2021 NBA Preview: East Top 10 (Bucks and the Crowd)

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the NBA will return for what we hope is close to a full season. Completing the schedule of 72 games will be dependent on minimizing COVID-risk, health protocols, and the general American public trends regarding the virus. It’s easy to say they shouldn’t be playing…and maybe that would be the correct health decision. If an outbreak occurs on a team, the NBA has plans in place to re-schedule. The Orlando Bubble experiment went very well — from a fan’s perspective and from a virus perspective. It went less well from a player and coaching staff mental health perspective. It wasn’t realistic to expect another bubble for a close-to-full regular season. A six-week first-half bubble in which teams played 25 games would’ve been interesting and a decent compromise. If that went well, they could have gone home for a three-week break and then done another six-week second-half bubble, playing another 25 games. There could have been two 15-team bubbles for each time. But that would’ve involved a messy negotiation between the NBA owners with Silver and the NBA Players’ Association. And it would’ve resulted in a major loss of TV revenue, missing 22 more regular season games than the now-scheduled 72.

Here we are on the brink of the season, though. We can take a minute and appreciate that it’s happening, and we can hope that Adam Silver and company will make the right decisions when things get messy.

Let’s dive into the Eastern Conference:

  1. Milwaukee Bucks
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Is there enough help and versatility around Giannis to lift the Bucks to the Finals?

Giannis will be in Milwaukee through June, 2025. He has a player-option for the fifth year of this new deal. Bucks fans can now exhale. Now back to the present season. Adding Jrue Holiday, sending Eric Bledsoe to New Orleans might not seem like an enormous move on the surface, but considering Eric Bledsoe’s playoff difficulties and Jrue Holiday’s headiness, it might make the difference in those crucial moments of close games. Holiday’s performance in the 2018 playoffs should bring confidence to Bucks fans. Khris Middleton somehow remains underrated as a very good two-way player. Brook Lopez’ range is now 30 feet — which is a problem for defenses.

Adding shooting around the edges should help as well. Welcome D.J. Augustin, Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis.

A legitimate question to ask: Can coach Mike Budenholzer create enough extra playoff wrinkles to keep defenses off-balance? I appreciate Budenholzer’s general coaching acumen, but it’s fair to expect more now.

Prediction: 50–22

2. Philadelphia 76ers

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Is this the year the Sixers emerge from the East?

The health of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will dictate much of the Sixers first season under coach Doc Rivers. New GM Daryl Morey has added shooting and sent Al Horford to OKC to smooth out the offense. In this insanely abbreviated offseason, the Sixers are more rested than the other East contenders. The Sixers added shooting and contagious energy in Seth Curry, rugged defense and unflappability in Danny Green (hip injury last year impacted shooting), and physicality in Dwight Howard (if he stays motivated). Will this edition of Philly lead to playoff success?

Only Milwaukee is big enough to cause problems for Embiid. If health prevails, the Sixers are as dangerous as any team in the East other than the Bucks.

Prediction: 48–24

3. Miami Heat

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Can the Heat maintain the level of play they achieved in the bubble?

If yes, does that mean they will return to the Finals?

The Miami Heat played brilliantly in the Orlando bubble. Their offensive balance and defensive intensity were unmatched until they met the Lakers in the Finals. The East Finals between the Heat and Celtics was very close and could have tilted in Boston’s favor, but a memorable Game 1 block by Bam Adebayo, the series-long fourth quarter dominance of Butler and Miami’s defense, an otherworldly game by Tyler Herro, and Adebayo’s general ascendance launched Miami past Boston in 6 games. Miami’s notorious conditioning regimen — -which many members of the Heat maintained during the March-July hiatus — -put them in position to dominate play in August and September. Tyler Herro got to rest a nagging ankle. The Heat acquired Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala just before the season came to a halt. Crowder was especially important in the Heat’s playoff run. In retrospect, it wasn’t a shock to see the Heat play so well. On the other hand, it was a shock to see Tyler Herro score 37 points on 21 shots in Game 4.

Fast forward to the present day: Jae Crowder is now in Phoenix, while former Blazer swingman Maurice Harkless was added. Goran Dragic’s health has been a question mark in recent years. While he had a great run early in the playoffs, Dragic missed the end of the East Finals and most of the Finals with a foot issue. Incredibly, the 23 year-old Adebayo has yet to reach his ceiling. Teams have now seen Duncan Robinson’s off-the-ball scampering and will game plan around him and Adebayo. Can Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Harkless provide the balance?

It’s a mistake to say the Heat’s success was a fluke. It would also be a mistake to anoint them as the best team in the East.

Prediction: 46–26

4. Boston Celtics

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What about Kemba’s knee?

How much of an offensive burden can Jaylen Brown carry?

Kemba Walker clearly wasn’t close to healthy in the bubble. The Celtics hoped the hiatus would give Kemba time to recover, but it’s now believed that he has a chronic knee issue dating back to 2015. It’s a shame to imagine Kemba’s future shiftiness has permanently lost a gear from what it was, but it helps to know that Jayson Tatum has yet to reach his peak (age 23) and Jaylen Brown has added dimensions to his offensive game. Kemba doesn’t need to score 20–25 points per game on this team. The public comments on Kemba’s health are basically “We’ll wait and see” and “We’ll build his minutes up slowly.” At point guard, expect to see new addition/grizzled vet Jeff Teague and Marcus Smart early in the year, and a smattering of rookie Payton Pritchard (who I will refer to as “Gary” Payton Pritchard) when the schedule demands it. The Celtics need mostly-healthy Kemba in the playoffs. He may even turn into an instant-offense sixth man for stretches.

I wrote about the Celtics offseason here. In brief: goodbye Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Brad Wanamaker. Hello Tristan Thompson, Jeff Teague and two rookies: Aaron Nesmith and Pritchard.

Without Gordon Hayward or Kemba in the lineup, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart will have ample playmaking opportunities. Considering where Jaylen’s offense was two years ago, that might make Celtics fans shudder, but considering how he looked in the playoffs, a bigger burden might be welcome. It will be a very different Celtics team than the one we saw at the beginning of last year. Tatum is significantly better. Brown is growing. Kemba is injured. Gordon is gone. Will the supporting cast be supportive enough? Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson will defend. Robert Williams will turn heads with his athleticism.

Ultimately, Brad Stevens will need a nightly lift from two or three of these five: Jeff Teague, Grant Williams (improved shot by the end of last season), Romeo Langford (when he returns in a month or so), Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard. Otherwise, the Celtics record will dip closer to .500. Like most teams that went deep into September’s playoffs, the Celtics will be careful with minutes. Asking Tatum, Brown and Smart to play more than 33–35 min per game during this tightly-packed season, after a very short offseason, would be a longer-term mistake.

Prediction: 44–28

5. Brooklyn Nets

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How far can their offense take them?

It’s fitting that when the Nets are finally about to win again…there will be no fans in the stands to witness the victories. The borough of Brooklyn waits with open arms to welcome the Durant era.

The Brooklyn Nets will occasionally dominate in the regular season. If Kevin Durant is fully back as he appears to be, the Nets will contend for home-court in the East. Kyrie Irving, despite his cantankerous ways, is a wizard with the ball in his hands. Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie are dynamic. Joe Harris stretches the defense. The question remains: How will the Nets defend? Center Jarret Allen is the only plus defender other than healthy Durant. When the Nets score 125 points, they’ll probably be fine. Don’t expect them to do that when Durant is sidelined for back-to-backs or a scheduled rest day.

Prediction: 43–29

6. Toronto Raptors

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How far can their defense take them?

I believe in coach Nick Nurse. I believe in Kyle Lowry. Pascal Siakam admitted the bubble was mentally exhausting and uncomfortable for him. That’s fair. What’s not fair is the casual fan expectation that athletes are robotic and can be programmed to succeed in any condition. Toronto’s post-title, post-Kawhi success was due to several factors: Siakam’s growth, the unwavering confidence of Fred VanVleet, and the resurgence of both Serge Ibaka and O.G. Anunoby. Nick Nurse helps create the culture and maintain the defensive motivation and intensity. Kyle Lowry is the selfless leader that makes the coach look great (see Duncan, Tim; see Jokic, Nikola).

Offensively, losing Serge Ibaka will hurt. Defensively, Aron Baynes can do a decent Marc Gasol-impression. Young big man Chris Boucher will need to develop consistency. After a brutal 7-game series with Boston, the Raptors offseason was short as well. I would expect Lowry to be given stretches of rest this year. And I would expect Toronto to be a very difficult playoff match-up regardless of where they finish.

Prediction: 43–29

***

The 7th-10th seeds will now compete in a mini-play-in tournament. The 7th seed plays the 8th for the 7th spot. The 9th seed plays the 10th. The winner of 9v10 plays the loser of 7v8 to see who claims the coveted 8th seed in the actual playoff bracket.

The play-in game:

7th v 8th

Atlanta Hawks v Indiana Pacers

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The Hawks should be lots of fun to watch. They added Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo — -a very solid supporting crew to help Trae Young, John Collins and Clint Capela (remember him — he was traded to the Hawks at the trade deadline) get to the playoffs. They’ll score. They’ll be fun. How willing to share will Trae Young be? He hasn’t had many to share with in the past. It will be something to watch for. It’d still be a shock to see the Hawks advance, but they should make the top 8.

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The Pacers have the depth to finish higher than 8th. With some luck and some injuries to the previous teams, they could move up toward the middle of the pack. Unfortunately, they don’t have the go-to scorer to win in the playoffs. Not unless Victor Oladipo can regain his pre-injury form. T.J. Warren may miss time with plantar fascitis (which should be called a fascist plantar).

The other play-in game:

9th v 10th

Washington Wizards v Chicago Bulls

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The Wizards will score close to 120 points every night that Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook play together. They’ll push the pace at every opportunity. They’ll flat out-run some opponents. Davis Bertans and Thomas Bryant can both extend the defense. Rui Hachimura will develop into a solid role player. Robin Lopez adds depth. They’ll be fun, but most likely will struggle to defend most nights. Much depends on the 32 year-old Westbrook’s health and stamina. In a condensed year, he may be rested strategically.

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The Bulls actually have a coach, now that Billy Donovan has taken over. Fred Hoiberg and Jim Boylen were two of the least inspiring NBA coaches in recent memory. It doesn’t help to have a dysfunctional front office putting together a roster. Arturas Karnisovas was hired to make basketball decisions and make better roster-shaping decisions. The Bulls have talent, especially with the fearless Coby White and the theoretically stretchy Lauri Markkanen. Rookie Patrick Williams is known as a dynamic athlete who projects into a solid defender. Wendell Carter Jr. can rebound. Can this talent coalesce and develop chemistry with Donovan guiding them? We shall see.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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