If you love chaos, you're going to love the Eastern Conference in the 2020-2021 season. The Eastern Conference is going to be just as wild and unpredictable this year as it was last year, when the Miami Heat took the East by storm in the bubble en route to the NBA Finals.
For the second year in a row, the regular season belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks, who dominated to the tune of a 56-17 record. However, the playoffs rolled around and the Bucks did not look like the same team in the Orlando bubble. They were bounced again before the NBA Finals, this time to the Miami Heat in 5 games.
This year, the East feels wide open. There's the Bucks, who have re-loaded with Jrue Holiday and most importantly, got Giannis to sign on the dotted line for his five-year max- it's the biggest and best thing to happen to the Milwaukee Bucks since Kareem won a title there in the 70's, and they will now play this season without the cloud of Giannis leaving next Summer over them.
Aside from the Bucks, there are a number of capable contenders to challenge Milwaukee. The Heat are the defending East champs, after all. There's the Celtics, who lost Gordon Hayward but possess two of the most promising young wings in the game in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The Raptors lose a couple of pieces in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, but retained Fred Van Vleet to pair with Kyle Lowry, who have a culture of winning and NBA championship experience.
The list of contenders doesn't stop there- the Philadelphia Sixers are re-tooled and tabbed as one of my winners of the offseason. Daryl Morey added couple of great shooters in Danny Green and Seth Curry to surround Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and was able to move off of Al Horford, who didn't fit in this roster. The team fits together much better this year, they added a championship level coach in Doc Rivers, and I expect them to take a leap forward.
But perhaps the most interesting contender in the East is the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant makes his long awaited return from his achilles tear to pair with Kyrie Irving. They also have their eye on James Harden, who would combine with these two to make the most fearsome trio in the entire league. Either way, they're going to be in the mix if KD is healthy.
Let's take a look at some Overs/Unders and make our predictions on the top 7 teams in the East, according to Vegas. Important Note: this NBA season is only 72 games instead of 82 games this year.
Milwaukee Bucks 49.5
This is around a 56 win pace for Milwaukee, who have added Jrue Holiday to go with Khris Middleton and Giannis as their big three. If they had completed the sign and trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic I would have been even higher on the Bucks, but they remain a clear contender to win the East.
I love Jrue's fit in Milwaukee's backcourt with Khris Middleton and I think he'll be a substantial upgrade over Eric Bledsoe. This team is going to continue to play stifling defense, hit a ton of threes, and have a pretty high floor with Giannis on the roster. They're going to win a boatload of regular season games, but the question remains whether it can translate in the playoffs.
Coach Bud has rightfully faced a lot of criticism with his minutes management and inability to be flexible in the playoffs. It feels like there's a strong plan A for Milwaukee- center the offense around the two-time MVP and surround him with three-point shooting. On defense, play a number of long guards and wings around Giannis to swarm three point shooters and contest every shot, and Giannis is the best rim protector in the game.
I think this team will once again be a terror in the regular season, but I'm going to take the slight under due to the improvement I'm banking on from the rest of the East. 46-48 wins feels about right to me.
Aaron: Slight Under
This iteration of the Bucks have solidified an identity that should be key in carrying them to a top seed for the 3rd consecutive year. They have built their offensive pillars on floor spacing and shooting, and their personnel still allows them to carry out that ethos with the additions of Bobby Portis in the frontcourt, and Bryn Forbes in the backcourt. Defensively, they should still finish as an elite unit with Lopez dropping low in P&Rs and Holiday now available to hawk ball-handlers at the point of attack. Regardless of what position the opposing team boasts an offensive threat, they will go up against stiff resistance from someone on the Bucks roster.
The Greek God that is Giannis all but assures them a top 3 seed, through his sheer dominance in the paint and all-around defensive impact. Let's not forget that last season, he became only the 3rd player in history to win MVP and DPOY during the same campaign. It may sound crazy to mention this, but Giannis almost certainly has another gear to reach. Outside of the paint, he is still inconsistent at best, posting below averages in just about every shooting zone outside of the restricted area. Even the addition of a reliable floater or short mid range game would make him next to impossible to guard on a nightly basis. The fact that he's now locked up for the next five years should ease nerves and allow the whole team to exhale and play free.
All that being said, the bench threats still leave a little something to be desired. Forbes and Augustin will be popular targets on defense, Torrey Craig isn't much of a creator or shooter, although he'll be dangerous on cuts, and Portis could get ancy and get ahead of himself on occasion. He's no post threat, but has a habit of acting as one for spurts. All together, this is still a very cohesive unit with multiple two-way threats that will terrorize other teams each and every game. However, an injury or two could require more one-dimensional players to step up, leaving a few gaps to exploit. All in all, this is a team built for the grind of the regular season, but we'll have to see what this revised roster can do when the demands of the playoffs come calling once again.
Boston Celtics 45.5
The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward in the offseason, which was a missed opportunity to see a max free agent/substantial asset walk out the door for the second consecutive offseason (Kyrie last year). However, in terms of moving forward, Hayward did not have a clear role in this team as a significant option in the offense.
Jayson Tatum will be handed the keys to the car, and the way he ended the season, it's crystal clear he's ready to take his game to the next level- superstardom. Tatum averaged 23.4 PPG/7 RPG/3 APG last year on 45%/40%/81% splits, and I think he takes another jump up this year into the MVP conversation.
Jaylen Brown also took a large step forward last year and has more room for growth as the second banana to Tatum. Tatum and Brown will be joined in the starting lineup by Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Tristan Thompson, the newly acquired center that will give the C's a rim running big they've missed the last few years.
I love the defensive ability and versatility of Boston's roster, who seems to make a little more sense without Hayward. There are clearly defined roles for this young, hungry team that already made the Eastern Finals last year. I think they'll be in the mix to win the East once more- assuming Kemba can get his knee right, give me the over.
Jayson Tatum will determine how far this team can go this season. For the past three years, he has been groomed by established veterans, such as Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Kemba Walker. Now that Irving/Hayward have moved on, and Kemba is laboring with a sore knee, Tatum's time has come to make a full-time run at MVP consideration and a spot on the All-NBA 1st team. Both will be tall tasks, but if he can even approach the impact necessary to be in those conversations, Boston will challenge for one of the top eastern conference seeds. One hold still remains in Tatum's game and that is finishing at close range. He topped out at 63% at the rim in 18-19, but dropped back down below average last season (59%). Clearly, we haven't seen the best of Tatum yet at the tender age of 22.
The Tatum + Brown dynamic duo could be fully operational this season, leading to an abundance of shot creation and defensive versatility. They finished 4th in defensive efficiency last season, even with Kemba at the point. I see no reason why they can't replicate that performance this time around. Tristan Thompson should do wonders for their defensive rebounding situation, which ultimately did them in against Miami in the playoffs this past Fall. He will also keep the team from relying too heavily on Robert Williams, who is still fairly raw going into year 3. Jeff Teague isn't exactly the biggest confidence booster in the backcourt, considering he's lost a couple steps since his Atlanta hayday, but filling in for Brad Wanamaker isn't the biggest hurdle to clear.
As balanced as this team is, there are still question marks that will need to be addressed. The bench could end up being a jumbled mess of youngers trying to find their way and one of them won't even be available for awhile, as Romeo Langford just underwent wrist surgery a couple weeks ago. Kemba's knee problems could flare up again down the road, requiring careful load management. I can see a variety of possible outcomes for this season, ranging from a 6th seed, all the way up to the 3rd seed. It really comes down to how elite Tatum becomes and how much (or little) they'll be able to count on Kemba being available this year.
There is a reason I haven't mentioned Hayward to this point, and it's because they 1) are accustomed to operating without him in the lineup due to injury issues of his own and 2) he's departing a position that is already pretty deep for the team. Tatum/Brown already command a ton of minutes at the wing positions and Grant Williams should be ready to step into an expanded role. Throw in the sharp shooting Aaron Neismith and they should be able to cover for him just fine. I believe in Tatum and his ability to keep this team afloat, despite the concerns.
Brooklyn Nets 45.5
A note: this is a roster that could look completely different depending on if James Harden is dealt to the Nets or if they stand pat. As they are currently constructed, this team contains two genius level scorers in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, surrounded by sharp-shooting Joe Harris, productive guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert, Deandre Jordan and Jarrett Allen controlling the paint, and a couple of intriguing bench options (Landry Shamet, Tyler Johnson, and Jeff Green, who showed signs of life in Houston last year.
They also bring in quite the coaching staff in Steve Nash, Mike D'Antoni, Jacque Vaughn, Amare Stoudemire, and more. They're going to need significant guidance and just the right touch to handle the unique personalities of this roster, but all of the talent is there for this team to win the East and even challenge in the Finals.
It's not without risk, but I'm banking on the health and impact of Kevin Durant, still one of the 2-3 best players in the world. If Harden joins this roster, the 45.5 wins vegas line is a layup over and the Nets become the prohibitive favorite to win the East, if not the NBA Finals.