giannis-antetokounmpo-mean-mug

Before you proceed make sure that you’ve read part one: https://thehoopandtheharmblog.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/the-east-is-already-great-again-part-1/

Let’s keep things rolling, shall we?

Last time I put forward the argument the NBA Eastern Conference is an exciting and worthwhile destination for all of your quality basketball needs.

I went through the top five teams in the Conference and gave you something to love about each.

Since that article went up there has been a major Eastern Conference shake-up: Kyle Korver got traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

I can hear you all now. “See Josh! The Cavs are taking the East no matter what! Why should we even waste our time when the West has the Spurs, Warriors, Rockets and Clippers and anyone one of them when healthy can take the conference?”

Well that’s never been the crux of my argument.

I know the Cavs are going to win the Eastern Conference. In fact, I’d put a lot of money on them winning the Larry O’Brien trophy for the second consecutive year and that was before the Korver deal was made.

The point is the East is a much more entertaining and competitive conference for a number of reasons beyond who is going to win it. Young teams are on the rise. Old vets have found new life. The battle for positioning in the lower four seeds in the conference is going to be entertaining as hell throughout the remainder of the season.

As we go through the next five teams in the conference, that will become more apparent.

There is no team in the East that exemplifies what I think you should love about the Eastern Conference than this next one.

Milwaukee Bucks

I’m just going to lay it out on the table and set aside any illusions of objectivity when it comes to writing about this team. The Milwaukee Bucks are by far my favourite team to watch in the NBA this season. I’ve got League Pass and most of the time it is locked in tight on these young Bucks. This squad is young, dynamic and on the come up.

If you want to know what the future of the Eastern Conference is going to look like, look no further than Milwaukee.

The primary reason for this is emerging young superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo who is hands down of the best, most dynamic, versatile and exciting players I have ever seen take to a basketball court.

He is affectionately referred to as “The Greek Freak” because although he is 6’11” tall, his wingspan is 7’3” which is fucking insane.

It’s hard to imagine the capabilities of a man with such dimensions and thanks to Giannis, we don’t have to anymore.

After three seasons of steady improvement and growth with the Bucks, Giannis is breaking out in ways even his biggest supporters probably didn’t see coming.

Antetokounmpo is currently averaging 24 points, 9 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.9 steals per game. He’s increased his offensive production by one third from last season and almost doubled his back end stats.

His impact on the Bucks on both sides of the floor is otherwordly. As you can imagine, a man with limbs as long as The Greek Freak would be a defensive nightmare, but on the offensive end, he’s often even more impressive.

Where some guys might take three or four strides to drive to the basket, Giannis can get there in two. That’s not an exaggeration. Watch some Bucks games if you don’t believe me. It’s incredible. Sometimes I can’t even believe it’s happening.

As the young Greek has physically come into his own, Bucks coach Jason Kidd (one of the greatest coaches of all time) has even allowed Antetokounmpo to run the point. The results are unbelievable. Seriously someone should design an app to tell people whenever Giannis is running the point because that is must see TV. I text people whenever he is about to do something incredible with the ball because it is that much of an event to me. Nobody ever complains when I do.

The scary thing is that he’s only 22. He’s not even close to peaking yet and there’s no limit to what he can do.

There is nothing more gratifying as a basketball fan than seeing a player who can do things that I’ve never seen before and Giannis that guy. Bill Simmons calls players like that “unicorns”. I don’t necessarily like that term but that’s how rare it is to see someone like that in the association. Someone with natural talent and physical abilities to make us rethink the limits of how the game of basketball is played.

That’s the type of talent the Bucks have. He is the biggest asset they’ve managed to draft since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (before you write me your complaints, they traded for Ray Allen’s rights). When the only guy I can compare you to in a team’s history is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, you know that you’re on your way to a remarkable career.

Even the King has taken notice.

In three meetings with the Cavs this season, the Bucks have caused them all kinds of problems. Including a game where they absolutely dominated Cleveland beating them 118-101 largely off of Antetokounmpo’s unbelievable 34 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals and 2 blocks.

LeBron was rattled to say the least. He made very un-LeBron-like comments about the Bucks play and accusing Giannis and Jabari Parker of only getting up for the Cavs in a strange, nonsensical rationalization of the Cavs getting absolutely taken to the woodshed.

The King is shook because he knows what’s coming. The heir apparent to the East is in Milwaukee.

Let’s talk about the second budding superstar on the Bucks.

Jabari Parker is, much like his Greek teammate, having a coming out party of a season. He’s put up a stat line of 20.4 points per game, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.5 assists while shooting almost 50% from the field. He’s been getting some serious all star attention.

His perimeter play is absolutely outstanding as is his ability to take opposing forwards to the post. Parker is absolutely living up to the hype that he received as the 2nd overall pick in one of the deepest draft classes of all time (in 2014 behind only Andrew Wiggins).

Now fully recovered from an ACL injury that robbed him of the majority of his rookie season and still hampered him last season, the 21 year old is blossoming into the top level forward that most projected him to be in the NBA with an explosiveness and athletic ability that puts him above a lot of other young talent in the league.

This is the Bucks one-two punch. A 22 year old once-in-a-lifetime talent and a 21 year old primer forward in the league. With a core like this, it’s hard not to get excited about basketball in Milwaukee.

Add to that the shockingly high level of play of unheralded second round pick Malcolm “President” Brogdon (NOBODY saw that coming) and the potentially high upside of first overall pick Thon Maker and there’s your team of the future.

In the present, the pieces around the core have been performing very well this season. Greg Monroe, after looking a bit lost in his first season with the Bucks, has settled into a bench role that has some people talking about him potentially getting some sixth man of the year consideration.

The Tony Snell-for-Michael Carter-Williams trade that had a lot of people scratching their heads is paying off huge in Milwaukee as Snell is thriving in a starting role and has really given the Bucks another versatile weapon in the back court.

Add to that the stellar play of Mirza Teletovic, Michael Beasley (!) and the 104 year old Jason Terry in supporting roles and you have a team that you absolutely want no part of in the playoffs.

That isn’t to say that everything has gone perfect for Milwaukee.

A recent home and home with the Knicks where the Bucks looked like the most clutch team in the NBA when Giannis hit a game winner to become king of New York. They didn’t look as good blowing a lead in the fourth quarter at home against that same Knicks team.

When they’re on though, they can beat anyone. I can’t wait to see what noise they make in the playoffs.

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers are another team that proves that the level of competition is better in the East for different reasons than the Bucks.

While the Bucks are a team that found the right formula largely through the draft and through luring the man they wanted to shape their young team, Jason Kidd, away from Brooklyn, the Pacers recently decided to completely retool their squad to less than desirable results.

The Pacers were looking for new pieces to surround superstar Paul George and promising second big man Myles Turner with after an underwhelming season that saw them finish as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference and drop their first round series with the Toronto Raptors in 7 games despite Paul George’s Herculean effort and despite the Raptors doing everything in their power to hand the series over to Indiana.

As a result, gone was head coach Frank Vogel whose contract was not renewed to make room for Nate McMillan to be promoted. George Hill was traded away as part of a three team deal with Atlanta and the Utah Jazz that brought Jeff Teague to the Pacers. Ian Mahinmi, Solomon Hill, Ty Lawson and Jordan Hill all left as free agents.

In their place came Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson Aaron Brooks and Kevin Seraphin along with the acquisition of Teague.

Larry Bird, Kevin Pritchard and the Pacers hoped that it would make the Pacers a more dynamic offensive team and it certainly has as the Pacers went from having the 25th ranked offense in the association to the 16th best currently.

Unfortunately with these tweaks the D dropped from 3rd best in the entire NBA to 22nd this season.

The grand result is that the Pacers currently sit as 7th in the Eastern Conference just like last season. Although that is a precarious position as only 3.5 games separate 7th from 12th in the East. It’s going to be what the great Kevin Garnett once called a bar fight to determine those lower seeds.

The Pacers are theoretically a good team. Paul George is still a superstar and is picking up where he left off with 22.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game on a team that was designed to take some of the offensive load off of him. He’s still the man in Indiana and the type of guy you want to build your team around.

Myles Turner is looking impressive in only his sophomore season, averaging 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds which is a huge leap over his rookie numbers. He’s being trusted with bigger minutes and has the highest player efficiency rating on the team. He is a budding franchise cornerstone and definitely the foundation for the team going forward along with PG13.

Jeff Teague is having the best season of his career and really clicking with the team.

Yet the team remains stuck in neutral.

Even if you factor in that Thad Young has underperformed and Rodney Stuckey has battled injuries. The fact remains that the Eastern Conference isn’t what it used to be. If the Pacers fielded this Roster two or even three seasons ago, they’d easily be a top three or four seed in the Conference (look at the Hawks team that won the entire Conference two seasons ago and tell me this Pacers squad couldn’t have hung in there with them). Not anymore.

The quality of competition has gotten better and emerging young talents and new systems in the Conference require a larger degree of talent and a better balance in on both ends of the floor.

The Pacers likely jumped the gun in a drastic move that threw off the offensive/defensive balance.

Luckily for them they still have Myles Turner and Paul George.

That is enough to keep them competitive and most nights and definitely a strong foundation for them to build on going forward. Although this year has been underwhelming for them, expect to see them in the Eastern Conference playoff picture for years to come.

Larry Legend won’t have it any other way.

Chicago Bulls

Much like the Pacers, the Bulls are another team that retooled in an extremely drastic way after a season that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in 8 years.

The Bulls facelift saw them jettison former MVP Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah – former defensive player of the year coming off an injury plagued season, Pau Gasol – future Hall of Famer who was productive in a two year stint with the Bulls, Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell, Justin Holiday and Aaron Brooks.

In were veteran centre Robin Lopez, Rajon Rondo, Isiah Canaan, Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams, rookie Denzel Valentine and in the biggest move of the off-season three-time NBA Champion, Finals MVP, 12 time All-Star, surefire Hall of Famer, Prince’s favourite basketball player and hometown Chicago boy Dwayne Wade.

The results have seen the Bulls see their 15th ranked defense rocket to 6th best in the league but the result is that their defense remains stuck at 23rd in the NBA which is strange because Fred Hoiberg was brought into replace Tom Thidodeau two offseasons ago to improve the Bulls offensive play, which clearly didn’t materialize.

Again much like the Pacers, the Bulls on paper are a team that likely would have dominated the Eastern Conference in previous seasons but the balance of power has shifted.

There is still a lot to be happy about in Chicago though.

Jimmy Butler remains one of the best players in the NBA on both sides of the ball. For those of you who caught the Bulls thrilling come from behind victory against the Toronto Raptors yesterday, Butler was a dynamo on both sides of the floor while scoring 32 of his 42 points in the second half. All with Kyle Lowry guarding him.

The Bulls haven’t had a forward this dynamic since Scottie Pippen as he leads the team in scoring, blocks and is second in assists and rebounds. He’s been an NBA All-Defensive player for each of the three last seasons.

It’s strange that there are so many trade rumours surrounding this guy because he really is one of the top young talents in the association and even though, Derrick Rose won an MVP as a Bull, he’s the best player Chicago has put out on a basketball court since…well…you know.

Jimmy Buckets has the fourth best player efficiency rating amongst Eastern Conference starters with only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Isiah Thomas and LeBron James ahead of him. That is elite company and the type of franchise cornerstone the Bulls have been searching for since the late 90s and thought they had until Derrick Rose’s body fell apart.

Having Dwyane Wade on the team has also been great for Butler.

Even though the 3 time NBA champions isn’t what he once was physically, he still shows flashes of brilliance and can only be a good influence on the Bulls locker room. When an all-time great joins a team and immediately reassures everyone that it belongs to their young star, that’s a huge boost to the organization.

Wade has brought that to Chicago.

It’s also nice to see him land in a good destination after the unforgivable way he was treated on the way out of Miami with Pat Riley seemingly wanting to make everyone but D-Wade a priority in contract negotiations and the way things ended with the Heat was especially hard to watch given that South Beach was the only NBA home that D-Wade has ever known.

But now he’s in his actual hometown of Chicago and currently is a major factor behind the Bulls being in a playoff position. If Wade can stay healthy, the Bulls should be there for sure.

Of course there a still a lot of obstacles to overcome going forward. Rajon Rondo has already started to revert to his erratic ways in making contract demands before the half-way point of the season. Taj Gibson, although playing really well, is probably due for his annual stint on the injured list. Nikola Mirotic, who should be a key piece off the bench, has been very inconsistent this season and those ridiculous Jimmy Butler trade rumours keeps popping up.

But with Wade and Butler leading the way, a resurgent Robin Lopez, Michael Carter-Williams seemingly being happy in a bench role and decent second unit contributions most notably by Doug McDermott, (who had his first career double-double against the Raptor last night), the Bulls should be in the playoff picture right down to the wire.

Washington Wizards

Remember when John Wall and Bradley Beal were telling everyone who would listen that they were the best backcourt in the NBA?

Well they probably aren’t but they’ve been trying like hell to make the case this season. If you laughed at them before, you shouldn’t be this season.

Lost amongst all the other stories around the Association is the fact that John Wall is having the best season of his life. By far. His numbers are staggering. With 23.2 points and 10.2 assists per game, he’s on his way to averaging a double-double for the third straight season of his career. His field goal percentage is way up to the best it’s ever been in his career at 47%. He’s been an absolute offensive dynamo for the Wizards yet again this season.

The biggest unsung story on Wall is his back-end play. He’s averaging 2.3 steals per game while his player efficiency rating has shot up nearly five points this season and he’s been an absolute force on both sides of the floor using his speed, agility and efficiency. I’ve long believed John Wall to be, one of, if not the best defensive point guard in the NBA and his numbers this season are undeniable making that case. He was an all-defensive snub last season. He won’t be this year.

While fans and media in my city are doing a clumsy job trying to make the case that Kyle Lowry is the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, John Wall puts up ridiculous numbers and remains mysteriously underrated.

Bradley Beal is also having the best season of his career, averaging 22.4 points per game which is almost 5 points above his previous best last season. His player efficiency rating has rocketed up to 19.7 from a previous high of 15.5 last season and he’s a plus player in box plus/minus for the first time in his career.

The young shooting guard has improved virtually every facet of his game and he’s not even close to peaking yet at only 23 years old.

Having this backcourt to build around is always going to keep the Wizards in the mix.

Add to that, Otto Porter Jr playing his mind out in a contract. Porter is determined to get PAID this offseason and with the numbers he’s putting up – 14.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, both career highs and light years ahead of anything he’s done before – the young forward is going to get his money and rightfully so.

After being criticized over the first three years of his career, Porter has become a very reliable weapon for the Wizards. He’s shooting 54% from the field including a very impressive 43% accuracy from 3 point range. This is a young man who is peaking at the right time.

Marcin Gortat and Markief Morris give the Wizards strong veteran presence in the frontcourt and the once maligned Wizards bench has looked a lot better with Marcus Thornton, Trey Burke,Kelly Oubre Jr and recently Jason Smith making meaningful contributions.

Washington remains a team that you absolutely don’t want a match-up with in the first round. Wall and Beal have the ability to absolutely torch you with their speed and add Otto Porter’s elevated play to the mix and that’s a team that could cause all kinds of problems for opposing defences.

Remember two seasons ago when the Wizards swept the higher seeded Raptors in a first round match-up?

Don’t be surprised if it happens again.

New York Knicks

The Knicks are another team like Indiana and Chicago that radically retooled this offseason after yet another putrid season near the bottom of the Eastern Conference that saw them fire coach Derrick Fisher before the end of the campaign and really look like a disaster in Phil Jackson’s second year as team President and resident zen master.

The facelift was dramatic to say the least.

Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant were sent to the Bulls for former MVP Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday and a 2017 first round pick.

Arron Affllalo, Derrick Williams and Langston Galloway all bolted in free agency while Amar’e Stoudemire retired to take his talents to Israel.

Added to the team were Courtney Lee, Joakim Noah, Brandon Jennings, undrafted Duke product Marshall Plumlee, Lithuanian product, Mindaugus Kuzminskas and young Senegalese player Maurice Ndour.

The Knicks also hired head coach Jeff Hornacek, most recently of the Phoenix Suns who during his time there oversaw one of the association’s most creative and enjoyable offenses in the NBA. He used to deploy three point guards (Gordan Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isiah Thomas) at the same time in some sets and it was magical.

Hornacek has also mercifully backed away from using Tex Winter’s triangle offense which Phil Jackson famously used to guide his Bulls and Lakers teams to a combined 11 championships but without a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant in sight was not going to work for these Knicks.

The results have worked out really well as the Knicks are in the hunt for their first playoff spot since the 2012-13 season.

Derrick Rose, while he will never return to his MVP form due to age and injuries, has been stellar with 17.8 points, 4.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting with his highest efficiency since his MVP season in 2010-11. Derrick Rose, much like the Eastern Conference, is great again.

Fellow former Bull Joakim Noah has also bounced back nicely in the Big Apple. He’s currently leading the team in rebounds and playing a meaningful defensive role after a disastrous injury shortened final season in Chicago that lead many to question whether or not his days were numbered in the association. His performance so far this season shows that he still has a lot left in the tank.

Courtney Lee is putting up a career best 47% from three point range and has been a solid gunner for the Knicks after splitting time with Memphis and Charlotte last season.

Carmelo Anthony is still effective even in his 16th campaign. Putting up an impressive 22.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. Another feather in the cap to his Hall of Fame career.

But the real star of the show in New York is second year Latvian power forward Kristaps Porzingis who has established himself not just as one of the premier young talents in the entire NBA but also as the undisputed king of New York.

He’s a phenom on both sides of the court. One who can block a shot as well as any top defender in the league but who can also stretch the floor on offense with a insanely hot touch from 3 point range (42%).

Much like Giannis Antetounmpo in Milwaukee, Porzingis offers something new and never before seen in the NBA before. A big man who can shoot like a gunner. His 20.1 point and 7.7rebound average only hints at how hard he is capable of making life for opposing defenses.

Porzingis is absolutely the number one reason to tune into Knicks games as pretty much anytime he hits the floor, you’re going to see him do something no other 7’3”, 240 pounder has done in the league before. He’s a rarity, another of those so-called “unicorns” in the game of basketball.

And he’s doing it all on the league’s biggest stage.

Of course, beyond the on court magic of the young Latvian superstar, the Knicks offer all kinds of entertainment off the court as well. Although more of the tragic kind.

Phil Jackson just can’t stop putting his foot in his mouth.

Whether it’s calling LeBron James’ associates a “posse” or calling his own future Hall of Fame player Carmelo Anthony a “ball hog” or his very public split from Lakers heiress Jeannie Buss, Phil Jackson has proved to be a major distraction to the Knicks this season.

It’s sad to see the former undisputed best coach in the NBA reduced to such a sideshow role in the biggest basketball market in the world.

But there it is. It’s painful to watch, but it’s also entertaining as hell.

You’d expect nothing less than a media circus in New York and the Knicks deliver both on the court and off.

Hopefully the Knicks get to do it in the playoffs.

Next time we’ll take a look at the Pistons, Magic, Heat, 76ers and Nets. If you think I can’t find things for you to love in the bottom of the East, you’re absolutely wrong.

In the meantime, expect the five teams profiled in this piece to swap positions in the East at least 27 times.

As always your feedback is appreciated.

And remember the Eastern Conference is already great again.