An NBA check-in: the Eastern Conference edition

Pima Post

In my last NBA column, we took a look at how the Western Conference Playoffs would play out. 

At the time, I wanted to wait a week to get a larger sample size from the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers before discussing a convoluted Eastern Conference Playoff picture.

However, that week turned into a month, the regular season is over and there is still no clarity on who could come out of the East.

However, I’m of the unpopular opinion that we need to analyze things with nuance and perspective. And the Eastern Conference has been hard to figure out all season long. 

With that said, I am glad that I did not participate in the initial hyperbole that anointed the 76ers as champions after the James Harden for Ben Simmons trade happened.

Because as of now, it looks like the 76ers will be out in the second round of the playoffs. And their head coach will be fired … or, excuse me, “Both sides will agree to part ways.”

Simmons has yet to play a game for the Brooklyn Nets, and the rest of the Eastern Conference is as confusing as whatever is going on with him.

The Miami Heat are in first place even without having its best players consistently available throughout the season. And it took the defending champs Milwaukee Bucks until the last part of the season to find a rhythm. 

Kyrie Irving now can play home games, and the Chicago Bulls don’t look like a contender any more after their best start of the season in years. The Boston Celtics’ transformation from an 11th place team into a juggernaut, however, was real.

It is a puzzling conference, but the parity and its randomness will make for great television (or streaming or whatever). And it all starts tonight with the play-in game between the Nets vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Eastern Conference

After Simmons went to the Nets in a trade package with Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, the team looked better on paper than with the checked-out version of Harden they traded to the Sixers.

In another development, New York changed its vaccine policies and Irving will be available to play home games.

He had been playing great to that point, Kevin Durant came back from injury and it seemed like the basketball gods were smiling at them … but not really.

Simmons might not play this season, Curry is hobbled by an injury, Joe Harris won’t be available for the playoffs, Patty Mills looks washed and the team lacks a fatal combination of depth and defense.

Yet the defending champions, Milwaukee Bucks, appear to have ducked the Nets by not playing all of their starters in the last game of the season.

The team fell to third place in the conference and into a more favorable matchup against the Bulls.

Durant is still the best scorer in NBA history and was a shoe size away from single-handedly eliminating the Bucks last season.

Although it is a play-in team, and a (most likely) seventh seed — the Nets are a dark horse contender merely by his presence. But the team cannot be considered legit contenders because it doesn’t have anyone besides Irving and him.

On the other hand, the Bucks do look like a contender and can get Brook Lopez into playoff shape after missing most of the season (because of injury) in a first round matchup against a lesser Bulls team.

A better win-loss record of 51-31 than last year’s 46-26 isn’t the only reason why this is a better version of the team that won the NBA Championship last year.

Giannis Antetokounmpo got better. He is a more complete basketball player than last year when he looked like a more athletic Shaq. 

His two major weaknesses were free throws and mid-range shots. But this season he’s shooting 72.2% from the line (his highest percentage in a couple of years). 

And as Kirk Goldsberry pointed out last week, he is also shooting the best percentage of his career from the midrange: Antetokounmpo ended the regular season with 41.5% in mid-range shots.

This is a huge improvement from last year when he averaged 35.7% and was unstoppable on his way to winning Finals MVP and the championship.

Stats can be boring at times and don’t tell the whole story. But these numbers should terrify all playoff teams — including the Western Conference Phoenix Suns who might see the Bucks in a finals rematch from last year.

The Boston Celtics ended the season with the league’s 2nd best net rating and were playing an interchangeable-wing defender scheme reminiscent of the Pippen and Jordan Bulls. 

Jaylen Brown became the perfect complementary player to Jayson Tatum, who now looks like an MVP and just had his breakthrough season. 

Marcus Smart — who was always the favorite to be traded away from the Celtics — is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. And an under-the-radar midseason trade for Derrick White solidified their point guard position.

The Celtics looked like contenders and depth at the center had been part of their successful turnaround. But their starter suffered a knee injury on March 27th and might not play in the first round. 

Bad timing for a team with good health all season because they will probably have to face the Nets in the first round. 

If the Celtics can do without their starting center (Robert Williams III) and beat the Nets, they will face the Bucks in the 2nd round.

Then, hypothetically, if they beat the Bucks in the 2nd round, they will go against the Miami Heat or 76ers — both teams with easier 1st round matchups and would enter the Conference Finals with only one grueling series.

As opposed to potentially two seven games series.Not an easy road to the finals for the Celtics, who looked like one of the only two clear finals contenders from the East besides the Bucks.

Miami and Philadelphia are the favorites in any of their potential 1st round matchups, but they have the highest variance of the other Eastern Conference teams:

I) The Heat are the 1st seed, have great role players, and an all-time great coach. But their best players have constantly missed games all season because of injuries or “personal reasons”, and aren’t great shooters.

They will either go to the finals by playing great team defense à la Ben Wallace Detroit Pistons in the early 2000s. Or get eliminated by teams with better star players in the 2nd or 3rd round.

II) The 76ers have an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid and a former MVP in Harden. Embiid is the best pure center in decades, and Harden is one of the best shooting guards in NBA history.

Recently, the latter has looked either injured or past his prime. Harden has to summon his old self if the Sixers want to make a deep playoff run. 

Otherwise, Embiid will have to carry them, or standout sophomore Tyrese Maxey will have to step up as a second option.

All of these events are within the realm of possibility, and we might get great basketball from two of this generation’s best players. But in-house drama might derail the 76ers and won’t make it past the 2nd round (again) if they don’t fix their problems.

Head coach Doc Rivers has reportedly checked out and is looking to go back to Los Angeles, where the Lakers job just became open.

He recently blamed Harden for a loss and notoriously falls short of playoff expectations. So the only thing we know for sure, is that if the 76ers get eliminated, the Doc Rivers press conference will be a must-watch (again).

Everyone should be rooting for a rematch of last year’s finals. The Phoenix Suns went up a level and so did Antetokounmpo. It has the potential to be a highly-entertaining series not just because of storylines but also because of high-level basketball.

Quick Western Conference Updates:

  • The Lakers didn’t even make the play-in tournament.
  • Luka Dončić injured his left calf in the last game of the season and is out “indefinitely.”
  • Steph Curry is recovering from injury.
  • Phoenix and Memphis are still the two best teams in the conference, but the Clippers got Paul George back. And there are rumblings about Kawhi Leonard possibly coming back.