Stop and think about the recent history of the Eastern Conference. For the last eight years a LeBron James led team has represented the conference in the NBA Finals. James had a monopoly on the conference for the better part of the last decade. That being said, his teams didn’t necessarily always finish first in the Conference, but they always came out on top come playoff time.
In the 2009 season, the last year before James long run, the Boston Celtics’ big three represented the East in the Finals. The Celtics also represented the East in the Finals during the 2007 season. And the year before that, the 2006 season, James’ Cleveland Cavaliers represented the East in the Finals. The only time since 2006 that the Eastern Conference Champion was not the Celtics or a James-led team was in 2008 when Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis got the Orlando Magic to the finals.
I’m bringing all of this up because James is no longer in the East and competition for the conference crown is heating up. Just recently the Celtics played and won an overtime game against the Toronto Raptors. The two franchises aren’t alone in their competition for the Eastern crown though. The Philadelphia 76ers recently traded for and won their first game with All-Star Jimmy Butler and the Milwaukee Bucks have super star Giannis Antetokounmpo along with a strong starting cast. Even the Indiana Pacers, led by Victor Oladipo, can at least play spoiler to other teams in the conference.
But out of those five teams which one is the strongest? I’m going to just rule out the Pacers right away, considering their team has the least amount of talent compared to the other four teams. That leaves the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors, and 76ers.
As of the time this article is being written, the Raptors are first in the East. The Raptors have finished in the top four in the East for the past five seasons and actually finished first in the East last season before getting obliterated by James in the playoffs. The crushing loss motivated the team to trade for super star Kawhi Leonard. So far Leonard has meshed well with All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, who’s putting up over ten assists per game. Leonard is leading the team in scoring with just under 25 points per game and has reemerged as a great defensive player. His efforts on both ends of the court were noticeable in the recent loss to the Celtics. What I like most about the Raptors, besides Leonard, is the team’s depth and defensive capabilities. The Raptors biggest concern might be not getting a ton of scoring off of the bench, but the bench has a handful of solid defenders that negate that issue to an extent.
The Bucks, who are currently second in the East, are relying on Antetokounmpo to help them reach the playoffs, but the rest of the starters are actually really good. Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton are borderline All-Star caliber players who are threats at the offensive end of the court. Center Brook Lopez isn’t quite as impressive and really isn’t a help on defense, but he is another offensive threat teams have to account for. The last starter, Malcolm Brogdon, was the Rookie of the Year back in 2016.
The Celtics are better than their current record shows. The team is struggling to find its chemistry which worked so well last season. The re-integration of Gordon Hayward hasn’t been easy on Brad Stevens’ team, but Stevens is a top three coach in the league and I believe he’ll be able to lead his team through this transition period. And that’s not to say the team is playing bad, they did just beat the Raptors after all. Kyrie Irving was instrumental in the win, scoring 43 points. I think he’s reasserted himself as the team’s best player over the last few games and should continue to be viewed as such.
I’m not concerned about Al Horford, he’s a great all-around complimentary player who is also a big help on defense. Marcus Morris, another strong two-way player, is playing well now too, I’m just concerned about Hayward and the team’s many young players. First off, Hayward may never get back to the All-Star player he once was. I’ll just put it out there. There is a chance he doesn’t become the player the Celtics thought they were getting when they signed him. I’m not doubting his God-given ability or mental toughness but the injury he suffered could be career altering and if Hayward does return to form it might not even be until next year.
Second, Jayson Tatum is shooting worse from the floor and frankly he’s taking some unnecessary shots. His flow seems a little off. I’m worried about Jaylen Brown, who’s scoring and shooting percentage have all dipped drastically since Hayward rejoined the team. Brown is a terrific defender, but his offensive game is off to a slow start in 2018. Finally, I’m concerned about Terry Rozier’s shooting percentage dipping a little and the possibility that he, and Brown for that matter, are not getting enough opportunities to continue improving. The Celtics have the largest upside of any team in the East, but they have their worries and need to continue to build a stronger team chemistry.
That just leaves the 76ers. Philadelphia recently traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler and I love the move. I think the 76ers needed a little more of a push in the East and I believe Butler will give it to them. I still think the 76ers are the third best team in the East, behind the Celtics and Raptors.
Despite having Ben Simmons, Butler, and Joel Embiid (a super star in his own right), I just cannot see the 76ers beating the Celtics or the Raptors in a postseason series. I think the Raptors have a better super star in Leonard and the Celtics have too many weapons and are too well coached for the 76ers to beat them. People are worried about the 76ers outside shooting, but that’s not the problem. On November 16 against the Utah Jazz the 76ers were 11-23 from three. That’s 47.8%. On the same night the Celtics went 9-26 (34.6%) and the Raptors went 8-29 (27.6%) from three. It’s not the shooting that’s the issue, unless you’re talking about Markelle Fultz. Outside of his issues the 76ers will be fine shooting from three. But I think the Celtics, Raptors, and even the Bucks have better constructed rosters. And of those three at least the Celtics and Raptors are more experienced, mature, and disciplined. The Celtics also have Stevens at head coach and he is a game changer by himself. I just don’t trust the 76ers until they actually prove they can beat a top team in the postseason. I won’t believe it until it happens.
I applaud you if you read all of that, if you didn’t you jumped to the right part of the article where I reveal my Eastern Conference power rankings. The Celtics are the best team in the East. The game against the Raptors proved that to me and I think they’ll get settled down the line. The second best team in the East is the Raptors, who might win the first seed during the regular season. At third best I have the 76ers who I still think are not ready for a championship run but can still beat the fourth best team in the East: the Milwaukee Bucks. The Pacers are the fifth best team in the conference and every team below them, besides the Detroit Pistons on a really good day, aren’t relevant in the playoff race.
People didn’t really agree with me though. On a recent twitter poll, out of 39 votes, 36% of voters thought the Butler trade made the 76ers the favorites in the East. Another 36% thought the trade made them the second best in the East. 15% thought the 76ers were the third best in the East and 13% thought they would finish fourth. No matter where they finish during the regular season, the playoffs will be very telling for the 76ers this year.