NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: Milwaukee gets the nod

Not that many in these parts want to hear about Kyrie Irving’s newfound happiness, but here it is.
“I’m excited for the next chapters of my career,” the Nets point guard said after handing his former Celtics team a drubbing in the last exhibition game of training camp.
“Not being so ball-dominant and being able to play off the ball and just concrete energy to be able to be effective in more selective spots in our offense,” he said. “So we have multiple ball-handlers and I’m not going to be the person to get in the way of that. I’m literally just spacing out to wherever I’m needed and whenever my BBall handling responsibility is up, I go do it. But other than that, it’s pretty open, fair game. We got some great players on this team, so you gotta go get it.”
Welcome to the new Eastern Conference, and the long anticipated arrival of Brooklyn as a major force. Right now it’s certainly enough to overshadow a Celtics team that needs time to find itself.
The following power rankings are a measure of where these teams stand now — not where they might finish.
1. Milwaukee (2019-20 conference finish — 1st): A freshly-extended Giannis Antetokounmpo had everyone rejoicing, from the Bucks fan base to commissioner Adam Silver, because it was a victory for small-market teams. And it keeps the Bucks on what has been a very familiar course — as a great regular season team. But did they actually get better? Had the botched sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic actually gone through, then Milwaukee would have added not just an elite perimeter threat, but the one element that may have been in short supply last postseason. Their actual additions certainly built depth. J’rue Holiday is an upgrade over Eric Bledsoe, and Bobby Portis is terrific when supplying depth, and when not too much is asked of him with the ball. But they still need another shooter. At this starting point they remain a durable, steady team. It takes more to reach the Finals.
2. Miami (2019-2020 conference finish — 4th): Multiple reports had the Heat losing interest in a potential James Harden trade this week, and really — why would Pat Riley want to bust up this talented young nucleus for an aging scoring champion? The Heat caught everyone in the East down the stretch last season. Now Miami gets to see what kind of staying power their trio of young snipers —Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn — can produce over a 72-game schedule. Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler set the bar on this team, but Miami’s shooting is a destructive force — also demoralizing, based on how they frustrated the Celtics in the Orlando bubble. They’ve proven that they can get hot and win a sprint. Now they have to do more than merely catch fire.
3. Brooklyn (2019-20 conference finish — 7th): The Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving fusion effect appears to be immediate. The Nets flat out look more mature, poised, with two of the game’s greatest scoring options now available to bail out every possession. Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen were like a great backing band without its front men last season. Now they have the full ensemble, which is good enough to disrupt the Eastern Conference.
4. CELTICS (2019-20 conference finish — 3rd): This is merely a starting point, and once they get Kemba Walker back and develop a chemistry, the Celtics will climb this ladder. But for now they look suspect next to the above three teams, and maybe even the next one down. They don’t have enough shooting —rookie Aaron Nesmith has that job off the bench if he’s at all consistent — and their big man rotation is still flawed, though Tristan Thompson will be like a human energy drink. Not that two exhibition games paint much of a picture, but on both occasions the Celtics came out flat, disjointed and only rarely aggressive. Danny Ainge, with help of that $28 million TPE, will need to add a player or two down the stretch. Poor shooters and inefficient scorers need not apply.
5. Philadelphia (2019-20 conference finish — 6th): Few coaches immediately command as much respect from a new team as Doc Rivers, and his bullish style is probably exactly what the underperforming duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons need. Add Harden to this group, obviously with one of the aforementioned two then heading to Houston, and the Sixers are once again a threat to reach the Finals. But for now, without him, Rivers has a code to crack. It helps that Philly added shooting (Danny Green, Seth Curry). His two young stars, for all of their promise, are somewhat spoiled. They’ve had run of the place for a long time now.
6. Toronto (2019-20 conference finish — 2nd): Nick Nurse has the magic touch where getting his team to overperform is concerned, but as the conference gets better, his stripped-down team can’t help but slide. Marc Gasol, now a Laker, is the latest departure, and the Raptors will miss his skill and floor spacing. Even with him they didn’t quite have the talent to beat the Celtics in the conference semifinals. Pascal Siakam is a terrific young talent, but as evidenced by his disappearance in that series, he may be better suited to second option status.
7. Indiana (2019-20 conference finish — 5th) T.J. Warren’s game had a growth spurt in the Orlando bubble, so it’s easy to see why the Celtics liked him so much during their failed Gordon Hayward talks with Pacers management. But Indiana’s chief hope still rests with Victor Oladipo, who was one of the NBA’s elite scorers prior to rupturing a quad tendon two seasons ago.
8. Atlanta (2019-20 conference finish — 14th) Bogdanovich, freed up from that near-trade to Milwaukee, signed here, along with another great perimeter forward — Danilo Gallinari. If the Hawks have indeed committed to Clint Capela and John Collins in the paint, then they also have the toughness and rebounding to go along with the skill. It all bodes well for Trae Young, a great deep shooter who may be on the verge of stardom, and now has Rajon Rondo to come off the bench with some point guard relief.
9. Orlando (2019-20 conference finish — 8th) The Magic have a familiar, still-young group that is good enough to beat better teams, but seems to be treading water in this position.
10. Washington (2019-20 conference finish — 9th) Hmmm. Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. The Wizards will scare a lot of teams this season. The question is whether that is a sustainable partnership. Westbrook, who only knows one way to play, seems to have trouble in that area.
11. Charlotte (2019-20 conference finish — 10th) Gordon Hayward is excited about a return to when he was more scorer than point forward, and opportunities will abound on this team. LaMelo Ball is an exciting point guard in a crowded backcourt, and should make Hayward’s scoring dream more tangible, though not so much that this team makes the playoffs.
12. Chicago (2019-20 conference finish — 11th) Lots of young talent, headed by a potential star in Zach LaVine, with Billy Donovan now in charge of development.
13. Detroit (2019-20 conference finish — 13th) Just a really strange collection of veterans (Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Trevor Ariza), castoffs (Josh Jackson, Jahlil Okafor) and journeymen. A lot of moveable parts come trade deadline time.
14. New York (2019-20 conference finish — 12th) R.J. Barrett gets more opportunity to star than is probably healthy.
15. Cleveland (2019-20 conference finish — 15th) Talented young point guards and Andre Drummond. Kevin Love may be wondering how Tristan Thompson liked the move.

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