The Eastern Conference is BACK
For years those of us on the East Coast have been relegated to watching an inferior conference of NBA basketball. Borderline great teams anchored by accidental playoff berths and vast mediocrity. All while the West has enjoyed a gluttony of talent, competitiveness, and intrigue.
After nearly a decade of awful basketball and lackluster postseasons, the Eastern Conference finally has returned to form. The East has awash with devastatingly potent clubs, many of whom figure to maintain this excellence for years to come.
Let’s quickly break down each of the clubs in the Eastern Conference that have brought new life into the dying concept of conference parity.
The Toronto Raptors
At the moment, whether or not Kawhi Leonard ultimately re-ups with the Raptors is of little concern. The Raptors are steamrolling competitors right now, and usually winning solves everything.
What makes Toronto so fascinating is how deep this club is. Yes, Kawhi Leonard is a bonafide MVP-candidate and Kyle Lowry is playing some of the best basketball of his life. But the Raptors are also getting key contributions from young players like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Throw in a middle-class of productive vets, and this club is scary good.
Toronto is posting the third-best offensive rating and the eight-best defensive rating thus far on the season. That means the team isn’t just setting the pace for this new scoring explosion in the Association, but it’s also been able to stifle opposing offenses.
The Raptors are an NBA-best 12-1 on the season, and have produced a few nice wins against some of the other Eastern Conference dynamos we’ll be discussing shortly. Rookie head coach Nick Nurse deserves heaps of credit here, too.
The Milwaukee Bucks
Fresh off of a 23-point massacre of the Warriors - the Dubs’ worst home loss in the Steve Kerr era - there’s no denying it. Giannis Antetokounmpo has arrived.
The Greek Freak has been simply dominating. He’s knocking on the door of pure superstardom, despite some errant holes in his game. Giannis is shooting just 7.7 percent from three on the year. Can you imagine if he improves on this?
Instead, he’s using his length to punish opponents at the rim. Every night produces yet another outrageous Giannis dunk. His athleticism is unfathomable, and he has been impossibly stop this season.
At the same time, the rest of the Bucks are playing some of their best basketball. Eric Bledsoe might be the best two way guard in the league, while newcomer center Brook Lopez is providing Antetokounmpo all the space he could ever want.
The result is an offensive onslaught that few teams have had answers for. The Bucks are a tremendous +11.9 on the season. It’s length, athleticism, and shooting, all combined into one Frankenstein of a team.
The Philadelphia 76ers
Just the Raptors and the Bucks comprise a duo of truly competitive clubs playing at a level we haven’t seen out of the East in quite some time. Both are worthy title contenders.
Just a week ago, I would have contended that the Philadelphia 76ers were a step below Toronto and Milwaukee. Now with Jimmy Butler en route, all bets are off.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have been having incredible seasons by any account. Embiid has been decimating opposing centers, while Simmons is posting triple-doubles without much resistance. These two could very well earn the 76ers a shot at the Conference Finals or beyond.
Adding Jimmy Butler changes the calculus greatly. Not only does Philly land one of the best two-way players in the league and a hard-nosed wing, but they’ve also gained a true leader to mentor the team’s young stars.
The big-three now residing in the city of brotherly love is unique and potent. It will take tremendous effort from opposing defenses to contain this team. Philly will struggle to shoot threes at a competitive clip, but that’s a small price to pay for what now looks like a staggeringly scary team.
The Boston Celtics
The Celtics have not looked like the team to beat in the East. In fact, they’ve looked rather beatable. It’s no surprise they’re sitting just above .500 on the season.
It feels incredibly unlikely that Boston will continue to miss open shots at such a horrendous clip. And once the team rights this ship and begins to get a bit more rhythm on offense, they too will join the party, further propping up what is an impressively competitive Eastern Conference.
This Celtics team plays constricting, unforgiving defense. They’re switchy and gritty, allowing for a foundational bedrock to lean on when scoring is difficult. That’s why even when the offense isn’t fully clicking, the C’s are a tough out.
Boston has too many tools to be denied for too long. By Christmas, we can expect the team to hit a stride and begin to flex its muscle a little more. The Celtics may not be the standard-bearers of the conference, but they’ll be firmly in the mix this spring.
The Rest of the East
It’s the teams at the top of the East that really make ignoring the conference’s resurgence so untenable. The Raptors, Bucks, Sixers, and Celtics are perhaps the best non-LeBron teams the Eastern Conference has produced in quite some time.
There’s a few other clubs that deserve recognition and are propping up the East’s competitiveness, too. The Pacers continue to win games behind smart team-basketball. The Hornets, meanwhile, look refreshed and better than expected. Even the Pistons are holding their own.
The Western Conference will have a tighter, more exciting postseason push this spring. But the top of the East will be undeniably more dangerous and potent. We haven’t been able to say this for the better part of a decade. It’s an exciting and profound update for a league knocked for its lack of parity.
All the same, Warriors in five.