Wizards

Maybe the East doesn't go through Milwaukee

Wizards

Not long ago, it seemed safe to assume the NBA's Eastern Conference would go through Milwaukee for many years to come. By record, they were the best team this season, they were in the Eastern Conference Finals last year and they feature the league's MVP and defensive player of the year, Giannis Antetokounmpo. All of Antetokounmpo's serious competitiors for the crown of NBA's best player happen to be in the West.

But the Bucks lost to the Miami Heat in just five games in the second round and will now meet the Boston Celtics, who took out the reigning-champion and No. 2-seed Toronto Raptors, in the conference finals. The Bucks losing not only threw a wrench into this season, but also raises questions about the future of the East.

Maybe this won't be a LeBron James-situation where one player has a years-long stronghold. Or, maybe that player and team will be Jayson Tatum and the Celtics. Maybe Miami, led by Jimmy Butler, is poised to control the East once again, now six years after James left South Beach.

In the short-term, there are some lessons to learn about how the Celtics and Heat have made it this far that can be applied elsewhere, like to the Wizards as they aim to take a big step forward next season in what currently looks like a wide open East. For one, depth is increasingly important.

Favoring depth over a top-heavy roster is something the Wizards have preached over the past calendar year since they hit the reset button in their front office. Chairman Ted Leonsis has talked about depth being a major separator in the playoffs and so has general manager Tommy Sheppard. In fact, Sheppard said it was his main takeaway from watching other teams in the bubble, including the Brooklyn Nets who went 5-3 to secure a playoff spot despite missing half of their team.

 

While conventional NBA wisdom might say that rotations contract in the postseason, that benches get shorter, the Heat used their depth to shock the Bucks. Miami's bench outscored Milwaukee's 38-19 in Game 5 with Tyler Herro's 14 points and Kelly Olynyk's 12 points leading the way.

Milwaukee's depth was certainly tested by Antetokounmpo's ankle injury, but their scoring options were limited the entire series. After averaging 118.7 points per game in the regular season, they were held to 106.0 per game against Miami. The Heat, meanwhile, took avantage of a shoddy Bucks' three-point defense to average 15 threes per game while shooting 37.3 percent.

Scoring depth is something the Wizards could consider a strength if their current course continues. They have John Wall, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant; all capable scorers. And they have plans to re-sign Davis Bertans, who could help them form a high-powered offense. Even without Wall this season, and with plenty of injuries, they were 15th in offensive rating and seventh in points per game.

The problem for Washington is their defense and both the Celtics and Heat do that well, too. Boston is fourth in the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating, while Miami is seventh in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating.

The Wizards have a lot of work to do after last season ranking 29th in points allowed and dead-last in defensive efficiency, per Basketball Reference. But the positive news for them is that offense won out in this year's Eastern Conference playoffs. The Bucks and Raptors were first and second in the NBA in defensive rating, and they got bounced.

And, like the Bucks, the Raptors' offense went cold in their second round series. After averaging 112.8 points per game in the regular season, Toronto plummeted to just 99.7 points against the Celtics. They shot just 41.1 percent from the field and 32.3 percent from three.

Miami's 11th-ranked defensive rating is much better than the Wizards, but not spectacular. It could be described as average and not far off from the 14th-best defensive rating the Wizards had after the All-Star break this past season. In order to compete with the best teams in the East, Washington would probably have to at least sustain that number over the course of a full year, if not improve upon it.

In the meantime, they can be encouraged by the trajectory of the East. It is more wide open than we thought and scoring depth, which they plan to have, was a key indicator of playoff success.