Jeff Phelps: Ranking The Big Combos Of The East

Jeff Phelps
Jeff Phelps

Teams in the Eastern Conference have apparently decided the time for building, or rebuilding, is over. The time to go for it has arrived.

Atlanta and Cleveland give up three first-round picks each for guys they hope will put them over the top.

Philadelphia preps for a full season of Embiid and Harden. The Celtics tinker, but is that enough?

Milwaukee has Giannis.

With all that in mind, and so many Eastern Conference teams thinking they’re in line for a big season, we rank the core pieces of the playoff contenders, and put them on a scale of 1-10. We’re not ranking teams here — just the core groups that these Eastern Conference teams are banking on.

Milwaukee 3-point Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday

Giannis. We could stop here with the best player in the NBA, but since we’re discussing key players — as in plural, more than one — we’ll keep going. Kris Middleton and his outside shooting are perfect sidekicks for Giannis, and Holiday tied it all together when he joined Milwaukee two seasons ago. They are a terrific combination, and if they find a fourth… oh my.

3-Point Buck Score – 9.2

Brooklyn Nets Enigmatic Big 3 – Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons

Here we have it, Ladies and Gentlemen — the best “Big Whatever” combo in the NBA. At least on paper. On the court? Well… what a Hot Mess that was last season, huh?!?!? Wheeee!!!!! So let’s think about this for a second. If Durant really doesn’t want to be traded anymore and he can play close to a full season, and if Kyrie and medical science come together for a group hug (among other things) and he can play anything close to a full season, and if Ben Simmons can, uh.. can… can… uh… let’s just settle for play basketball, then the Nets are the team to beat in the East. And if all of those “ifs” don’t happen, well, get ready for “Hot Mess – The Sequel.” Wheeee!!!!!

Enigmatic Big 3 Score – 9.1, if the guys actually decide this basketball playing gig isn’t so bad.

Philadelphia 76ers Big 4 – Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey

I’m a sucker for Joel Embiid. If he does it, I like it. At the age of 33, Harden played only 21 regular season games with the Sixers, and I have to think he will mesh better with Embiid and Doc Rivers this season. As it was, Harden still averaged 21 points and 10.5 assists as a Sixer. Hard to believe that Harris is going into his 12th season. Always thought he was under-appreciated. But the guy who could really make the Sixers sing is Maxey, the guy Rivers called “the most impressive young player I’ve ever had.” He’s still only 21, and going into his 3rd season. Last season Maxey averaged 16.9 points before the All-Star break, 18.7 after the break, and 20.8 in 12 playoff games. See the same trend there that I do? Tough to miss.

76ers Big 4 Score – 9.0

Atlanta Hawks Big Birds – Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, John Collins, Clint Cappella

You have to love the balance of this foursome. Trae Young keeps getting better – over 28 points and 9 assists per game last season, with career high shooting percentages in FGs, 3s and FTs. Now he gets to play alongside Dejounte Murray – one of the best all-around young players in the NBA. Sure the Hawks gave up three first-rounders to get him, but they were ready for a move like that. It gives them as good of a backcourt combo as there is in the league. John Collins and Clint Capella are the big presence that some of the other contenders lack, but it does appear that both may have plateaued. If not???

Big Birds Score – 8.5

Boston Celtics Big 2+2 – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon

Tatum and Brown combined to average over 50 points a game last season, and their combined age going into the season is 49. That’s a fabulous combination, but not fabulous enough to make the Celtics a perennial contender. You have to love the competitiveness of Marcus Smart. The addition of Malcolm Brogdon makes sense, and if healthy, he’ll make a nice contribution. Yes, their run to The Finals last season was impressive, but the Celtics need a big guy to emerge to put real fear into the East.

Big 2+ Score – 8.0

Miami Heat Hot Quartet – Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro

Why do I feel that this should be a Fab 5, with the fifth being head coach Erik Spoelstra? Man, can that guy get basketball players to play as a team. He’s outstanding. Butler, Herro and Adebayo each averaged right around 20 points a game last season. Lowry scored 13.4 and led the Heaters with 7.5 assists per game. He was also second in feisty attitude to Butler. None of the Heaters Big 4 even played 70 games, yet Miami won 53 games and finished 1st in the East. I don’t think this quartet is as talented as most groupings in the East. But if the Heat have better health, and with Spoelstra coaching them up, they’ll be hosting a first-round playoff series, and who knows what else.

Heat Hot Quartet 4 Score – 7.5

Chicago Bulls Big 4 – Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Nikola Vucevic

Just a hunch here, but I’d bet that I like this bunch more than most folks do. DeRozan was as good in his first year in Chicago as he’s ever been in his career. LaVine dealt with a pesky knee all season and still scored 24.4 points a game. He signed a 5-year max contract in July. Vucevic has never received the recognition he deserves as one of the NBA’s better big men. He averaged 17.6 points and 11 rebounds in his first full season in Chicago. Good health for all three is crucial — especially with Ball expected to miss training camp. He’s still recovering from meniscus surgery in his left knee from January. Don’t sleep on the Bulls.

Big 4 Bulls Score – 7.5

Cleveland Cavaliers Core 4 – Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, Jarret Allen

Well what do we have here?!?!? Suddenly the Cavaliers have gone from the “Tri-Towers” to the team-labeled “Core Four,” with Donovan Mitchell coming over from Utah and half of Cleveland’s Gross Domestic Product heading to the Jazz. Interesting move. Bold move. It gives the Cavs at least a three-season window to go for it — Mitchell is under contract for the next three, with a player option for a fourth. The key to big-time success for the Core Four? How quickly can Evan Mobley develop into one of the best frontcourt players in the NBA, and the best Cavalier? If it happens in a season or two, this could be the best young core in the league.

Core Four Score – 7.3… at least for now, but maybe not for long.

Toronto Raptors – Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet

Like Miami, the Raptors are an example of the sum being better than the parts. But the parts are pretty dang good. Scottie Barnes had a really nice rookie season — 15.3 and 7.5 rebounds a game. If he makes a big jump in season number two, he’ll combine with Pascal Siakam to form one of the most dynamic wing combinations in the NBA. Siakam averaged 22.8 points and a career high 8.5 rebounds last season. VanVleet averaged career highs in points, rebounds and assists last season. Doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

Raptors Big 3 Score – 7.2

Big Combos Under Construction

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