The (really, really early) look at the Eastern Conference playoff picture

The (really, really early) look at the Eastern Conference playoff picture

BOSTON -- Some of the most significant players in the free agency market hitched their lot to teams within minutes of free agency beginning on Sunday at 6 p.m., creating what will be an undeniable domino effect for the rest of the NBA. 

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will form a lethal 1-2 punch in Brooklyn after Durant’s “redshirt” year after recovering from an Achilles injury. 

The Milwaukee Bucks plan to bring back (most of) the band from last season’s squad which finished with the best regular season record in the NBA by re-signing Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez although Malcolm Brogdon (four years $85 million) is bound for Indiana via sign-and-trade.

And of course, the Celtics came to terms with Kemba Walker on a four-year, $141 million deal. 

Indeed, the deals are getting done at a furious pace which is setting the tone for what should be a much-improved Eastern Conference. 

Here’s a (really, really early) look at the playoff pecking order of teams in the Eastern Conference after Day One of free agency. 

Philadelphia -- The sign-and-trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Miami was about the only hint of a bad night for the Sixers, who got a younger 3-and-D player in Josh Richardson. And then there was the ultimate punch-in-the-gut for Celtics fans with Al Horford agreeing to a four-year, $109 million deal ($97 million of which is guaranteed). Joel Embiid’s biggest nemesis is now a teammate, and the Sixers are poised to not just be the best team in the East but on the very short list of legit title contenders. 

Toronto -- This is assuming the best-case scenario for Toronto which would be for NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to return and seek a repeat. Of course, the Raptors return several key players from their championship squad, but their future as an elite team in the East hinges heavily on which team Kawhi Leonard hitches his lot to in the coming days. 

Milwaukee -- The Bucks kept their core (minus Malcolm Brogdon) intact, and will begin the season as one of the top two teams in the East depending on whether the NBA champion Toronto Raptors are able to re-sign Kawhi Leonard. Khris Middleton’s deal puts him among the highest-paid players in the NBA. The Bucks also brought back George Hill (three years, $29 million) which will help fill the void left by Brogdon’s departure. 

Indiana -- The backcourt tandem of Victor Oladipo and newly acquired Malcolm Brogdon will solidify a Pacers team that continues to be one of those teams on the rise. The growth of Myles Turner into a consistent stretch big will go far in their chances of being among the last team’s standing.

Boston -- The Celtics will have a drop-off with the departure of Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn) and Al Horford (Philadelphia), but it won’t be that far off from where they were a year ago. Kemba Walker will come in and help fill the void left by Irving. But Boston has no one who can replace Horford. Still, there’s more than enough talent for the Celtics to stay in the mix with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and what should be an improved Gordon Hayward (Celtics fans fingers crossed).

Brooklyn -- With Kevin Durant (Achilles) expected to take all year to recover, Kyrie Irving will be very much a one-man show with the Nets, surrounded by good but not great talent. It’ll be enough to continue building off the success of last season and just as important, position Brooklyn to be a major force in 2020 when a healthy Durant returns to action. 

Miami -- Pat Riley has been great at getting free agents to visit. But with no cap space a bunch of bad contracts, he made the most of his opportunity in landing one of the better fits for the Heat in Jimmy Butler. Several pieces had to be moved in order to get Butler in the fold, but it’ll be worth it because Butler is one of the best late-game closers and who knows, maybe he’ll convince Dwyane Wade to come out of retirement for one last dance through the league. 

Orlando -- The Magic had an effective-but-stealth Day One when it came to free agency. They made the playoffs a year ago and went into free agency content on keeping most of their guys around. Mission accomplished with the Magic re-signing Nikola Vucevic (four years, $100 million)  and Terrence Ross (four years, $54) as well as adding free agent Fariq Al-Aminu (three years, $29 million).

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Enes Kanter shows big support for 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall in latest tweet

Enes Kanter shows big support for 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall in latest tweet

Enes Kanter seems to be a fan of Boston Celtics' 7-foot-7 rookie Tacko Fall.

Kanter posted a video to Twitter of Fall practicing at Auerbach Center, and he took time to praise Fall's efforts on Twitter.

The Celtics' signed Kanter to a two-year $10 million deal back in July, while Fall entered Boston's system as an undrafted free agent but he impressed in the Las Vegas Summer League. Kanter is the replacement for Al Horford, who left the Celtics over the summer for the Philadelphia 76ers.

The two should be a great duo for the Celtics, as both have the height and skill to be something special this coming season.

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Countdown to Celtics Camp: Record predictions for the 2019-20 campaign

NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Countdown to Celtics Camp: Record predictions for the 2019-20 campaign

Entering training camp a year ago, expectations were sky-high for the Celtics. Most pundits considered them the team to beat in the East. Vegas fancied Boston as a 59-win team, the second-highest win total behind only Golden State. And a Finals matchup between those two teams was far from a pipe dream.

Fast forward a year and expectations have been tempered. The Celtics lost a pair of All-Stars this summer in Kyrie Irving and Al Horford and, despite signing another in Kemba Walker, the team finds itself widely considered a Tier 2 team in the East behind projection darlings Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

So what happens this year? Do the Celtics go back to being the sort of overachievers that have defined Brad Stevens’ coaching career? Will a younger roster struggle to simply meet even the lowered expectations of this season?

To wrap up Week 1 of our Countdown to Camp series, we asked our NBC Sports Boston panel to look into their crystal balls and predict not only Boston’s final win-loss record but how far they’d advance in the playoffs.

The  Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook projects Boston at 49.5 wins this season. The Bucks (58) and Sixers (55) top the Westgate projections and the next five teams all reside in the west. 

The Celtics went 49-33 last season, settling for the fourth seed in the East. They swept the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers in Round 1 but bowed to the top-seeded Bucks in five games in Round 2.

When you consider that Westgate’s four lowest win totals reside in the East (Knicks, Wizards, Cavaliers, Hornets) and seven East teams sit below 40 wins, it feels like the Celtics should reasonably win 50+ games despite the roster changes.

So we’ll put the Celtics at 52 wins and a spot in the East semifinals. That seeding would likely mean a second-round matchup jousting with either Giannis’ Bucks or Embiid’s Sixers and Boston’s frontcourt development might dictate just how competitive those series could be. Remember, too, Stevens tends to produce his best magic when you least expect it.

The irony, of course, is that the Celtics could win 49 games this season and get bounced in Round 2 again but if they develop chemistry and are more enjoyable to watch then last year’s gang, then Celtics fans will be far more OK with that script playing out a second time — well, so long as players make the sort of strides that suggest more is possible in the coming years.

Abby Chin: 50-32 Eastern Conference Finals

I think purely based on better chemistry and grit, this team will improve on last year’s win total. And, I’ll bank on some luck in the playoff bracket. Maybe with injuries, or regular season Al Horford, Philly and Milwaukee fall to the 2 and 3 seed so the Celtics could avoid them in the first couple rounds.


A. Sherrod Blakely: 50-32, East Finals

I'm gonna keep the cookies on the bottom shelf with this one. They are a better team (team not individuals) than they're going to get credit for, and they have a roster that's full of talent with a huge chip on their shoulders from the coach on down. This group will play harder, smarter and win a lot of games they probably shouldn't and by doing so, keep Celtics fans extremely happy all season.

Max Lederman: 51-31, lose in 2nd round

Before last season the Celtics have always overachieved under Brad Stevens. I expect a return to that with lowered expectations this season. The Celtics also had their worst record vs winning teams last year since Brad's 2nd season. They should put up a better fight this season.

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