The NBA starts on Wednesday (AEDT) and after running the rule over the favourites, contenders and also-rans of the Western Confernece on Monday, we turn our focus to the Eastern Conference.
It’s boom or bust for the Eastern Conference All-Stars and it will be this way until Kevin Durant retires, James Harden dusts off the fat suit and chooses another lover, or Kyrie Irving hunts another conspiracy that sees him living as a monk in Tibet.
For now, the Nets are all in. LaMarcus Aldridge has returned from an early retirement, they re-signed Blake Griffin and they’ve built some deep role player depth via free agency through next Australian of the Year, Patty Mills, along with Paul Millsap, James Johnson and DeAndre’ Bembry. This team could be lacking a defensive pillar to protect the paint. Nicholas Claxton could be that guy, but there are a lot of legacies for him to leap before a considerable role can be had.
(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Aussie Watch: Patty Mills – he is our nation’s spiritual leader and will no doubt play a key role in managing the egos of the team. Will his voice be heard to emulate the strong Spurs and Boomers cultures? Or will the nightclubs and Collective Evolution Facebook posts win out?
Confidence and momentum are everything in sport and Milwaukee carries it all. Entering the new season as the defending champions, having broken a 50-year drought, will have the Bucks core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Kris Middleton believing they are guaranteed to beat anyone, anytime. Yes, they are so hot right now, they’d be the favourites against the Harlem Globetrotters.
Losing PJ Tucker to Miami will hurt big time when the Playoffs arrive, particularly if they face the Nets. Maybe it’s why they targeted Semi Ojeleye in free agency, who is a PJ Tucker starter pack. With Tucker gone, who guards KD? Giannis? Jrue runs with Irving or Harden, which leaves a committee of Donte DiVincenzo, Grayson Allen and George Hill to play lockdown defence on one of the league’s two best perimeter scorers – gulp.
After making the NBA Finals in 2020 with an offense ranked seventh, before being swept by the Bucks in the first round of last year’s playoffs with an offense ranked 17th, the Heat entered free agency with a focus on landing point guard Kyle Lowry to give their offense a rewind.
The defence will never be an issue for the Heat if Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler are on the court together – they’ve added PJ Tucker too – so, for team balance, they can afford the addition of an ageing, chunky, point guard with extreme offensive prowess. If Victor Oladipo can find any semblance of his former self and Tyler Herro plays at the level he believes he is capable “up there with Luka Doncic, Trae and Ja”, then the Heat will see an improved offense to complement their ferocious defence.
Ben Simmons lost the game of bluff and is back with the 76ers preparing for opening week. Demanding a trade and sitting out is always a brave play. I’d imagine he felt powerful when Doc Rivers and the crew were requesting meetings and spinning serious PR adulation for Ben’s game and what he means to the franchise. The bottom line is this: the fans now hate him, most of his teammates too, and the only reason he is back in town is through the 76ers targeting his bank account with daily fines.
Bravery, ultimatums, and petulance are all grand, until you start losing cash. Strong performance is his only currency to win back the fans, his teammates, and a trade suitor. With Ben, the 76ers are a contender, without him, they’re a lock for the playoffs.
Aussie Watch: Ben Simmons – could have benefited from a stint in the Boomers dressing room. Some love and good times required. Then there’s Matisse Thybulle – DEFENCE, DEFENCE, DEFENCE. Aussie favourite after successful Olympics run.
The Hawks roster is extremely well built around the strengths and weaknesses of franchise cornerstone, Trae Young. Long athletic defenders, shooters, and a genuine defensive paint presence. Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunters staying fit will add another dimension to the team defensively and, if Reddish can add some consistency to his jump shot and offensive game, then he will not only give the Hawks a bump in their championship hunt, but he will also add weight to the raging discussion on who won the Trae for Luka Doncic trade.
The Hawks could jump again. Contenders? Mighty close.
Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown are a formidable ‘big two’. Formidable because they can play both sides of the ball, and both are showing progression as playmakers, but more so because they haven’t yet reached their potential. Last season, the Celtics were underwhelming. Surprisingly, Coach Brad Stevens was promoted to President of Basketball Operations, replacing Danny Ainge who had sat in the chair for 20 years, and Ime Udoka replaced Stevens as coach.
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The new regime has been active. Al Horford returns, as part of the Kemba Walker salary dump, along with Josh Richardson via a trade with the Mavericks. Dennis Schroeder signed a one-year, $6 million deal and will get bulk bench minutes after gambling on himself to be a big-ticket item in free agency and lost to the tune of $78 million guaranteed dollars from the Lakers. Ouch.
On the cusp
New York Knicks
The Knicks made a return to the playoffs on the back of Tom Thibodeau’s trademark defensive footprint. They allowed the fewest points per game in the league last year, which led Thibodeau to being named Coach of the Year. The challenge for the Knicks? Putting the ball in the hole – good for 23rd in the league.
Julius Randle took a remarkable offensive leap and won the Most Improved Award, going from 19 points, nine rebounds, three assists and 27.7 per cent three-point percentage, to 24 points, ten rebounds, six assists and 41 per cent three-point shooting. Good grief! Sustainable? Sure, why not?
The addition of Kemba Walker, who fell in their lap after being brought out by OKC, and the free agency splurge on Evan Fournier, will provide enough offense to have the Knicks in line to take another leap.
The Bulls went on a shopping spree, signing DeMar DeRozan to way too much, a sign and trade for Lonzo Ball, signed Alex Caruso and traded for Derrick Jones Jr. Gone are Lauri Markannen, Daniel Gafford, Denzel Valentine and Wendell Carter Jr, in a clear sign that the new front office was no fan of the previous committee’s talent identification and general management.
Of course, all of this is on the back of the trade deadline deal to acquire Nikola Vucevic, Wendell Carter Jr and a couple of lightly protected firsts, one of which ended up as the eighth pick (Franz Wagner) in this year’s draft.
The Bulls have shown their hand as a win-now team, but how much will all this improve their roster? Not enough to be a contender. They’ll improve from 11th last year to somewhere in the play-in range.
The Pacers have a quality roster, led by two time All-Star Domantis Sabonis, Caris LeVert, Malcom Brogdon, Myles Turner and some quality depth pieces in TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday and recently drafted Chris Duarte. What they didn’t have last year was a coach who knew how to manage a team of players or a staff of people. It was a disaster, and little wonder the team underperformed against their potential.
Injuries, of course, played a role in this, with TJ Warren still not back from a stress fracture in his foot. Myles Turner also missed a large chunk of games and Caris LeVert missed games from the moment he arrived via trade. New coach Rick Carlisle is touted as the greatest X’s and O’s coach in the league and his arrival should provide the Pacers the required structure to maximise their talented roster.
A fit Gordon Hayward proved he is the glue in this team taking its leap and making the playoffs for the fourth time in 20 years. In the 44 games he played last year, the Hornets went 24-20, and 7-19 in the games he didn’t. That is a significant impact.
LaMelo Ball showed that our own NBL is a great spot for development with a stellar start to his NBA career. Yep, our NBL produced Rookie of the Year! The addition of Kelly Oubre gives LaMelo another transition toy to play with, but like the rest of the Hornets roster, Oubre has his challenges scoring in the half court.
Injuries and not being allowed to play at home – Toronto shut-off from the US due to the pandemic – completely killed their 2020-21 season. Living in hotels and out of a suitcase must takes its toll – and it did.
They finished the season with a 10-28 record. For the first time in nine years, the Raptors start a new season without the leadership of Kyle Lowry. What strain does that place on the offense? Can Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby create their own while facilitating efficiently for others?
Defensively, the team has the chance to be special. They’re so long and athletic. Their no.4 pick, Scottie Barnes, has all the tools to be a defensive problem from day one, and with growth in his offensive tool kit, many believe he has the chance to be the best prospect of the 2021 NBA Draft.
Somehow, they turned John Wall into Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Holiday, Isaiah Todd and two seconds. Does moving on from Russell Westbrook for the above package make them better? No. None of these guys are impactful enough to move the needle.
This looks like heading down an ugly path where Bradley Beal is out of there. They’re deeper, have more shooting, and the addition of Spencer Dinwiddie helps, but as you’ve seen above, the East looks competitive, and someone is going to have a losing season; it looks most likely to be the Wizards.
Learning, development, bad contracts for picks and carrying dead money is the new slogan for the Detroit Pistons over the next three seasons. Maybe they should waive and stretch their marketing team. Cade Cunningham can flat out-shoot the basketball. But can he put it on the floor? Is he a lead guard? Early comparisons suggest that he will end up a Kris Middleton player, the perfect number two option. Because like Derek Zoolander, he can’t go left.
On the flip side is Killian Hayes, who can’t go right. He had a brutal rookie year with injuries and some woeful offensive output but showed enough defensively to have a couple of stragglers left on his bandwagon. Even The Ringers Kevin O’Connor – once his biggest fan – seems to have jumped off. The Pistons will be collecting their picks.
The Magic have one of the youngest rosters in the NBA with this year’s lottery picks, Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs, joining last year’s draft picks, Cole Anthony and RJ Hampton and previous lottery picks over the last four years im Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr.
This team won’t win many games, but it’s a young group with enormous upside. Adding to the misery is the fact the team’s top three scorers from last year are gone, and that team was next to last in scoring average/offensive rating and dead last in effective field goal percentage. Although maybe it’s a blessing; brick throwers Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon aren’t hogging the ball anymore! The Magic will be collecting their picks.
Seen Happy Gilmore? Kevin Love is the lady who dives onto Happy’s car as he enters the Silver Acres retirement home with Grandma. “Mister, Mister, GET, ME, OUTTA, HERE!” The other 29 teams are Happy, who couldn’t be any less interested in being the saviour.
The Cavaliers’ backcourt is exciting with Darius Garland and Colin Sexton proving last year they can co-exist, while they also drafted a foundation big man in Evan Mobley. It’s all very exciting. But will Mobley breathe clean air by playing alongside Jarrett Allen, who they just guaranteed $100 million to over five years?
Lauri Markannen found his new home and, if the pre-season is anything to go by, the Cavs are going big with an Allen, Mobley, Markannen front court. Where does last year’s number five draft pick, Isaac Okoro, fit? These are good problems to have for a non-contending team. See what works, trade out what doesn’t.
Young talent to burn in Cleveland. With more on the way because they’ll be collecting their picks too.