The NBA 2020/21 season starts tomorrow so here's Mike Carlson's team-by-team guide to the Eastern Conference including Milwaukee Bucks who our man thinks are the strongest...
"I see the Bucks as the strongest team in the division, but the new-look Nets have a veteran one-two punch in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving."
The East is not as strong at the top as the West. Right now, it's a two-horse race with a group of possibles in pursuit, and a long tail of small-hopers bringing up the rear. Here's my guide to each team with current championship odds.
The Slam Dunks
The big question was whether, after swan-diving out of the playoffs for the second straight year, the Bucks would be able to keep their 6-11 Greek superstar centre Giannis Antetokoumpo happy and on-board. They did it by awarding him a contract extension for five years and a league record $225 million. They'd tried to bring Bogdan Bogdanovic and Jrue Holliday on board for him, but in the end settled only for Holliday, who cost them three draft picks and two more switches, but whose versatility and defense at guard will probably offer even more to take pressure off the big guy.
The Bucks wanted another outside shooter to complement Khris Middleton, maybe Bryn Forbes can do that. Newcomer Bobby Portis is a good backup to Giannis, who still has aspects of his game that could get better (foul shooting, outside shooting) but as the anchor of the league's best defensive team is probably due for that step--up playoff season.
I see the Bucks as the strongest team in the division, but the new-look Nets have a veteran one-two punch in Kevin Durant, who looks fully recovered from his Achilles injury suffered in the 2019 finals, and Kyrie Irving, who played only 20 games last year, but who will probably find room for his shots if Durant is back to form.
New coach Steve Nash needs to pace his vets, and the acquisition of Landry Shamet and Jeff Green (on his 9th NBA team in seven years) means he wants more outside shooting alongside Joe Harris, which is interesting because Carris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie are more drive to the paint guys, and 32-year-old centre DeAndre Jordan is a paint anchor. Jarrett Allen may see more time in the middle, but Nash needs to find a way to mix these talents and play D while he's doing it. Potentially a real threat.
Three Point Outside Shots
They upset the Celtics and went to the playoff finals, where injuries held them back. Last year they brought in Jimmy Butler to be their star and he delivered on all facets of the game. Bam Adebayo is a small but strong centre, and rookie Tyler Herro's season at shooting guard seemed to reinvigorate PG Goran Dragic, whom Butler insisted stay in Miami rather than pursue more money elsewhere. They added veteran defensive specialists in Avery Bradley at guard and Maurice Harkless at forward, while their 'other' rookie star last year, Kendrick Nunn, could be used as a sixth man. Throw in Andre Iguodala who always comes alive in the playoffs and the Heat could be on.
The Raptors will be playing their home games in Tampa because of Canadian Covid restrictions, which is great news for snowbirds but not so great for the team. They did well last year after losing Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers and this year they've lost both Marc Gasol (Lakers) and Serge Ibaka (Clips) to LA. They signed veteran Aussie Aron Baynes, but although he's tough as nails underneath, he lacks the offensive punch Gasol and Ibaka offered.
They paid big to keep Fred Van Vlett in the backcourt alongside Kyle Lowery, but Lowery is now 34 and can't keep giving them 36 minutes a game. The key for former BBL coach Nick Nurse is getting Cameroonian forward Pascal Siakam to step up into the star role, and seeing British small forward OG Anuoby take over as Siakam's wing man. Baynes and Chris Boucher could control the inside, which is essential in the East, but if they can't, and if the forwards can't step up, Lowry could be trade bait late in the season.
The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward for good, and this could be too much of a loss for them to bear. You saw it when Hayward missed the entire 2018-19 season with an injury in the very first game, and then in the playoffs, where as soon as he was out, Miami and Adebayo took over. Boston has two superstar wingmen in Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum, but Hayward was essential as both a third, outside shooting option and a defensive player against other team's 4s. If SG Marcus Smart has to be the third offensive option you see him forcing threes, which his streak-shooter talent can't maintain.
The Celts also won't have Kemba Walker until later in the season. They signed Jeff Teague to replace him but Teague can't offer the offense either. Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge seem to want to play with a PG and four combo forwards. They lost centre Enes Kanter but signed Tristan Thompson from the Cavs to pair with German Daniel Theis, but they often seem redundant. They passed three times on big men in the draft, and their two key picks were Peyton Pritchard, the most Ainge-like point guard available, and Aaron Nesmith, who could grow into a Brown/Tatum style talent. But neither is exactly what they need now.
As ever, the Sixers season will appear to hinge on the will of Joel Embiid, the talented but permanently frustrating centre, although it was the injury to PG Ben Simmons that took the blame for their early playoff exit. New coach Doc Rivers wants to reduce the team's reliance on the big. New club president Daryl Morey brought in Seth Curry and Danny Green, both shooters who can spread the floor, and Dwight Howard, who can be a punisher inside in crunch time.
It's worth noting PF Tobias Harris had his best years playing for Rivers with the Clips, and a wider-open game ought to suit him. Rivers, a former-point guard, will need to convince Simmons to give up some of his offensive opportunities, not all of which are good, and share the ball more for guys like the newcomers and bench shooters like Shake Milton or Mike Scott.
The Pacers basically stood pat this off-season, but brought in new coach Nate Bjorkgren to try to make the pieces mix better, Bjorkgren was an assitant to Nurse at Toronto, and began his pro career as an assistant to Nurse with the Iowa Energy of the then-D League. His returning core would seem better suited to playing a faster, more three-point shooting game, especially if Victor Oladipo can distribute the ball more from SG, while Malcolm Brogdan can be a serious mismatch for teams at PG.
Domantas Sabonis at the four would be a perfect fit, assuming his foot injury isn't a recurrence of his father's foot problems, and TJ Warren had a break-out year. So the question is whether Myles Turner can deliver inside as well as outside at center. The bench includes the Holliday brothers, Aaron and Justin, and Doug McDermott, all of whom can stretch the court, but Jeremy Lamb is out for the year. This team might be better-suited for the West, but if Bjorkgren can turn them into a midwest version of the old Warriors, or even Turse's Raptors, they could surprise.
The Fade Away Jumpers
This team is being built around PG Trae Youngs, who averaged 29 ppg last season, and with his running mate at forward John Collins combined for over 50. Last year they added Clint Capela, but he missed the whole season through injury. If he's back in form he will be the big who might complement that backcourt. Onyeka Okongwu (the sixth pick in the draft) could step in as his back-up. They added SG Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari for outside shooting, and Kris Dunn (currently injured) as a versatile defender at three positions. Rajon Rondo brings experience to back up at PG, but the key may be small forward DeAndre Turner or swingman Kevin Huerter in knitting the starting five together.
With all the fuss over Washington Football Team, who remembers when the hoops team were called the Bullets? Coach Scott Brooks worked with new PG Bryant Westbrook at OKC, so his replacing John Wall ought to be easy. He and Bradley Beal will be one of the top combinations in the league. But defense will be a question, especially because up front Japanese forward Rui Hachimura and centre Thomas Bryant have limitations. Troy Brown will share minutes at forward with Germany's Issac Bonga, who can defend, while Latvian F Davis Bertrans will provide shooting off the bench. Beal and Westbrook combined for 57 points per game, albeit with different teams, last year. If they can do the same in DC, they could be a playoff contender.
Much like a deep south version of the Sixers, the Magic's game is tied up in the enigma of Markelle Fultz, who hasn't really flourished in coach Steve Clifford's multi-point guard system. He'll be working with Michael Carter-Williams, a former rookie of the year, and this year's rookie sensation Cole Anthony, which should be interesting.
Evan Fournier is the shooting guard but they bring Terrence Ross off the bench. Montegnran center Nikola Vicevic is their key, and he had a great bubble last year. The other key is sorting out the forward situation, where starting four Aaron Gordon is probably better suited for three, as are Dwayne Bacon and James Ennis. Chuma Okeke who missed all last season with injury and Mo Bamba, who's curently out, could help, but the team needs to avoid more injuries and find a set lineup that works.
The Throw Up A Prayers
Their big acquisition was Gordon Hayward from the Celtics, where he joins ex-Celtic Terry Rozier who had a break-out year as a starter. He and De'Vonte Graham are the guards, but the Hornets took highly-hyped LaMelo Ball, whose dad played for the London Monarchs, and will need to both develop him and fit him in. Hayward will be a three for Charlotte, not a four as he was in Boston, but remains a constant injury worry. PJ Washington had a good rookie season as the four, but Cody Zeller and Zairian Bismack Biyombo ought to give them more up front.
New coach Billy Donovan is working for a new front-office pair of Lithuanian star Arturas Karnisovas and GM Marc Eversley, so we can expect to see a change in the way the Bulls play, especially since the team will remain basically unchanged for now. Donovan appears to want to pair Coby White at the point alongside Zach LeVine, in order to inject more scoring. That relegates Czech playmaker Tomas Santoransky, at 6-7, to third-guard status.
The 6-9 Williams is likely to be the third forward off the bench, providing more speed and D than either Otto Porter or sharp-shooting Finnish four Lauri Markkanen. Whether C Wendell Carter or F Thaddeus Young fit the new-look Bulls will be an immediate question, but there's no option B behind Carter.
The Pistons' new GM Troy Weaver did a clear-out in the brief offseason, and Blake Griffin and sixth man Derrick Rose are the leading returners. Two players off other teams' benches may start: SF Jeremi Grant and PG Delon Wright, who played for coach Dwayne Casey in Toronto. Rookie Killian Hayes is likely to start at PG, while French forward Sekou Doumboyou might earn more minutes backing up both forward spots. Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor are the centres, which isn't scaring opposing scouts.
The Cavs fired coach John Bellein in mid-season, replacing him with JB Bickerstaff, who returns this year, trying to build a team by emphasizing defense, something rookie forward Issac Okoro was drafted with the fifth pick. The team is an odd mix of vets (Kevin Love and Andre Drummond up front) and youth, PG Collin Sexton and last year's fifth-pick overall Darius Garland, who as the son of Winston Gardland, is one of a number of legacies on the Cavs. If only the Cavs could sign LeBron James Jr.
New coach Tom Thibodeau has worked with winners like the Celtics, Bulls and US Olympic team, but his last gig was in Minnesota, so the downward trend won't seem so extreme. He's best known as a defensive specialist, and yes that is one of the Knicks' short-comings, although in theory if you can stop better teams you can win with more limited talent makes sense, it doesn't always apply in the freestyle NBA.
Alec Burks is a two-guard who's developing a shot to go with his slashing drive game, and point guard Elfrid Payton is steady but not spectacular. The rest of the roster is riddled with inconsistency, something Thibodeau's schemes may address. C Nerlens Noel can defend, but lacks offensive skills, RJ Barrett may step up, Julius Randle may step down, Austin Rivers is up and down, while Mitchell Robinson may be a valuable piece off the bench. Watch for fourth pick overall Obi Toppen to get into the lineup as soon as he shows he gets the D, and be a star, while rookie Immanuel Quickley could see playing time, uh, quickly.
Where to look for value
The Lakers at 14/5 on the Sportsbook to win back to back titles is a bargain, even though it's such a difficult season to predict under normal circumstances, and Covid could always throw a monkey-wrench in the proceedings. Remember that teams know as well as fans do that the playoffs are the time that matters, and those with veteran cores often will sacifice regular season wins and seedings to rest their key players. That's why I like the Lakers better to go all the way than 31/20 to win the Western conference.
The Nets at 31/20 to win the Atlantic Division seems pretty good to me, and the Jazz at 5/2 is a nice value in the Northwest Division. Trying to handicap wins is tougher but the Celtics to go over 44.5 at evs is one of a number of outside shots I'd take, like Pacers over 38.5 (at 5/6) Utah over 42.5 (at 4/6) and Miami over 43.5 (4/5).