Breaking down where Eastern Conference stands with one month remaining

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Eastern Conference

Make no mistake about it, the competition that lies out in the Eastern Conference is legit. With the stranglehold that LeBron James had on the conference for nearly a decade now gone, the rest of the teams out East have managed to make themselves into potential championship contenders.

With the balance of power amongst the top teams in the NBA seemingly even between both conferences, the Eastern Conference playoff race offers great intrigue for the everyday fan.

This article will break down each Eastern Conference team and predicting where they will be at the end of the year by separating them into four categories: The Basement, Just Missing the Cut, Playoff-Bound, Legit Contenders.

The Basement: New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards

Eastern Conference
photo via: Dale Zanine/ USA TODAY Sports

New York Knicks

The New York Knicks were prepared to go through their ups and downs this year as their prized big man Kristaps Porzingis was set to sit on the shelf for the season with a torn ACL. One thing that was not expected however was a trade request from the Latvian superstar. That trade was granted after just three hours upon request and in doing so created the option for New York to bring in two max contract players in the summer.

With the tanking strategy in full effect, the Knicks season is currently all about the development of some of their youth. This includes Kevin Knox who has managed to put together an under the radar type rookie season with averages of 12.4 PPG (seventh amongst NBA rookies) on 36.1% from the field while also collecting 4.4 RPG. Knox provides hopes of being a 20 points a night scorer.

Also, a member of the youth movement in New York is their backcourt of second-year players, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina. Smith Jr. (who was acquired in the Porzingis trade) gives them the scoring threat at the guard position that you need in today’s NBA while Ntilikina is the defensive stopper and facilitator that head coach David Fizdale wants.

The Knicks’ young pieces will intrigue a big name free-agent in the off-season much like it did for the Lakers in acquiring LeBron. For now, however, the losses will continue to pile up.

Cleveland Cavaliers

After LeBron left his hometown (again), he left a team that truly may go several years before making it back into the postseason. With Cleveland not being as appealing a destination for free agents as say New York, the Cavaliers will turn to the NBA draft to begin their rebuild.

A bright spot for the Cavaliers this season has been rookie Collin Sexton who ranks 4th in three-point percentage amongst all rookies at 38.3% rate, and fourth in scoring with 15.1 PPG. While Sexton thrives in those categories, the Cavaliers as a team rank near the bottom of the league in scoring as they currently sit at 29th with 103.6 PPG.

With backcourt member Jordan Clarkson averaging a career-high in points with 17.0 PPG, the logical expectation should be to retain him when his contract expires after next season. This, in turn, will give the Cavaliers their backcourt of the future.

The only remaining superstar the Cavaliers have from their big three days, Kevin Love, has signed an extension all the way up through the end of the 2022-2023 season. Assuming Tristan Thompson will be leaving after next season, Cleveland will need to draft well in the coming years.

With the small forward position being a hole for the Cavs, the NBA draft offers three great options for them and all of them happen to play for the same program at Duke. While the draft lottery will ultimately tell which prospect they end up with, the Cavaliers would be foolish not to take any of the three to fill that need.

Chicago Bulls

Aside from the previously mentioned Knicks and Cavs, the Chicago Bulls have a roster full of talent but the only issue is their limited time playing together. Led by Zach LaVine and second-year big man Lauri Markkanen, Chicago has failed to get much help elsewhere.

That could be the reason why they went out and acquired veteran swingman Otto Porter Jr. at this year’s deadline in exchange for Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis. Since joining the Bulls, Porter Jr. has managed to average 19.8 PPG while shooting the lights out with a 51.8% FG% and a 52.2 3PT%.

To go along with those three players is the man running the point in Kris Dunn. Dunn has taken a dip in his scoring from last season to this year with 13.4 in 2017-2018 to his current 11.3 PPG but has seen an uptick in the assist category by .2.

The talent is there but the Bulls failed to start the season off on the right foot after starting this season with a 3-14 record. Digging themselves into a hole for which they have been unable to climb out of.

Atlanta Hawks

Two names come to mind when it comes to the Atlanta Hawks and that is John Collins and rookie sensation Trae Young. Fortunately for the Hawks, these two young stars create the beginning of a culture that is trying to be established in Atlanta.

On the downside of that, the supporting cast for the Hawks has not been up to par. The drop-off in scoring outside of Collins and Young is glaring, with the next leading scorer being about 5 PPG below Young (Taurean Prince with 13.3 PPG).

The Hawks have been rewarded with another one of their first-round picks in rookie Kevin Huerter. Huerter has impressed many with his lethal shooting touch as he has earned the nickname Red Velvet for his hair color matched with his silky smooth stroke. The rookie out of the University of Maryland is shooting 39.0% from the perimeter which ranks second among all rookies.

It was the month of November that ultimately decided the Hawks fate for the season as they dropped 13 of their 16 games with the help of 10-game losing streak from Nov. 6 – Nov. 23. With the Hawks set for the draft lottery yet again, they will look to build off of their most recent hits in the draft and select a player that will blend perfectly with what they have going for them already.

Washington Wizards

Chalk this season up to two things. One, John Wall’s inconsistent health history and two, Bradley Beal essentially having to carry the entire team.

The health of Wall has played a significant role in the direction of the Wizards and lately, it hasn’t been the right direction.

In the first few years with the organization Wall would have nagging injuries which saw him miss more and more games each year. He would miss 13 games his rookie year, followed by 16 games his second year, and then 33 games the third year with a non-traumatic stress injury. From then on, Wall was one of the more durable guards for a four-year stretch where he missed a total of only 12 games.

Since then, the recent knee and Achilles injuries suffered have limited him to miss half the year last year and even more time this year which will also bleed over into next season.

Shifting focus to this year, where the brunt of the responsibilities are put onto Beal, he has responded by averaging a career-high 25.7 PPG which puts him in 11th place in the NBA. In the top 11 of scorers, only one other matches or surpasses Beal’s 37.4 MPG and that is James Harden with the same amount of playing time.

It is hard for Washington to be taken as serious contenders in the Eastern Conference with so much of a roster shake-up at the deadline, trading away players like Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. Adding to the injuries is their big man Dwight Howard who is recovering from back surgery and has only played in nine games.

Much like the Bulls, Washington did not do themselves any favors by getting off to a slow start. Starting off the year 2-8 and then dropping two, three, or even four consecutive games at a time throughout the year, the Wizards have failed to find any type of rhythm, a rhythm they are not likely to find as they sit 3.0 games back from the eighth seed.

Outside Looking In: Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets

Eastern Conference
photo via: Matthew Stockman/ Getty Images

Miami Heat

Most commonly known as the farewell tour for Heat legend Dwyane Wade, Miami is using that as motivation to drive them into the playoffs. Wade also can help out with that:

Starting in place of Wade is Josh Richardson who has rewarded that decision by head coach Eric Spoelstra by leading the team in scoring with 17.4 PPG. Richardson may not be the first name mentioned when some think of dynamic shooting guards in the NBA, but he has proved that he deserves to be in that conversation now.

Just like Richardson, his backcourt mate Goran Dragic continues to be one of the most underrated point guards in today’s NBA. Dragic is sound in all aspects that make a good point guard especially when it comes to decision making as his 2.2 turnovers per game rank near the top of the NBA for the lowest amount between starting point guards.

Mix in Wade and then the frontcourt of Justice Winslow and Hassan Whiteside and you get a bunch that is very capable of making into the post-season.

The reason they don’t get in is due to their strength of schedule in the last 20 games. In the last 20 games, Miami plays eight teams who currently sit in the top five of their respective conferences. If the Heat can replicate what they did against the Warriors and win against those teams, then we will see Wade back in the post-season one last time.

Charlotte Hornets

Led by their All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, the Charlotte Hornets are looking to make the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Walker is in the prime of his career and is averaging a career-high 25.2 PPG, which is good for 13th in NBA. The durability of Walker is something that goes unnoticed as he has played in all 62 games for Charlotte, and has only missed six games in the past four seasons.

To put it into perspective of how valuable Walker is, the next highest leading scorer is an entire 10.1 points lower than Walker’s average. Not to mention the usage rate for Walker ranks 8th in all of the NBA with a 30.3% rate, ahead of players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis to name a few.

For the reason of Walker being the only player on the Hornets that other NBA team’s fear, is the same reason that they will miss out on the playoffs. Another reason for the Charlotte missing out on the post-season is by not having a true identity.

From a purely statistical standpoint, they don’t do anything really well outside of limiting their turnovers (second lowest TO rate in the NBA with 12.6). They remain on the back-end of a large amount of key statistical categories, PPG (19th), RPG (23rd), APG (23rd), and Defensive Rating (21st).

Playoff-bound: Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers

D'Angelo RussellOrlando Magic

Yes, the Orlando Magic will e back playing in the post-season for the first time since the Stan Van Gundy era that ended in 2011-2012.

Once again, the Magic’s strength lies within their front-court. The star of the bunch is first-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic who leads the team in points rebounds and steals. Vucevic is joined by Jonathon Isaac Mo Bamba and Aaron Gordon. With the added depth in the paint, Orlando has gone on to have the 8th best defensive rating, 7th fewest points allowed in the paint.

The drawback for the Magic would be their offensive ability inside the paint as they rank second to last in that category with only 42.8 PPG ITP. While that may be a bit of a concern the Magic have players that can shoot from beyond the arc at a lethal rate. Those players being Vucevic (38.8 3PT%), Terrence Ross (37.6 3PT%), and D.J. Augustin (43.6 3PT% – 5th in the NBA).

Another reason the Magic will be playing past the regular season is that they play only six teams who are currently seeded above the fifth spot in their respective conference. Which is a number more favorable than Miami’s eight and with the Magic currently in that eighth spot, they control their destiny more than the team’s behind them that need help.

Detroit Pistons

While we are on the topic of dominant front-courts, let’s turn our attention to the Detroit Pistons who are as dominant and dynamic as any power forward-center duo in the NBA.

With Blake Griffin continue to develop his game, he has truly become a match-up nightmare on a nightly basis. Averaging 25.5 PPG and shooting the three-ball at a career-high 6.8 attempts per game rate with a 36.8% success rate.

His teammate Andre Drummond may be one of the last few old school big men that exist in the NBA. Drummond is a double-double machine who has pumped out a league-best 50 double-doubles, while also leading the league with 15.1 RPG, and 11th in BPG with 1.74.

Those two alone are good enough to carry the Pistons into the playoffs as not a lot of teams can deal with them on a nightly basis. Then you add in the toughness that point guard Reggie Jackson can provide along with the sharpshooter acquired at the deadline in Wayne Ellington and you have a team that can possibly make some playoff noise.

Brooklyn Nets

There is something special going on in Brooklyn and at the face of it all is a player who has had his fair share of ups and downs.

D’Angelo Russell was selected with the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft for the Los Angeles Lakers. His career would then take a turn after he (along with Timofey Mozgov) was traded away by the Lakers to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and late first round pick.

With his career in risk of falling into the bust category, Russell responded by just recently being named to his first All-Star team, averaging career-highs in points with 20.5 PPG, assists with 6.8 APG, field-goal percentage with 43.5 FG%, and three-point percentage with 36.8 3PT%.

Russell is assisted in his efforts by Spencer Dinwiddie who leads the second-highest scoring bench attack in the NBA with 47.5 bench points per game.

The Nets are a well-balanced team as they have weapons in every facet of the game. From the perimeter, they have the reigning three-point champion in Joe Harris who is shooting a league-best 47.2 3PT%. Inside the paint, they have Jarrett Allen who has solidified himself as one of the premier shot-blockers with 1.57 BPG (good enough for 12th in the NBA).

On the defensive side of the ball, they have an athletic two-way wing in Caris LeVert who is often tasked to stop the oppositions best perimeter threat.

Currently, seven games separating them from the fifth-seeded Boston Celtics, and tied with the seventh-seeded Detroit Pistons, Brooklyn is in no danger of failing to make the playoffs. How far they will get in the playoffs? We will see how much ice is in the veins of D-Lo or even DeMarre Carroll?

Indiana Pacers

When Victor Oladipo went down with a ruptured quad tendon, the basketball world was ready to write off the Pacers. While Oladipo is their leader, the troops have rallied in Indiana to a 9-7 record without him since he has gone down, but after a four-game skid immediately following the injury the team responded with a six-game winning streak.

Assuming the scoring responsibilities in response to Indiana’s superstar being absent for the remainder of the year has been Bojan Bogdanovich who has averaged 21.8 PPG on 51.5% shooting from the field and 39.2% from three in the last 17 games. While Bogdanovich has been doing the scoring the two men in the middle, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, have been nothing short of tremendous.

Indiana knows what works for them and that is to slow the game down and make it into a half-court game rather than a running match. They rank 27th in pace and in doing conserve their energy on defense allowing them to have the leagues second best defensive rating in the league with a 105.1 rating.

Even though they do not have a superstar, the Pacers are well coached under Nate McMillan and are primed to give whoever they face in the playoffs a tough series.

Legit Contenders: Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks

Eastern Conference
photo via: Dan Garcia/ OnMilwaukee

Boston Celtics

The talent is undoubtedly there but the challenge then becomes how to utilize it. After the Celtics reached the Eastern Conference finals last season without the services of superstars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Instead, they got there with rookie Jayson Tatum and career-long role player Terry Rozier.

Fast forward to this year and the tone of the Celtics season has been a bit of a disappointment thus far now that they are at full strength. Even though the Celtics sit comfortably in the middle of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference, the talent level on the roster begs for them to have a higher spot in the standings.

Boston has had a fair share of ups and downs and that includes an eight-game winning streak from Nov. 26 – Dec. 14 as well as losses in their six of their last nine games.

Even with Irving as the presumed ‘Alpha’ on the team, the Celtics seem to play more inspired basketball when he is out of the lineup. In the 11 games ‘Uncle Drew’ has not played, Boston has managed to go 9-2 while averaging 115.2 PPG. On the season, the Celtics have managed to average 112.1 PPG. Coincidence? Who knows?

Players like Tatum, Marcus Morris, and AL Horford have flourished this season, with each averaging over 13.0 PPG. If any coach can make the most out of his rotation then it is Brad Stevens. The Celtics arguably have the most talent in the Eastern Conference and once the post-season starts that might be the ultimate difference.

Philadelphia 76ers

Talk about being aggressive in your championship window, jeez. First-year general manager Elton Brand has made quite the splash acquiring players like Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris via trade.

Since joining Philadelphia, Butler has appeared to be the player with the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Since joining the roster, Butler has played in 41 games while averaging an 18.6 PPG and being their defensive stopper with 1.96 steals, where he ranks fourth in the league in that category.

https://twitter.com/BBallSociety_/status/1095503740264681472

Harris gives the 76ers a versatile wing that can stretch the floor as well as handle the ball. He has only been on the roster for nine games but is second on the team with 21.7 PPG on 39.3% shooting from the perimeter and 52.2% from the field.

Embiid is playing like the most skilled big man in the league and his All-Star year and while there have been rumblings of Embiid stating how he needs the ball more, the 76ers have done a good job at making sure they are keeping him happy. Wrapping up the star-studded roster is Ben Simmons who is averaging the fourth most assists with 7.9 assists per game while also contributing 17.0 points per game.

The 76ers rank fourth in the league in scoring and with each above-named superstar on the same page, they can make one of the deepest runs in the playoffs our East.

To finish off the season, the 76ers play 11 games of their last 19 games against teams that are currently out of the playoff picture. Offering a good chance for the city of brotherly love to gather momentum as the post-season draws closer.

Toronto Raptors

After Toronto traded one of their most loyal players in DeMar DeRozan away for a disgruntled Kawhi Leonard, the obvious questions of how it might work out were answered right away. Not only has Leonard returned to his 2014 NBA Finals MVP form, but he has outperformed DeRozan in almost every major statistical category including points, rebounds, field goal %, three-point %, free-throw %, and steals.

After going through significant changes this season with replacing DeMar for Kawhi, they were not done as they replaced a coach of the year candidate Dwane Casey with Nick Nurse and then longtime big man Jonas Valanciunas with Marc Gasol. All these changes have given the Raptors more toughness that will be needed to make it out of the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors started the season off winning 12 of their first 13 games and their longest losing streak only being three games after that start. Since then, they have gone on to win 34 of their next 47 games and have a season sweep of the Golden State Warriors.

Lastly, the one problem that has plagued the Raptors for years is the post-season inconsistency of Kyle Lowry. To combat that, Toronto has gotten help from Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and most improved player of the year candidate Pascal Siakam, so that Lowry may not have as much responsibility placed upon his shoulders.

With the uncertainty of Leonard re-signing after the season is over, this could be one of the last chances the city of Toronto has at making it out of the East and contending for an NBA championship.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks are the top dog of the Eastern Conference. Yes, you heard that correctly. Led by their Greek superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee has struck fear into the hearts of other NBA teams and separated themselves as a powerhouse.

Antetokounmpo has made a strong case for the MVP as he has boasted career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, and field-goal percentage. It is rare that you find a talent like Antetokounmpo, but he continues to be an unguardable player with his length and his newly acquired strength.

Gone are the days of the belief that international talent cannot be the face of an NBA franchise. Dirk Nowitzki disproved that in his time with Dallas, and now two of the top teams in the NBA with Denver and Milwaukee are led by foreign-born players with Nikola Jokic and Antetokounmpo.

While Antetokounmpo might be the face of the team, the Bucks tremendous season can be attributed to first-time All-Star Khris Middleton’s continued growth. As one of the best ‘three-and-D’ players in the NBA today, it is no secret that Middleton will be the key to the Bucks success in the post-season.

In the back-court for Milwaukee is the former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and the oftentimes written off Eric Bledsoe. Together they offer playmaking ability for others as well as the ability to put the ball in the basket with a combined scoring average of 32.0 PPG.

Rounding out a well-balanced starting five for the Bucks is big man Brook Lopez who is shooting a career-best 36.9% from beyond the arc. All four players around Antetokounmpo complement each other perfectly as they continue to run through the NBA with relative ease.

The success of the Bucks can be directly associated to their defensive side of the ball where they rank first in opponents field goal percentage and ninth in opponents PPG. The post-season for Milwaukee could not begin the season as they post a 19-3 record in their last 22 games and have surrendered a league-best five losses on their home court.

Make no joke about it, the Bucks are legit and they not only possess the star power but the surrounding pieces that make them a scary team to face in the post-season.

In Conclusion

It is a dog fight for the final few playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, while at the top there lie a select amount of teams that can go on on cruise control and save all of their ammunition for the post-season. One thing is certain, it is must watch-TV and every game from this point on will matter for every team.

Buckle up and let’s get ready for the crazy month of March.

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