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Neighborhood Watch: When the (Eastern) Dust Settles

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Chaos is the rule, not the exception

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s Note: This piece will be running in place of my usual MMMR. The sheer lack of Bucks news made the pickings slim and the gravity of moves made by other teams needed addressing. If you really need your Social Media fix, may I suggest Robin Lopez’s Twitter?


I’ve been putting off this exercise for a few days now in breathless anticipation of what decision Kawhi Leonard would make in deciding his free agent destiny. Now, with all four Clippers fans giddy, Paul George on his way to LA, and the Lakers and Raptors left with shattered hopes, the final large free agency domino has fallen.

Amid the chaos the Milwaukee Bucks have emerged with their Eastern Conference Finals squad largely intact though at a higher price point. While the maxim of “adapt or die” holds much weight in the modern NBA there is something to be said of not fixing something that isn’t broken. For GM Jon Horst the lesson of last season wasn’t that the Bucks lacked the talent to win the whole dang thing, rather an acknowledgement that a perfect confluence of outside events combined to derail a dream season.

With that in mind Horst made the bet that Milwaukee could stand relatively pat and watch the other Eastern Conference contenders dissolve around them. As of publication that wager seems to have paid off in a big way.

For today’s “Neighborhood Watch” we’ll be taking stock of the ravages free agency has laid waste to the rosters of Milwaukee’s fellow Eastern Conference contenders. Many may have once been pretenders to the crown, but the list of realistic aspirants looks a whole lot shorter today than it did a week ago.

Toronto Raptors

Roster: Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher, Malcolm Miller

Catchphrase: Championships are forever

This was always the risk the Toronto Raptors were going to run having brought in Kawhi Leonard with only a year left on his contract. But, with NBA championship in hand I think the downside risk will feel like a blip on the radar.

The most interesting question facing Raptors GM Masai Ujiri is just what to do with a roster of solid veterans without the likes of Leonard available to stand in as a do-it-all reinforcement on both ends of the floor. Kyle Lowry is another year older, but his breakthrough in the playoffs vindicated the years spent with him at the helm — at age 33 it’d be a big ask for him to increase his production beyond the 16.2 points and 6.9 assists of two seasons ago, though Pascal Siakam’s growth should help lessen the burden.

That which afflicts Lowry runs pretty much the same up and down the roster: Marc Gasol is back after exercising a player option for $25 million, Serge Ibaka bounced back from a slow start to last year, and we’re just about reaching the moment when Fred VanVleet will come of his 150% shooting mark from three and turn back into a (relative) pumpkin.

Just how far Toronto go depends on how committed the team is philosophically to the pursuit of one more shot at post-season noise. Ujiri has never been afraid to tear down something of sentimental value, so don’t be surprised to see the Raptors offloading everything not named Siakam in pursuit of a reset.

Philadelphia 76ers

Roster: Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle, James Ennis, Jonah Bolden, Kyle O’Quinn, Raul Neto, Shake Milton

Catchphrase: Has Ben Simmons Made a Three Yet?

Ah yes, our good friends the Philadelphia 76ers. The team that a season ago, by the factually unassailable reality that is the NBA transitive property, was just a Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater away from becoming champions.

Whatever.

Despite my dismissive attitude, there is every chance the Sixers put together a top-heavy roster that is so talented at the summit as to be undeniable when it matters most. Everyone already knows the sometimes dynamic duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, of course. Both are capable of grabbing games by the throat and bending them to their physical will, yet both are also flawed talents. For Simmons it will forever and always be his reticence to even fake an offensive game beyond 10 feet from the basket that drives doubts of his viability. And for Embiid? Simple: Health.

To offset those issues Sixers GM Elton Brand found a way to ship Jimmy Butler (and his high usage rate/on-ball demands) to Miami in exchange for Josh Richardson and signed Al Horford to a four year deal worth $109 million. Zhaire Smith is coming off of what was essentially a lost rookie season, Matisse Thybulle could be a defensive nightmare from the jump, and Kyle O’Quinn/Raul Neto also joined at minimums to round out the roster.

A few observations: This team can be good to great on defense, I have no clue how they’re going to score with any level of reliability, and this is a length-heavy group. The outlines of something deadly are there especially if Joel Embiid gets regular nights off thanks to the presence of Al Horford. Add in even more Ben Simmons touches instead of deferring to the likes of Butler and things get even more complicated for opponents.

There’s every chance we’re looking at Milwaukee’s sole peer atop the East in Philly. Good luck to them, because they’re going to need it.

Boston Celtics

Roster: Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, Guerschon Yabusele, Robert Williams, Semi “Giannis Stopper” Ojeleye, Tacko Fall, Vincent Porier

Catchphrase: It’s a round world again

It isn’t often that a team loses two contributing players with 11 combined All-Star appearances and yet still feel... fine?

Kyrie Irving took the marching order the Bucks handed him and shipped out to the Brooklyn Nets and the offer Boston made Al Horford was so low as to not be worth negotiating. To make up for these blunders Celtics GM Danny Ainee snagged Kemba Walker on a max deal and Enes Kanter on a two-year, $10 million deal.

And maybe that isn’t all that bad. The levels of weird with Irving in the locker room violently ebbed and flowed last year before the team shattered against the Bucks. Young talent like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum won’t have complete run of the place, but the promising days of 2017-2018 where both seemed to have limitless potential may get a re-run. Walker is an undoubted talent whose shooting off of picks gave Milwaukee’s drop scheme fits and Kanter can both rebound and score inside.

The downsides still seem hard to ignore, though. Gordon Hayward never really put it together and has $32 million coming his way to be a ninth option. Tatum and Brown don’t look nearly as destined for greatness with another year under their belts. And there’s every possibility that the Bucks will decimate Boston’s defense given this tandem:

As the Celtics taper back off to the East’s also-rans, the experience of the years since the swindling of the Brooklyn Nets will be remembered not as the start of another Boston dynasty, but instead as a reminder of how fickle success can be. They’ll make some noise in a shallow Eastern Conference and probably not much more than that.

Indiana Pacers

Roster: Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, TJ Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Domantas Sabonis, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, TJ Leaf, Aaron Holiday, CJ Wilcox, Alize Johnson, Jakeenan Gant

Catchphrase: Holding on for dear life until January

Victor Oladipo’s rise from capable player to genuine star was one of the league’s best stories in 2017-2018 and he was well on his way to solidifying his status in 2018-2019.

Then the injury happened and Indiana’s season was effectively over.

A valiant fight against the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs saw Indiana falter with no reliable offensive creator. Between that and a timetable that won’t see Oladipo returning until December or January you wouldn’t begrudge GM Kevin Pritchard for sitting free agency out and standing pat.

As Bucks fans found out, Pritchard don’t play that game. He swapped out Thaddeus Young, Tyreke Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Wes Matthews, and Cory Joseph with our very own Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, TJ Warren, and TJ McConnell. Questions about just how well that grouping will mesh with the likes of Turner and Sabonis are valid. Still you have to applaud the organization for refusing to give in before the games even start.

Once Oladipo comes back into the fold how far Indiana goes shall depend on how well they do in distributing the ball to numerous players who function best with it in their hands. There is no obvious initiator, there is no clear secondary playmaker, and depth could be a concern. For Bucks fans the most relevant reason to tune into Pacers games is to see how Malcolm Brogdon does in his second NBA home. Hopefully he doesn’t get a chance to burn us with a three in a critical moment.

Brooklyn Nets

Roster: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Joe Harris, Garrett Temple, Taurean Prince, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Dzanan Musa, Rodions Kurucs, Wilson Chandler, Nicolas Claxton

Catchphrase: What’s a Knick?

Now we’re really getting to the bottom of the barrel, and that’s not even a shot at the stunning accomplishment the Nets have made as an organization. It was a deep trip into the wilderness for this team, one that felt like it would never end. Somehow, someway they projected enough competence to be the desirable organization in New York City.

Obviously there is no plan to waste a year of Irving’s prime even with any true hopes of contention capped by the reality that Durant will be simply healing and watching from the sidelines. For all the constraints placed on roster construction due to the murderous trade with the Celtics years ago Brooklyn assembled a bevy of useful players that will now be the supporting cast in the latest iteration of the Kyrie Show.

Will it be enough to matter in the end? We’re fresh off a prime example of how far a Kyrie-led team can get against upper level competition. The young(er) guys like Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince, and Jarrett Allen should push the ceiling for this zombie Nets team higher and could be dangled in trades to strengthen the squad for KD’s return.

It’ll be a strange couple of months in Brooklyn without the possibility for much fruit to be borne, but it’s a gigantic upgrade over the hellscape the franchise ventured through for many years. Welcome back to relevancy, Nets.

Everyone Else

Roster: John Hammond’s Wingspan Angels, South Beach Jimmy, Blake Griffin and Thon Maker’s Vengeance, Haha the Bulls

Catchphrase: Just here to have fun

The NBA looks ready to be simultaneously as wide-open as ever and with all the real action set to happen out west. Once you get past Milwaukee and Philadelphia the Eastern Conference could go in a number of directions and who you have slated in the playoff picture largely depends on your personal feelings on the amalgamation of talent elsewhere.

If anything, the middle-to-bottom of the East will be interesting just to see which teams end up moving the established players they have on the roster to those teams participating in a playoffs arms race.

All in all Milwaukee’s path to the Finals looks as open as you could ever imagine it’d be when their season ended at the hands of the Raptors. Things change, as do destinies, but after this edition of the Neighborhood Watch I’m feeling pretty good at the Bucks chances at a Finals berth in 2019-2020.