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Neighborhood Watch: Is The East Becoming “The Bucks, and The Rest?”

Giannis, Bud, and Horst may find themselves at the helm of the next Eastern Conference dynasty.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Brew Hoop Neighborhood Watch. The NBA is a vibrant community, and while the Milwaukee Bucks are our preferred resident, we still want to be in touch with our neighbors around the league. After all, that’s what good neighbors are for. Today, we take stock of everybody in the Eastern Conference and ask the question: is there anybody else that might challenge the Bucks long-term?

Current Bucks Rankings

Record: 38-13 (1st in East, 1st in NBA)
Offensive Rating: 113.6 (4th in NBA)
Defensive Rating: 104.0 (1st in NBA)
Strength of Schedule Rating: –0.79 (24th in NBA)
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 0.470 (28th in NBA)

Things change fast in the NBA. We’ve been doing this Neighborhood Watch series only for a few months, and our expectations have skyrocketed from where they started. Just last year, Milwaukee was just coming out of the Jason Kidd Era, relieved but still rudderless. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the team’s superstar and Khris Middleton was an under appreciated cornerstone, but since then nearly everything is different. But the way things feel right now, with Giannis reigning as the King of the East, Middleton earning his first-ever All Star bid, Mike Budenholzer and Jon Horst earning well-deserved consideration for Coach and Executive of the Year, the Bucks are making the unexpected jump from “contender” to “favorite.”

But what if I told you that the Bucks might be the East’s favorite not just this year, not for just two years, not three, not four, not five...but for the foreseeable future?

Fair warning: nearly everything that follows from here on out assumes “best case scenario” for Milwaukee, but it just so happens that this scenario looks fairly likely. It also takes a fairly negative view at the prognosis of the other Eastern Conference contenders...but it also is starting to look like each other team has more reason to fret than the Bucks do. This is extremely a “Bucks fans feeling themselves” post, and could be exposed if things don’t work out. But at least right now, things look extremely bright, so we’re going to throw caution to the wind in this one.

No matter what, the Bucks will need to find a way to keep Giannis happy (that Designated Player Extension is incoming...), and keeping Giannis happy might mean keeping the band together: re-sign Khris Middleton (who will likely opt out of his player option this summer), and the rest of the starters (Malcolm Brogdon, a restricted free agent, plus Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe, both unrestricted free agents). Middleton, the most expensive of the quartet, at least seems committed to the Bucks today.

For what it’s worth (and it might be a lot), Giannis looks to be taking great pleasure in Middleton’s success, speaking to the type of teammate – and person – he is.

But with the team performing at the level they’re at today, how can it be argued that continuity is not the optimal path forward? There might be better individual talents out there in the league, but are they going to fit so seamlessly together (both with Giannis and with the system)? It might not be easy, but the current starters might even be able to stick together while staying under the luxury tax, and with the rest of the contributors on the roster also under contract...running it back might be the key to short AND long term success.

So that’s where the Bucks are, and they could easily stay there. What about the rest of the league? Who presents a real and present danger to Milwaukee’s dominance of the Eastern Conference, not just now, but going forward? The answers might surprise you, but once you finish reading you just might join me in my irresponsible optimism.

Toronto RaptorsRaptorsHQ

The Raptors pushed their chips into the middle by trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, and it’s still unclear whether or not Kawhi will stick around. Whether or not he walks (most likely for Los Angeles) is still an open question, although RaptorsHQ is doing their part to keep Kawhi around. If he stays, great for them...but if he walks...

Kyle Lowry is 32. Serge Ibaka will be 30 next year. Jonas Valanciunas is good, but will need to get paid the year after next. Pascal Siakam has been a revelation, but it’s still undetermined if he’s a lead player or just an elite role player. It’s highly unlikely that they have space for a max free agent this summer, even if they don’t keep Leonard, and while maybe they can jump into the Anthony Davis Extravaganza, it’s pretty much “Kawhi or Bust” for this team.

Verdict: With Kawhi, a major threat to the Bucks. Without Kawhi, not a threat.

Boston CelticsCelticsBlog

Say what you will about Danny Ainge, but he successfully rebuilt Boston without bottoming out. He sold high on Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. He sold high on Isaiah Thomas. He landed Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and smartly traded down to draft Jayson Tatum instead of Markelle Fultz. You put all that together under a wunderkind head coach like Brad Stevens, plus a boatload of draft picks, and you’re a dynasty in the making, right? Well...

That’s...that’s not what you said before!

What changed in the meantime?

Huh. Kyrie, of course, deserves to do what he thinks is best for his career, and perhaps he thinks that an aging Horford, a hobbled Hayward, and an inefficient Tatum aren’t a vehicle for success. Without Davis as a possibility (and really, is Ainge going to offer up the most for AD if he’ll truly be a rental?) and Kyrie’s future suddenly in doubt, what does Boston’s prognosis look like? Terry Rozier needs a new deal, ditto for Marcus Morris, and Jaylen Brown isn’t far behind. Hayward and Marcus Smart are locked in, but they’re still over the cap if Kyrie walks and Horford opts in (for $30 million, he probably will...), regardless of whether Aron Baynes stays or goes. Is this collection of players, without a true superstar, really anything to worry about?

Verdict: Looking less and less likely to be a threat to the Bucks.

Philadelphia 76ersLiberty Ballers

The Sixers are, as currently constructed, a top-heavy roster. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler are all stars (or better), but the depth that propelled last year’s Philly squad to a scorching-hot finish is simply not there anymore, and what depth they do have exists on expiring contracts (JJ Redick, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, etc.) This means that Philly will have loads of cap space (especially if Jimmy Buckets opts out), plus whatever they get out of Zhaire Smith (injured, but planning a debut soon) and Markelle Fultz (whose value has hit rock-bottom and continues to plummet). They haven’t been linked to any of the big-time free agents, but it’s still only February.

There’s a number of players worth making moves for at the immediate deadline (Liberty Ballers has identified Nikola Mirotic, Dewayne Dedmon, and Jrue Holiday as possible targets), but barring the Return of Jrue, it’s looking more and more like the Philly Three-Stars system might have to go down to two, but the upshot is that Simmons and Embiid could have a stronger cast of supporting characters around them. The real question then becomes: without Butler, are Embiid and Simmons enough to carry a roster of role players? Does it matter that one can’t shoot (Embiid is 31.7% from deep on his career) and the other won’t shoot (Simmons has attempted only one more three pointer this season than I have), in the Golden Age of Three-Pointers? And if Butler does come back...he’s going to be 30 next year. Between his max-level deal, Embiid’s current, and Simmons’ future contracts, could Philly be locking themselves into a future that falls short?

Verdict: With the right additions, a moderate threat to the Bucks.

Indiana PacersIndy Cornrows

Victor Oladipo suffered an injury that is as serious as it is poorly-timed, and the Pacers’ short-term ceiling is significantly lower as a result. Things have gotten tough lately, and Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis just aren’t it by themselves. The good news for Indiana is that they have over $40 million in cap space this summer, but while Sabonis is going to need an extension that will hit the following summer, they’ll also need to resolve the future of major contributors like Tyreke Evans, Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Darren Collison. Continuity comes at a price, and with their lone All Star facing a lengthy rehab they may start next season with not much more than “low playoff seed” aspirations.

Then again, with that much space, it’s entirely possible that the Pacers unexpectedly land a major free agent, and after Oladipo returns the Pacers have a shot at a relatively solid core that could man a system-driven team that builds on their already-excellent defense. Indianapolis suffers from the same “small market syndrome” as Milwaukee, but stranger things have happened.

Verdict: Too early to tell, but likely a moderate threat to the Bucks.

Brooklyn NetsNets Daily

Brooklyn is an interesting case. They are a collection of cast-offs and misfits, yet have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA under Kenny Atkinson (a disciple of Budenholzer’s in Atlanta). Allen Crabbe aside, they’re losing a ton of bad salary after this summer, and while D’Angelo Russell will need a new deal, they’ll be well-positioned to bring him back (or not!) alongside Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, and Caris LeVert (who’s working back from that ugly ankle injury).

But here’s the interesting part: with only $54 million on the books for next season, and Manhattan only a borough away, the Nets are very much in contention for one of this summer’s big time free agents. The Knicks (see below) have Madison Square Garden, but the Nets have, you know, an organization that isn’t a dumpster fire. Brooklyn’s reputation has improved, as has their list of future assets, and while none of the big names (Kyrie, Kemba, Durant, etc.) have been explicitly linked to Brooklyn, they’re not to be discounted until names are signed to dotted lines.

Verdict: With the right additions, a strong threat to the Bucks.

New York KnicksPosting and Toasting

Few franchises have taken bigger gambles than the Knicks did this past week. Kristaps Porzingis, the most gifted guy New York has had since Prime Melo, was unceremoniously shipped out after expressing concerns with the direction of the franchise. The cupboard is now bare (save for Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, and some decent draft capital), and all the eggs are in the “max contract offer” basket. Anthony Davis likes New York as a landing spot, so maybe they swing something for him...but it’s unlikely they have enough to legitimately offer, either now or in the summer, for New Orleans to bite.

To me, the immediate future of the Knicks is anything but abject failure if and only if the following thing happen: they win the draft lottery in June, they draft Zion Williamson and Zion lives up to the considerable hype, and they sign two max free agents with the cap space they created for this summer. Long term, there’s reason to remain positive, but the chances of landing Zion (14%) are so low, and the likelihood of attracting the right max free agents (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, or Kemba Walker? Or Nikola Vucevic, DeMarcus Cousins, Khris Middleton, or someone else who just isn’t on that same level?) just isn’t high enough for me to have faith in their long-term viability.

Verdict: Unlikely to become a threat to the Bucks.

Miami HeatHot Hot Hoops

At least through next season, Miami’s alternative name is Salary Cap Hell.

Seriously, what is anybody supposed to do with that? There’s so many player options! None of their players are outright bad, but with such little cap flexibility and an inability to bottom out for draft assets, this team seems primed to wait out its mistakes in the hopes of avoiding making new ones.

Verdict: Unlikely to become a threat to the Bucks.

Charlotte HornetsAt The Hive

The good news: Kemba Walker appears to adore Charlotte, and is a strong bet to re-sign, and Malik Monk and Miles Bridges are exciting prospects at the wing.

The bad news: Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are taking up all their remaining cap space. Until Michael Jordan sorts out how much he’s shelling out for guys who don’t move the needle enough, the Hornets feel destined for a perpetual 0.500 record.

Verdict: Unlikely to be a threat, and they appear to be resisting rebuilding.

Detroit PistonsDetroit Bad Boys

Blake Griffin continues to be very good, albeit not the strongest case for the super-max contract. Unfortunately, Andre Drummond seems to have plateaued, and the money owed to Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway, and Reggie Jackson isn’t going away anytime soon. But you know, if this team just redoubles its effort and focuses on wha–

Man, their owner must be drunk or somethi

Verdict: Unlikely to be a threat, and they appear to be resisting rebuilding.

Washington WizardsBullets Forever

John Wall is the poster child for “when the super-max goes wrong.” Between his health and his motor, he’s looking like $35+ million of sub-optimal salary, and with the $27 million owed each to Otto Porter and Bradley Beal, the Wizards are nowhere near clearing out significant salary cap room because they’re not trading any of the three. They’ve also been freely distributing their second-round picks across the league. Maybe they’ll keep Jeff Green and Markieff Morris around, but ultimately this team’s ceiling looks as low as that of a house in Hobbiton.

Verdict: Unlikely to be a threat, and they appear to be resisting rebuilding.

Orlando MagicOrlando Pinstriped Post

The Magic have been rebuilding for what feels like forever, and their return to relevance feels just as far away. Vucevic is a bright spot, but will be owed a new contract this summer, which will eat up what little cap space Orlando has. Mo Bamba has had an unremarkable rookie campaign, and our good friend John Hammond will still be paying Aaron Gordon, Timofey Mozgov, and Evan Fournier without flipping one of them in a trade. Trader John better have some tricks up his sleeve, because Orlando looks like they need to rebuild their rebuilding plan.

Verdict: Unlikely to be a threat during their rebuild.

Atlanta HawksPeachtree Hoops

At the moment, the Hawks are approaching the point of becoming a blank slate, outside of Trae Young, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter. Kent Bazemore is probably on the move, and Miles Plumlee’s contract will expire eventually. The problem is, Atlanta is infrequently favored by free agents, so unless the Hawks’ front office can strike gold twice or thrice on the margins of free agency, this team’s long-term viability will be determined by the development of their young players.

Verdict: Unlikely to be a threat during their rebuild.

Chicago BullsBlog a Bull

They may as well be the Chicago Youths, because this team is young and only getting younger, and they’re still getting paid like it for now. Assuming Jabari Parker is not retained next season, only Zach LaVine currently has a double-digit cap figure, and the team’s future will be driven by the improvement of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. They’ll probably be pretty good! If only the Chicago front office could get their act together long enough to do something with them.

Verdict: Unlikely to be a threat during their rebuild.

Cleveland CavaliersFear The Sword

LeBron James made the Cavaliers a contender, twice. It’s safe to say he’s not coming back for a third tour, and with an aging Kevin Love as their centerpiece, it’s also safe to say they’re not going to be a particularly strong opponent. Once the contracts of J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson, and Matthew Dellavedova (miss you two!) run out, then they’ll have some serious cap space to work with...but who’s going to go there to play with Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton?

Verdict: Unlikely to be a threat during their rebuild.

So tell me, Bucks fans. Who in the East do you fear? Who has your confidence, if not Milwaukee? What team do you see and think, “man, I don’t know if the Bucks can get past them?” Because I’ll tell you my answer to that question: a resounding “no one!” Things change fast, and you never know what the offseason will bring. But what we do know is this: the Bucks are currently the best team in the NBA, and there’s a pretty strong chance that they maintain that status for a long, long time.