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Hey, remember that time when the Eastern Conference didn’t look like it was particularly competitive, boasting a handful of squads that might look great during the first few playoff rounds before serving as Finals fodder for the Golden State Warriors?
Me neither. Not anymore, at least.
That’s not to say any East squad should emerge as the favorites to end Golden State’s reign of terror. But after the passage of the 2019 NBA trade deadline Thursday, the four teams in the competition for top billing in this half of the league all look poised to, at the very least, make some major noise.
The Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors both engaged in blockbuster deals to add significant new pieces. The Milwaukee Bucks landed a key role player who fits perfectly with their five-out schemes and desires to space out driving lanes for Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Boston Celtics…stood pat with a roster that’s already talented enough to earn the No. 1 seed.
This frenzy of movement—an arms race that began with the Sixers’ middle-of-the-night decision to add Tobias Harris—obviously reshapes the top of the postseason picture for the remainder of 2018-19. It also has long-term ramifications as these burgeoning juggernauts jockey for position. We’ll cover both the short- and long-term pecking order, but let’s first do some housekeeping to show just how drastically these rosters changed (full analysis and grades of each move is available here):
- Boston Celtics
- Outgoing: None
- Incoming: None
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Outgoing: Thon Maker, Jason Smith, four second-round picks
- Incoming: Nikola Mirotic
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Outgoing: Wilson Chandler, Markelle Fultz, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, two first-round picks, two second-round picks, second-round swap rights
- Incoming: James Ennis III, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons, first-round pick, second-round pick
- Toronto Raptors
- Outgoing: CJ Miles, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, second-round pick
- Incoming: Marc Gasol
That’s a lot of change. So let’s break down the new-look picture, keeping in mind that the actual title odds aren’t going to be of much use here.
Everyone at the top of the East is now tied:
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The Short-Term Rankings for 2018-19
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Somewhat quietly, perhaps overshadowed by perpetual Anthony Davis rumors, Los Angeles Lakers drama and the recent explosions of the sharp-shooting Warriors, the Bucks entered the trade deadline as the Association’s premier outfit.
Maybe that doesn’t translate to the league’s top title odds, but the facts are the facts. Nobody has a better record than Milwaukee’s 40-13 mark (a 62-win pace), and the advanced metrics back that up.
Brewtown’s 9.9 net rating leads everyone, and the gap between them and the No. 2 Warriors (7.4) is nearly as large as the one between the Dubs and the No. 7 Indiana Pacers (4.8). FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO model forecasts the Bucks with a 62-20 record that paces the entire league. Basketball Reference’s simple rating system, which is based solely on strength of schedule and margin of victory, gives the Bucks (9.44) the No. 1 spot with room to spare—easily toppling the Warriors (7.63) and Celtics (5.83).
We don’t have to stop there for a team that boasts a legitimate MVP front-runner in Antetokounmpo, who’s averaging a scorching 27.0 points, 12.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game this deep into the season. Per Tankathon, the Bucks have the fifth-easiest remaining schedule. Seriously.
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Now, the best team in basketball is getting better.
Thon Maker (traded for Stanley Johnson, who was then swapped in the Nikola Mirotic acquisition) and Jason Smith were playing a combined 18.4 minutes per game, and that’s a misleadingly high number. The former had only appeared in 35 games, while the latter suited up just six times. Neither factored into the rotation, which won’t be true of the new stretch 4 who comes in with season averages of 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds on a 44.7/36.8/84.2 slash line.
Mirotic is a potent offensive weapon who fits in perfectly with the schemes employed by head coach Mike Budenholzer. As Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale wrote in the immediate aftermath of the addition, “Mirotic diversifies an already unfairly weaponized offensive attack. He can dribble into his own looks when Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t on the floor, and he won’t disrupt the flow of the offense when he’s playing alongside the Bucks’ main pieces.”
This transition should be seamless for a team already on pace to win more than 60 games.
2. Toronto Raptors
So the Raptors are going to be pretty good on defense.
They already sat at No. 8 in the pecking order for points allowed per 100 possessions, and they’re getting even better with a pivot who can anchor entire schemes. Even if Gasol isn’t the world-beating stopper he was during his prime, he’s still earned a score of 2.35 in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus, placing him at No. 15 among the 66 players qualified as centers.
Just imagine the potency of lineups featuring Gasol alongside Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Lowry. The four incumbents have already earned a 104.4 defensive rating in their 587 minutes together, and they’re getting an upgrade at the 5 to ensure the opposition can’t find even the most minuscule cracks in the facade.
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As if that’s not enough, Gasol’s passing from the high post and at the top of the key should also unlock new sources of offense for a team that isn’t quite as egalitarian as it was during the end of the Lowry-DeMar DeRozan era. This team has the personnel necessary to keep defenders rapt with attention in off-ball situations, but it hasn’t A) had the big-man passing to pull it off or B) a desire to emphasize this approach while Leonard shows his takeover skills.
Of course, not all the changes are good.
Getting rid of CJ Miles and Delon Wright hampers Toronto’s useful depth, taking away a reliable ball-handler and floor-spacer to place more responsibility on the shoulders of OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet. The good outweighs the bad, but this isn’t as simple as just calculating the sizable upgrade from Jonas Valanciunas to Gasol.
3. Boston Celtics
Nothing changed at the deadline, but that doesn’t mean nothing changes for the Celtics.
Gordon Hayward hasn’t been the player they expected, struggling to reassert himself as a star following his devastating leg injury and subsequent departure from Salt Lake City. Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier have declined—at times, dramatically so. Jayson Tatum went through an early-season stupor in which he channeled too much Kobe Bryant and started taking ill-advised mid-range jumpers he hadn’t yet perfected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have missed a combined 19 games.
Should all that normalize, the Celtics will already be an improved squad during the second half of the season. Even if none of it does, they’re playing at a high enough level to earn 54-win expectations from the CARMELO model.
We won’t spend any more time here, if only because these rankings are sparked by changes at a trade deadline that saw no engagement from the Beantown representatives. Just know that the Celtics remain a legitimate threat to earn the No. 1 seed without any alterations.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Important note: Please keep in mind that despite the negative slant here, the Sixers are another bona fide contender for the Eastern crown. We’re splitting hairs between teams, and their placement at No. 4 isn’t an indication they won’t be competitive, even if it forces more pessimistic language and choices of covered topics.
Someone must finish last in every set of rankings.
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Harris is a phenomenal get for the Sixers. He immediately profiles as a nice stylistic fit alongside Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid, if only because he’s hitting 40.8 percent of his 3.4 catch-and-shoot attempts per game from beyond the rainbow.
But this transition will require a sizable learning curve. Harris is an ancillary piece for the Sixers and is no longer operating with autonomy and the near-constant green light he’d earned during his brief stay with the Los Angeles Clippers. Just take a gander at the touch numbers for each member of the new-look Philadelphia Phour*:
- Ben Simmons: 86.5 touches per game (No. 6 in the NBA)
- Joel Embiid: 86.1 touches per game (No. 7 in the NBA)
- Tobias Harris: 62.5 touches per game (No. 49 in the NBA)
- Jimmy Butler: 52.7 touches per game (No. 94 in the NBA)
Harris’ ability to operate off the ball helps, but even his seemingly diminished number still paced the Clippers roster. Just for the sake of comparison, the Sixers’ primary wings weren’t nearly as involved in the offensive flow. Wilson Chandler, for example, received just 34.2 touches per contest before he was jettisoned.
That’s not something to which Harris can adjust overnight. Ditto for his teammates, who will need to sacrifice some of their own involvement for the sake of harmonious interactions with the new addition.
Similarly, the team must learn to rely on a potentially shallower rotation, as Chandler (26.4 minutes per game), Mike Muscala (22.1) and Landry Shamet (20.5) were all playing sizable roles. Markelle Fultz…not so much.
James Ennis III, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott and Jonathon Simmons should help offset this, but the lack of reliable backcourt and wing threats could become problematic in the event of injuries or foul trouble. Ennis, who has spent just 6 percent of his minutes at the 2, and the incoming Simmons could very well have to feature at the guard positions behind the incumbent Simmons, T.J. McConnell and JJ Redick.
*Somehow, I doubt that nickname sticks.
The Long-Term Rankings
1. Boston Celtics
You’re still allowed to get excited about the untapped potential of Tatum, Brown, Rozier, Robert Williams and the other youngsters on this roster. The Celtics are swimming in useful depth, and it’s not like their leading veterans are getting too long in the tooth. Horford, 32, is the only one for whom we can expect an imminent decline.
Oh, and that’s not it.
The Celtics have access to their own first-round pick in 2019, and they’ll have more via the Sacramento Kings/76ers (the more favorable one in 2019, protected at No. 1), Memphis Grizzlies (protected 1-8 in 2019 and 1-6 in 2020) and Los Angeles Clippers (lottery protected in 2019 and 2020). Those assets mean a lot, whether they’re used to reload and fill in rotational cracks or as sweeteners in pursuit of superstars.
Cough, Davis, cough.
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If Irving chooses to leave in free agency, it could cripple the Celtics, leaving them as a competitive squad set adrift without a reliable floor general. But that’s merely hypothetical at this stage, as we won’t know his true intentions until he hits the open market this summer. Just the fact that the C’s could have both him and Davis on the roster without gutting the entire franchise means quite a bit.
Even if they strike out on one pursuit, they’re in great shape.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers sure seem to be going all-in on this four-man core.
Good news: Butler, Embiid, Harris and Simmons are all All-Star-caliber talents—yes, two of them were notable omissions this year—who can carry the team to extreme heights. They’re all in their primes or still moving toward them. They have skill sets that, in theory, should mesh nicely.
Moderate news: By committing to this quartet (and losing a number of draft picks along the way), Philadelphia may be limiting its own ceiling. While the floor rises to rather lofty levels, it also prevents the organization from acquiring another A-list superstar like Davis, Leonard, Antetokounmpo, etc.—the perennial MVP candidates, basically.
Realistically, Embiid and Simmons give Philly its only shots at rostering top-10 talents, whereas Boston has more paths through trades, the draft, free agency and internal growth.
Bad news: This team is about to get Expensive. Yes, in italics and with a capital E.
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Embiid is already on the books with a five-year maximum rookie extension. Simmons is still playing out his first contract, but he’ll be in line for a max deal (maybe even a supermax) when it expires after the 2019-20 season. Butler can either opt into a $19.8 million pact next year or seek a long-term contract that would likely rise to even more astronomical figures. Harris will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and could pursue recognition as a max player.
This is one helluva core, but Sixers fans have to hope the front office doesn’t balk at the price tag.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Though the Bucks are rolling, giving us no reason to suspect a decline at any point soon, they’re also running out of draft picks and working with an aging roster—a statement that’s only negated by the utter ridiculousness of a 24-year-old Antetokounmpo.
After the Mirotic acquisition, Milwaukee, with no other picks incoming from other organizations, owes the following draft-day selections:
- 2019 first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns (protected 1-3 and 17-30 in 2019; 1-7 in 2020)
- 2019 second-round pick to either the Philadelphia 76ers or Sacramento Kings
- 2020 second-round pick to the New Orleans Pelicans
- 2021 first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers (complicated protections)
- 2021 second-round pick to the Houston Rockets
That doesn’t leave the team with many paths toward further improvement, and finances could complicate the picture. A Khris Middleton extension (necessary to keep the core in place) will inevitably be a pricy proposition, and that won’t give the Bucks much cap space for free-agency additions until we’re a few years down the road.
By that time, everything could look different.
Eric Bledsoe is 29 years old with a lengthy injury history. Brook Lopez is already in his 30s. And while Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and other key pieces are all in their primes, they’re not exactly in the first halves of their 20s like so many crucial contributors on the squads ranked ahead of Milwaukee.
Installing the right schemes under Budenholzer helps a lot, and the Bucks boast the best player in the Eastern Conference, a megastar who just might keep getting better as he develops a consistent jumper (necessary to reach his ceiling, but so obviously unnecessary to play at an MVP level). That’s still not quite enough in this competition.
4. Toronto Raptors
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Even if Leonard doesn’t leave for the Los Angeles Clippers or another location in free agency this summer, Father Time alone will keep the Raptors a tier below the other three contenders for the Eastern Conference crown. Take a gander at the ages of the six leading rotation players north of the border:
- Marc Gasol: 34 years old
- Kyle Lowry: 32 years old
- Danny Green: 31 years old
- Serge Ibaka: 29 years old
- Kawhi Leonard: 27 years old
- Pascal Siakam: 24 years old
It also doesn’t help that the Raptors haven’t had much free-agency success in prior seasons and owe a top-20-protected first-rounder to the San Antonio Spurs during this coming draft. But again, age alone is the reason for the bottom-of-the-barrel placement.
Many franchises might still do unspeakable things to have a future this bright, but it’s downright shadowy in comparison to the sunny outlooks of the other three contenders. Fortunately, they have the pieces in place to win right away, and no one should doubt them in the playoffs now that they have three experienced veterans—Gasol, Leonard and Lowry—in charge of the outcome.