The landscape of the NBA’s Eastern Conference has drastically changed; most teams considered being in the top-tier ahead of the 2021 campaign improved during the offseason while the Boston Celtics find themselves in a somewhat dubious position considering its short-term hurdles and the long-term effects that come with them.
Losing an All-Star point guard and second-best scorer will do that to a team, especially for Boston – what was once a conference-contending group that’s starting lineup will begin the season with only three returning members. The Celtics’ regular-season win trajectory is heavily predicated by Kemba Walker’s return and how long it’s going to take head coach Brad Stevens to find the proper continuity within his guys.
Still, the Celtics’ budding duo of All-Star Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will look to keep the ship afloat. Find out where they rank amongst the top-5 teams in the East.
1. The Brooklyn Nets
The greatest duo in the Eastern Conference showed little-to-no rust throughout their preseason showing – which cast a shadow of a doubt that another squad will end the regular season with a better record than the Brooklyn Nets. And while the superstar duo is the biggest reason why the Nets will dominate the East; its surrounding cast of dynamic two-way players will help lock in wins on a nightly basis.
Spencer Dinwiddie is a proven scorer alongside Irving in the backcourt. Also, Caris LeVert, who averaged 18.7 points a night last season, could be an early Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and with DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, and Jarrett Allen around to lock in defensively; Brooklyn is a legitimate championship contender.
2. The Milwaukee Bucks
Ever since the Bucks captured its 60-win season in 2019; topping the Eastern Conference at the end of the regular season has suddenly lost its lure. It’s not as impressive of a feat as it used to be – that’s because for Milwaukee a trip to the NBA Finals in back-to-back tries never materialized. Now, the Bucks are reloaded and out for revenge.
With a Giannis Antetokounmpo free-agency decision no longer looming over the organization, the focus is solely on winning. The addition of veteran Jrue Holiday strengthens the backcourt while adding Bobby Portis to the frontcourt hopes to provide the extra necessary muscle to take on All-Star Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat – a team that only needed five games to send the Bucks home packing in last year’s Eastern Conference semis.
3. The Miami Heat
The Heat will look to build off last year’s unexpected run to the NBA Finals and have what it takes to spend the majority of the season sitting comfortably as a projected top-3 team in the conference’s upper echelon. Bam Adebayo, 22, will continue to ascend as one of the league’s most promising and dominating centers.
Miami also has a 20-year-old dynamic scorer in Tyler Herro, who I think will make a significant leap this year and the same goes for two-way threat Kendrick Nunn and sharpshooter Duncan Robinson. Miami is destined to improve upon its .603 winning percentage (44-29) of last season and turn some heads while doing it.
4. The Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia needed to make a change. By the end of the 2019-20 regular season, former Sixers head coach Brett Brown’s voice had fallen on deaf ears. Plagued by an injured Ben Simmons, the Sixers limped into the playoffs and it didn’t take long before the Celtics’ gentleman sweep thrust Philly into a busy offseason.
If the 76ers are dead set on sticking with the Joel Embiid-Simmons duo then Doc Rivers is the best man for the job and they didn’t stop there. Adding former Rockets GM Daryl Morey led to a string of free-agency signings that addressed glaring needs such as backcourt defense (Danny Green), outside shooting (Seth Curry), and size (Dwight Howard) – it’s the kind of depth a team like the Celtics would thirst over and gives Philly an edge and its duo; possibly, their greatest chance to succeed.
5. Boston Celtics
It’s time to see what the Tatum and Brown tandem is made of. There are no excuses, this time. The Celtics may not have the deepest surrounding cast for their rising stars, however, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis’ production on both ends along with newcomers Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague will provide a stage with enough stability for Tatum and Brown to dance on.
Still, Boston’s record won’t look pretty out of the gate. A grueling regular-season start against the likes of the Bucks, Nets, Heat, Indiana Pacers, and Toronto Raptors all in the first 10 games isn’t ideal; don’t be shocked if the Celtics aren’t a .500 team by this point. But as they climb themselves out of that hole; I think that’s when the identity of this team will begin to mold.
Walker’s return, whether it’s in late-January or early-February, will hopefully be sometime before the Celtics’ marquee showdown at TD Garden against the Lakers on January 30 or just before the dreadful, five-city west coast road trip, which includes stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Utah. I predict the rocky start won’t ultimately alter Boston’s playoff fate but rather knock them down to a fight for the No. 4 seed against the Sixers, rather than lock in the No. 3 seed like we saw last year.