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Is There Any Way the Bucks and Celtics Can Get Back on Top of the East?

The 76ers and Nets have claimed conference supremacy for now. Is there a trade or in-house solution for Milwaukee and Boston to get back in the running?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Power has shifted in the East. Philadelphia and Brooklyn have the two best records in the conference after leapfrogging the five teams ahead of them in last season’s standings: Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Indiana, and Miami. The Bucks and Celtics are both in especially challenging positions; they entered the season with championship hopes but have underwhelmed and been surpassed in the East hierarchy.

The Philadelphia team that fell flat on its face last August is no more. New personnel and coaching have led to the best season of Ben Simmons’s career and helped fuel a leap by Joel Embiid, who should be the NBA MVP front-runner. The Sixers had their hearts ripped out in Game 7 of the 2019 East semifinals, and then got knocked out in four games in the first round the following year. Now they’re playing like they’re out for revenge.

Brooklyn, meanwhile, finally looks like the superteam it hoped to be following the summer of 2019. Kevin Durant has put to rest fears that he could never be Kevin Durant again after a torn Achilles, averaging 29 points on a career-high true shooting percentage. Kyrie Irving and James Harden are also posting career highs in true shooting percentage. The Nets, unsurprisingly, lead the NBA in offensive rating, and they will only become more potent as chemistry increases. Concerns about the defense persist, but Brooklyn has been solid enough when locked in. If it can do that in the playoffs, its special offense can propel it to a deep run.

The Nets already made their big acquisition by adding Harden in January, but more moves, via trade or buyout, could be on the way for a rotation player who bolsters the defense. Don’t rule out the Nets utilizing Spencer Dinwiddie’s $11.5 million contract in a deal before the March 25 trade deadline; he tore his ACL earlier this season, but at only 27 years old, he could appeal to any team looking to acquire his Bird Rights ahead of this offseason.

The Sixers, meanwhile, could make a big acquisition of their own. League sources say Philadelphia, which came up short in its bid for Harden, is still seeking major moves to increase its championship odds. The trade market still needs to take shape in the coming weeks, so realistic targets are unclear. But one name to monitor is Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, a 34-year-old Philadelphia native in the final season of his contract. A veteran perimeter shot-creator is the only piece the Sixers truly lack, and there aren’t many other players on Lowry’s level who are even theoretically available.

The Sixers and Nets could both reach the Finals as is. They have the two best teams in terms of record and upside. But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Milwaukee was the East betting favorite ahead of the season, while Boston was the most popular underdog. Is there anything the Bucks can do to regain top dog status? Is there anything the Celtics can do to catch up? Let’s break each team down.

Milwaukee Bucks

Good offenses are pummeling the Bucks this season. Against teams with top-15 offensive ratings, the Bucks rank 25th in defensive rating, according to NBA Advanced Stats. This is especially alarming considering Milwaukee ranked first in 2018-19 and sixth in 2019-20 against top-15 offenses and was first overall in defensive rating against all opponents in both seasons.

The league’s best teams have figured out how to exploit Mike Budenholzer’s defensive scheme, which calls for players to pack the paint to prevent layups and instead allow more open 3-pointers. But Brook Lopez has also lost a few steps since being named to the All-Defensive second team last season. He’s lumbering on closeouts on shooters, and has been even more heavy-footed defending perimeter threats.

Lopez, who will turn 33 in about a month, is still impactful around the rim, but when he takes a step toward quicker guys he’s toast. Opponents attack the rim out of pick-and-rolls knowing Milwaukee will collapse inside and yield open 3s to quality shooters.

During the initial pick-and-roll action, when the big screens for the guard, teams are prepared for the Bucks to preemptively go over screens. Earlier this month, the Jazz shredded the Bucks’ pick-and-roll defense by having Joe Ingles deny the screen (by dribbling in the opposite direction of it) to generate open shots for himself or teammates. Good offenses will rip apart predictable defense.

Jrue Holiday was having a borderline All-Star season before the NBA’s health and safety protocols sidelined him on February 8. On top of losing one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, the Bucks are feeling the offseason losses of Wes Matthews, Eric Bledsoe, and George Hill, three veterans who could be relied on to get on-ball stops or make reliable off-ball rotations. Donte DiVincenzo, Bryn Forbes, and D.J. Augustin can’t make up the difference.

Mistakes are more frequent from the new crew, like in the clip above. Devin Booker uses a simple hesitation to blow by Lopez and Pat Connaughton, which forces the Bucks into rotation. DiVincenzo rightfully closes out as soon as the ball is kicked out to Mikal Bridges for a corner 3, but Forbes is supposed to scurry out to Chris Paul. That doesn’t happen. Forbes takes two too many steps toward the corner and is too late to get to Paul.

In each of the past two seasons, the best defenses were usually the ones who prevented shots near the rim. But as’s John Schuhmann noted this month, preventing shots near the rim now has a negative correlation with defensive efficiency. With more and more potent shooters and passers on the floor at all times, teams are naturally getting better at finding and making 3s. Offensive innovation has historically forced defenses to adjust. Now the Bucks need to adapt.

Budenholzer’s lack of notable adjustments in playoff series dating back to his time in Atlanta has given him a reputation as stubborn. But to his credit, the Bucks are changing. Slowly. This season, they’re switching screens about twice as often—though they still rank near the bottom of the league in frequency of switches. As Eric Nehm from The Athletic detailed earlier this month, the Bucks had some success closing a game against the Suns by switching more screens, though it didn’t work quite as well the following game against the Jazz. Giannis Antetokounmpo said the Bucks are using regular-season games as practices to install this new scheme.

“Win or lose, we’re getting better. Game by game, we improve. We are trying new things. We started the game switching. We’ve never done this before. It’s something we did at the end of the game in Phoenix. It’s something we think is going to help us,” Antetokounmpo said after the Bucks lost to the Jazz on February 12. “We changed our scheme in one day. We basically practiced our scheme in the game, but we know it’s something that’s going to help us two or three months from now.”

A switching scheme doesn’t necessarily guarantee success for Milwaukee anyway. For one, installing any system midseason, with limited off-days and practice time, is a challenge. Secondly, switching works best when there aren’t weak links. Milwaukee’s personnel aside from Giannis, Holiday, and Khris Middleton remains a concern. It’s not pretty when Lopez gets caught defending a guard, or when Forbes finds himself trying to contain a player 40 pounds heavier.

The Bucks most frequently switch screens with lineups that have Giannis at center. Perhaps we’ll see more of this in the playoffs. But even if the Bucks pull Lopez and put Giannis at center to maximize their switchability in a series against the Nets, it would put more strain on their shallow backcourt. The Bucks need to get their scheme right and upgrade the roster. The problem is they gave up the majority of their assets for Holiday. Executives around the league view DiVincenzo as the most valuable asset the Bucks have, ahead of first-round pick swaps in 2021 and 2023, and five second-round picks through 2027. They don’t have much to offer.

League sources told me in November that the Bucks were in pursuit of P.J. Tucker from the Rockets. Their interest remains today. Tucker would absolutely help. He is a stout defender who could thrive in small-ball lineups next to Giannis. Tucker turns 36 in May and will be a free agent this offseason, but the trade possibilities are limited with an empty asset cupboard.

It would be foolish to count out a team led by Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday. The East is wide open, and one or two tweaks could bolster the Bucks’ top-seven rotation enough to help them to the Finals. Still, the Bucks are 6-0 this season against the Cavaliers and Pistons—the two worst teams in the East—but only 12-13 against everyone else. Going back to March 2 last season, the day the Heat had a defining regular-season win over the Bucks, they’re only 27-26 including the playoffs. The evidence that good opponents have figured them out is getting harder and harder to ignore. Giannis is now signed through 2025, but this team cannot become complacent. Change is needed now.

Boston Celtics

Remember the 2016-17 Celtics? The team that went all the way to the East finals with Isaiah Thomas leading one of the most thrilling runs in recent history? Jaylen Brown was a promising rookie. The team was filled with players who had heart like Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jae Crowder. If you told me then that four years later the same team would make two more East finals appearances, and Brown and Jayson Tatum would both be averaging around 26 points, I’d have responded by guessing they’d also be NBA Finals favorites. Boy, would I have been wrong.

The Celtics are 15-15 and lack any of the toughness that defined some of their East finals rosters. Only Brown, Tatum, Smart, Semi Ojeleye, and Daniel Theis remain from the 2017-18 squad that went to a Game 7 against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. The Celtics have undergone more roster turnover in four years than a restaurant staff in a college town. These aren’t the same Celtics anymore. They’ve gone from having Thomas and Al Horford to Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to Kemba Walker, who’s currently playing like a shell of his former self; their top veteran is worse now, and the supporting cast has gotten younger. Danny Ainge makes weekly local appearances with Toucher & Rich on 98.5 The Sports Hub and tends to offer fair assessments of the team. Last week, he was asked if he thinks the team is good enough to win it all. “I do not,” Ainge said.

And yet, most teams would still happily trade places with Boston. Tatum, 22, and Brown, 24, should both be All-Star reserves, marking Tatum’s second appearance and Brown’s first. They’ve both helped lead Boston to deep playoff runs at young ages.

The Celtics have time, too. Brown is signed through 2023-24. Tatum’s max contract hasn’t even kicked in yet, and he’s signed through 2024-25 with a player option for 2025-26. Any NBA fan knows a team’s time with a star ticks quickly, and the Celtics do indeed need to have some urgency. But I agree with Ainge that this team isn’t ready as currently constructed.

“Sometimes, the problems are just internal. Figuring things out, figuring out your team, getting your team healthy, playing better together. It’s not always about firing your coach or trading these three players. But sometimes it is,” Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub. “We’re in the process of evaluating. But we’re always evaluating: What can we do and what should we do?”

What the Celtics can do right now is limited. Unless something changes between now and the deadline, Bradley Beal won’t be available. All indications are that he and the Wizards front office will wait until the offseason to sort out their future. And even if Beal did become available before the deadline, the Celtics probably wouldn’t be able to make the most competitive offer. For the Celtics to ever get Beal, they’ll probably need him to scare teams away by signaling he won’t re-sign anywhere else once his contract is up. Tatum and Beal have known each other since they were kids, so there is a connection. But don’t bank on it. Plenty of teams with contending hopes will chase Beal, and as we’ve seen with Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and a long list of other stars, a player has only so much power to decide where he’s traded.

So, who’s the target that makes sense today? Magic center Nikola Vucevic is a popular name among Celtics fans, but he would be mighty expensive. Executives around the league say Orlando has shown no interest in moving Vucevic. He’s a favorite of Steve Clifford’s coaching staff and a centerpiece of their offense; though the 30-year-old may not be part of their long-term future, he’s an important piece to facilitate development of their young players. Same goes for Harrison Barnes; he’s obviously not untouchable, but the Kings are trying to make the playoffs despite a seven-game losing streak. With Houston’s season going south, Victor Oladipo could be flipped. But would the Celtics want to pay for a potential rental ahead of his free agency this summer, knowing his preference is to play with the Heat?

Adding an older veteran like Thaddeus Young to bolster the frontcourt makes the most sense. He’d cost the Celtics only part of their massive traded player exception, plus less assets than other higher-value targets would. Young is a 32-year-old veteran who could serve as a small-ball center and add toughness, playmaking, and size. But he wouldn’t make them a Finals team, which is precisely why Ainge and the front office are asking themselves: “What can we do and what should we do?”

The lack of an obvious answer is the scariest part in all of this. Usually, if a team has two players under 25 years old averaging more than 25 points per game, you’d say go for it. But these Celtics don’t have the look or feel of a team that is ready for that step. They lack toughness. The Celtics dropped like Miguel Berchelt when the Pelicans punched them in the chin on Sunday, allowing New Orleans to overcome a 24-point deficit to win in overtime. You’d think, after getting pushed around by the Heat in the East finals, Boston would have come back with an edge. It doesn’t help that Smart has been out all of February rehabbing a left calf injury and will likely be out until the second half of the season begins in mid-March. Smart is the heartbeat of the team. He brings a contagious energy to the court and is a vital voice in the locker room.

But Boston’s issues started before Smart went down though. Since Kemba Walker returned on January 17, the Celtics are 7-12 overall and 6-9 when he plays. For all the talk about the big moves Ainge needs to make, it won’t matter unless the Celtics’ former All-Star starts playing like one.

Walker returned midseason from a knee injury that’s bothered him since last February, and he has been a disaster aside from a handful of solid performances. What’s odd is Walker still has burst off the dribble. He said his struggles are all mental. That’s worrisome considering how important he is to the team. In Boston’s loss to New Orleans, Walker missed eight of nine shots in the final eight minutes and overtime. The Celtics need to get something from him in clutch moments that he hasn’t provided this season.

The Celtics need to figure out who they are. It’s a young group with five kids coming off their bench. Time Lord and Payton Pritchard are both silver linings this season, but they lack NBA experience. Veteran pickups Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson have also underwhelmed compared to expectations. Even Tatum and Brown still have room to improve. Tatum is sensational for his age but can tap into more playmaking skill by manipulating defenses more effectively. Just like any player making a leap, Brown needs to prove he can keep this up his scoring clip for a full season (he’s 19 of 55 from the field in his past three games). Who are the Celtics? Ainge is trying to figure out the answer, but time will keep on ticking away.