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When the Brooklyn Nets added James Harden to a list that already included Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the bookies in Las Vegas were quick to declare the new NBA top-three as the Eastern Conference favorite, despite the fact that the Nets started the season 7-6 and were fifth in the conference when Harden made his Nets debut.
Insiders in the league, however, were not so keen on the Nets, who had the same 7-6 record in their first 13 games after Harden’s arrival.
In addition to the embattled Nets, the Milwaukee Bucks – who have had the best regular season record in the NBA for the past two seasons – have also received a lot of acclaim as a potential team for the finals. In ESPN’s interviews with 10 coaches, scouts and executives from every league except the Nets, no fewer than five teams received some measure of support for advancing to the Finals, which is far from a one-team race.
These six teams, including Brooklyn’s, are divided into three groups of eastern competitors that could determine whether this great experience of the Nets ends in failure or leads to the franchise’s first participation in the finals since 2002.
Teams to beat
Milwaukee still has Giannis Antetokounmpo, two-time NBA MVP, and forward Chris Middleton. And after missing the playoffs the past two seasons, the Bucks now have Jrue Holiday to take it to the next level.
“I think they’re really good,” said an Eastern Conference official. “With Giannis, Middleton and Holiday, I think they’ve had enough.”
With the holiday swap, however, the Bucks sacrificed the depth that had made them so strong in the last two regular seasons – and the main moves they made with their second unit (the signings of D.J. Augustin and Bobby Portis) were to add offensive players.
The team’s statistics reflect this change. Milwaukee leads the league offensively, but after leading the NBA defensively in each of the last two seasons, the Bucks are currently outside the top 10.
And when people analyzed the situation in Milwaukee, some said the team’s second unit was a problem that would be difficult to solve with a trade because Milwaukee has less than $500,000 under the NBA cap, according to Bobby Marks of ESPN.
“Their bench really needs to get better and play better, but I’m not sure they can,” said a Western Conference leader.
Antetokounmpo’s struggles at the free-throw line show a disturbing trend. He is shooting 63.3 percent, the fifth highest percentage of any qualified player in the NBA. He missed a potentially decisive free throw in the closing seconds of Milwaukee’s defeat to Boston Celtics, raising questions about his ability to be the closest.
“Are you going to win if he shoots [63%] from the line?” asked an Eastern Conference scout. “It’s a big thing.”
“I don’t know if Chris Middleton is good enough to be the online guy,” the Western scout said. “Obviously, Giannis is not going to be that guy.
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With the trio of Durant, Harden and Irving, the Nets will have no problem getting points on the board. The question remains: Will they stop their opponents?
For the season, the Nets ranked third in offensive rating (116.5 points per 100 possessions) and 27th in defensive rating (113.7). However, after the Harden deal, the Nets ranked fourth in the league in offensive rating (119.0 points per 100 possessions), but their defensive rating dropped to 118.1, putting them last in the NBA.
“I saw James Harden defend,” the Western Conference leader said. “There were times in the playoffs when he really defended. Has he decided this is his chance? And can they play Kyrie on defense, and [DeAndre] Jordan, and they close and do it for two months? That’s the question. They can’t go on like this.”
The loss of Jarrett Allen due to the Harden trade made Brooklyn particularly vulnerable at center. Jordan, who has been selected twice to the NBA’s defensive team, has been a blocker this season. He ranks 60th out of 80 centers on ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus defensive list. The two supporting players, rookie Reggie Perry and Norvel Pelle, have a combined 40 games of NBA experience.
The Nets gave up most of their revenue assets to acquire Harden, so their ability to meet their center’s needs via a case is limited. And with the introduction of two additional teams qualifying for the playoffs this year, many more teams have the potential to be in the playoffs before the final days of the regular season, so some executives don’t think the buyout market will provide many options either.
But Brooklyn’s offensive power is unmistakable and cannot be stopped.
“I think at the end of the day it’s going to take a lot to stop these guys,” the Western Conference coach said. “I don’t know how teams are going to make it past 48 minutes…. You literally can’t get past these three guys in 48 minutes.
Carpet at a lower level
After missing nearly the first month of the season to strengthen his left knee, Kemba Walker made his season debut on January 17. And although the Celtics missed the first three games with Walker in the lineup, the playmaker’s return was again touted as a contender for Boston. With the best collection of players protecting Brooklyn’s new Big Three in Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum, the Celtics had their share of fans threatening to beat the East.
“I think Boston is a better fit for Brooklyn,” said another Western Conference leader. “They have these three guys [Tatum, Brown and Smart], they have different looks they can play with their fat guys. And the Nets still can’t punish them [on the inside].”
Several people pointed to Walker in particular as the key to the Boston season. Given the ongoing problems with his left knee at the beginning of a full calendar year, it is doubtful that he will be able to maintain his health over the next six months.
“Jaylen and Tatum are a great pair,” said another Eastern Conference scout. “There are very few I would take. But I don’t think they have enough firepower to keep up with [the Nets]. I just have a lot of doubts. They have to have Kemba back on Kemba. Otherwise, I don’t see him”.
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Pelicans v. the Mavericks, 7:
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, February 13 –
Nets v. the Warriors, 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
All Eastern Times
Like Brooklyn and Milwaukee, many called the Celtics’ depth a potential problem that kept the team from reaching the Finals. The difference between Boston and these other two teams, however, is that the Celtics have the ability to solve their problems. Boston has complete control over all first-round picks, in addition to the huge $28.5 million commercial exception made in the offseason when Gordon Heyward went to the Charlotte Hornets as a free agent.
Although Boston is in the process of lining up a number of opponents, the team’s movements over the next six weeks will largely determine how far the Celtics will ultimately come.
“It’s a wait-and-see team,” said another Western Conference recruiter.
With all the talk of Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Boston, it is the Philadelphia 76ers who are currently leading the East. Some league insiders see the 76ers as the team to beat in the East, in large part because the season changes in Philadelphia have paid off.
“The biggest improvement for Philadelphia, aside from the attitude of head coach Doc [Rivers] and the respect he has, is that everyone has gone back to their regular positions,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “Tobias [Harris] is number four, and right now they’re not trying to play number four and number two at the same time.”
Rivers and the new team president, Daryl Morey, ignored outside calls to disband the duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, preferring to reorganize the roster around them, sending Al Horford and Josh Richardson and bringing in Danny Green and Seth Curry.
The addition of these two shooters to the starting lineup has cleared the field for Embiid, who has played at the MVP level so far this season.
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Gone are the days when Embiid struggled against the team’s offensive flow – a regular situation last season. In his place, a version of Embiid with a career-high scoring average (29.1), field goal percentage (54.7) and three-point percentage (37.7) is the best option for Philadelphia to attack Brooklyn’s biggest weakness.
“That’s where losing Allen hurts,” said the scout from the East, pointing to Embiid’s inside game. “Jordan seems pretty banged up to me. I think the [76ers] have bodies to defend, [Matthysse] Tybull are guys they can throw at Harden defensively.”
However, it remains to be seen whether Embiid can maintain its level of play in the postseason, as the game becomes even slower and the ability to create your own shots becomes an even more important skill.
“Joel is someone Brooklyn shouldn’t have an answer for,” said a leader of the Eastern Conference. “But Joel played in a show where the other team wouldn’t have an answer for him, and it didn’t work out, so we’ll see.”
And if not Embiid, then who? Philadelphia traded Jimmy Butler two years ago to fill exactly that role, only to have him released a few months later. Inquiring teams are still waiting for an answer from the 76ers.
“I don’t know how this team is going to make it when the games come at this level,” the Western Conference official said.
Also receive votes
What about the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Miami Heat? If the playoffs started today, Miami would not be invited, even with the new NBA playoff series for the 10th ranked team in each conference.
And while many people were willing to give Miami a pass for the slow start because several players – Butler in particular – missed significant time due to NBA health and safety protocols, the question remains whether the conference championship was just perfect.
“Last year was a stroke of luck,” said the head of Western intelligence. “I know everyone hates that word, but it’s true. The whole bubble was a perfect situation.”
In addition, the loss of Jae Crowder in Free Agency in Miami was an eye opener for some. The Heat struggled to replace him, as newcomer Maurice Harkless shot just 40 percent from the field and was removed from the starting lineup.
The Indiana Pacers, on the other hand, received almost unanimous praise for securing Caris LeVert and selection picks in Harden’s trade, allowing them to take advantage of Victor Oladipo, who will become a free agent after this season. The Pacers, who were knocked out of the playoffs last year in the first round against the Heat, were also congratulated for the way they started the season under new coach Nate Bjorkgren. Miles Turner leads the NBA in blocked shots per game and Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis average more than 20 points. In the end, most interviewees consider the Pacers to be a very good team, but not a great one.
“I like Brogdon and Sabonis, but I don’t think they can compete for the title anymore,” the West coach said. “If T.J. Warren comes back, maybe. I think they just don’t have enough guys.”