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With no LeBron – There’s a Fight Brewing in the East

As insane as this sounds, the Eastern Conference is finally wide open for the first time in eight years. Yes, you read that correctly, eight years! That’s the reign that LeBron James orchestrated and controlled. The last time that there has been an NBA Finals that didn’t feature LeBron James I was in my junior year of high school. I’m twenty-six now, to give you a perspective. With LeBron now apart of the Los Angeles Lakers, we’re finally going to see another franchise get a taste of the NBA Finals experience. With no LeBron – there’s a fight brewing in the East.  Four Eastern Conference teams have a legitimate shot at making a push; the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics, the Toronto Raptors, and the Milwaukee Bucks. Below I’ll break down each team and give an analysis of why they have a shot at winning the Eastern Conference. As great as LeBron and his runs with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers were, it’s refreshing to finally know someone else will represent the conference. This could play out to become one of the most exciting Eastern Conference playoffs in recent memory. You won’t want to miss these matchups.

BOSTON CELTICS

At 37-21 the Celtics are currently sitting in the 4th spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, labeled by many as underachieving. After their postseason run last year without star players Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, many thought Boston would be the team to beat in the East this season and ultimately the only team who could challenge Golden State. Team chemistry has been a problem with Boston all season long, as they’ve struggled to put it all together for any sustainable period. Forward Marcus Morris recently spoke out after the Celtics blew a 28-point lead at home to the decimated Los Angeles Clippers. “For me, it’s not really about the loss. It’s about the attitude that we’re playing with,” Morris told reporters in the locker room. “Guys are hanging their heads. It’s not fun. We’re not competing at a high level. Even though we’re winning, it’s still not fun. I don’t see the joy in the game.  I watch all these other teams around the league and guys are up on the bench — they’re jumping on the court, they’re enjoying their teammates’ success. They’re enjoying everything, they’re playing together, and they’re playing to win. And when I look at us, I just see a bunch of individuals.” Maybe Morris’ comments will be the spark that ignites the Celts to finally fulfill their full potential. The Celtics have arguably the most talented roster in the entire NBA top to bottom, the 4th spot in the East is not acceptable. Or is it? The East is far better than anyone thought this season and had Victor Oladipo not gone down for the season the Pacers would make this a five-team race for the crown.

The Youth

The Celtics possess some of the NBA’s best young talent, and they’re only going to add to their crop with their upcoming draft picks. That is if they don’t trade them in a deal for Anthony Davis this summer. Much of the issue with the C’s to me currently seems to be a reflection of players being unhappy with their roles, which can become problematic when teams become overloaded with talent. When Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving went down for the season last year, the Celtics had to turn to their young guns to lead the team, and boy did they look promising. The combination of Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are supposed to be the future of the Celtics. In last year’s playoff run Rozier was playing 37 minutes per game while averaging 16.5 ppg, 5.7 apg, & 5.3 rpg. He was electrifying! He even earned himself a new nickname, “Scary Terry”! Jayson Tatum put up a stat line of 18.5 ppg, 2.7 apg, & 4.4 rpg. Cementing himself as the top rookie in his class, and earning the label “Superstar in the Making”. Jaylen Brown more than tripled his points per game total from his rookie year playoff stint and last year where he averaged over 18 ppg. The Celtics ultimately fell just one game short of the NBA Finals, when they lost game seven at home to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. With this trio still on the roster, and now a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, there’s no reason in the world that the Celtics shouldn’t be a better team in these playoffs. However, the youth will need to embrace their roles and put the team first before their personal situation within the franchise for the C’s to make it to where they want to go.

Al Horford – X Factor

For the Celtics to have any shot whatsoever at making an NBA Finals appearance, they’ll need every ounce of production out of “Average Al” that they can squeeze out of him. Despite the “Average Al” critiques, Horford is an X-factor that doesn’t need the stats to prove his value. The 5x all-star gives the Celtics a little bit of everything from the center position, and more than anything, he gives the stability. The 12-year veteran has seen it all and knows how to handle the ups-and-downs of every situation a player can be put in. Big Al is the Celtics best playmaker and best interior defender. They’ll need his best form if they plan on making a championship run.

Kyrie Irving

Boston has zero shot whatsoever to win an NBA Title without the best version of their best player. Kyrie Irving is by far and away the best player on the C’s roster, and not even just from a talent standpoint. First and foremost, he’s been there before. Kyrie is an NBA Champion, forever. No one will ever forget the game-winning three he made over Stephen Curry’s outstretched arm to secure the Cavaliers championship over the best team in NBA history. Irving possesses a clutch gene that not many players have, and he knows how to thrive in situations that are extremely uncomfortable. The Cavaliers were down 3-1 in that series. During the Cavs comeback, it was Irving and James who had big game after big game with their backs against the wall. If the Celtics expect to get past Toronto, Philly, or Milwaukee, they’ll need that 2014-2015 playoff version of Kyrie to re-emerge.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Elton Brand, the 76ers general manager, made more moves at the trade deadline than anyone else in the league, making it clear that the 76ers are focused on winning now. Philly is currently sitting in the 5th spot in the Eastern Conference standings at 37-21, the same record as the Boston Celtics. The 76ers starting lineup is the only starting lineup in the entire NBA where all five players are averaging over 15 ppg. Most would agree it’s the second best starting lineup in the entire league, right behind the Golden State Warriors.

76ers Starting lineup averages

Joel Embiid – C – 27.3 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 3.5 apg – All-Star Starter

Tobias Harris – F – 20.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.8 apg – 43% 3-Point Shooter

Jimmy Butler – G – 19.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.9 apg – 2 Steals Per Game

J.J. Redick – G – 18.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.8 apg – 40% 3-Point Shooter

Ben Simmons – G – 16.8 ppg, 9 rpg, 7.9 apg – All-Star

The 76ers starting lineup is a matchup nightmare. The smallest guy on the floor for Philadelphia is 6’4” J.J. Redick. Ben Simmons is a 6’10” point guard. The biggest starting PG in the league. Once head coach Brett Brown figures out his second and third lineups, this team will be lethal.

Joel Embiid

The best big-man in the league and it’s not even a debate. The footwork that Embiid possesses at his size hasn’t been seen since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon. The craziest part about Embiid is that it seems like he’s on scratching the surface of what his full potential could be. Embiid is still just 24 years young and in his third professional season. He’s improved his game in each of his first three years in the league.

Rookie – 20.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.1 apg

Sophomore – 22.9 ppg, 11 rpg, 3.2 apg

3rd Year – 27.3 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 3.5 apg (MVP Candidate)

With a soft touch and smooth release, there’s no reason not to believe that Embiid is just going to become more and more efficient with his jump shot. Already a great shooter, Embiid has the potential and the mechanics to become an elite shooter. We have seen a 7-footer with an elite jump shot since prime Dirk. Embiid can destroy you on the block, and step out and shoot over you on the wing. He’s a true pick your poison and lives with the results type of matchup. No other big man in the Eastern Conference has the size to challenge Embiid for a full forty-eight minutes. Al Horford is his most difficult matchup. Still young, Embiid sometimes disappears for stretches of games. The 76ers will need him to be fully engaged every possession of every game in the playoffs if they anticipate representing the East. As great as the 76ers are collectively, they go as Embiid goes. He’s by far and away their best player on both ends of the floor, and they’ll need everything he’s got to give during this years playoff run.

Ben Simmons – X Factor

Philly wants him to shoot; the fans want him to shoot; Joel Embiid wants to see him shoot; Brett Brown wants him to shoot; the media doesn’t think he can shoot. But what if Philly’s youngest star doesn’t need to shoot for the team to be championship caliber?  Modernists claim that his lack of range is a liability in this era. Depending on who you ask, Ben Simmons’s behavior is evidence of fear, arrogance, poor work ethic, using the wrong hand, eroding upside, and the hazards of allowing a Kardashian into your life to implement their family curse on yet another helpless athlete. Even the optimists who believe he’s still young enough to one day develop a jumper concede that this hole in his offensive game threatens his blue-chip future. However, while all of this may be true, it’s also completely and entirely unnecessary. With the way the 76ers roster is constructed, Simmons doesn’t need to shoot the ball at all. Philly has imploded the floor with four players who can knock down jumpers from anywhere, thus allowing Simmons to attack the rim off the dribble and find open teammates. The modern day game is playing played around the rim and from beyond the arc, most modernists view the midrange jumper as a bad shot attempt. Hence the reason players like Demar DeRozan and Carmelo Anthony are banished from every House of Hoops followers good praise. Simmons is being critiqued for routinely getting the best shot for either himself or his teammates. Simmons’s reluctance to take the shot the defenses want him to shoot is not a concession. It’s a “screw you”! Simmons is playing to his strengths, creating plays, and allowing his teammates to handle the shooting loads. A style of play GM Elton Brand has equipt this roster perfectly to perform at a high level. With Simmons size, he doesn’t need to shoot the basketball to be a matchup nightmare. He won’t another starting point guard in the Eastern Conference who is taller than 6’5”. Simmons will have a size and height advantage over all of his competition. A willing distributor, Simmons will find passing lanes at a premium, and as long as the rest of the 76ers are knocking down shots, this team will be as tough to beat in a series as anyone.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Here’s a stat that would make every preseason expert analyst absolutely sick. The Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the NBA at 43-14. If you told someone before the season started that the Bucks would have the best record in the league at the All-Star break that person would have responded with, “Yeah and cars can transform.”  The Bucks are the only team in the league that ranks in the top-5 both offensively and defensively. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the front-runner to win MVP and has transformed from the Greek freak to the Greek god. Head coach Mike Budenholzer is the easy choice for the Coach of The Year award. They’re the only team to suffer back-to-back losses yet. They boast the league’s best point differential and net rating, major statistical indicators that this success is no fluke. This is all real. This is all happening. And like Giannis getting from half court to the rim in just one dribble, this is as mesmerizing as it is discombobulating. A generation of Bucks fans have watched and endured this organization’s tumultuous run. The just-demolished Bradley Center hosted playoff series victories in just two seasons in its 30-year existence. This year’s Bucks squad is ready to next the next step and prove their value as legitimate contenders, and along the way, the critics are falling by the wayside, and the Bucks bandwagon is picking up some serious steam.

Wingmen

Giannis is the conductor that drives this Milwaukee train, but the Bucks starting wingmen are capable of blowing some steam themselves. Khris Middleton is second on the team in scoring with 17.1ppg, followed closely by Malcolm Brogdon (15.8) and Eric Bledsoe (15.8) who both average the same. Brogdon has taken another all-around step forward in his third year and is shooting an incredible 93.8% from the free throw line on the season. Bledsoe has been slashing to the rim regularly and showcasing savant-like defensive skill against some of the NBA’s best guards in the league. This trio will be a huge deterrent to how far the Bucks can go. With the space-and-pace style of play that is dominating the way the games played nowadays, Giannis is going to need the shotmaking from each of his wingmen to be at an all-time high for them to win the conference.

Big Brook

Brook “Splash Mountain” Lopez is shooting more threes than any other frontcourt player in the league at nearly seven attempts per game. For the first eight years of Lopez’s professional career, the seven-footer attempted less than .2 3-point attempts per game. In more conventional terms, he didn’t shoot 3s at all. He didn’t need too. The game didn’t call for it. But, as the way teams play the game changed, Lopez changed his to remain relevant, and it’s been highly effective for him. For much of Lopez’s early career, he operated as a locomotive on the block, ready to put on an offensive clinic with his back positioned to the basket. Averaging over 20 ppg four times in his first nine seasons, it was no question that big Brook could get buckets. His role has obviously changed now that he’s older, and he’s on a team that is a million times better than any he was ever apart of back in Brooklyn, but Brook still has an extremely valuable role. The added shooting touch and range he’s added to his game is what opens those lanes for Giannis. Lopez can pull the opponents’ rim protector away from the hoop, allowing his teammates to attack the rim at will with little contest. The Bucks will need Lopez to continue his shooting prowess into the postseason for them to reach their full potential in a seven-game series. If he can’t be effective knocking down jumpers and the opposition can sag their rim protector down into the paint, it could create issues for the Bucks offense.

The “Greek Freak”

The Greek Freak is a long way from home, from where it all started. Here in modern day America, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a sports icon, one of the handful of best basketball players on the planet. But back home in Greece ten short years ago, he was a scrawny teenager trying to find his way. Growing up Antetokounmpo had aspirations to be the next Randy Moss, favoring football over all else. It wasn’t until the coaches of the local professional team Filathlitikos stumbled across the frail teen that basketball became relevant in Giannis’ life. What’s transpired since is history. The Greek Freak has piled on over 50lbs of sheer muscle since being drafted six years ago. He’s developed from a player who “could not dribble or make a layup” to become one of the NBA’s most exciting talents. Giannis has improved in every aspect of his game since entering the league, and his increased production reflects that:

Year 1:  6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.9 apg

Year 2:  12.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.6 apg

Year 3:  16.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 4.3 apg

Year 4:  22.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.4 apg

Year 5:  26.9 ppg, 10 rpg, 4.8 apg

Year 6:  27.2 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 6  apg

Giannis has gone from NBA unknown to NBA superstar all before his 25th birthday. You’d be crazy to think if a team with this guy on their roster didn’t have a chance at the NBA Finals. The Bucks are only getting better and better, and that’s scary for the rest of the league.

TORONTO RAPTORS

The Toronto Raptors look deeper and more skilled than they ever have before. After years of late-season disappointment and playoff failure, this team could finally be the one who can break through. The Raptors possess arguably the best, and deepest bench in the entire league, and adding veteran wingman Jeremy Lin after his buyout was just icing on the cake. I would mention the addition of Marc Gasol, but we’ll save that for later. The Raps have legitimate reserve players at every position. Backup point guard Fred Van Fleet is the best backup PG in the entire NBA. After finishing third in the NBA 6th Man of The Year voting last season, Van Fleet is adding to his track record this year, increasing his numbers across the board. The Raptors are one of the best defensive teams in the league. They’re long, athletic, and will get after you at every position. The addition of Kawhi Leonard last summer only solidified their defensive outlook even more. They’re the only team in the NBA who possess three former DPOTY winners on the same team in Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Kawhi Leonard. Danny Green is an underrated addition to this franchise, as he brings clutch shot making ability and toughness with his championship DNA. This team is scary.

Marc Gasol

It’s only been a short two games since the Memphis Grizzlies decided to part ways with the best player in their franchise’s history by trading star center Marc Gasol to the Toronto Raptors for Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles, and a 2024 second-round draft pick. However, Gasol has wasted no time in putting his stamp on the Raptors.  Gasol is the best passing big the team has ever seen and with that comes both joy and challenges. Since 2013-2014 the Toronto Raptors have ranked at the bottom of the NBA in assists per game. Since Gasol joined them two games ago, Kawhi Leonard has set and then reset his career high in assists in back-to-back games. Gasol joining the Raptors has ushered in the kind of synaptic, read-and-react basketball that had long eluded the team. In Gasol, the Raptors have a Nikola Jokic type player who can transition from banging down low to dropping hooks over young centers.   Playing alongside Gasol is going to add a different kind of pressure to the rest of the team. Gasol’s newly acquired teammates are going to quickly learn that the quickest way to take advantage of his abilities is to cut incisively, whether he has the ball in his hands or not – because you never know when he’s going to touch the ball, but you do know when he does it won’t stay there for long.

Pascal Siakam – X Factor

After being snubbed from his first all-star appearance, Pascal Siakam is on a mission to prove his worth and talent to any naysayers that may be out there. After recently learning he wasn’t going to be selected to the all-star game in Charlotte, Siakam posted a career night by dropping 44 points and ten rebounds against the Wizards. He was in such a zone that he redeemed MVP chants from his home fans as he shot free-throws. Pascal Siakam is the most improved player in the NBA, and he’s been proving it all season long, the newly set career high was simply icing on top. He’s evolved into the prototypical modern wing. His length triggers turnover, and his quickness spearheads the fast break. The Raptors currently sit at 5th in the league for fast break points per game at 18.1 and Siakam is 14th individually at 3.6 fast-break points per game. Siakam has eliminated the mid-range jumper this year and shifted his focus to the 3-point shot and attacking the rim. 93% of his 2-point attempts come from inside the paint. Siakam has more than doubled his scoring output from last year, jumping to 16.1 ppg from 7.3. His true-shooting percentage has catapulted from 54.9% to 62.6%, the 12th highest percentage in the league. Siakam now possesses a tight handle that he never before demonstrated, and it’s allowed him to operate on both sides of the pick-and-roll. He’s passed his career high in points seven times this season. Siakam is the third option in this Toronto attack behind stars Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard. If the Raptors are going to make an NBA Finals run, they’re going to need every bit of Siakam’s two-way talent.

MY PREDICTION

At the current trajectory, it’s looking the Bucks are going to be the top seed in the conference, followed by the Raptors, Celtics, and 76ers accordingly. While all four teams possess the talent to make an NBA Finals push, only two seem like they’re ready for a run right now. To me, the Celtics are too much of mess to reach their ultimate goal of competing for an NBA championship. When I watch them play I see a bunch of individuals who are more concerned about self-production as oppose to team success. Rozier, Tatum, and Brown too often look disinterested or discontented. I think the playoff experience last season for those three have hurt their production this season. When I watch them play it appears as if they are unhappy with their roles within the team, and I think it’s a direct reflection of the success that they experienced last year with stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward out with injury. Then you have the Milwaukee Bucks. While the Bucks have been phenomenal all season long, I just think the 76ers are a matchup nightmare for them. With the current projections, the Bucks would have to defeat the 76ers in the second round of the playoffs to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals and for a chance to compete for an NBA Finals berth. The Bucks don’t have the interior defense, in my opinion, to contain Joel Embiid enough to win the series. However, I do think it would easily go six or seven games. Now, that brings us to the Eastern Conference Finals, where I envision a matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors. The 76ers possess the best starting five in the Eastern Conference while the Toronto Raptors have the best bench. I think this series goes a hard-fought seven games. The 76ers have an extremely bright future, especially if they can retain the likes of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in the offseason, but this is the Toronto Raptors year. Without the addition of Marc Gasol, I think the 76ers face the Warriors for all the glory. But, with Gasol, the Raptors have the size and intelligence to guard Embiid efficiently enough to exploit the rest of the team. Kawhi Leonard will be too much for any of the 76ers wings to handle, and Pascal Siakam will be the X-factor that puts the Raptors over the edge. We the North stand up! Your time is now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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