add_theme_support( 'post-thumbnails' );The Ideological Arms Race in the NBA's Eastern Conference - BANG.
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The Ideological Arms Race in the NBA's Eastern Conference

After months of protracted negotiations, Damian Lillard has finally been traded, and it wasn’t to the Miami Heat. Despite the former Portland Superstar saying Miami was his sole destination of choice, the Trail Blazers made his new home well over 1,000 miles north of South Beach in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, he’ll join an already stacked roster headed by two-time MVP and 2021 NBA champion Giannis Antetokounmpo.  

To get the deal done, the Blazers and Bucks turned to a third team, the Phoenix Suns to help facilitate the trade. In totality, the Blazers received Deandre Ayton and Toumani Camara via the Suns, Jrue Holiday, and a 2029 1st-round pick from the Bucks, and two first-round pick swaps with the Bucks in 2028, and 2030. The Suns received Grayson Allen via the Bucks, as well as Keon Johnson, Nassir Little, and Jusuf Nurkic from the Blazers. Of course, the Milwaukee Bucks received their star point guard from the Blazers.

While the “winner” of a trade is usually the team receiving the best player, the Blazers and Suns both addressed pressing needs ahead of the 2023/2024 season. Portland is a rebuilding team that finished with the 5th worst record last year despite having an all-star talent like Lillard on their team. This trade won’t do much to help them in the short term, but that’s not the goal. The goal for them is to be competitive a few years down the line, and the truckload of picks and young players they received will help them achieve this. 

The Suns did sneakily well in this deal too. They were able to move off of Deandre Ayton, who was a detriment to the team as a whole despite his raw talent. They were also able to acquire some quality depth players to complement the big three of Durant, Booker, and Beal. This was ultimately their downfall in the postseason last year, and addressing this key weakness makes them even more appealing title contenders in a strong Western Conference.

Obviously, the most exciting new combination of players will be found in Southeastern Wisconsin. The Bucks are now home to not one, but two top 15 players in the league, and perhaps most dangerously, their skill sets complement one another. Giannis is a truly massive power forward with an unstoppable ability to push towards the rim. He is also one of the better defensive players in the league, as he’s able to protect his basket just as efficiently as he can get to the opposing teams. Lillard on the other hand lacks the size and defensive prowess of Antetokounmpo, but is second to only Steph Curry in his ability to shoot the ball. His three-point dominance will spread the floor and force teams to choose between protecting the paint and stopping this long-range sniper. A truly unwinnable proposal. 

While all of this makes for great preseason drama and entertains basketball fans in the absence of games, the fireworks don’t stop with the Bucks. Feeling left out, their chief competitor in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics, reached out to the Blazers to acquire former Bucks shooting guard Jrue Holiday. In an ideological arms race, both of these titans of the Eastern Conference are loading up on talent while having wildly different philosophies on how to achieve their ultimate goal of winning a title.

The Celtics had to send the Blazers Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams, a 2024 1st-round pick from the Warriors, and their own 2029 unprotected 1st-round pick. In doing so, they lost both depth and size, fully embracing their positionless small-ball approach. Their superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are both forward/guard hybrids that have continued to improve their shooting year after year. Their other major offseason pickup, Kristaps Porzingis, a seven-foot three-inch center loves shooting the three instead of playing more like a traditional big-man. Finally, the addition of Jrue Holiday helps complete their transition to a shoot-first-ask-questions-later method of offense. 

While Damian Lillard certainly fits into this shooting role for the Bucks, their style of basketball is entirely different. They are a truly massive team that will look to get to and protect the basket, following Antetokounmpo’s lead. Lillard’s shooting will be a welcome addition on the outside that they will certainly make great use of—however, the Bucks will thrive inside the paint as they look to dominate. 

The result of this offseason has resulted in a divided Eastern Conference. While the West seems to have many contenders, the East has two teams overshadowing the rest. Organizations like the Heat, 76ers, Cavaliers, and Knicks might take offense to the idea that they are not true title contenders, but even a casual fan can see both the Bucks and Celtics are miles ahead of their competitors. The result is an ideological battle between new age, three-point, positionless basketball embodied by the Celtics, and a more traditional, paint-oriented, style of play run by the Bucks. At this point, both are seen as equal favorites to win the East by Vegas, and as basketball fans, we’re in for an exciting season with a setup unlike any other.

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Political Science major with a small Fantasy Football addiction