Eastern Conference Futures On Eve Of Season

The NBA season will resume action on Thursday at the bubble location in Orlando. Let’s look at the Eastern Conference and see which teams could offer some value on the board.

The Favorites

The Milwaukee Bucks have to be the East favorite, if only because Giannis Antetokounmpo was injured before the coronavirus-related break occurred, and now he is fully healthy. As long as Giannis and the Bucks’ core are at full strength, they are the class of the NBA, because that is what they demonstrated in the first 55 games of the regular season. The Bucks were a step ahead of everyone. They are also motivated to avenge the loss to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals… and the Raptors, as good as they have been, do not have Kawhi Leonard.

If there is an argument to make for the Raptors, it is that big man Marc Gasol has gotten noticeably stronger and leaner in workouts during the coronavirus hiatus. This is the great variable of the
NBA season if a restarted season occurs: Lots of players who were either banged up or out of shape might have gotten healthy and sharper, whereas a number of players who were in top form might have lost crucial momentum and rhythm and might now find it hard to recapture the same level of quality they had before the season was interrupted. Toronto will bank on Gasol being a beast. That would give the Raptors a shot against the Bucks if they meet again.

The Boston Celtics have to be taken seriously. Marcus Smart got COVID-19 a few months ago but should be able to play now. Jayson Tatum might have been playing the best basketball of anyone in the East (keeping in mind that Giannis got hurt for the Bucks) when the season was stopped. If he can pick up exactly where he left off, Boston will certainly have a chance in the East.

The Miami Heat are the fourth team with a real chance to win the East. They will hope the Bucks have rust to work off if the two teams meet in the East semifinals. Milwaukee could have trouble adjusting to the weird environment in Orlando, and Miami – which doesn’t have to travel a great distance to relocate – might adjust a lot more easily. It’s not as though playing without fans in arenas will automatically create the same results as a “normal” regular season context. It could all be different, and Miami has the talent base with Jimmy Butler to potentially make a run.

The Longshots

The Indiana Pacers, who might play the Heat in the first round, are a longshot more than a favorite because Victor Oladipo will not be part of the restart if it happens. Oladipo wants to get fully healthy for the next full NBA season, a very reasonable goal. That knocks the Pacers out of realistic contention in the East.

The team which might have a chance to make a run from a dark-horse position is the Philadelphia 76ers. They could give the Celtics a battle in the first round, and if they get through that, they will face a Toronto team they pushed to seven games in last year’s playoffs. The Sixers have great talent, but their roster fit and their coaching, plus the offensive limitations of Ben Simmons, figure to work against them in the end.

The seventh and eighth seeds figure to mount no real opposition to second-seeded Toronto and top-seeded Milwaukee in the first round.

Notable players absent in the East: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Wilson Chandler, and DeAndre Jordan of the Brooklyn Nets; Oladipo of the Pacers; John Wall and Davis Bertans of the Washington Wizards.

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