower on), and Kyle O’Quinn, creating a roster with a balance of youth and veteran role players. The key to them reaching another level will be Myles Turner, who has loads of untapped potential; he could stand to increase his three-point percentage a couple of clicks and work on becoming stronger in the paint on both sides of the ball. If the 4th-year center can finally unlock his star-level skill set, the Pacers will cause a scare to one of the East’s top seeds come playoff time.

SS: I think the Pacers are the hot ticket to end up 4th in the East behind the Atlantic’s powerhouses, which makes sense given their youth and the simple fact that they would finish there if you simply replayed the East from 2017-2018 with Cleveland dropping out. That said, I have concerns about Victor Oladipo repeating his MIP season from last year, and I’m not sure what holes Tyreke Evans and KOQ are addressing for them in the playoffs. I think the Bucks’ ability to have the best player in every Eastern Conference matchup still makes them a dark horse for an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Indiana Pacers - Game Six Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s a little bit telling that we haven’t addressed the Wizards at all, after they have pushed themselves into some competitive Eastern Conference series in the past few years. Maybe I’m sleeping on the Wizards a little bit, but after last year I need Chocolate City to show me something that will turn my head. Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers ain’t it.

GM: It’s certainly reasonable to say the Wizards have top-4 seed potential. John Wall should be fully healthy after a down season. Bradley Beal fills in nicely as their second star, and the league knows it after his first All-Star Selection (this writer’s opinion is that he is more important to the Wizards than Wall and could overtake him as the number 1 option by the end of this season).

I think the reason that I’m pumping the brakes on putting them up there with Milwaukee and Indiana - aside from the Howard signing almost assuring another locker room blow-up mid-season - is that this team is never healthy when it matters most. Beal did just log his first 82-game campaign, but that doesn’t erase what has been a checkered past for him on the injury front. Wall plays such a physical brand of basketball that wear and tear is something to be expected. I know injuries are an X-factor for every team, but it seems to hit the Wizards the most at the wrong time (aside from the 76ers, of course).

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards - Game Six Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

I’m also not intimidated by Scott Brooks as their head coach. In my opinion, Brooks hasn’t earned the full support of his roster. Yes, they pushed the Celtics to 7 games in the second round a few seasons ago, but the Wall-Beal-Porter core has experienced multiple first round outs under his tenure. Last year, the offense stalled into iso-ball possessions, where players didn’t know where to go or didn’t want to effectively run plays that were being called. With Brooks at the helm, I think this ultimately lowers the Wizards’ ceiling.

Who are the threats to Sixers and Celtics dominance going forward?

SS: Okay, so hear me out, and don’t laugh until I get to the end. I really think that there is a chance the Nets are going to be dangerous in the near future. The Nets could have as much as $60M in cap space next year, and have an easy path forward to retaining a lot of their young talent. While it would require renouncing D’Angelo Russell, there’s a scenario where the Nets could return Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, their own 2019 first round pick, the RFA rights of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Dzanan Musa, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs, and even Allen Crabbe (who could also be stretched to create more room), and have the space to add two max players. If two players are friends and want to team up to play together, it’s tough to top the Nets offer to play for New York in an easier East. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and (seriously don’t laugh) Kevin Durant will be out there, and even if it’s a small chance, that’s a scary recipe for an overnight East contender.

GM: I’m drinking the Kool-Aid with you. Brooklyn is set up to be a major player in 2019 Free Agency. Two max slots and some enticing young pieces, along with the NY life and world-class facilities, should be enough to get a pair of stars. Perhaps Butler and Irving do team up in New York, just not with the Knicks. KD would certainly be able to repair his reputation by jumping ship from the Golden State World Beaters to the previously bottom-feeding Nets. I would also put stock into the Spurs connections that Coach Kenny Atkinson and GM Sean Marks have, along with the fact that Kawhi Leonard has family and agent representation from the Jersey area. I think he certainly gives Brooklyn more than a passing glance.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Additionally, I’ll beat the drum for Indiana. They will have max cap room available even after key pending free agent decisions with Bojan Bogdanovic and Myles Turner. If they could somehow get a two-way wing like Butler or Thompson to buy-in to what they’re building, they could have a solid roster going into the 2019-2020 season.

SS: I’m definitely in agreement with you on Indiana. I might not be as high on their short-term prospects as we discussed above, but they (like the Nets) are going to have the ability to flirt with double max cap space in the 2019 offseason. The Pacers could work Myles Turner’s RFA into a smaller than usual cap hold for this big game hunting, and while Indiana doesn’t have the sexy appeal of a New York squad, it would definitely give two chummy free agents the best chance to make an overnight contender with established young stars.

I’m going to be very interested to see what happens with Atlanta. I’m not a Trae Young fan at all, and I think it was a big mistake for them to pass on Luka Doncic in that draft night trade back. That said, Atlanta has some really interesting young players in Taurean Prince and John Collins, and it’s possible that DeAndre Bembry and Kevin Huerter could develop into good players. Atlanta could be in line for three lottery picks in this year’s draft, and in three years time could have a full war chest of young talent and endless cap space. It might be ugly for the next couple years, but the Hawks kids could be a thorn in the side of the Celtics and Sixers in the 2020s.

Atlanta Hawks v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Anyone else that we are sleeping on?

GM: I wish I were higher on the situations of Orlando or Chicago, who both have a couple of intriguing young pieces (Bamba/Isaac/Gordon and Carter/Markkanen), but I don’t trust those front offices or rosters as of yet. If I had to pick one last team to look at down the road, it would be the New York Knicks.

When healthy, Kristaps Porzingis has All-Star talent, and Kevin Knox looks like he has the skill set to grow into a number 2 or number 3 option on a contender. Both are young and will need to work out their shot selection and how to gel on the court together, but they will have a few seasons to grow into a new threat (also shout out to Frankie Smokes as a longer Pat Beverley down the line).

2018 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

New York also has the allure of its city life. There have already been reports of star free agents like Irving and Butler who would be interested in bringing the spotlight back to the Garden. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if KD wanted to make his next chapter about restoring a storied franchise (cc: LeBron James). Do they have the front office savvy to make the right moves that will get them to that place? Maybe not right now, but we saw what happened in LA over just one season. The Knicks have that same potential on the East Coast.