Ranking Contenders in the Eastern Conference

3 months ago 47

The Eastern Conference playoffs are going to be pure chaos. All of the top teams are stylistically different. There are superstars up and down the standings. Upstarts who can throw a wrench into the proceedings. A loaded play-in field. And this is all before you consider arguably the most talented team at full strength (the Nets) may not even qualify for the postseason because their second-best player could possibly be ineligible to play for the team’s most important games. The first round in the East should be absolutely thrilling, and sorting out the favorite to make the Finals is a fool’s errand. So let’s do exactly that!

Here are the five teams I think are most likely to make the Finals, ranked from least to most likely. This is based on almost nothing except entirely my gut feeling. If that’s a problem for you, things will only get more infuriating from here. Here we go!

Honorable Mention: Chicago Bulls

I don’t know if the defense will be there, and I don’t like that Zach LaVine is hobbled. While injuries are an important factor, the Bulls have slipped to 14th in net rating (behind the Raptors, and the Hawks hot on their tail). This season is undoubtedly a success for Chicago. I just can’t see them in the Finals.

5. Miami Heat

The Heat’s greatest strength this season has been their depth, an advantage I think will be largely mitigated come playoff time when teams are playing their stars heavy minutes. Their most-used lineup (Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker, Bam Adebayo) won’t be their closing group in the playoffs. And their presumed closing unit (Lowry, Butler, Tucker, Adebayo, Tyler Herro) hasn’t even played 40 minutes together yet. My biggest concern with the Heat is how their best players work in concert, because they’re not an ideal fit on paper, and they haven’t had many reps to sort it all out. Their halfcourt offense is a slog, and I’m not sure how many big shooting nights Miami can count on from the likes of Caleb Martin, Max Strus, and Gabe Vincent—all invaluable regular season contributors—if their minutes are going down.

Erik Spoelstra is a wizard who can conjure up success out of seemingly any five-man unit. But after spending much of the season ranked in the top ten offensively, Miami has slipped to 12th, which I don’t think is a surprise the more Butler and Adebayo play together. Butler is going to be particularly important here. He’s currently shooting 35.5% from midrange and 41.4% from shots in the paint not in the restricted area. Those numbers are going to have to go up considerably in the halfcourt, because teams will be dropping and daring him to shoot like Milwaukee did last year. Herro has been on fire since the All-Star break, and Adebayo has seen a scoring uptick as well. But can those two go shot for shot with some of the guys above them on this list? The Heat’s defense is legit, it may not be dominant enough to overcome their offensive shortcomings.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

Splitting up Miami and Philly was incredibly difficult. I think the Sixers are a year away because of their rotation outside of James Harden and Joel Embiid. I’ll still give them the edge over Miami because of top-end talent.

The good news: Harden and Embiid have been fantastic together. They have a 17.9 net rating in 240 minutes together, and defending pick and rolls or handoffs between them will require a high level of focus from opposing defenses on every possession. My fear is the number of minutes the two will have to play during the postseason, because Philly hasn’t been good with even one of them off the floor. For all the talk of staggering stars, In Harden solo minutes, the Sixers have a minus-2.4 net rating. In Embiid solo minutes (since Harden’s first game on Feb. 25), Philly has a minus-14.8 net rating. The depth lost in the Simmons trade was real. The backup center spot is a mess, and the backup guards are inconsistent.

Though I just made a case for how depth concerns are slightly less important in the playoffs, Harden and Embiid have both had struggles in the past going deep into the playoffs and staying as effective as the possessions rack up. At least this time they’ll have each other. I still think this duo can win the title. At the same time, if I’m splitting hairs, I prefer the teams whose best players have also spent a little more time together.

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3. Brooklyn Nets

This is a hedge. At full strength—with a full-time Kyrie Irving and an available Ben Simmons—I’m probably putting the Nets first. Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the history of basketball, and on some nights he’s not even the best scorer on his team. Trying to stop KD and Kyrie when games grow incredibly tight and teams are trading tense halfcourt possessions is going to be ridiculously hard. And Simmons in peak form is probably the player in the East best equipped to slow down any opponent’s best wing scorer. That’s a hell of a combination to be able to throw on the floor.

Still, I don’t know how Steve Nash works Simmons into the rotation with such few games left, and no end in sight to the vaccine mandate limiting Kyrie from playing home games. There’s also the nightmare scenario of the Nets playing in Toronto for a play-in game, losing, and then coming home to Brooklyn, both places where Kyrie would not be allowed to play. Out of my deep fear, respect, terror, and admiration for what Durant can do, I couldn’t put the Nets lower than third on this list. Because of the uncertainty surrounding Irving and Simmons, I couldn’t put the Nets any higher.

2. Boston Celtics

Since Jan. 1—as the big Omicron wave that hit the NBA started to die down—the Celtics are first in defense (by a significant margin), eighth in offense, and first in net rating. The five-man group of Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Rob Williams and Al Horford is by far the NBA’s best lineup this season. That fivesome has a 24.0 net rating in 404 minutes together, the highest of any group that’s played at least 200 minutes. (For context: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green posted a 22.4 net in 2017.) Meanwhile, Derrick White and Grant Williams are incredibly solid players to bring off the bench, allowing the Celtics to match size when they want to.

The fears for Boston will be shooting, as well as spots eight and nine in the rotation. Can they survive Payton Pritchard and possible Daniel Theis minutes in the playoffs? Who will step up outside of Tatum in close games, in which the Cs have had some issues this year?

For me, their defense is so elite, so suffocating, Boston can overcome offensive issues in a way most teams can’t. Seriously, the Celtics top-seven players offer no targets for opponents. Beyond that, Tatum has shown in the past he can go bucket for bucket with historically great offensive players. While it’s not always been efficient, you can do worse than Tatum attacking switches down the stretch of a fourth quarter. Combine all of that with a core that’s built chemistry through years of playoff runs, and I’m pretty high on the Celtics.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

While the Bucks have seemingly been stuck in a malaise for much of the season, I chalk that up to injuries more than anything else. Giannis Antetokounmpo (another MVP-caliber year), Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton are the best trio in the conference, and they’ve played only 41 games together (and are 32–9 in those games). This team’s second-most used lineup has played only 54 minutes together, a testament to how many people have missed time this season. I don’t think the Bucks are quite as good as last year (they will miss P.J. Tucker and a healthier Brook Lopez), but they are going to be a damn tough out.

Milwaukee showed a ton of resolve during its Finals run last year, and also showed a level of malleability it hadn’t in the past. It sounds so obnoxiously cliché, and yet, this team really does know how to win. With Lopez now back in the fold, I like the three-headed monster of him, Serge Ibaka, and Bobby Portis (shooting really well from three) this team can deploy at center in the postseason. The Bucks probably still need to configure their best Giannis-at-the-five group, though Mike Budenholzer has some options in Pat Connaughton and Wes Matthews. Ultimately, what separates the Bucks for me are these factors: Giannis, the Giannis-Khris-Jrue trio, their Finals know-how, their overall playoff experience, and their ability to play multiple styles come playoff time. I don’t think there’s another team in the East that has as good of a combination in terms of talent, flexibility, and shared experience. And when in doubt, it’s hard to pick against the two-time MVP who scored 50 points to close out the Finals the last time he was in a playoff game.

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