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Brew Hoop Neighborhood Watch: Bucks Are The Best, What About The Rest?

Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

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 a look around at the current iteration of the Eastern Conference and ask how anybody who might challenge the Bucks in their quest for a trip to the NBA Finals.

At this point, you might ask yourself why the last two installments of the Neighborhood Watch has focused on the same topic. That topic, of course, is who will take on the challenge of upending Milwaukee, aka the best team in basketball. That’s the price we pay for excellence; there’s only so many questions that we can ask, but at least this time we can ask it a different way.

Each team in the league has hit the halfway mark, meaning either you know what your team is, or you know what your team needs to compete. In the Eastern Conference, the Bucks very much know who they are, and their competition will need to do some reflection between now and the trade deadline if they want to put themselves in position to pull off an upset. There are five teams that can claim a realistic possibility of overcoming Milwaukee and represent the East in the NBA Finals, so we’ll go through and see what we can come up with if we viewed the league through their eyes.

Miami HeatHot Hot Hoops

What are they now?

It’s unfair to discount the Heat as overrated or dub them a phony contender, but there are a few signs that their current standing may not be indicative of their actual ability to contend. Every team has a floor and a ceiling, and it’s fair to argue that Miami has played near theirs. Does that mean they’re really playing over their heads? We’ll see.

Let’s get back to those signs we talked about. Miami is currently second in the East at 30-13, but has a Pythagorean expected W/L of 26-17 (a full four games worse). Four games doesn’t seem like much, but remember that this is only 40 or so games into the season; 10% is not an insignificant number! Moreover, they’re currently 9-4 in games decided by 5 points or less, and a whopping 7-0 in overtime games this season.

The Heat do boast the highest free throw rate in the league (0.301, nearly a full percentage point ahead of the second-place Clippers), indicating that they are well-suited to manufacture points in the playoffs. On the other hand, they also hold both the NBA’s second-best 3PT% (0.376) and the best 3PT% allowed (0.327), and it’s reasonable to state that both metrics are significantly impacted by luck. Having such a large disparity in three-point accuracy is definitely a sign of taking good shots and contesting well on the other end...but it could also be a fluke.

In looking at their roster, it’s a reminder of how competent the Miami Heat organization is. With Eric Spoelstra calling the shots and Pat Riley pulling the strings, the franchise knows how to compete, regardless of the pedigree of their roster. Jimmy Butler is an established star, and Bam Adebayo is a new one. Sharing the court, though, are relatively unproven players like Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. Halfway through, it’s been smooth sailing. Will the waters stay calm through the second half of the season, and what happens if a storm brews in South Beach?

What do they need?

If the rumors of Miami’s predicted falling-off are not exaggerated, my guess is that it comes as a result of their younger contributors hitting a wall. Butler will be fine, and guys like Adebayo, Justise Winslow (when he returns from a lingering back injury), Goran Dragic, and Kelly Olynyk are seasoned enough to prop Miami up in the back-half of the season. That said, Dragic has a well-earned reputation for being injury prone, so if his availability is in question and the Heat’s young backcourt take a step back, help at the guard position may be in order. I would also invest energy in finding a stretch-big to pair with Bam, whose defense and passing has propelled him towards the All Star game in February.

What are the options?

In terms of draft capital, the Heat are somewhat tapped out; they already owe their 2021 and 2023 firsts and a bevy of second round picks from various trades. And while they have a good mix of salaries to work with, two of their bigger ones carry player options for next season (Olynyk at $16.0M, James Johnson at $12.2M), and they’re reportedly not interested in anything that would limit their cap space in 2021.

However, Miami does have options if they decide to go big game hunting at the deadline. Dragic ($19.2M) and Meyers Leonard ($11.3M) provide over 30 million dollars of expiring salary, and Winslow ($13M per year for the next two season, including a team option in 2021-22) is another asset that can sweeten a deal. What’s to say that Pat Riley doesn’t shut down the “sign Giannis in free agency” pipe dream and bring in Chris Paul ($38.5M) to pair with Butler and Bam and make a run now? Alternatively, Paul Millsap ($30.5M, expiring this summer) would be a good fit at power forward, as would Kevin Love ($28.9M, and very interested in leaving Cleveland). These moves would have huge ramifications in the playoffs, should the Heat decide to push their chips in now rather than let things play out themselves.

Toronto RaptorsRaptorsHQ

What are they now?

Kawhi Leonard left after delivering a championship, but he did not leave a vacuum in his wake. Nick Nurse had a succession plan in place, and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka were all ready to do their part and keep Toronto relevant. At 29-14, the Raptors are just a game behind the aforementioned Heat, thanks to the strength of their defense (defensive rating of 104.5, second only to Milwaukee’s 101.5).

Much like Miami, though, Toronto has a large three-point shooting differential working in their favor; they make at the third-highest rate in the league (0.373) while allowing at the third-lowest (0.334). If their luck changes and the tide turns against them, what do they have to fall back on?

What do they need?

So far, Siakam has been that option as a bucket-getter, and while he’s shown growth there it’s not yet a reliable postseason option. We all know how FVV can catch fire from deep, but Ibaka, Gasol, and Lowry are all on the wrong side of 30 and are not renowned for their scoring. Toronto already plays at a league-average pace (100.5) and produces at a league-average rate (offensive rating of 110.3, 15th overall). Things will slow down in the playoffs, which is good since they have a top-flight defense. And while that was absolutely to the Raps’ advantage last year, Leonard isn’t around to bully defenders and get buckets.

On the other hand, the Raptors also need to keep the future in mind. Their franchise cornerstones are aging and will need new contracts this summer, so the Toronto front office has an opportunity to capitalize on any available players that would help them bridge the gap between the Raptors of now and the Raptors of the future. But that’s my own conjecture; it’s hard to know what path the Raptors will actually take.

What are the options?

Toronto has all of their future firsts to play with, but owes their seconds to other teams in 2021, 2022, and 2024. They also have a ton of flexibility and expiring money on their ledger, but they’re almost a lock to hang onto Gasol ($25.6M), Ibaka ($23.3M), and VanVleet ($9M). Norman Powell ($10.1M, under contract for two more seasons including a player option on the final year) has taken on a larger role in the rotation and could be an attractive option to another team, and the Raptors have enough depth on the wing to potentially replace that absence. TJ Warren ($10.8M) or Jeremy Lamb ($10.5M) could be the kind of shot-maker that Toronto could benefit from, but that’s only if Masai Ujiri goes the same hypothetical route as Pat Riley above: give up on any hopes of Giannis in 2021 and be willing to eat into future cap space. As an outside-the-box possibility, the Portland Trail Blazers may be willing to give up Jusuf Nurkic ($12M/year through 2022-23), which would give Toronto a potential succession plan to Ibaka and/or Gasol if either departs after this season...albeit a risky one since Nurkic is still recovering from a leg injury.

Boston CelticsCelticsBlog

What are they now?

Unlike their competition in the East’s second tier, Boston (29-14) benefits from being generally good across the board, rather than excellent at some specific things. On offense, they’re solidly ranked between 10th and 15th in every major per-game counting stat, and on defense they’re a little bit better (a few categories are league-average, but many are top-10). This has led them to be another team that ranks in the top-five in both offensive (112.7, 5th overall) and defensive (105.7, 4th overall) rating.

On the roster, they’re rolling out three 20-point guys every night with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, each of whom is a capable scorer from different levels on the court. They’ve also had two huge developments from last year’s roster: Marcus Smart’s drastic shooting improvements make him far more dependable, and the already-versatile Gordon Hayward finally looks like himself again. This has allowed them to maximize the amount they depend on their stable of bigs (Daniel Theis, who’s underrated, Enes Kanter, who’s adequately rated, and Robert Williams, who’s developing) to make up for the departure of Al Horford.

Boston is very much headed in the right direction. Their biggest opportunity is where the Bucks shine the brightest: consistency. With a pair of 3-game losing streaks in the last few weeks, Brad Stevens and his staff must find ways to stabilize the Celtics if they want to climb further up the ladder.

What do they need?

The Cs have wings galore, and they’ve made their big man depth (between Kanter and Theis) work for what they need. Walker does the heavy lifting at point guard, but Marcus Smart’s talents aren’t as suited for shot-creation when Kemba sits. He’s had a great season thus far, but I’d feel better if Brad Wanamaker wasn’t my only other main option at the 1. They also could look into consolidating their big man rotation in preparation for the playoffs; Theis and Kanter offer different skill sets and neither is perfectly suited for playing big minutes. They’re also neither particularly imposing rim protectors (Kanter especially), and Robert Williams just isn’t ready to be that guy yet.

What are the options?

Boston does not have many contracts to work with for the purposes of aggregating salary; everyone after their top five players (guys they almost assuredly won’t move) makes $5M or less. Additionally, they simply have no expiring deals outside of Wanamaker ($1.4M). That makes it tougher to see what impact players (if any) they might target at the deadline. However, they do have a pair of inbound firsts for 2020 (Memphis and Milwaukee), and another pair of 2020 seconds (Atlanta and Brooklyn), which is a valuable trove of assets even though they’re sending out their own second.

Boston also has three guys outside of Tatum and Brown that are on their rookie scale deals (Williams, Grant Williams, and Romeo Langford). The influx of draft picks and number of young players almost guarantees that Danny Ainge has to make a deal, if only to keep under the roster limit for next season. Picks and young players are the sort of assets that bad teams send away talented players for, and Boston could pick up a rotation player or two if they wanted. Derrick Rose ($7.3M) could be a valuable bench guard for the Celtics; and ditto for Ish Smith ($5.8M) from the Wizards. Davis Bertans ($7.0M) might not fill an obvious need, but may have the type of impact the Bucks wanted from Nikola Mirotic last year: make an already good team more dangerous from deep.

Indiana PacersIndy Cornrows

What are they now?

Every season there’s a team that exceeds expectations, and it feels like the Indiana Pacers are nearly always that team. At 29-16, Indy is successful in part because they protect the ball (fifth-best Turnover Percentage at 11.7%, and they cough up a league-low 6.5 steals per game) and make their shots (fourth-best FG% at 0.473, seventh-best 3PT% at 0.368). More important than that, though, is their defense, because they defend well on both twos (50.7% allowed, 9th overall) and threes (33.7% allowed, 6th overall). And with a snail’s pace (98.2, fifth-slowest in the NBA), they’re well-suited to transition into playoff basketball.

What’s more impressive is that Indiana has pulled this off without All Star guard Victor Oladipo, who will return from a quad injury before the end of January. Former Buck Malcolm Brogdon has put up a season worthy of All Star consideration himself, and both Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis have figured out a way to coexist, further driving the Pacers’ success.

What do they need?

The Pacers are well-suited to play their game at their pace and push their opponent into an uncomfortable position, but the lack of top-end talent is more glaring here than anywhere else at this level of the East. Miami has Jimmy, Boston has Kemba, Philly has Embiid and Simmons, and even Toronto has Siakam. Oladipo will be a contributor once he regains his sea legs, but until proven otherwise he’s a tier below those guys, as is Brogdon.

It will be a group effort to pull off an upset against anybody, and it would help that effort to shore up the Pacers’ rebounding. At 43.1 total boards per game, the Pacers rank 24th in the league, and they actually give up more rebounds than they control (44.9 per game, nearly 2 boards below their own mark). Some of this is due to a league-low three-point attempt rate (only 0.308), but they also have relatively weak rebounders with their two main bigs playing further from the basket and since the departures of Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young. Indiana would also accept help attacking the basket, since they also rank dead-last in free throw rate (0.214), in no small part because they rank third in shot attempts both from 10-16 feet (12.3%) and 16 feet to the three-point line (12.2%).

What are the options?

Indiana owes their 2020 first to Milwaukee and their 2020 second to Brooklyn, limiting their ability to add notable assets to trade offers. They have a few incoming future second rounders to offset some future seconds they’re sending out, but a lot of what they have to work with is salary. TJ Warren ($10.8M) and Jeremy Lamb ($10.5M) give them some large chunks to work with, and Doug McDermott ($7.3M) adds more flexibility. Danilo Gallinari ($22.6M, expiring this summer) might be worth a look for his shooting. Aaron Gordon ($19.8M) might be an impactful athlete worth adding in the front court, though his presence would add unpredictability to the Turner-Sabonis dynamic. There’s no clear target that would jump the Pacers up a peg (without including one of Turner or Sabonis, or even Oladipo or Brogdon), but the Pacers have a few different options they could pursue.

Philadelphia 76ersLiberty Ballers

What are they now?

Ah, the Sixers. At 29-17, they’re currently holding the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, despite numerous predictions that they should be the favorite to make good on the upset and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals. You just hate to see it.

In all seriousness, the Sixers’ struggles are not a huge surprise given how they chose to build their roster. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in the fold, their best path forward was always to surround talent with more talent and just see what happens, conventional wisdom be damned. Trouble is, their salary structure limited the kinds of talent they could add, which is how the Sixers’ two All Star-level guys are flanked by an aging Al Horford, an expensive Tobias Harris, and a relatively-untested Josh Richardson.

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. That’s a talented five-man unit! There’s a lot to like there, in theory! But when Brett Brown is forced to go to his bench, he’s working with Furkhan Korkmaz, Mike Scott, rookie Mattisse Thybulle...and that’s really about it. Sure, the Sixers have a successful defense based on the raw talent of their contributors (defensive rating of 105.8, 5th overall), and they’re allowing the fewest threes per game (28.0) and are the NBA’s most accomplished rebounding team (4th in defensive boards, 1st in offensive, 1st overall). But they depend mightily on that defense to grind out wins; with an offensive rating of 109.1, they’re a fair ways behind league average.

And to top everything off, we’ve been discussing what the Sixers are with the assumption that everyone is available, whereas in reality Joel Embiid has been out since early January (hand surgery) and Josh Richardson just suffered a hamstring injury, further thinning out the already top-heavy Philadelphia squad and undermining their quest for home court anytime in the playoffs...which they could really use (9-15 on the road thus far, compared to 20-2 at home).

What do they need?

The obvious answer is “depth,” since the Sixers are currently facing an unknown stretch of time without two starters (including their All-NBA center). But Philadelphia always needed depth across the board, since the lower-half of their roster is comprised mostly of unproven youngsters and replacement-level journeymen. They also need shooting, since both Embiid (32.2% this year) and Horford (31.1% this year) maybe shouldn’t, Simmons won’t (career 3PAr of 0.9%...and no that isn’t a typo, 22 threes attempted out of 2,456 career field goals).

They would also benefit from an upgrade in their backcourt in terms of ball-handling. Simmons dominates possessions (as he should!) when Embiid sits, and vice versa (which is also correct!) However, opponents are able to see these things coming a mile away, and the Sixers’ offensive diversity would benefit if Simmons could be a roll-man more than once in a blue moon.

What are the options?

There’s not a ton to work with here, salary-wise. Their starting lineup takes up nearly $105M, and Simmons ($8.1M) is still on his rookie deal; his extension kicks in next season. Richardson ($10.1M) is a decent size for a deal, but he’s too important to their current playoff hopes. Their next largest salary? Mike Scott, at $4.8M. Their 2020 first is owed to Brooklyn, but they own OKC’s 2020 pick. They also have 2020 second rounders from Atlanta, New York, and Dallas, plus a fair number of future seconds in 2021 and beyond. There’s assets here, but just not the salary for any major impact players. Maybe the aforementioned Ish Smith ($5.8M) would be helpful, or the Phoenix Suns pull the ripcord and ship out Aron Baynes ($5.5M) in return for assets. Beyond’s tough to see what would move the needle for the Sixers.

...unless they considered moving Al Horford ($28.0M, under contract for 3 more seasons with a partial guarantee on the final year). This would be a massive gamble, since Big Al was the big acquisition in free agency, and at 33 years old there’s few teams that want to pay him until he’s 36, especially not for a player that would be a huge help to Philly now...

...except maybe Chris Paul.

Paul is already 34, and carries a cap hit of $38.5M this season, making the salaries difficult to line up. But Philly could get there by combining Horford, Zhaire Smith, and Mike Scott (with additional filler), either directly or with a third team facilitating, and the Sixers have a large number of picks that could be used to grease the skids. Sure, CP3 getting paid $40+ million next year and the year after isn’t ideal, but neither is paying Al Horford $30+ million, and Paul would assuredly move the needle in what would be a high-risk/high-reward move by Sixers GM Elton Brand.

Back when we last looked at each of these teams, 87% of readers thought that the Bucks should be the favorite to make it out of the East. Imagine that, a Bucks fan blog overwhelmingly supporting the Bucks? The important thing is: do you still think their chances are so good? Are the Bucks truly inevitable, or can someone knock them off if they play the right cards? Let us know in the poll, and the comments, and let’s see who takes our advice!


Who could be most likely to best Milwaukee in the playoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Miami Heat
    (12 votes)
  • 8%
    Toronto Raptors
    (13 votes)
  • 18%
    Boston Celtics
    (28 votes)
  • 1%
    Indiana Pacers
    (2 votes)
  • 60%
    Philadelphia 76ers
    (91 votes)
  • 2%
    Someone else (tell us in the comments!)
    (4 votes)
150 votes total Vote Now