With the halfway point of the 2019-20 NBA season approaching, the Eastern Conference appears to be stacked with formidable adversaries. Where most playoff contenders will finish in the standings remains up in the air; seeds two through six are separated by only 3.5 games. And at the bottom of the postseason bracket, only a half-game separates the seven and eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic.
Parity is plentiful in the NBA and some are classifying the East as wide open, which is a stretch. Despite the number of talented clubs that make up the standings, only a handful of them has a legitimate shot at representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
Let’s discuss some of the best in the Eastern Conference and why they can be realistically competing for the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June.
A no-brainer pick for this list, the Bucks own the best record in the NBA at 38-6 and seem to have the top seed locked up at this point. The second-seeded Miami Heat are eight games back. In all likelihood, Milwaukee will enjoy home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, which should concern their potential foes as the Bucks are 19-2 at home this season.
After decidedly taking home the MVP award in 2018-19, Giannis Antetokounmpo has somehow risen his game to yet another level (averaging a god-like 30 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game). In fewer minutes per game than last season (30.9 compared to 32.8), the “Greek Freak” has amazingly seen his counting stats increase. Giannis has well-positioned himself to be considered for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy (the regular-season MVP prize is named in honor of the NBA’s first commissioner) for the second consecutive campaign.
Antetokounmpo’s 3-point stroke has improved to the point where the opposition now has to respect his shot and provide a contest, something that teams did not have to worry about in years prior. He is attempting a career-high 5.1 triples nightly and nailing them at a 33.2% clip. That is not exactly a scorchingly accurate percent by any means, though it is his best since the rookie campaign that saw him take only 1.5 per game.
While Antetokounmpo is unarguably the driving force behind the Bucks’ success, many others on the roster deserve recognition as well. After all, basketball is a team sport — regular-season dominance cannot be solely attributed to one person, no matter how transcendent of a talent he is. Khris Middleton (19.3 points on 48.8% shooting) and Eric Bledsoe (15.4 points on 48.3% shooting) have provided efficient scoring and playmaking, and Brook Lopez continues to be an elite rim protector (2.5 blocks in 26.2 minutes).
Also, Milwaukee is fortunate enough to boast one of the deepest rotations in the entire league. George Hill, Ersan Ilyasova, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Kyle Korver, and Robin Lopez are all averaging at least 5.1 points and 14.5 minutes per contest.
The Bucks are a ballclub with tremendous depth and arguably the best player in the world as of now. An NBA title is within their grasp, and they may just be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
After acquiring Al Horford in free agency this past July, the Sixers were seen as the early favorites to come out of the East and make the NBA Finals. They definitely still can, but this season has been anything but smooth sailing for Brett Brown and company. Superstar center Joel Embiid will be out for the foreseeable future to nurse a torn ligament in his left hand, and it is evident that his presence on the court is sorely missed already.
Philly is 2-2 without Embiid and has lost six of their last ten outings, which has resulted in them plummeting to the sixth seed in the conference. Once again, the 3-point shot has been an area of concern for the squad. They are 25th in 3-point field goals attempted and 23rd in makes, the 76ers need to make it a point of emphasis to fire from deep more often. If they can make the long ball more consistently, they can beat anyone.
Just look to their Christmas Day thrashing of the Milwaukee Bucks for evidence. Philadelphia finished the contest with a franchise-record 21 3-pointers made on 44 attempts (47.7%). Seven players finished with at least one triple, a collective effort that the Sixers wish to replicate come playoff time.
While question marks remain on the offensive end, the 76ers are elite defensively. They rank top ten in defensive rating (105.7), steals (8.2), and blocks (5.6), which has much to do with their tremendously lengthy starting five of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Horford, and Embiid (when healthy). It will be difficult for opponents to score on this unit consistently over the course of a seven-game series when the pace naturally slows and baskets are therefore harder to come by. Everyone in the lineup can guard multiple positions, there may be no ballclub better equipped to switch successfully than Philadelphia.
The Sixers have underperformed so far in the regular season, and they may not earn themselves a home-court advantage in the first round. That being said, as long as Embiid returns by April feeling 100%, it may not matter where they finish in the standings. Simmons and Embiid are no longer inexperienced youngsters, the two have been through their fair share of postseason battles. Philly’s stifling defense and the plethora of talent in the starting five make them a foe nobody wants to face. Do not be surprised if they enjoy a deep playoff run that sees them heading to the Finals, even as a lower seed.
The Celtics, without Kyrie Irving, are playing entertaining, team-oriented basketball, and thus seem to be better off with him hooping elsewhere. Boston is fourth in the East with a record of 27-14, and much of their success lies in the exponential growth seen from both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The young duo disappointed in the 2018-19 campaign after leading the C’s to the Eastern Conference Finals the year prior, though it is safe to say that both have bounced back nicely.
Brown has solidified his place among the very best two-way players in the game (19.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.2 steals) while Tatum has become a go-to scorer for the Celtics, averaging 21.3 points per game on 42.9% accuracy from the field. They have made the most out of their new-found opportunity in 2019-20, which has them in the conversation to make the all-star game for the first time. Neither Tatum or Brown will be voted in as a starter, though it is likely that at least one of them will earn a spot as a reserve, and deservedly so.
The aforementioned stars in the making have flourished due to the presence and impact of Boston’s new floor general, Kemba Walker. A longtime face of the Charlotte Hornets franchise, Walker decided to join Beantown in order to have a chance at winning, and his decision has paid off handsomely. While Walker’s stats have taken a slight dip across the board compared to his last hoorah in Charlotte, he has continued to produce at an All-Star level, scoring a team-best 21.7 points a night while nailing 39.7% of his 3-point tries. Also, Kemba has a team-first attitude and has made it clear that he not only enjoys seeing his teammates succeed, but he is also willing to sacrifice touches in order to share the sugar. Walker’s laid back, friendly personality has rubbed off on the entire Celtics roster; the difference in attitude between them and the 2018-19 group is night and day.
Additionally, the C’s are witnessing a resurgence from Gordon Hayward. After being relegated to a bench role for much of last season, Hayward has found his footing in the league once again and looks better and better with each passing day. The former Utah Jazz star dealt with a broken hand that had him sidelined for much of November and part of December but, since then, has remained relatively injury-free. Hayward is putting up 16 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in 31.6 minutes of action. As long as the 29-year-old avoids the injury bug, there is no reason to believe that he cannot once again play at an All-NBA caliber level. Gordon looks as comfortable on the court as he has in years, a troubling sign for the East’s title contenders.
Boston is for real. They defend, shoot the 3-pointer, and own the luxury of having multiple individuals who can go for 20 points on any given night. The C’s have the offensive firepower to beat anyone in the NBA, including the Bucks and 76ers if the likes of Walker, Brown, Tatum, and Hayward can continue to score efficiently.