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DETROIT — The power has seemingly shifted to the Eastern Conference after decades of supremacy on the other side, but the looks of it aren’t as expected.
The defending NBA champions aren’t even at the .500 mark, the Brooklyn Nets have dealt with the biggest — or second biggest — drama in the league and the Philadelphia 76ers take turns flip-flopping with Brooklyn for said title.
Miami, Chicago and Washington are leading the conference, and even though the season is barely 10 games young, each can be a party crasher in its own way.
Luckily for the contenders who’ve been held in high esteem, nobody’s running away and hiding. The warts are clear and present, and the solutions are available but not easy to acquire.
Ideally, the Nets were designed to be the most explosive offense this side of the Curry-Durant Warriors, with Kyrie Irving and James Harden being such supreme shot creators that defense and size would be more of a nuisance than necessary attributes.
But of course, Irving's refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine has rendered him inactive and Harden hasn’t looked like himself, struggling with the implementation of the new rules while also struggling with his body after last season’s hamstring injury.
The glimmer of hope that New York City would change its vaccine mandate when mayor-elect Eric Adams takes office in January quickly dissipated after Adams said he wouldn’t entertain making that change. Nets coach Steve Nash was pretty definitive Friday night, giving the “out of sight, out of mind” treatment about Irving.
“My reaction is no surprise,” Nash said. “I didn’t expect the mayor to change the mandate. We just gotta focus on our team.”
To Nash’s surprise, the team’s defense has been better than expected — or at least, better than his offense. The Nets are in the top 10 in defensive rating and holding the opposition to under 43% shooting (fourth in the league). Much of that stems from Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin putting forth the effort, while DeAndre’ Bembry has made the most of his limited time, with opponents shooting just 23% against him.
“We spent almost two weeks with a different team. Losing Kyrie, it’s a totally different situation,” Nash said. “So we're just trying to build a new team and trying to work with this group. It's a big hole.”
It’s been adjustment after adjustment in the meantime, because if Irving isn’t coming back, one would think personnel moves should be on the horizon to add some rim protection, even though they’re 10th at defending in the restricted area, per NBA.com.
“It's got to step up a level and a notch in minutes and responsibility,” Nash said. “And so to find out what the best way for this group to play is a process.”
Working through Durant as a facilitator has been one of them, and while he still leads the league in scoring and is shooting 57%, Nash has to be aware of keeping him fresh following the compressed season and Olympic run Durant went on in the last several months.
“I've been really proud of the guys the way they've engaged in what we're asking them to do,” Nash said. “Improvements have been made, but it’s a totally different situation and we’ve got to work our way through.”
No team has had to deal with more alterations as a whole than the 76ers currently. Aside from the never-ending saga with Ben Simmons, they’ve had the closest thing to a COVID-19 outbreak as any — hence why the league is pushing for its players and personnel to take COVID-19 booster shots once the six-month time period is up. Joel Embiid was carrying the load, but he will be out for an undetermined amount of time after landing in protocols. Tobias Harris was first to go into the health-and-safety protocols, and now he’s joined by Isaiah Joe and Matisse Thybulle.
Being without their most versatile defender and shot creator affects everything into how this team is built, and no one player can fill that hole. Shockingly, they went on a six-game winning streak before it was snapped by the Knicks on Monday night, the first without Embiid.
“You know what’s funny with us? We don’t know we have problems,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said Thursday following a 109-98 win over Detroit. “We don't talk about it. We don’t voice it. Our guys, they really don't. There's no talk about all this stuff, you know, I didn’t hear anybody talking about COVID today, you know, we came to play.”
Their most accurate shooter, Seth Curry, was a late scratch with a left foot contusion. Some nights, Rivers has looked around and had nine healthy bodies. Andre Drummond has stepped up in Embiid’s absence while Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey have had increased roles at the guard spots.
They’re second in the league both at 3-point accuracy and taking care of the ball while being near the bottom on the glass, even with a healthy Embiid. A lot of these players aren’t household names, so it’s surprising that they’re first in offensive rating, with seven players averaging double figures.
In a way, they’re the total opposite of the Nets but still with questions just the same.
“They're close. They are void of distractions, so far,” Rivers said. “It’s fun, this group, they just focus on winning. That's all they talked about before the game. They don’t know how they’re going to do it, let’s just find a way to win.”
The Bucks are arguably the most surprising of the three. Not just because they’re the defending champions, but they’ve been such a great regular season team in the Mike Budenholzer era.
But even with Giannis Antetokounmpo showing his game is evolving still, adding a mid-range baseline touch to his arsenal, it’s tough to operate without three starters. Khris Middleton has been out for the last five games, in the health and safety protocols, while Brook Lopez has only played one game and Donte DiVincenzo is still recovering from ankle surgery last season.
Finding a perimeter scorer to aid Antetokounmpo has been by committee, but it hasn’t been nearly enough, and taking opponents' best shots has created a struggle.
“We were playing real well against Brooklyn [in the season opener], and after that first game, but even during that game, Jrue [Holiday] went down,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “We haven’t been playing the best, we haven’t made shots. But it’s too early.”
The Bucks lost five of six before going into Philadelphia and grinding out a win against the 76ers minus Embiid. They’re 22nd in field-goal percentage, even with Antetokounmpo shooting 51%, and are 17th in offensive and defensive rating.
With Antetokounmpo being pushed into playing more small-ball center, only the New York Knicks are better at defending the restricted area so there’s a belief once Lopez returns, the defense will become more sound.
“Obviously, as much as building good habits in the regular season is good, we gotta play,” Antetokounmpo said. “I would never pace myself. I don’t think the team is pacing ourself. We’re injured. Right now, I know we’re struggling, but we can pick it up. I’m not worried.
“We were third or fourth last year, and we won the championship. Does it really matter? It’s about building good habits.”
One thing is for sure, Antetokounmpo isn’t wearing any championship arrogance. He knows there are plenty of contenders in the East capable of dethroning his team, even if he’s not focused on anyone else’s particular struggles.
“I’m not paying attention to that. Nobody scares us,” Antetokounmpo said. “But there’s good teams out there that can win a championship. Brooklyn’s one. Philly. Miami is very good. We’re not the only one. Once we’re healthy, we’ll give ourselves a chance to do wonderful things.”