Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Eastern Conference has Bucks, Celtics fighting for throne amid fears Heat, 76ers will slip

NBA teams operate a lot like the markets: Driven by fear and greed.

In the Eastern Conference, where four teams have vied for dominance, the greed of those getting ahead and fear of falling behind has set the tone for another season that will likely be defined by the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers.

Winning is wonderful. But watching your window close — and falling back to the pack of mediocrity, or worse — is the thing that keeps GMs up at night.

“If you have a window to win now, try to win now,” one Eastern Conference GM told CBS Sports. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in two or three years. People’s attention spans are shorter, players’ patience is shorter, the tax and cap are punitive and make it harder to keep it together. So everything is shorter.

“You end up by nature with shorter windows,” he said. “So you have to take advantage of it. If you’re Philly, for example, you have to walk away [from a James Harden trade] with something that’s competitive. Daryl [Morey] has to win now.”

That’s in part because this offseason has put a new twist on this tale. There’s a sense that the arrival of Damian Lillard in Milwaukee, and the subsequent moves that sent Jrue Holiday to Boston, have lifted those two teams far ahead — and potentially set Miami and Philly on a troubling course. 

It’s a shift in the balance of power the East’s Big Four have been battling over since LeBron James left the conference five years ago.

There’s real jealousy in what the Bucks and Celtics pulled off, best epitomized in the Miami media’s manic anger over the Heat not landing Lillard. And the real fear, in both Philly and Miami, that falling behind too far can have far-reaching consequences. 

“I think it is closed for Philly,” one NBA front-office source told CBS Sports. “So there should be that fear. And I’m not a Miami believer, either. So I think they’re cooked. But I don’t think they have that fear, because I’m not sure they’re honest about themselves.”

Miami certainly disagrees with that assessment, despite missing out on Lillard and watching players like Max Strus and and Gabe Vincent head out the door after a magical run to the NBA Finals.

But the Heat feel like they’re always underestimated, and that they are uniquely positioned to successfully transition from the marathon of a regular season to the very different reality of postseason basketball. See: Limping into the playoffs as a No. 8 and then dispatching the East’s top two teams, the No. 1 Bucks and No. 2 Celtics, on the way to the Finals.

Josh Richardson has been added, Duncan Robinson will be more heavily relied upon, and the Heat like first-round draft pick Jaime Jaquez. They’re not sexy names, but neither were those of Vincent and Strus last year.

Miami will also point out it has been in three of the past four conference championships, and won two of them, which is a better track record since LeBron went to Los Angeles than Boston (three conference finals in five years, having won one) and Milwaukee (having made three of the past five, though they did win it when they emerged from the East in 2021).

Philly enters this mix as well, despite having yet to make a conference finals over that stretch, and there is certainly worry within the Sixers organization. Can Joel Embiid remain happy? Does Nick Nurse have the time and tools to push Philly to a deep playoff run? Will Harden work out — no pun intended — or find a buyer willing to meet Philly’s price?

The Celtics and Bucks seem to have secured their place in the East’s pecking order. If Miami or Philly falter this season, many think they could slip right out of that group going forward.

No South Beach in sight for Harden

Sources tell CBS Sports that the Heat, at this point, have not seriously engaged in trade talks for Harden and see his arrival, while not impossible, as highly unlikely.

That leaves, as others have pointed out, the Los Angeles Clippers as the only known potential buyer who might be willing to meet the high price the Sixers’ Morey insists will be necessary.

To date, sources say, Philly and L.A. are far apart on a deal. 

Enter Harden, whose plan has been to make things so uncomfortable the Sixers move him quickly, whatever the price. But one rival GM pointed out that Morey, too, can play that game: “You’re talking about two of the grand masters in being uncomfortable,” the GM said. “And Joe [Cronin] was in a different reality than where Daryl is. He needs to win now. He needs something in return that wins now.”

Bucks or Celtics? Who takes the East?

A rival GM: “They’re both equal threats. And they both got better and, in some ways worse. Yes, offensively, they’re much better. But on defense they took steps back. We’ll need to see how it plays out first.”

A front-even executive focused on scouting: “I think the edge goes to Boston right now. Getting Jrue really rained on Milwaukee’s parade. They didn’t get to enjoy that moment for very long.”

A former longtime player: “I like Milwaukee. I think they have a big advantage, especially with size. Losing Robert Williams, for Boston, could mean something. Maybe they make a move at the deadline but for right now I like the Bucks.”

Vegas: Basically dead even.

This writer: Give me the Bucks as the slight favorites.

A word on the wild West, Dallas’ season, LeBron 

  • Let’s not forget about the Western Conference, where, as one team executive pointed out, at least nine teams enter the season expecting to make the playoffs. Someone’s gotta miss out. “On the surface, you’re probably looking at Dallas, Sacramento or Minnesota fighting to not get in — before you consider injuries or surprises. And that’s not considering Oklahoma City, or even Portland, or New Orleans.” 
  • And another piled onto the doubts around Dallas: “I think it’s more likely they miss the playoffs than make the conference finals. I think what actually happens is they make the playoffs and lose the first round.” 
  • How many guys in this league, by their mere presence, make a team a contender? Not many. And, for some, not LeBron James, not anymore. “For me it’s clear: Joker one, Steph two, Giannis three. Then there’s a gap. Luka four. K.D. five. Then another gap, with Embiid atop it.”

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