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N.B.A. Eastern Conference Preview: The Bucks Aren’t Finished Yet

by Mary Sewell
Here lie the N.B.A.’s most compelling storylines.

Potential contenders in the Eastern Conference scrambled during the off-season to assemble teams fit to knock off Giannis Antetokounmpo — now with a new, improved jump shot? — and the reigning N.B.A. champion Milwaukee Bucks. Even the conference’s perennial bottom-feeders built rosters that will demand attention from basketball devotees. Some teams are just hoping that distractions don’t derail their seasons before they start.

Many wonder how the Ben Simmons situation in Philadelphia will end. The 76ers seemed locked in a stalemate with Simmons, a three-time All-Star, who has wanted to be traded for months. Simmons ended his holdout midway through the preseason and reported to the team but has not played. The 76ers have said they want him on their roster, but if they persuade him to stay, can they really go forward with business as usual?

Meanwhile, the Nets have a bona fide championship roster. They know this, and even with the distraction of Kyrie Irving’s murky status because he’s not vaccinated, they expect to hoist the Larry O’Brien championship trophy at the season’s end.

Could the N.B.A.’s balance of power, which has long rested in the West, be shifting to the East? Here’s a look at how the Eastern Conference shapes up this season.

Miami Heat

In some ways, it seems so long ago. But little more than a year has passed since the Heat plowed their way to the 2020 finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. Was it a fluke, aided by playing under the unusual conditions of a bubble environment, with no fans? The Heat was up and down last season before the Milwaukee Bucks ejected them from the 2021 playoffs in a lopsided first-round series.

Jimmy Butler needs to be efficient. Duncan Robinson needs to be consistent. Tyler Herro needs to recapture his assertiveness. And Bam Adebayo needs to keep making the sort of strides that have pushed him toward becoming a perennial All-Star.

The team should benefit from two additions: Kyle Lowry, who at 35 left the Raptors after nine seasons, and P.J. Tucker, who helped the Bucks won the championship last season.

— Scott Cacciola

Philadelphia 76ers

Ben Simmons is, for now, back in the City of Brotherly Love.

Simmons, who reportedly demanded a trade-in in late August and missed training camp, reported to the 76ers ahead of their third preseason game but did not play. Simmons’s future in Philadelphia remains unclear, though. He still has four years left on his maximum contract.

With or without him, Philadelphia is antsy to win now. Joel Embiid is coming off the best season of his career when he finished second in the voting for the Most Valuable Player Award. The 76ers were the No. 1 seed in last season’s Eastern Conference playoffs but collapsed in the semifinals, continuing their inability to turn regular-season wins into profound postseason success.

Philadelphia is a better team with Simmons, 25, despite his offensive shortcomings. But even if he doesn’t play anytime soon, Embiid, Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Tobias Harris should be experienced enough to keep the Sixers in contention.

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