Milwaukee Bucks: The Eastern Conference is weaker now

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 15: Giannis Antetokounmpo
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 15: Giannis Antetokounmpo /

Although it hadn’t exactly been incredible in recent years, the Milwaukee Bucks should have an easier time navigating the Eastern Conference after this summer.

In a normal year, the Milwaukee Bucks might not have improved their standing much in the Eastern Conference. After all, for the most part it looks like the gang is going to be back together in Milwaukee next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo will keep getting better and Khris Middleton will get healthier, as will Jabari Parker, eventually, but the Bucks aren’t adding new faces outside of one bargain bin free agent and a pair of rookies.

This is not a normal year, however. The Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls both made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference last season, as the seventh and eighth seeds, respectively. Those teams barely snuck into the postseason, even though both of them possessed a star player.

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The past tense there is important. Paul George and Jimmy Butler, the stars in question, have both been traded to the Western Conference. George is now on the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Butler is on the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Nothing is ever certain in the NBA, especially these days, but both of those teams are noticeably worse now. Neither of them got back All-Stars in return for their All-Stars, meaning the talent pool in the East is even weaker.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, and Washington Wizards have all largely kept their teams together. Toronto is losing depth while the team hands tons of money to Kyle Lowry (presumably) and Serge Ibaka, the Wizards are adding complementary pieces, the Celtics could add Gordon Hayward and the Cavaliers…well, nobody knows exactly what is happening there.

All this to say that, barring something extraordinary, the top of the East has not changed much. The Celtics might get better and the Raptors might get worse, but those four teams will continue to be generally good.

The rest of the East, well, not so much. The Bulls and Pacers will likely end up doing something approximating tanking next year. The Orlando Magic still don’t have good players. The Brooklyn Nets will be pesky, but barring an unprecedented leap from D’Angelo Russell they won’t be good quite yet.

The Atlanta Hawks are going to lose Paul Millsap, which greatly worsens them. The Miami Heat are trying to get Hayward as well, but he might end up spurning the East entirely and staying in Utah with the Jazz. The Charlotte Hornets just invested in Dwight Howard and Michael Carter-Williams–enough said.

The Detroit Pistons are going to pay tons of money to keep Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and lock in a core the team doesn’t seem to believe in, the New York Knicks are the New York Knicks, and the Philadelphia 76ers are starting to look legit.

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Four of the group of those teams plus the Bucks have to make the playoffs in the East this coming season. Let’s go ahead and pencil in Milwaukee and Philly. Now two of Chicago, Indiana, Orlando, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Miami, Charlotte, Detroit and New York have to make it too.

Yuck. Simply by largely standing pat, the Bucks are moving up in the East right now. Philly has tons of potential, but it seems highly unlikely that this unproven team is better than Milwaukee next season.

That slots the Bucks in as the fifth seed, at worst, right away. Giannis is probably the second-best player in the Eastern Conference (behind LeBron James, of course), which gives Milwaukee a shot to move even higher in the standings. After all, the Bucks went up against the Raptors and gave Toronto all that team could handle in the playoffs last season. The gap is closing, quickly, between those teams and the Bucks.

It’s possible one of the teams listed earlier–Washington, Toronto, Boston and Cleveland–falls off somewhat. Of course it’s possible the same happens to the Bucks, but it’s hard to imagine anything but a catastrophic injury situation being able to drop Milwaukee into the bottom three seeds in the East.

Nobody added a premier free agent in the East yet. Gordon Hayward could end up being that, but his decision has yet to be made. By simply letting their core grow together, the Bucks could improve noticeably compared to the rest of the East.

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As Wes Edens said earlier this summer, it’s time to start focusing on results. With the Eastern Conference weakening, it’s time for these Milwaukee Bucks to make some noise next year.