By Drew Dykowski, Sports Editor and Chris Cheetam, Staff Writer
The greatest league in the world is finally back after a long summer, and a wild offseason that saw unprecedented player movement.
The last time we saw NBA basketball was when Kawhi Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to a championship after dethroning the dynastic Golden State Warriors.
Although they are the defending champs, the Raptors are not the favorite to reach the NBA Finals again as Leonard departed for his hometown team, the Los Angeles Clippers. Some experts do not even have Toronto making it into the playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference. The Philadelphia 76ers led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will provide the biggest competition.
The Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, and Brooklyn Nets are all one tier below title contention, but definite shoo-ins as playoff-bound teams. The Nets made one of the biggest splashes in free agency after signing an injured Kevin Durant (Achilles), who will miss the entire season, and Kyrie Irving. As unpredictable as last season was this season will only ring in more drama.
Here’s our Eastern Conference predictions for the 2019-20 season:
- Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks surprised many last year as the best team record-wise going 60-22. They steamrolled to the Eastern Conference Finals, but ran into the unstoppable force that was Kawhi Leonard and lost in six games to the Toronto Raptors.
Milwaukee brought back most of their team from last season in hopes of getting over the hill.
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo led the team in a dominant year averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists. If the Greek Freak can improve his jump shot, he could potentially repeat as MVP, and certainly etch his name as one of the dominant players in NBA history.
The Bucks lost a key piece in 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon in free agency. The new additions of Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews, both three-point specialists, along with center Robin Lopez will augment depth to an already deep team.
Korver only averaged 9.1 points last season. However, he was an all-star the last time he played under coach Mike Budenholzer on the Atlanta Hawks. Budenholzer won the coach of the year award last season, and when in 2014-15 when he coached the Hawks. He brought with him an identical system to the young, inexperienced Bucks.
Korver, now past his prime years, will certainly be instrumental in the half-court offense and spacing the floor. The team also re-signed Brook Lopez (Robin’s twin brother), George Hill, and all-star Khris Middleton, who averaged close to 20 points per game.
The Bucks are the best team in the East, and true title contenders.
- Philadelphia 76ers
After two promising regular seasons that ended with postseason disappointment, the 76ers look poised to finally make the leap into title contention.
If it wasn’t for Kawhi Leonard making an impossible four-bounce buzzer beater in game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, they could’ve potentially defeated the Bucks to make a run at the championship.
Although they lost all-star Jimmy Butler and sharpshooter J.J. Redick to free agency, the team remains loaded. With Butler gone, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will have more opportunities to lead and score for this team.
Embiid is arguably the best center in the game. Barring injury, he should find his name in the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year conversation again. The 7’0 center averaged 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and nearly two blocks a game.
He’s also lost 20 pounds over the summer. The 76ers have said they want to manage Embiid’s minutes this season to avoid any injury, which may hurt Philadelphia’s regular season record but improve them for the playoffs.
Simmons is a walking triple-double and plays elite defense, but can not shoot a beach ball into the ocean. The all-star guard averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, and 1.4 steals. He has still not made a three pointer in his NBA career, however, and appears hesitant in attempting a shot anywhere outside the paint.
Simmons has released videos of his improved shooting and even sank a three-pointer in the pre-season. If Simmons can become an even average shooter, he could be the reason Philly goes to the next level.
Along with this dynamic duo, the 76ers roster features stars in Tobias Harris and newly acquired Al Horford and Josh Richardson. The size and length of their starting lineup should make them one of the best defensive units in the league.
The loss of Reddick severely hurt their three-point shooting and they do not have a deep bench, but general manager Elton Brand has proven he is not afraid to make mid-season trades to improve his team.
The 76ers and the Bucks are by far the two best teams in the East and should battle all season for the conference crown.
- Boston Celtics
Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Celtics were widely predicted to make the NBA Finals. They had pushed LeBron James and the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference FInals the year prior, while all-stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving were out from injury.
Unfortunately for Boston, the teams in the East got better as they struggled to ingratiate the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into the starting unit. Young stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum slightly declined and Irving struggled being the leader that the team desperately needed. Their playoff fate was an embarrassing outing in the Eastern Conference semi-finals to the Bucks in five games.
Irving left to team up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. Al Horford opted to join the 76ers. Their departures were a huge blow, but as a consolation prize, they got an all-star point guard in Kemba Walker to soften the blow.
The former Charlotte Hornet averaged 25.6 points, 5.9 assists, and 4.4 rebounds last season to make the All-NBA Third Team. He fills the void left by Irving, whose averages of 23.8 points, 6.9 assists, and 5 rebounds are similar to Walker’s.
Horford’s departure will be felt more by Boston as they replaced him with Enes Kanter. Kanter is good offensively, averaging 13.7 points and 9.8 rebounds in 2018-19, but he leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive end.
The team hopes that Tatum and Brown can become all star-caliber players. Tatum is already injured heading into the season and Brown has not been able to play at a consistently high-level. Jaylen Brown locked in a 4-yr, $115 million rookie max extension.
The big x-factor for the Celtics is Gordon Hayward. He is coming off his first healthy offseason since his severe leg injury. If he can become one of the best small forwards in the league again, the Celtics could compete with the Bucks and 76ers.
The losses they suffered in the offseason may prove to be too much to surmount, and which might keep them as the three-seed.
- Indiana Pacers
The Pacers had one of the most interesting offseasons of any team in the East. The loss of forward Bojan Bogdanovic, who was their go to scorer in the playoffs last year, who signed with the Utah Jazz in the offseason, may be difficult to overcome.
Thaddeus Young departing for Chicago is no small loss either as he provided energy and leadership when the team needed it. Veteran guard Darren Collison surprisingly retired this offseason.
The Pacers signed combo guard Malcolm Brogdon in free agency, who should provide solid two-way play in the backcourt. Despite coming off the bench for most of the year, he averaged 12.4 points and 5.3 assists on a Bucks team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
They also acquired solid rotation players in forward T.J. Warren and guard Jeremy Lamb. Warren averaged 14.3 points on a bad Suns team last season and should be able to adequately replace Bogdanovic by providing a necessary scoring bunch.
Lamb will be a nice sixth-man who provides instant offense. He finished with 15.3 points per game for the Hornets last season.
The success of this team will fall on Victor Oladipo’s returns this season and how good he will be, coming off a torn quad tendon that he suffered in January. Oladipo’s 18.8 points per game, 5 rebounds and 5 assists make him an elite two-way player. The Pacers will look to go bigger this year by starting both Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
Last year, Sabonis came off the bench as an energy guy at center for the second unit. He played well, averaging 11.8 points and 6.3 rebounds in limited minutes. Starting center Myles Turner was one of the best defensive anchors in the league and should be in Defensive Player of the Year talks once again.
Turner’s 2.7 blocks per game were among the league leaders last season.
This will be a top-five defense in most statistics, but they do not have enough three-point shooters. Sabonis will need to become more of an outside presence in order for this two-center system to work.
- Brooklyn Nets
The Nets are my pick to win the 2020-21 championship. Unfortunately for Nets fans, this is the 2019-20 season preview. Brooklyn made arguably the biggest splash of the offseason by signing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan.
Durant will likely miss the entirety of this season, but this is still a good team without him. Brooklyn lost all star guard D’Angelo Russell to the Golden State Warriors when they signed Durant. Despite Russell’s departure, Irving is a clear upgrade as he made the All-NBA Second Team last season and should be better this year without the drama that occurred in Boston.
Jordan’s days as an elite center are long behind him, but he still averaged 13.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks last year and should be a solid lob partner with Irving. Along with all of their acquisitions, the Nets bring back the core of the team that was the sixth seed in the playoffs last season. Key veterans Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, and DeMarre Carroll left, but Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen all return. Harris led the league in three-point percentage by shooting 47.4% from behind the arc.
The clear strength for this team will be their depth at all positions. They lack the top-tier talent necessary to be a title contender until Durant comes back, but they should have enough to compete with the Celtics, Pacers, and Pistons for the three-seed.
- Detroit Pistons
Despite being hindered by their huge payroll, the Pistons were one of the busiest teams this offseason. They did not sign any star free agents, instead focusing on improving their depth.
Their biggest acquisition was former MVP Derrick Rose, who had a career renaissance with the Timberwolves last season by averaging 18 points and 4.3 assists per game. He will begin the season backing up Reggie Jackson, but I would not be surprised if he ended up becoming the starter.
Detroit also signed Markieff Morris, and Tim Frazier while also acquiring Tony Snell in a trade with Milwaukee. They recently waived Joe Johnson. Although they added a lot, the only key members they lost from last season’s team were Ish Smith, Wayne Ellington, and Zaza Pachulia.
Blake Griffin returned to MVP form last year as he averaged 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and shot 36.2 % from three. He single-handedly carried the Pistons to the playoffs last year. Injuries are still a concern with Griffin and if he does go down with an injury, Detroit could be in danger of missing the playoffs.
In addition to Griffin, Andre Drummond remains one of the best centers in the league. He does not shoot from outside the paint well and often struggles to perform in the big games, but averaged an impressive 17.3 points and 15.6 rebounds a season ago.
Luke Kennard and Jackson will decide how far the Pistons can go in the playoffs. Jackson has to be more consistent. A few games last season, he looked like an all-star, and others where he was benched for Ish Smith or Jose Calderon.
Kennard showed flashes of brilliance last season and the offense will continue to grow as long as coach Dwane Casey gives him enough opportunities.
If the Pistons stay healthy and the players to continue to grow, they will be a top team in the East and have the potential to win their first playoff series since 2008.
- Toronto Raptors
Although the Raptors are the defending champions, they are not predicted to win the Eastern Conference again or even make it out of the first round of the playoffs. The biggest reason for this is the loss of Kawhi Leonard, and to a lesser extent, Danny Green.
For the most part, the Raptors did not even attempt to replace Leonard or Green. Their biggest signings were Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Pascal Siakim signed a 4-yr, $130 million rookie max extension, making him the main cornerstone of the future.
The remainder of the championship roster remains in tact with reigning Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam leading the way. The Cameroon native averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists last year and should have even more opportunities as the team’s new number one option.
Veterans Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are also on the team, but injuries and age seem to have caught up to the former all stars. They are still effective, however, as Lowry averaged 14.2 points, 8.7 assists, and 4.8 rebounds and Gasol averaged 13.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists a season ago.
Other notable returners are OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka. Toronto has enough talent and experience to make the playoffs, but one or two injuries could force management to make some tough decisions.
If the Raptors are not in contention by the trade deadline, we may see Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka traded and the team begin a rebuild around Siakam.
- Orlando Magic
There is no question that the Magic are a rising threat in the East. Can they, however, take the next step to being a contending team? The answer to that remains to be seen. Orlando stayed in-house this offseason by returning the majority of their core from last season.
All-Star center Nikola Vucevic was signed to a massive extension this offseason, which was well deserved as he is one of the best centers in the league. He averaged 20.8 points along with 12.0 rebounds a game last year and is a perfect fit for this team.
Forward Aaron Gordon is a strong second option for the Magic, but has yet to break out as a star in this league. Still, his 16.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game make him a formidable scorer in this system. Evan Fournier is a much improved guard for this young team. Fournier scored 15.1 points and is able to score from anywhere on the court.
Forward Jonathan Isaac is a solid player on Orlando, but they have yet to see him reach the potential he showed coming out of Florida State. He averaged just 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds last season in a limited role.
Important role players DJ Augustin and Terrence Ross will help the team’s depth going into the season. Both are veterans in the league and Ross is a serious candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. The most important player on the team is the former first overall pick Markelle Fultz.
If he can become an above average point guard, this team could be in the race for a top seed in the East.
Stay tuned for teams 9-15 in the Eastern Conference to be announced.