NBA Daily: An Early Look At Eastern Conference Contenders
Although Kevin Durant and Kemba Walker transform their respective teams, is the Eastern Conference race for the crown already down to two major leaders?
After one of the most transformative summers in NBA history, each conference has a new identity and no definitive team has emerged as the overall favorite to win the 2020 NBA Eastern Conference Championship. The Eastern Conference gained the best player in the NBA, who recently injured his Achilles tendon, with Kevin Durant going to the Brooklyn Nets. General manager Sean Marks has already emphasized that Durant will use the year to heal his injury and will not be rushed back, ensuring that the star is ready for play in 2020.
Without Durant involved for 2019-20 season, the Eastern Conference has become a two-horse race between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers. Both had an off-season that will require adjustment throughout the regular season, but these teams seem most likely to represent the conference in the 2020 NBA Finals. However, despite the two front runners, there are a few other teams that may become a dark horse competitor for the championship honors.
Ahead Of The Pack
The Bucks ended the regular season with the best record in the NBA at 60-22, the Most Valuable Player with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Coach of the Year with Mike Budenholzer and Khris Middleton even reached his first All-Star Game. Despite the regular season success, the Bucks fell to the Toronto Raptors in six games during the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks were an overtime defeat away from taking a commanding 3-0 series lead before losing four straight games.
Although 40 percent of the league became free agents this offseason, the Bucks were able to re-sign a majority of their roster during the offseason, thus maintaining the foundation of their success from the prior year. The biggest offseason signing was the re-signing of Middleton to a contract worth $178 million over five years. The Bucks were also able to keep Brook Lopez, or better known as Splash Mountain, to a four-year, $52 million contract.
The Bucks lost Malcolm Brogdon, who joined the Pacers on a four-year, $85 million deal that made him the second-highest paid player in team history. Nikola Mirotic, a midseason acquisition last winter, decided to head back overseas too. Despite losing Brogdon, the Bucks were able to sign George Hill to a three-year, $28 million contract.
The Bucks are the early favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this year and for good reason. Led by Antetokounmp, who is poised to be a champion and MVP candidate again, Milwaukee should pick up where they left off. Losing very few pieces of their roster in a transformative offseason, the Bucks look to replicate their success from last season and turn it into a championship-worthy effort.
When Kawhi Leonard moved to the Western Conference, joining the Los Angeles Clippers after winning an NBA Championship with the Toronto Raptors, he left the Milwaukee Bucks with one less contender for the east-side crown. This has created an opportunity for the Philadelphia 76ers to become a contender against the Bucks, despite previous shortcomings.
The 76ers ended their regular season third in the Eastern Conference with a 51-31 record and were primed to make a deep playoff run with four All-Stars on their roster. The 76ers lost Game 7 in Toronto in a heartbreaking fashion, falling in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight season, at the giant hands of Leonard. With 4.2 seconds left, Leonard evaded Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to hit a fall-away, go-ahead jumper from the three-point corner.
Like the Bucks, the 76ers went to great lengths to maintain their accomplished core. Tobias Harris signed a five-year deal worth $180 million, a contract that’ll keep him put longterm in Philadelphia. Between Los Angeles and Philadelphia, Harris put up the best scoring numbers of his career in 2018-19 with 20.0 points per game on .487/.397/.866 shooting splits.
Additionally, the 76ers added Jason Richardson, Kyle O’Quinn and Trey Burke to their roster this offseason, but their biggest free-agent signing was Al Horford. With his shiny four-year at $109 million, Horford is an easy fit alongside Simmons and Embiid because of his propensity for the pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll game.
The 76ers also invested in their franchise player, Ben Simmons. Simmons agreed to a $170 million extension, thus securing him until 2023. Looking at the roster, the obvious thing that stands out is the defense. With Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Richardson and Horford, they’re already built to win a ring and bring another parade back to the City of Brotherly Love. If they can find chemistry as the season progresses, they’ll be the biggest challengers to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference.
It’s extremely rare for a playoff team to end the season with 49 wins, reach the conference semifinals and have it still considered a disappointment. Before the Celtics entered the 2018-19 season, they were viewed as the Eastern Conference favorite to make the NBA Finals, all led by Kyrie Irving. Unfortunately, of course, last season did not end as planned. After seemingly promise to re-sign with Boston some months earlier, Irving then moved to the Brooklyn Nets during the offseason.
The Celtics fell victim to the unpredictable offseason but managed to make some drastic moves to shore up those departures. In the end, the Celtics lost Kyrie Irving, Al Horford but gained Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. Walker was acquired in a two-way sign-and-trade from the Charlotte Hornets with Terry Rozier heading in the opposite direction along with a 2020 second-round pick swap. Over an incredible career so far, Walker has averaged 19.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists, shooting 41.8 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three-point range.
The Celtics previewed their starting lineup during the FIBA Basketball World Cup using four of their starters with Team USA. Despite Team USA’s disappointing seventh-place finish, the Boston-based players looked fluid together, giving fans some optimism for the future.
Four years ago, the Nets were a team wrecked by a disastrous trade. Now the Nets are a playoff contender, owners of one of the most remarkable transitions in league history. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant altered the league by moving to Brooklyn together in free agency, a development that would’ve been unbelievable a few years ago.
The Nets ended the 2019-20 season with a 42-40 record and lost to the 76ers in the first round of playoffs. They were led by D’Angelo Russell, who was traded to the Golden State Warriors during the offseason for Kevin Durant. Russell showed maturity and serious shooting ability while earning an All-Star Game appearance for the first time in his career by averaging 21.1 points and seven assists per game.
Despite letting Russell go, the Nets upgraded with one of the most dominant players in the league, Durant. While they wait for Durant, the Nets will look for Irving to take on a leadership role alongside Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie and other eager faces.
With the season hurtling toward us at breakneck speed, the dust has officially settled on a hectic summertime. While plenty of speculation will fly between now and Christmas, these are the four teams — two far ahead of the others — that own the best odds of representing the Eastern Conference come June.
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