So, let me start off this by saying that I’m a lifelong NBA fan and one of my dreams has been to write about the sport. I absolutely love it, I devour as much as I can, and most of the time I’m on my phone, it’s looking at news and stats as it relates to the NBA. So more than likely, you will see me write quite a bit about the sport. I also am probably biased towards the Orlando Magic, which is great because as we enter the final 20-25 games of the season, they’re in a great position to make the playoffs. Yes!
With that being said, I wanted to offer some thoughts that I’ve had while looking at the Eastern Conference of the contenders/pretenders that will come out of the East, the teams on the bubble of making it, and what the future holds for the cellar dwellers.
Pretenders/Contenders: The teams that make up the pretenders/contenders section are those who are pretty likely to make the playoffs as of today. Those teams are the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors, the Indiana Pacers, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Boston Celtics. Out of these five teams, I fully believe the Raptors and the 76ers are contenders while the other three teams are pretenders at this point.
Starting with the Celtics, you have a team with deep chemistry issues at this phase. This is a team that should be at the top of the league and the one true team that could go up against the Golden State Warriors. and yet as we enter the final stretch of the season, it’s painfully obvious that these guys don’t even like playing with one another. Kyrie Irving has blasted the team a handful of times, comments from the likes of Marcus Morris has shown the team is fraying, and the team has been woefully inconsistent throughout the season. Gordon Hayward hasn’t shown he’s fully ready to shoulder the load that was expected to him before his gruesome injury last year, Jayson Tatum has stayed fairly stagnant in his second season, and Kyrie Irving is too volatile to put stock in right now. The positives is the fact their bench is deep and feisty and they do have one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, but right now they’re in pretender status for me.
Next in the pretender column are the Indiana Pacers, which is of no fault to themselves. They’ve played amazing all season long and they deserve the spot they’re in right now, third in the East, but with the season-ending injury to Victor Oladipo they lack that go-to player for the playoffs. This is a team with a ton of fun pieces sans Oladipo such as Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. That sadly won’t be enough to push forward in the Playoffs right now, but they’re going to be a true contender next season.
The final team in the pretender column for me are the Milwaukee Bucks. They’re the best team in the league right now and when you have a superstar like Giannis Antetokounmpo, you really should be one of the best teams in the league. Giannis has taken the next step on his evolution to becoming one of the top ten players to have ever played the game. The thing that tends to be a sticking point for me is his supporting crew around him. Khris Middleton has had a borderline All-Star season, but behind that leaves a lot of questions. When the rest of your lineup consists of Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez, it definitely leaves questions of how far this team could truly go. They may get out of the first round (they should), but beyond that? I don’t see it. Plus, their bench leaves much to be desired.
The two teams that have the best chance of making it out the Eastern Conference are the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. It’s no surprise though since these two teams made huge moves at the trade deadline with the Raptors grabbing Marc Gasol while the 76ers grabbed Tobias Harris. The Raptors are lead by Kawhi Leonard and have looked amazing throughout the season, thanks to the steady hand of Kyle Lowry (not playing his best basketball, but plays much better with Kawhi off the court which gives them a great 1-2 punch in that regards). They’ve also seen a massive leap from Pascal Siakam and are anchored by a bench that includes Marc Gasol, Jeremy Lin, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby. They have the starting five with the bench that will allow them to go deep this year.
The other team that is definitely a contender, though second to the Raptors (yes, I believe the Raptors will make the Finals), are the 76ers. This is a team with a stack starting lineup that includes Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, and Tobias Harris. Four studs to say the least. Since the trade they’ve gelled really well (though Jimmy Butler’s usage rate has dropped and will definitely be looking for greener pastures after this season) as they’ve ran the starting lineup to start and end the game while then rotating in their bench pieces to allow the stars to really shine and stagger it so it’s like a really long boxing match with Mike Tyson. The bench definitely leaves much to be desired, but when you get to the Playoffs, you usually see that rotation shrink and rotation with those four plus JJ Redick, TJ McConnell, James Ennis III, and Jonathan Simmons leaves them in a very good position to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
On the Bubble: At this point of the season, you have five teams competing for three spots. Those teams are the Brooklyn Nets (currently in 6th place), Detroit Pistons (currently in 7th place), and Charlotte Hornets (currently in 8th place). The first two teams outside of that bubble are the Orlando Magic (1 game back of the Hornets, 1.5 back of the Pistons, and 3 games back fo the Nets) and the Miami Heat (.5 game back of the Magic). Out of those five teams, I see the Nets, Pistons, and Magic making the playoffs. I could talk a lot about these five teams, and I will at a later point, but the reason I see the Hornets and Heat looking in from the outside comes down to the lack of scoring options after Kemba Walker for the Hornets and not enough consistency from the Heat.
Cellar-Dwellers: The race to the bottom consists of the following five teams, of which I’ll make a prediction on what the future looks like for that team:
- Washington Wizards: This team is snake-bit. They have drama on top of drama between injuries to the likes of John Wall and Dwight Howard and largely inconsistent play (I’ve seen this team down significantly after the first quarter on multiple occasions to teams that are WORSE than them). Bradley Beal has looked like a real superstar since Wall has gone down, but there’s no positive outlook for this team. They’re going to be starting a rebuild pretty soon, whether they like it or not, because the pieces on this team just do not fit with each other.
- Atlanta Hawks: This team I’m pretty unsure of. They have some great young talent in the form of Trae Young and John Collins. They’re going to have some good draft picks in this upcoming draft, two lottery picks depending on where the Mavericks finish the season (the Mavericks traded this year’s pick if it falls outside of the top 5 to gain Luka Doncic). The future is bright for this team, as they are still early in their rebuild, but could give it another two to three seasons and they could be a force in the East again.
- Chicago Bulls: This team needs to be scrubbed from the top down in terms of their front office. They are one of the worst-ran teams in that regard. I love the pieces on this team though with Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., and Zach Lavine. I don’t know where this team is going though and the direction is going to largely fall on how these pieces develop. If they develop the right way, then they’re going to be in a very strong position. The front office though will make the difference in my opinion and right now, I’m not convinced they know what they’re doing in the least bit.
- New York Knicks: Thankfully, I don’t need to waste my time writing a ton about this team. They’ve got nothing to really like outside of Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox, who are great pieces, but more than likely are not pieces that are the #1 option on a team. The reality is if this team doesn’t land a Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, or similar caliber player in this offseason, they’re rudderless. Which really isn’t any different than where they’ve been the last few years. Nothing’s going to change until they get a new owner, if you ask me.
Man, that was a lot to write about just on the Eastern Conference, and I didn’t even dive that deep on five of those teams. I’ll write about them at a later date. Tomorrow, I’m going to dive deep on the Western Conference.