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Brew Hoop Neighborhood Watch: The Reimagined Eastern Conference

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Atlanta Hawks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via 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 updated Eastern Conference and ask how strong of an obstacle they present in the Bucks’ quest to make the NBA Finals.

It’s been a long time since our last Neighborhood Watch meeting, but it’s tough to watch your neighborhood when everybody is encouraged to stay at home and avoid social gatherings. A lot has changed since we took stock of the world around us, both with the Milwaukee Bucks themselves and with their competitors across the conference. With the blockbuster news that finalized the inevitable divorce between James Harden and the Houston Rockets, let’s take a look at the new who’s who on the block.

Milwaukee Bucks

“Know thyself.” As we’ve learned the last two postseasons, the Bucks have been undone not just through the success of others, but also by their own failings. So what have they done to improve the things that they can directly control? As always, The Athletic’s Eric Nehm has the inside scoop on both sides of the ball.

On defense, the Bucks are embracing switching more than ever before, likely due to the presence (and preference) of new guard Jrue Holiday, but also because of their roster construction. In moving down from two Lopezes to one, the Bucks’ have a more mobile frontcourt rotation this year that features Bobby Portis, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, and D.J. Wilson, and their wings are starting to get more comfortable swapping assignments on opponents’ pick-and-rolls that don’t feature a big as the screener. There is plenty of room for improvement on defense, but Milwaukee has already improved their defensive efficiency from 15th overall to 7th overall, pushing them closer to where they want to be. Last night’s test presented by Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks was a challenge, and while there are still plenty of areas to improve, Milwaukee passed that test.

On offense, Milwaukee is doing much more than just hitting shots (2nd overall in 3PT% at 41.1%); they’ve reimagined their offensive philosophy and done away with the 5-out offense that Mike Budenholzer installed two years ago. Instead, the Bucks’ offense relies on filling both wings, both corners, and the “dunker’s spot” near the end line, in order to force defenders to think and make choices. The Athletic went into detail on it, as did ESPN’s Zach Lowe (ESPN+):

[T]hey have tweaked the offense so one player often lurks in the dunker spot along the baseline. At first glance, that clutters Antetokounmpo’s driving lanes. Sometimes, it does.

But it also complicates the opponent’s help rotations in barricading the paint. Lunge off that guy, and Antetokounmpo has an easy drop-off. Defenders guarding Milwaukee’s corner shooters keep one eye on the dunker spot in case they need to rotate there. Such divided attention leads to easy catch-and-shoot 3s.

With three shooters around the arc instead of four, there is more space between them — making each rotation longer.

The new scheme combined with the influx of offensive talent has led the Bucks to new heights on offense, trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers by a slim margin for the league lead. Once their defense catches up, we may be looking at another regular season buzzsaw...but one that has a chance of surviving in the playoffs.

Boston CelticsCelticsBlog

Despite a slow start, Boston surged to the front of the pack before the league’s health and safety protocols forced the postponement of three straight games, giving the Celtics an unexpected break in their schedule. They are getting star-level production out of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker is on the mend. Even with all that in mind, they are statistically underperforming their win percentage, but the COVID shutdowns and low sample size have just as much to do with that as their own deficiencies.

Boston is a team that both already has an identity and still needs to define itself. Tatum is an established All Star and Brown might be on the path to joining him, but what do they get from the rest of their roster? What can they expect from their defense? Marcus Smart is just as reliable as ever, but their statistical performance is way below Boston’s standards thus far. What gives, between last year and now?

With Gordon Hayward slotted in the front court, Boston could switch almost everything. Starting two bigs puts a lot more pressure on the perimeter guys to fight over screens and stay attached to their man. When they don’t, a chain effect is set off that can lead to open shots near the rim or beyond the arc. Compared to last season, opponents are shooting better within five feet of the rim (59.7—>67.0) and on threes (34.0—>36.9).

Barring the use of their trade exception, Boston doesn’t have the personnel to reestablish that defensive identity. Perhaps the return of Romeo Langford and his 6’11’’ wingspan could help, but that’s asking an awful lot of a player with less than 400 minutes of NBA experience.

The best answer might be swapping Theis for Pritchard in the starting lineup and having each of Smart, Brown, and Tatum move down a position. Though the 6’1’’ Pritchard is limited in the range of opponent he can match up against, the same could be said of Kemba and the Celtics managed to make do in those minutes, at least during the regular season.

No matter what, Boston figures to be a top-4 seed by the end of the season. They’re too good, and there just aren’t enough other teams that can limit both Tatum and Brown and avoid getting burned by Walker. However, playoff defenses are far more formidable and Boston hasn’t yet demonstrated that they have the same well-rounded supporting cast as in year’s past. It’s still early, far too early to tell.

Philadelphia 76ersLiberty Ballers

They were in the final round of the James Harden Sweepstakes, but Philly opted to keep Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid together, which Simmons was reportedly “ecstatic” about. It’s hard to blame him, too, because Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers have worked to overhaul the Sixers’ roster, adding Danny Green, Seth Curry, Dwight Howard, and impressive rookie Tyrese Maxey. Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle also remain, giving them a number of options for solving whatever problems are presented to them.

Although improved and more balanced, the Sixers are still limited by Simmons’ limitations, and will continue to work on ways to keep the ball in his hands without stagnating the offense when he can’t get to the rim. One of those ways may be to simply lean on Joel Embiid, who is currently performing at the highest level of his career and is mounting an MVP-caliber season. It’s possible that this is the best version of the Sixers in recent history, but it’s still an open question if they’re good enough.

The current Sixers are good. They shoot well, defend well, and Embiid gives them a chance every night, against anyone. But they’re not title contenders. This roster desperately lacks an elite creator from the perimeter — an element of nearly every Finals team of the modern era. As presently constructed, it will be a dogfight for the Sixers to make it out of the second round (again).

Philadelphia has also dealt with availability issues thanks to health and safety protocols, making it easy to dismiss their inconsistency as a consequence of circumstance. At the same time, they don’t have any one standout area of statistical performance outside of their defensive rating and their pace, and many of their biggest wins have been against overmatched opponents (Charlotte twice, the frisky-but-still-limited Knicks, and a shorthanded Heat team). What’s real about this Sixers team, and what translates to the playoffs? Only time will tell, and time has historically been unkind to Philadelphia since it provides opportunity for Simmons or Embiid to become suddenly unavailable for long stretches. Passing on Harden (or being deliberately kept out) might have been a missed opportunity, depending on how things shake out.

Miami HeatHot Hot Hoops

Underestimate the Miami Heat at your own peril. They have been a thorough disappointment to start the year, and Jimmy Butler made sure everybody knew that they aren’t living up to their own standards. There was open speculation that the Heat were intrigued by the opportunities surrounding the Harden trade, and while Victor Oladipo ended up a Rocket there is no lack of attention in Miami being paid to his potential future.

For Pat Riley and the rest of the Miami Heat, the question now becomes whether the team is interested in trading for Oladipo before the March 25 trade deadline. Oladipo will become a free agent after this season, so the Heat could potentially sign the two-guard outright in the off-season. Even after Miami re-signed Bam Adebayo last year, they still retain the flexibility to have up to $30 million in cap space next summer.

We already mentioned it in the Sixers section, but the Heat have also been limited by COVID, with as many as 8 players unavailable this past week. This test of depth would be a challenge for any team, but Miami simply isn’t answering the call. Their offense is bad. Their defense is bad. They lead the league in turnover rate by a wide margin. Tyler Herro is the team’s leading scorer and while he’s earned his place in the spotlight, he’s still shooting just over 30% from deep and has had a microscope placed over his iffy ball-handling skills. There is much work to be done in South Beach.

This was the case last season, too. Their record in 2019-20 is littered with blowout losses, speaking to the lack of consistency that Miami demonstrated under normal circumstances. The Orlando Bubble, on the other hand, suited them extremely well. It was a more advantageous environment, and they absolutely took advantage of it, and with the NBA attempting to replicate the normalcy we all wish to return (and all the travel that comes with it), Miami looks distinctly mortal as a result. Will that stick, or will the Heat (once again) turn it around just in time to make a mad dash through the playoffs?

Indiana PacersIndy Cornrows

Lingering on the edge of the Eastern Conference contender discussion are the Pacers, who are annually good without ever being considered a threat. Domantas Sabonis is an All Star, and Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner are not too far below that level. Indy capitalized on the Harden circus by swapping the one-foot-out-the-door Oladipo for Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert, who is younger, cheaper, and has more years under team control than the Pacers’ previous lead guard. There will be some growing pains, as Oladipo was playing more off-ball while LeVert was more ball-dominant out of necessity:

Instead of operating as the lead guard for constant straight-on attacks, Oladipo was providing balance to the offense by operating off the ball, flying off of staggers, cutting across picks at the elbows, and engaging in sideline plays with Brogdon and Sabonis forming the other two points of a triangle. Altogether, nearly half of Oladipo’s possessions this season (45 percent) have resulted from spots-ups, cuts, screens, and hand-offs. By comparison, only 22 percent of Caris LeVert’s possessions in Brooklyn have come in the form of off-ball actions. To be fair, however, with Spencer Dinwiddie going down with a torn ACL and Kyrie Irving absent, LeVert has taken on increased responsibility, not only to produce as a starter, averaging 28.5 points and 5.3 assists while hitting 46 percent from the field in four games, but also to serve as an offensive focal point at a time when Kevin Durant was sidelined due to health and safety protocols.

Across the board, Indiana remains a downright solid basketball team. They rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating, and have been remarkably consistent in the early goings with 5 double-digit wins and zero double-digit losses. Even still, the Pacers feel like a high floor/low ceiling team, largely because of their lack of star power. The Bucks have Giannis, the Sixers have Embiid, the Celtics have Tatum, even the Heat have Butler...but who do the Pacers have that can make a credible claim to belong on that level? Even if you take a step down and consider team’s second the Pacers’ best player on the same level as Khris Middleton, Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown, or Bam Adebayo? How far can you expect to get with that level of top-end talent?

Brooklyn NetsNets Daily

Their record is 7-6, but that doesn’t matter anymore. The question that we ended our Indiana section with applies to the Nets, but in a vastly different way. With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and now James Harden headlining Brooklyn’s basketball efforts, how far can you expect to get with that level of top-end talent?

The upside is obvious. The Nets’ Big 3 might be the most talented Big 3 ever assembled on offense, beyond even the Lebron/Wade/Bosh Miami trio. All three players are elite scorers at all three levels of the game, all three are willing playmakers, and all three have a preposterously high level of basketball IQ that they play with. It won’t necessarily work right away, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism:

Diving deeper, Harden broke down the role of facilitating. As to which “Big Three” player will have the ball in their hands, Harden says it will come down to the flow of the game.

“When it comes to facilitating, it depends on the flow of the game. Some nights, I’ll be a facilitator. Some nights, I might get it going and score the ball at a high clip. That is the beauty of being versatile and being able to do more than one thing. Same with Kevin and same with Kyrie. Every night is going to be different.”

The popular critique is “yeah, but what about defense?” There is some merit to this concern, since both Kyrie and Harden have well-deserved reputations as questionable defenders. Furthermore, Kevin Durant is a very good defender but has never been The Guy on defense on any of his teams, and the evaporation of Brooklyn’s depth and removal of any semblance of rim protection (DeAndre Jordan is just not that guy) means that he will have a much larger workload on that side of the ball. Will he be able to maintain his elite level of efficiency while also acting as the Nets’ best defender? It’s not that Durant isn’t capable, just that we haven’t seen him do it before and he’s already 32 with a major Achilles injury in his recent history.

The more serious concern is, oddly enough, on offense, and whether or not the addition of Harden (a historically great offensive player) is going to improve Brooklyn’s already-great offense (114.8 offensive rating, 5th in the NBA) in statistically meaningful ways. Of course he’s a better player than Caris LeVert, and giving Harden the possessions that were going to LeVert is going to be a more effective way to spend possessions. But is the net gain actually worth it? The Athletic’s Danny Leroux noted the possibility of diminishing returns Brooklyn is facing with their new Big 3:

With Durant on the floor, the Nets had an insane 122.4 OffRtg in their non-garbage time minutes that only falls slightly when Durant and Irving shared the floor. Adding Harden clearly makes the minutes the other stars are off the floor much better, but there has to be an upper limit somewhere.

In other words, you can only improve an offense so much once it is performing at a certain level. The Nets are already well above the league average in terms of offensive rating, and are currently 3.2 points behind the league-leading Clippers (118.0). They will probably get better, but to what degree? Numbers are inflated due to the season’s small sample size, though, and it’s expected that these ratings normalize over the course of the regular season. Dallas hold the record for the highest offensive rating in a season ever last year (116.7), which would be behind the Bucks’ rating this year. Perhaps the Nets’ embarrassment of riches will push them so far ahead that they smash that record, and everyone’s conception of what ideal offensive performance looks like. But it is far from guaranteed, especially when one of the Nets’ key players is embroiled in a heretofore controversy of his own creation.

The Eastern Conference is no longer the “junior varsity” of the NBA. The group of top-end teams with legitimate title aspirations goes at least five deep, and as we saw in last year’s playoffs there’s little reason to count out talented teams that underperform in the regular season. Which teams stand out to you? Who presents the Bucks’ biggest challenge to finally getting out of the conference and representing the East in the NBA Finals? Can any of the Eastern contenders go toe-to-toe with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers? Tell us what you think in the comments ahead of Milwaukee’s showdown with Brooklyn on Monday.