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Sports Saturday

NBA’s Eastern Conference has seen major changes ... but only off the court

Front-office makeovers have been the story of the offseason, starting with the Bulls. However, in what is expected to be a unique next few months, has much changed on the floor in the East?

Giannis Antetokounmpo will remain at the heart of the MIlwaukee Bucks’ core.
Giannis Antetokounmpo will remain at the heart of the MIlwaukee Bucks’ core.
AP

The Bulls’ regime change this year not only has been applauded across the NBA but is expected to pay quick dividends, with a return to the postseason sooner rather than later.

That sounds great — except the Bulls weren’t the only Eastern Conference team to change name plates on office doors over the last several months.

The Knicks swung for the fences in adding former sports agent Leon Rose as team president, player whisperer William Wesley as executive vice president and Tom Thibodeau as coach. The 76ers already have hired Doc Rivers as their new coach and were finalizing a deal to put Daryl Morey in a major front-office seat.

Even the lowly Pistons added new leadership, nabbing Troy Weaver to be their new general manager — the same Weaver who was on the Bulls’ radar before they chose Arturas Karnisovas to run their basketball operations.

Too bad executives don’t take the court.

After the chaos that was the 2019-20 season, what does all the fluidity with the executives mean for next season?

Well, considering play could start as soon as late December, there likely will be little immediate change in the East. Only three teams are salary-cap-friendly this winter, the free-agent class is weak and even help from rookies will be limited after the draft Nov. 18. The draft class is considered less than stellar, and there will be no Summer League to help new players develop.

Off the court, changes aplenty. On the court, expect the status quo to be pretty much the status quo for now.

Eastern Conference Power Rankings

1. Bucks — As long as there’s no blockbuster deal for league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the core will remain the core. That means more of Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez, a group built to dominate in the regular season. The postseason? Not so much.

2. Heat — Losing veteran point guard Goran Dragic would hurt (and it’s looking likely), but no team plays harder than the Heat with foundation pieces Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, plus young guns Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.

3. Celtics — Jayson Tatum has star power, and he and fellow forward Jaylen Brown form one of the premiere wing duos in the conference. Gordon Hayward is expected to opt in at $34.1 million, while Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart give the Celtics the conference’s best depth at point guard.

4. Nets — They have two of the strangest individual talents in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the best potential 1-2 punch in the East. But the jury is out until Durant and Irving show they can play together and stay out of the coach-killing business.

5. 76ers — Former coach Brett Brown could never figure out how to maximize the combination of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. If Rivers can’t, either, then it’s time to give up on one of them. Tobias Harris could be a disastrous contract for years, and expect the Sixers to shop veteran Al Horford.

6. Raptors — Free agency is coming, which means the likely loss of point guard Fred Van Vleet. Coach Nick Nurse is moving into elite status, but expect another drop-off for the Raptors since they won the championship in 2019.

7. Pacers — Coach Nate McMillan’s firing was a bit of an eye-opener. But unless the Pacers move Victor Oladipo, who will be in the final year of his contract, they’ll still be a tough out in the playoffs if they’re healthy.

8. Magic — No team is built for mediocrity like the Magic. Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Markelle Fultz are just good enough to punch a postseason ticket, then get eliminated in the first round.

9. Wizards — If John Wall and Bradley Beal can remain healthy and aren’t traded elsewhere, they could get the Wizards into the postseason. But that’s a tall order given the team’s awful cap problems and Wall’s history of injuries.

10. BULLS — Now that they have a proven NBA coach in Billy Donovan, the Bulls are just better than the Hawks and Knicks if they’re healthy. Expect there to be a jump under Donovan. Serious questions about certain members of the roster also should be answered.

11. Knicks — No coach does more with less than Thibodeau, and the Knicks are definitely less. RJ Barrett is the only piece to try to build around. Thibodeau will be tested.

12. Hawks — Trae Young is a star, and John Collins is an up-and-coming big man to keep an eye on. The Hawks are one of the few teams with money this offseason, but do they see a need to use it, or is it better to wait for the 2021 free-agent class?

13. Hornets — Point guard Devonte Graham took a big step up last season, but Michael Jordan’s team still lacks serious star power — an ongoing issue with this franchise over the last decade.

14. Cavaliers — Moving Kevin Love’s contract would be a win-win for him and the Cavs, but he’s owed $80 million over the next three years, so it likely won’t happen.

15. Pistons — Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose have All-Star résumés but also histories of frequent injuries. No team in the East has bigger problems and less talent than the Pistons do.