The power balance in basketball is finally starting to shift after years of Western conference superiority. The NBA Eastern Conference is as loaded as it’s ever been, and four games separate the top 5 teams in the standings. Not included in the top 5 of the standings are the Boston Celtics, who currently have the best Net Rating in the conference. As well as the Brooklyn Nets, who currently have the lowest betting odds to win the conference. The East is wide open, with seven teams having a real chance of winning the conference. Let’s take a deep dive into those seven squads.
The Heat are currently in the one seed in the eastern conference. They will finish their season by playing 14 of their final 21 games at home.
The Heat’s most significant advantage in the East playoffs might come from behind the bench with coach Erik Spoelstra. The impact that coaching has can be overstated, but Spoelstra’s advantage over his Eastern conference counterparts is understated. The coaches of the other top teams are Billy Donovan, Doc Rivers, JB Bickerstaff, Mike Budenholzer, Ime Udoka, and Steve Nash. We have seen Billy Donovan, Doc Rivers, and Mike Budenholzer fumble away countless playoff series in the past. Bickerstaff, Nash, and Udoka are very inexperienced. Advantage Heat.
The Heat presents a formidable starting lineup with Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, PJ Tucker, and Bam Adebayo. In addition, they bring a 20 point per game scorer off the bench with Tyler Herro. They should get some additional help if Victor Oladipo can come back for the postseason.
Bam has increased his scoring average to 19 points per game while remaining a top 3 interior defender in the NBA. We have seen Kyle Lowry win a title as the #2 guy. Their playoff run will hinge on Jimmy Butler, who has been Jekyll and Hyde for Miami the last two years. He carried the Heat to the Finals in the bubble, but in his encore performance a year ago, he was outplayed by Brynn Forbes in a four-game series sweep. The Heat have the talent and depth to get back to the finals, but there is the potential for them to slip up early in a loaded eastern conference.
The Heat can win the East, but a team presents a nightmare matchup. We saw in that playoff series last year that the new-look Bucks with Jrue Holliday are a buzzsaw against these Heat. Milwaukee outscored the Heat by 80 points in the series’ final three games. Based on the current playoff seedings, a rematch could be looming. The Heat are currently in the one seed, and with their schedule of home games down the stretch, they should be the favorites to maintain pole position. However, with the Bucks currently residing in the fourth seed, a semifinal matchup looks likely.
The Heat flipped PJ Tucker from Milwaukee, and as aforementioned, they added an all-star guard in Kyle Lowry. Will that be enough to swing the series in their favor? It is unlikely, but Miami will have a fighting chance.
The Bulls front office under Arturas Karnisovas has made some masterful moves to help Chicago emerge from the doom and gloom left behind by the GarPax era. The Bulls were a nonfactor in last year’s playoff race, but just a year later, they sit one game out of the one seed with 21 games left. Karnsivos has hit on the draft with Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu, and he fleeced the Pelicans for Lonzo Ball.
The media heavily scrutinized Karnisovas for his “win now” acquisition of Nikola Vucevic at last year’s trade deadline. It didn’t get them out of the lottery last year, but Vucevic has been an excellent interior presence and stretch big for this 2022 Bulls team with aspirations of contending.
This summer, the team drew more criticism when they signed Demar Derozan to a three-year 82 million dollar deal. Three years removed from his last all-star appearance, the Bulls signed Demar to help take some scoring burden off Zach LaVine. Instead, DeRozan has undergone a full-on renaissance and usurped LaVine in the pecking order, becoming the Bulls leading scorer.
DeRozan still isn’t a 3-point shooter, but Lonzo Ball, LaVine, and Vucevic attempt 20 three-pointers a game which adequately spaces the floor for him. Surrounded by shooting, DeRozan has the space he needs to be the midrange assassin we all know him to be. DeRozan averages over 28 points and five assists per game and currently resides top 5 in MVP odds.
While they are a fun team, the advanced metrics suggest the Bulls aren’t as good as their record. Net Rating and the simple rating system have the Bulls around the 12th best team in the NBA. In addition, most of their key guys lack playoff experience. Lonzo Ball and Patrick Williams are a ways from returning, and the new-look Sixers are fast on their heels. So despite their great regular season, an early playoff exit could be awaiting these Bulls.
We have just a two-game sample size, but the Joel Embiid and James Harden pairing looks rather unstoppable. Their ability to get to the free-throw line will decimate other’s team’s big-man rotations with foul trouble. The chemistry the 2 of them have on the pick and roll already looks unstoppable and should only get better. When Embiid gets a full head of steam going downhill on the pick and roll, the defense has two choices; get out of the way or foul him.
If the defense wants to load up against the dive action of Embiid, it forces them to leave a defender on an island with Harden, one of the best isolation scorers in NBA history. And if you load up against both of them, they both are more than capable passers, capable of swinging a pass to what would be a wide-open shooter left in the corner.
Despite being just 21 years old, Tyrese Maxey is an adequate third star that should only get better. While the Sixers are overpaying him, Tobias Harris is overqualified as a fourth option.
Danny Green’s defense is regressing, but the Sixers should start giving more minutes to Matisse Thybulle. Thybulle is a great perimeter defender who can take the defensive burden off of James Harden.
I’ve talked about Harden and Embiid together, but I think Doc Rivers should also experiment with staggering their minutes. They are 2 of the best isolation scorers in the NBA, and if Doc can find a way to have one of them on the court at all times, the Sixers will be an impossible out.
This team has all the talent it needs to reach the finals, but so did last year’s installment of the Philadelphia 76ers. For years Doc Rivers has struggled with rotations and lost playoff series despite having a more talented team. This team looks too good to screw up, but if anyone can find a way, it’s Doc Rivers.
The young Cavs have been one of the surprises of this NBA season, anchored by one of the best defenses in the NBA. While the league has gone small, the Cavs have gone big, sometimes starting Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, and Lauri Markkannen altogether.
Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland were just named to their first all-star teams despite being just 22 and 23 years old, respectively.
Yet, neither of them is the Cavaliers best young prospect. Instead, 20-year-old Evan Mobley has arguably been the Cavs most impactful player, and he’s running away with the rookie of the year. Mobley is a skilled offensive player who is still early in his development. Defensively Mobley is a player who will be contending annually for defensive player of the year in the future. This future big 3 gives the Cavs a chance to have sustained success without LeBron James for the first time in 3 decades.
Injuries at the guard position will hinder a 2022 Cavs playoff run. Unfortunately, Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio suffered season-ending injuries. In addition, Garland, Rajon Rondo, and Caris LeVert are all expected to miss time over the next couple of weeks. This will force Cleveland into some weird lineups that should knock them down in the standings.
It will be interesting to see how Cleveland deploys their bigs in the playoffs. While, they might not be fit for a huge playoff run this year, let’s not forget what the Atlanta Hawks pulled off last year. Regardless, we should get used to seeing this Cavs team playing in late April into May.
The defending NBA champions might be suffering from some tired legs. After winning the NBA championship on July 20th, the Bucks had just a three-month turnaround, with this NBA season starting October 19th. On top of that, the Bucks sent multiple players to the Olympics after the conclusion of the Finals. The result is a Bucks team that has played .500 basketball over their last 26 games.
On a positive note, Giannis somehow keeps finding ways to get better. He has upped his scoring, rebounding, assists, and blocked shots from last year. The Bucks group of role players looks a little different this year. But, when Middleton, Holliday, and Giannis are all playing, the Bucks are one of the best teams in the league.
Milwaukee’s #1 lineup combination of Grayson Allen, Giannis, Holliday, Middleton, and Bobby Portis has played 260 minutes together. In those minutes the 5 man lineup is outscoring the opposition by 14.3 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks will have the option of substituting Pat Connaughton and Brook Lopez for Allen and Portis once they return from injury. Whether or not they insert them back into the starting lineup, they should at least provide critical depth for a team that has looked fatigued.
The Bucks have the talent, and perhaps more importantly, they have Giannis. But they might need some rest down the stretch to make another finals run.
The Celtics were a perfectly .500 team last year and looked perfectly mediocre for most of this season. After a 120 game sample of mediocre play, we seemed resided to the fact that the Celtics were, in fact, mediocre. But after an 11-2 stretch through the end of January and February, the Celtics have signs of life.
After last season’s disappointment, the Celtics replaced coach Brad Stevens with Ime Udoka. Udoka is known for his defensive principles, and he has led the Celtics to the second-best defensive rating in the league. Boston surrenders just 106 points per 100 possessions. With Marcus Smart, Derrick White, the Jays, and Robert Williams, Udoka has plenty of plus defenders to deploy. They are anchored by their defense. The Celtics rank fourth in the NBA in overall net Rating and first amongst eastern conference opponents.
However, there is a reason that the Celtics record doesn’t match their actual win-loss record. This team still hasn’t found a go-to offensive option to closeout games. The Celtics are 24-9 in games decided by ten or more points this year. But they are 3-7 in games decided by three or less. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are great players, but both have made some critical mistakes down the stretch in close games. If the Celtics can figure out their late-game offense, their defense will give them a chance to go on playoff a run.
We have no idea what to expect from Brooklyn, but I have to mention them because they have Kevin Durant. Last year KD carried the Nets and gave us a playoff performance for the ages when he averaged 34 ppg across 12 games. Durant should return in the next week and lead Brooklyn down the stretch.
The Nets have to be one of the first teams in NBA history not to want homecourt in the playoffs. Barclays Center has never provided an enormous homecourt advantage, and Kyrie Irving still can not play in home games. They probably want to stay out of the play-in tournament. But weirdly enough, the ideal seed for Brooklyn to get would probably be the six seed. With Durant coming back, it will be fascinating to see how they jockey for playoff positioning.
It’s too early to tell how the Simmons/Irving/Durant pairing will work, as there are so many variables involved. So I’ll stay away from a prediction for now. However, Vegas still has this team as the favorite to get out of the East. If they can gel down the stretch, the Nets are as deep and as talented as anyone in the conference.