With all the talk of 2019-20 flukes and summer of 2021 free agency, it was hard to remember that there might actually be an NBA season played in between.
Fans are still processing the Miami Heat’s surprising emergence as the East representative in the NBA Finals, a series they may have actually won had Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo been fully healthy, though few seem to want to acknowledge that as they consider the Heat run “fluky.” And they’re still looking forward to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract expiration after the upcoming season and whether the Bucks have done enough this off-season to ultimately
Still, let’s look at the top 5 in the East, as the squads now stand:
(1) Milwaukee Bucks:
First, still, but the Deer’s not as feared. The Bubble exposed real issues in Milwaukee’s roster, as the Heat built a Giannis wall and dared the Bucks to shoot over it. So the Bucks set up to upgrade from repeated playoff failure Eric Bledsoe – acquiring ballhawk and playmaker Jrue Holiday by mortgaging their draft future – and seeming to execute a sign-and-trade for Giannis buddy Bogdan Bogdanovich. But the front office botched the Bogdanovich deal and the reinforcements added after (such as DJ Augustin and Bobby Portis) are underwhelming and may not fully replace the veterans lost, especially George Hill’s shooting. If they have
Giannis, though, the defense should be elite, and enough to take the regular season crown.
(2) Miami Heat:
It can be safely said that the Bubble played to the Heat’s Culture, requiring teams to have solid leadership and excellent coach to succeed. But that doesn’t mean what happened was a fluke. Jimmy Butler proved his mettle and Bam Adebayo (now re-signed to a five-year maximum) validated his all-around All-Star status. But there’s more in Bam, including a jumper, and there be more in Tyler Herro, who will likely be a starter now after showing some pick-and-roll playmaking chops. Newcomers Avery Bradley and Moe Harkless are seamless Culture hits, and the Heat have the ammunition to make a trade if they need. The only question is Goran Dragic, who may not be ready for the start of the season after his foot
(3) Boston Celtics:
It feels like Danny Ainge’s team is always close to something, but never quite there.
They were close to the NBA Finals, but a down series from Kemba Walker hurt against the Heat, and the big men got badly outplayed by Adebayo. And in the offseason, they were close to making significant additions, but it’s not apparent they improved. Gordon Hayward is gone, and Ainge balked at a sign-and-trade scenario that would have brought him Myles Turner. The end result was Tristan Thompson in the frontcourt and Jeff Teague in the backcourt, both of whom are serviceable but nothing special. And now Celtics fans can’t cling to the hope of Hayward returning to full form to make Boston especially dynamic. It will
come down to Walker bouncing back, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown each taking another step. Possible, but they’re a step below the Bucks and Heat.
(4) Philadelphia 76ers:
This is the toughest team to handicap. Philadelphia was the trendy favorite to take
the East, but Elton Brand’s roster was a jumbled mess, and then Ben Simmons got hurt (again) in the playoffs. Daryl Morey took over and made smart tactical balancing moves, getting some shooting (Seth Curry, Danny Green) to space the floor, and ending the Al Horford experiment. This all hinges, however, on how Doc Rivers gets Simmons and Joel Embiid to blend, or it could be a comical failure again. Could be a first seed. Could be a seventh seed.
(5) Toronto Raptors:
Even with the Hawks rising and the Pacers getting Domantas Sabonis back, and
even with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka fleeing the frontcourt, it’s tough to bet on Toronto to sink. The coaching and development are excellent, and Aron Baynes is decent enough to replace at least Gasol inside. The question now is whether Pascal Siakam’s Bubble meltdown was an anomaly, because even with Fred Van Vleet re-signing, the Raptors need Siakam to lift even more of the load from Kyle Lowry, who has had to do too much.
-- by Juicy J