Western Conference Preview is here.
1. Milwaukee Bucks 61-21
When young teams take the leap from scrappy playoff out to title contender, they label the year a success. Considering the MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year awards went to Bucks, 2019 was a gigantic leap forward in Milwaukee. Playoff loses have a way of redefining progress, however. After leading the league with 60 wins and racing to a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee was within arm’s reach of a championship. They wouldn’t win another game.
Playoff disappointments aside, last season was a breakthrough for the organization. Winning a playoff series for the first time in Giannis’ career, the Bucks now must deal with expectations and pressure. Anything less than a Finals appearance is a failure. Antetokounmpo is the favorite to win back-to-back MVPs, and the East figures to be a two team race. Questions abound, however. Eric Bledsoe signed a 4 year, $70 million extension before the end of the season, then gagged all over himself in the playoffs, rendered unplayable. Malcolm Brogdon, the Milwaukee guard who came through in crunch time, was deemed too expensive by Bucks management and signed with the Pacers. Still, Giannis is one of the top three players in the league. He is a force on both ends of the floor, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago. He is unguardable without a three-point shot. If he improves his shooting, game over.
To win the title, the Bucks will need contributions from oft injured Wes Matthews, Pat Connaughton, and growth from Donte DiVincenzo. George Hill, excellent in last years’ playoffs, must continue his stellar play in high leverage minutes. What can they get out of Sterling Brown?
The clock is ticking. Antetokounmpo’s contract is up in two years. If the Bucks struggle or do not make the Finals, the questions will start if they haven’t already. Will Giannis bolt or sign the mega extension only the Bucks can offer? A high leverage season in Milwaukee.
2. Philadelphia 76ers 60-22
The Sixers dealt with their own playoff nightmare this off-season, reliving Kawhi Leonard’s three that bounced, bounced, bounced, and bounced on the rim before dropping in Game 7 of the conference semis, sending Philly home. Closer to the title than many gave them credit for, the Sixers retooled, trading Jimmy Butler, per his demands, to Miami in exchange for Josh Richardson, a long defender and excellent three ball shooter. They will need his outside touch to replace some of what they lost after J. J. Redick departed. The signing of Al Horford away from Boston, however, was the biggest splash made during the summer. A Hall of Fame defender, Horford’s experience, defense, and outside shooting boosts Philly, while giving them a fail-safe to replace Joel Embiid when he’s injured or on the bench.
With Jimmy Butler gone, who will handle the ball during crunch time? It’s time for Ben Simmons to step into this role. If the 76ers are to win the title, Simmons needs to be successful with the ball in his hands at the end of games. He is a devastating slasher and pinpoint passer. Can he knock down enough jumpers to keep defenses honest?
If Embiid can stay healthy and is in as good of shape as claimed in training camp, he’s MVP worthy. Stout defensively, his arsenal of offensive moves are unparalleled. The Sixers are title contenders if Simmons and Embiid take the next steps in their development. With Butler gone, both need to replace the scoring and toughness he brought. The starting five may be the strongest in the league. The bench is short, however. Will it stop them from winning a title?
3. Boston Celtics 52-30
Will the swap of Kemba Walker for Kyrie Irving work as well as those in Boston envision? Walker is a smidge worse at just about everything than Irving, yet Celtics fans hope the attitude adjustment Kemba brings will make up for the lost talent. One subtraction they have not replaced is Al Horford. His defense, offensive adaptability, and leadership loss will hurt come playoff time.
For this team to reach the potential its brass has been crooning about since the Brooklyn heist, the Celtics need Jayson Tatum to become their best player. Ultra talented, they seldom saw the Tatum who flashed in the playoffs in 2018 last year. He disappeared too easily on offense, taking an alarming amount of long twos and rarely attacked the basket. An All-Star exists there; will he shrug off his poor sophomore year?
Brad Stevens struggled last year, unable to balance the talent and egos of a team predicted by everyone to make the Finals. As one of the NBA’s best coaches, Stevens needs to prove he can win when he’s expected to. He must massage the Gordon Hayward/Jaylen Brown situation. One needs to come off the bench. Will either accept a lesser role with free agency a possibility for both next summer?
4. Brooklyn Nets 47-35
The Nets made the biggest splash of the off-season, yet they won’t be whole until Kevin Durant returns. In the meantime, it will be up to Kyrie Irving to prove that, now that he’s in the place of his choosing, the moodiness and drama are past him. One of the most talented players in the league, Kyrie is the leader of this young Nets squad while his partner rehabs.
Irving and Durant aside, the Nets amassed one of the best collections of young talent in the league, mostly without the benefit of first round picks. Jarrett Allen is a bouncy shot blocker and rim runner. Joe Harris is lethal from three. Caris LeVert, if he can kick the injury bug, may be one of the best young players in the league. Spencer Dinwiddie has shown he can score, either starting or off the bench, and run an offense. This team will be fun. In a muddled Eastern Conference, the Nets will attempt to lay a foundation this year for a title run when Durant returns in 2020.
5. Orlando Magic 46-36
One of the better defensive teams in the league a year ago, the Magic surged over their final 31 games, posting a 22-9 record and forcing themselves into the playoffs. Another jump is in store this year if they can solidify the point guard position. While D. J. Augustin shoots the 3 well and is reliable with the ball, the hope is for Markelle Fultz to regain the form which made him the number one pick in the 2017 draft. An enigmatic career to this point, Fultz has fought injury and self-confidence. A change of scenery from Philly should help.
Can Jonathan Isaac become a reliable starter, and can Aaron Gordon become an All-Star? Brimming with talent, Steve Clifford began to unleash the skill of these two. If they both make another leap, Orlando will as well.
6. Toronto Raptors 46-36
Rarely are the champs relegated to such a low seed the year after a title, yet the circumstances here are unprecedented. NBA Finals MVPs don’t leave in free agency. Kawhi is gone however, and the Raptors won a title. All sides won.
The Toronto front office has a decision to make. Keep the team together and stay respectable, or trade off parts for assets to hasten the rebuild? Kyle Lowry signed a one year, 31 million extension, yet it may make him easier to trade. Marc Gasol will be sought after again at the trade deadline. Serge Ibaka could draw interest. It may be difficult to dismantle a title team, but the returns could be too good to pass up.
The future of the Raptors lies with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. While Anunoby was injured during the title run, Siakam became a household name. A star in the making, he’s a future All-Star who’s too good to let Toronto tank. Trade the vets and build around Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet.
7. Miami Heat 44-38
Jimmy Butler may be the third best player in the Eastern Conference. A bulldog, he’s the type players yearn to go to war with. Outstanding defensively when he wants to be, Butler can take control of a game in the fourth quarter and will a team to victory. Very few in the league can do that.
The problem with the Heat is the rest of the roster. Goran Dragic, while still capable of scoring, has begun his regression. Dion Waiters is a thrill to watch ball; no one knows what will happen next, and it’s impossible to look away. Justise Winslow has always been intriguing and remains so, especially at point guard, but is inconsistent.
Bam Adebayo is the exception. Athletic and springy, Adebayo will take over the center minutes with Hassan Whiteside gone. Already a force defensively, he averaged 2.5 blocks and steals combined last year in only 23 minutes per game. The Butler-Adebayo pick and roll should be a headache for opposing defenses.
The Heat seem to have a trade in them. While they sniffed around Chris Paul, the asking price was too high. Though they’re low on future assets, Pat Riley is looking to make one more run before he retires. If a big name asks for a trade, Miami will be lurking.
8. Indiana Pacers 42-40
If Victor Oladipo’s return from injury wasn’t up in the air, the Pacers would be higher. No timetable yet, rumors are he’ll return in December, yet may take longer to return to full strength. While the team held their own without him a year ago, Oladipo gives them a higher ceiling.
Once he returns, Oladipo will form an outstanding young backcourt with Malcolm Brogdon. Underrated by the Bucks, Brogdon provides the perfect complement to Oladipo. A high stakes player, Brogdon joins another free agent signee, T. J. Warren, adding offensive punch to a stagnant unit.
The team must decide if Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner can play in the same frontcourt. Both possess mid-range jumpers, while Turner is an excellent shot blocker and Sabonis a dominant rebounder. With Sabonis due to become a free agent and earn a higher paycheck, the Pacers need to find out if there’s space for both on the floor.
9. Detroit Pistons 40-42
Another season in Detroit, another rotation on the hamster wheel. The Pistons are perpetually in the 7-10 range in the Eastern Conference. Blake Griffin makes them somewhat interesting, a forgotten superstar who posted one of his best seasons last year. Averaging a career high 24.5 points per, he drained 36% of his 3s while taking 7 a game. Injured in the playoffs, however, Griffin can be counted on to miss 20 games a year.
Andre Drummond was a monster in the paint as usual, averaging 17 and 15, destroying teams in the paint who dared to go small. The fit of Detroit’s two best players remains clunky and places a ceiling on their expectations.
Could the Pistons be in the market for a point guard if one becomes available(Kyle Lowry)? The Reggie Jackson/Langston Galloway/Tim Frazier trio inspires eye rolls.
Luke Kennard can shoot. Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris will provide some veteran stability. Sekou Doumbouya is an intriguing young prospect from France, athletic and skilled offensively. He isn’t 19 yet, however. The Pistons will again play meaningful basketball in April, attempting to make the playoffs while most of the league is preparing for the postseason.
10. Chicago Bulls 39-43
A rebuild that is turning the corner, the Bulls will exit the tanking dregs in favor of the borderline playoff class this season.
A breathtaking scorer, Zach LaVine getting buckets is fun to watch. An effortless jumper and athlete, he may have another step to take in his development.
The future of the Bulls and the key to success this season, however, is the frontcourt combination of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Markkanen has established himself in the league, a 7 footer who can score from anywhere on the floor. Carter seems to be the perfect fit alongside him, a gifted passer and rebounder who can set screens and allow Markkanen to stretch the floor.
By trading for Otto Porter Jr last year and signing Thaddeus Young and underrated point guard Tomas Satoransky as free agents, Chicago has added strong veterans to their young core. A playoff berth isn’t out of the question if the Carter/Markkanen combo blossoms.
11. Atlanta Hawks 37-45
An intriguing outfit, the Hawks are too young to be a playoff contender just yet. After struggling early, Trae Young popped as the season progressed, averaging 19 points and 8 assists. His elite level shooting and playmaking abilities should have Atlanta fans salivating. Though his size will never allow him to be a good defender, Young’s offense will make him an All-Star lock for years to come.
Nailing the draft last year, GM Travis Schlenk has set the table for a quick rebuild in Atlanta. Kevin Huerter flashed as a shooter and passer in his rookie year, while John Collins showed tremendous finishing ability and rebounding.
Will this year’s rookies produce as well? De’Andre Hunter is expected to shoot the 3 and defend. Cam Reddish’s draft stock fell because of a so-so freshman year at Duke, yet has the size, athleticism, and shooting ability to be the steal of the draft. The floor is the ceiling for the Hawks.
There’s too much Alex Len/Jabari Parker/Chandler Parsons/Evan Turner on the roster for Atlanta to make a playoff push this year. This collection of veterans is a garbage dump of NBA what ifs. Never mind them, however. The young Hawks will be a fun watch.
12. New York Knicks 30-52
Spurned by the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving duo, the Knicks spent their cap money on a collection of decent NBA players who will at least make the Knicks watchable. Julius Randle is a high motor, point forward/bulldozer, a clunky shooter who does a myriad of things well, but nothing great.
For the Knicks to become the free agent destination they think of themselves as, the youth must grow in Madison Square Garden. R.J. Barrett has superstar potential. Excellent size, quickness, and scoring ability, Barrett can turn this morbid franchise around.
Can the other young Knicks make jumps in their development? Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson are good defenders. Kevin Knox showed little in his rookie year. Dennis Smith Jr. is an elite athlete who lacks shooting touch but can get to the rim and has shown some playmaking ability. If the Knicks hope to lure a free agent to New York in 2021, these four must join with Barrett to convince a superstar this aimless, punch drunk franchise has turned a corner.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers 26-56
Another long season is in store for the Cavs as they try to teach three rookies the NBA game while experimenting with a small but offensively gifted backcourt in Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Can they trade Kevin Love for picks and/or young players? Read my extended Cavs preview here.
14. Washington Wizards 24-58
One early season question was perhaps answered last week when the Wizards signed Bradley Beal to a contract extension. Coveted by many a contender throughout the league, if Washington wished to entertain offers, trading Beal would return a king’s ransom. His complete offensive game would fit with any team striving for the title. For now, however, he’s stuck in our nation’s capital, leading a team of no names and misfits. Is Thomas Bryant his best teammate? Unless Isaiah Thomas is about to throw it back to 2017, the Wizards may want to cash in their Beal ticket and begin the rebuild that is staring them in the face.
15. Charlotte Hornets 21-61
What can be said about this mish mash of players? Malik Monk is entertaining, I guess.
The Hornets signing Terry Rozier to a three year, 56 million dollar contract. They also have 70.5 million tied up in Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, according to basketball-reference.com. Oof.