The Eastern Conference four

Now that the NBA is in it’s annual All-star break and the trade deadline has passed, it’s a perfect time to evaluate the contenders in the Eastern Conference.

When LeBron left last summer, the Boston Celtics became the clear favorite, with Toronto a close second due to the addition of Kawhi Leonard. However, after two thirds of the regular season, there are now four legitimate contenders fighting for the throne in the Eastern Conference. Who will be wearing the crown come May?

Giannis Antetokounmpo” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks are the current one seed in the East and have a legit MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis leads the Bucks in points, rebounds and assists and is gaining confidence every night.

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I would not want to play Milwaukee in the playoffs now that Giannis is developing that mindset. The addition of Nikola Mirotic helps the Bucks’ perimeter game and frees up the lane for Giannis to drive more.

The only downside I see for the Bucks is the lack of proven veterans. In the playoffs, the defense picks up and experience is huge. Giannis will get his every night, but if teams key on the role players, Milwaukee could be in trouble.

 

Tomas Satoransky, Kyle Lowry” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Toronto Raptors

Toronto is completely selling out on winning this year. Kawhi Leonard is a free agent this summer and Marc Gasol has a player option. Both players could leave at the end of the season. Additionally, the Raptors were even rumored to be shopping Kyle Lowry at the trade deadline.

Burning bridges with Lowry after what they did to DeRozan last summer is a very risky play. The future in Toronto is so uncertain, that if any year is their year, it has to be this year. Toronto could potentially be in for a rebuild in the near future.

Now that the Raptors kryptonite, LeBron James, is no longer in their way, maybe it’s their time to be Eastern Conference champions. But can you imagine the Lakers somehow making a run to the NBA Finals and LeBron continuing his son’ing of Toronto? Obviously, it won’t happen, but it’s fun to think about.

 

Joel Embiid“by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Philadelphia 76ers

The new look 76ers are a scary team. Immediately after the trade deadline, Philly won games against the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers, following that with a close loss to a Kyrie-less Boston team at home.

The Phantastic Five starting lineup: JoJo, Ben, Tobias, Jimmy Buckets and JJ is arguably the best starting five in the league, right up their with Golden State. Even with the loss to Boston, the good news for Philly fans is that this team had very few practices between the trade deadline and these three games.

The Sixers were playing pickup basketball and learning how to play with each other, while winning purely due to their talent. However, once Brett Brown can implement plays and this team builds chemistry with the new additions, they are my pick to come out of the Eastern Conference this season. Who knows? Maybe they can even challenge Golden State for a championship. If you think you’re sensing my Philly bias, just wait and see, this team is the real deal.

 

Jayson Tatum” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Boston Celtics

In order for the 76ers to make the NBA Finals, they will most likely need to first overcome their Boston problem, having lost 10 of their last 12 games to the Celtics.

Boston was the preseason Eastern Conference favorite and a team that has impressive bench depth. If you said at the beginning of the season that Boston would be fourth in the East at the All-star break with no serious injuries, I would’ve bet you my entire bank account on the Celtics being top three.

Boston was adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a roster of young stars in the making who took LeBron James, the seven time consecutive Eastern Conference champion and GOAT, to a Game 7 in the Conference Finals.

Fast forward to now with all the drama surrounding Kyrie’s pending free agency, an underperforming Hayward and a roster full of young players who are not satisfied with their new roles, and the Celtics are the team who need this mid-season break the most. Although, when the playoffs come, I think all the noise around this team will dissipate. Defense picks up in the NBA playoffs and the game slows down a lot, both which should benefit the C’s style of play. If Philly is intimidated and can’t mentally overcome their big brother, Boston Celtics, then Boston will be representing the East in the Finals this season.

 

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Remember last year when the all the talk in the NBA was about restructuring the NBA playoffs and possibly even rearranging conferences because the Western Conference was far superior?

I believe the West had something like 15 of the top 16 ranked players based on some complex statistics. The one Eastern Conference player was obviously LeBron James. The interesting part to me was that this was less of a desire for star players to play in the West, as much as it was a desire to not have to play against playoff LeBron until the Finals. And you know why my theory is still supported now, because the year LeBron goes West, the East stacks up with star players.

Now, less than 12 months after the conference realignment talk, the Eastern Conference is, in my opinion, the stronger conference. The four teams at the top of the East are loaded with talent. That will play out with much more entertaining and competitive playoff series.

It is no longer inevitable that the Warriors and LeBron will face off in the NBA Finals. I never expected to see so many teams in the East selling all out the season immediately following LeBron’s departure to the West. Yet, that is exactly what Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston are doing. Even considering my analysis above, I think it is extremely difficult to separate any of the above four teams.

I will not be the least bit surprised with whichever team makes the Finals this year out of the above list. Each has unique strengths. The team that comes out on top will be the one who gets hot at just the right time. The one thing I do know with absolute certainty, is this is the most excited I have been about the upcoming NBA playoffs in many years.

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