The Brooklyn Nets look like such a title favorite that James Harden felt the need for a reminder they aren’t a title team.
“We’re not the target. The defending champions are the targets,” Harden said. “They won last year. We’re trying to catch them.”
It’s easy to forget about the Milwaukee Bucks. They have the NBA crown, but none of the drama of some other top contenders in the Eastern Conference, where the situations with Ben Simmons in Philadelphia and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn were the biggest stories leading into the season.
Those two teams finished ahead of Milwaukee in the regular season, but the Bucks ousted the Nets in the second round and went on to win their first NBA title in 50 years.
Giannis Antetokounmpo went home and celebrated in Greece. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday went to Japan and won an Olympic gold medal.
Now they are back together again, quietly working toward a repeat amid all the noise around them.
The Nets won’t allow Irving to play or practice with them until he is vaccinated, instead of letting him play in road games while he is ineligible to play at home because of New York’s vaccination mandate.
Kevin Durant and Harden might still be good enough with a potent roster around them, but the Nets — and their rivals — know they aren’t the same team without Irving’s talents.
“Probably the team took the best decision for them to keep the players as locked in as possible and not take that outside noise to affect the team as they go for a championship run,” Antetokounmpo said. “They have a great team. Do I know if it’s right or wrong? I don’t know. I’ve got to think about it. But at the end of the day, I think everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. But Kyrie’s a great player.”
The 76ers, who had the best record in the East last season, have been without Simmons for almost the entire preseason while the All-Star guard stayed away in hopes of a trade. He finally arrived in Philadelphia this week.
Even if those teams are weakened, it seems like a stronger conference than a season ago. Miami got Kyle Lowry. The surprising New York Knicks added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. The Chicago Bulls could be poised for a move with DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball.
“A lot of teams in our conference have gotten better. We have to get better,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, whose team finished a surprising fourth last season.
A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:
1. Brooklyn – With former MVPs and scoring champions Durant and Harden healthy, the Nets may not even need a Big Three.
2. Milwaukee – If Antetokounmpo dominates like he did in the NBA Finals, a third MVP award in four years is possible.
3. Miami – Heat never found their top form after reaching NBA Finals in the bubble, but got both more rest and more talent during this longer offseason.
4. Philadelphia – Could be anywhere from 1 with Simmons to 8 without him, so put the 76ers in the middle for now.
5. Atlanta – Trae Young and the improving Hawks are a team on the rise after reaching the East finals.
6. New York. Added good scoring punch to what was a top defensive team in Thibodeau’s first season.
INTO THE PLAY-IN
7. Boston – Getting Al Horford back in green should pay off for the Celtics.
8. Chicago – Count on Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball providing plenty of highlights.
9. Indiana – Getting Rick Carlisle into a locker room that had friction between players and coach last season is a major move.
10. Charlotte – Were tough for anyone last season when Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were both healthy.
FACING LONG ODDS
11. Toronto – Being home again should make Raptors a playoff contender again, even without Lowry.
12. Washington – Lost a great individual talent in Russell Westbrook but could be a better team with newcomers such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyle Kuzma.
13. Cleveland – Collin Sexton and Darius Garland will shoot them to some wins, just not quite enough.
14. Detroit – No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham takes his place on a Pistons team that has some good young pieces.
15. Orlando – Magic traded away their best players last season and might be years away from contending again.
WHAT TO KNOW
EYES ON EMBIID
Joel Embiid was putting together an MVP-type season in Philadelphia last season before he was hurt. The 76ers might need him to be great again without knowing what they’ll get from Simmons.
Durant had little help when both Harden and Irving were hurt during the series against the Bucks. But with the additions of Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, James Johnson and the unretired LaMarcus Aldridge, the Nets look deep enough to overcome any absences this season.
TOP SEED SLUMP
The 76ers went out in the second round last season, making it five straight years that the No. 1 seed couldn’t win the East. Cleveland was the last team to do it, in 2016.
The four teams with new coaches range from playoff clubs to rebuilding ones. Ime Udoka takes over for Brad Stevens in Boston, Carlisle is back for a second stint in Indiana, Wes Unseld Jr. comes home to Washington and Jamahl Mosley gets his change in Orlando.