We’re finally here in the thick of things in the NBA Playoffs After a fun regular season and a gross last 15 games of the season, the real competition has begun, although some series have not quite lived up to that billing. So I figured it was high time I wrote about what mattered: next season.
All jokes aside, there are major implications (as always) on the offseason in the playoffs. A bad early upset could’ve sent Kawhi Leonard packing, and while the Toronto Raptors have a commanding lead, his time north of the border could still be limited. A falling out could lead to Kyrie Irving jumping ship. I think, though, that the chips will fall in the Eastern Conference’s favor. That is to say, players that stay will stay in the East and those that leave could leave for the “weaker” conference. Simply said, I think the Eastern Conference will be at least as good as the Western Conference next season.
The Eastern side of the league has been considered a ‘little brother’ to the Western Conference. And for a good reason. The fact that a Cavaliers team that was starting Jordan Clarkson for a while (and had Lebron I know, but STILL) made it to the Finals is an embarrassment. But that is all going to change after the offseason. The East already has top-heavy contenders. The Bucks, Celtics, Sixers, and Raptors are all formidable opponents and would reasonably have a chance in the Finals. I think the top seven or eight next year will be great as well. To start, let’s look at The Remainders.
The top four teams in the conference will remain contenders next season. The Milwaukee Bucks have a lot of free agency decisions looming. Even after inking Eric Bledsoe to a tasty extension, they still have to figure out deals for Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, and Nikola Mirotic. It is possible they lose a number of those players. The fact remains, though, of who they will have even if they lose these players. Giannis Antetoukounmpo and Mike Budenholzer. It’s like they say in football, as long as you have a great coach and QB, the sky’s the limit.
The Philadelphia 76ers are no strangers to free agent decisions themselves. After trading for stars Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, they are going to have to (likely) fork up max contracts to keep them both. Could one or both leave should the Sixers fall apart in dramatic fashion? Yes. Would the Sixers dismiss Brett Brown (who has the coolest accent in the NBA) should this happen? Absolutely. But any team with a healthy Joel Embiid and a growing Ben Simmons is going to make noise.
The Celtics, barring a Finals run, are going to lose Kyrie Irving. I won’t hear arguments otherwise. He has moaned his way through the season, continually throwing his teammates under the bus. But that might not matter to the Celtics. I am not saying they are better without him, they aren’t. The drama that has followed them this season has killed their morale though, regardless of completing a first round sweep of the Pacers, and most of it has been brought on by Kyrie. Even if they lose him they will have several All-Star caliber players, a wizard of a GM who will make moves, and an intelligent coach. They’re going to compete next year with or without Kyrie.
The Raptors are the least likely to return in this scenario. They run a very serious risk of losing Kawhi Leonard in the offseason. Everyone knows his ambition of playing in Los Angeles, and Jerry West can make anything happen. However, should the Raptors make it to at least the Conference Finals (I think they will) then he’s going to re-up. The team is great, the coach is great, and they let him sit whenever he wants. It’s a good situation for him. Also, nothing made me more certain that he was going to resign than when he signed with New Balance over resigning with Jordan. Picking an up and coming brand willing to do whatever they can to let him be himself and the star of their business? Sounds like the Raptors to me.
The Indiana Pacers should be the East’s fifth contender. They have a great coach, a stingy defense, and several role players that can catch fire. What they’re missing is a superstar. They have one, Victor Oladipo, who unfortunately suffered a horrible injury and missed most of the season. They were scary good when he was healthy though. If he returns as at least 75% of his former self, the Pacers will make the East a conference that goes five deep.
The Brooklyn Nets are the NBA’s favorite feel-good story. Having no draft picks or free agency clout to build a team and yet four years after their implosion, they’re back in the playoffs. D’Angelo Russel is an All-Star and one of the trickiest guards in the conference. And they have ample cap space. Lock them in for at least one 2nd tier star (perhaps one of the Sixers impending free agents?). If they get a two-way wing (did someone say Tobias Harris/Jimmy Butler?) they will be one of the top teams.
So we just listed off four teams that could reasonably be contending in the East next year. Let’s spice it up a little bit with some speculation. The New York Knicks. They have been rumored to be in the running for BOTH Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. That’s a little ambitious, Laker fan ambitious. However, the talk hasn’t died down. Reputable insiders have been saying it. I think they get at least one of them. Hell, there’s a solid chance they both go there. Let’s be optimistic and say they both go. They’re immediately a top 3 team in the East and even the first round of the playoffs becomes a bloodbath.
I said seven or eight teams. There isn’t a clear pick of who could be the eighth team. The Orlando Magic could pick up a tasty free agent and have big strides in Aaron Gordon/Jonathan Isaac. Maybe they package Mo Bamba to secure a scoring guard. The Atlanta Hawks could get lucky and pick up Zion in the draft. Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins, and Zion sharing the court together? Sign me up. The Pistons are LEGITIMATELY a two-way wing away from being a pretend contender. The Hornets…I’m just kidding. They make me sad (love you Kemba). One of those three things could seriously happen and just like that, we would have eight scary teams in the East. Needless to say, the offseason could prove to be much more interesting than the playoffs.