A couple of days ago I wrote a piece on the race to the 2021 Eastern Conference Playoffs. I intentionally left off Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee. Those three aren’t in a “race,” they’re already there. Today though, we’ll take a deeper look into each squad and try to determine who should be considered the favorite to come out of the East.
Milwaukee was on a torrid pace last year before COVID shut everything down. Since then, they flamed out against Miami in the bubble, resigned Giannis Antetokounmpo and acquired Jrue Holiday for Eric Bledsoe. The Bucks continue to be who we believe them to be though. They are a great team in the regular season who can’t quite figure it out in the Playoffs. However, I think this year has been good for them. They’ve flown under the radar as Brooklyn and Philly have taken center stage in the East and the expectations don’t feel as high as in previous years. I think at times, the weight of regular-season success bore down on the Bucks and caused them to crack.
The Bucks currently sit 3rd in the East standings and I think that is where they’ll stay. With the race to the 2021 Eastern Conference playoffs so hotly contested, it’s hard to predict who they would get in the first round. However, it’s the semi-finals and conference finals where their biggest tests will lie. If the Bucks make a run to the Finals this year, they will likely have to defeat Philly or Brooklyn in some consecutive order. They are certainly better this year. I think Jrue Holiday gives them an edge that Eric Bledsoe couldn’t give them. Giannis is an MVP contender yet again. Kris Middleton remains a model of efficiency and their role players (including the newly acquired PJ Tucker) fit in nicely. You just can’t help but see the cloud of past failures hanging over the Bucks as we get closer to the gauntlet that is the NBA playoffs.
Joel Embiid is having an MVP caliber year. Averaging around 30 and 11 with a block and a half a game is a production that cannot be matched in today’s NBA. Ben Simmons is doing Ben Simmons things but the criticism he receives is a little overblown in my opinion. He’s one of the most gifted passers in the game and he’s breathtaking on the open floor. He also forms a deadly defensive duo with Embiid. We know who those two are though. The reason Philly is having such a great year is because of Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey.
Rivers is a player’s coach and I think that has been huge in unlocking the confidence in both Simmons and Embiid in that he simply lets them be. Morey has filled in pieces around his two superstars to make the team run smoother and more efficiently. Seth Curry and Danny Green spread the floor and Dwight Howard is the foil a team like Philadelphia needs come playoff time. Keeping Shake Milton, Thybulle and Korkmaz have also helped to give the team more space around the perimeter for Embiid to operate. And don’t forget about the season Tobias Harris is having.
The question with Philly though (as usual) is health. Can Simmons and Embiid stay healthy enough to make a run through the playoffs? This is their best opportunity (since a Kawhi game winner crushed their hopes) of coming out of the East. Nobody in Brooklyn or Milwaukee can guard Embiid one on one and if the big fella can keep up this production, Philly is going to be hard out in a 7 game series.
Now we get to the Monstars… the Brooklyn Nets. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge are a 2k team. Throw in Joe Harris, Nicolas Claxton, Jeff Green and Deandre Jordan and you can see why they are favorites. However, there’s a ton of questions with the Nets.
You gotta start with the head of the snake, Kevin Durant. 20 games out of a possible 52 isn’t a great look for a guy who missed a full season with an achilles injury. Durant’s health is the single biggest question mark going into the 2021 Eastern Conference playoffs. Next, we have to assess James Harden’s hamstring injury. Harden has been the Nets’ most consistent player since being traded from the Rockets but if the hamstring injury lingers, that could be a huge blow to their chances. Of course….the Nets still have Kyrie Irving who’s having a career year of his own.
When it comes down to it, this team needs to get healthy and they need time to gel a little bit before the playoffs start. They need to get Harden, Durant and Kyrie on the floor at the same time and build some chemistry. They are the most talented team in the league full stop but talent doesn’t always trump experience. I think it’s a mistake to paint the Nets as overwhelming favorites. That being said, if they rip through the playoffs and finals without any resistance, it wouldn’t surprise me. They might just be that good.