The 2019-20 NBA season is almost upon us, the perfect time to speculate wildly about things that will happen months from now. The Eastern Conference is pretty wide open at the top with quite a few teams that could end up representing the East in the NBA Finals.
2019-20 Eastern Conference Playoffs Predictions
First Seed – Philadelphia 76ers
Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers distinguished themselves as the upper tier of the East. With the Raptors losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, they’ll drop down in seeding. Due to this, it’s between the Bucks and 76ers to duke it out for the first seed and homecourt throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Over the summer, the 76ers made some key moves to shore up their contender status. For example, they re-signed Tobias Harris and extended Ben Simmons. In free agency, they brought in Al Horford and Trey Burke. They even made the best of the Jimmy Butler situation and got Josh Richardson back in a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat. Horford is a particularly good signing, as he’s known as one of the few players in the East capable of guarding larger players like Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now Embiid will be safe from Horford while he’s instead guarding opposing team’s bigs.
To put it bluntly, this 76ers team is stacked and ready for a title run. The 76ers will throw out a massive starting lineup, where 6’6” Richardson is the smallest player. Embiid is a legitimate MVP level player and looking in arguably the best shape of his career. Ben Simmons actually made a 3! Just ignore the preseason part. Point is, this team has all the talent and depth necessary to edge out the Bucks for the first seed.
Second Seed – Milwaukee Bucks
Last season, the Bucks ran away with the top record in the East, notching 60 wins to lead the NBA. New Head Coach Mike Budenholzer fully unlocked Antetokounmpo, surrounding him with shooters and letting him bulldoze opposing defenses with ample space. The strategy worked in the playoffs until Kawhi Leonard, who’s on the shortlist of guys you don’t want guarding you, guarded Antetokounmpo. After stalling out in the Conference Finals and with Leonard in the West, the Bucks look to come back to finish what they started.
Like the 76ers, the Bucks went with the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach and made moves to continue what worked last year. They brought back Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and George Hill, ensuring plenty of shooters around Giannis next season. Losing Malcolm Brogdon hurts, 50-40-90 players don’t grow on trees, but Wesley Matthews is a serviceable shooter replacement.
Going into next season, this Bucks team is going to rack up wins. They have plenty of shooting at nearly every position and can make big and small lineups. They also have reigning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Antetokounmpo, who’s yet to fully develop a jump shot. Any improvements there make him that much more unguardable and by extension the Bucks that much harder to beat. They’ll be neck and neck with the 76ers all season, but the 76ers look to be just a little bit better.
Third Seed – Boston Celtics
It would be an understatement to say things didn’t go as planned for the Boston Celtics last season. What some were predicting to be a Finals team dealt with inconsistent play and the sometimes abrasive leadership style of Kyrie Irving. With Irving on another team, the Celtics hope to have a less tumultuous season this time around.
The Celtics lost Irving in free agency but picked up Kemba Walker to replace him. Similarly, they also lost Al Horford but brought in Enes Kanter to give them some big man minutes. Overall, though, the Celtics will be hoping for internal development from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown next season. They’ll also hope that Gordon Hayward can up his consistency following the devastating injury he suffered two years ago.
Even with all the distractions last season, the Celtics still made the fourth seed. Walker can replace a lot of what Irving offered, with hopefully less drama. Kanter certainly can’t replace the defense and versatility of Horford, but can at least be a presence scoring and on the boards. With steps forward from Hayword, Tatum, and Brown, the Celtics should be a lock for third in the conference.
Fourth Seed – Miami Heat
The Miami Heat have been on the treadmill of mediocrity for the past few seasons, having missed the playoffs in three of the last five years. They’ve had plenty of good role players like Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, and Dion Waiters, but no superstar player for them to orbit around. That changed this summer when the Heat acquired Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade with the 76ers.
While their only move of free agency, getting a player of Butler’s caliber will have a huge effect on the Heat. Butler gives Miami the clutch player and leader they’ve needed the last few seasons. The trade to get Butler also sent out Hassan Whiteside, allowing Bam Adebayo to take the starting center role. It also brought in Meyers Leonard, a serviceable sharpshooting backup center. The Heat’s rookie, Tyler Herro, is also generating some pre-season buzz with his sharpshooting skills.
The leap to fourth may be a little extreme, but every team from this point down has some sort of major question. Between Adebayo, Winslow, and Butler, the Heat will have an elite defense. Offensively, they should have just enough versatility and shooting to rack up the wins to take the fourth seed.
Fifth Seed – Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets have put on a masterclass rebuild over the last few years. What was once a barren wasteland of a franchise following the Celtics trade in 2013 has quickly become one of the most interesting teams in the league. They made smart trades, used cap space efficiently, built a good culture, and implemented a fun system for their players to play in. Last season they reaped the benefits and finished with the sixth seed, though the real reward was in the offseason.
Arguably no team had a better free agency than the Nets. They shocked the NBA, and the New York Knicks especially when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving announced they were signing with them. It did cost them D’Angelo Russell, but that’s an easy price to pay for those two. Additionally, they did it all without losing any of their other core pieces. The Nets are deep, young, and now have two of the best players in the league.
The big rub here, of course, is that Durant will likely be out all of next season following his Achilles injury. That leaves Irving in charge of a young team with deep playoff expectations, something Celtics fans can tell you doesn’t always work out. Conversely, this is a team Irving chose, unlike Boston, and one where his good friend Durant is at. Most likely, Irving gels with his new team and they work on getting playoff experience before the real deal starts next season.
Sixth Seed – Toronto Raptors
In July 2018, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri took a huge gamble and traded for Kawhi Leonard. At the time, there were serious concerns about Leonard’s health and the possibility this would be a one-year rental. In the end, though, it didn’t matter. That gamble paid off in the best way possible, with Leonard fueling the Raptors to their first NBA title.
The high from the championship would be short-lived. The flight risk concerns about Leonard turned out to be true, as he left for the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency. Outside of that, the Raptors had a quiet summer.
Though they lost Leonard, there’s still plenty of great talent on this roster. Pascal Siakam won Most Improved Player last season and will now be thrust into the lead role. OG Anunoby will form a stout frontcourt with Siakam. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are crafty veterans with some more still in the tank. With Leonard’s maintenance program last season, this Raptors team got some time to learn how to play successfully without him. Now they’ll put it into practice for the whole season, this time as the defending champions.
Seventh Seed – Indiana Pacers
Ever since acquiring Victor Oladipo in the Paul George trade a few years ago, the Indiana Pacers have been playoff constants. They’ve built a balanced roster that plays well on both sides of the court. Additionally, they’ve developed an underdog mentality that makes them tough to play any night. Even when Oladipo went down with a quad injury last January, the Pacers kept on winning and finished with the fifth seed.
The Pacers summer was a bit of a mixed bag, however. On the one hand, they brought in some interesting players like Malcolm Brogden and Jeremy Lamb. On the other hand, they lost Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young, both of whom were vital over the last two seasons. Overall, it feels like the Pacers at best are a similar team to last season, but maybe worse.
The beginning of this season will be grueling for the Pacers. They’ll be acclimating new players to their system while Oladipo is on the bench until December/January. Once Oladipo is back, however, things should get back on track. Bet on the Pacers making a furious playoff push in March to climb the standings.
Eighth Seed – Orlando Magic
No team in the NBA has ridden the treadmill of mediocrity quite like the Orlando Magic had over the last few years. Usually too good to get a top draft pick, but always too bad to make the playoffs. The cycle continued for seven years until Steve Clifford joined last season. He turned the Magic in a defense-first team that took care of the ball well enough to make a huge leap into the seventh seed.
The Magic didn’t have many options heading into the summer, so they opted to run things back. Their big moves were re-signing Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross. They also brought in a good veteran player in Al-Farouq Aminu. Nothing that splashy.
Even though the Magic didn’t make major moves, there are still some areas for optimism. Their elite defense at the end of last season seems like something that can be replicated going forward. Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac have yet to enter their prime and should improve next season. The biggest area of optimism is in former first overall pick Markelle Fultz, who the Magic traded for last February. If he’s ready to take over the point guard responsibilities, the Magic should win enough to edge out other playoff contenders to make the playoffs again.
2019-20 Eastern Conference Playoffs Predictions – First Round
With the seeding finally decided, let’s see how these matchups look.
As is customary of one-seed vs eight-seed matchups, this should be a blowout between the 76ers and Magic. The Magic have a great defense but don’t have the offense to hang with the 76ers. Additionally, Vucevic isn’t the kind of defender that can stop Embiid once he gets going. The Magic would be happy just to be in the playoffs again. This should be a 76ers sweep.
Things are a little better between the Bucks and Pacers. While the Bucks will still clearly win this series, the Pacers at least will make them earn every win. This should be a good warm-up series for a Bucks team hungry for a trip to the Finals. Myles Turner will make Antetokounmpo work for it, but it’s highly likely the Bucks get the sweep.
Celtics vs. Raptors is when the first round gets interesting. The Raptors will want to prove they’re still a dangerous team without Leonard. The Celtics will similarly want to show they don’t need Irving. The Celtics have the kind of perimeter defense to slow down Siakam and Lowry, while Walker and Tatum give them enough offense. The Raptors should take advantage of the Celtic’s lack of interior defense to win a game or two. Celtics close this series out in six games.
As expected, the most interesting series in the first round will be the Heat vs. the Nets. The Heat specializes in defense, while the Nets do the same on offense. Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving are the kind of friends and competitors that they’re going to go at each other hard. This series could go all the way to Game Seven, with the Heat winning out on homecourt to advance.
2019-20 Eastern Conference Playoffs Predictions – Semi-Finals
The first round ends predictably, with the top four seeds moving on. As we get into the conference semi-finals, the matchups start to get really good.
The 76ers vs. the Heat has some intriguing storylines around it. The teams last met in 2017 where the 76ers beat the Heat in five games, so the Heat will be looking for revenge. More recently, the offseason saw the two teams swap Josh Richardson for Jimmy Butler. Seeing how these two play against their former teams will be fun.
On the court, this will be a slugfest. Miami’s elite defense will give the 76ers problems. While he can’t outright stop him, Adebayo can certainly slow down Embiid. With Winslow matching up to Simmons, he can negate a lot of his impact and force him into more shooting situations. Through defense, Miami can win a few games but ultimately they don’t have the offense to win this series. This series goes six games with the 76ers coming out on top.
Like the previous matchup, there’s some history between the Celtics and Bucks. in the 2018 playoffs, the Celtics barely beat the Bucks in seven games to advance out of the first round. In the 2019 playoffs, the Celtics won the first game of their semi-finals series before getting blown out the next four. Now meeting for the third year in a row, these teams are quite familiar with each other.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, this is where losing Horford is going to cost them. Any team with a hope to beat the Bucks needs a defender that can stop Antetokounmpo’s drives to the rim. Kanter can’t do that. No one on the Celtics can. At best, they can throw bodies like Tatum or Marcus Smart at Antetokounmpo to slow him down and hope that’s enough to win a game or two. The Bucks will knock the Celtics out in six games.
2019-20 Eastern Conference Playoffs Predictions – Conference Finals
In the conference finals, the first seed 76ers are going up against the second seed Bucks. As mentioned earlier, these two teams are clearly the upper tier of the East. It shouldn’t be a big surprise they’re here in the Conference Finals.
Here’s where the Horford acquisition pays off for the 76ers. Horford can guard Antetokounmpo and keep Embiid safe on defense so he can bludgeon them on the other end. With Antetokounmpo’s drives to the rim shut down, he’ll be forced to be more of a passer. This is where losing Brogdon hurts them, removing a valuable shooter for Antetokounmpo to pass to. The Bucks still have enough shooting around Antetokounmpo to win more than one game, but ultimately the 76ers have too much going for them. They’ve got the Giannis stopper, the size to give the Bucks problems, and home-court advantage. This series could go the distance but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 76ers finish it off in six games.
At the of it all, the 76ers will be the team to advance out of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, to play the winner of the Western Conference Finals.
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