Holbrook: Projecting the NBA’s Eastern Conference

Matt Thomas makes a move to the corner in the first half against Purdue in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on March 18, 2017.

Trevor Holbrook

People across Iowa continue to feast on football as November inches forward, but this week marked the start of the NBA season.

Iowans seem mostly disinterested in the league, but Iowa State basketball fans should see some familiar faces if they decide to flip the channel to an NBA game.

Iowa State accounts for eight NBA players. This week and next I’ll take a deeper dive into how I see each conference playing out this season. During these picks, I’ll spice it up a bit and try to be bolder because going chalk is no fun, and the NBA (especially this year) can be pretty unpredictable.

This week we’ll start with the Eastern Conference, so keep an eye out for Philadelphia (Marial Shayok on a two-way contract), Indiana (Naz Mitrou-Long on a two-way contract) and Matt Thomas (Toronto) if you’re intrigued by the Cyclone connections.

1. Philadelphia

The top of the East appears to be a two-team race, and I like the variety of options Philadelphia possesses to give them the edge for the regular season. The Sixers sport a roster with lengthy talent from Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. They also brought in veteran Al Horford to compliment the young core.

The 76ers lost Jimmy Butler, which I think is a bigger deal than it’s been talked about — and they’ll lack shooting this year. For the regular season, though, I expect the variety of talent to win the most games in the conference.

2. Milwaukee

The second contender for the top spot has to be the Bucks. I like Milwaukee’s potential mostly because they have Giannis Antetokounmpo, but outside of him, the Bucks didn’t make many attractive moves this offseason, in my opinion.

Antetokounmpo will do enough to push Milwaukee to the 2-seed and maybe win another MVP.

3. Miami

After two chalk picks, I’ll shake it up with Miami. The Heat added Jimmy Butler this offseason, and they have a handful of assets they could use as trade chips as this season progresses.

I don’t think the Heat will be too flashy, but I like their guards and a weak conference could bump them to the top half of the playoff seeding.

4. Boston

Abdel Nader’s former team should be set for another trip to the playoffs this year. The Celtics lost key pieces in Horford and Kyrie Irving (that one’s debatable to some fans).

Despite the losses, Boston plugs in point guard Kemba Walker while retaining a handful of young players. I expect the Celtics to be slightly better and earn the 4-seed for the second year in a row.

5. Brooklyn

I think the Nets are slept on a little bit as this season arrives. The Nets mostly retained the same team outside of the point guard spot. D’Angelo Russell’s at Golden State now, and Irving is running the young team.

I understand Brooklyn’s ceiling is much lower without Kevin Durant this year, but the young pieces gain another year their under belts and Irving is an upgrade offensively.

6. Toronto

The defending champs obviously will take a step back without Kawhi Leonard, but the pieces are still there for the Raptors to advance to the playoffs.

Veterans like Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka pair nicely with younger players like OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and of course, Matt Thomas.

It’s also possible the Raptors struggle and end up selling off pieces from the championship team, but I think Toronto will stay competitive enough to make it past the regular season.

7. Chicago

I’ve kept a close eye on Chicago the past few years, and I think this is the year they crack the playoffs. I like the balance the team presents; Lauri Markkanen and Zach Lavine will put up big numbers on offense. Meanwhile, Otto Porter Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Thaddeus Young will anchor the defense.

The balance is nice, but the team’s still young and unproven. I think the Bulls sneak into the playoffs, and it’ll pay dividends for future years with their young core.

8. Indiana

The Pacers are a top-four team in most people’s eyes, but I’m not completely sold on Indiana. The Pacers’ two highest paid players — Malcolm Brogdan and Victor Oladipo — have injury concerns/history.

Outside of the two guards, two of Indiana’s key players — Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis — overlap and play the same position.

With that said, I’m probably still underrating the Pacers, but I have concerns for the team.