20Q: Who are the championship contenders in the Eastern Conference?

Mar 29, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is fouled while driving for a shot between Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and forward Tobias Harris (12) during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks 26 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.

Question 19: Which Eastern Conference teams could go to the NBA Finals?

After discussing the Western Conference contenders yesterday, the conversation would be incomplete without also discussing the Eastern Conference.

The Boston Celtics represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this past season, losing to the Golden State Warriors in six games. A few teams could have gone to the Finals in the East though, namely the Milwaukee Bucks, who lost Khris Middleton to a significant injury and were bested by the Celtics in seven games after that.

This year, there are several teams hoping to crack the East champion conversation. Let’s discuss who those teams are and how the best of those teams would match up with the Denver Nuggets in a hypothetical Finals series:


Dark Horses

Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors

This tier involves teams with multiple talented players that have made All-Star games and possess additional talent beyond that. There are structural or organizational questions with every team here, but talent generally isn’t the problem.

The Atlanta Hawks made a big trade this offseason with the acquisition to Dejounte Murray. Dependent on Trae Young for everything, the Hawks have finally added another primary creator that can operate next to Young or in his stead. The Hawks will stagger their lineups and have one of those two on the court at all times. Whether the rest of the core is good enough remains to see seen. John Collins is a strong role player but has been in trade rumors for a reason. Clint Capela has taken a step back or two in the last year. Young players De’Andre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu are their ceiling raisers, and just how good those two can be will probably dictate Atlanta’s future.

The Brooklyn Nets have failed spectacularly in their grand plans surrounding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving during the last three seasons. They’re making at least one last run at it though, despite a multitude of trade demands from the stars. Ben Simmons might be excellent, or he might just not play following a back injury (among other reasons) that held him from basketball last year. Joe Harris is coming off of a major injury as well. There’s role player talent in the form of Seth Curry, TJ Warren, Patty Mills, Nic Claxton, and Royce O’Neale. It might not be enough to compensate for one of the shakiest star trios we’ve ever seen.

The Cleveland Cavaliers made the most surprising move of the offseason, acquiring Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz to join Darius Garland in a shorter backcourt. Compensating for their size dilemma will be Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, twin towers patrolling the paint. Beyond those four, there are a lot of question marks. Still, it’s difficult to come up with a stronger quartet in the entire league. Their lack of wing talent may hurt them against the best teams in the NBA, but if Mobley becomes what many think he could be, it may not matter.

The Miami heat made the Eastern Conference Finals last year, but like the Dallas Mavericks in the West, they appear to have taken a step back after failing to address weaknesses in the offseason. Letting PJ Tucker walk to Miami wouldn’t have been so bad if there was a real plan behind him. At the moment, it appears 6’5″ Caleb Martin will start at power forward, putting Miami’s switching defense to the ultimate test. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro must continue to take steps forward offensively too, because Jimmy Butler can’t do everything forever.

Finally, the Toronto Raptors were well on their way to crashing the Eastern Conference title race until injuries ruined them in the first round. Their depth at guard remains borderline pathetic, but the starting lineup featuring Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam is one of the best in the league. Behind them are a host of 6’6″ to 6’9″ forwards, making Toronto the most position-less team in the NBA. How well that style translates will likely depend on the development of Barnes who, like Mobley in Cleveland, has sky high expectations. If he hits, watch out.

True Contenders

Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers

There are only three teams that I truly see as contenders in the East this year with one standing out above the others. While not necessarily the favorites, the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers have plenty of reason to be excited this year.

The Bucks were one game away from ousting the Celtics last season. As mentioned above, they were without Khris Middleton for the entire series, highlighting some skeptical wing depth. The Bucks did little to address that this year with the only newcomers being injured veteran Joe Ingles and rookie MarJon Beauchamp. Expecting either to seriously contribute this season would be tough, but it doesn’t change how dangerous the Bucks can be when Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all play. Giannis is probably the best player in the world in his prime, and that carries a lot of weight.

The other team is the Sixers. Though things didn’t work out after acquiring James Harden midseason, there’s still plenty of talent in Philly. After the additions of PJ Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Montrezl Harrell, and Danuel House, there’s now plenty of depth too. Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Joel Embiid will be the team’s core, but surrounding those guys with versatile, defensive minded players was always the way to go. If one believes that Harden is still an all-star caliber player and that Maxey has another level or two to go in his development, then it’s easy to get excited about Philly.

I have concerns about Philly’s core, but that leaves them open to upsets. It doesn’t close the door on their contention abilities.

The Favorite

Boston Celtics

Finally, the Boston Celtics. It may be boring to have the previous East champions and previous West champions as the two favorites in their respective conferences. In the case of the Celtics though, the excitement is completely warranted.

After struggling to find their identity through the first third of the season or so, the Celtics kicked both their offense and defense into high gear. Jayson Tatum began playing like the MVP candidate he was supposed to be, and the Celtics became one of the most difficult teams to solve on either end of the floor. They rode that wave to the Finals last year, and now they’ve added Malcolm Brogdon to their rotation. He doesn’t have sky high expectations after losing multiple years to nagging injuries, but he should bolster the guard depth in a big way.

While the West race feels like open season between four elite teams, the East race feels like it’s truly two teams: the Celtics and the Bucks. Perhaps the Sixers prove me wrong and vault themselves into that tier for real. I have them there out of respect to their additions.

But I will be surprised if it’s anybody but the Celtics or the Bucks that comes out of the East.


How the Nuggets match up

While the Nuggets will most certainly be more concerned with West teams than East teams this year, it’s worth thinking about each of the matchups in a broad sense. Let’s just focus on the top three teams for this exercise: the Celtics, the Bucks, and the Sixers.

Starting with the Celtics, the key matchup here is between Nikola Jokić and the combination of Robert Williams, Al Horford, and Grant Williams. Jokić and the Nuggets have had trouble scoring and defending against the Celtics in recent years. Perhaps that problem goes away with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in the fold, but perhaps not. Aaron Gordon would guard Jayson Tatum, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would guard Jaylen Brown. That may be enough to slow down the Celtics offense, but it would certainly be a battle. Advantage to the Celtics bench as well with Brogdon, Williams, and Derrick White.

Next, the Bucks. This is a fascinating matchup that would probably see plenty of Giannis and Jokić guarding each other with little success. The Nuggets may be better suited to slow Giannis than the Bucks with a combination of Gordon, Porter, Jeff Green, and Zeke Nnaji. Plenty of length and switchability at power forward. Sure, Holiday will make life difficult for Murray, and Middleton will score plenty of baskets over and around Porter. Still, I like Denver’s chances here better than I do against Boston.

Finally, the Sixers. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić battling in the post for a seven-game series sounds absolutely exhausting. Expect both players to wear down and be running on fumes by the end. it will have to come down to the perimeter players, and I like Denver’s chances if that’s the case. Denver’s motion and cutting offense will be extremely difficult for Philly to slow down. There’s nobody for PJ Tucker to really guard outside of Porter, and he does most of his work off ball. That puts the Sixers in an uncomfortable spot. Still, the combination of Maxey, Harden, and Embiid will be hard enough for the Nuggets to guard in their own right. KCP and Bruce Brown would appear up for the task though, giving Denver a significant advantage matchup wise.

The Nuggets can beat all of these teams. All of these teams can beat the Nuggets though. if the Nuggets are lucky enough to make it to the NBA Finals in 2023, expect an absolute war either way.

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