Fan’s Choice: Predicting Your 2019 Eastern Conference Champions
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
With LeBron James long gone from the Eastern Conference, we will finally get to see some new faces crowned as the East’s best team. The competition appears to be as good as ever this season, with five teams looking like genuine threats to represent the conference in the 2019 NBA Finals.
Who are these five teams and what are the chances they actually become Eastern Conference Champions? Here is my list, ranked from least to most likely and divided in three categories.
NOT YET THERE, BUT AROUND THE NEIGHBORHOOD
While I consider the Pacers to be the least likely candidate to emerge from the East, I still believe Indiana has a shot. After LeBron gave this franchise more than a handful of headaches during some epic battles as a member of the Heat about five or six years ago, the front office decided it was time to retool the roster (credit Paul George – who gently informed the front office he would be gone in one year’s time – with the assist). Enter Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo became the NBA’s most improved player last season and made an All-Defensive team, solidifying his status as the team’s star. And even though Myles Turner is yet to emerge the Robin to Oladipo’s Batman on any consistent basis, the Pacers have a very deep and talented roster to compete with anyone in the East.
Perhaps the biggest surprise thus far has been how good the Pacers defense is, which has looked good even with their All-NBA defender missing 10 out of the team’s 26 games this season. The Pacers are third in defensive rating (103.7) and hold their opponents to the fifth lowest field goal percentage in the league (44.1). Also, they are third in team steals per game (9.3) and force their opponents to turn the ball over nearly 16 times each contest.
Indiana’s offense has been predictably good, and Oladipo is a big part of this. But Bojan Bogdanovic is having a career year as the second-highest scorer in the team (16.4 PPG) and acts as an excellent floor spacer, currently shooting 49 percent from three-point land on 4-plus attempts a night. Domantas Sabonis has cemented himself as a bonafide sixth-man, and is one of the league leaders in field goal percentage to the tune of 14.3 points per game. Turner looks promising at times and is a nice interior defender, leading the league in blocks.
Darren Collison and Thaddeus Young, meanwhile, are two great veteran presences who still contribute consistently on the court. And Tyreke Evans, Cory Joseph, Kyle O’Quinn, and Doug McDermott make up one of the strongest second units in the league.
Oladipo’s extended absence may hurt the Pacers’ record and their chances to grab one of the top-three seeds and avoid the toughest matchup in the second round. When Indiana is fully healthy, however, the team can be an absolute nightmare on both ends of the floor.
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It is quite tough to rank the Celtics in this category and this low, but they have shown few signs suggesting they are nearly as motivated as they were last season. It is also ridiculous to think about all the struggles the 2018 East runner-ups are having this season even after welcoming back previously injured All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to their lineups.
The tough defense is still there, and Boston is second in defensive rating (103.4). The team allows the lowest field goal percentage in the league (43.6), the second-lowest three-point percentage (32.0), and the fourth-fewest points per game (102.9). Playing at a slower pace than most of the Association has helped the Celtics remain efficient on defense (98.8 pace factor, 22nd in the NBA), but Boston looks lost when other teams control the tempo of the game and push the C’s out of their comfort zone.
The Celtics are still figuring out how to maximize Irving and Hayward on offense when they share the floor; both have proven to be elite scorers in the past. But Boston’s offensive woes have been amplified by the struggling young duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Terry Rozier’s own issues and impending free agency have not helped matters either.
The Celtics take care of the ball – they are third in turnovers per game (12.7) and turnover rate (13.2 percent) – but their lack of aggressiveness has held them back. Clear evidence of the latter is their unwillingness to attack the rim; Boston ranks 29th in free throws attempts per game (19.1).
I am confident Brad Stevens has a couple of tricks under his sleeve and hopefully his squad will be able to turn the tables as the season gets older. But they have not exceeded or even come close to meeting expectations up to this point of the season, and a couple of their embarrassing losses have brought them down in the East’s power rankings.
The Celtics would probably be in this category if it were not for the 76ers adding Jimmy Butler to their roster via trade about a month ago, vaulting the team in the East power rankings.
One of the biggest issues Philadelphia had over the last season and a half was that the team lacked a closer, a true megastar that you can give the ball to in late-game situations and fully trust. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are still too young and have struggled when tasked with game-saving shots. At the end of their most recent close games, it usually was J.J. Redick who took – and to his credit made – game-tying and game-winning shots. That alone underscores how badly the Sixers needed another option.
Even though they traded away arguably their best wing defender and three-point shooter as well as their starting power forward, it looks like Philadelphia’s risk is paying off. We won’t know for sure until the playoffs, and the Sixers still have the better part of five months to figure things out and make Butler and the kids feel truly comfortable playing together.
The Sixers still have serious problems with their spacing. Celtics Twitter rightfully mocks Ben Simmons refusal to shoot from anywhere beyond the paint. It’s how Boston beat the 76ers in last year’s playoffs. Jimmy Butler’s average shooting from deep does not alleviate the issue.
The counter argument is that after twelve games in Philadelphia, Butler is shooting 43 percent from deep on 3.5 attempts per game. It is still too early to say if these figures are sustainable, but the fact that he has shown an improved outside game is a positive by itself. As long as Butler can pull defenders towards him with pump fakes or simply as he gets the ball on a wide-open opportunity, the Sixers will be alright.
The flipside of the coin is that Butler joins two budding superstars and a rotation of capable contributors. Simmons has nightly triple-double upside, and his length makes him a matchup nightmare against any opposing point guard. Joel Embiid, meanwhile, is a 25/10/2 monster who has been getting to the free throw line at will. Embiid is a big reason why the Sixers are second in free throw rate (25.8), as he leads the league in free throw attempts (263) by far, with second place Kevin Durant ranking 53 free throws behind.
J.J Redick might be 34 years old, but he is still one of the top long-range snipers in the game. He has the fourth-most threes this season with 76. The front office is looking for an upgrade at the wing, and they might want to give Trevor Ariza a long look after the Jazz beat them in the Kyle Korver sweepstakes. Markelle Fultz might be an asset enticing enough to get them a decent package in return.
I would certainly not call you insane if you thought the Celtics belong here over the Sixers, but I am mainly taking into consideration the results from this young season only.
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Perhaps the biggest surprise out of the East this year have been the Bucks, as most people did not really know if the team was truly ready to take that next big step. Mike Budenholzer’s off-season arrival was an indication the front office trusted this young roster, and the results have been amazing thus far.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the MVP favorite, delivering dominant performances on a nightly basis. His dreadful three-point shooting percentage (11.9) has not stopped him from jacking up two-and-a-half of those bad-looking boys each game. And Giannis connects on 65 percent of shots inside the three-point arc, good for the fifth best mark in the league.
Also, the Greek Freak can do things like this:
Mike Budenholzer is preaching a pace and space system that allows Milwaukee to take advantage of their youth while providing Giannis with the much-needed spacing he needs to operate. The team is playing with incredible effort, too.
They are second in offensive rating (115.0, just a hair below the Golden State Warriors) and fifth in defensive rating (105.94), both of which are good to yield a league-leading 9.06 net rating. They are also atop the margin of victory leaderboard (9.79).
The Bucks are shooting lights out from three. This forces opponents to stay home on shooters when the Greek Freak threatens to break their defense through the middle of the lane. Heck, even Brook Lopez is making threes at a previously unimaginable rate and happily shooting from Curryland!
Lopez has been another very useful offseason addition. His box score numbers are not eye-popping, but he is a perfect fit on the floor and does some of the little things that help Milwaukee be this dominant. He spaces the floor on the offensive end, and he also does the tough job of boxing out the opposition’s best rebounder on defense, which allows Antetokounmpo to grab some uncontested boards and immediately start the fastbreak.
Lopez is a big part why the Bucks allow opponents to rebound the lowest percentage of their misses (21.5 OREB%). He also has a 3.1 block percentage, right at the 86th percentile mark for bigs. I could go on for hours speaking about how good Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon have also been.
Milwaukee looks like the second biggest threat to win the East this year. If you have not had the opportunity to watch a Bucks game this season, I invite you to do it as soon as you can. You will not regret it.
The Bucks may have the best net rating in the league, but Toronto sits right behind (8.01 NRtg). Big risks can result in bigger rewards, and nobody has been rewarded more than the biggest risk-takers from this past offseason. Not only did Masai Ujiri fire Coach of the Year Dwane Casey after he led the Raptors to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but he also traded away franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for a disgruntled Kawhi Leonard that had shown zero interest in re-signing with the team.
The Raptors play at an average pace (99.8) but have the third-highest efficient field goal percentage in the league (55.3). They are second in points per game, top-four in assists, rebounds, and blocks, top-six in steals and threes made. This team does everything well!
The biggest reason why they have not looked more dominant is they are thinking long-term. They are not only thinking post-All-Star break and late April; they are thinking about late May and June.
The coaching staff and front office have been very careful with Kawhi Leonard, giving him proper rest and holding him out of one game in back-to-back sets. The restrictions have diminished with the season getting older, but it is clear the team is protecting their superstar player from another big time injury, and at the same time, proving they care about him and want him there long-term.
The rotations have been good, the play-calling has been good, the individual performances have been good, the player management has been good, there is not too much we can criticize about this team.
Nobody has more assists in the league than Kyle Lowry, who is playing and defending at a high level; Pascal Siakam has taken a big leap this season, turning himself into a full-time starter and 30-minutes per game, 15-point scorer; Serge Ibaka looks revitalized playing more center; Jonas Valanciunas and OG Anunoby bring energy and toughness off the bench no matter how long they play for. They are arguably the deepest team in the league.
After getting swept by LeBron multiple times in the past, this team’s worst nightmare is gone from the East. They were not content with watching him walk, but they also decided to take action and made some controversial decisions over the summer. All of this has paid off, as the Toronto Raptors have the best record in the NBA and genuinely look Finals-bound for the first time in franchise history.
All statistics courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference.
You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA