Eastern Conference Contenders
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Biggest Problem For Every Eastern Conference Contender

These teams are the biggest players in the Eastern Conference, but they are not perfect. Each has a fatal flaw that could prevent them from winning the 2021 NBA Finals, and with the season winding down and the playoffs set to begin on May 22, the time has come to examine the seasons of the Eastern Conference contenders and discuss what could prevent them from realizing their title hopes. But which teams are true contenders in the East? The conference contains only three: the Philadelphia 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Brooklyn Nets. All three teams have demonstrated that they are capable of winning it all, but each has shown a weakness that could end up being the culprit of a failed title run.

The Philadelphia 76ers – Ben Simmons’ Offense

The Philadelphia 76ers currently hold the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, due in large part to the stellar play by MVP candidate Joel Embiid. After a disastrous 2019-2020 season, new general manager Daryl Morrey reorganized the team around Embiid and Ben Simmons and brought in Doc Rivers as the new head coach. Rivers, a Coach of the Year candidate, has unlocked the potential of the 76ers roster that still has a lot to prove, but if one person is feeling greater pressure to succeed than Rivers, it’s Ben Simmons.

Simmons missed the 2020 playoffs due to a season-ending knee injury and his presence as an elite playmaker was sorely missed. Although he has emerged as an excellent defender in the 2020-2021 season, Simmons has yet to develop as a scorer in his four seasons in the league. He is currently averaging a career-low in points and Rivers has not been successful in enticing Simmons to shoot consistently outside the paint.

Simmons’ most recent playoff game was the pivotal game seven in the 2020 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Toronto Raptors. He had a lackluster game, only scoring 13 points, the lowest in the starting lineup. Joel Embiid might be the best center in the league but he can only do so much, and if Simmons can’t provide more on offense, the Sixers’ chances of outgunning any of the elite offenses around the league are slim. Supporters of Simmons have made plenty of excuses for him already, but if the 76ers want to beat the other Eastern Conference contenders, they simply need more from Ben Simmons.

The Milwaukee Bucks – Mike Budenholzer’s Postseason Adjustments

Milwaukee, coached by Mike Budenholzer and led by star player Giannis Antetokounmpo, has been one of the best teams in the league in recent years, finishing as the top seed in the East in the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons. Antetokounmpo has ascended to become a two-time MVP and DPOY and fellow forward Khris Middleton has developed into a two-time All-Star, but reports have surfaced that Budenholzer is on the hot seat as the Bucks have repeatedly floundered in the postseason. Not only have they consistently underachieved, but they have been embarrassed by teams they were favored to beat on multiple occasions.

In 2019, the Bucks dropped four straight games to the Toronto Raptors after leading 2-0 in the series, then lost to the underdog Miami Heat in a mere five games in 2020. Both collapses stemmed from Budenholzer’s inability to make adjustments in the postseason. In the Toronto series, he was unable to counter Nick Nurse’s defense strategy that completely stifled the Bucks’ offense, and in the Miami series, Budenholzer never assigned Antetokounmpo, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to guard Jimmy Butler, Miami’s most consistent offensive weapon.

The Bucks fell short of a title multiple times when Budenholzer failed to make postseason adjustments, so any postseason flame out by the Bucks in the 2021 playoffs is most likely his responsibility. Jrue Holiday has worked seamlessly as the newest addition to the team, and Budenholzer’s future with the team is in doubt if he is unable to make the necessary adjustments in the postseason.

The Brooklyn Nets – James Harden’s Health

The Nets have a plethora of talent, with their starting five alone featuring Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden. The trio has played only eight games together thus far, however, as each of the Nets stars has missed extended time for multiple reasons. The star power of the Nets is undeniable, but all the star power in the world means nothing if the players are unable to play cohesively with one another when the postseason rolls around.

The Nets roster was thinned considerably when they traded for Harden, so his presence on the court is vital if the Nets have any hope of winning a title. Harden was having an MVP-caliber season, carrying the Nets through the varying absences of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But since his injury, which sidelined him on April 4, the Nets have faltered. Proof of Harden’s importance was on display in a nationally televised game between the Nets and Bucks that the Nets lost despite 42 points from Durant in a back-and-forth duel with Antetokounmpo.

The Nets are certainly an elite team even without Harden, but with him on the court, Brooklyn is nearly unstoppable, as the team’s offensive firepower can overcome their defensive lapses. Harden suffered a setback with his injury but is confident he will return before the playoffs. In short, the Nets cannot afford any more missed time from Harden if they are going to seriously contend for a title.