So, who will prevail in the Eastern Conference?
This is a complex question because the top three teams are all capable of reaching the NBA Finals, but all three also have their issues. Meanwhile, the rest of the East shouldn’t be overlooked.
For the first time in years, all four first-round playoff matchups should carry intrigue. What about Charlotte? The Hornets could be the eighth seed with LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward coming back healthy for the postseason.
The Heat have underachieved all season but are the defending conference champions with most of the same core plus Victor Oladipo. The Hawks have soared since Nate McMillan took over as coach and cannot be overlooked with Trae Young and John Collins along with a healthy Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari.
The Knicks are rugged with Julius Randle leading the way and a bunch of players with something to prove after being discarded by other teams. The Knicks recently won nine consecutive games and could claim home-court advantage in the first round.
And there’s the Celtics, on the list for most disappointing team in the NBA but still with enough talent in the starting lineup to make any opponent feel uncomfortable. The key for the Celtics is good health with Kemba Walker nursing injuries and Evan Fournier still affected by the coronavirus.
There is no flawless team in this bunch. The Nets’ only issue has been health. When Kevin Durant plays Kyrie Irving has been out, or when James Harden plays Durant has been out. The Big Three have played seven games together, and Harden remains out indefinitely with hamstring issues.
That means the Nets are going to have to use a first-round series to develop chemistry between the stars and their teammates. That’s a difficult task, but the trip is so offensively dominant, it should not be an issue. The Nets are the favorites.
The 76ers have played well all season. Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate. Ben Simmons is a Defensive Player of the Year favorite, but again, it means nothing until they can win a tough playoff series. They were swept by the Celtics in the bubble last season and lost an excruciating seven-game series to the Raptors in 2019. But have the 76ers learned from the past? They were just blasted in two games at Milwaukee and they will need Tobias Harris and Danny Green to be better in the playoffs.
As for the Bucks, they seem to have all the tools but have taken some bizarre losses, such as Thursday when they allowed 50 points to Kevin Porter Jr. and lost to the downtrodden Rockets. And that was with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks have the offense to win a championship, and the addition of Jrue Holiday is the difference between this edition and last year. The question is whether Holiday and Khris Middleton can score enough when Antetokounmpo is limited by defenses.
The rest of the East is a few steps behind the top three, but any of the clubs could pull off a first-round upset. But for their talent and how smoothly they have looked with their Big Three together, the Nets have the best pathway to the Finals.
For the first time in several years, the Eastern Conference is loaded with talent and teams capable of long playoff runs. The emergence of the Knicks, Hawks, and Hornets has helped even the balance of power in the NBA, so much so that the top four seeds will be challenged in the first round.
It’s a sign that more teams are being better managed, which provides the parity the league has sought.
RATING THE ROOKIES
Pritchard is in good company
While Payton Prichard has enjoyed a surprisingly strong rookie season, he may have trouble getting on to one of the two All-Rookie teams because this season has produced a bumper crop of first-year players. Let’s take a look at the league’s top rookies and the favorites for Rookie of the Year.
Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves — Edwards, the favorite for the award, has quietly put together a strong first season because the Timberwolves have been mostly insignificant. Edwards averaged 24.2 points in March and has improved steadily as a scorer and distributor. Minnesota is playing better of late, with two wins over the Jazz and one over the playoff-charging Warriors. It will be interesting to see if management can add a quality free agent to join Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns to bring Minnesota back to respectability.
LaMelo Ball, Hornets — He was the favorite before a wrist fracture derailed a sparkling season. There were questions about whether Ball could adapt quickly to the NBA having not played in college. But he showed he’s just as good of a playmaker and passer as older brother Lonzo, as well as a strong rebounder and reliable scorer. Ball is a cornerstone for the suddenly intriguing Hornets, who are expected to get Ball and former Celtic Gordon Hayward back for the postseason and could be a difficult first-round opponent.
Tyrese Haliburton, Kings — He was tabbed as the most NBA-ready player in the draft and he has proven that with a sparkling season for the underachieving Kings. Haliburton is averaging 12.8 points, 5.3 assists, and shooting 40.5 percent from the 3-point line. He will eventually team with De’Aaron Fox to form a formidable backcourt and he’s impressed with his maturity and ability to handle the offense. There were questions about to whether Haliburton’s low-release jumper would be an issue, but he’s turned into an above-average shooter.
Immanuel Quickley, Knicks — Taken right before Pritchard in the first round, Quickley has become a dependable backup point guard with the ability to score in spurts. He’s averaging 11.7 points in just 19.5 minutes per game and has helped stabilize New York’s bench. It’s one of the reasons why the Knicks have been a surprise team in Tom Thibodeau’s first season as coach.
James Wiseman, Warriors — He was taken second overall, and because of that he will always draw comparisons to Ball. (Could you imagine Ball teaming up with Stephen Curry?) But Wiseman produced a solid season before a knee injury ended it. He impressed teammates with his ability to run the floor and score at the rim, and he was quickly learning the Warriors’ culture. With Klay Thompson returning next season and the Warriors potentially adding a free agent, Wiseman can become part of a championship-caliber core.
Saddiq Bey, Pistons — Celtics fans can confirm the Villanova product can shoot from the perimeter, and he has been a reliable player for coach Dwane Casey. There’s a reason why the club negotiated a buyout with Blake Griffin. It wanted Bey to get more playing time in the frontcourt. In 27 games since the All-Star break, Bey is averaging 13.4 points as the Pistons try to build for the future. Bey has also made 143 3-pointers, an unexpected bonus.
Desmond Bane, Grizzlies — Celtics fans should know this guy’s name because he became the draft pick Boston traded to Memphis for future considerations because it didn’t want another guaranteed contract on the roster. What has Bane done as a rookie? He’s shooting 45.5 percent from the 3-point line and averaging 9.1 points in 22 minutes per game. Bane was an attractive pick because like Haliburton, he was NBA-ready and physically prepared for the highest level. He has turned into another quality piece for the young Grizzlies.
Patrick Williams, Bulls — The Bulls immediately turned him into a starter and defensive stopper, and he’s delivered. His offense will come along, but he’s a physical defender and a glue guy for Billy Donovan. The Bulls don’t need scoring with Zach LaVine, Coby White, and Nikola Vucevic on the roster. But they did need a premium defender. Williams was one of the reasons Chicago was able to stymie the Celtics in a win last month at TD Garden.
Isaiah Stewart, Pistons — The first-round pick from Washington has turned himself into a rugged player in the middle and a strong rebounder. Just 20 years old, Stewart could remain in the league for at least a decade by playing strong defense and hitting the boards. He’s averaging 6.7 rebounds in just 20 minutes and gives the Pistons a reason to be hopeful, along with Bey and Killian Hayes.
Payton Pritchard, Celtics — Taken 26th overall after a four-year career at Oregon, Pritchard entered the draft with question marks about whether a 6-foot-1-inch guard without elite athleticism could become a roster staple. He dispelled those doubts in training camp when he earned a minutes as a reserve. Since then, Pritchard has become a dependable scorer and tallied a career-high 28 points in this past week’s loss to Oklahoma City. Pritchard has experienced a couple of slumps, but he has become a mainstay in Brad Stevens’s rotation.
Isaac Okoro, Cavaliers — Another first-year player who has been overshadowed by his team’s lack of success, Okoro joined Darius Garland and Collin Sexton in the starting lineup as the third option and has become a defensive ace and solid finisher at the rim. Okoro’s offense still needs developing, but he’s an emerging defender and solid complement to a young backcourt.
Warriors not standing still
The Warriors have set the standard for how teams conduct off-court business since the ownership team of Joe Lacob and Peter Guber took over 11 years ago, purchasing the team for $450 million from Chris Cohan. According to statista.com, the Warriors’ current worth is $4.5 billion.
Esteemed team president Rick Welts, a Naismith Hall of Famer, announced his retirement, leaving chief revenue officer Brandon Schneider as president and chief operating officer. Schneider was part of the franchise’s efforts to build an arena in San Francisco, something that was considered nearly impossible two decades ago because of the city’s rising property values.
The Warriors have also created business relationships and partnerships with businesses in Silicon Valley to turn the Chase Center into one the most technologically advanced arenas in the league. It’s light years from the late 1990s, when the franchise played in aging Oracle Arena and losing was the only constant.
“If you think about the challenges of the past, people think about this current era and all the championships and the Finals appearances, everything we’ve accomplished,” Schneider said. “But when I started with the Warriors, we were in the middle of an 18-year span where we made the playoffs one time. It’s hard to do in a league where 16 out of 30 teams make the playoffs.
“Someone will help me do the math, but the average team made it nine or 10 times in that span. We’ve gone through that adversity. I’m looking at Joe [Lacob] as I’m saying this. I have said to him the last few years, we have a better chance of winning the championship now than we did of making the playoffs back then, which is true and an unbelievable thing to actually say. So, there’s challenges there.”
The rebuilding of the franchise essentially started with the drafting of Stephen Curry in 2009, followed by major draft hits on Klay Thompson (2011) and Draymond Green (2012). The franchise’s exposure and value increased, and astute roster moves turned Golden State into a championship contender within five years of Curry’s selection.
The organization has fared so well that Lacob and Guber offered a few months ago to vaccinate every fan entering the arena. The state of California and the NBA rejected that plan.
“It’s been a long haul. You talk about thinking outside the box,” Schneider said. “We created an internal task force called Operation Dub Nation. Everyone, I think, has heard this by now. But Joe has a master’s in epidemiology from my alma mater, UCLA. We were on this early, thinking about testing, how to keep our fans safe. We get to see that come to fruition in a couple weeks. We’re excited for that.
“When you think about getting to the new normal we’re all going to experience within business and in general, there’s light at the end of that COVID tunnel. But we’re going to have to navigate that. What does that look like as we look ahead to next year?”
Schneider’s responsibility is to keep the Warriors flourishing financially, which may become a bigger challenge once Curry, Green, and Thompson retire.
“Longer term, we’ve seen our business evolve quite a bit in the last 19 years, I would say more acutely in the last 10 years,” Schneider said. “How do we continue on that same track? We’re going to continue to do the things we do. We’re going to continue to do tickets and partnerships and take care of all our constituents, create an incredible fan experience.
“We’re going to have to continue to be innovative and think about how we continue to grow. You think about the international opportunity. NFTs [non-fungible tokens] is something we’re talking about now … As we know, people are watching more and more events online. These are all things. Sports betting. We could go on and on. All things we’ll have to navigate. You mentioned challenges but also opportunities. That’s how we view all these things.”
This is NBA business 2021, more than ticket sales and concessions.
The 50-point game by Houston’s Kevin Porter Jr. on Thursday against the Bucks was a testament to the Rockets’ patience with the second-year player who has had his share of problems but also the talent to become a franchise cornerstone. Porter was essentially given to the Rockets by the Cavaliers (for two second-round picks) because he had major objections to the team moving his locker when it acquired new players in the James Harden four-team deal. Porter also was fined $50,000 this past week because he broke league COVID-19 protocols by going to a bar with teammate Sterling Brown, where Brown was assaulted and needed to be hospitalized. What has helped Porter is the guidance of John Lucas, now a Rockets assistant under Stephen Silas, as well as a consultant. Lucas has mentored dozens of players on making good life decisions, and while Porter is a work in progress, he has shown he wants to be better on and off the court. The Rockets are in rebuilding mode and looking forward to the draft lottery, where they will likely land a top-five pick. That prospect, along with Porter, Kenyon Martin Jr., and center Christian Wood, could make for a solid core in the coming years … One coach on the hot seat is Luke Walton, with the Kings set to miss the playoffs for the 15th consecutive year despite a sparkling season from De’Aaron Fox and mostly good health besides former lottery pick Marvin Bagley III. The Kings stayed away from a deadline deal involving Harrison Barnes because they wanted to make a push for a play-in spot. But that was derailed by a nine-game losing streak. The Kings lost by 49 points at home to a Jazz team without Donovan Mitchell, and it’s going to be another disappointing ending for a franchise that can’t get things right. The Kings fired Mike Malone a few years ago, and he’s turned out to be a franchise-changing coach in Denver. And the club selected the oft-injured Bagley over Luka Doncic in a move it will regret for decades. There will be plenty of candidates interested in the Kings’ coaching job, such as Darvin Ham, Jason Kidd, and Kenny Atkinson. The Kings have talent, a raucous fan base, and a sparkling new arena but have yet to harness any of those assets into success.