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Three’s a Crowd: Milwaukee’s Path Forward in the Eastern Conference

The Bucks were a sexy pick to make a major leap this season. It turns out that they’re not alone in the East.

NBA: New York Knicks at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Three things in life are guaranteed: death, taxes, and the reputation of the NBA’s Eastern Conference will lag behind that of the West. The Milwaukee Bucks, members of the former, have been widely considered to be a team primed to take over the conference’s power rankings, filling the void (presumably) left by the decline of teams that currently rule (LeBron’s Cavaliers, the Lowry/DeRozan Raptors, and the Wall/Beal Wizards).

As we’ve seen already, after only a handful of games, nothing in the NBA is ever what it seems. The up-and-coming Bucks were dealt a tough hand for their first 10 games, and although the schedule did them no favors, they have generally disappointed their way to a 4-6 record. This, in and of itself, is not that big of a deal. Teams run hot and cold; there are slow starts and fantastic finishes (and vice versa).

However, the Eastern Conference landscape is anything but static. The Bucks do not exist in a vacuum; teams around them are growing and declining on their own timetables, and that presents another set of obstacles beyond the Bucks’ defense, the salary cap outlook, and the team’s overall level of talent. With the due respect paid to the three teams mentioned above (the Cavs, Raps, and Wiz are still who they are, and aren’t to be underestimated), here is a quick look at three teams that could knock the Bucks off-track in the future.

New York Knicks

Why we should worry: Kristaps Porzingis appears to be making a leap for the Knicks, just like Giannis Antetokounmpo is in Milwaukee, and rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina looks like he might be along for the ride.

Kristaps and Giannis are both considered NBA “unicorns,” and like Giannis he presents a unique blend of size, strength, and skill in the modern NBA. Unlike Giannis, Porzingis’ calling card is his shooting, but this article from Posting and Toasting goes through all the improvements he’s made since last year. Frankie Smokes might not ever be on the same level as 3-6 Latvia, but he has already impressed with his defense and composure and at 19 years old, has plenty of time to grow.

Why things are okay: The Knicks are still the Knicks. They’re still the same team that gave Joakim Noah a big contract, ditto for Tim Hardaway Jr. The Hardaway deal might not be a cap killer, but it makes some Bucks fans feel better about Matthew Dellavedova’s contract. Enes Kanter is talented but is expensive and unplayable in the postseason. New York doesn’t have anybody under 23 who’s worth a damn other than Ntilikina, Porzingis, and Willy Hernangomez, and the team is just now entering a period where they own a large portion of their own draft picks. Even with new management, the hot mess that is Knicks owner James Dolan doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and we’ve all seen how bad ownership can seep into every part of a franchise.

Boston Celtics

Why we should worry: Boston lost Gordon Hayward to injury on opening night, lost their first two games...and currently leads the NBA at 10-2. This is due to a litany of factors, including the development of Jaylen Brown, the emergence of Jayson Tatum, the continued steady hand from head coach Brad Stevens, and the Uncle Drew-approved sauce from Kyrie Irving.

The Celtics are a young team that also happens to be comprised of very good players, rather than players who might develop to be very good. They shoot a ton of threes, protect the ball, force teams into difficult shots, and boast the most efficient defense in the league. In addition to their current performance, GM Danny Ainge still has a treasure trove of assets in the way of three future first round picks as well as their full selection of their own picks. And yes, Terry Rozier is still on the team.

Why things are okay: The Celtics have very little holding them back from multiple seasons finishing atop the Eastern Conference. We hope Hayward’s injury results in a full recovery...but it might not, and it’s certainly nothing to hope for but is one of the few big questions that faces the Celtics in the short term.

In the long term, though, there is one pesky obstacle that every team will encounter sooner or later: the salary cap. Each of Hayward, Al Horford, and Irving command high salaries, and most of Marcus Smart, Brown, Tatum, and Rozier will likely expect to get paid when their rookie contracts run out.

Good teams are able to balance their budget, and the Celtics have never given any indication that this will be an issue. They could even opt to go deep into the luxury tax to keep the band together, thanks to their players’ Bird rights, and their long list of available assets will keep them in trade rumors for eternity. Basically, the Celtics are here and don’t seem to be going anywhere while the Bucks try to open their own window to the Finals.

Philadelphia 76ers

Why we should worry: Philly put their trust into the process, and while former GM Sam Hinkie might not be around to reap the benefits, the Sixers have the highest collective upside of anyone in the league.

Joel Embiid is a monster, even when playing limited minutes. Ben Simmons is a talented big with the game of a guard (sound familiar?). Dario Saric does a little bit of everything. The Sixers have a total of three players older than 29 (Jerryd Bayless, Amir Johnson, J.J. Redick). Brett Brown is a respected coach, and the 76ers play hard every night. Markelle Fultz is one of their many highly-drafted prospects who, recent drama aside, has the most talent of any recent top-3 pick. The players on Philly’s roster are young, and young players are often bad, but this team exhibits some of the best problems a developing team can have. They may or may not make the playoffs this season, but the Sixers are no longer tanking.

Why things are okay: Things get complicated quickly in the NBA, and there’s no telling what major decisions will come through for Philadelphia. Chief among the team’s concerns is Embiid’s durability, which was the impetus for one of the more complicated rookie contract extensions in recent memory. Any injury to JoJo will send Sixers fans into a tizzy (and rightfully so, Embiid is a literal basketball monster), and Simmons’ promise is still in the initial stages of being actualized. Fultz is shooting jumpers with his left hand, which would be fine if he wasn’t shooting right-handed up until a few weeks ago. Similarly to Boston, everybody on the roster is going to want to get paid sooner or later, and big rookie extensions for all these young players will eventually evaporate the cap room Philly has compiled.

This is not an exhaustive list of the teams that might stand between the Bucks and a championship in the next five (or more) years. The Detroit Pistons look like they’ve figured something out. The Orlando Magic might break away from the mediocrity they’ve put out and actually become a playoff team. There are simply too many variables to account for when predicting the future; it quickly becomes an exercise in hyperbolic futility.

However, we do the best we can, as anyone would. Taking this long view of the Eastern Conference (as limited as it is) shows us just how difficult the path ahead will be, and for some fans demonstrates how helpful the Eric Bledsoe trade might be for Milwaukee. Establishing a winning culture is something not done easily, especially when the culture around the franchise simply hasn’t won anything in decades. It also helps that Giannis might simply be better than all of the players we’ve looked at here today; superstars will do that.

What do you think? How do the Bucks stack up against their Eastern Conference peers, both this season and in seasons still to come? Let us know in the comments and on Twitter, and here’s to hoping that Milwaukee comes out on top.