With LeBron James on the other side of the country, the Eastern Conference is wide open. Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are all competing to make the NBA Finals and there is little to pick between the East’s top four.
Indiana lost Victor Oladipo for the season, meaning we are set to see these four meet in the conference semi-finals. Win-now moves have been made in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Toronto, while the Celtics are waiting it out for the next series of the Anthony Davis drama in the summer.
A lot can change between now and April. Playoff basketball, and the challenges of playing up to seven games against one team, is a different task to the 82-game grind. After a crazy trade deadline, though, it’s worth taking a look at where all four franchises stand in the LeBron-less East.
From first to fourth, here are the post-deadline Eastern Conference rankings.
1) Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee landed Nikola Mirotic on Thursday, adding further shooting to their already effective offence. Mike Budenholzer’s team are sitting atop the East, riding Giannis Antetkounmpo’s MVP standard season.
Their 41-14 record is the best in the NBA. Antetokounmpo is surrounded by shooters, including the acquisition of the season, Brook Lopez. Their roster has not experienced the turnover of others, giving stability and a fixed identity under Budenholzer’s floor spacing.
Of the four, the Bucks are the greatest certainty. They might not have star power, but there are no issues with fit or altering their rotations. They have the best player in the conference and flexibility to go big or small.
2) Philadelphia 76ers
The Tobias Harris trade came out of nowhere when it was announced in the middle of the night last week. Elton Brand is all-in for a deep playoff run this season. The Sixers have their starting five set and it’s the second best in the NBA.
Joining Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler, Harris completes a line-up capable of going toe-to-toe with any other in the conference. They have their clutch shooter, they have their playmaker and they have size. Chemistry is the challenge for Brett Brown between now and the postseason.
Roster turnover is tricky for any team, but more so when it involves an overhaul of the starting line-up in the middle of the season and the arrival of Butler. Philly need buyout additions to bolster their depth too.
The Sixers have the biggest uncertainty of all four teams. Their upside is the highest of all, but the doubt (and their current record) puts them just behind Milwaukee.
3) Toronto Raptors
Marc Gasol arrived on Thursday for minimal cost, giving the Raptors a bit of a dilemma in the forward spots. Serge Ibaka will likely have to drop to the bench with Pascal Siakam a definite starter. Gasol provides another passer to create in the slower playoff environment and could help fit Kawhi Leonard in with the rest of the team’s offence.
Toronto rank seventh in adjusted rating at both ends of the floor. After a flying start to the season, they are trailing Milwaukee in the standings, but look set to finish in the top two, crucially guaranteeing homecourt in the second round.
If the playoffs started today, Toronto would probably be favoured over Philadelphia and Boston. The potential of the Sixers after the Harris trade bumps the Raptors down to third here, though.
4) Boston Celtics
Boston were the favourites to come out of the East at the start of the season. Brad Stevens masterminded a run to the conference finals in 2018, but it’s been a difficult campaign for the Celtics with the offence all-too-often a mess.
Boston have the best depth in the conference even after a quiet deadline. Role players are still inconsistent, and it’s impossible to know what you will see from Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown on a nightly basis. Kyrie Irving is having a special season – and that gives reason for hope – but the Celtics are the marginal outsiders of the big four right now.
Boston could be the best team in the conference come April. Right now, though, they wouldn’t be the favourites in the second round.