Takes After the Break: The State of the NBA Eastern Conference

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Photo Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The greatest NBA All-Star Weekend in recent memory has come to a close. The dunk contest gave us the greatest two-man show since 2016 (Aaron Gordon was robbed. sorry.). Bam Adebayo pulled a Larry Bird and predicted his skills challenge victory. Buddy Hield is the new three-point champ and the Rising Stars challenge was the most star-studded version of the event in recent history with two all-stars playing in the game. The new format for the main event was a success because the players actually cared about the result. 

Now that the weekend is behind us, teams will look ahead to the rest of the season and gear up for what should be one of the most competitive postseasons in recent memory. We will start with the Eastern Conference and talk about the themes I will be looking at during the race to the playoffs.

Take Your Pick: The Milwaukee Bucks or the Field? 

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Photo Credit: Dan Garcia

This is the year that the road to the NBA finals is “wide open” after the demise of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty. Kawhi Leonard brought a championship to Toronto and took off, one of many elite level players who changed scenery and teamed up with other stars in hopes of being in the mix later into the playoffs.

Milwaukee made the bold decision to let Malcolm Brogdon walk in free agency. Losing a player that provides all-star level production on both ends of the floor raised questions about if the Bucks would actually be worse this year after another playoff disappointment in 2019.

If the NBA is wide open no one told Giannis Antetokounmpo and the rest of this roster. They have the best record in the league and lead the league in net rating by a comfortable distance. They play real defense and have surrounded their MVP with the perfect roster of shooters to compliment his play style. The scary part is how they are sleepwalking through games with Giannis rarely playing past 30 minutes a night.

It is hard to imagine another team in the East I would take over the Bucks in a seven-game series. The combination of Giannis’s unique gifts and their complementary parts requires a great amount of size to even think about competing with them. The Philadelphia 76ers laid the blueprint on Christmas when they shrunk the floor and forced Giannis to shoot, but they also set a franchise record for threes made in that game. I doubt they have the offensive continuity to overcome that hurdle four times in a week and a half. Toronto may have a shot, but we have to see how Pascal Siakam does when the lights are at their brightest and he’s the number one guy on the scouting report.

I don’t think the Bucks necessarily lose out on Giannis if they don’t make the Finals as they are set up for the long haul and can offer much more money than everyone else. They believe this is their year though and if they stay healthy it should be a Finals appearance at minimum.

What does the future hold for the 76ers? 

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

Philadelphia is the most confusing team in the NBA. This team has a penchant for winning big games and then suffering head-scratching losses two days later.

This team is certainly built for the playoffs on paper. They are gigantic and play real defense with an ability to dominate the glass. Defense and rebounds will keep them in games and they are too talented to lose in the first round. The problem is that this team has championship aspirations and their offense cannot dry out if they hope to reach that goal.

The dynamic between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid has been discussed ad nauseum and for good reason. If the 76ers suffer another early exit should they look to break it up? They have been understandably reluctant to explore the possibility of moving one of their two stars because of the immense potential that both have, but the fit is just awkward. Ben Simmons refuses to take a jump shot which allows defenses to gum up the paint. They often play him in the dunker’s spot just outside of the paint so he can score, but that creates spacing issues for Embiid who likes to operate on the low block.

Russell Westbrook’s success in Houston is something that the 76ers should consider if things don’t work out this season. The Rockets dealt Clint Capela and opened the lane for Westbrook who is now playing the most efficient basketball of his career. Parting with Embiid would bring a great package back that Philadelphia could use to build a roster that better cater to the talents of Simmons. Embiid’s health is an ongoing concern and moving him sooner than later might be wise if they fail to reach the Eastern Conference finals.

Will Pascal Siakam Be Able to Elevate From All-Star to Superstar?

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Photo Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast-Associated Press

No one expected the Toronto Raptors to be this good after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the offseason. The defending champs were expected to be scrappy because of the depth that they had last season. Scrappy is cool but 2nd in the East and winners of 15 of their last 16 games show that the Raptors have no plans to be a feel-good story of overachievers.

The question was if Pascal Siakam would be prepared to take on the role of lead dog and still produce a high level. Siakam has since become one of the best two-way players in the NBA and was a starter in his first-ever All-Star game. Siakam is up to 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists for the team with the third-best record in the league. He has committed to improving his range and has become a relentless, high-IQ offensive weapon.

The Raptors will enter the playoffs needing Siakam to elevate his game even higher if they are going to make a deep playoff run. After a blazing hot start, he cooled off somewhat as teams honed in on his offensive weaknesses. He will see plenty of double teams that will test his decision making which should see the assist totals rise as he improves. He is shooting 64% at the rim this season after hitting the 70% mark in the previous two. In must-score situations late he will need to get cleaner looks at the basket. All of these issues are par for the course with a player that has to adjust to increased attention. If Pascal continues to get sharper quickly the Raptors may have the best chance to knock off the Bucks and get another shot at an NBA title.

 

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