Ranking The Top 8 Contenders In The NBA Eastern Conference

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Updated: February 18, 2021
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We’re approaching the halfway mark of this shortened NBA season, and while things are beginning to settle a bit in the Western Conference, there are still plenty of unknowns in the East, as the standings are extremely tight.

The Philadelphia 76ers did jump out to a big lead and are currently ahead of the second-place Brooklyn Nets by 1.5 games, and the Milwaukee Bucks—hampered by a four-game losing streak—sit 2.5 games behind the Sixers. After that, the fourth place Indiana Pacers and 10th place Atlanta Hawks are separated by only two games in the loss column. In between those lie struggling teams like Boston and others like Toronto who appear to be waking from their early-season slumber.

When trying to handicap the playoff field in the East, this jumbled mess in the standings make it extremely difficult. The one thing that is clear is that some combination of the 76ers, Nets, and Bucks are the top teams in the conference. Beyond that, it will take some sorting out, which we will attempt to do here.

  1. Philadelphia 76ers

When healthy (meaning when they have Joel Embiid available), the 76ers have been the most complete team in the East. Ben Simmons has settled into his role, Tobias Harris has turned into a legit threat, especially as a third option, and Dwight Howard seems to have found his role late in his career—he’s having another great season coming off the bench, just as he did when helping the Lakers to a championship last season.

  1. Brooklyn Nets

We talked about the health of the 76ers, and it’s even more important here with Brooklyn. Granted, the Nets have Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. If they are all healthy come playoff time, they will likely be the favorites in the East. But they have not been able to stay healthy, with the trio only playing in seven games together after Harden was acquired by the Nets in early January.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo is having his usual stellar season, ranking in the NBA’s top 10 in scoring and rebounds, but something seems off with the Bucks, as they are not as dominant as they have been during the past couple of regular seasons. But with each of those seasons ending short of the NBA Finals, perhaps they’re waiting to peak at the right time.

  1. Boston Celtics

The Celtics have struggled in the past week, losing four of their last six, but they are still at the .500 mark and in fifth in the conference standings. With their talent, including Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown each averaging close to 26 points per game, and Kemba Walker getting healthy, the Celtics should be fine come playoff time and were an Eastern Conference finalist a year ago.

  1. Toronto Raptors

 

After a terrible start—likely attributable to basically playing on the road all season with their home base for this year being Tampa, Florida—the Raptors are playing their brand of basketball again. Fred VanVleet has become more of an offensive threat while Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell are contributing on a nightly basis.

  1. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers were hurt by the fact that Caris LeVert was found to have a serious illness from his physical when Indiana acquired him in the mega-deal that sent James Harden to Brooklyn. While the Pacers are sticking with LeVert, it’s a detriment to this season, as they essentially lost Victor Oladipo to Houston and got nothing in return. Domantas Sabonis is emerging as a force, averaging 21.5 points and 11.6 rebounds so far on the season.

  1. New York Knicks

The Knicks are winning thanks to Julius Randle and a solid defense employed by new head coach Tom Thibodeau. Randle is averaging 23.2 points and 10.9 rebounds leading a young team that’s playing hard on the defensive side of the ball. A lack of offense, however, will hurt New York against elite teams, as the Knicks are both the best team in the league in points allowed (103) and the worst team in scoring (103).

  1. Charlotte Hornets

Don’t look now, but the Hornets have amassed some talent with a mix of youth and veteran presence. Gordon Hayward is the perfect player for coach James Borrego to instill a winning culture among the team’s young players. Terry Rozier had a 41-point effort last week that has pushed his scoring average to over 20 points per game, LaMelo Ball lit up the scoresheet last week with a 19.5-point, eight-rebound, and 6.8-assist average over the past week, and Hayward is leading by example, leading Charlotte in scoring with 22.3 points per game. The Hornets also play in a weak division, with Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, and Washington all beneath them in the standings, and someone out of that group will have to make the postseason.

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