Big Facts or Fake News: NBA Eastern Conference Preseason Edition

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After a wild NBA offseason that included massive player movement, the Eastern Conference indeed received a makeover. The Toronto Raptors watched as their Finals MVP (Kawhi Leonard) took his talents to Los Angeles, while the Brooklyn Nets added two All-NBA players (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving). The Boston Celtics lost one All-Star point guard (Irving) and added another (Kemba Walker), all the while losing their defensive anchor (Al Horford) to the Philadelphia 76ers. It can be difficult to predict the success or demise of any team prior to them playing any regular-season games. That’s why it’s up to our stellar panel of two, Justin Kirkland and Felix John-Baptiste, to validate the Big Facts and discredit the Fake News.

1. The Philadelphia 76ers will make the NBA Finals.

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BILL STREICHER/USA TODAY SPORTS

Kirkland: Fake News. The Eastern Conference’s fate will hinge on how well Giannis Antetokounmpo adjusts to shrinking floors in the playoffs. The reigning-MVP went from 27% from behind the arc during the regular season to 32% in the postseason. Neither number is impressive but a few more percentage points would be enough to make Giannis easily the best player in the league. The Bucks don’t need him to be a sniper. All-Star Khris Middleton returns alongside Brook Lopez who has transformed himself into an invaluable floor stretcher late in his career. Milwaukee also brought in Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver to bolster a roster that saw their 3-point shooting and scoring around Giannis suffer in the postseason. The Greek Freak is known for his work ethic and I have no doubt that he will figure out how to be at least respectable from beyond the arc. If that is the case, the Bucks should be favored.

John-Baptiste: Fake News. The Sixers will for sure be one of the Eastern Conference favorites to make the NBA Finals, but they won’t be a lock. So long as the Milwaukee Bucks continue to improve on their yearly ascension, they should be right back in contention. What the Sixers boast, is potentially the tallest defensive lineup, that could throw Giannis Antetokounmpo off-kilter. With Jimmy Butler gone and Al Horford joining the crew, we can expect to see more ball movement and a balanced attack. The two biggest questions: How many games do we expect to see Embiid fully healthy, and will Ben Simmons take and make outside shots?

2. The Miami Heat will eventually pull the trigger on a Chris Paul trade.

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Kirkland: Fake News. At least it should be. Pat Riley is known for making big moves to prioritize winning. Slow rebuilds are not exactly in his wheelhouse and this season doesn’t sound like it will be any different. 

“I’m not going to give any kind of dissertation on what hypothetically this season is going to be like, except that we want to win, and we want to win big,” Riley said.

The issue with Chris Paul’s $124 million, 3-year contract is that a deal to acquire him would rob Miami of both youth and flexibility headed into some exciting free agency years ahead. Miami would only make this move if they feel they are already competitive and would just need the aging Paul to push them over the top. Jimmy Butler will be the star and no doubt will be eager for a serious playoff push. I just don’t know that Chris Paul has enough left in the tank to justify removing the franchise from major contention for a younger star in a time of increasing parity for the NBA.

John-Baptiste: Big Facts. OK, I must admit I tend to lust after ‘big name’ deals. However, Pat Riley hasn’t seemed to love the idea of a full rebuild since the post-LeBron James era in Miami. They’ve at least attempted to remain competitive by making the postseason in two of the five years since James left.

This is Jimmy Butler’s team now, and we saw in Minnesota how he feels about teammates who don’t play hard enough:

Chris Paul is just the ‘dog’ Butler needs as his sidekick to know there’s someone else who doesn’t back down from a challenge. Of course, the salary cap implications would make it difficult to get a deal done. But with an interested third team getting involved, it could benefit all participating parties. I mean, do we really see Paul playing out an entire year in OKC? I don’t.

3. The Toronto Raptors will be a borderline playoff team after the loss of Kawhi Leonard.

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Kirkland: Big Facts. The key to the Raptors’ chances this season will be how well Pascal Siakam adjusts to being the name at the top of the scouting report. Kyle Lowry is 34. Marc Gasol is 34. Serge Ibaka is 30. The margin for error for this team will be slim with many of their core getting long in the tooth. Siakam could see growing pains in his first year as a primary option while Lowry will return to being the second option, a role he struggled with in big moments in the pre-Kawhi era. 

There are a few questions about the depth behind their main cogs as well. OG Anunoby showed flashes of being a 3 and D stud before sickness and injuries robbed him of much of the 2019 campaign. The jury is still out on Norman Powell as a starter as well. The Raptors picked up two high-upside prospects in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Will the two begin to realize their potential in Toronto?

The Raptors will make the playoffs in the weaker Eastern Conference but I see them more as 6-8 than the middle of the pack.

John-Baptiste: Fake News. The Raptors went 17-5 last season when Leonard was out of the lineup. That included a spotless 13-0 record against non-playoff teams. Let’s say we count the Bucks, Celtics, and Sixers as the most complete teams in the East, that leaves five more spots for potential teams to join the fray. The Nets are without Kevin Durant, and the Pacers will be without Oladipo for some time to kick-off the season. The question marks surrounding the teams below the presumable “top 3” are more than enough to count the Raptors in. That is unless they decide to go in a different direction midway through the season.

4. Markelle Fultz will take a big step forward and win the Most Improved Player of the Year award.

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Kirkland: Fake news. The bar is relatively low for Fultz to be in the running for this award. After his much-publicized shooting/shoulder issues, even slightly above average production will put him on the shortlist. However, there are strong candidates for this award that at least proved that they could play at an above-average level and missed time or had lesser opportunity last year. Dejounte Murray, Lonzo Ball, and OG Anunoby come to mind for injuries, while emerging studs like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will have more ample opportunity to take matters into their own hands. Fultz will hopefully be getting his first full-season load of NBA action this season and that in itself will be a steep enough challenge. Bright times ahead but I don’t think this year will pop. 

John-Baptiste: Big Facts. My biggest concern for Fultz is his expected playing time and shot opportunities. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic (in no order) are the clear cut first and second scoring options on the team. With Terrence Ross coming off the bench as a heat check guy, it’s tough to gauge how many times Fultz will be able to call his own number.

Nevertheless, the pressure is much less on him now than it was in Philadelphia. By no means is he expected to be the missing piece to an Orlando Magic Finals run. By virtue of being let loose, the ball is in his court. Expect to see his hard work show itself.

5. The Brooklyn Nets will be a top 3 team in the East.

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Nicole Sweet/USA TODAY Sports

Kirkland: Big Facts. After finishing with the 6 seed last year the Nets are better this season on paper even with Kevin Durant on the shelf for (what should be) a whole season. Kyrie Irving admitted during Nets media day that he should carry a portion of the blame from Boston’s surprising regression last season. 

“A lot of the battles I thought I could battle through in the team environment, I just wasn’t ready for. And I failed those guys in a sense that I didn’t give them everything I could have during that season. … My relationships with them personally were great, but in terms of me being a leader in that environment and bringing everyone together, I failed.”

Irving knows that without Kevin Durant this could be his last time to prove that he does have that all-important leadership gene required of the game’s superstars. He also will have the talent around him to flourish. When healthy, Caris LeVert plays at an all-star level and Spencer Dinwiddie will challenge for 6th man of the year for much of his prime if he remains a reserve. Irving is a better player than De’Angelo Russel and the addition of DeAndre Jordan will give Brooklyn an extra body to throw at Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo in big games. Outside of Milwaukee and Philadelphia, there is no reason to believe any team in the East is definitively better than Brooklyn right now. I’ll take a motivated Kyrie Irving to lead a healthy Nets roster to the 4th seed at worst.

John-Baptiste: Fake News. The Bucks and Sixers should have the top two spots locked down. While the third spot isn’t locked, I’d be much more comfortable handing it to the Celtics over the course of the regular season.

A top 4 spot isn’t out the realm of possibility for the Nets, however, and they will likely be battling that out with the likes of the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Like the West in years past, the East should be competitive from seeds 4-8.

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