Eastern Conference predictions: Philadelphia or Milwaukee, who ya got?

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The NBA season tips-off Tuesday night, and that means one thing:

It’s predictions time.

We’ve run through some postseason awards — MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year — and now we stick our neck out and make our predictions on how the Eastern Conference will shake out.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks.

THE EASTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin
1. Milwaukee
2. Philadelphia
3. Boston
4. Toronto
5. Brooklyn
6. Indiana
7. Miami
8. Orlando
Eastern Conference Finals: Philadelphia over Milwaukee.

While there are some interesting storylines up and down the East, this is ultimately a two-team race and the only way Boston or anyone else gets into the mix is thanks to an in-season trade. Milwaukee is a legitimate favorite, but I like Philadelphia’s length and defense to smother Milwaukee in the playoffs. Yes, that means I am making a big bet on Ben Simmons taking a step forward as a shot creator and leader, but I believe that by April the Sixers will have figured out their offense. After the top four in those standings, things could shake out in almost any order and there’s a legit chance Chicago or Detroit cracks the top eight too. Boston and Toronto are good and should advance out of the first round of the playoffs, although Indiana could crack that group if Victor Oladop returns to his old form once healthy.

Dan Feldman:
1. Milwaukee
2. Philadelphia
3. Boston
4. Toronto
5. Miami
6. Orlando
7. Brooklyn
8. Indiana
Eastern Conference Finals: Milwaukee over Philadelphia

With all its new pieces, Philadelphia should get better as the season progresses. The 76ers also matchup well with Milwaukee. That sets up to be a great Eastern Conference finals. In the end, the Bucks look primed.
There’s a glut of teams from about fourth through 10th. I think the Pistons will make the playoffs, but with several teams barely over 50% playoff odds, Detroit still finishes ninth in my predicted standings. The Bulls aren’t far behind, either.

Dane Delgado:
Eastern Conference Finals: Milwaukee over Philadelphia

The Eastern Conference is more wide open this season… or is it? The same four teams are expected to be battling for a top spot, and we don’t know who will be the best come next spring. A rise through the postseason won’t necessarily be predicated on regular-season success. The Sixers, Bucks, Raptors, and Celtics will all be vying for the final spot, and all four teams will be looking to capitalize on three main factors: health, depth, and star power. Milwaukee has the best chance of having all three thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. They’ll have their challengers, but I’m betting on the ECF loss from last season galvanizing last year’s MVP.

 

Other teams reportedly eyeing Magic’s Aaron Gordon, Orlando not interested. Yet.

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Orlando’s offense is dreadful. In the past week it finally moved into scoring more than a point per possession — just barely — but they are ranked 29th in the league. They just can’t hit shots. The Magic have the worst team three-point percentage (28.5 percent) and the worst true shooting percentage. It’s not that they’re taking bad shots, they are just not making them.

When a team struggles, other teams start to look at what players they like and may be available in a trade. Other teams watching the Magic stumble to a 4-7 start have their eyes on Aaron Gordon, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic — and he adds the Magic are not going there.

Multiple teams are monitoring Magic forward Aaron Gordon with interest should an opportunity present itself, but the Magic have shown no interest in moving him, sources said. Orlando is 4-7 and working to turn the corner early this season. Gordon signed a four-year, $76 million deal to return to the Magic in 2018.

At least not yet.

The Magic reportedly have been interested in DeMar DeRozan, but Orlando would have to move a lot of salary to land him (DeRozan makes $27.7 million this season).

One thing that has been good for Orlando this young season is the emergence of Jonathan Isaac as a player — he is already outstanding defensively, and his offense is improving (but still has a long, long way to go). Sean Deveney notes at Forbes that Orlando could change its mind about trading Gordon because of concerns about how he fits with Isaac (the team is basically net neutral when they are paired this season).

The Magic could give up forward Aaron Gordon, because there are concerns that he might not fit well over the long term with forward Jonathan Isaac, but Orlando won’t trade away Gordon for a few months of renting DeRozan, who is hardly the guy to help fix the Magic’s 3-point shooting troubles.

Gordon has two fully guaranteed years left on his contract after this season, however, it declines in value (down to $16.4 million the final season) making it very tradable.

Deveney mentions another potential target: D'Angelo Russell of Golden State. Much like Gordon, the Warriors are not interested in talking Russell trades yet, but that could change depending upon how the season evolves.

It’s early. Teams are just in the first stages of assessing their team and thinking about potential players who can help. The Magic, and Gordon, are a team to watch, particularly if the offense doesn’t turn around.

 

 

The time Kendall Gill stayed out all night then led Hornets to early-afternoon win (video)

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In the great history of NBA party-then-play stories, 15-year-pro Kendall Gill has a new tale from his rookie year with the Hornets in 1991.

Gill on Off The Dribble:

We pulled into D.C. My cousin took me out. I was out until 6 in the morning. He brings me back to the hotel. My coach, Gene Littles, is sitting in the lobby. And as I walked in the door, he’s like, “What the hell are you doing out here, rook? Don’t you know we’ve got a game at 12 o’clock in the afternoon?” Well, turns out, I go and I score 28 points that day, the high for my rookie season. I scored 28 points. He comes to me after the game and says, “You can go out and hang out any time you want to until 6 in the morning – if you play like that.”

A couple details are off. Gill scored 24 points to lead Charlotte over the Washington Bullets on March 31, 1991. But that wasn’t his season high. He scored 28 a few days earlier in Phoenix. The Washington game also had a listed start of 1 p.m., not noon.

Still, this comes close enough on the verifiable facts. Besides, I want the fun parts of this story to be true, so I’ll choose to believe them, anyway.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.