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Is The NBA’s Eastern Conference Really Just A Two-Team Race?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): We chatted on Monday about the NBA’s Western Conference, in advance of the season starting tonight, so let’s talk about the East now. At the moment, our predictions say the two big favorites are the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers. The defending champion (and model namesake) Toronto Raptors are in a tier below with the Boston Celtics and maybe the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat or Orlando Magic — if you squint. Does that sound right to you guys?

(The glaring absence from that group is Brooklyn, which our model has consistently been down on.)

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Yeah, it does. The East feels so … linear and predictable as compared with the West.

Or at least it does relative to itself. How Milwaukee and Philly stack up with the West contenders is an interesting question, of course.

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Yeah. As fun as the East was last year, I feel like there are only two contenders here.

natesilver: I’m not sure that Boston got as gutted as everyone thinks. I think they were overrated last year.

In the long run, I certainly prefer Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker, but in the short run, I’m not sure it hurts them much, and it might be better from a chemistry standpoint.

chris.herring: Somehow, I think we’re all gonna watch one team join that upper tier, giving the East three contenders as opposed to two.

natesilver: The Celtics lost Al Horford, but RAPTOR is not as keen on stretch bigs like him as some of the other advanced stats, in part because playing guys like Horford tends to produce big offensive rebounding problems. Plus, he’s pretty old.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): From the standpoint of GAZE (General Assessment Zero Evidence — shoutout to our sports podcast, Hot Takedown!), I could see Boston joining that upper tier as we get further into the season.

I like Kemba on this team.

chris.herring: But what about Enes Kanter’s defense?!? Or lack thereof. I could see Boston falling off a lot, in that regard.

neil: It’ll be offset by the de-Kobefication of Jayson Tatum.

neil: Nate, you mentioned Horford. He ended up landing on one of the main East favorites: Philly. The Sixers were our summer favorites under the old system, but they lost a lot when we plugged in RAPTOR. Seems like so many of their guys — Horford but also (especially!) Ben Simmons — are not looked upon fondly by our new metric.

I think that Joel Embiid (and Josh Richardson, sorta) were their only main rotation guys who look better under RAPTOR than the old metrics.

natesilver: Yeah, nothing against Simmons, Neil, but he’s one of those guys who I’m “happy” got a deduction under RAPTOR.

Both the on/off stats and the eye test say he creates problems for his team.

neil: He’s making threes now! Haven’t you heard?

natesilver: I mean … that would help a LOT!

Even just having the credible threat of a wide-open three is important. His low free-throw percentage makes me wonder how realistic even that low bar is, though.

It’s not that Simmons is a bad player, by the way. It’s just that this narrative of the 76ers having two emerging stars in Embiid and Simmons isn’t right. They have one already emerged star in Embiid and one player who’s roughly league average in Simmons, who might or might not develop into something considerably better than that but plugs into the modern NBA in a slightly funny way for now.

chris.herring: Random, but can I just say that Matisse Thybulle looks really great in Philly? Excited to see how he fits in.

natesilver: Yeah, Thybulle is definitely a case where the stats match the eye test.

tchow: Not sure how much we should pay attention to preseason stats, BUT to hop onto that Matisse bandwagon, he averaged 2.6 steals per game this preseason and looks to be a top defender in the league.

natesilver: He averaged 3.5 steals per game (!) at Washington last year, and steals in college are one of the most predictive stats for NBA ability.

neil: So what do we think about how the Sixers compare to the Bucks in the battle to be East favorite, then?

It’s kind of amazing how even the two teams are in our forecast right now: We say Milwaukee has a 37 percent probability of winning the East and Philly is at 36 percent.

tchow: And they both have just about the same chance at winning the finals (Bucks at 15 percent, Sixers at 13 percent)!

chris.herring: I really wish that the Bucks had kept Malcolm Brogdon. I still think they should be favored, but I feel less strongly about them now than I otherwise would have.

natesilver: Yeah, the Bucks are NOT very deep.

They lost Brogdon and Nikola Mirotić. They didn’t lose Brook Lopez, but he may have had something of a career year, and I’m not sure they can count on him for as many quality minutes. And Eric Bledsoe may be hurt to start the year.

chris.herring: I don’t think their depth is that bad. But I just really like the guys they lost. I don’t trust Bledsoe a ton, but George Hill is pretty solid when he’s healthy. And I like Pat Connaughton and would like to see him get more minutes this season.

natesilver: RAPTOR kinda likes Donte DiVincenzo.

But the real question here is what Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like in lineups where you don’t have quite as much shooting and spacing.

chris.herring: I think their biggest question is: How good a second fiddle is Khris Middleton? Because a lot of people don’t trust him in that role.

tchow: Speaking of players that RAPTOR does not look upon fondly, what kind of year do we think Giannis will have following this MVP season last year?

chris.herring: Shoutout to me and Nate both throwing big questions out there about Milwaukee.

Giannis is gonna shoot 30 percent from three. And the next year, he’ll be league average from three.

tchow: Perhaps I’m being too harsh. RAPTOR sees Giannis as just fine. But I think there is a disconnect between how RAPTOR sees Giannis and how fans see Giannis.

natesilver: RAPTOR sees Giannis as basically the same as last year. Actually slightly better, since it expects him to play more.

Milwaukee constrained his regular-season minutes last year, which is not necessarily an option they’ll have this year with their decreased depth.

But yeah, RAPTOR sees Giannis as being like “in the conversation along with five or six other players for being the best player in the league” good, not “clear MVP already” good. And there’s actually a fairly big difference between category 1 and category 2. Part of it is that RAPTOR tended to like Brogdon, Bledsoe and the rest of the lineup.

So it doesn’t think Giannis made a great leap forward last year so much as that he’s a VERY good player who got into a MUCH better situation because of the talent and system around him under Mike Budenholzer.

neil: In that tier below Milwaukee and Philadelphia, we briefly touched on the Celtics. But what about the Raptors? RAPTOR on Raptor!

Vegas is giving them worse odds than the Pacers to win the East, much less the Celtics. But they still have a lot of guys — Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet — who RAPTOR likes.

natesilver: I mean, RAPTOR really liked the Raptors, but it also really liked Kawhi Leonard, so losing him takes a pretty big chunk out of them, obviously.

It’s actually a bit tepid on Siakam. One of those guys where the other advanced stats (BPM/RPM) were way ahead of where the conventional wisdom was on Siakam, and RAPTOR sort of splits the difference.

chris.herring: I think they may end up being fine. If they end up being the third-best team, I won’t be surprised at all. Siakam getting the spotlight will be fascinating because he has weaknesses that Kawhi didn’t.

But they also maintained a really good record without Kawhi last year, and he was a massive part of that.

tchow: RAPTOR puts Siakam in the “Average Starter” category with a predicted WAR of 5.1 for this upcoming season. I’m pretty sure we’ve already gotten some messages from Raptors fans for this.

natesilver: Siakam doesn’t quite have a standout offensive skill. And I wonder if that might get exposed more if he has to become a primary option.

chris.herring: His spin move is his standout skill! If it were a WWE move, it would be my favorite. He’s like the Tasmanian Devil of the NBA.

(I should trademark that.)

natesilver: 🌪

chris.herring: I think we’ll all be interested to see whether he can continue to be solid from the corners, like he was last year. But it’ll be pretty key for him to take the next step as a passer and creator along with Lowry and VanVleet.

Also, he’ll be the primary wing defender now without Kawhi or Danny Green being there.

neil: Let’s talk about the Nets for a second. They are the big outlier in the East between our model and Vegas — the bookmakers gave them 16-to-1 odds or so (about a 6 percent chance, not adjusting for the juice) to win the conference, while we give them next to no chance at all. What’s that all about?

natesilver: I can’t quite figure out why the oddsmakers have the Nets where they do for this season. Next year is a whole different question, when we’ll get into arguments about what a post-Achilles injury version of Kevin Durant looks like.

But I almost feel like the oddsmakers were like “wow, they added Kyrie and KD!!” and sort of hoped that people wouldn’t do the math and realize that KD is not playing in Year 1. Last year’s Nets + Kyrie – Russell is not necessarily a terrific team, especially since they likely overachieved a bit last year.

neil: There’s no chance KD comes back by, like, the playoffs, right?

(He’s been down that road before, rushing to get back in the playoffs. It did not end well.)

chris.herring: He really shouldn’t, under almost any circumstances.

natesilver: Yeah, I’d think this would be one of those times when you’d want to play it safe!

neil: Our model thought the Nets played over their heads most of the year, although some of that could have been due to the coaching of Kenny Atkinson. Maybe Kyrie is more motivated this year as well.

chris.herring: In fairness, their roster is pretty different in some ways.

natesilver: It also really, really dislikes the Nets’ centers. It thinks DeAndre Jordan is washed up. And it thinks Jarrett Allen looks bad when you look deeper under the hood.

neil: I can’t believe how much RAPTOR dislikes Allen.

chris.herring: I never know what to make of the projections thinking that a team underperformed one year vs. what’s to come the following year, when the roster has a key addition or departure.

tchow: Even with a really motivated Kyrie, I’m looking at this lineup and it does not look close to being a contender in the East. We’re giving them a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a team like the Pistons take that seventh or eighth seed over Brooklyn.

natesilver: Yeah, that’s the thing — it’s not like that lineup looks that great to the eye test? They basically have nothing you’re super excited about at the 4 or 5 positions.

tchow: The GAZE, Nate. Stay on brand.

chris.herring: I’m curious to see what’s next for Jordan — at times, it didn’t look like he was trying last year in Dallas.

natesilver: Dinwiddie, LeVert and Harris are nice players, but they’re old enough that you shouldn’t project much future growth.

So a star-but-not-superstar in Kyrie, a league-average-ish-or-slightly-above backcourt and a pretty bad frontcourt gets you to around .500.

neil: What about some of the other next-tier East teams? Anybody you have an eye on as a dark horse?

tchow: The Knicks!!

natesilver: Tony.

neil: I was literally typing, ‘DON’T SAY THE KNICKS TONY.’


natesilver: I think the Knicks are a dark horse for how bad they might be.

neil: Cavs-Knicks II: The Re-Basementing

tchow: We have them as a 20-win team. That’s so harsh!

natesilver: Like, I’m not sure it’s out of the question that they’re worse than last year. They have exactly one player on the entire team, Mitchell Robinson, who we rate as above average.

And he’s only above average by 0.1 points per 100 possessions.

neil: They also have Kevin Knox, whose projection required us redoing our axis to present negative WAR on his player card.

natesilver: LOL’ed in the quiet car again.

It’s a roster that’s designed for tanking.

tchow: Julius Randle. Underrated. Ntilikina. Underrated. Dennis Smith Jr. Underrated. RJ Barrett. Rated.

That’s a more-than-20 win team.

natesilver: Lots of guys who like to shoot and aren’t very good at it.

tchow: OK. I’ll stop.

neil: “RJ Barrett. Rated.” 😂 😂 😂 😂

natesilver: RAPTOR doesn’t even think their long-term outlook is that bad! It likes Barrett’s upside just fine — it likes Robinson OK. It likes young point guards, and the Knicks have three of them, so maybe they’ll find something there.

But they’re NOT gonna be pretty to watch this year, in RAPTOR’s estimation.

tchow: A serious dark horse I would keep an eye on would be the Heat. Another one of those “they’re not done tinkering with the lineup” teams.

Are the Heat the Trail Blazers of the East?

chris.herring: NO

neil: Interesting comparison. Their Elo ratings are basically the same right now (although Portland has better playoff full-strength potential).

chris.herring: The Heat are on a hamster wheel of mediocrity. At least the Blazers made the conference finals.

neil: I thought the hamster wheel wasn’t viewed so negatively now! Tanking is so 2015.

tchow: I’m putting them both in the making-moves camp. I think both of their lineups will look very different come playoff time, which makes me hesitant to predict their outlook this season.

neil: Chris, I know you’ve written a lot about the Pacers over the years. Can they make any kind of leap into the conversation at the top of the East?

tchow: This seems obvious, but it all depends on Victor Oladipo, no?

neil: Sure. But they kept things afloat reasonably well without him last year, and he’s due back around midseason, if not earlier.

Then again, he’d be another case study for what Nate was talking about in our West chat, the effect of a major injury when a player is coming back. He was a borderline MVP-level player two seasons ago, before getting hurt last year.

chris.herring: I like the Pacers and love their pickups of Brogdon and Lamb. But I still think they may struggle to score at times. They have a shot to be good.

neil: And finally, let’s talk about my dark horse pick in the East (and former employer), the Atlanta Hawks. Anybody wanna tell me how they could win it all this year?


neil: OK, fine. It’s me and Trae against the world.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Who’s better: Antetokounmpo or Jokic?

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.