NBA Eastern Conference reset – What matters most after the Lillard and Holiday trades


The 2023-24 NBA season kicks off Monday, when media day marks the start of training camp for 28 of the 30 teams across the league. (The Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves kicked off their camps on Thursday.)

That includes all 15 Eastern Conference teams, some of which are still reeling from the seismic trades of Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks and, after a few days as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, Jrue Holiday to the Boston Celtics.

What are the deals’ ripple effects throughout the conference? What could they mean for the future of another star guard, the Philadelphia 76ersJames Harden? Are there more moves on the horizon for the Bucks and Celtics? What’s next for the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers after mostly standing pat this offseason?

As camps get underway, here’s a quick trip around the East, looking at the five biggest questions among the top contenders for home-court advantage in the conference.


1. The Harden saga takes center stage for Philadelphia

For all of the attention surrounding the Bucks and Celtics for their blockbuster trades, those completed deals now push Harden’s uncertain future to the forefront.

This summer, Harden made his feelings clear about Daryl Morey, Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations and Harden’s longtime ally and advocate going back to successful seasons together with the Houston Rockets. These days, though, there seems to be little love for Morey from Harden.

Now that Lillard and Holiday are off the board, it’s difficult to see the kind of star player coming back to Philadelphia that Morey has publicly declared would be required for Harden to be dealt. Until either Morey changes his stance or some team meets his terms, Harden’s lone path to being paid this season is by playing for the 76ers.

So, how will Harden react? Will he be fully committed? Is there a world where he could remain in Philadelphia for the entire season?

All of these questions, and others, will be asked of Harden on Monday at the team’s media day at its practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, and then in the days to come during the team’s training camp in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Harden can be asked those questions only if he actually shows up.

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Perk: James Harden’s ‘career is on the line right now’

Kendrick Perkins explains why James Harden has no leverage in his dispute with the 76ers.

Meanwhile, the 76ers will be adjusting to life under a new coach, former Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, and it’s safe to say the league’s reigning MVP, Joel Embiid, registered his feelings about the summer by tweeting Sunday afternoon, “This offseason was fun lmao.”

For a Philadelphia franchise that has been consumed by virtually constant drama for a decade, there will be no shortage of it in the coming weeks.


2. What’s next for Miami after a summer of inactivity?

The Heat never think they are out of options when it comes to acquiring talent, a hard-earned belief from nearly three decades of team president Pat Riley’s tenure lording over the franchise.

But it’s hard to argue this summer has been anything but a disappointment for the reigning East champs. Miami attempted to acquire Damian Lillard — the exact kind of ball-dominant guard who would have been a perfect fit alongside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

Holiday, while not Lillard from an offensive standpoint, is the type of tough-minded two-way player the Heat have always gravitated toward throughout Riley’s tenure and would have fit seamlessly next to Butler on the perimeter.

Instead, the Heat’s chief competition — the Bucks and Celtics — landed the star guards, and two key players from last season’s stunning playoff run — Gabe Vincent and Max Strus — signed with the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers, respectively, in free agency.

The Heat, who pride themselves on getting contributions from unheralded role players, did bring back Josh Richardson on a team-friendly deal to replace Vincent, will be moving Duncan Robinson into Strus’ role as a floor spacer and scorer — one he occupied before Strus stepped into it over the past season-plus — and will look for contributions from second-year forward Nikola Jovic and rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr., two of the players who could’ve gone out in a deal for a guard who instead wound up staying put.

Miami should remain in the hunt for any stars who become available. But this summer was a short-term setback. And while doubting either Jimmy Butler or coach Erik Spoelstra should be done at one’s peril, Miami’s road to a fourth conference finals in five seasons got a lot tougher over the past week.


3. Just how good will Milwaukee and Boston be after massive trades?

Between the Bucks swinging for the fences with Lillard and the Celtics doing the same with Holiday, it’s been a wild week atop the East.

In Milwaukee, there might not be a better one-two punch in the NBA, in terms of star power, than Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The duo should help the Bucks’ offense skyrocket up league rankings after finishing 15th last season (albeit with three-time All-Star forward Khris Middleton missing most of the season with injuries).

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Windy on Lillard trade: Bucks need to win title to keep Giannis

Brian Windhorst explains why the Milwaukee Bucks are under tremendous pressure to win an NBA championship to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee’s perimeter defense, eighth in the league last season in opponent 3-point percentage, takes a significant step back with the loss of Holiday, arguably the NBA’s best two-way guard.

Boston, on the other hand, started the offseason by sending Marcus Smart to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of a three-team trade to land Kristaps Porzingis and ended it with another massive swing in getting Holiday.

The Celtics enter training camp with arguably the best top six in the league — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, Al Horford, Porzingis and Holiday — but the overflow of talent leaves questions over whether Horford or White will be the one to come off the bench.

The four others, however, figure to end virtually every game on the court together, and give Boston arguably an unmatched level of versatility.

Beyond its top six, Boston’s roster is littered with either lower-paid or inexperienced options for second-year coach Joe Mazzulla. Horford and Porzingis, the team’s two stretch big men, come with durability concerns, given Horford is 37 and Porzingis has played 65 or more games only three times in nine NBA seasons.

And while the Celtics still have all but one of their future firsts to put in deals even after getting Holiday, they don’t have much salary to put together to make a deal to upgrade the roster.

By the time the Celtics and Bucks meet for the first time on Nov. 22 in Boston (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), we’ll have a lot more of an idea of what these groups look like. As of now, though, these two teams appear poised to be on a playoff collision course for the fourth time in the past seven seasons.


4. Where do the Cavaliers stand entering a pivotal season?

After a five-year playoff absence, it was a rough return for Cleveland, which lost in five games to the New York Knicks as the higher-seeded team — including twice on its home court. Throughout that first-round series, the Cavaliers looked severely hampered by their lack of postseason experience, as well as really bothered by their lack of perimeter shooting, as New York sagged far off poor-shooting options like forward Isaac Okoro throughout the series.

The Cavaliers made it a priority to address their shooting deficiencies this offseason, signing Max Strus from the Heat and Georges Niang from the 76ers. Both of them will give Cleveland a lot more offensive versatility and should prevent the Cavaliers from returning to the rotating cast of characters who struggled to adequately fill the fifth spot on the court last season alongside the quartet of Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen.

The duo’s presence also should allow Cleveland more versatility to play small, something the Cavs didn’t have an easy way to do last season.

The overarching question for this season in Cleveland, however, surrounds Mitchell, and whether Cleveland can do enough to convince the four-time All-Star to agree to a contract extension next summer, when he will be one year away from free agency.

Doing so begins with improving on last season’s first-round flop. Strus and Niang were brought in to play a part in that. Another factor will be the offensive development of Mobley, who has quickly become a dominant force defensively but is still a ways away from the two-way star Cleveland will need to contend with the likes of Milwaukee and Boston.


5. When will the Knicks cash in their chips?

It was another relatively quiet offseason for the Knicks, who made a shrewd pickup to land Donte DiVincenzo as a free agent, pairing him with Villanova teammates Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart.

But standing pat made sense. New York had a breakthrough last season, beating Cleveland to reach the second round of the playoffs behind the play of last year’s home run free agent signing in Brunson, and giving hope to the legions of Knicks fans in the tristate area that a brighter future might finally be around the corner.

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Why Zach Lowe thinks the Knicks could make the conference finals

Zach Lowe questions why the Knicks aren’t discussed as a contender in the East given the uncertainty surrounding other teams in the conference.

New York is still waiting, however, for the moment when it can push in its chips for the right player. The Knicks chose not to do so with Mitchell last summer. They didn’t with Beal, Lillard or Holiday this year.

But what if someone like Antetokounmpo or Embiid becomes available next summer? What if Cleveland struggles and Mitchell, a year away from free agency, makes it clear he won’t stay?

If a disgruntled superstar suddenly becomes available via trade, the Knicks, between their combination of draft assets and players under contract, are positioned to make an enticing offer.

In the meantime, if the Knicks can build on the momentum they’ve created with their play last season — their playoff series win was the franchise’s first since 2013 — the appeal of playing home games inside Madison Square Garden could return.



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