NBA Daily: Two Horse Race in the East? Maybe Not

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Every team begins the season with goals and expectations, but not all of them will be met. Remember the hype around the Boston Celtics at this time last year. Unfortunately, injuries can also play a major role during the season, as we saw with Golden State Warriors Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. But, while the Western Conference is oozing with parity, the same cannot be said for the East.

The consensus is that it is a two-team race between the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. Is it really, though?

How certain are we that the Bucks and 76ers will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals? The road to an 82-game season is long and winding. Often it has many turns and twists that are nearly impossible to predict. Unforeseen circumstances could easily flip the script on how the story plays out in the East.

The most likely candidate to upset the apple cart this season is the Celtics. After two years of high expectations, those have tempered after losing two major pieces in Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. The headlines focused on the loss of Irving, but losing the versatile big man in the middle may hurt even more. Boston has always hung their hat on defense, but that won’t be the case this season.

Although Enes Kanter is nowhere near the defensive player that Horford is, he will help in one area where Boston has struggled over the years – offensive rebounding. Kanter is arguably one of the NBA’s best in that regard and could provide the Celtics with extra offensive possessions. Depending on Brad Stevens’ approach, he could be a major contributor whether off their bench or in the starting lineup.

Robert Williams is an interesting weapon for the Celtics. The second-year big man could fit nicely as a starter for this team, providing interior defense while also providing a lob or perimeter threat on offense. He doesn’t need the ball and doesn’t necessarily have to score for Boston to have success. There is plenty of that to go around with the other four starters.

One of those starters will be Kemba Walker, who may not have the same elite level of talent as Irving, but looks to be a significantly better fit with this team. After eight years as the focal point in Charlotte, the three-time All-Star aims to return to the playoffs where he has only played 11 total games. His statistics may take a dip, but he is going to elevate the ceiling of this team.

The X-factor for Boston this year is Gordon Hayward. All indications are that he is close to the same player he was in Utah before his devastating leg injury. Provided Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum take the next step in their respective games, the Celtics could rock the boat and make a return to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The defending champion Toronto Raptors are also hungry to prove that they were more than just Kawhi Leonard’s greatness. While he may have carried the bulk of the load, the core of the team (17-5 last season without Leonard) is still intact for another run. With Kyle Lowry and rising star Pascal Siakam extended, Toronto is prepared to run it back. That may change late in the season, but as long as they hold onto Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, they should be considered contenders.

The departure of Danny Green opens the door for Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell to get extended minutes, which should give the offense a nice boost. The former has proven he is a knock-down shooter, while the latter is a much better slasher and finisher than the less athletic Green.

Stanley Johnson made the move north this offseason, where he should fit nicely as a wing defender. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, another free-agent addition, could provide a great spark off the bench to fuel the second unit. Depending on which center they play alongside, it could create a formidable defense that will give opposing teams trouble.

An addition from within comes in the form of OG Anunoby, who could take a major step forward this season. Already an incredible defender, the 22-year old enters his third season with breakout potential, with all of the physical tools to become elite. His offense is coming around, which could provide Toronto with another major weapon on the wing this season.

And the Indiana Pacers are the wild card this season. Obviously the health of Victor Oladipo is paramount to their team’s success. The All-Star guard could return in December or January, but the later it goes the more difficult it will be for Indiana to gel. The Pacers have new pieces that they are trying to fit together now, then they will need to incorporate Oladipo in when he is ready. Easing him into the rotation will be interesting to watch, especially to see if he can return close to the same form.

Indiana’s major offseason addition came in the form of a sign-and-trade with the Bucks, and the deal between the Central Division foes could prove beneficial for both sides. Malcolm Brogdon was a crucial piece of Milwaukee’s core but they could not afford to keep him. The former Rookie of the Year now will be charged with leading a new offense on a Pacers team with only one returning starter from a year ago.

Just before the deadline on Monday, the Pacers agreed to a four-year contract extension with Domantas Sabonis. The big man slides into the starting power forward spot vacated by Thaddeus Young. Playing alongside Myles Turner, Indiana should match up well against Philly and have the ability to play the two in different spots on the floor. Time will tell if this new version of the Twin Towers will work out, but in the preseason the Pacers were +21.5 when the pair were on the court together (66 minutes). He is a walking double-double every night and will represent the toughness and tenacity of this team.

Last season was supposed to be the big jump for Turner, but it never happened. Despite leading the league in blocks, the versatile big man did not even make one of the three All-Defensive teams. Turner will need to improve his rebounding and provide some interior offense this season for the Pacers to contend for one of the top spots in the East. Those were two areas he worked on in the offseason with Kevin McHale.

For all of the success they had last season even after Oladipo went down, the Pacers hardly resemble that team from a year ago. The roster turnover is a concern, but their favorable schedule to start the season should help them get to their feet. TJ Warren and Jeremy Lamb should fill the offensive void while Justin Holiday and TJ McConnell prove to be sneaky additions on defense that will keep the Pacers afloat until Victor makes his triumphant return.

These three teams might not make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but the gap between the Bucks, 76ers and themselves is not as wide as the public perception. Concerns of depth, shooting, and crunch-time performers may plague Philadelphia, while one injury to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks immediately find themselves in despair.

Should these two teams stay healthy, and live up to expectations, it could make for one heck of a series. But anything can happen in the NBA; so don’t be surprised if and when something goes awry.