Eastern Conference Breakdown for the Return (free article)

July 14, 2020 by Kyle McKeownView Comments

We're getting close to the NBA actually returning, and there's a lot to go over regarding each team's roster challenges and motivation in the final 8 regular season games.


In just 8 days from now (July 22), we'll have exhibition games starting in the lead up to the 8-game return to finish out the regular season.


To try and get everyone prepped for any unique regular-season leagues or the coming DFS action, I've written up quick primers on both conferences, starting with this Eastern Conference article.


It's all pretty straightforward stuff but seemed worth compiling ahead of what's looking like an awesome NBA return.


22 Teams

9 Eastern Conference teams and 13 Western Conference teams.


For this article, I'll be looking at the 9 Eastern Conference teams and will post an article with the 13 Western Conference teams tomorrow.



The top 8 teams are pretty much locked into their playoff spots in the East.


For the top 6 teams, the Bucks have a 6.5 game lead on the Raptors for the No. 1 seed in the East, which they're unlikely to lose.


The Raptors will likely hold down the second spot with a 3.0 game lead on the Celtics. From there, it will be interesting to see who ends up settling in from 3rd to 6th place out of the Celtics, Heat, Pacers, and 76ers.


The Wizards (9th) are 6.0 games behind the Nets (7th) and 5.5 games behind the Magic (8th). The Wizards only need to be within 4 games of the 8th seed to force a playoff, so it is possible; but the Nets or Magic would have to implode, and the Wizards would also have to win most their games to even force the one-and-one play-in.


If the Wizards do get within 4 games of the Nets or Magic, the NBA has set up a play-in tournament for the 8th and 9th seed. The 9th seed has to win both games of the play-in to overtake the 8th seed for the real playoffs. Or to put it another way, the 8th seed only has to win one of the two games to advance to the playoffs.


Bucks (53-12)

Everyone is healthy and available for the Bucks.


While the Bucks might want to take a good look at their core during the return, it's also possible that their health and chemistry could lead to some blowouts and lower minutes for their stars.


Having said that, it is interesting how tough the Bucks' schedule looks, and we could end up seeing a lot more close games and bigger minutes than expected. The Bucks play the Celtics, Rockets, Nets, Heat, Mavs, Raptors, Wizards, and Grizzlies. Those are going to be some fun games, except for the Nets and Wizards matchups.


The Bucks' one back-to-back set is for their 6th and 7th games, in which they'll play the Raptors and then the Wizards.


A lot of teams might be resting players for one game of a b2b, and with the Bucks sitting with a 6.5-game cushion in the standings, we should expect several of the Bucks' core players to sit out one of the b2bs, limiting most of them to just 7 games played during the final 8 regular season games.


Khris Middleton said he worked out and stayed in shape, but he didn't touch a basketball for 2-3 months. This is a nice little narrative to think Middleton might have some rust, but he'll surely dust that off in the lead up. I wouldn't discount Middleton because of this note.


Raptors (46-18); 6.5 games back

Everyone is healthy and good to go for the Raptors.


Their schedule is: Lakers, Heat, Magic, Celtics (key game), Grizzlies, Bucks, Sixers, and Nuggets


Their one b2b set is for their 5th and 6th games, in which they'll play the Grizzlies and Bucks.


Given that the Raptors will likely stick in the second seed for the playoffs with a 3.0 game lead on the Celtics, we could see them try to find a game or two for their key players to rest during the 8-game return.


I would think Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet should play in every game, or at least 7 of the 8.


Just like Middleton, Siakam said he didn't shoot a basketball for 2-3 months, but I wouldn't be discounting Siakam, either. He should dust off the rust, too.


Kyle Lowry reportedly stayed in shape, so he didn't put on the covid 15 like I did.


O.G. Anunoby said he worked on his shooting from different spots and ball handling during the down time.


Celtics (43-21); 9.5 gb

The Celtics don't have any big injuries, but Kemba Walker is expected to be on a minutes limit and has dealt with a little discomfort in his left knee.


Gordon Hayward is reportedly healthy, but he also mentioned that his foot still gets sore and that, “it is what it is,” he said. Something to track for now. Hayward was playing a ton of minutes before the break, but that was also with Kemba out or limited.


Robert Williams is a full go, but he may not even be in the rotation every game.


Both Hayward and Vincent Poirier will need to leave the bubble at sometime in September (during the playoffs) to be with their families during childbirth, so if you're playing in a pool that goes through the playoffs, it's worth considering that Hayward will likely miss some games as he leaves the bubble and will need to quarantine for probably at least 4 days when re-entering the bubble. Poirier likely won't be in the rotation most games, so he isn't of much consequence.


Jaylen Brown's hamstring issue is believed to be behind him.


Marcus Smart had covid in March but doesn't have any reported lingering effects. Smart said he didn't have any symptoms and felt great.


The Celtics schedule is: Bucks, Blazers, Heat, Nets, Raptors, Magic, Grizzlies, and Wizards.


The Celtics' one b2b is in their 3rd and 4th games, in which they'll play the Heat and Nets. I'm expecting Kemba and maybe another player, like Hayward, to sit out one of the b2bs.


Heat (41-24); 12 gb

Two players aren't with the Heat in Orlando right now, as it's believed they tested positive for covid. We don't have many details, but it is believed Bam Adebayo and Kendrick Nunn are going to join the team in time for real games. It's something to track, but I wouldn't be discounting them too much based on what we currently know.


Derrick Jones Jr. tested positive for covid a couple weeks back, but he has been cleared and is with the Heat in the bubble. He's healthy.


Tyler Herro (ankle soreness) is 100 percent healthy. Herro should have a decent bench role at least, but the Heat's deep rotation is going to make it hard for him to have consistent value from game to game.


The Heat play the Nuggets, Raptors, Celtics, Bucks, Suns, Pacers, Thunder, and Pacers again.


That's only one relatively easy game, against the Suns. If the Heat are going to rest someone like Jimmy Butler, it might be the Suns game they choose to roll the dice on. By that game, the Suns might be out of the playoffs already, and they might decide to sit out their core guys to avoid injury risk.


The Heat's one b2b is early, in their 2nd and 3rd games, playing against the Raptors and the Celtics. Some players might get rested, like Andre Iguodala, but the Heat's tough schedule, and their need to maintain their two-game lead to stay in the no. 4 seed for the playoffs, might not allow the Heat to rest their key players. The Pacers and 76ers are both just 2 games behind the Heat in a fight for 4th place, one of the funner standings fights to watch.


Pacers (39-26); 14 gb

Victor Oladipo was going to sit out Orlando to extend his rehab and because he wasn't sure he wanted to risk an injury ahead of his free agency, but after a few good practices in the bubble, Oladipo is considering playing, so he might be a pleasant surprise when the exhibitions start off. Even if he does play, he'd be a candidate to rest in one game of the Pacers' b2b.


Malcolm Brogdon said he's ready to play in Orlando after testing positive for covid a few weeks ago. The time off also gave Brogdon time to heal the quad tear he suffered just before the season was put on hiatus. If Oladipo is out, that gives Brogdon a boost, but the Pacers still might rest Brogdon in one of their b2bs.


Edmond Sumner said the time off gave him time to heal some knee soreness that had plagued him since college.


Aaron Holiday looked like he'd be starting, but if Oladipo plays, that'll put a cap on Holiday's potential in the return. Holiday will likely play in a reduced backup role behind Oladipo and Brogdon if Oladipo plays.


The Pacers' schedule is: 76ers, Wizards, Magic, Suns, (easy three-game stretch), Lakers, Heat, Rockets, and Heat again.


The Pacers' one b2b set is early, in their 2nd and 3rd games, playing against the Wizards and Magic.


That three-game stretch against weaker teams could be an opportunity (or two) for the Pacers to look at resting any players that aren't completely healthy.


The Pacers definitely want to try and overtake the Heat for the 4 seed, but it'd be impossible to fall further than 6th place, so the Pacers might decide to just take the path of least resistance and try to keep their guys ready and healthy for the playoffs, since their place in the standings is unlikely to affect much unless they luck into the no. 4 seed, which they shouldn't kill themselves to get.


It'll be interesting to see if coach Nate McMillan focuses on playing his playoff core their usual big minutes or runs out an extended rotation to make sure guys get stretched out before the playoffs without risk of overworking them.

In general, I'd expect McMillan to play his core guys as much as the training staff allows, so guys like T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner (said he was practicing for over a month before bubble) are interesting if the Pacers are going for the 4th seed, and Brogdon and Oladipo could surprise if they're truly healthy.


76ers (39-26); 14 gb

The 76ers' core players are healthy.


Ben Simmons' back issues are believed to be behind him. Simmons says he feels healthier than he was to start the 19-20 season, and coach Brett Brown said he won't limit Simmons' minutes.


Simmons is playing mostly at PF during practices in Orlando. Shake Milton is set to start at PG, with Al Horford playing off the bench.


Milton could be a surprise, but even as the starting PG, Simmons will still be grabbing rebounds and running things a ton to get plenty of assists.


Josh Richardson missed a little time with a concussion before the season hiatus. He is healthy for the return and should start at SG as usual.


Glenn Robinson III was treated for a sore upper back Monday but fully participated in practice.It seems he'll be OK, but he's only in line for a modest bench role at the moment.


For the inconsequential fantasy players, Zhaire Smith is dealing with a bone bruise in his left knee and won't play at Orlando. Ryan Broekhoff was recently signed by the Sixers but is not with the team as his wife has tested positive for covid and is high risk. It's unclear when/if he'll join the team.


The 76ers will play the Pacers, Spurs, Wizards, Magic, Blazers, Suns, Raptors, and Magic. They have one of the easiest schedules for the return, and if I was coach Brown, I'd be considering going for broke to get the 4 seed by catching up to the Heat.


The Sixers' one b2b set is in their 6th and 7th games, playing against the Suns and Raptors. I'd expect Joel Embiid to rest for one of the b2b games, but they might let him play in both if his minutes are somewhat limited in blowout wins during their easy schedule. Horford could also get a rest in one of the b2bs.


Nets (30-34); 22.5 gb

The Nets seem to be mailing in the return to play and looking completely toward next season with a healthier roster.


In addition to Kyrie Irving (shoulder) and Kevin Durant (Achilles), the Nets won't have Spencer Dinwiddie (covid), Deandre Jordan (personal), Wilson Chandler (personal), Nicholas Claxton (shoulder), or Taurean Prince (covid) in the bubble at all, either.


Dinwiddie would have been a lot of fun with Irving and Durant out, but now there'll be a huge opportunity for Caris LeVert to show out like he was before the season went on hiatus and he posted a career-high 51 points in Boston in early March.


With Chandler and Prince out, Rodions Kurucs was starting at PF at practice and appears to have the upperhand on a decent role there.


Deandre Jordan's and Claxton's absences will leave a ton of minutes available for Jarrett Allen, and Allen could showout like we haven't seen from him before, with the roster so lean. Allen is extremely interesting, and after losing his starting job before the hiatus, Allen should have motivation to make an impression in a bid to start next season.


Tyler Johnson was signed and has joined the team in the bubble. He's quarantining for six days before being allowed to participate. Johnson has a path to a decent role with so many key wings out.


Joe Harris should start with LeVert, Kurucs, and Allen, and then Johnson or Garrett Temple should be the other starter.


Harris, Temple, and Johnson have never been consistent or diverse producers, so it's hard to get too excited about their potential, especially if the Nets are just mailing this whole thing in and plan to look at their depth during the regular season games and playoffs.


The Nets' schedule is: Magic, Wizards, Bucks, Celtics, Kings, Clippers, Magic, and Blazers.


Their one b2b is in their 3rd and 4th games, playing against the Bucks and Celtics. Because the Nets are locked into the 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs, they might decide to rest some players in one of the b2b games.


The Nets are an obnoxious team for the return, but I would target LeVert and Allen, and keep an eye on the value of Harris, Temple, Kurucs, and Johnson.

The Nets have also signed Jamal Crawford, Michael Beasley, Justin Anderson, Lance Thomas, and Donta Hall.


Hall could get some interesting modest run as the backup center with little depth there, or the Nets could go small at the backup center with Kurucs and others.


Crawford could surprise and post a big game or two, but I wouldn't expect big run every game. He's 40 years old. He's a man.


Beasley has to finish a suspension for drugs for the first five games, making him only available for the final three games and the playoffs. Beasley also just tested positive for covid, putting his status for the return in question.


Thomas and Anderson shouldn't have too big of roles, if much at all.


I think Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is a dark horse to play more than expected.


I don't have much hope for Chris Chiozza shining, but he should have a bench role of some sort and could surprise if the Nets send any core players like LeVert home before games finish.


Magic (30-35); 23 gb

The Magic are in a weird position.


They have a playoff spot locked up, and with the Nets sending a G League All-Stars squad to Orlando, the Magic should walk into the 7th seed to matchup with the Raptors in the playoffs, avoiding a play-in tournament possibility with the Wizards and a first-round matchup with the Bucks..


This could be a tremendous opportunity to get the Magic's young guys into an intense playoff series, even if they're destined to get blown out in the first round, having that experience for Markelle Fultz, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac (if cleared to play) would be great for their development going into next season.


Isaac is in the bubble and practicing, but he still hasn't gone 5-on-5. Coach Steve Clifford said on Monday the 13th that it'd be another 2-3 weeks before the Magic will know if Isaac is cleared to play in the return.


It might be false hope, but if Isaac is healthy, and the Magic don't get him playoff experience against Siakam and the Raptors, it'd be a huge misstep in his development. Isaac said he is feeling good and “getting there.” He'll listen to what the front office and trainers say is best regarding his return.


Fultz hasn't entered the bubble yet. He was dealing with a personal issue, but is expected to join the team soon. When he does enter the bubble, Fultz will likely have to quarantine for at least four days before getting cleared for practice. I wouldn't discount Fultz too much yet, but this is definitely something to track with so few details being reported.


If Fultz doesn't show, D.J. Augustin would certainly see a bit of a bump, and others would have slight bumps in their touches and assists.


Nikola Vucevic and Gordon have opportunities to thrive, especially if Isaac remains out. Vucevic should thrive regardless.


The Magic's schedule is: Nets (relatively big game), Kings (legit fighting for final spot in West, at least in early part of schedule; another tough game), Pacers (trying to move up to 4th seed), Raptors (just a thick team, and 2nd game of b2b), Sixers, Celtics, and Nets again (to maybe decide the 8 seed and who might have to go through a play-in with the Wizards).


I really like Vucevic and Gordon, and maybe Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross, in the final 8 games, because the Magic have a big incentive to try and win to get into the 7th seed so they don't have to face the Bucks. And because the Magic have a tough schedule, they'll probably play from behind a lot of nights and have to lean on their best players for winning tight games that could get extra minutes for fantasy. Obviously, if Fultz and Isaac are playing, they'll be of interest.


Wizards (24-40); 28.5 gb

Bradley Beal (shoulder “injury”) and Davis Bertans (precaution ahead of FA) won't be playing in Orlando.


With Beal and Bertans sitting out, there should be interesting minutes available for guys like Shabazz Napier, Troy Brown, and Rui Hachimura.


Thomas Bryant said his foot issues are done and that he's 100 percent healthy and doing everything on the court. He could be another interesting guy during the return, or Bryant could end up in a timeshare with Moritz Wagner.


Bryant also tested positive for covid but is expected to join the team in Orlando before games start. It's something to track, but I'm not really discounting him much just yet.


Garrison Matthews didn't travel with the team into the bubble, and it's unclear if/when he'll join them.


Gary Payton II tested positive for covid. Even with Beal out, Payton seems unlikely to have more than a small role when he eventually joins the team.


The Wizards shouldn't have even been invited back, so it'll be interesting to see what they do in the 8 regular season games with so little chance of actually forcing a one-and-one play-in tournament against the Magic or Nets.


The Nets roster is so bad, though, that the Wizards could surprise and force the play-in tournament, making it hard to get a grasp on if the Wizards will fight for a playoff spot or just mail it in and make sure to get all their guys minutes without running anyone like Rui ragged or risking injury too him.


There's a ton of potential value with the Wizards, but I'm afraid a lot of players' minutes could get spread thin in timeshares.


Thanks for reading, and I'll see you sometime tomorrow with a rundown of the West.