The Brooklyn Nets look so much like a title favorite that James Harden felt the need to remember that they are not a title team.
“We are not the target. The defending champions are the targets, ”said Harden. “They won last year. We’re trying to catch them. “
It’s easy to forget about the Milwaukee Bucks. They have the NBA crown, but none of the drama of some of the other main contenders in the Eastern Conference, where the situations with Ben Simmons in Philadelphia and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn were the biggest stories leading up to the season.
Both of those teams finished ahead of Milwaukee in the regular season, but the Bucks ousted the Nets in the second round and won their first NBA title in 50 years.
Giannis Antetokounmpo returned home and celebrated in Greece. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday went to Japan and won an Olympic gold medal.
Now they’re together again, quietly working towards a rehearsal amid all the noise surrounding them.
The Nets won’t allow Irving to play or train with them until he’s vaccinated, instead letting him play in road games when he’s not allowed to play at home due to the New York vaccination mandate.
Kevin Durant and Harden may still be pretty good with a powerful roster around them, but the Nets – and their rivals – know they’re not the same team without Irving’s talents.
“The team probably made the best decision for them to keep the players as locked in as possible and not take that outside noise to affect the team as they prepare for a championship,” Antetokounmpo said. “They have a great team. Do I know if it’s right or wrong? I don’t know. I have to think about it. But at the end of the day, I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But Kyrie’s a great player. “
The 76ers, who had the East’s best record last season, have been without Simmons for most of the preseason while the All-Star goaltender has stayed on the sidelines hoping for a trade. He finally arrived in Philadelphia this week.
Even though these teams are weakened, it looks like a stronger conference than it was a season ago. Miami had Kyle Lowry. The surprising New York Knicks added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. The Chicago Bulls could be on the verge of a move along with DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball.
“A lot of the teams in our conference have improved. We have to improve, ”said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, whose team finished a surprising fourth last season.
A look to the east, in the expected order of arrival:
1. Brooklyn – With former MVPs and scoring champions Durant and Harden in good health, the Nets may not even need a Big Three.
2. Milwaukee – If Antetokounmpo dominates like he did in the NBA Finals, a third MVP award in four years is possible.
3. Miami – Heat never got back to their best form after reaching the NBA Finals in the bubble, but got both more rest and more talent during this longer offseason.
4. Philadelphia – It could go from 1 with Simmons to 8 without him, so put the 76ers in the middle for now.
5. Atlanta – Trae Young and the improving Hawks are a growing team after reaching the Eastern Finals.
6. New York. Adding a good punch to what was a top-notch defensive team in Thibodeau’s first season.
IN THE PLAY-IN
7. Boston – Al Horford’s return to green should pay off for the Celtics.
8. Chicago – Count on Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball to provide you with many highlights.
9. Indiana – Bringing Rick Carlisle into a locker room that had friction between the players and the coach last season is a major move.
10. Charlotte – It was tough on anyone last season when LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were both healthy.
FACING LONG CHANCES
11. Toronto – Being home again should make the Raptors a playoff contender, even without Lowry.
12. Washington – Lost great individual talent to Russell Westbrook, but could be a better team with newcomers such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyle Kuzma.
13. Cleveland – Collin Sexton and Darius Garland will give them a few wins, but not quite enough.
14. Detroit – No. 1st pick Cade Cunningham takes his place in a Pistons team that has some good young pieces.
15. Orlando – Magic traded their best players last season and could be years away from fighting again.
WHAT THERE IS TO KNOW
EYES ON EMBIID
Joel Embiid was setting up an MVP-like season in Philadelphia last season before getting injured. The 76ers might need him to get awesome again without knowing what they’ll get from Simmons.
Durant had little help when Harden and Irving were injured in the series against the Bucks. But with the additions of non-retired Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, James Johnson and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Nets look deep enough to overcome absences this season.
TOP SEED WEAKNESS
The 76ers came out in the second round last season, which has been five straight years since the No. 1 seed failed to win the East. Cleveland was the last team to do so, in 2016.
The four teams with new coaches range from playoff clubs to rebuilding clubs. Ime Udoka replaces Brad Stevens in Boston, Carlisle is back for a second stint in Indiana, Wes Unseld Jr. returns to Washington and Jamahl Mosley changes in Orlando.
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