East preview: Heat returning champs, but have challengers


By TIM REYNOLDS - AP Basketball Writer



FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2020 file photo, Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, center, shouts from the bench in the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Miami Heat in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Antetokounmpo has appeared in a government ad in his native Greece, released ahead of Christmas to urge people to observe public safety measures during the pandemic.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2020 file photo, Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, center, shouts from the bench in the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Miami Heat in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Antetokounmpo has appeared in a government ad in his native Greece, released ahead of Christmas to urge people to observe public safety measures during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)


FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2020, file photo, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, center, talks to the team during a timeout in the second half of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference final against the Boston Celtics in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. For NBA coaches, masks are required this season. Jackets are not. Rules for coaching attire will be relaxed by the league this year, though not as much as was the case during play at the bubble at Walt Disney World this past summer. Suit jackets or sport coats will not be required — but coaches won’t be able to wear the short-sleeved shirts that most donned for games in the bubble, either. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)


FILE - Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum (0) dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game against the Miami Heat, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in this on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, file photo. The Celtics felt like they had built a foundation for seasons to come when they added All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2017. Three seasons later both are gone, and Boston is now shifting its attention back on its youthful core.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)


Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is the two-time reigning MVP. Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant is a two-time NBA Finals MVP and about to get back on the floor after recovering from injury. Washington’s Russell Westbrook is still a triple-double machine. Boston’s Jayson Tatum signed an extension this offseason that could pay him close to $200 million over five years.

And none of them even play for the defending Eastern Conference champions.

The Miami Heat were the best of the East last season, NBA finalists for the first time since 2014 and bring back almost all their top players from a year ago — yet they’re still bracing for what could be a very intense race this season. That speaks to how good the depth in the East will be, with the Bucks, Nets, Celtics, Toronto and Philadelphia all joining Miami as legitimate conference contenders entering the season.

All six of those teams are unquestionably good but at least two won’t win a single playoff series.

“The competition is really good in the East,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Our guys understand that and that’s the job of the coaching staff to figure out where we can improve.”

A look at the East, in predicted order of regular-season finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Milwaukee — Giannis Antetokounmpo is now signed for years to come, the Bucks added Jrue Holiday and they’re in line to be the first East team to earn the No. 1 seed in three consecutive years since Chicago in 1996 through 1998.

2. Boston — Kemba Walker’s knee remains a bit of a concern and Gordon Hayward has moved on to Charlotte. That said, Boston and coach Brad Stevens have more than enough — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart — to contend once again.

3. Brooklyn — The waiting is over and it’s time to see Kevin Durant in a Nets uniform. New coach Steve Nash has assembled a star-studded staff of assistants and Durant, Kyrie Irving and the very underrated sharpshooter Joe Harris should click quickly.

4. Miami — The defending East champs will miss Jae Crowder, but their young core led by Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson could and should get even better. Point guard Goran Dragic in the sixth-man role clearly worked wonders last season.

5. Toronto — It’s starting as a season of change for the Raptors, who’ll play in Tampa. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam are back, Fred VanVleet is signed, and if new bigs Aron Baynes and Alex Len fit quickly Toronto will be fine.

6. Philadelphia — It was an offseason of big moves — Doc Rivers, Daryl Morey, trading Josh Richardson and Al Horford — and the 76ers look better on paper. But what still has to be proven is whether Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid truly work together.

7. Atlanta — The Hawks are all-in on making a playoff run and added plenty of shooting with Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic. The biggest addition: Adding Rajon Rondo as the veteran voice in the locker room and a mentor to Trae Young.

8. Washington — Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, if healthy, aren’t going to be the backcourt that misses the playoffs. Reuniting Westbrook with coach Scott Brooks was a genius move by general manager Tommy Sheppard. The question will be if Washington can defend.

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IN THE MIX

9. Indiana — The Pacers have made the playoffs in each of the last five seasons and lost in the first round every time. Victor Oladipo’s future remains a big question. Indiana is certainly playoff-capable, but it’s hard to see a major forward.

10. Orlando — There are very good pieces here, led by Nikola Vucevic. But not having Jonathan Isaac this season is going to seriously hurt, and Cole Anthony’s learning curve will be steep without the benefit of summer league and a full offseason.

11. Chicago — The Bulls haven’t had more than 27 wins in any of the last three seasons. If new Chicago coach Billy Donovan changes that, it’ll be a good year for the Bulls. Coby White’s development could dictate how the season goes.

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FACING LONG ODDS

12. Charlotte — Lottery pick LaMelo Ball seems NBA-ready and the Hornets have plenty of other young pieces that they like. The Hornets simply couldn’t shoot or score well enough to consistently compete last season; will have to wait and see if those numbers can change after a nine-month layoff.

13. Cleveland — Depth is a huge question, but Kevin Love can still score, Andre Drummond can still rebound and the super-young backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland will be fun to watch. Rookie Isaac Okoro’s motor will quickly earn him respect.

14. New York — It’s going to get better with coach Tom Thibodeau and Leon Rose overseeing everything. It’s also going to take some time before it gets good again at Madison Square Garden. Obi Toppin’s development this year must be priority No. 1.

15. Detroit — Derrick Rose is a former MVP, Blake Griffin a six-time All-Star, Wayne Ellington still one of the best shooters walking the earth, Rodney McGruder is of the highest character and toughness. But it’s tough to see the Pistons winning much.

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WHAT TO KNOW

BIG NUMBERS

With Washington’s Bradley Beal (30.5), Atlanta’s Trae Young (29.6) and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.5) all averaging 29 points or more last season, it marked the first time since 2005-06 when the East had three players scoring at that rate. The list then: Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson, Cleveland’s LeBron James and Washington’s Gilbert Arenas. Before that, the most recent time it happened was 1987-88 with Boston’s Larry Bird, Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins and Chicago’s Michael Jordan.

EAST VS. WEST

The last time the East teams combined to have a winning regular season record against Western Conference teams was 12 seasons ago. The East went 178-211 vs. the West last season. The East won the series 231-219 in 2008-09 — and that, amazingly, was the only time in the last 21 years that it had a winning record against the West. Starting with the 1998-99 season, the East wins vs. the West just 43.4% of the time.

RECORD SETTER

Very quietly, the Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson set an NBA record last season for field-goal percentage. He made 74.2% of his shots, all from 2-point range, most from very near the rim. The previous mark was 72.7% by Wilt Chamberlain in 1972-73.

SCHEDULE TWEAK

With the regular season down to 72 games this season instead of the customary 82, it means East teams will face each other only three times apiece this year. Most East teams typically face one another four times per season, with a few exceptions each season.

PLAYOFF STREAKS

Toronto enters this season coming off seven consecutive playoff appearances, the longest current run in the East and tied with Portland for second-longest in the NBA behind Houston’s eight in a row. Boston (six), Indiana (five), Milwaukee (four), Philadelphia (three), Brooklyn (two) and Orlando (two) are the East’s other clubs with active multi-year playoff appearance streaks.

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FILE – In this Sept. 8, 2020 file photo, Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, center, shouts from the bench in the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Miami Heat in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Antetokounmpo has appeared in a government ad in his native Greece, released ahead of Christmas to urge people to observe public safety measures during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
https://www.wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2020/12/web1_125949931-dfb8b4783ca94a71b2b38a8608d3cdcd.jpgFILE – In this Sept. 8, 2020 file photo, Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, center, shouts from the bench in the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Miami Heat in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Antetokounmpo has appeared in a government ad in his native Greece, released ahead of Christmas to urge people to observe public safety measures during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

FILE – In this Sept. 23, 2020, file photo, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, center, talks to the team during a timeout in the second half of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference final against the Boston Celtics in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. For NBA coaches, masks are required this season. Jackets are not. Rules for coaching attire will be relaxed by the league this year, though not as much as was the case during play at the bubble at Walt Disney World this past summer. Suit jackets or sport coats will not be required — but coaches won’t be able to wear the short-sleeved shirts that most donned for games in the bubble, either. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
https://www.wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2020/12/web1_125949931-ec88271265104f389cb57cce6454b44d.jpgFILE – In this Sept. 23, 2020, file photo, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, center, talks to the team during a timeout in the second half of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference final against the Boston Celtics in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. For NBA coaches, masks are required this season. Jackets are not. Rules for coaching attire will be relaxed by the league this year, though not as much as was the case during play at the bubble at Walt Disney World this past summer. Suit jackets or sport coats will not be required — but coaches won’t be able to wear the short-sleeved shirts that most donned for games in the bubble, either. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

FILE – Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum (0) dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game against the Miami Heat, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in this on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, file photo. The Celtics felt like they had built a foundation for seasons to come when they added All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2017. Three seasons later both are gone, and Boston is now shifting its attention back on its youthful core.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
https://www.wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2020/12/web1_125949931-acc09d520b544710ba846edefdd5d0dd.jpgFILE – Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum (0) dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game against the Miami Heat, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in this on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, file photo. The Celtics felt like they had built a foundation for seasons to come when they added All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2017. Three seasons later both are gone, and Boston is now shifting its attention back on its youthful core.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

By TIM REYNOLDS

AP Basketball Writer