In the Eastern Conference, it's the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics, and everybody else. The Bucks and Celtics enter the 2023-24 NBA season as the best teams in the East. If there was a question earlier in the offseason, the Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday trades left no doubt.
Should the Bucks or the Celtics be the favorites in the East? That's where the debate begins. Even the oddsmakers don't have the answer. Milwaukee and Boston are tied with +175 odds at FanDuel Sportsbook to represent the conference in the 2024 NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers are a distant third with +1000 odds to win the East.
The Bucks' 2023 playoff run ended in disaster when they were upset by the Miami Heat in a five-game first-round series. The Celtics suffered a different yet possibly equally painful fate at the hands of the Heat. Boston came back from a 3-0 conference finals deficit, only to get embarrassed on its home court by Miami in Game 7. Both Milwaukee and Boston made significant changes in the offseason, hoping to correct the mistakes that were made a season ago.
Maybe Holiday will prove to be the missing piece that finally gets the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown era Celtics a championship ring. But there are a couple of reasons why the Bucks should be considered the preseason East favorites after the Damian Lillard trade.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still the best player in the Eastern Conference
Nikola Jokic seized the title of “best basketball player in the world” by leading the Denver Nuggets to a title in his third straight MVP-caliber season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the clear No. 2 in the NBA, and it shouldn't be shocking if he moves back ahead of Jokic when this upcoming season is finished. For all of his regular-season accolades, Joel Embiid's lack of playoff success makes him ineligible for the crown. Tatum has his share of regular-season and postseason heroics, but he isn't great consistently enough to be considered on Antetokounmpo's level.
Antetokounmpo has been so phenomenal for so long that we've become accustomed to his greatness. The Bucks' star can score 32 points, grab 15 rebounds and dish out seven assists—all while being the best defensive player on the floor—and no one bats an eye. That's what Antetokounmpo averaged in his two full playoff games last season. It's easy to forget that the 2021 NBA Finals MVP missed half of the Bucks' playoff series with a back injury. He wasn't 100% healthy when he returned against Miami.
Having the best player in a series doesn't guarantee the Bucks will beat the Celtics. Milwaukee found out the hard way two seasons ago when it had a 3-2 series lead and couldn't finish off Boston in the conference semifinals. The Bucks were undermanned because of Khris Middleton's injury. If Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Lillard are all healthy in a seven-game series against the Celtics, the Bucks will have the advantage.
1. Damian Lillard solves the Bucks' offensive woes
Since winning the 2021 NBA Finals, Milwaukee has failed to reach the conference finals. In both the 2022 and 2023 playoffs, the Bucks' half-court and crunch-time offense was a significant part of its undoing. Antetokounmpo had virtually no help on offense two postseasons ago. When Jimmy Butler turned into Michael Jordan and led fourth-quarter comebacks in Game 4 and Game 5 last year, no Bucks player was able to get a big bucket to stop the bleeding. The addition of Lillard should be able to fix most of those issues.
Lillard is just the kind of assassin that Milwaukee's offense desperately needed. Never afraid to take a big shot, Lillard is the only player in NBA history who has made multiple buzzer-beaters that have ended playoff series. At 33 years old, Lillard has never been a more efficient scorer. The point guard set carer highs with 32.2 points per game on 46.3% shooting from the field last season. His infinite range will space the floor in a way that the Bucks have never experienced. Good luck to Boston when it tries to stop the Lillard-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll.
There will be times when the Bucks miss Holiday He is a far, far better defensive player than Lillard. It didn't do Milwaukee any good when Butler was scoring against Holiday at will last postseason. Holiday's offense has, at times, been miserable in the playoffs. In 40 playoff games with the Bucks, he averaged 17.9 points on 17.7 shots per game. That kind of production isn't going to help the Celtics when their offense stalls during a playoff series.
With Lillard in the fold, Middleton moves from Milwaukee's No. 2 scorer to the No. 3 option, a much more appropriate role for the forward. Lillard and Antetokounmpo should prove to be a deadly combination that will make both players even better.