The Most Important Player for Each Eastern Conference Team

The future of the Eastern Conference might be dictated by the 2020 NBA playoffs. Here are the most notable players to watch as teams prepare to head to Orlando.
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The NBA is hurtling toward a resumption of the 2019-20 season despite an increasing stream of COVID-19 positive tests in Florida, with just over a month remaining until games are slated to resume on July 30. And while the league’s significant safety risk will remain prominent throughout the playoffs, the on-court action should take center stage barring a rash of positive tests. Such a competitive season should have a thrilling finish, even in unorthodox circumstances.

In the Western Conference, the 2020 playoffs could shape the legacies of numerous high-profile players. Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James could win a Finals MVP with their third team, while Russell Westbrook and James Harden have an outside chance of sprinting to the Finals with the Rockets. 2020 could provide a satisfying late-career chapter for the top players of the 2010s. The East playoffs are centered around the stars of the next decade.

A championship for Giannis Antetokounmpo could lead to a long-term commitment to Milwaukee. Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam and Bam Adebayo can lead surprise Finals runs, while the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons duo may be approaching a crossroads. The future of the conference might be dictated by the 2020 playoffs.

We’ll assess the state of the West on Friday. Today, let’s keep our focus on the East, diving into the most important players for each team appearing in Orlando.

Eric Bledsoe guards Kemba Walker

Milwaukee Bucks – Eric Bledsoe

It’s been two straight years of playoff disappointments for Eric Bledsoe entering 2020, and his postseason struggles have obscured his value to Milwaukee in the eyes of the public. Bledsoe remains a key piece for the Bucks in their chase for the Larry O’Brien trophy, and he was productive once again in 2019-20. The Kentucky product is a contender for an All-Defense selection once again, and he’s a steady–albeit unspectacular–complimentary guard. But Milwaukee could falter if history repeats itself in 2020.

Bledsoe was outplayed by Terry Rozier in a round-one exit against the Celtics in the 2018 playoffs, and he struggled mightily down the stretch of the 2019 Eastern Conference finals vs. Toronto. Bledsoe averaged 11 points per game in four straight losses to close the series, making just 14 of 46 shots. Perhaps Bledsoe’s struggles are a product of small sample size. He could very well deliver in the upcoming postseason. But if his play drops off in Orlando, the Bucks are in no way guaranteed a trip to the Finals.

Toronto Raptors – Pascal Siakam

Siakam became a household name upon winning Most Improved Player last season, and the New Mexico State product has only continued his ascent in 2019-20. He’s averaging 23.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, shooting a steady 35.9% from three amid a massive increase in attempts. Siakam thrived as a secondary scorer alongside Kawhi Leonard last season, tearing through defenses as a transition nightmare and elite slasher. His game is more well-rounded this year as Toronto’s leading man. Siakam is now more in control when bursting to the tin, able to dissect defenses who pack the paint. His spin move remains superb, and he’s now punishing defenses who sag off him at the top of the key. The Cameroon native is a true franchise anchor.

Toronto’s roster is among the most reliable in basketball, a benefit that comes with being the defending champs. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are the epitome of seasoned veterans. Normal Powell has Finals experience, as does Fred VanVleet. Toronto’s supporting cast is as sturdy as they come, though its performance has a relative ceiling. Siakam will need to truly go toe-to-toe with the East’s top talents for Toronto to return to the Finals.

Boston Celtics – Daniel Theis

This is admittedly a bit of a curious pick considering Theis is sixth on the Celtics in minutes, but the 6’8” center could play a pivotal role for Boston in the postseason. The Celtics are currently slated to face Joel Embiid and the 76ers in the first round, and a conference finals matchup could hinge on Boston’s ability to slow Antetokounmpo at the tin. Enes Kanter could get played off the floor in the wrong series. Grant Williams and Robert Williams are unlikely to be ready for prime time. Theis could see a significant minutes share if Boston is unable to ride its small-ball lineups against the behemoths of the East.

The production of Tatum and Kemba Walker should hold steady in Orlando. Marcus Smart is a consistent defensive force, and Jaylen Brown looks far more comfortable this season than he did in 2018-19. Perhaps Gordon Hayward can be considered Boston’s swing player, though the Celtics are already stocked with wings. Their center scarcity makes Theis’ performance all the more important.

Miami Heat – Bam Adebayo

Bam Adebayo has made a perceptible leap in 2019-20, one that’s certainly reflected in the discourse surrounding the Kentucky product. Adebayo is no longer the NBA nerds’ gem of the 2017 draft. He’s gone full mainstream, now in the pole position to win Most Improved Player. And the widespread praise isn’t unearned. Adebayo is a truly impactful big man on both ends, sporting an athleticism and motor matched by few players in the league. His ascendance has made Miami a fringe Finals contender in 2020.

It’s hard to see the Heat taking down Milwaukee, but a strong series from Adebayo could lead to wins over Boston, Toronto or Indiana. Adebayo should truly shine against an undersized Celtics team. He could very well end Gasol and Ibaka’s tenures in Toronto. Perhaps Miami is a year away from championship contention, but Adebayo should still register valuable playoff experience in 2020.

Indiana Pacers – Victor Oladipo

The Pacers feel like consummate overachievers in the Victor Oladipo era, a trend that has continued in 2019-20 even without the franchise’s All-Star guard. Nate McMillan led Indiana to a 39–26 record this season despite just 13 games from Victor Oladipo, leaning on a solid-yet-unspectacular collection of talent. No disrespect to Domantas Sabonis and Co., but without Oladipo, Indiana’s ceiling is likely capped in round one.

A relatively healthy Oladipo would change the calculus. The Indiana product earned All-NBA honors in 2017-18 as he averaged a career-high 23.1 points per game, and he held his own against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference playoffs. That version of Oladipo could certainly knock off Miami in a potential first-round matchup. But receiving peak Oladipo may be easier said than done. The 28-year-old is coming off a severe leg injury, and he didn’t look quite like himself in his brief stint before the COVID-19 suspension. Let’s hope we see the best of Oladipo in the NBA’s return to play.

Ben Simmons soars for a dunk

Philadelphia 76ers – Ben Simmons

There’s really no contest here for Philadelphia. On nights in which Simmons shines, the 76ers are among the most talented teams in basketball. Simmons and Embiid are a truly terrifying defensive duo, and Simmons’ prowess in transition is occasionally reminiscent of a young LeBron. But there are far too many instances in which Simmons is largely neutralized. He occasionally spends four quarters situated below the rim in the half-court, generating points almost solely via tip-ins, put-backs and the occasional dump-off dunk. It’s too late in the year to hope for a respectable jump shot, but that doesn’t mean Simmons can’t put his imprint on a series. His effort and energy will dictate Philadelphia’s postseason. An effective Simmons could send Philadelphia to the Finals.

Brooklyn Nets – Spencer Dinwiddie

2019-20 has always felt like a gap year for Brooklyn, especially so after the NBA began its COVID-19 hiatus. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant sidelined, the Nets enter the 2020 playoffs as a bit of a lame duck, with a first-round exit almost certain. A middling season in 2020 will be happily accepted for champagne in 2021. Though there could be more than a few Nets players who could leave the franchise before 2020-21. For those players, the 2020 playoffs will serve as more of a personal showcase than a building block to next season.

Consider Spencer Dinwiddie chief among the Nets potentially auditioning for his next role. He’s likely to hit free agency after next season, though frankly, he could be shipped out before Durant and Irving return. This isn’t necessarily a slight at Dinwiddie, but rather the recognition of his curious fit next to Brooklyn’s leading guard. The Nets are likely to be on the hunt for a third star this offseason, and a package headlined by Dinwiddie could be enticing given a strong performance in Orlando. There’s a scenario in which Dinwiddie shines for Brooklyn, leads a trade package, then cashes out in free agency. But a poor effort–coupled with a middling 2020-21–could shrink his value. There is still something riding on the 2020 playoffs for the Nets, even without their two top stars.

Orlando Magic – Markelle Fultz

The Magic have no true shot at the Finals, and their season is likely to end in a quick destruction via Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. But perhaps Orlando could make for a scrappy round one opponent against the right team. The Magic currently sit 0.5 games back of the Nets for the No. 7 seed, in striking distance of avoiding Milwaukee’s juggernaut in the first round. Could the No. 2 seed in the East be on upset alert?

We should probably cool the breaks on that front, though making Toronto or Boston sweat isn’t completely out of the question. Orlando has a talented collection of frontcourt players led by Nikola Vucevic, and Steve Clifford is a more effective coach than his career record would suggest. Yet a potentially competitive series may hinge on the play of Markelle Fultz.

The former No. 1 pick assumed starting point guard duties this season, and he’s revived his career in impressive fashion. He still has a ways to go as a long-range shooter, but an effective Fultz can be the engine behind a solid team. He remains a silky playmaker who thrives at getting to the tin, and he shot a solid 72% from the line in 2019-20. Perhaps Fultz goes toe-to-toe with Kemba Walker or Kyle Lowry in round one, creating a buzz heading into 2020-21. If he falters, Orlando will be in for a quick exit.

Washington Wizards – Bradley Beal

It’s a touch uncreative to choose Washington’s best player here, but the Wizards aren’t sniffing the No. 8 seed without a scoring explosion from the former No. 3 pick.

Washington currently sits 5.5 games back of the Magic for the final playoff spot, though they only need to finish within four games of Orlando to force a pair of play-in games. Even if Washington reaches the play-in, it would need to win back-to-back games over the Magic to reach the playoffs. An uphill climb awaits.

Getting to the play-in game(s) isn’t impossible, even with Washington’s difficult schedule ahead. And if the Wizards do face the Magic, they have a legitimate chance of returning to the playoffs. Beal is in the midst of a career-best season, trailing only James Harden in scoring at 30.5 points per game. Beal has shined in lead ball-handler duties this season, continuing his growth as a playmaker and downhill driver. A 50-point night in Orlando isn’t out of reach. Washington will be stomped by Giannis and the Bucks if it seizes the No. 8 seed, but that shouldn’t diminish the accomplishment if Beal carries the Wizards. The Florida product is a true budding superstar, and a player who could impact the Finals chase at some point in the 2020s.