Boston’s standing in the East is unchanged as far as rankings go, but power structure of the conference is vastly different than what I expected. The Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks still look to be the strongest teams in the conference, but are pretty far away from being the best versions of themselves. Toronto is unsurprisingly worse than last year, but how much worse? If Siakam really is this good (hint: he is), then we have to reconsider them as a potential conference contender. Brooklyn lost some heartbreaking games that came down to the buzzer - how differently would we think of them if they won? They’re a lot messier than I expected, with many of their players’ developmental years behind them. And finally, Atlanta. Listen to me, people: the Hawks are good. Maybe not take-the-East-by-storm good, but they’re a skilled, smart team with all the bases covered. Let’s discuss all of these teams individually, and then take stock on how threatening they are to the Celtics.
Defensively, this team is absurd. Matisse Thybulle is everywhere, at all times, disrupting plays and you can tell his teammates are already feeding off his energy. And true to the Sixers’ brand, Thybulle hasn’t done much for the team’s spacing. That’s the Sixers in a nutshell right now. Sure, they have plenty of capable shooters around Ben Simmons - who refuses to shoot at all - but they’re lacking a fitting replacement for JJ Redick as a pure perimeter threat. Despite their flaws, Philly is still 3-0 and have the defensive tools to lock their competition out of the top spot in the East.
Evaluation: better than the Celtics
Much like the 76ers, the Bucks are sorely missing out on the skills of those who’ve left. I’ve insisted for months now that the Bucks would regret paying everyone on last year’s team except for Malcolm Brogdon, who was one of the team’s only reliable ball handlers outside of Giannis. The Bucks have depth going at least 10 players deep, but the absence of a reliable distributor means putting the ball in the hands of Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and George Hill in tight spots. These guys are fine, but compared to the top guard rotations in the NBA? It’s not ideal. Giannis still gives the Bucks the upper hand in most matchups, and Middleton is a Celtics killer, but I wouldn’t trust the rest of the roster in close games.
Evaluation: narrowly better than the Celtics, because Giannis, but very vulnerable
Nobody is surprised that Toronto looks weaker without Kawhi Leonard, but what people may have forgotten is how great they were last year when Leonard’s was out for ‘load management’. I suspect those of you who value chemistry over talent will see Toronto as more of a threat, while the rest of you are unimpressed by the lack of star talent. That is, until Siakam makes an All-Star team. They’re not flashy, but the Raptors play extremely hard, which goes a long way to mitigate their greatest weakness - getting derailed on offense. You may remember a game or two last season where the Celtics completely unraveled and Daniel Theis, who I still love, was taking back-to-back threes in crunch time. Now imagine that, but with Norman Powell. It’s great that he has the green light, but timing is everything. Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet have been a little sloppy to start the year, so Toronto’s depth is fairly thin until those guys get going.
Evaluation: narrowly worse than the Celtics, but still very good
It’s normal for teams to look disorganized to start the season but, wow, Brooklyn has some kinks to work out. People are asking if Kyrie’s scoring is sustainable, but I think that’s the wrong question. The right one is: Is Kyrie’s high usage sustainable? Whether or not he likes being the alpha dog of his new team, the toll of such high usage (38% USG rate) could be huge, with no presumed light at the end of the tunnel for the rest of the roster to pick up the slack until Kevin Durant returns next season. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but a lot of Brooklyn’s developmental years are behind them. Caris LeVert is 25, Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie are 26, and Joe Harris is 28. I’m probably higher than most on Kyrie’s teammates, but no so much as future prospects. I don’t fault Brooklyn for losing narrow games, but I do fault them a bit for being caught in them while relying on Kyrie, and only Kyrie, trying to do it by himself in isolation. I just feel like I’ve already seen how it plays out.
Also, this team is punting some early minutes if they continue to start DeAndre Jordan over Jarrett Allen.
Evaluation: Worse than the Celtics, could get hot mid-season if they still like each other.
Time to over react! Watching the Hawks is fun now, and I highly suggest you give it a shot if you haven’t yet. This roster has everything - a star point guard in Trae Young, strong big in John Collins, a sharp shooter in Kevin Huerter, exciting rookies in Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter, and my favorite non-Celtic of all time in Vince Carter. There’s a real sense of balance and purpose in having these guys playing together, as they fill every role and play tenaciously, if not always effectively. Trae’s court vision is absurd - if there’s a full court outlet pass to be made off a rebound, he’s going to throw a strike. If there’s an opening in the defense, he’ll either split it or get a shot off. There’s no correct way to defend him. They lost their way late against Philadelphia as Alex Len wasn’t shy to take the three-point shots the Sixers were generously allowing him to shoot. I have no idea if Atlanta has the awareness to correct this or if it’s a free-for-all beyond the arc, but I do know that there are no free wins against Atlanta anymore.
Evaluation: I have no idea, but the Hawks are fun and you should watch them.
The team is slightly better than I expected, but I was initially less optimistic than most of you. Grant Williams is even better than advertised. He’s a already a defensive expert, a great screen setter, a solid passer, and a force on the boards. Robert Williams, who I was not impressed by in summer league or preseason, has made some pretty clear strides towards patching some huge holes in his game. Jaylen Brown isn’t getting stripped on drives anymore, and Gordon Hayward looks to be back to his old self. A lot of things need to break the right way for the Celtics to be really good, and things are trending in that direction so far.
On the flipside, Boston’s efficiency on offense has been dreadful. This won’t fix itself overnight - Jayson Tatum and Brown both have a lot of growing pains to go through as focal points of the Celtics’ offense. Kemba seems to figured out his role already. Until this team can reliably score in their half court offense, and the Timelord can move his feet on defense, I can’t rate them any higher than third in the East.
Evaluation: Better than expected, won’t be contenders until offense takes a huge leap.
My Eastern Conference power rankings: