Six Questions: Eastern Conference Roundtable
Five smart people asked six questions.
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He has been legally banned from covering the team in person, and when that ban was set to be lifted, Covid-19 struck. He believes cantaloupe is the best food in existence, and is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
We’re almost there, folks! After months that have felt more like years, we are finally nearing the return of NBA basketball.
We’ve passed the time with fake trades, retrospectives, and even food rankings. But it’s about time we get back into the swing of things and evaluate the Eastern Conference as we gear up for the playoffs. To do that, I enlisted the services of some excellent writers who cover the teams who the Sixers will be competing with. Before we get to the questions, allow me to introduce the field…
Let’s get started!
Question #1: Before we get to the playoffs, each team will play eight regular season games. What is one thing your team could do or show over the seeding period that would make you more confident than you currently are about their chances of making a playoff run?
BR: From a Bucks perspective, I’m not putting a ton of weight into those eight regular season games. If you equate them to a normal NBA season, it’s like basketball in March. With the Bucks 6.5 games ahead of the second-seeded Raptors, I’d imagine the starters play limited minutes or even take some games off during that stretch. I largely see it as an opportunity for players to shake some of the rust off before the playoffs begin.
However, I would like to see if the additional rest benefits certain players. Particularly, it would be nice to see Brook Lopez bounce back from a down year shooting from beyond the arc. After hitting 36.5 percent on 6.3 attempts per game last season, he shot just 29.6 percent on 4.7 attempts this year. Giannis showing his knee is fully healthy would also be a welcome sight.
AD: During these first 8 seeding games, what I'll be looking for from the Raptors is figuring out their playoff rotation, now that they should be healthy. This was a tough season for Toronto where they didn't have many games with the rotation intact, and that led to them moving players' roles around often. While this did reveal that they have more depth than we initially thought this season, it also meant that it was hard to get a full picture for where Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri envisioned the rotation being heading into a playoff run. Getting to see them in a condensed schedule with the full rotation should help get a picture of where they see their halfcourt offense being generated from, and how they see several of the key bench players, like Norman Powell and Terence Davis, fitting in the picture.
At the same time, it'll be important to see the Raptors re-establish their defensive energy that was their calling card this season. With a few months off for every team, there is a chance that shooting will be even more volatile during the playoffs than usual, and that does potentially provide some benefits to teams that can deny opponents easy shots, and the Raptors defense wasn't one that lent itself to opponents finding easy shots. They need to be that team consistently in the postseason, and quickly getting back there in the seeding games would build confidence in their ability to do that.
MC: First and foremost, we have entered into an era of Boston basketball in which the Celtics go as Jayson Tatum goes. As the team's offense increasingly comes through Tatum's pick-and-roll and isolation possessions, it is undeniably reliant on its dynamo wing to continue hitting pull-up 3s at a league-best level for his position (39.9% on 4.5 attempts per contest), attacking the rim with the patience and craft he developed as the year progressed, and developing as a decision-maker when confronted with different coverages designed explicitly to counter his iridescent individual scoring (he's shown progress moving the ball quickly vs. traps, but is still liable to be baited into poor shots by switches). If the seeding games demonstrate the superstar-level play Tatum managed over the final couple months of the season was merely a mirage, a product of unsustainable shooting and somewhat one-dimensional scoring too centered around tough shots, the Celtics will go as Tatum goes, fading back into Eastern Conference power of the future rather than today.
But if we assume Tatum has truly ascended to a new level and will build on that for the next several years, much to the chagrin of the rest of the East, particularly Boston's rivals in Philadelphia, the seeding games will be a time to focus on Kemba Walker. Boston's newest All-Star point guard was everything the team could have hoped for in his first 40+ games with the team. He turned in an efficient 22 points per outing on 58.6% True Shooting in his first 42 games in a Celtics uniform, functioning well both on and off the ball, earning his fourth All-Star appearance and second consecutive All-Star game start, and bringing a welcome and jovial attitude to a recently-tumultuous locker room. But as knee issues cropped up, Walker's availability and performance tanked over the final month-plus of the season. Walker missed nine of Boston's final 17 games and saw his scoring average dip to 16.8 points per game 0n 47.7% True Shooting in the eight games he did play. If Walker returns from the extended hiatus rejuvenated and playing like the All-Star he was during the initial portion of his Celtics career, combined with Tatum operating at superstar status, the Celtics could look formidable heading into the bubble playoffs.
ND: If there are signs of more cohesion on the defensive end, it’ll be easier to buy Miami as a true sleeper in the East. They’ve had no issue scoring this year (7th in offensive rating), but the defense has fluctuated between “fine” and “dumpster fire” all year long.
The point-of-attack defense has been poor, which has led to breakdowns all over the place. Erik Spoelstra has tried to compensate by throwing in more zone looks and, since the trade deadline, more switching. However, the results have still placed them in the middle of the pack defensively. Any sort of answer -- more crisp switches, more turnovers forced in the zone, better screen-avoidance from their guards -- will make Miami a more dangerous team come playoff time.
CC: Is Victor Oladipo playing and how does he look? If he resembles something closer to the player he was in 2018-19, an All-Star capable of depressing the nitrous button at moment’s notice for on-target layups or recoiling and spring-boarding into off-the-dribble jumpers, then the Pacers will obviously be in a better position as a tough out – especially if he and Malcolm Brogdon can use this time to get more comfortable playing off of each other.
Without Oladipo (and Jeremy Lamb)… the Pacers are going to need to show that they can adjust for suddenly being both bigger and smaller. Unless they lean on Edmond Sumner in spots, it’s going to be more challenging for head coach Nate McMillan to cobble together lineups with liked-sized defenders. In that sense, I’m interested to see how Aaron Holiday and/or T.J. McConnell fair when Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons start trying to create mismatches with guard-to-guard screens.
Likewise, with potentially less leeway to pivot to Justin Holiday at the four, there would also be more pressure on Myles Turner to stick with quicker power forwards. If he can show positive strides in that area against the likes of Bam Adebayo, which was a struggle earlier in the season, and the team as a whole can function well together scramming out size advantages, then I’d feel better about their ability to bridge some of the talent gap that will be widened if Oladipo sits.
Question #2: Since many of our readers don’t get the chance to follow all of the other teams in the East, who is one player on your team that may be better or worse than the average fan might think?
BR: I could talk about Donte DiVincenzo’s emergence as an elite defender and capable initiator off the bench this year, but instead I’ll mention someone whose contributions have received even less of the national spotlight: Wes Matthews. Signed to a two-year veteran minimum deal this past offseason, Matthews is ranked third league-wide in DPIPM among non-bigs at 2.37 while often taking the most difficult defensive assignments at the guard/wing positions. He’s shown the ability to limit players like James Harden and LeBron James when defending them in matchups this season while also spacing the floor on the other end, shooting 36.5 percent on 4.5 attempts from deep. The added depth and defensive versatility he and DiVincenzo both bring to the guard/wing rotation should greatly benefit a Bucks team that’s most-used five-man lineup in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals had Nikola Mirotić guarding two-guards out of roster necessity.
AD: The easy answer here, I think, for the Raptors is Kyle Lowry, who is one of the most hotly debated players in the league sometimes. However, I think where most people stand on Lowry is fairly clear, so instead I'll go with Norman Powell, who many Raptors fans saw coming into this season as a guy whose contract may be moved to enable other future moves, and not necessarily as part of the future Raptors core. Powell has for years been a capable defender who doesn't stand out, and a solid shooter who excels in transition but struggles creating in the halfcourt, often using his speed to get to the rim but having trouble finishing once he gets there.
This season he showed considerable growth there, both being better at finding space and hitting shots off the creation of others, as well as controlling his speed to slow down and finish his own shots. Powell sprained his ankle early in the Raptors' final game before the shutdown against Utah, but scored 68 points in the previous two games and had looked, over the course of the month or so prior, like a player who had taken the next step in his confidence and control to be a dangerous offensive weapon. If he can be that guy again with the games returning, it changes the entire offensive profile of the Raptors.
MC: Perception is generally off one way or another on many of the Celtics' key players, but I have to go with the highest-leverage one here, which is easily Jayson Tatum. Analysis of young players is always flawed, but I find that assigning credit for winning impact is the biggest disconnect between discourse and reality. There are positively impactful players on bad teams and negatives on good teams. Those players are not the ones driving the team's success or failure. They're contributing something, but those contributions are outweighed by the volume of others. It seems for much of Tatum's career, he's often been discussed as a good player who happens to be on a good team. In the most unfair representations of his ability, he's been portrayed as a player who looks good because he's on good teams. For his entire career, people have had the causality all wrong. This is not to say Tatum is the sole reason the Celtics have been so good for his entire career, but he has been central among them each year. In each of Tatum's three years, the Celtics have been 8.5, 7.6, and 10.9 points per 100 better with him on the floor than off, good for 90th, 90th, and 95th percentile differentials among all players respectively. If you prefer all-in-one stats that attempt to correct for necessary context, Tatum's posted PIPMs of +2.3, +2.01, and +4.38. He stepped into the league as a cog who was generating near-All-Star impact as an ideal complementary piece, and now, he's a full-blown superstar. Tatum's unique combination of high-level shot creation--by virtue of unrivaled pull-up shooting and plus handling to navigate to the rim out of ball screens--and team defense is potent. While many assign credit for Boston's fourth-ranked defensive rating to teammate Marcus Smart or coach Brad Stevens, it's Tatum's disruption working off the ball at the nail that's the lynchpin of Boston's elite defense. Jayson Tatum isn't good because he's on a good team; he's on a good team because he's good.
ND: I think Duncan Robinson is still a little bit underrated. If you venture into Heat Twitter, you may see some off-hand Steph Curry comparisons, which may turn you off. Robinson isn’t Steph of course, but the fear he strikes in defenses as a movement shooter is very real.
He’s been by far the NBA’s most dangerous weapon out of dribble-handoffs, leading the NBA in points (209) and efficiency (1.35 PPP) among players that have logged at least 50 possessions. When he and Bam Adebayo get together, there’s really been no way to defend it. Robinson can fire with any sliver of space. Adebayo can abuse switches if they come. And if teams trap, Robinson has flashed the passing ability to hit Adebayo on the slip.
In addition to being an elite shooter on the move, he’s deadly in catch-and-shoot situations. And despite his … appearance, Robinson is a perfectly “fine” defender. He can’t handle elite assignments, but he’s smart within the scheme and uses his size to make things difficult for other wings.
In short, he’s pretty darn good.CC: Assuming most of your readers are familiar with the two-man craft of Brogdon and Sabonis, I’ll go with T.J. Warren’s play-finishing. On top of making strides at the defensive end (oh, hi, game-saving block against Tobias Harris), he continues to be a buttery mid-range scorer capable of causing consternation for opposing drop coverages with his throwback arsenal of limb-sprawling floaters, runners, and one-legged leaners. Assuming Oladipo follows through with playing; Warren has the potential to benefit from no longer having to square up against the opposing team’s top wing defender. Given that this will be the 26-year-old forward’s first time in the playoffs, he’s worth keeping a close eye on as a fourth option.
Question #3: I think we all would agree that Milwaukee is the prohibitive favorite to make the NBA Finals. But other than the Bucks, which team in the Eastern Conference would you be most worried about facing in the playoffs? And, for Ben, which team do you think has the best chance of pulling an upset on the Bucks?
BR: Earlier this season, I might have said Philly with their defensive tandem of Horford and Embiid clogging up the lane for Giannis. However, their flaws have become more and more apparent as the season wore on so I’ll go with Toronto, who even without Kawhi has the defensive versatility to throw multiple looks at the Bucks in a potential series. Nick Nurse has the creativity to make Giannis and other Bucks players uncomfortable, so Budenholzer and co. must be ready to adjust. However, Coach Bud has added more diverse offensive sets in his second year coaching the team which should help in a playoff format and give them more options against Nurse’s defensive adjustments.
AD: Personally, I would love to see a repeat of the Raptors-Bucks Eastern Conference Finals, and would really look forward to that series, as concerned as I am about the Bucks being dominant, and I think the team most likely to prevent us from getting that series is the Boston Celtics. I came into the season unsure what to make of Boston, with a lot of clear talent on their roster but questions about their ability to defend the paint and prevent easy buckets inside. With them still relying a lot of Enes Kanter to fill some minutes, some of those questions remain, but they've shown enough in their talent and cohesiveness to still be a very dangerous team.
Jayson Tatum seemed to take a step forward during this season, finishing at the basket strong, something that he had struggled with previously, and showing some key offensive growth for him to become a more complete player and propel him into stardom and potential future superstardom, and Gordon Hayward continued to look more like himself this year again. The Celtics are deep and versatile, and have a lot of ways to answer problems that opponents pose for them. They're also well coached with Brad Stevens, and perhaps we get to see him explore more of his creativity this season with the depth he has available to him in this team. I don't know that Boston is as complete a team as I think the Raptors are, but they are without question a dangerous team that could take a series off of anyone, and need to be treated as such by any opponent.
MC: The only team I really dread facing is Milwaukee. I'm certainly not enthused about seeing Daniel Theis attempt to stick with Joel Embiid. Running into Jimmy Butler, who may well be the second-best player in the East, isn't too appealing either. Ultimately, though, I think I'll have to go with the reigning champs. There appears to be something Spursian in the Toronto water, a mineral that renders them entirely unkillable. They've been the second-best team in the East throughout the bulk of the regular season, and Nick Nurse's penchant for in-game adjustments worries me thoroughly in a playoff setting. From a matchup standpoint, we've seen small guards, notably Chris Paul, derail Tatum by really getting into his handle, and I definitely worry Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are very much of that mold. On top of that, Toronto actually has wing depth that can rival Boston's, or at least stick with it in a way the vast majority of the league can't. I'm not sure who I'd favor in a Celtics-Raptors series, but I'd certainly be more inclined toward the Raptors than the Heat, Sixers, or Pacers.
ND: I think the answer is Boston, narrowly edging out the Raptors for me.
Jayson Tatum looked like he was taking The Leap before the season shut down. He’s the head honcho of Boston’s wing-heavy offensive attack. Jaylen Brown has been tremendous on both ends, and Gordon Hayward has quietly looked more and more like the Utah-version of himself.
Oh, yeah, Kemba Walker is a drop-defense killer that can go off for 30 on a whim.
Boston has been the fourth best defense in the league, holding opposing offenses well below their averages from the three for what feels like the 38th year in a row. A team with that much two-way talent is always going to be a threat.
CC: Excluding Milwaukee? With all due respect to the Raptors, who effectively won a game against the Pacers this season in less than three minutes by coming out in a zone and converting quick, ill-advised shots into a slew of catch-me-if-you-can run-outs, I think I’ll choose from among Indiana’s reasonable first-round opponents and pick the Heat. Miami is built to sink-or-swim from three and arguably loads up on easy points better than any team in the league, ranking No.1 in both free throw rate and transition efficiency. For a Pacers team that barely gets to the line and, for the most part, lives in the area in-between the paint and the 3-point line, none of those things exactly add up to make for a favorable match-up.
Granted, the Heat’s roster lacks some duality in terms of having shooters who can defend and defenders who can shoot, and it’s probably fair to question if Jimmy Butler will get the same whistle in the playoffs as he has thus far during the regular season; however, while Bam Adebayo has averaged 18 points on 75 percent shooting against the Pacers this season, Warren has struggled to score against Butler. Both of those issues, from more effectively tagging and recovering out to shooters to missing out on a potentially easier match-up against Duncan Robinson, will be impacted by Oladipo’s availability – which is to say nothing of Indiana’s broader struggles against zone.
Question #4: Finish this sentence: If the team I cover goes farther than people expect (or, in Milwaukee’s case, wins the championship), it will be because…
BR: …their current roster construction gives them more versatility in the playoffs than last year. Despite the loss of Brogdon this past offseason, the Bucks were able to reload their roster in response to some of the glaring holes evident in last year’s playoffs. Most notably, they strengthened their guard and wing depth by adding veterans Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver while benefiting from the internal improvement of second-year player Donte DiVincenzo. Despite Brogdon’s talent, his struggles as a guard defender become evident when tasked with navigating screens and keeping up laterally against quicker guards. Matthews and DiVincenzo have no such issues defensively, while also providing more of a quick-trigger mentality on the offensive end, improving some spacing issues.
Furthermore, the addition of a true backup center in Robin Lopez allows the Bucks to match up better against teams with larger frontcourts like the Sixers, Raptors, and Lakers. This allows them to lean less heavily on Giannis-at-center lineups when Brook Lopez sits—or even worse—those ugly Mirotić-Ilyasova lineups they were forced to deploy against bench units last year. The addition of Marvin Williams in the buyout market should give them more defensive flexibility in those frontcourt rotations as well.
AD: ...they find enough offensive answers to be dangerous in the halfcourt. The Raptors don't have a lot of holes in their roster creation. They're a dominant defense, they have the confidence in their own ability to compete for a title, they run a lot and do it effectively, and they can field versatile lineups to answer different opponent roster construction. However, they have struggled sometimes in their halfcourt offense, not always being able to score against a good set defense, and have looked much like a team that misses Kawhi Leonard. Pascal Siakam's growth is the place one expects that they'll look to solve that issue, combined with the emergence of Norman Powell late in the season, and Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol can help some, although each of them is better creating shots for others than for themselves at this point in their career.
Still, the Raptors don't have that elite creator that most contenders do, and that means they'll have to find offense by committee a lot of nights against playoff defenses, and that's going to remain a concern until we see them consistently look like a team that has answers.
MC: ...Jayson Tatum is the second-best player in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Basketball is a game of top-end talent. If Tatum maintains--or, terrifyingly, builds upon--the level of play he achieved over the final few months of the season, the Celtics will be a tough out. It's hard to imagine Tatum will have made strides in the areas needed to ascend to that level during the hiatus. I doubt his reads out of pick-and-roll have progressed while...not playing basketball for four months. Even if he has added the muscle he claims he has, it's difficult to believe in that added bulk actually translating to strides finishing through contact when you're talking about entirely re-training tendencies and skills as a finisher beyond simply just adding weight. But something as simple as reprising the astonishing level of team defense impact Tatum produced before his offensive explosion in conjunction with his new level of superstar offense could see Tatum seize the mantle of the East's second-best. And if Tatum's that good, it's certainly conceivable that the Celtics could push to a Eastern Conference Finals date with Milwaukee.
ND: ...Jimmy Butler regains his jumper. The defense has been Miami’s biggest problem (see question one), but Butler’s jumper completely leaving him has been an undercurrent worth watching.
He’s been one of the 12 or so best players in basketball without it; he’s defended at a near-elite level, and has compensated offensively with a sky-high free throw rate (.679) and improved playmaking (career high 6.1 assists). Still, his inability to knock down any sort of jumper -- off the bounce or on the catch -- has been a big reason why Miami’s clutch offense has sputtered at times this season. If he can get back to knocking down pull-up middies out of pick-and-roll, Miami will have the closer necessary to really compete in the postseason.
CC: One of the areas where the Pacers improved on offense this season is in their ability to score in the half-court, particularly against switches or when plays breakdown. A year ago, with a cupboard full of spot-up options, they got into trouble attempting to play hero-ball without a hero against the Celtics. This year, Brogdon has been efficient attacking versus bigs, and Sabonis is always available as a fail-safe to massage the offense from the elbows. Not having Lamb as a go-to scorer off the bench will hurt, but Healthy Oladipo’s ability to create separation alongside another capable ball-handler has the potential to be a difference-maker, especially when games slow down. If Miami goes cold from three or the Sixers can’t stay out of their own way with spacing and foul issues, I could see my way through to the Pacers being able to manufacture enough points to ugly things up for either team on a neutral court.
Question #5: Now, finish this sentence: If the team I cover flames out earlier than people expect, it will be because…
BR: …Eric Bledsoe completely falls off a cliff in the playoffs again. The Bledshow’s curtain call following Game 82 has become a yearly tradition in Milwaukee, and even though the Bucks have more depth at guard than they did last year, it would still be a major hurdle to overcome losing the contributions of arguably their third-best player (at the peak of his powers). There were a lot of factors that led to the Bucks’ collapse in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, but Eric Bledsoe shooting 29.4 percent from the field and 17.2 percent from behind the arc was one of the biggest. He became such a non-factor offensively that Toronto was able to help all the way off of him to triple-team the Bucks’ ball-handlers. On the bright side, improving upon last year’s performance is a pretty low bar for him to clear, and if the Bucks and Lakers should meet in the Finals, he should have a much easier time against LA’s backcourt options. This year’s playoff environment will also be vastly different from any other year, which can only help Bledsoe as he attempts to overcome his demons.
AD: ...they can't find their cohesiveness again in the restart. This is a hard question, because for me the expectation for the Raptors is that they probably don't get past the Bucks, and they could lose to the Celtics in the second round, but I don't see them losing to their first round opponent at all. It feels like we have a pretty good grasp on who the Raptors are, both in terms of strengths and limitations. But as talented and confident as they are, this is a team with real questions and one with a very slim margin for error in the postseason. If the Raptors' offensive creation falters, or if their defense has a few more holes than we thought, or if they struggle to remain healthy, any of those things could derail the playoff run. So while I see them as a team with a small Championship window this season, it's a much tougher needle to thread than last season was, and while losing to Boston or Milwaukee wouldn't necessarily be "flaming out early", both of those are foreseeable reasonable outcomes based on who the Raptors have been this season.
MC: ...some combination of Tatum regressing and Walker's knee proving to be a serious impediment. I could see cases for a mid-playoffs departure by Gordon Hayward for the birth of his child or even something like poor seeding luck in which the Celtics run into a rejuvenated Sixers team in the opening round and proceed to see Daniel Theis reduced to dog food for Klaus by Joel, but I come back to the stars. Noise about Walker's knee out of this bizarre training camp hasn't exactly been super inspiring. It seems he's headed for a minutes limit during the seeding games, which could genuinely be entirely precautionary, but we are talking about a guy coming off four months of rest. At the very least, it's something to monitor. As for Tatum, I'm not sure where I stand. One might think he's bound for regression because he can't possibly be the most prolific wing pull-up 3-point shooter in the league, but to that, I ask, "Why not?" Tatum has always projected as a special shot-maker. His shooting profile, dating back to AAU and FIBA junior teams through college and his first couple of NBA seasons is that of a once-in-a-generation shot-maker. Alas, there are other ways for Tatum to descend back to earth. What does he do if teams stick small guards on him who can pressure his handle in a way that we've seen disturb wing scorers as legendary as Kevin Durant? Or if teams throw doubles at him and he can't capitalize on the inherent creases quickly? Or if the trickery the Celtics have employed to enable Tatum at the rim is suddenly legislated out of the game in a playoff series in which an opposing coach is aggressively lobbying officials? There are a lot of questions, and each question is yet another way for things to go wrong. And as Tatum goes, the Celtics go.
ND: ...the three-point shooting comes down to earth. The Heat’s shooting was a question mark coming into the season. I personally predicted the Heat would compete for a top-four seed this season, but that was because I thought the defense would be elite while the offense would “fine” -- think the 14-18 range in offensive rating.
The exact opposite has been true, and that’s because the Heat have been the best three-point shooting team in the league. Robinson, as mentioned earlier, has been absurd. Six other players -- Kelly Olynyk (43.2), Meyers Leonard (42.9), Jae Crowder (39.3), Tyler Herro (39.1), Goran Dragic (37.7), and Kendrick Nunn (36.2) -- are shooting at least 36 percent from three in a Heat uniform (min. 2.0 attempts per game).
Teams are going to make life rough for Robinson off the ball come playoff time. Crowder, a career 33.6 percent shooter from deep, is a major regression candidate. Leonard (2.4 attempts) is an efficient-but-gunshy option. Nunn takes a ton of difficult pull-ups, and has been susceptible to cold streaks. It would only take a bad week for Miami to look like a mess on offense, and that would be compounded if they continue to struggle to get stops on the other end.CC: Indiana has tons of practice relying on depth, and a Nate McMillan-coached team isn’t going to go down without a fight, but scraping together regular season wins with a projected starting lineup that’s played less than 100 minutes together this season isn’t exactly comparable to doing so in the playoffs against stiffer competition and exaggerated game-plans. Playing two centers and prioritizing open shots could prove to have a limited ceiling against teams loaded with speedy guards and wings that are suddenly switching off-ball actions and treating the paint like a no-fly zone.
Question #6: And finally, let’s make some predictions. Who is your pick to win the Eastern Conference?
BR: No surprise, but I’m going with the Milwaukee Bucks. Despite my concerns about Eric Bledsoe’s playoff demons and Nick Nurse’s coaching savvy, I believe the Bucks have constructed a superior roster to last year’s and have added more variance to their offensive game plan that should allow them to more easily make adjustments in a playoff setting. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that they’ll have the reigning MVP and best player on the court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs to cover for any weaknesses they may have. This Bucks roster is loaded with playoff experience and is ready to take the next step and make it to the Finals.
AD: It has to be the Bucks. It seems like this team is still being largely underestimated. They've had the 7th best SRS in NBA history thus far this season, Giannis has further grown his dominance and been the best player in basketball, and the growth of Khris Middleton gives them another elite creation option. This team should simply be too good not to make the Finals, and that really feels like it should be the expectation for them. The East is a good conference this year and there are a few other dangerous teams, but my feeling heading into the restart is that for the Bucks not to come out of the East, something has to go wrong for them more than something has to go right for another team. Upsets happen in the postseason, and it's not rare for that to occur, so there's always the chance another team manages to take advantage, but the Bucks not being in the Finals would feel like an upset.
MC: I'm writing this while talking to Adam, and as he can attest, I've spent way too much time on this. So thanks for a time-saver. Milwaukee, with ease.
ND: I still think you have to roll with the Bucks. As well as I believe the Heat match up with them, the Bucks have the best player in basketball, a bonafide star beside him, and crazy-good depth behind them. The Bucks haven’t just been world-beaters; they’ve been historically good this season. Barring injury, it’s hard to see them not coming out of the East.
CC: Milwaukee. Take a look at their nine losses without Giannis Antetokounmpo. With the exception of the Lakers, who attempted an absurd amount of free throws (38), the other eight opponents all have something in common: They made 15 or more threes on at least 35 attempts. Indiana and Philadelphia haven’t done that eight times a piece all season, let alone four times in a seven-game series. Miami, however, has reached those benchmarks twice just in games against Milwaukee and arguably has the strongest primary defender to throw at Giannis in Bam Adebayo while also potentially mixing in some zone. I’d still pick Milwaukee as the overwhelming favorite, but there’s a strong case to be made for the Heat posing the toughest test even though they probably aren’t the second or third-best team.
Big thank you to all of these tremendous writers who lent us their knowledge. Be sure to follow all of their work throughout the NBA restart!