Predicting the Eastern Conference
Surely, none of this can be made to look wrong later.
Good morning. It’s opening day in the NBA! First, we’ll run through our Eastern Conference standings predictions, plus the major awards. Let’s basketball.
Four Dancers, Edgar Degas, 1899
1. Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid was the scoring champ last season. Joel Embiid was the scoring champ last season. Joel Embiid was the scoring champ last season. He’s been No. 2 in MVP voting each of the past two seasons. He’s my preseason MVP pick. He has three-time scoring champ James Harden next to him. He has Tobias Harris, finally back in an appropriate two-way role on this roster. He has De’Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker.
But the real reason I’m picking the Sixers as the No. 1 seed is Tyrese Maxey, who is on the cusp on hitting All-Star status out here. The East guard cabal is deep, so maybe it doesn’t quite happen this season. But watch out for it. He’s deadly efficient under his own power, and with Embiid, Harden and Harris relieving pressure he’s free to be a stone cold offensive killer himself. The thing to watch with this team — and this backcourt, specifically — is defense. The Sixers were about average on that end after the Harden trade last season. I think it can improve, in part due to Tucker and Melton.
2. Boston Celtics
The topline talent is undeniable, and while the last-minute coach swap is obviously awful for vibes and continuity, it seems to have created yet another chip on the Celtics’ collective shoulder. As I’ve written, I’m more concerned about depth here, especially up front with Robert Williams III missing a good chunk of time to start the season.
Jayson Tatum is a legitimate preseason MVP threat, and the Celtics’ numbers after the All-Star break last season were absurdly good, which is a great sign going ahead. Either they or the Bucks are the consensus Finals pick out of the East. Lofty expectations. I think they can meet them. But I also think they aren’t getting back to the Finals, so … … ?
3. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are probably the safest bet to win the East given how close they seemingly came last year without Khris Middleton in the playoffs. Preseason concerns about Brook Lopez were well-founded, but he looked just fine once he did eventually get on the court. Pat Connaughton will miss time (not great) but Middleton and Jrue Holiday are rested, unlike last year. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the world, and that matters a lot. This team knows exactly what it’s doing almost all of the time. Really solid, definitely championship caliber.
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